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Tam Cowan

A Bob Dylan nut who taught English and ran a writing workshop led this columnist and broadcaster into his work

A Bob Dylan nut who taught English and ran a writing workshop led this columnist and broadcaster into his work

The teacher who almost directly led me to what I do now, Tom King, was head of English and taught me in third and fourth year. Then I got my Highers and was accepted into Napier College to do journalism, but I felt, unlike kids nowadays, very immature and stayed on to sixth year.

He was very encouraging - one of those teachers you could always talk to. He was affectionately known as Bod, after the cartoon - that tells you he didn't have much hair - and was always disappearing into a wee bit between two classes for a smoke. He was quite chilled and a real Bob Dylan nut. He ran a guitar class. You could hear him from miles away, absolutely murdering The House of the Rising Sun.

I was doing Sixth Year Studies English and history, but still had a bit of time. Our English department had an adult writers' workshop, run by Tom King. He asked me and some others to go along and encourage a few of the old biddies, and I started writing topical jokes and skits with my pal Graeme Davis, who later became my best man.

Unbeknownst to us, Mr King sent some of our stuff away to a Radio 4 sketch show, Week Ending. Lo and behold, a week later a couple of wee bits and pieces were used. Then we sent stuff to another radio show presented by Roy Hudd, The News Huddlines, that they also used. Suddenly, we were propelled into world fame, Motherwell-style - it was front-page news in the Motherwell Times. I still cringe about the Alas Smith and Jones pose - facing each other in silhouette - they had us doing.

After that, we wrote hundreds of things; we sent batches away. We had a no bad strike rate - programmes like Little and Large, Hale and Pace. You'd get a wee cheque through the post. I'd love to say I had the first one framed, but it was immediately cashed at the snooker club. My first broadcast joke was about a news story - a kangaroo had got loose in the hold of an aeroplane. The award-winning punchline was: "It must have been a Boing 747." That's worth #163;7.50 of anybody's money. And it got increasingly worse, as folk who tune into Off the Ball will realise.

I quit Napier College after less than a year of a two-year course. There were lots of opportunities at the BBC Scotland comedy department - Naked Radio, Naked Video, Only an Excuse. At that time, there was the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, set up by auld Maggie Thatcher, which was clearly just to massage unemployment figures. It gave you 40 quid a week to do whatever job you wanted - I was a "freelance writer".

I managed to get a start with the Glasgow Evening Times in 1990, a tongue-in-cheek fanzine-style column with a picture of me in a tartan scarf holding up a pie. I probably always had visions of writing for the Daily Record, the paper my dad brought home from work, and I do that now. I've been doing Off the Ball with Stuart Cosgrove since 1995. We hit it off from the start - I think we'll keep going until he gets wheeled into a home.

Tom King was very bashful when I thanked him for his help, in the school magazine. The best compliment I can pay is that a couple of years after I left school, me and my big pal Graeme got back in touch with him, and we had quite a few drinks together. There's not too many teachers you'd happily do that with.

I last saw him 10-12 years ago. We lost touch after he retired and moved to Blackpool, I think after his wife died - she was a teacher at Firpark, a special needs school in Motherwell, a very nice woman. If I bumped into him tomorrow, I'd say: "It's your round."

Tam Cowan was speaking to Henry Hepburn

Personal profile

Born: Hamilton, 1969

Education: Calder Primary, Motherwell; Braidhurst High, Motherwell; Napier College, Edinburgh

Career: Co-host of BBC Radio Scotland's Off the Ball since 1994, originally with Greg Hemphill and Sanjeev Kohli, and with Stuart Cosgrove since 1995; Daily Record columnist.

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