Alan Warner

10th August 2012 at 01:00
The author was captivated by a teacher with unorthodox methods and a penchant for historical re-enactments

Donald Clark made history interesting in spectacular ways. He was from Paisley and had this very distinctive, heavily accented drawl. Everything was delivered in a deadpan manner. When he was teaching the American Civil War, he really made me prick up my ears. He said it was a contest between generals as to who could be most stupid. The one who won that contest would be the one whose side lost the war.

Another memorable lesson was Culloden and the 1745 rebellion in Scotland, for which he brought into school a musket which had a bayonet on it, a claymore sword and a shield. These days, if a teacher did that there would be helicopters circling the school very quickly, but I thought it was amazing.

He then got a girl from the back of the class up and made her wear three coats - a duffle, someone's raincoat and a cagoule - and stuck a pot on her head. She had to hold the musket while one of the more lively guys in the class charged towards her, across the top of the class, to demonstrate how awkwardly she moved. The idea was: in those days the English soldiers, the soldiers in the Hanoverian army, were laden down and not mobile, so when the Highlanders came at them they just stepped to one side and stuck the sword in.

It was gruesome and I was fascinated. I think Mr Clark started from the supposition that kids are intrinsically uninterested. In some ways he was ahead of his time, because he thought about how he could make us interested and get us involved. I was instantly riveted by it and I'm still passionately interested in that period to this day - because of Donald Clark.

The next day he showed us a film about the battle and slowly he started talking about the political context - that a Stuart king had come and tried to regain the throne. He had us hooked by then.

At school I was quite quiet but also unorthodox. I met a guy in Oban who said to me: "We always knew you would be famous." He said: "You came into modern studies once 15 minutes late and when the teacher asked you where you'd been, you said you had been kidnapped by Andalusian gypsies." I've no memory of that.

Oban was a fascinating school. Before my time John MacLean, the brother of Sorley MacLean, the poet, was rector there and in the 1960s Iain Crichton Smith came to teach English at the school, but he retired just as I was arriving. A lot of people assume that Iain taught me. There was a connection, though, because Iain was very friendly to me when I approached him, aged 16 or 17, with fledgling bad poems and concepts. He was a very encouraging and friendly guy.

At school I responded very strongly to books, but had difficulty bridging the gap between responding to a book strongly and transferring that into a good essay.

Mrs Gray, a flamboyant and Jean Brodie-ish English teacher, had Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton on her syllabus. That was the first book that challenged me. When I started reading I thought "this is boring", but the more I read, the more it gripped me and I found myself on a Saturday reading, which was unheard of.

I read from halfway through to the end. I was deeply moved by it - I remember shaking. I did not know literature could do that to you, have that emotional and intellectual effect. I felt sad for the rest of the day on account of that book.

Had I not been exposed to these books through the national syllabus, I don't think I would have discovered literature.

Alan Warner will be talking about his new book, The Deadman's Pedal, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 August at 8.30pm. He was talking to Emma Seith.

Personal profile

Born: Oban, 1964

Education: Achaleven Primary, Connel; Oban High; Ealing College, London; University of Glasgow

Career: Worked in bars, a dry cleaner's and on the railways, where he was working when his first book, Morvern Callar, was published.

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