Andrew Greig

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Three teachers left a lasting impression on the poet. One was harsh, one was a mother figure and the other took the time to stand and stare

Alastair Mackie wrote sadly underrated poetry in Doric and in Scots. It wasn't so much his teaching - he taught me English at Waid Academy - that affected me but that he was the first person I knew personally who wrote poetry and got it published.

It was the 1960s when boys wrote songs and played the guitar. Basically I'm a failed singer-songwriter. No one would record my songs but they would publish my poetry and later my novels.

I remember letting Alastair Mackie hear my song lyrics. He told me to stick to the poetry - obviously he did not think much of my singing. He was quite a harsh critic. Rather than glancing at my work and saying: "That's lovely, keep going", he attacked it like a terrier attacks a good bone.

He used to say to me: "You've got to get to the bones of a poem". I was given to writing long, florid things and several a week. He would tell me: "Two poems a year is quite enough." Every so often I'll hear his voice if I'm getting a bit carried away, saying: "Bones, Andrew, bones".

It was also Alastair Mackie who first planted the idea of being a writer in my mind. He had taught at Stromness Academy in Orkney before coming to Waid and he knew George Mackay Brown. I remember him saying to me: "You know, George does not have a job. He is very poor, of course, but he does not work." That seemed to a 17-year-old to be a very good idea - that you could dedicate your life to writing and if you were lucky avoid a proper job.

I think the Sixties was a strange kind of golden age for teachers and pupils. It was a special time, a loosening period. We wrote poems and stuck them on the walls and ran our own folk clubs where we wrote our own songs. Children were coming into school and playing guitars, walking in with LPs under their arms. I remember introducing Leonard Cohen to Alastair Mackie. He thought he was remarkable; he said he could have been Scottish.

Cath Lambie, head of the commercial department, taught us to type. She would look at our poems and let us reproduce our efforts on the banding machine and we would have social evenings up at her house. She put on food - sometimes a couple of the senior girls would help her - and we would bring wine.

We would talk about our lives and aspirations and she would gently guide and admonish us. Drink was taken and talk was lubricated with small amounts of wine and whisky, but we didn't get pissed. It was like an informal finishing school and I remember her with very great warmth.

She was like a friendly aunt and a mother figure. She could be stern if she thought we were being stupid or out of line. A lot of us felt some distance from our parents, as teenagers do, and we needed a friendly adult. She filled that space in our lives.

There's just one more teacher I want to mention: Miss Whitton, who taught me at Borestone Primary. She told us one winter's afternoon to put down our pencils and watch the sunset. For 10 or 15 minutes we just sat in silence doing nothing. She never did it again and I don't know why she did it that day but I've remembered it all my life.

Found at Sea, a production based on a new sequence of poems by Andrew Greig, will be at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from February 19-23. www.traverse.co.uk. His latest novel, At the Loch of the Green Corrie, is out now. He was speaking to Emma Seith

PERSONAL PROFILE

Born: Bannockburn, 1951

Education: Whins of Milton Primary and Borestone Primary, Stirling; Dollar Academy, Clackmannanshire; Waid Academy, Anstruther, Fife; University of Edinburgh

Career: Poet and author.

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