Bewitched by small-town joys

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Teacher and author Tom Pow explains how he became addicted to country life

On the map, Dumfries isn't a million miles from my home city of Edinburgh and the principal teacher of English liked my handwriting. I thought I'd give the job at Dumfries Academy six months and then, having played myself back into the system, I'd move back to Edinburgh. That was 25 years ago.

So, has it all been bliss from the start? Well, no. The limitations of small town life are obvious ones. The constant of being socially placed while feeling personally isolated can create a particularly gnawing kind of loneliness; such that, almost every other Friday, for some years, I'd take the bus to Edinburgh and decant into the Abbotsford Bar on Rose Street and professional anonymity. "Not on the block with the flock" was the ruling I tried to follow.

It took me a while to recognise that each of the negatives I saw had a potentially positive side also: that cultural limitations, for example, may lead to active cultural involvement and to creative opportunities more readily than urban plenty; that social limitations produce a more intimate community, as career limitations maintain more stable institutions.

Certainly, whether it is a misguided notion or not, I have always felt that teaching in Dumfries is a less exhausting prospect than teaching in a city. And it has been important to me to have energy at the end of the day, to find a balance in my life between teaching and writing.

Taking and sustaining this pragmatic decision to stay does not mean that I have not, and often still do, miss the city, but equilibrium (such as I have it) lies in the realisation that there is no point in living here and bemoaning the lack of big city attractions - particularly when you are surrounded by some of the most rich landscapes you are likely to see.

I had been assistant principal teacher of English at Dumfries Academy for 15 years or so until last year when, feeling the pressures of full-time work, a young family and writing, I opted to resign my post and go part-time.

I have been lucky. My career has been perhaps restricted but not rigid. I contrast the way I have been treated here by my principal teachers, management and the authority itself with the Edinburgh poet Robert Sutherland, who had to publish under the name Robert Garioch because to teach and to write poems would be to serve two masters. Garioch's experience of schools is reflected in a poem about two of his heidies, which ends "And if they're no deid yet, it's time they were."

Similarly, Liz Lochhead had to resign her post as an art teacher in the west to accept the ScottishCanadian Fellowship.

I, on the other hand, have been able to take full advantage of two writers' bursaries, using one to travel through South America, the other through Africa. My family and I have also spent a year at the University of Alberta where I was holder of the ScottishCanadian Fellowship in 1992.

After the summer, I shall be leaving Dumfries Academy to take up the post of lecturer in creative and cultural studies at Glasgow University's Crichton College here in Dumfries.

I recall Iain Crichton Smith telling of a colleague who, on retirement, accepted his "small token of esteem" and declared: "Well, it's all been a complete waste of time." One of the satisfactions of working yourself through the generations in one place is that every so often you meet someone who confirms this is emphatically not so.

Tom Pow's next two books are for children - Callum's Big Day illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick (Lynx Press, September), and Who is the World For? illustrated by Robert Ingpen (Walker Books, November)

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