Gordon Brewer

15th March 2013 at 00:00
The presenter of Newsnight Scotland recalls the teacher who impressed him and refused to take his nonsense

I was quite rebellious at high school. It was a Catholic school and I quickly turned against that whole thing. I did not do that brilliantly in my Highers. My father was keen on me doing science and quite rightly - I wish I had been better at it - but unfortunately I wasn't and I didn't do that well. After that I did my sixth year at St Modan's, which was when the great Bill O'Carroll, the headmaster, started to have an impact.

I wanted to do Sixth Year Studies English. As part of it you had to write a thesis or dissertation and so I was pulled into his office and he said: "I'm going to be your tutor for sixth-year English. What do you want to do?"

I think I said I wanted to do Camus and Sartre. He was really interested but he argued against one of them, saying I couldn't do my dissertation on that. In the end, I compared Georges Simenon and Albert Camus - that seemed a not-bad compromise.

Because I was desperately trying to be different, the idea that he knew about this stuff, particularly Camus, was quite impressive and focused me. Suddenly, rather than misbehaving and defying teachers, I was thinking, 'You are quite interesting.' He made it clear that he wasn't going to take any nonsense from me but if I was prepared to make the effort, then he was.

What caused a problem with the teachers was not that I was badly behaved in the sense of playing truant or anything like that, but I was intellectually rebellious. O'Carroll took me on, but old-fashioned teachers had the view: you do what you are told. One teacher accused me of being "the agent of the devil" in class, just for arguing with him.

I ended up getting an A for my Sixth Year Studies English and in fact I got straight As in my sixth year, which was in marked contrast to my fifth year. Part of that was down to O'Carroll. I was one of these people who put on a good front but was lacking in self-confidence - not much changed there, then. He gave me the confidence to think: "I can do this."

We met roughly once a week and it was like being at university - it was like a one-on-one seminar. It was great, I loved it. I was more self-confident about my ability when I went to university because of it.

O'Carroll was quite the disciplinarian and no soft touch. He had an eagle-ish face and looked stern - people were scared of him. The school was very academically orientated but, for that era, it was progressive in some ways. We had a pupil council and when you were in sixth year you were not obliged to stay in school. You attended classes but you could go down to the cafe and play pinball between them if you wanted to, which is what most of us did.

I went back to the school in the 1990s when I was living in London and working for the BBC. I was making a documentary about the referendum on devolution. It was to be about the politics of what was going on but also about me going back, so I went back to my old school for Burns night. But at that stage, of course, O'Carroll would have been long gone.

Gordon Brewer was talking to Emma Seith.


Born: Dumbarton, 1955

Education: Started primary in Scone; St Johns in Perth (from P2); St Mungo's Primary, Alloa (from P5); St Modan's High, Stirling; University of Edinburgh (philosophy and English literature)

Career: Began working as a journalist on The Shetland Times and has presented Newsnight Scotland since 1999.

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