Mr Winkler thought I'd make a good economist...

16th January 2004 at 00:00
Mr Winkler thought I'd make a good economist. I loved economics, and the way he taught it was brilliant

Living in Jamaica with my grandmother was the halcyon days of my childhood.

I was very happy. I learned all my folk culture from her, got immersed in the storytelling tradition - riddles, rhymes, word games and all that sort of thing. I lived with her from the age of eight to 11. My parents were separated - my father lived in Kingston and my mother lived in the UK.

I came from a peasant background, and if you come from Jamaican peasantry, your only way out in life is education. That's instilled in you from an early age. In those days my favourite teacher was Miss Miller. She was a frail-looking woman, very pretty, and I had a crush on her. I was her pet and she'd send me on errands. If she wanted a bottle of stout from the shop, I would be the one to fetch it. That didn't stop her giving me the strap, because in those days the learning system was based on the Victorian model. I didn't get scolded for my behaviour, but for things I got wrong.

It didn't put me off her. She played the organ in church on a Sunday and I always found her playing the warm-up bit, before the service began, very sexy - I was a precocious child. She died of tuberculosis before I left Jamaica. I think that's one of the reasons she was fond of stout - it helped her anaemia. I excelled under Miss Miller. She only taught me for a year but I wanted so much to show her what I could do that I learned a lot during that time.

I came here at 11 and there were several teachers of whom I have fond memories. My first-form tutor at Tulse Hill was a softly spoken man called Chris Harbon, who taught English. For me, coming from Jamaica, he was the best possible teacher because he made you feel relaxed and at home. But the one who had the biggest impact was my sixth-form tutor, Mr Winkler, who taught economics. He was a pipe-smoking man who had been in the forces; he used to go on about how beautiful the women in Burma were. He treated us like young adults, but he wouldn't tolerate mucking around.

In those days we always talked about going back to Jamaica. We thought the people running the country were idiots and with the arrogance of youth were going to show them how to run it properly. Mr Winkler thought I'd make a good economist. I loved economics, and the way he taught it was brilliant.

Many of the other teachers had low expectations of you because you were black and from the Caribbean. As far as they were concerned, you were factory fodder. Mr Winkler saw potential and tried to motivate and instil self-confidence in you. He was a lovely man. The other thing I admired about him was there was a racist teacher who used to pop into people's classrooms and say, "Can I have that boy and that boy there," and send them on some errand such as picking up litter in the playground. Mr Winkler would say, "Get out, can't you see I'm teaching! Get out!" I always loved him for that.

I left school at 17, and by the time I was 18 I was married. I remember Mr Winkler coming to my wedding and saying a few words. I felt so proud to see him there.

I started writing verse in my late teens. The first stuff had a lot of thee, thy and thou in it because the first poetry I had an ear for was that of the Old Testament. I used to read the Bible to my grandmother, who was illiterate, especially the psalms and proverbs.

I never thought I'd become a poet; I wanted to be an accountant or an economist. I was good with figures and had a natural ability for accounting. Once you'd learned the double-entry system - for every debit there must be a credit - that was it. Later on, writing verse was like accountancy. Getting your books to balance was like when you finished a poem - after the fourth and fifth draft you had it down to the kernel. It was the same sort of feeling.

Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson was talking to Harvey McGavin

The story so far

1952 Born Chapeltown, Jamaica

1963 Tulse Hill secondary school

1973 Sociology degree, Goldsmiths College

1974 First collection of poetry, Voices of the Living and the Dead, published

1977 Writer in residence, Lambeth council

1978 First LP, Dread Beat an' Blood, released

1981 Launches record label, LKJ Records

1985 Reporter for Channel 4's Bandung File; live concert with Dub Band nominated for a Grammy; tours with Dennis Bovell Dub Band

1991 Selected poems, Tings an' Times, published

2002 Second living poet and first black poet to have his work - Mi Revalueshanary Fren: selected Poems - published in Penguin Modern Classics series

2003 LKJ Live in Paris CD and DVDreleased

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