My best teacher

4th May 2001 at 01:00
I went to the local primary school in Cardenden, a coal mining town about 30 miles north of Edinburgh. Then at the junior high, about a dozen of us were told we could go to senior high school, where you could take your Highers and move up to university.

I was the first in my family not to leave school at 16, so my parents were really chuffed. Mr Gillespie taught me English. He was a very young, enthusiastic Glaswegian, very intelligent, who would read out bits of my essays and say, "Isn't this brilliant". I'd be cringing with embarrassment and everyone would look over at me saying, "We'll get you at playtime". I remember once we had to write a story based on the quote, "Dark they were, and golden-eyed". I wrote about some parents looking for their daughter who'd run off to a squat and become a drug addict.

In the sixth year, when I was 18, we studied T S Eliot. Mr Gillespie had done Greek and Latin at university and so could give us all the references. It was just so exciting to have this incredibly difficult poetry made clear to you.

I think that's when I knew I wanted to do English. My parents had been sure I was going to be an accountant, like the successful member of our family who owned his own house and had a car. When they heard my plans, they said:

"What do you think you're going to do with that?" But the person I really want to talk about is Allan Massie. We'd had lots of writers-in-residence at Edinburgh University who were poets, and so not much use to me. Then along came Allan. I was there booking the first free space he had, with a tightly rolled tube of short stories under my arm.

Allan's just about the only Tory I know in Scotland, so politically we're poles apart. But he's a very good novelist, short story writer and critical commentator.

He's intensely articulate and intelligent, and very savvy when it comes to politics, culture and history. I've seldom met a more intelligent person, although he perhaps spreads himself a bit thin. He writes or newspapers about politics and rugby, and writes fiction and non-fiction books. He does all that because he has to. Novels aren't always the cleverest way of earning money.

I started giving him my short stories and he would suggest changes. What impressed me most was that he didn't talk down to any of his students. A writer was a writer and that was the end of it. Whether you were just beginning or a seasoned pro, you all had a passion for narrative and story-telling. He gave me terrific advice.

Allan was also useful on a practical level. He helped me get two stories published. For a young writer, it was a great vote of confidence to know a professional writer deemed you worthy of publication.

We kept in touch after he stopped being writer-in-residence. He invited me to the publication party for his next novel where he introduced me to his editor, Euan Cameron, who published my first Inspector Rebus book. I stayed with him for five or six books until he left publishing. My new book, The Falls, is dedicated to Allan and Euan, who started the ball rolling.

Without those chance meetings, who knows? But I think that's the lovely thing about life. It's a series of moments when you can take one turning or another. People talk about life as a river, but it's not like that at all, it's a series of punctuated moments.

Crime writer Ian Rankin was talking to Hilary Wilce


1960 Born in Fife

1982 Graduates from Edinburgh University

1986 First novel, The Flood, published

1987 Knots and Crosses, first Inspector Rebus novel, published

1994 Wins Crime Writers' Association short story Dagger award

1996 Wins Dagger award again

1997 Wins Crime Writers' Association Macallan gold Dagger for fiction with Black and Blue

1999 Awarded honorary doctorates at the universities of Aberdeen and Dundee

2000 TV adaptation of Black and Blue starring John Hannah. Twelfth Rebus novel, The Falls, published (Orion, pound;16.99)

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