My best teacher - Ian Rankin

19th September 2008 at 01:00
This top crime writer was inspired by his very own Dead Poets Society guru

Mr Gillespie was my English teacher at Beath High School in Fife, Scotland. He started working there when I was 16, but he had a big influence on me. He encouraged my early attempts at writing fiction and his enthusiasm for literature was infectious.

Until then, my childhood dreams were of becoming an accountant. My parents were relatively poor and didn't own their own home or a car, whereas my uncle was a chartered accountant who did. Naturally I thought that was the way to acquire those things.

Thankfully, in high school I discovered I wasn't very good at economics and, with the help of Mr Gillespie, decided to go to Edinburgh University to study English, which I was passionate about.

Mr Gillespie looked like a hippy with long curly hair. He was fairly small, but wiry and was quite an oddity in our part of Scotland because he came from Glasgow. The Glaswegian accent is harsh and the city had quite a reputation in the Seventies. We all thought he must be some kind of hard bugger and that he would be quite handy in a fight, so we never really gave him any trouble, even though he was straight out of training college.

Mr Gillespie had something of a working class manner about him, but he was very intelligent. He knew Greek and Latin, he could quote T.S. Eliot, but was also interested in popular music, so we studied Bob Dylan's lyrics as well as classic texts. Suddenly English wasn't just about dead authors anymore. He would talk to us about the music we were interested in and would happily deconstruct Sex Pistols' lyrics for us if we wanted.

He was funny and down-to-earth. I think our school was quite a soft option for him - it was a good school generally filled with well-motivated pupils and he was idealistic. It's probably a cliche to say it, but he was more like the teachers you see in films and don't often meet in real life - the Dead Poets Society type.

At first he taught me in classes of about 30, but in my final years there were only eight of us doing the equivalent of A-level English. That was a much more intimate experience and he would often tell us that he got a lot more out of teaching at that level. After I turned 18 in my final year, some of us would meet up with him for a pint after school and we would sit in the pub and talk about the poetry of W.B. Yeats for hours on end.

I can remember having to phone my sister at the end of the evening to ask her to come and get me from the pub. I was slightly merry when I got home and I think my parents were fairly horrified at the idea that a teacher would be drinking with his pupils, but they never brought it up in conversation. We weren't underage drinkers, but I think nowadays teachers would get kicked out of their schools for taking pupils to a pub.

I bumped into Mr Gillespie about five years ago after a book signing in Fife. He still seems like quite a young guy, not a lot older than me. He told me that he had tried to get a ticket to my event, but they were sold out. So I went back to his house and met his partner and we had tea and a chat. It was great.

Ian Rankin, 48, is one of the top crime writers in the UK. His best known novels are the Inspector Rebus stories, some of which have been adapted for TV. His latest thriller, Doors Open, is in the shops. He was talking to Mark Anstead.

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