My Best Teacher;Interview;Joe Broughton

18th June 1999 at 01:00
Mr Yates was my first English teacher at secondary school. The great thing about him was he could entertain you and keep your attention even while he was teaching grammar. He'd introduce something like writing a poem, which is not the sort of thing 12-year-old boys are usually enthusiastic about, but because it was him you knew it would be fun. He could even make teaching about speech marks interesting. He had a very hands-on approach. He wasn't going to make us listen to him for hours; he made sure we had to do it for ourselves. I don't know how many other teachers achieve this, but he actually got us all to like him.

The eye-opener for me was something he devised called "the furniture poem". We had to write a poem about a person, and he gave us a list of questions to answer that were on the surface quite surreal. If this person were a hat, what kind would he be? If he was a season, which one? If he were a table, what kind? At the end of the exercise you would have an amazing list of unconnected words but when you put them together it sounded like real poetry. It made us feel very easy with words and proud of what we had written.

He taught me for three years at Chester County High School and I would have loved to have had him teach me for another five because he was still developing ideas. I'll never forgive him for leaving. After he left I'd still send him my poems, and he always sent back an honest assessment, critical but constructive. He never went through it with a red pen and corrected the spelling. He'd say he liked the imagery and then, almost like an afterthought, he'd say: "But why do you always spell this or that word wrong?" For me that was the right emphasis. So many teachers are negative in a way that ruins your imagination. He didn't ignore grammar, spelling and punctuation - he just made it interesting.

He was in his early 30s , I guess, and if he read a text aloud to us, he'd virtually act it out. He never let you get bored. He used to read us his own poems and I remember one called "The Meeting The Family Poem", about going to meet your girlfriend's parents for the first time. It was a little performance in its own right.

The best thing I wrote for him was the "Swarb Poem". It was about the fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who played with Fairport Convention. I saw him in 1981, when I was five and I said that's what I want to do. A year later I got a fiddle. Folk music wasn't very popular at the time but I knew it was for me. When I wrote the poem it just flowed. I still can't really see what Mr Yates saw in it but he said it was great. He entered it in a competition and it won and was published in an anthology.

I wrote a lot about music, and he always encouraged me to do that. He understood the rhythmic connection. There was another teacher who used to complain that I always wrote about the same thing. But Mr Yates - I'll never get used to calling him Cliff - said we should write about what we knew best. For me that was always music. I started playing my fiddle in folk clubs at 12 and I did my first festival at 14. He encouraged me to write songs, although that is quite a different skill.

When I went to the Birmingham Conservatoire to study musical composition, I found a lot of the things I was told I already knew instinctively from what he taught us about poetry. I helped set up an organisation called Youthquake to teach young people about folk music and I ran workshops using the same principles I had learned from Mr Yates. Then, after college, I joined the Albion Band, which is led by Ashley Hutchings, also a founder member of Fairport Convention who played with Swarb. So it all connects.

He got in touch with me again about the book he has just written for the Poetry Society (Jump Start Poetry in the Secondary School) and he's used "The Swarb Poem" as an example in it. I'm also putting together my own book of all the fiddle tunes I've written. He's agreed to help me because I'm interspersing the tunes with poems and I needed to get some more of that inspiration of his.

What do I owe him? He gave me the confidence to write about the things that are important and personal to me. He opened up those channels and freed my imagination, really. But strangely enough, I also learned about entertaining people and stagecraft from him. We play serious music but we put it across with a spirit of fun and enthusiasm, which is exactly what he did in the classroom. He could take a joke, and he never took himself too seriously. But God, he was passionate when it came to poetry.

Joe Broughton, 23, is a fiddle player with the Albion Band, one of Britain's best-loved folk-rock groups. They are playing various European folk festivals this summer and are about to start recording their next album. His prize-winning schoolboy verse about Dave Swarbrick is featured in Cliff Yates's "Jump Start Poetry in the Secondary School", to be published by the Poetry Society this summer.Joe Broughton was taking to Nigel Williamson

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