Rikki don't lose that number

13th July 2001 at 01:00
I was taught English by the Irish in Scotland. Being Polish on my father's side, that possibly made my upbringing multicultural before the term was properly invented. At the age of eight, in 1961, I was uprooted from my West Lothian primary and sent to a "posh" Edinburgh school, now defunct, run by a Catholic teaching order, the Irish Christian Brothers.

Scotus Academy, named after the Scottish medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, was a grant-aided day school. In their strict pedagogical regime, the semi-erudite Irishmen were neither very Christian nor brotherly.

It was all the parish priest's doing, of course. He persuaded my mother (unbeknown to us) that her three sons might have a "vocation".

So, off we went by bus from a wee mining village at the ungodly hour of 7.25am to a big house on Corstorphine Hill with a few huts at the back. It was next door to the zoo. Indeed, some thought it was an annexe.

Unfortunately for my mother, but fortunately for the Church, the grounds for vocational optimism proved ill-founded, despite visits from various religious orders. It was miraculous how many pupils took a sudden vocational turn in double maths and rushed off to meet a visiting cleric.

It was a small school and largely a happy one, though the tawse reigned supreme. You respected those teachers who could "draw the belt" and with those who couldn't, you created mini-riots.

And it was a multicultural school in that many of the pupils came from Italian, Polish or Irish families. We had a few Chinese and Nigerians, American kids from the nearby Kirknewton US Air Force base and some Australians. Most were, of course, Catholic; but some local non-Catholics attended as well because (I kid you not) of the Brothers' educational reputation.

In fact, quite a few of the Brothers had very little in the way of teaching qualifications, though the lay teachers had all been trained (I think) by the standards of the day.

It wasn't a snobby school, though it had a few snobs and, with the fees being pretty minimal, many working-class parents could afford to send their offspring there.

There was a good social mix but - and it was the big but - there were no girls. Homosexuality was not rife but there were one or two among the staff and the pupils who, although not openly gay, would certainly have helped out in a rush.

Among the teachers there were some real characters. We had a Brother Engels for English. At O grade we were given Brecht's Galileo (this was a Catholic school, mind), Robert Tressel's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and Brother to the Ox, an agrarian version of Tressel's house-painters.

Obviously Engels believed in living up to his name and undoubtedly took a great deal of ironic (not to say perverse) pleasure in educating the children of the aspiring Edinbourgeoisie in socialist classics.

For art, we had Richard Demarco. Rikki didn't exactly teach. The budding arts impresario's classes were a form of anarchy in which primitive communal face-painting was de rigueur and free of charge. Rikki could put a stop to this, when he noticed or felt like it, because we all knew he could draw (the belt, I mean) with amazing precision. But he stood out from the others because of his free spirit and infectious enthusiasm and energy. We thought him a bit of a "mad artist" and enjoyed his explosions and his over-the-top denunciations of our hamfisted efforts, though he could turn the tables and declare an abstract hotchpotch created by total accident a work of "genius".

Forever running his hands through his hair, striking attitudes and poses, laughing outrageously and covertly cursing the school regime, Demarco made the cramped attic which served as the art room a cathedral of colour and free expression.

The Brothers were actually rather proud of him in the way that the hide-bound are in their admiration of a soaring spirit they will never understand, and quite possibly fear.

It was Russian philosopher Leo Shestov who said: "We dislike egotism in others because it betrays our own poverty." Rikki's ego was bigger than Corstorphine Hill. But he never made us feel artistically, intellectually or spiritually poor in the way Shestov describes. He made us feel rich in all those ways even if, like me, you couldnae draw.

Rikki embodied another Shestov dictum: "Everything is possible." And, by example, he made you feel that in yourself. Which is a lot more than the Brothers ever did, God bless 'em.

Raymond Ross

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