Wednesday afternoons with a live poet

Sean McPartlin

He sat in a functional office, high up in the great slate slab of Edinburgh University's David Hume Tower. Only inspiring views of many of the capital's hills prevented the old tweed suit from looking out of place. He had a nervous habit of suddenly looking over his shoulder as he spoke and asking "What?", as if there was someone else in the room, mumbling indistinctly and hindering his thoughts. When I was 21, I went to see him most Wednesday afternoons, and, with the particular ignorance of undergraduate youth, I took for granted that my life would contain many more such encounters on a regular basis.

Sorley MacLean was writer in residence in my final year at university. I was so nervous of approaching him that, for the first two weeks, two of us went together, metaphorically holding hands in his presence. Eventually he pointed out, in his dry way, that it was difficult to comment usefully on one person's writing whilst another hung about in the background waiting his turn, and, by degrees, I summoned the courage to knock at his door on my own.

Twenty years on, the thought that I left my poems with him, unformed and obvious as they were, is, to say the least, embarrassing. Yet my memories of his comments, as he detailed his way through my efforts, line by line, are that they were considered, kindly and professional. I suspect the man was incapable of being patronising, and, if he doubted the quality of my writing, he signalled his opinion so charmingly and skilfully that it was completely painless.

Because I received my secondary education south of the border, his poems were literally a closed book to me. I was in awe of him at first, not because of what he had written, most of which I had not read, but simply because he was a live poet. To a final-year English student, such a state was almost godlike. His manner, which at first seemed abrupt, did little to ease my nerves in the early days, but it didn't take long to fall under the spell of his personality.

In our talks, it seemed to me that my writing was merely a mundane starting point for an exhilarating tour. One week he questioned a reference I had made to Tony Hancock, clearly unaware of the comic's position as a sixties' icon, and then, somehow, within minutes, he was on to the Spanish Civil War, his brother and thoughts about love that left me clinging on to the conversation for dear life, terrified to let go despite my inability to fully grasp our destination.

Strange as it may seem, when, on hearing of his death, I reread Hallaig, I was suddenly seized by a relief that I had not been familiar with his writing when I met him all those years ago. For, as a result, I was captivated by the man, not the reputation; I reacted to his kindness and straightforwardness rather than to his craftsmanship.

Those afternoons enveloped in that most unique of voices occupy a place in my memories, allied to no other experience before or since. Kindness and humour and love were the qualities obvious to even my naivety, and I felt I had known the man a little, rather than the poet. I was unaware, at first, that he had been a teacher, but I have often since reflected that what he had in abundance was that basic communicable humanity that marks out those who can teach from those who are merely teachers.

I've rarely talked of those afternoons to anyone, and I expect I will carry them close and dear to me in future. Hamish Henderson wrote that we have "no gods and precious few heroes". For me, Sorley MacLean was one of the few, and my brief time with him was immeasurably precious.

Quite simply, he taught me how to teach.

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