Growing up was, for me, always a mix of good times and vague but strong worry. For a year, or maybe two, I was so painfully shy at secondary school, that some days I felt I wouldn’t be able to get on the school bus from Barnhill to Grove Academy in Broughty Ferry. But somehow I always did, and I’d sit sweating in an itchy blazer, trying hard to become invisible, or chattering away as if I was totally fine. But I wasn’t.
The old double decker buses were open at the back. If you were late and had to run to catch the bus after it had already started moving away, you’d have to leap on to the bus and catch hold of the long vertical bar on the little platform. Sometimes, I’d see some poor sod catch the bar but not quite reach the platform, so the bus would drag them for a few moments, until they jumped on board or were hauled on by other kids. This was one origin of badly scuffed school shoes.
At school, I was often mightily bored. I’d sit staring up at the blue or grey skies outside the high windows and wonder if life after school could ever be so dull. Or, would life be packed with adventures and some kind of heroism? The smell of old desks gave me no answer but it has stayed with me ever since.
Art I loved. I remember being praised for a seascape I painted, using a sponge to turn thick white and blue paint on paper into a semblance of frothy waves. Making things was always interesting and the exact results didn’t matter much to me: it was the doing which mattered.
History too could be good. One teacher, a big bearded man, used to wave a ruler about as if it was a Roman sword, and another teacher, a small, non bearded man, was less flamboyant but fascinating – about kailyards, crofting, and the Highland Clearances.
Best of all was learning about writers and books. I was lucky to have an English teacher who cared passionately about Literature and could convey her enthusiasm by reading to us from Ray Bradbury’s short stories or the poems of Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney. I read everything I was asked to, and more, as if I was drinking water after days in the desert. And the boredom of some other classes was like being in a desert to me: a stifling desert in the high ceiling classrooms in the summer, a freezing desert in the winter.
When I was a teenager at school, I started to wonder if I could become some kind of writer. I remember sitting in the school library a few times absolutely riveted by the novels and short stories of Ernest Hemingway. From those moments on, I always associated the writings of writers I loved with feeling intensely alive. It was like a doubled experience: I felt that I could see what Hemingway or Sylvia Plath or Thom Gunn saw (or thought), and I was also aware when I was reading of the magic or alchemy of the act of reading. When words turned into the lives of others. Over and over again.
Words in songs also had the same effect on me. One time, I lay on the floor of my bedroom, staring out at a night sky full of impossible distance, and with my head close to an old mono record player. And from the little speaker, the uniquely gravelly voice of Bob Dylan was singing Baby Stop Crying. I played it over and over, and each time I lay on the floor so that I could get one ear as close to the speaker as I could, listening to every syllable and emotion. And I remember thinking: I will look back at this time years from now and I’ll get here again in words after many adventures.
And I did.