How Billy Letford went from roofer to poet

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First part of the family firm, now one of Scotland’s most exciting writers, Letford’s rise to prominence proves following your dreams really can pay off - with a little inspiration at an early age

WHEN an 11-year-old Billy Letford was told by one of the country’s most esteemed poets to “keep writing” he shrugged it off.

For a typical young boy from Stirling - with a future already mapped out working for his family’s roofing business - creative verse was the last thing on his mind.

But more than two decades later, and with a raft of poetic honours to his name; including a prestigious New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust, Billy treasures the words from revered poet and playwright Roger McGough.

“I wrote about the Kings Cross train disaster in 1987 and my teacher must have seen something in my poem as she sent it to Roger McGough who wrote back ‘keep writing’,” Billy says.

“I didn’t properly take it on board at that point, but for a young boy that was my first link to poetry and it gave me confidence over the years, every time I heard or read poetry I liked, a voice in my head was telling me ‘you could do this’.”

Billy Letford began with a poem about the Kings Cross disaster as a schoolboy. He went on to gain a masters in creative writing. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

Billy Letford began with a poem about the Kings Cross disaster as a schoolboy. He went on to gain a masters in creative writing. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

It has not been a conventional route to his chosen career for Billy, now 38.

He left school with no higher qualifications, and until two years ago was balancing his creative career while working during the day as a roofer for his family’s firm.

“It was actually my dad who convinced me to go for it full time,” he explains.

“My family have been so supportive, so that’s made it easier for me.

“I also always know the business will be there if I need to go back.”

At 23, Billy had been working in a laminate floor shop when he lost his job.

He used the extra time off to start writing and performing.

“I performed anywhere I could, to burger vans - where I would recite poetry in return for a filled roll - and on public trains.

“The first time I performed on a train I was really in the moment, people listened to the poem and really seemed to appreciate it.

“Then one time on the last train to Glasgow from Stirling a drunk woman shouted at me that the poem was terrible and everyone started laughing at me, which made me lose some confidence.”

After going back to work for his family’s roofing business his first big break came in 2008 when he won a prestigious New Writer’s Award at the Scottish Book Trust.

That same summer - at age 30 - he applied for a masters in creative writing from the University of Glasgow.

“Because I was working at a family business, they completely supported me taking as much time off as I needed when I was studying,” he says.

“I felt a bit starry-eyed when I first started but I ended up winning the Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary which allowed me to spend three months in the mountains of northern Italy, helping to restore and medieval village and writing about it.”

Billy’s first collection of poems Bevel was published by Carcanet Press in 2012 - to rave reviews.

His newest critically acclaimed book Dirt was published in August this year. Last month, he spoke at the relaunch of The Scotsman having written the official poem and inspiring the #Canyouhearit hashtag.

“It’s funny because if I look back at my school report cards, they always say ‘Billy should take a career in creative writing’ but you just get side-tracked in life. You never regret trying to make a dream happen and if you believe in yourself and you can visualise what you want then you can do it, bit by bit.”

Billy recently came face to face with his old primary school teacher when she turned up at his book launch in Stirling.

“My primary school teacher, that started this all off, turned up to my book launch. I just gave her a big hug and I think she was quite overwhelmed, but for a young boy who had never even thought of poetry, I’m really just so grateful for all she has done.”

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