Hugh Reilly: That’s all, folks – I’m signing off

Our writer's early literary leanings bore fruit, unlike his typewriter skills. Picture: TSPL
Our writer's early literary leanings bore fruit, unlike his typewriter skills. Picture: TSPL
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IN HIS final column for The Scotsman after 17 entertaining years, Hugh Reilly reflects on his career in the classroom and in print

On reading something I’d written about my football prowess, my fearsome P5 teacher, Mrs McManus, told me to go round school and show it to every teacher.

Chuffed to bits, I knocked on classroom doors and popped my literary opus on to the desk of each pedagogue. I did find it a little unsettling that my serious musings on the game provoked some mirth. When I took the parchment home seeking mother’s approval (and a sixpence for bringing credit to the family name), she burst out laughing.

“Oh, this is so funny!” she chortled, causing her dentures to clatter like castanets. “In what way do I amuse you?” I asked (this line was later stolen by Joe Pesci and used to menacing effect in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, plagiarism for which I received no payment). “You’ve written, ‘Pat was good but I was better’,” she smiled.

Admittedly it had been something of a subjective judgment call, but my opinion had been vindicated often by dint of the standard street team selection process of that era. Standing against a wall, potential players waited anxiously to be picked by either captain. This peer-evaluation of one’s dribbling and tackling skills was not for anyone of a sensitive disposition; I still carry the low self-esteem scars of a squinty-eyed kid wearing diabolically designed NHS specs being chosen ahead of me.

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Being ridiculed put my nascent writing career in formaldehyde. However, when I started Strathclyde University, I inadvertently realised I had a talent for creative writing. A day before the deadline for an essay on the agricultural policies of Nikita Khrushchev, I found a tattered pamphlet on the Kremlin’s push to increase crop production in the Steppes region. With a stream of consciousness fuelled by a couple of cans of Skol lager, I wrote of black soils and Soviet plans to greatly enhance the almost medieval irrigation systems. My lecturer remarked that it was clear I had a farming background. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d lived in Easterhouse all my life.

On becoming a teacher of history and modern studies, opportunities to hone my wordsmith skills were limited to penning discipline referrals for no-self-control freaks. Tired of teaching, I bought a hackney taxi. In a mad moment, I sent off a hand-written, humorous account of the travails of being a taxi-driver to the Sunday Post. To my surprise, it was published and I received a cheque for £30. Rather than waste this money by gifting my kids pesky luxuries such as clothes and food, I purchased a Brother typewriter. My wife, an expert touch-typist, endeavoured to pass on her dexterity but, in the end, I pioneered my own unique, muckle-handed, two-finger style that resembled the beaks of chickens darting at the letter-levers.

By this time, financial circumstances dictated that I required to supplement my taxi earnings by doing bouts of supply teaching. (The initial employment hiatus my wife had demanded to raise our four children had acquired a degree of permanency.) While on a one-year-long temporary contract at Kingridge Secondary School in Drumchapel, the council announced its closure due to a falling roll (around 300 souls). I was transferred to Holyrood Secondary, the largest single-campus school in Europe. After a few weeks in this educational ant hill, I felt sufficiently moved to send an article to the Times Education Supplement Scotland (TESS), contrasting the differences between the two schools. It was published, as were some later pieces. I was delighted, as was my bank manager, when the TESS editor, Willis Pickard, gave me the chance to write a column every three weeks for the paper.

However, not everyone liked my off-beat articles on life at the chalkface, a perspective that often challenged the education narrative of those running the education system. In 1998, Ken Corsar, Glasgow’s director of education, demanded I stop or face disciplinary action. I resigned, penning an acerbic obituary. The rant was read by Seonag Mackinnon, education editor at The Scotsman. She offered me a weekly column and a wage rise, both of which I willingly accepted.

By now I was the proud owner of a PC with an integral random-crash feature. I’d be putting the finishing touches to a masterpiece when the screen would turn blue, as did the air. At these character-building moments, my children disappeared from sight and earshot of daddy. Articles were sent by fax, the high-pitched, screaming noise of the connection sounding as if one was attempting to make radio-signal contact with extra-terrestrials.

It wasn’t exactly “Hold the front page!” stuff. On Sundays, I’d phone up with ideas, the one picked would be the one most likely not to bother the company’s lawyers, and I’d write the piece that day for Wednesday publication. Back then, writing was a tad more laborious. Dial-up internet was slow, hence a dictionary and thesaurus sat on my desk. Like “phone a friend”, I had a list of numbers to call if I couldn’t remember a factoid I wanted to put in the article. E-mail replaced the fax and PCs became more reliable. Heady days, indeed.

Over the next few years, I studiously avoided providing ammunition for the directorate while still satirising the “wonderful initiatives” put forward by promotion-wannabees that would transform the educational outcomes for pupils. (They rarely did.) But shockingly, in 2000, I received a final written warning for commenting on a behaviour issue (a kid setting fire to the hair of three girls) that was already in the public domain, having been reported in a tabloid. At my disciplinary appeal hearing, councillors saw sense and reduced my sanction to that of a verbal warning.

I greatly enjoyed writing education columns for The Scotsman. When I retired from teaching in 2011, I did some travelling, sending articles to the newspaper from such far-flung places as Turkey, Bangladesh and Moffat. More recently, I have written about Israel, Gaelic and the Scottish referendum. I’ve had a ball these past 16 years, but everybody has a shelf-life. This is my final Scotsman column. I sincerely thank the newspaper for making a little boy’s dream come true. Writing for The Scotsman was a marvellous chapter in my life and today I write the last line.
• Hugh Reilly’s book The Wilderness Years, which charts his teaching career, is available on Kindle.