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Mr Holmes

The power of a great teacher

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

When I think about how I became a writer, I am surprised at how seemingly accidental the process was. I certainly can’t remember deciding at any point that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. But there was one person without whom I doubt it would have happened at all: Mr Holmes, my English teacher in fourth form at King Edward VII School for Boys in King’s Lynn.

I was new to the school. My father had been a miner in Rosewell, and when the pit closed he retrained as an agricultural engineer, so our family moved from Scotland to Norfolk. Up until then I had attended the co-ed secondary in Lasswade, so it came as a bit of a shock to be at a boys-only school. I remember in my first week, the boy sitting behind me in English class tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘Gathercole’s in love with you’. As it turned out, he was — but that’s another story.

The headmaster assigned the only other Scottish boy in my year to be my guide, and he was in all the top streams. Thus I found myself floundering alongside him in Maths (where they were doing Calculus in fourth year, for heaven’s sake!) but I was also in the top stream for English — a subject which up until then I had no strong feelings about. Mr Holmes always taught the class sitting behind his desk, rising occasionally to write something on the blackboard. He conducted the class animatedly from his seat, firing questions at us as if he were David Frost interviewing a particularly difficult guest. He was a short, pudgy, balding, bespectacled man but he had an insatiable curiosity which made him a compelling presence. In some ways his teaching methods were quite old fashioned. We read Macbeth and Henry IV Part One and Part Two around the class, each boy taking his turn to be Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Laertes, Falstaff, Hal or another character. Old fashioned maybe, but it was new to me and I think it helped us get to know the plays from the inside, as it were, before we were asked to discuss them and write our interpretation of them in our ‘interpretation’ jotters. Similarly, we read the War Poets aloud and discussed them before we wrote our commentaries, then made an illustrated World War I frieze of the poems around the classroom.

We also had ‘composition’ jotters. Mr Holmes would give us a theme or a title or sometimes just one word as our impetus. One week, our homework was to write a poem entitled ‘To an Old Man Asleep in Front of his Television’. I wrote a poem (of sorts — my first!) describing my father, the ex-miner, asleep in his chair while the news burbled out of the TV, oblivious to the political events and disasters unfolding on the screen. Mr Holmes marked everything we wrote, not just with ticks or crosses and scores out of ten; he also wrote comments. At the foot of my poem, he wrote about its rhyme, the choice of words and the treatment of the subject, finishing off with, ‘I enjoyed reading this very much. I am very pleased with your work’. This utterly astonished me. It was the first time that a teacher had written anything complimentary about something I had written. And he had taken the poem seriously enough to point out things to do with the form of it. That little bit of encouragement went a long, long way. From then on, I was not only on his side; I wanted to please him, I wanted to be good at English, I wanted to learn. For the first time, I really engaged with an academic subject. And I very much wanted to read and write more poetry.

Mr Holmes covered the curriculum, but he also encouraged us to read other things, and had a box of books – his own – which we could borrow. So, at fifteen, I sampled some modern drama and poetry that I might never have come across otherwise, such as Pinter, Ionesco, Albee, Yeats, Auden and Dylan Thomas. Sometimes he got us to read, discuss and write about more modern poetry. I remember being struck powerfully by two poems in particular: ‘No More Hiroshimas’, by James Kirkup and ‘Your Attention Please’, by Peter Porter.

The Kirkup poem, like the poems of World War I we had studied, delivered a very strong emotional charge, but it dealt with an atrocity which was much more recent and salient to our times. It was the sixties, and the threat of nuclear war was very much all around us. The poem made me realize that poetry could address big issues concerning humanity while at the same time be deeply personal in its heart-wrenching detail:

The other relics:
The ones that made me weep;
The bits of burnt clothing,
The stopped watches, the torn shirts,
The twisted buttons,
The stained and tattered vests and drawers,
The ripped kimonos and charred boots,
The white blouse polka-dotted with atomic rain, indelible,
The cotton summer pants the blasted boys crawled home in, to bleed
And slowly die.

‘Your Attention Please’ was an even greater revelation to me. It challenged my whole idea of what poetry is. Like the Kirkup poem, it addressed a big issue, that of the threat of a nuclear holocaust, but it did so by taking the form of a public service radio broadcast. This was something I simply did not know was possible in poetry, and it taught me a lesson I have never forgotten: that instead of taking its form from conventional versification, a poem could take its form from something outside the realm of poetry altogether. If a poem could take the form of a radio broadcast, it could also take the form of a letter, a recipe, an advertisement in a lonely-hearts column, a press bulletin, a sermon, a political speech… And whichever form it took would determine the structure, the shape and the tone of the poem. For me, this opened up so many possibilities; it was a truly liberating discovery. I went on to write poems in many different voices, using the speaker in a dramatic way, employing various non-poetic forms and this is something I still enjoy doing in my poetry. Of course, such a poem has to ring true to the form in question, in terms of its structure, tone and its diction; ‘Your Attention Please’ captures the chillingly neutral tone of a public service broadcast perfectly:

This announcement will take
Two and a quarter minutes to make,
You therefore have a further
Eight and a quarter minutes
To comply with the shelter
Requirements published in the Civil
Defence Code — section Atomic Attack.

At the same time, what the announcement is instructing its listeners to do carries such staggering emotional weight:

… Leave the old and bed-
ridden, you can do nothing for them.

It was quite daring and progressive of Mr Holmes to offer such poems for study to a fourth form English class, and I am grateful to him for doing so, because I think I became a poet as a direct result of this exposure. Other influences came later, but this was the first and, I would say, the most important.

Years later, as a published writer in my forties, I was invited to take part in the King’s Lynn Poetry Festival. I was reading alongside Peter Porter, who was seated on my left. At Q & A time, I was asked a question I usually find difficult — what were my formative influences? This time it was easy to answer: ‘Mr Holmes, my English teacher at King Edward’s, and Mr Porter, the gentleman on my left’.

Brian McCabe has published three collections of poetry, the most recent being Zero (Polygon). He also has published one novel and five collections of short stories, the most recent being A Date with My Wife (Canongate).

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