One day in the early 80s, the poet Liz Lochhead got a blank reception from a bunch of young students. David Barnett was one of them – and says she inspired him to be a writer
I'm not sure if Scotland's makar, or poet laureate, Liz Lochhead – appearing at the Edinburgh Book festival this weekend – remembers visiting a comprehensive school in Wigan sometime in the early 1980s, but I do. And I remember it with a strange mixture of slight discomfort, vague shame and a hard-to-define sense that it set me on the road to somewhere.
I can't remember what year it was, but I started the school in 1981, and it would have been within a couple of years of that. To be quite honest, it wasn't the sort of school where poets and writers beat a path to. We were a thousand-strong student body who were resolutely northern, urban and working class. There used to be a joke that the careers advice in the mid-years of the school was largely based on how tall you were. If you were a strapping lad you were advised that there might be a job in the police, or possibly the army. For everyone else, going down the pit was still just about a viable option. Girls were told about the delights of secretarial work. There was an unspoken suggestion that prison or gym-slip motherhood was the likely life progression for a large percentage of the school population.
But the school tried, and the teachers did their best, and occasionally strange things happened, such as the appearance of a breezy, bohemian-looking woman with an exotic Scottish accent.
I remember being quietly told that my presence would be required in the school library one afternoon, along with a couple of dozen other students. When we got there, Lochhead was introduced to us. No one had heard of her. She was a poet, we were told. I remember that we were all slightly nonplussed. What did she want with us?
Lochhead spoke to us about poetry, and writing. She read some of her poems to us.
I vividly remember one called Men Talk. I didn't really know what feminism was at that point, save as a vaguely insulting term delivered in bleak sitcoms. Men Talk was about how women jabber and gossip and nag and do go on all the time, but men talk. We all found it quite funny. Some of us got it.
We liked it because, vaguely, it was a bit like the rap music that was beginning to get popular. I remember a few days later when a few of us gathered around an opened-out cardboard box, and we'd try to spin on our backs and bust moves, a bunch of pasty-faced working-class white boys in knockoff sports gear, that refrain about women jabbering but men talking going through my head, drowning out Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Slight discomfort, I mentioned. That was because it didn't do to stand out at school, or so I thought. Not unless you were brilliant at sport or particularly tough. Being asked to miss lessons to go and listen to a poet marked us out as something a bit odd.
Vague shame, because I remember vividly all of us utterly failing to interact and engage with Lochhead. She did her bit, read her poems, tried to speak to us. We muttered and shook our heads, went red in the face. Asked one or two awkward and banal questions. Somewhere inside I felt terrible, that she'd come all this way and we sort of shrugged. I remember catching a disappointed look from one of the teachers. But I'd been singled out enough; I wasn't going to start asking questions of a freaky-looking feminist poet. I'd liked what she'd done. That was enough for starters.
And the other thing? Being set on the road to somewhere? I suppose that was the first time I'd ever met a writer. Someone who described themselves as a writer, a poet. That was what Lochhead did, that was what she was. A door creaked open slightly, allowing just a crack of light through. I wasn't tall enough for the police, after all, had no desire to go to Northern Ireland with the army, and didn't particularly want to go down the pit. But people could actually be writers … ?
So I'd finally like to say to Liz Lochhead that while I'm sorry we failed to rise above our social conditioning that day in the early 80s, she did get through to at least one surly pre-teen boy, even if she perhaps didn't feel like it at the time.