Mister Cochrane

Sometimes I read a poem out loud to myself, which I did from this weekend’s Guardian. Andrew Motion’s elegantly scanning ‘In Memory of Peter Way’ laments the recent passing of his English teacher and friend.

My teacher, who reached down inside my head

and turned the first lights on. Who gave me Keats

to read, which turned on more, who made me

read. Who made me write. Who made me argue

for the truth in things themselves, who told me

manners maketh man. Who let me question

even the things he said himself were true.

Who gave my life to me, by which I mean

the things I chose and not inheritance.

Who showed me a quiet voice can carry far.

Who took the gratitude I owed to him

and changed it into friendship. Who was kind.

My teacher, who died yesterday at peace –

His hardest lesson and the last of these.

But who is Mister Cochrane? He was my brown-suited, gangling English teacher at Shawlands Academy, Glasgow in the 1950s. Although Mum had first got me in love with books, it was he who put breadth on my table, despite the heavy weight of Scots literature (I still resent the gloom of ‘Marmion’) the national curriculum demanded. He would take me aside after class and ask me if I had read this book or that, and when I won a certificate in the 1957 Glasgow Dickens Society competition, was beside himself. Our school of some 2,000 pupils did not have an assembly space. Announcements were made over a tannoy in each classroom, and when my name was intoned one morning the class gasped: I had told no one I had entered, not even Mr Cochrane.

Shawlands Academy had quite a few rough edges in those days and teachers used the tawse* freely. I felt it twice from the science teacher: once for misremembering my physics homework and another for whispering his nickname, ‘Stalin’, well he was a dead ringer for the Russian. Belting my hands never endeared me to physics. Mr Cochrane, on the other hand, when the class got unruly, used to ease open his desk drawer where he kept his strap, at which the class hushed, whereupon he closed it without comment. It was rumoured that he baked it in vinegar each night; no one had ever seen it used, nor knew any one who had, but silent deterrent it was: Trident-in-a-drawer

In my two years in his class, Mister Cochrane – whose Christian name I never knew and who was not my friend – stimulated my reading and love of the language for the rest of my life. Sometimes I have even had a stab at writing. But I never forgave him for ‘Marmion’.

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* Also known as the belt or strap: hard-leather instrument for corporal punishment of children by teachers in Scottish schools until the 1980s.