Boys, books and beatings

By 2nd April 2014 Blog

the beltHands up who can remember the good old days of corporal punishment in Scottish schools? If you’re sitting reading this with your arm in the air then you’re old, maybe as old as me. You might even be older.

I did receive the belt on a number of occasions when I was at school. I remember being in primary seven when I fell foul of our teacher. Friday afternoon was designated ‘story time’, and the teacher would read to us for the last hour of the day. The book she’d chosen was Master of Morgana by Allan Campbell McLean, a wonderful adventure story set on the Scottish island of Skye.

It was thrilling, exciting, dangerous and utterly captivating. After three weeks, I couldn’t wait another seven days for the next instalment, so straight after school on the Friday I headed to the local library and borrowed the book, spending the whole weekend reading it. When I returned to school on Monday morning, not only did I boast about finishing the book, I foolishly revealed what happened in it to the rest of my classmates. When the teacher found out, I was hauled to the front of the class and belted.

For years afterwards, I remained appalled that I had actually been punished for showing some initiative and reading in my own time. If anything was ever likely to put me off reading, then it was this incident. Of course, with age comes wisdom (hopefully) and I now realise that I was punished for being a smart-arse and ruining the book for everyone else.

Catch 22

A small memento from my time at Turnbull High School

Primary school punishments were always unlikely to stop me reading, though teenage angst and apathy could easily have done so. It was a problem when I was at school and it remains so to this day – how do you get teenagers, and boys in particular, to read? My suggestion, while not solving the issue, might help … give them something to read that they might enjoy. I apologise to any English teacher reading this because I know it sounds flippant, and with a teenage son who does not read books at all, I know how difficult it is, but I think more care in the subject matter would help, and that’s advice equally applicable to parents and teachers.

I just remember my own experience of secondary school and our fifth-year Higher English class. While the girls were given D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers to study, the boys were handed Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. It was an inspired choice by our teacher, Peter McGhee, and a class of fifteen and sixteen-year-old boys were suddenly engrossed in a book that was, first of all, hilarious and salacious, but one that, upon closer study, was also profoundly moving. It was still the funny bits that got us at that age.

I love that book, and the experience of that class, and it remains one of my fondest memories from just over five years spent at Turnbull High School, so much so that I still retain the copy I was given back in 1982. Technically, I suppose you could call that stealing, but is there not some sort of statute of limitations when it comes to these things? I’d also like to meet Peter McGhee again and shake his hand, maybe buy him a pint, and tell him that I think he probably helped to make lifetime readers of all the boys who were in that class.

My new book, Read All About It: My Year Of Falling In Love With Literature, is out now and is available to buy on Amazon.



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