I consider myself blessed because not only did I grow up in a house with books, I had the good fortune to attend Irvine Royal Academy at a time when the Head of English was Dr Alec Forbes. Dr Forbes was famous for two things: the first was that on the required walk from the old School building to the new one, the long and windswept path, he cleared primary and other junior children out of his way with a fairly large leather briefcase that he carried with him at all times. The second was that he had one earlobe much longer than the other, and if you were fortunate enough to be chosen after a brief recitation to join his Higher English class, you learned very quickly that the long earlobe was caused by his incessant desire to read aloud the book open in his left hand and his right hand holding the earlobe. He was in my opinion, having come from Kilwinning Junior Secondary and never having seen or heard a teacher like this, a marvel. And I am sure others still vividly remember that striding up and down in the single raked lecture theatre, reading from Ferdowsi, he was in full flow well into Sohrab and Rustam, when as the hero was about to inadvertently slaughter his own child, a girl called Davina Powell cried out instinctively ‘stop, it’s yer wee boy!‘ He ceased, and turning to the rows of children like me, with their mouths open in horror, he shut the book and left the room! Poor Davina, but it shows the power of the orator…
I don’t know how you become a good speaker, never mind an orator, but being here in the Museum one meets people not only from all over the world, but largely fortunately from one’s past. Such an occasion happened recently: two ladies came into our coffee room, and sat at the table by the door. I am not unaware when people are glancing at me in a rather strange way, but that was happening, and eventually one of them said to me ‘Excuse me, is there any chance that you compered a concert at Irvine Royal Academy in about 1958?’ I looked at her for a moment and said ‘Was I dressed in a white hat and tail in the first half? and a French outfit with striped jersey sweater? a beret and a false moustache in the second? She replied ‘yes you were!‘ So I said ‘That would be me then!‘. She then said ‘And did you go on the stage? We all thought, when you pulled the rabbit out of the top hat and got a standing ovation, that you were bound to end up on the stage’. There was a moment when I thought: do I tell her there was no rabbit in the top hat? Or will I just let her go on believing so? And then I said ‘Sadly I never got to the stage, I rushed home, told my father that I won a scholarship to the drama school’ – he never even looked up from his ham and eggs, but spoke the immortal words ‘Ye’re not going, get a real job‘. So I never got to drama school.
But for the next forty years, I performed and produced several indeed many amateur dramatic groups, and as a result of this, I learned to project. And I go back to Dr Forbes, who could hold a class of forty or more 17 year olds in utter silence, simply by reading from a book. And if you have never tried, there is a joy in projecting your voice in a public space.
Since we have started the museum 35 years ago, it didn’t take long for the first invitation to go out and speak. If you think about it, there are clubs, societies, guilds, in abundance in every town and village in Scotland, and Ayrshire is no exception. I could if I wanted to probably get lunch out every day in return for a speech, and two meals an evening if you space them properly, and I did this simply to attract people to the Museum. It doesn’t take very long for your reputation if you are good, and I am, to spread, and to date I must have spoken ten thousand times, often with great pleasure, occasionally to five people on a very wet winter evening in a church in Paisley, in the middle of a housing scheme that it took me an hour and a half to find my way out of in the dark! So that in the latter years, my by this time 12 year old grandson was sent with me if it was likely to be be somewhere where my sense of direction, which is poor at the best of times, was likely to desert me entirely! The nice thing is that it did bring people to the Mill, not just singly or as a couple, but very often as a coach full, and as we sit here, wondering if another Corona Virus lockdown is on its way, it’s good to have the memory of better times past.
This blog is about books, or was to be about books, and to that end Christelle has taken some wonderful photographs of my bookshelves, and thinking about it, from Tam O’ Shanter and upwards or downwards depending on your opinion, it all goes back to a fabulous teacher, Alec Forbes.