Why I write (with apologies to George Orwell)

10 Dec 2012 @ 1.05 pm
| Opinion

No, this isn't John hard at work but a scribe at York's Barley Hall
In his first column for YorkMix, John Tomsett reveals why his passion for words nearly saw him become a journalist rather than a teacher


I have always had an urge to write. The first article I had published appeared in the Sussex Express in 1972 when I was eight years old. I wrote about hunting for antique bottles. We used to spend days on end digging out an old Victorian refuse dump searching for stunningly beautiful bottles.

I wrote a piece for the paper which ended with a line about appreciating the beauty of a cobalt blue poison bottle for its own sake rather than worrying about how much money it might be worth.

By the age of ten, however, my obsession was golf and my teens were spent aiming for a career on the European Golf Tour. The legacy of those years comprises some great memories, modest success, and a right shoulder which hangs six inches lower than its counterpart. The love of the written word continued, however, and, when I left the fairways to return to studying, Seamus Heaney’s poetry led me to study English at York University.

I dabbled in sports writing for a while. At university in the mid-eighties I studied amidst a number of budding journos. Dave Conn, Andy Dunn and David Maddock have gone on to become nationally renowned sports writers.

I once covered West Ham vs West Brom for Maddock when he was writing for the Daily Star; on that particular Saturday he was moonlighting for the Independent at Aston Villa vs Derby. Interviewing Lou Macari in the West Ham changing rooms, pretending to be a genuine hack was, as Sir Alex Ferguson would say, squeaky bum time!

Maddock once asked me whether I thought he should change from journalism to teaching. I explained that teaching is a solitary business. Its magic moments are largely unacknowledged, occurring in distant corners of the school on wet February afternoons. It might be when a student understands how and why you use substitutions in algebra, or why Sonnet 18 is about Shakespeare’s art rather than a love poem; whatever it is, that moment of light-bulb-switching-on learning will be shared by only you and the student.

Writing is not for the retiring type and I told Dave that swapping his picture by-line in the Mirror for the relative anonymity of a corner of a classroom in a school amongst thousands of other schools in England wouldn’t be for him.

Seamus Heaney… one of John's writing heroes. Photograph: SeantheOC on Wikipedia Commons

In the early nineties I was runner-up in a Guardian sports writing competition and met some of my journalist heroes at the modest awards event – Matthew Engels, Peter Preston and the late John Diamond. Predictably, the article was about golf and it prompted me, a few years later, to write to the editor of Golf World and challenge him to send me to Augusta to cover the US Masters golf championship; he didn’t send me but went himself.

He did, however, commission me to write an article on junior golf in the UK which he published; I even got paid. The actual edition appeared on the magazine racks in Rita’s newsagents in Coronation Street a few weeks later!

Between the commissioning and publishing of that Golf World article I secured a teaching post in York; instead of building upon that article I was consumed with my new job. Who knows where I would be now if I had managed to write the next piece for Gold World? Golf, writing, teaching – sometimes I’m still not completely sure I’m in the right job!

It’s clear, I guess, when I read this article back, that I’ve always had a propensity to write. I haven’t always been sure, however, that I’ve anything so valuable to say that people will bother reading what I’ve written. That changed to some extent back in June when I began my blog where I ruminate on what I have learnt about education – and occasionally life – over the 48 years I’ve lived on this planet.

Writing my blog clarifies my thinking. I have lots of material in my head about work, like bits of space debris; blogging melds them into the satellite which directs my personal satnav. When I last looked my blog had over 43,000 hits and two weeks ago I was, remarkably to me, shortlisted for the Edublog Awards 2012.

All of this – bar the odd poem I’ve had published – charts my writing career to date. As headteacher of Huntington School I reckon I have one of the best jobs in the world! But when writing I feel like I’m in my element, a state Sir Ken Robinson describes as the point at which people feel most themselves and most inspired and achieve at their highest levels. Writing for YorkMix is a thrilling prospect – I just hope you think I have something inspirational to say.