On being inspired to write

They say that 80% don’t write, just 20% do. So why are the minority of us arrogant enough, foolish enough, occasionally talented enough, to think that we might write anything of interest to others, original enough to publish, good enough to be reproduced?

Other than my dear mother who is no longer with us, and my daughter who is well on her way to her first degree, I am the only one of my family who is not a graduate. Academically I did not excel at school. In fact I was just one of the 5% in my year not to get into university. My problem was I found school boring and as a result I was incredibly lazy. I can recall just two comments from teachers in my report cards: “His pleasant refusal to do any work is most frustrating”, and “Does he do any homework, ever?”.

But there was one teacher, Basil Bey, my English teacher for a couple of years, who I can credit for my love of writing, who encouraged us all like no other. I know for certain he would not remember me. Even when he taught me I don’t think he would have recognised me. But to generations of boys who went to my school, me included, he was a legend. Apart from being the coach of the rugby first XV, he coached at the  False Bay Rugby Club in Cape Town and was also, for a time, a Western Province selector.

I can’t say he was a great teacher. Frankly I can’t recall ever actually being taught by him. But we all wanted to do well in his class. He used to come into the classroom, lean against the blackboard, close his eyes, and ask us to write an essay on something, perhaps about the mountain, or the holiday, or whatever. A couple of days later he would return your work for which he always gave an A and a brief, encouraging comment. Nothing else, no corrections, nothing specific, but he made me feel a million dollars and I was determined to maintain such high standards in order to impress him!

Looking back, I don’t believe he ever actually read anything I, or my contemporaries, wrote but he and just one other teacher (one of the school chaplains, Father Grieg, who encouraged us to debate politics) did it for me. Because of Mr Bey, I came to love writing and that was probably one of the greatest gifts anyone ever gave me.

Why have I written this post? Because I believe we all have something to say, whether we write well or not. I spend a lot of time at work encouraging colleagues and clients to express themselves, to tell their stories, to reflect on the issues of the day. Unlike any previous period, because of blogging, twitter and other media, we all have opportunities to write and be read. And unlike any previous period, we can get feedback on what we have written and the opportunity to debate. A highlight of this last week was the immediate reaction I received to a post I had published on The Guardian website, not just from people in Brighton or within the UK, but internationally. As locals in Brighton say, not ask: “How great is that?”

(Note: an earlier version of this item referred to Basil Bey as being a Springbok selector rather than a Western Province selector).

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