Thursday, 10 March 2011

Smiling sweetly

We writers don’t get out much and I’ll tell you why. Bad things happen when we do.

As Jean McLeish tucks into a little haggis on a stick, which the waitresses at Edinburgh’s National Gallery keep pushing on us, like they're on commission, I can’t help thinking of all the food this woman snatched from my children’s lips. Or would have done, if they weren’t both well into their twenties at the time.

I’d been writing freelance features for TES Scotland for five years when Jean appeared out of nowhere, with great ideas and well-crafted stories. The first line of hers I ever read sticks in my mind: “Chloe's tooth diamond is a twinkling distraction amid the building site paraphernalia of paint, ladders and hard hats”.

“Hey, that’s great,” I thought. “She’s got to go.”

Five years later Jean is still there, turning out high quality features every week. “Did you enjoy the educational debate,” I smile sweetly and act civilised.

“It was fine,” Jean replies. “Although I’m more interested in people than policy. Did you?”

“Didn’t make it in time,” I tell her. “Got bumped by a bus, detained by the surly, slow-writing driver, then ran round and round the National Gallery for ages, searching for a way in. Finally realised it was down here in the Gardens but the big gate was padlocked. I had to scramble over the railings to get in.”

“Good heavens, how awful,” Jean sympathises and steps back a pace. “I’m surprised you’re not even more sweat-stained and dishevelled.”

An elegant woman in a black dress floats past. “Thanks for coming, Douglas,” says the new editor. “No problem, Gillie,” I lie fluently.

The occasion is the relaunch of TESS as a magazine and the formal handover from Neil Munro, editor for ten years, to Gillie Macdonald. It’s a chance to hear her vision for the future and meet writing colleagues I never see.

Among the tall pillars and vol-au-vents, I hunt down Gregor Steele, whose fortnightly columns are funny and insightful. “Where do you get your ideas?” I ask the former physics teacher, unoriginally. “Life,” he tells me. “And physics, which is full of metaphor.”

I find Julia Belgutay, whose weekly column capturing kids’ talk makes me laugh out loud. For example: “She bought a book because she thought it was about Lance Armstrong, but it was about bike saddles.”

“I get good stuff from young people because inside my head I’m the same age as they are,” Julia tells me.

I meet news reporter Henry Hepburn, tall, slim, friendly and the official TESS tweeter, Jackie Cosh, who manages to write while bringing up four kids, and Chris Small, appointed to the News team from Children in Scotland. We share our liking for Jonathan Sher, their distinguished but genial research director, a committed children’s advocate from North Carolina.

Gillie’s talk gets off to a great start among the two Gaelic speakers at the gathering, when she tells a joke in the language of her father, author Finlay J Macdonald. A quick translation allows us southerners to join in the jollity. Then she gets serious.

The format of TESS might have changed, she says, but it’s still all about up-to-the-minute education news. “We’ve a new four-page focus that looks in detail at one topic a week. We’re taking all the expertise of our education correspondents – there’s no specialist team like it in Scotland – and providing depth now, to go with the range.”

The features section, which highlights good practice around the country, remains. “We see it as a crucial part of our role, particularly when schools don’t have money for CPD.”

Online teaching resources compiled over the years by TES UK will be plundered each week. “There are thousands of them, all free. We will take the best of those and tailor them for our Scottish readers.”

Comment, discussion and debate will be encouraged: “Don’t just read an article and think about it. Write in and tell us. You can have 900, 450 or 300 words, depending where we put it. We want to hear from you.”

Then there’s the most interesting section for many readers. “TESS used to be the place to go for jobs in education. It is again. Classroom teachers, headteachers, independent schools – they’re all there now in one place, at the back of the magazine.”

She recalls recent publishing industry awards: “2008 business and professional magazine of the year: Times Educational Supplement Scotland. 2009 editor of the year: Neil Munro. 2010 features writer of the year: Emma Seith.

“That is a track record we won’t throw away,” Gillie concludes. “I am excited to see what we can do in 2011.”

As distinguished guests and ink-stained scribblers sidestep the haggis-ball pushers and disperse, I say goodnight, find my car, take a look at the damage inflicted by the bus, decide it’s superficial and drive off into the night. It was a lovely evening in the end.

I got to get out more.

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