In 1961 I was a drop-out from an ill-advised chemical engineering course at the then Heriot-Watt College. I knew what chemistry was about, and I was good at it, but I don’t think I really knew what chemical engineering was all about. I failed maths and physics in my first year exams and left.
I became one of a small group of ‘Edinburgh Beats’, playing alto sax and writing poetry, while working in bars to earn money. I was living with my parents in Bathgate, and I relied on buses for transport. Some nights, after playing in clubs or cafés until 2 or 3 am, I would walk the streets of Edinburgh with my sax case, until I could catch an early bus home and sleep before my bar shift.
By 1963 I had a proper job in a library, and had started a relationship with Jane, my wife now for nearly 50 years. Some time around 1965 the writing stopped, and didn’t start again until the middle 1980s. The music continued, but very sporadically, and then it too stopped. Alto sax and clarinet went up into the loft, and stayed there. After the writing started again it became non-stop, and I’m now more prolific than I’ve ever been.
I got back into science too, with a degree in science and maths from the Open University, and a PhD in information science from the University of Strathclyde, all the while building a career in scientific librarianship.
Then last year I had a growing if possibly irrational wish to get myself a tenor sax. Through the intervening years I listened to a lot of tenor jazz, and I always thought of myself as more of a tenor man. So I was delighted to discover in a music shop that I could get notes out of a tenor, and I bought it on the spot. By the end of the year I had bought a soprano sax so I could ‘double’, and I replaced my old alto. The new clarinet came later, and it’s the same make (Buffet) as my first one. I began the business of practising, learning how to read music properly this time, and mastering the new instruments. I still find soprano sax the most difficult of the saxophones to play well. But I’m getting there.
This summer I’ve started improvising behind poets reading their work, and it has brought me back into contact with the 19-year old I used to be. I’m enjoying it hugely, and playing with other musicians again is a total joy. I’m so grateful to the poets who have given me the chance to contribute once again to the fusion of poetry and free-form music that inspired me 50 years ago. It still does.