We love to give them a hard time, but teachers really can change the world. Even in the UK, where the teacher’s role (through no fault of their own) is increasingly administerial, detached and non-interventionist, you get the occasional figure who really understands the value of their subject. These teachers are able to inspire their students through sheer passion. In certain situations, they even become a source of advice. Paul McCartney was lucky enough to be taught by one such individual during his time as a student at the Liverpool Institute.
In 1965, McCartney’s former English master, Alan Durband, was interviewed on ABC in Perth. At first glance, he seems the very embodiment of English conformity. In reality, though, he recognised and actively praised The Beatles’ cynical attitude to authority figures. “I’m glad they’re critical,” Durban began. “They typify a kind of English North country attitude, a particular brand of wit which is all the time, as they say, taking the mickey out of people in authority. They would never recognise that there was anyone better than them; they would always want to bring everyone to the common man level and talk to them.”
Durband knew McCartney when the future Beatle was studying English for his A-Levels. At that time, he was “quite undistinguished in the music world, but not so quite undistinguished as a student of English.” Seemingly, while Lennon was skipping class, Paul had his nose in a book. However, according to his teacher, McCartney’s guitar playing started to distract him from his studies towards the end of his time at the Liverpool Institute. “He was rather late with his essays, and he wasn’t doing very well in his other two subjects,” Durband recalled. “But in English, he had a very definite interest, and it wasn’t hard to keep him to his texts.”
You can see that passion in McCartney’s lyrics. While tracks like ‘Eleanor Rigby’, with its multiple characters and strong sense of location, are deeply Dickensian in scope, songs such as ‘Blackbird’ echo the pastoral romances of Thomas Hardy. While McCartney’s English Master recognised his talent as a student of English, he also understood that Paul’s first and only love was music. Responding to the interviewer’s question of if he attempted to stop McCartney from learning the guitar, Durband seemed a little shocked: “It would have been impossible. He was a young man who knew what he wanted to do, and playing guitar was, from the age of 15, something of an obsession for him. Indeed at the age of 18, about a week before he left school, he came to me and asked me for my advice: he wanted to know if he should carry on playing the guitar professional because he’d been offered a job in Hamburg playing the guitar at £20 a week, or whether he should carry on and become a teacher as he’d always intended to be.”
Durband gave him the “schoolmaster’s advice” and suggested that he finish his qualifications first and then carry on playing the guitar: “Because only one in a million succeed and it may not be you”. McCartney likely mulled over these words for some time. While his upbringing was far more stable than John Lennon’s, Paul’s family didn’t have the money that John’s did. As such, McCartney had much more to lose in pursuing a life as a working musician. Where would the money come from, and what would happen if the gigs dried up? All of these questions would have plagued McCartney, but clearly, he had enough self-belief to reject his teacher’s advice and take the plunge. In the end, it all paid off, but it’s easy to imagine how nervous Paul must have been in those early days in Hamberg, having ditched the comfortable life he had always envisioned for the sweaty cloisters of clubland.