George Forfar: An appreciation

GEORGE Forfar, a former Principal Teacher of English at Glasgow’s Shawlands Academy, died on February 5, 2020, aged 67, following serious complications after falling ill some six weeks previously.

Brought up in Edinburgh (he was a lifelong supporter of Hearts FC and a regular visitor to Murrayfield to watch the rugby with his dad), and an adoptive Glaswegian, George was born in Perth on July 23, 1952, to parents George and Helen. He had two younger sisters, Joyce and Jane.

Dux of his primary school, Clermiston School, in June 1964, he won a bursary to the Royal High School in Edinburgh, which he attended from 1964 to 1967.

He spent his whole life around books and reading, a love that was engendered in the days before he could even read, when a doting grandmother bought, and read to him, a weekly comic.

The solitariness and the life of the mind that characterised the boy reader would later reconcile with his other great defining quality – extreme sociability. George made friends wherever he went in life, and forged lifelong friendships in each of its chapters.

When he was 15, the family moved to Singapore, a consequence of his father’s work for the Ministry of Defence. There, he attended St John’s School and enjoyed an active social life, while contributing regularly to the school magazine, where his rebellious bent can be seen in satirical verses pointing the finger at politics and religion.

When he was 16, he took off with some school friends, and very limited resources, on a road trip to Penang, a journey of about 360 miles. On reaching their destination, penury meant sleeping overnight on the pier, where they awoke, to George’s horror, to find themselves covered in cockroaches.

Perhaps emboldened by such exercises in self-sufficiency, George, aged 17, left his family in Singapore, to return to Scotland, attending Stirling University between 1970 and 1974, studying English Language and Literature.

After university, as his close friend Dave Beveridge put it, “George had a plan which with hindsight was a calling that defined the rest of his life”: he was going to be an English teacher, and began studying Jordanhill Teacher Training College, in Glasgow.

Having qualified as an English teacher, he moved from Albert Secondary to Colston Secondary and then, as Assistant Principal Teacher, to Shawlands Academy, where he remained for the rest of his professional career.

There, his Principal Teacher at that time was Geddes Thomson, the writer and poet. They had many interests in common; and when Geddes retired, George was appointed in his place, a position he occupied until his own retirement in 2014.

His empathy, his natural kindness (like many very kind people who do not wish to be identified as such, George would adopt a gruff exterior, a pose that forbade a casual acquaintance, unless invited), the understanding of human nature that a wide reading of literature gave him, allowed him to communicate with his pupils not by talking down to them but by raising them up, inspiring them to read more challengingly, and to think, discuss and question.

To work in Shawlands Academy’s English Department with George was great fun. There was no pettiness of restriction or ticking of boxes, only an expectation that books meant as much to you as an English teacher as they did to George, and that you could convince your classes of the same.

Student teachers finding their placement there rejoiced in the thought that all schools must work in this way: badinage, banter and books.

George encouraged and supported his pupils throughout their school career. He was deeply gratified when his charges were moved by the literature they studied together, and shared their joy in academic triumphs while absolving himself of any credit for their achievement.

Retirement came when at 62, he could not face the imminent re-structuring of Scottish Education that was to become the Curriculum for Excellence.

He had many friends and colleagues among the staff of the English Department and elsewhere in Shawlands Academy, and even in retirement he continued to travel to the south side of Glasgow on a Friday afternoon to meet former colleagues.

George also worked for over 15 years as a marker for the SQA, particularly for Advanced Higher, and approached with interest all the pupil submissions he read, always pleased when on occasion this led him to discover previously unfamiliar texts.

He was someone who lived in the present and looked forward to the future.

Even in his darkest days, the weeks following the heart failure that felled him, he still had a glint in his eye, the familiar smile at a shared witticism, an appreciation shared with those around him when his football team beat a major rival, and the passion for literature which underpinned his continuing recommendation of books to read, even as he awaited the chance (tragically denied) to himself continue reading.

George is survived by his wife Eileen, daughters Gillian and Alison, his son George, and by his mother Helen, sisters Joyce and Jane, and three grandchildren: Lewis, Charlotte and Robert.

Fred Brown