Famed for his bravura sports writing and penetrating insight, he also brought a seriousness to the business of living – not to mention Trivial Pursuit

mcilvanney hugh 2

Hugh McIlvanney: memories of my uncle, last of the big land animals

By Liam McIlvanney in The Observer

Along with my father, the novelist William, my uncle Hugh was such a towering presence in our family that his passing seems to complete an era. He was the last of the big land animals, the sole survivor of a generation that became legendary not just within the confines of our tribe but to some extent in the wider world.

Having close relatives who are also public figures can be a disconcerting business. The man whose by-line is splashed across the Sunday papers is also the man who belts out Sinatra standards at family parties and spills his cigar ash on the carpet. Hughie straddled these worlds with ease. Though he mixed with figures of implausible eminence – Ali, George Best, Jock Stein – he remained hungry for the latest news of nieces and grand-nephews. My cousin Elaine’s house at Troon, where most of our family gatherings took place, was a treasured bolthole for him through several decades.

Quite properly, the tributes to Hughie in the hours since his death have dwelt on his lucidly flamboyant phrase-making, the scintillating rhythms of his prose. His lyricism, however, was invariably in the service of some penetrating insight. As he wrote of Tom Finney, “when he dazzled, he did it with a deadly sense of relevance”. But what most impressed me – having the privilege of watching him work at close quarters – was the ferocious dedication he brought to the task in hand.

Whatever he wrote – whether a column, a report or a eulogy – he performed a job of work. Often what he wrote was a work of art but it was, in the first place, a job of work. He prepared rigorously, did his research, thought deeply about his subject. He didn’t wing it. I remember him giving me his copy to look over during the 1998 World Cup in France. Amid a typically bravura piece, I spotted that he had described the Monaco midfielder John Collins as a Celtic player. Hughie’s gargantuan relief at having this minor error excised showed how seriously he took the job.

He brought that seriousness to the business of living. With Hughie, the most desultory conversation could be a bruising affair. You knew you were in a conversation in the way that, confronting certain opponents on a football pitch, you know you are in a game. The same stringent eloquence and combative logic was evident in the prose he spoke as in the prose he wrote.

There were, of course, downsides to a life lived at this pitch of intensity. Family discussions could spiral into apocalyptic flytings, with curses and denunciations ringing out with the wildness – if also the passionate eloquence – of Lear on the heath. And you were taking your life in your hands if you opted to partner Hughie at Trivial Pursuit, a board game he seemed to mistake for a blood sport.

He prepared rigorously, did his research, thought deeply about his subject. He didn’t wing it

But he was tremendously generous, too. His interest and encouragement were instrumental in my own development as a writer and academic. He had, perhaps because he never attended one, a winningly naive reverence for the selfless pursuit of knowledge as practised in universities. It was difficult to convince him that, despite leaving school at 15, he was better educated and more articulate than many of the people who ply their trade in academia.

He also had a wider skill set. When called on, he could be handy with his fists. And where drink was concerned, his staying power and resilience were legendary. I remember one night in Glasgow, around the time when the Only a Game? documentary on Scottish football was being filmed. After a Cook’s tour of various dens and dives, we finished up in somebody’s Southside flat. I woke the next morning to a scene of carnage, with bodies sprawled across sofas and floors, to see Hughie standing alone at the breakfast bar, straight as a sentry, silk hanky still peeping from a pinstripe breast pocket, calmly sipping a screwdriver, ready for the next round.

A straitened upbringing in a Kilmarnock housing scheme had not made him materialistic – he was famously careless and open with money – but it did give him an appreciation for good things. He dressed impeccably, smoked the best cigars, savoured fine wine. When I got my first lecturing job he bought me a Montblanc pen and a beautiful leather briefcase that I carry to work every day, 20 years down the line.

To me, when our paths crossed at family gatherings, Hughie presented a peculiar compound of the familiar and the exotic. A Kilmarnockian to the soles of his feet, he was also indisputably a Londoner. With his silk ties and savoir faire, he seemed to move through more rarefied air than the rest of us. Though he deferred to my novelist father as the “heavyweight writer of the family”, he remained, in many ways, the senior figure. My father, not a man overburdened with false modesty, was anxious for Hughie’s approval to the end of his days.

In the end, what will stay with me above all is my uncle’s generosity of spirit. Though a stringent critic, and an issuer of brutally conclusive putdowns when he felt they were required (witness Messrs Bugner and Bruno), he was a great appreciator. Whether savouring a Shakespeare sonnet, or scrutinising a Messi free-kick, he retained a kind of boyish enthusiasm for the spectacle of things done well. As a man who brought his own rigorous standards to bear throughout 60 years of journalism, he was well placed to judge.  Liam McIlvanney is an award-winning crime writer

  • Hugh McIlvanney was someone I have looked up to from my earliest days in newspapers, writes Bill Heaney. We both started out in local newspapers and then joined the Scottish Daily Express in its Sixties heyday when it sold 700,000 copies a day. Both of us started in Ayr and Prestwick with Jimmy Ballantyne in the Express office at 1 Kyle Street. We used the same desks and drank in the same pub, Jimmy Hepburn’s Argyll Bar, and covered the same courts and councils. I couldn’t hold a candle to McIlvanney as a reporter, which he was to his fingertips, not “just” a sportswriter at which he was superb. I was not surprised when, with John Rafferty of The Scotsman, and in Wales for an international football match, he covered the infamous Aberfan disaster, which saw primary school children killed when they were buried and drowned in slurry from a coal bing. Hugh McIlvanney was my hero and I tried to model myself on him but, inevitably, I did not come within a dozen columns’ length of achieving what he did. Everything was the best, from what he wrote to the clothes he stood up in, that silk hankie, of course, and the way he conducted himself. I last saw him walking out of the Blythswood Hotel in Glasgow the morning after a Scotland game. He would have been 80 at the time but Hughie was so fit and smart looking he could have passed for 60.  Liam makes a reference to his uncle’s love for Frank Sinatra. Hugh McIlvanney stood tall. He was head and shoulders above the rest of us in this exhausting trade. And he did it his way.   BILL HEANEY

Leave a Reply