A chiel amongst us takin’ notes

By Bill Heaney

AYRSHIREJOURNEYI spent the last couple of days in Ayr last week in the wake of the annual birthday celebrations for Rabbie Burns, the national bard.

And the death of Kilmarnock-born Hugh McIlvanney, the greatest sportswriter of the modern era.

I was in the Sheriff Court listening to a dispute between a smallholder and a businessman about an allegedly unpaid debt.

Since the case is still to be disposed of, I will leave the details of that alone lest I tread on the toes of the Sheriff who is dealing with this troubling matter.

I was impressed by the Sheriff’s common touch and even more impressed afterwards when I googled him to discovered the remarkable fact that he had once been the lead guitar player in a rock band.

There are not many of them about.

No be-wigged, overbearing public schoolboy this man with a posh accent parading his knowledge of Scots law before perceived lesser mortals from an elevated bench above the well of the court.

The final witness in the case also impressed me. He was a portly, balding wee man who spoke with the bluff Ayrshire/South Lanarkshire accent we have come to associate with farmers from that part of the world.

“I have been in business for 50 years,” he told the Sheriff, “and I have never been inside a court in my puff.”

The Sheriff and most of the rest of us in the court – there were no more than a handful of people in the public benches – smiled and took to this witness immediately.

It was when he said he was 73 years old that I was startled. He was hale and hearty, still working and proud of it.

The witness was the same age as myself, although I have portrayed and perceived myself for years now as 35 years of age looking out and 95 looking in.

And I feel I have much still to offer in my own trade as a journalist.

My own unremarkable career started more than 50 years ago in the Ayr of Burns Statue Square, the imposing Station Hotel and a busy High Street, full of shops and pubs (the taxi driver reminded me there had been 14 pubs there at one time and now only one, inevitably named the Tam O’Shanter, remained).

Ayr had gone from the horses to the dogs.

I loved Ayr. It was the county town with a prosperous southern farming and agricultural hinterland; thriving fishing communities and tiny harbours along its western shore; coal mining pits; heavy engineering factories; BMK Carpets and Johnny Walker’s whisky distillery to the north and east.

Ayr itself really was a “Toon o’ Honest Men and Bonnie Lasses”, especially for me the latter who were supplemented by the many beautiful young women who made up the cabin crews of the planes, which, in those days, flew in and out of Prestwick international airport carrying world famous celebrities from politics and show business, such as President Dwight D Eisenhower, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

These people were newsworthy merely by their presence – albeit often all too brief presence – in Scotland.

All human life was there, from Ayr Racecourse to the keeps and castles and the toffs who occupied them and owned and trained the thoroughbreds.

And Troon and Turnberry had the best golf courses in the world, where Hogan, Palmer and Peter Thomson strutted their stuff over hallowed links to win the coveted claret jug that went with the Open Championship.

I wasn’t big on Burns though, despite the fact that my father had won the prize for the best recitation of the Bard’s poetry at West Bridgend Primary School in Dumbarton in 1932.

Literary brothers, William (left) and Hugh McIlvanney.

McIlvanney however was my hero. If there was anyone whose achievements I wanted to emulate they were his.

Hugh McIlvanney has started out in journalism at the age of 15 in the Kilmarnock Standard office and quickly moved on from there to the Scottish Daily Express in Ayr.

The Express had five editions in those days and offices in all the airts and pairts of Scotland.

Newspapers were highly respected and extremely successful and I was proud to have been allocated by James Ballantyne, the chief reporter, the desk occupied by Hugh McIlvanney.

He had sat there ten years before I stepped off the bus from Waterloo Street to Prestwick to move into digs and take up my post as one of the two junior reporters in the Express office at 1 Kyle Street.

McIlvanney was a legend even then. He quickly gained his reputation as a reporter within a few months at the Express in both Glasgow and Ayr and was head-hunted by The Scotsman in Edinburgh, where he became a colleague of that other great Scottish sportswriter, John Rafferty.

Little did either of them expect then that when they were sent on an assignment to Wales to cover an international football match they would be swiftly re-directed by their news desks to cover the great tragedy that was the unfolding Aberfan disaster.

Accomplished professionals to their fingertips, their reporting outshone the work of Fleet Street’s finest who eventually descended on the scene of that historic tragedy.

Gerry Hassan, writing today in the Scottish Review, says the obituaries for McIlvanney over the weekend spoke volumes for the influence of the man, his writing and his humanity.

He wrote: “In amidst the powerful testimony of McIlvanney’ s prose and his care for detail, accuracy and the semi-colon, was a discernible lament for the passing of a now lost world.

“This centred on numerous areas: a golden age of journalism and long-form essays; a time when writers could get access to some of the greats and then get unguarded copy free from the constraints of PR advisers; and an age of working-class self-education and advancement without forgetting who you were and what was important.”

Hassan points out the fact that McIlvanney, unlike his novelist brother, William, went to junior secondary school and did not have a university education.

He added: “There is, in the fulsome tributes, an awareness that McIlvanney’s death, along with brother Willie in 2015, marks the final denouement of a past Scotland.

“This is a land in which working-class communities, through education and the social challenges people faced, created men and women with strength, purpose and a wider sense of responsibility.

“There is also the death of a certain kind of Scottish man.

“McIlvanney possessed an inner authority, certainty and moral compass – all of which informed his view of the world.

“He shared this with the likes of Jimmy Reid – communitarian, believing in solidarity, and being contemptuous of those who forgot their roots and the values which helped create them.”

Hassan writes: “This is how far we have fallen across Britain: arrogant, not that bright, nearly always privately-educated Oxbridge men are happy to dominate public life, with the media sounding off with an effortless belief in their self-importance on subjects they know little about.

“Brexit has been nirvana to such types, but it has been a long time brewing and is far removed from the deeply considered and reflective views and writing of the McIlvanneys.

“They had a quiet sense of who they were, and the responsibilities and expectations which came with being a public figure who had influence. They knew that their words mattered.

“They were driven by an understanding of right and wrong, in believing some things were just immoral and unethical such as stigmatising and demonising poor people, and felt there was no way this could be excused no matter which party was doing it.”

Hassan writes that the only other Scottish journalist to come close to McIlvanney was the late Ian Bell in the Herald. You may or may not agree with that.

He adds: “But if Hugh was, in the words of [his nephew] Liam, ‘the last of the big land animals’, this shows the long descent in Scottish journalism and intellectual life.

“Who are our moral guardians and guides today who will reflect back to us the collective stories we want to tell and ask us if that – in all honesty – is really us?

“There are voices who can speak to the public mood on a single issue, or for a fleeting moment, but perhaps voices such as Hugh McIlvanney are no longer possible.

“Where are those much-needed qualities in our public life? How do we encourage them to grow in, or return, to Scotland?

“Hugh, along with his brother, lifted us up. They took us to a higher plane where it was possible to discern the huge emotional, moral and philosophical issues that humanity faced. This has a particular Scottish story – but is a universal one.

“Look around the world. Look close to home. Look at your home town, your neighbourhood and your street. We owe it to Hugh and Willie and countless other brilliant working-class voices and talents of the past and present not to be quiet and to dare to point out the inadequacies and moral bankruptcies of so much of modern life.

“Daring to say enough is enough, in the corridors of power and polite society at home, and further afield. Now that would be a fitting tribute to Hugh and Willie, and one I am sure they would appreciate.”

Hassan’s tribute is a fine one, but I do not agree with his conclusions about this being the end of an era.

I agree that newspapers are on their deathbed and I fear they will never be revitalised.

That is entirely different, however, from journalism being in the departure lounge, waiting to die.

We haven’t gone away you know.

There are still reporters around who are not prepared to cross over to the dark side and take the PR industry’s shilling.

The “golden age of journalism and long-form essays; a time when writers could get access to some of the greats and then get unguarded copy free from the constraints of PR advisers” may well be almost gone.

And so too “the age of working-class self-education and advancement without forgetting who you were and what was important.”

There are still some of us in this mostly honourable trade who are striving to shake off the shackles of an increasingly secret Scotland.

To hold the Scottish government at every level to its commitment to open-ness and transparency.

The establishment is colluding in the demise of newspapers and redundancies of journalists. They are taking advantage of their training and skills and luring journalists into the halfway house of public relations.

Councils and the Scottish Government have ruined Scotland’s weekly and regional newspaper industry by withdrawing their lifeblood of advertising.

They have switched important public notices to websites, despite the fact that little more than 50 per cent of the population have access to them.

Their leisure and lifestyle ads go into “lite” glossy magazines which never criticise them.

They have turned to producing their own propaganda departments staffed with spin doctors who produce in-house newspapers and pamphlets in the manner of Pravda and the official newspapers of the Communist Party.

They cost council taxpayers unconscionable amounts of money. Here in poor-mouthed and cash-strapped West Dunbartonshire that amounts to around £400,000 a year.

It involves not co-operating with or answering legitimate questions from bona fide journalists whose publications are not members of IPSO, a virtually unknown organisation, which replaced the lame duck Press Council in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

The Scottish Government, of which the SNP has been in control over the past ten years, sees no problem endorsing The National or the SNP’s online propaganda vehicle, Wings Over Scotland.

It refuses however to adhere to long-standing custom and practice, which is to answer questions and e-mail media releases to The Democrat, which is independent of any political party.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was amongst the great and the good who came out to pay tribute to Hugh McIlvanney as one of the working-class voices and talents who refused to be quiet and dared to point out the inadequacies of politicians and business people and the “moral bankruptcies of so much of modern life”.

What is currently happening with the SNP’s boycotting and banning of The Democrat in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute (the SNP MP only and not the Council) is part of that moral bankruptcy.

But let Nicola Sturgeon and the Docherty-Hughes’s, O’Hara’s and McColl’s of this world be assured that The Democrat will not be gagged.

We will continue to even-handedly report and investigate the failures and inadequacies of local and national politics no matter what unworthy and illegal sanctions they take against us.

Otherwise, how would the councillors and officials and most importantly, the electorate, in the words of the poet Robert Burns, ever be able to see themselves as others see them?


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