Christopher Small’s name has recurred in SR, lauded by our founder – Kenneth Roy – who, as a boy journalist on the then Glasgow Herald, knew him as a mentor. Each justly regarded the other as a paragon of utter integrity.
I met the one by way of the other, researching current and recent Scottish theatre (1970s) and remember the physically slight Chris at the old Glasgow Herald front desk in Mitchell Street. He ad-libbed an impeccably organised survey of the whole country, not least the Citizens, whose demise was still being threatened every year. In the course of a spoken masterpiece of construction, Chris apologised for his notice of the current, for once not at all bad production. Circumstance had rushed his review into print: but full, substantial, well-thought, clear, near ideal.
The recent Herald obituary cites Peter Kelly’s one-man review at the Citizens not that long after, with a line about Chris ‘at the Citz’ composing formidable ‘crits’. When Jane Cattermull, PA to the boss, Giles Havergal, spoke of journalists, she specified Chris’s rigorous attention. He didn’t let them off easily. Then she spelled out: but he was never unfair.
His widow, Margaret, says he always did his homework. If a text could be found he read the play. I was in company with Kenneth Roy some years ago and giving him news of Chris. Kenneth set to explaining to our juniors that Glasgow had once been unique: before Chris retired the city had had a drama critic at least the match of any London metropolitan.
Chris’s sometime actress mother had stagey theatrical friends, Margaret continued, people were dahling and so on. Chris seemed to react against this. Even in the 1970s, there were people with an idea of theatah and talking in that style still familiar from the period piece obsessions of TV producers. Serious or art theatre, such as warrants public subsidy, had once been the fringe of a commercial theatre such as only London now has. As contrasted with concerns mostly to fill chairs with what his much admired Stanley Baxter calls bahookies, Chris was a ‘the play’s the thing’ person.
Born and raised in England, Chris mentioned a Scottish forebear, a naval Small, a lesser Captain Bligh. Chris’s artist father and actress mother had been part of the pre-1917 British contingent in Russia, and they sent him to the ‘progressive’ Dartington Hall public school. If posh-born, he was not from a narrow background.
After one year at Oxford, he came down to await military conscription, but failed his medical, and spent three or four years with a pre-NHS Beveridge Report survey of often ‘distressed’ social conditions. Rather than return to Oxford, Chris when the survey was done, transferred to the care of William Robieson, editor of the Glasgow Herald, a pre-1914 associate with Edwin Muir and others of a gifted group around Glasgow University. John Anderson, subsequent ‘father of Australian philosophy’ was among them, and the recent research which cast light on them is Australian. There was also a Small family among these independent radicals associated with the journal The New Age, no connection with Chris Small but host to Prince Peter Kropotkin when in Blantyre researching problems of Lanarkshire miners.
Robieson sent Chris, the young journeyman journalist, recently married, as the Herald’s London correspondent from the late 1940s to 1955. Christmas Day was not a public holiday in Scotland and Chris scooped the silenced megalopolitan press after a now venerable SR contributor had brought the Stone of Destiny back to Scotland in 1950. The strong smack of Chris’s relish of the event had to be toned down for publication.
In Glasgow, Chris became a valued member of a home from home for European exiles, Abenheimer, Schorstein, Beermann, Herald reviewers with protesters against trendy Oxbridge philosophy, Slavists discussing Soviet psychology in relation to theologians’ pastoral experience. In Aberdeen, Chris’s 1973 book, Ariel like a Harpy, on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, was prominent in the reading list of a university course preparing would-be undergraduates long away from formal academic study.
I startled a German professor who had been using the Shelley book in class with the information that Chris’s assiduous footnoting and referencing signalled no senior academic but a longtime critic and editor. In retirement, Chris was appointed to a lectureship by the University of Strathclyde; where one lecture gave Donald Gordon, head of the philosophy section, what he termed a high point of his own too long academic career. And then there is Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis:
‘…concluding his…review of the 1973 production of the play, the Scottish [sic: hoorah!] critic Christopher Small reflects that “even while taking most of the real life out of Lindsay” the play remains tantalisingly close to rediscovery. Indeed, he suggests that [Bill] Bryden’s perceived failure “puts an end, perhaps, to revivals of [Lindsay’s] masterpiece as a fancy-dress affair, a parade of historical finery”. (Adrienne Scullion, Literature and the Scottish Reformation, 2009).
Chris contrasted that show with Jimmy Arnott’s ‘magnificent’ 1969 Glasgow University production of the same work. From what she says elsewhere, Ms Scullion seems like some people in the early 1970s to have been taken in by a plot to create a Scottish National Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre. Public funds ran out and it sank, unlike respect for Christopher Small.
I last rang Chris about Gillean Somerville-Arjat’s recent SR notice of the one day event on Joan Ure, an author he championed, and whose literary executor he was until a couple of years ago. I sent a copy of Gillean’s piece to Professor Angeletti, in Bologna, who too soon after broke the news to me of Chris’s demise. He had seemed fine a fortnight earlier, but when I rang him again it seemed to be nothing very serious (he was well looked after, he assured me, by his devoted loving wife of 74 years and their three daughters).
When Chris and Margaret a couple of years back made their hitherto Edinburgh pied-à-terre their primary residence, neighbours of their Lismore cottage missed the bounty from the vegetable garden that Chris cultivated magnificently.
All photos kindly provided to The Scottish Review by Margaret Small