BOOKS: GLASGOW’S MAN OF LETTERS

Author and ex-Herald Diary writer Tom Shields shows us his Glasgow

Sharing a joke with Kathleen, the barmaid at Wintergills.

By Tom Shields

My family are from the Gorbals but I cannot claim this famous location as my birthplace. I was born in Househillwood, part of Pollok, one of the vast housing schemes created when Glasgow carried out its city centre clearances. Removed from their homelands, Glaswegians grew up in distant reservations. This may explain my empathy with Native Americans.

I fell into journalism because I couldn’t think of anything more interesting to do. My first effort in the genre was a handwritten, samizdat (posh word for unofficial and unauthorised) newsletter at Bellarmine Secondary School in the early 1960s. It was called Telstar after a top ten hit by the Tornados about the world’s first communications satellite. The lead story in the first (and final) edition made claims about the marital status of the school janitor’s parents. We were hinting, not too subtly, that he was a bit of a bastard.

The Telstar circulation was low but not low enough to escape the attention of the headmaster. Corporal punishment was handed out and a banning order issued. I resorted to including subversion and humour into my school compositions, which was not, even then, a beltable offence. My inspirational history teacher – Bob Crampsey, the legendary writer, broadcaster, and Brain of Britain – advised me to ‘leave the jokes to PG Wodehouse and JD Salinger’. I treasure this as my first literary compliment.

At Strathclyde University I spent more time writing for the student newspaper and magazine than I did studying engineering and mathematics (why I had not chosen to study journalism remains the great mystery of my life). I wrote a diary column in the Strathclyde Telegraph and learnt valuable lessons on how best to cause controversy and fall foul of the authorities.

After an invaluable apprenticeship at the Sunday Post, I was lucky enough to find employment at the Glasgow Herald. Serious journalism was never my strong point. I was always attracted to the surreal and humorous aspects of life. Anecdote rather than reportage was my style, which critics have kindly referred to as quirky and not just peculiar.

I eventually became the incumbent of the Herald Diary. This forum extends away back to the early 19th century under the editorship of Samuel Hunter. More recent Diary writers included William Hunter, one of the best Herald writers ever, Colm Brogan, and Murray Ritchie. Not that I include myself in this impressive lineage. My efforts were ever more couthy and irreverent.

Herald Diary writer was the best job in newspapers. Gathering material required my attendance at many and varied events. I had to follow the Scottish football team with the Tartan Army in the days when we used to qualify for the World Cup finals.

The Scottish diehard fans had a tremendous knack for getting into tricky situations. On a qualifying match trip to Lithuania, I interviewed a supporter on what happened when he ignored advice not to take a lift from locals, especially skinhead neo-Nazis. So, he found himself driven out of town to a forest where he was beaten up and stripped of his Scotland top and sporran with his money. He managed to break free and ran through the wolf-infested woodland pursued by skinheads but, thankfully, not wolves. He swam to safety across a fastflowing river clad only in his kilt and Doc Marten boots. When I asked him about his ordeal he said: ‘Och, these things happen.’

It was something similar with Scotland’s encounters in the world of rugby. It’s a sport which remains a mystery to me but the accompanying entertainment was of a high standard. A trip with Cartha Queen’s Park rugby club to fraternise with a team in Tredegar in the Welsh valleys remains unforgettable. I had never before stayed in a hotel where the night porter was an Alsatian dog. I had not realised how adept Scots rugby people are at getting away with outrageous behaviour.

When Irvine welcomed their French counterpart rugby side from Aigues-Mortes in the Camargue on the weekend of a Scotland-France match at Murrayfield, I was privileged to attend the ensuing celebrations in the Ayrshire clubhouse. The highlight was a competition called La Danse des Trous du Cul Enflammés (Dance of the Flaming Erseholes in Ayrshire-speak). This involved inserting a rolled-up newspaper into the nether region and setting fire to it. The winner was the last person to extract the rectal inferno.

There were more sedate visits to Open golf tournaments and Wimbledon. Cultural events not to be missed included the Edinburgh Festival, the Gaelic Mod, and Glasgow’s sadly missed Mayfest. Annual party conferences, especially in exotic Blackpool, had to be attended to keep an eye on what the politicians were up to. Neil Kinnock may not have been the greatest Labour leader but he was a scintillating raconteur in the bar of an evening.

I interviewed the actor who played Compo in Last of the Summer Wine (a Labour fellow-traveller) after following him

“I interviewed the actor who played Compo in Last of the Summer Wine after following him into the lavatory. He was very nice about this unusual practice. Some people were not too happy about my coverage and I had to be protected once from a couple of irate Glasgow trade unionists by a lady delegate from Save the Children.

I was allowed to accompany a party of members of the European Parliament on a trip around the west of Scotland. My report included a comment by a German MEP who in a previous life had been a Luftwaffe pilot. Asked if he had visited Scotland before, he said: ‘Yes, but never before have I seen it from this level.’ A Scottish MEP wrote a letter to the editor taking issue with what the writer called my ‘impressionist school of journalism’. Another compliment I cherish.

Basically, there were few occasions left unvisited by the Herald Diary, especially if it involved a lunch, a sausage roll or a glass of something. It was said, and I cannot deny it, that the Diary would attend the opening of an envelope.

Much of my time was spent in public houses meeting contacts in the necessary pursuit of stories. I am still contemplating legal action against The Herald. The proprietors must have known by looking at my expense sheets how much damage I was doing to my health on behalf of the newspaper.

In 2002 I left the Herald Diary to go and work for the Sunday Herald, a new and vibrant kid on the newspaper block. I was able to write longer articles, many about my love of football. The editor also thought it was a great idea that I should write a lot of stuff from Barcelona where I had recently bought a small flat.

I had a happy return to the daily Herald for a few years to write a small, cantankerous and off-the-wall column totally contradicting the august articles above on the leader page. I worked on that for a year or two before I gave up journalism. I gave up not for any lack of enthusiasm. The collapse of the newspaper economy in the online era meant the money on offer was not a sufficient incentive to continue. I retired to my sofa to read books and catch up with movies and TV series I should have watched in all those years when I was in the pub being a journalist.

I returned to the tools a year ago when I got the chance to fulfil a dream of writing a book about my home city. German publishers Emons asked me to be the author of 111 Places in Glasgow You Shouldn’t Miss.

It is part of their series of 250 books all over the world which are more than just a tourist guide. Local writers are commissioned to talk about the lesser known places with stories about the people who made these cities. Best of all, they insisted I write the Glasgow book in the style I used to write the Herald Diary.

I may be biased but it is a beautifully produced book with lovely photographs. It is packed with detail and stories either I did not know or had forgotten.

The 111 places in Glasgow book is about the modern city but laced with history and personal memories as I wandered about looking through a rear-view mirror remembering tramcars, boats on the Broomielaw, but mostly my own family, immigrants from Ireland and refugees from Highland and Island clearances, who made me a Glaswegian. And immensely proud to be so.

This review by Tom Shields first appeared in the Scottish Field in 2018, but no way is it dated. 111 Places in Glasgow You Shouldn’t Miss by TOM SHIELDS is published by Emons and would make an excellent present for someone this Christmas. It’s available at good bookshops and on-line.

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