BOOKS: Already, Too Late – Carl MacDougall’s boyhood memoir

Already, Too Late – a boyhood memoir by Carl MacDougall.

By Bill Heaney

I didn’t hear that Carl McDougall had sadly died. I knew him before he was famous, which is something Carl himself never believed he would be. Nor did that thought ever cross my mind, although he was obviously clever and extremely talented. He was just a nice guy.

Carl was a copy taker on the Scottish Daily Express when I was a copy boy and later a reporter on the news desk of what was then Scotland’s largest newspaper, selling more than 700,000 copies a day.

He worked alongside people such as Dave Peters and Frank Allison typing up stories that were dictated to them from public telephone boxes across Scotland and abroad. There were no mobile phones or laptops in those days.

It was a stressful business with reporters trying to read their shorthand notes from an often rain-soaked notebook and a copy taker pounding it out on a battered typewriter with a news editor looking over his shoulder urging him to get on with it to meet a looming deadline.

Some copy takers were fractious individuals. Some reporters were hard to live with. Some were drunk. I remember one who took over the phone from his footless colleague on a rival newspaper and dictated the story for him. Newspapers reflected the slogan of one of them now lost in time: “All human life is here.”

Carl, however, was someone who kept his cool and was helpful to the young guys like me with their grammar and spelling. He kept us out of trouble with the sub editors, who looked down on reporters.

They believed we were no more than hooligans who could write. Guys who had their foot in the door until they got the quote or collect picture the news editor had demanded. They had to keep knocking until people gave in.

It was no life for the faint-hearted, unlike today when reporters are fed quotes by spin doctors and they are the ones who have been relegated to the role of typists.  I expect Carl will have referred to this in his memoir, which is set for release in September. It should be a really good read.

It was an item in The Oban Times at the weekend that alerted me to Carl’s passing. It took me back years and made me feel really sad since most of my contemporaries are gone or waiting in the departure lounge.

It said that before his death in April, MacDougall – who was one of Scotland’s most acclaimed writers with three prize-winning novels under his belt – had finished working on Already, Too Late.

The original idea for the book was that it would be a novel drawing on his own experiences of growing-up in post-war Scotland but he came to the understanding that really what he was writing was in fact a boyhood memoir.

“I just don’t think it would have worked for me as a novel. I couldn’t think of any character who would be as interesting as me,” was MacDougall’s reason for it.

This memoir takes us through his upbringing, both in and out of care on the West Coast, Fife and industrial Glasgow during the first decade of his life using a powerful mosaic of stories.

Oban has a part to play, visits to Ganavan beach and to his grandparents house in Miller Road where his father was raised.

Trauma roams free in this memoir and tragedy comes calling more than once.

The details of MacDougall’s childhood and the challenges he faced as a boy have never been widely known until being revealed in this book.

Sir Billy Connolly has praised MacDougall as a hero of his and a great storyteller.

As well as being a novelist, Carl produced four collections of short stories, two works of non-fiction, edited four anthologies, and held many posts as writer-in-residence in Scotland and England.

Carl MacDougall also presented two major TV series for the BBC and co-wrote Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice, a parody of the song Virgin Mary had a Little Baby that was adapted and popularised on the folk scene by Hamish Imlach.

Published by Luath Press based in Edinburgh, Already, Too Late comes out in paperback on Tuesday September 12 and should be available on line and in all good bookshops.


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