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A fair way with words

December 28, 2014

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Long before the invention of mobile phones, I suffered from a distraction beside me on the front seat of the car on the way to work each Monday morning.

As I fretted about the week ahead, its challenges and demands, I knew I could be fortified to face all of life’s travails if I could just get a chance to read Ian Wood’s weekly Scotsman column. Sometimes just the headline was enough to bring a wry smile; invariably the content would generate laughter – and, regularly, all manner of reflection. So its presence in the newspaper lying beside me was always a temptation.

For over quarter of a century, I knew that Ian Wood’s words had the power to change my week – for, armed with that dry wit and lugubrious sense of the vicissitudes of fate – be it on the golf course or in supporting Hibs – the world seemed a better place, its misfortunes to be laughed at, or greeted with a knowing smile, rather than anger or misery.

I am not a golf aficionado, but Ian’s writing on golf – whether seriously in reporting on major championships and golfing heroes, or with desperate comedy in his accounts of his own efforts with the clubs, was required reading. Any sportsman – at any level – would recognise the awful comic despair that comes with deluded attempts to match the skills of one’s heroes, or sometimes simply just to play the game to any level of competence.

When he wrote of football, it was often about his beloved Hibs. Like most of us who share that affliction, he was regularly tempted to look back to the hey days of the Famous Five and Turnbull’s Tornadoes – yet he never let his almost weekly disappointments make him bitter; rather he evinced a comical resignation, as if he expected the sporting fates to take the mickey by providing decades of mediocrity to follow brief interludes of genius.

He was once chief speaker at our cricket club dinner. I looked forward to it for weeks, nervously hoping that, in person, he would live up to the twinkling brilliance of his persona on the page. I needn’t have worried. Without any of the after dinner speaker’s normal battery of tricks, he spoke quietly and comically about his world of sport. I laughed so hard I thought I might be sick.

When I approached him afterwards to thank him for the speech and all of his pieces over the years, his reaction, typically, was one of benign bewilderment that I should have read them all and found them funny; as he might have said, he was like a man who had chipped into the hole out of a bunker when he had only been hoping to avoid a sore wrist. His humility matched his genius and was hugely becoming.

Indeed, he wrote about his self effacing nature in a Scotsman piece bemoaning his inability to draw attention to himself:

“I belong to a wimpish strain which can only function behind a screen of complete anonymity. Ian Poulter’s trousers, for instance, fill me with dread. The very thought of pottering on to a tee wearing such trousers brings me out in a cold sweat.”

His style of self deprecating humour and bewildered confusion at the state of the world in general, and sport in particular, was as witty as it was manufactured. He was a great sports editor with a keen understanding of many sports and, indeed, of people and their peculiarities. It was this understanding and empathy, contained in his writing, which made his wit so very effective and memorable. Perhaps, it was a unique combination of passion for sport matched with compassion for those who play and follow it, which made him wildly funny but never cruel – except, perhaps, at his own expense.

As a teacher of English, and an aspirant writer, his use of language, and his ability to find a different take on life and sport, both inspired and cheered me. I don’t think I ever write about sport without seeing him in my mind’s eye, and wishing I could even remotely approach his style and impact.

I have long missed his columns, and now we will miss the man who created them. As a Roger McGough poem once memorably said, in another context: “Words? He could almost make them speak.”

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but how blessed we were to be exposed for so long to the dry wit and knowledgeable, self deprecating, talent of Ian Wood.

He would probably have been expecting to find himself in some celestial bunker, but my betting is he’s already hit the middle of the heavenly green, shaking his head in wry disbelief.

I don’t know if anyone will make me laugh quite as much again.

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