I enjoy Willie McIlvanney’s books, but, even more, I love listening to him speak. He has a slow, almost hesitant style which suggests thoughtfulness and reflection. Often, it prepares the way for a happy explosion of language which manages to sound grand but accessible at the same time. He gives conversation a good name.
He should have been the main character in a great Scottish novel, rather than just writing it. His attributes are those we would probably want to claim for “Scottish Man”: hard working class background, liberated by his family’s respect for education, able to inhabit the middle class world of letters without losing any of his credentials, smoking and drinking his way to a long life while cheating the nation’s health statistics. There is some kind of a connection there to a Scotland we all recognise and miss – whether it ever properly existed, or, indeed, if we were ever even remotely close to living in it. In the way his brother, Hugh, uses language to raise sport to an artistic level, Willie’s writing brings a dignity to working class family and community.
Yet there is a melancholy about him which almost brings a reassurance that, no, you can’t have it all: the films that were never made, the novels not written, the fortune that never quite materialised. In interviews you would call him resigned rather than happy, comfortable with his lot rather than victorious. How Scottish is that? “Aye, it was alright, I suppose.” There is an heroic recognition of reality, the freedom of acknowledging fate without ever quite fully accepting it.
And I thought of McIlvanney, and his world, when I read a wonderful piece by Fidelma Cook (http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/fidelma-cook-farewell-to-another-old-friend.119139929) on the loss of her former colleague and Chief Reporter, Gordon Airs, of the Daily Record.
Fidelma – once of the Record and BBC Scotland – now lives in rural France and writes a weekly column which benefits from the perspective of distant geography – in much the same way as McIlvanney reflects from the perspective of advanced age.
From the start of her cross channel move– recorded in a flurry of apprehension and concern – it was clear that her reports from La France Profonde would contain all the feisty honesty you would expect from someone shaped by Ireland, Scotland and Glasgow.
Not from her the bons mots of certainty about a life changing move to a bucolic countryside haven – rather the doubts about the future, the need to confront loneliness, the unhappiness caused by unsettling change. You would not read her prose for travel writing heaven – rather to consider the human condition – and its tendency to follow us round no matter our location.
And, in her piece on Gordon Airs, there is the same commitment to accurate reflection, as she reminisces on the life of a journalist back in the day – around three decades ago.
She is unflinching in both her descriptions and in her conclusions. Much as an elite sportsperson needs a kernel of selfishness to achieve top commitment to be the best they can be, so journalists in those days operated on a level of selfishness and focus which often proved destructive – both to themselves and those they loved and who loved them. They got the story, by hook or by crook, they worked the hours, they polished the prose, and they partied. Collateral damage was legendary and, I suppose, the only unharmed beneficiaries were the reading public.
Nobody writes the journalistic legend better than the journos themselves – from “The Front Page” through to “All the President’s Men”, from belted raincoats and slouch hats through to “Lou Grant” and “The Newsroom” – it is easy to track the telling of tales which make the professions seem glamorous and heroic. Recalling Gordon Airs, Fidelma suggests at times it was indeed as it was portrayed – as we readers like to see it portrayed – but she points out unflinchingly that it all came at a price. Through the perspective of distance shines the truth.
Just as McIlvanney evokes a wistfulness, a feeling that it all could have been better, so her account of the halcyon days of press journalism brings the sadness of loss – in an age when much of the copy in our papers appears to come from PR Agencies – but also a realisation that, as consumers, we demanded high quality journalism without caring too much about the personal cost of that requirement on the writers who provided it.
Nowadays, ultimately, the advertisers demand that the papers cover what the readers will buy, and the accountants focus on the sales demographic. That way lies celebrity coverage, compromised reporting, and the “justification” for hacking and other misdeeds. In all of this, the writing itself, the skills of journalism, and the satisfaction of shining a light on murky places struggle to survive.
Like the guy who runs beside the big parade, I have always been there or thereabouts with journalism and journalists. From an English degree onward, through a career as an English teacher, and a third age attempt at blogging and publishing, I’ve tried to define myself in some small way as a ‘writer’. Like Rod Stewart, attempting to fulfill his dreams by building a pitch in his garden and inviting famous footballers round to play with him, I have associated with journos, praised them, and enjoyed and appreciated their work. I have seen at first hand the downside of destruction to which Fidelma refers, but also shared, vicariously, their triumphs, when truth was uncovered, and injustice was rugby tackled to the ground with a well chosen turn of phrase, after months of painstaking enquiry.
In the excellent BBC Scotland film “Living with Words”, McIlvanney answers a question from a pupil thus: “ People are uncatchable in prose; we are, all of us, too various…(to be completely described)”
In essence, that was, I think, Fidelma’s message about old style jourmalism, and bygone heroes like Gordon Airs – for each description, there would be a qualification, no plus would come unaccompanied by a minus, the final judgement would always be unclear – but the project would always be worth pursuing.
In that film, McIlvanney indicates that those who claim to have “worked it all out” in life are either kidding themselves or have invented solutions. It has always been my belief that the best of journalism is aimed at helping us “work it all out”, well knowing the impossibility of success, but determined to try – and, in pursuing that aim despite that knowledge, there is a nobility and a justification for at least some of the negative moments, personally and professionally.
I don’t have a romantic or idealistic view of journalism, and like many, I have dark days when I wonder how it can survive present trends, but it still seems to me a crucial part of what humanity needs to make progress.
For that reason, I celebrate the words of Fidelma Cook, clear eyed in la France Profonde, caught between her keyboard and César the mad Afghan pup, living with words which call for thought and reflection, and sharing them bravely with those of us who value difficult truths.
And for that reason too, I am embarrassingly, pathologically, proud that my son works as a journalist, shining what light he can.
Words are the brushes for the canvas of our thoughts.