ONCE, in the dear, dead days
almost beyond even my recall, The Scotsman printed posters of its new
columnist who, the newspaper predicted, would mould the minds of the
western world. It showed me with a grin meant to be authoritatively
reassuring but which, one reader observed, gave me the glare of a
One poster, pasted prominently in Waverley Station,
had a startling effect on unsuspecting travellers. Visitors may not have
raced for returning trains but, station officials told me, some had
expressed concern about meeting a possible candidate for a Police Gazette
photograph likely to cudgel them with informed comment. The posters were
soon re-moved, but came to my mind like a long-forgotten dream the other
day. Great editorial heavens, was it that time already? My column, I
realised, was 35 years old and it seemed only the day before yesterday
when it was offered to me, as one would hand over a caber, and caused my
mindís knees to buckle.
In 1970, Alastair Dunnett, the then editor,
summoned me to his room where I found him at a window gazing pensively at
the North Bridge; editors earn their money easily.
portentous tones, as one announcing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
under starterís orders at the Grand National, he said: "Albert, Iím
offering you a column with thirty bob (£1:50) a week expenses and all the
tripe you can write." It was an offer I couldnít refuse and although my
expenses increased, I have stuck rigidly to the spirit and practice of the
offerís last part.
ALASTAIR indicated he wanted my then
five-days-a-week column to be grave but gay (in the old sense), pungent
but subtle, learned but light rather like a cross between the styles of
the French essayist Montaigne and the music-hall comedian, Max Miller.
Readers can judge whether I succeeded.
One columnar midnight, when
Alastair saw me at the typewriter, prose-purpling on a real wham-bang
mind-moulder about my toothbrushís place in Einsteinís Theory of
Relativity, he said in the demotic,"Ease up laddie or yeíll bust yer biler",
an adjuration I accepted gratefully.
I came to column writing
because I shared with pickpockets the reputation of having "a light touch"
after I had covered, as a reporter, the hilarious John oí Groats to Landís
End Billy Butlin Walk, one of many sponsored treks in the early 1960s.
Butlins resembled a Dark Agesí race migration with eccentric participants
including chorus girls, stockbrokers in London city garb, food faddists on
exotic diets laced with tonic swamp water, adherents of conflicting
philosophical concepts, arguing on the march in a manner suggesting
12th-century theological squabbles and, it was rumoured, Butlins officials
watching for lift-hitching walkers, disguised as trees. Unfortunately, the
"light touch" appellation hung heavily on me, causing the news editor to
bellow, "Morris, stand by to do a ha-ha piece on manhole covers" or, "See
if you can get a laugh about white fish landings at Aberdeen".
I shared the tensions of columnar occupation with that suffering saint,
Simeon the Stylite, who spent much of his life on top of a pillar, I
rejoiced to have space in which to choose subjects that might bring even
the ghost of a fleeting smile to the visage of Caledonia, stern and wild.
SINCE my first 1970 column, I have produced a trackless desert of print,
touching on subjects from the expansion of the Turkish fleet (1890-1914)
to my early struggles against dandruff.
Most readersí letters have
been complimentary, but some indicated rage incandescence, including one
from a Border minister who, because of some editorial sin of mine
(omission or commission), threatened to come to Edinburgh and personally
denounce me. Another reader suggested that I should be horsewhipped.
Touched and gratified by such missives; I felt the column had come of age.
have always approved of destinyís uncannily apt choice of my ultimate
career. For me, writing a column has been a pleasure - I hope, for
readers, at least an occasional laugh - not to say a profit and to write
for a great paper like The Scotsman has been a privilege.
my last column, written with regret but some relief. Itís been a long
sentence and I want time off for good behaviour. I thank the editor and
previous ones for putting up with me for so long, the skilled sub-editors
for carefully nipping, tucking and hem-stitching my mantle of greatness
into shape, the office library staff for their cheerful and never-failing
help and my supportive readers.
I have tidied this space for
the next occupant and wish - whoever it is - good luck. I have removed
some spent transitive verbs, loose litotes and heaps of bitter-sweet
oxymoron. Iíll just switch off the light. Thatís it. Farewell.