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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 47 - A giant of the word written under the stress of cataclysmic events


PLAY back video recordings of recent Iraq hostilities and see scenes of shot, shell and red-hot reporting by the coalitionís embedded war correspondents and free-range reporters, lucky enough to escape death or injury by so-called "friendly fire".

They dodge shells under our eyes, bullets snick past them and they are sweat-stained, battle-begrimed and some look, even at base camp, as if they had been beaten up in an airless cell of an Afghan prison.

How different from the appearance of Bill Deedes, the Daily Telegraph columnist who went to cover the 1936 Ethiopia-Italy war for the Morning Post, dressed in a double-breasted, pin-striped suit, Trilby hat and carrying a raincoat. He did have a khaki-drill outfit, sola topi, and doubtless, sticks, specially cleft, for native runners.

Different, too, was the approach to Henry Morton Stanley by the New York Herald proprietor, James Gordon Bennett, "I want you to attend the opening of the Suez Canal, then proceed up the Nile. Send us detailed descriptions of everything likely to interest American tourists. Then go to Jerusalem, Constantinople, the Crimea, through Persia as far as India. Afterwards, you can start looking around for Livingstone."

I was privileged to meet one of those giants of the word written under the stress of battle and cataclysmic political events, who had no television exposure but whose dispatches for Reuters earned him the reputation of being among the most quoted correspondents of the Second World War, and one of the fastest reporters in the business.

He was Doon Campbell, who has died, aged 83, and who was, in effect, out of the Scotsman Publications stable, serving for some time in the Evening Dispatch as a reporter, after starting on the Linlithgowshire Gazette and West Lothian Courier.

A son of the manse, Doon was born in Annan in 1920 with only one hand. Later, he wore a wooden left hand, always covered in a glove. Before his first war assignment for Reuters he had all his teeth extracted lest he suffered toothache at some dentist-free front and replaced them with dentures in an act of single-minded dedication to the daily grind.

I met him on his occasional war-time visits to the Dispatch when he chatted to aspiring journalists like myself who saw him in an heroic light, a man who could write impeccable shorthand and flawless English while civilisation tottered.

His first local triumph was after the German bomber raid on the Forth Bridge and Rosyth in October 1939 when he cycled six miles from his Broxburn office to South Queensferry, interviewed local residents and while binocular-using newshawks were sweeping the skies for swastika-marked planes, phoned his story to the national papers.

He started at Reuters in Fleet Street as a sub-editor in 1943, where, with a mind unclouded by knowledge of the subject, became science correspondent. His first war assignment was to Italy where he covered the controversial bombing of Cassino monastery - "Cassino disappeared under the greatest frontline air blitz in history."

Among near-death brushes was his D-Day experience when he landed in France with Lord Lovatís Commandos. Staggering with his heavy correspondentís pack through the dead and dying from the beach, he found a sheltering ditch. His typewriter keys became so clogged with shell-spattered mud that he scribbled his story on an exercise book page, datelining it, "A Ditch 200 yards inside Normandy", and paying a naval officer £5 to dispatch it to Reuters. At the warís end, he covered Far East stories and secured the now-legendary, seven-minute lead over agency rivals on Gandhiís assassination.

Following spells in the Middle East and Paris, Doon returned home where he married Mary Toms, with whom he had two sons, and spent some years in Paris. On his wifeís death in 1995, he linked up again with his former fiancee, the charming Pat Cameron, who, after 50 years, still looked after his war correspondentís badge and cuttings.

Now a Reuters editor, he became one of three deputy general managers but afterwards, in office changes, found himself increasingly on the executive periphery and retired after 30 yearsí service.

Doon was fearless, not given to sensationalism or to James Thurberís dictum, "Donít get it right, get it written." His passing is a loss to British journalism, often perceived, in some organs at least, to be regrettably lacking in such virtues.


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