READERS of Marcel Proust will
recall that, in his novel, Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator
described long-forgotten childhood memories evoked by the taste of a
Madeleine cake. I had similar evocations when I read our recent obituary
of Billy Munro, an esteemed colleague with whom I had borne 2B pencils and
notepads to produce voluminous reportage on the General Assembly of the
Church of Scotland, the Convention of Royal Burghs, and, because we were
versatile, the annual show of some local canary club.
When I was a
boy, my ambition to become a reporter was stimulated by Hollywood films
featuring newshawks righting wrongs, dictating headlines and stories over
the phone, and dashing into the office, shouting, as one bringing the good
news from Ghent to Aix, "Hold the front page".
They were hard-biting,
quick-writing, news-seeking warriors with printerís ink in their
chromosomes, spasmodic fags on lips and colourful cliches in their
staccato copy. Some, however, were too ready to follow James Thurberís
quote, "Donít get it right; get it written."
Billy, a first-class reporter of
flinty integrity, impeccable shorthand and unswerving journalistic
accuracy, was, in appearance and behaviour, unlike these poorly-tailored,
chain-smoking, filmic searchers for the sensational. Tall, spare,
bespectacled, with a proconsular forehead, he was almost invariably
immaculate in a well-cut suit - his colleagues were also well-turned out -
suggesting that The Scotsman was not only a paper of well-textured
authority, but also of sartorial taste.
In films about crusading,
Bourbon-downing journalists, newsrooms were enclaves of deadline-driven
turbulence. Phones - invariably the old, black, daffodil type - rang
incessantly, copyboys, festooned with proofs, lived, like the infant Moses
in a series of rushes, and typewriters rattled like erratic Maxim guns.
I joined The Scotsman in 1954, the reportersí room, situated in the
perpetually electrically-lit viscera of the old North Bridge building,
resembled, in its quietness and orderliness, a monasteryís scriptorium
although phones rang and there were typewriters, the keys of which uprose
like striking tarantulas and hit the page with heavy, doom-laden clacks.
Some older reporters, however, still suspicious of such technology,
preferred to write their reports in elegant copperplate hand.
sub-editorsí room was equally composed, with many subs wearing traditional
green eyeshades and cuff-protectors, including one cosy in carpet
slippers. The cerebral silence was broken only by low-pitched operational
orders, muttered maledictions of subs over reportersí sins of omission or
commission and the spiked thwack of some writerís ego being punctured.
Unlike its sister paper, the Evening Dispatch, which reacted to events
like a panting puppy released from its lead, The Scotsmanís editorial
departments displayed an admirable calm under news-gathering stress, born
of journalistic expertise that efficiently dealt with all the convulsions
of the human spirit from far-flung riots and revolutions to drunk and
disorderly practices in Edinburgh streets.
Billy was among other
distinguished journalists such as the lofty in mind and height, Charles
Graves, the drama critic, who, from his mien, might have made another
career in Shakespearean roles, Frank Moran, the widely-acclaimed golf
correspondent, the witty and erudite Wilfred Taylor, as well as the only
woman writer, Elsie Adam.
Memories of Billy also evoked the extraordinary case
of the disappearing royal lagers. On an assignment to Greenland, he so
impressed the visiting King of Denmark with his editorial bearing and
journalistic skills that the monarch sent him, every year, a 24-bottlesí
crate of special Tuborg lager. Billy kept each case unopened for months
beside his desk before taking it home, thus presenting a perpetual
temptation to the staffís wilder spirits.
On 1964 General Election night,
with Billy on an out-of-office assignment, certain staff members,
including, if I remember aright, the religious correspondent, perhaps
unhinged by an excess of canteen coffee, broached the case and
enthusiastically drained its contents.
Next day, the
conscience-stricken reporters, seeing Billy surveying the detritus, like a
Carthage citizen among the ruins, offered him a bottle of sweet Cyprus
sherry in exchange. Billyís sense of humour was, on that occasion,
essentially dry and he took care to remove subsequent cases promptly. As a
true gentleman of the Press, however, he forgave them. It was a pleasure
and a privilege to have worked with him.