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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 70 - Long-forgotten newshawk days

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.

When 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.

The 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.

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