Come to think of it, I am writing a kind of ghost story, a story of a departed spirit, a Scottish weekly that lived and died in the 1930s, leaving me its only mourner, perhaps the only believer in its existence.
The Scots Observer was born in 1926, edited by William Power, a good and respected writer. It was not owned or controlled by the Presbyterian churches, but it existed for them, expressed their views and told of their doings. And nobody had been in the church’s eye for 40 years before it was born.
And the name, the Scots Observer, where did it come from? I have a notion, but nothing firmer, that there had been a Scots Observer, briefly, at the end of the 19th century, and that Robert Louis Stevenson, and his friend W E Henley, had a hand in it. This may be pure fantasy, but a challenge to some deep delver.
I came into the Scots Observer – hereinafter the SO – when it was about to transform itself from – let me use the most offensive language at my call – a toadie of the Presbyterians, and to become a shining prince, devoted to the encouragement of Scottish writers of the younger sort, many of them coming back to Scotland after years abroad, and eager to establish themselves in, and to improve, Scotland's sadly self-critical world.
How did I find myself in that galere? Simple tale: I had graduated MA at Glasgow University, at 19, as one did in those days, and was reading for an LLB, taking in lectures mornings and evenings, and during the day sitting on a high stool in a solicitor's office, in Hope Street. My family chose that moment to run out of money. The steel works my father had built with his inheritance made rods and bars that no one wanted to buy. I had to give up my dreams of forensic merit at the Scottish bar, and earn a living. Relatives bestirred themselves. Two offers: a clerk in a shipping office in Glasgow, or a job, at 30 shillings a week, on a weekly publication in Hamilton. Since I could read and write, after a fashion, I gave up the possibility of being a Henderson or an Ellerman, and became a journalist, a metier I followed until Herr Hitler swept me away, but abandoned after the war, as, alas, I did Scotland, where I never lived again.
When I joined the SO it was edited by the Reverend David McQueen, the last of its Presbyterian overseers. He was one of a number of publicity-minded clerics who proliferated at that time. He descended on our obscure office, a rectangle half below ground level, once a week, like a deus ex machina visiting the lower orders of mankind, gave a few instructions, dumped a bundle of manuscripts, and, with his handsome blonde adjointe, Elma Waters, flew away into the empyrean. This, for me, lasted no more than a few weeks, and there was no more McQueen. How, and by whose contriving, this happened I know not, but it was the beginning of the paper's transformation.
The writers the new SO wished to entice to its pages were appalled by the conditions in which they found their native country, its manufacturers and shipping ruined, its cities infested by appalling slums, and its population invaded and corrupted by a mass of starving Irish: 300,000 of them, and just balancing the number of Scots who had gone away to show the English how to run their Empire.
It was a time of lamentation. Listen to them! George Scott Moncrieff described Scotland as an 'abortive cancer rotting somewhere to the North of England,' and Edwin Muir, lamenting Scotland's state as a starved appendage of Westminster, pointed out scornfully that two of Edinburgh's main hotels were the 'North British' and the 'Caledonian'. This has taken some time to shake off.
But there was hope, stirring some hearts. David Cleghorn Thomson, a returned Scot, saw something to cheer him. 'Now a very virile young political party is growing up in our midst, calling for independence, and separate status.' This was the Scottish National Party, led by John MacCormick. As a student, I was a keen supporter, and at the rectorial election shouted 'MacCormick for King' with the best of them. Well, it has taken some time.
Since I cannot remember what writers filled our pages, and the files have never been found, I can do no more than describe the mechanism and the persons involved in producing the SO.
Our proprietor, the Hamilton Advertiser, was a family business, well run and prospering, printers and publishers, with the county weekly, the Hamilton Advertiser as a man prop, boasted to be taken by 77% of the occupied houses in the area. I like the precision of the 77. No nonsense about rounding up the figures. It was a ponderous broadsheet, with small print and eight columns, and covered everything from local government and opinion, annals of crime, and all the details, down to the last lamb sold at auction. And one could be sure that the winner of the most obscure whist drive or bowling match would be impeccably recorded.
The owners, and very hands-on managers, were the Naismith brothers. Mr John, tall, grey-clad, and noiseless, looked after the businesslike bits. Mr William, a cheerful, jokey man, and kind, looked after the staff, and the firm's public face.
The company secretary was William Morrison, of whom more later. The head printer was Mr Prentice, who ruled the case room, and had a ruler to crack the knuckles of any editorial hand which dared to touch any piece of leaded type. Monotype machines were slowly replacing the more elementary linotypes.
After McQueen's departure, the work of producing the SO was done by James D Sherriffs, as it had always been done. This was a journalist of professional skill and experience, in – I am guessing – his 40s. It was odd to find such a character there, and there may have been some shadow on his previous career. But he was an unalarming boss, occasionally amusing, in surprising and sometimes inadvertent ways, and good tempered. He was a bachelor, or at least had no female attachments. He lived in a small commercial hotel, in Hamilton, not far from the office. Gossip was that James 'liked a drink.' I would not have understood much about this, from my teetotal background, and in any case none of my contemporaries had any money for drink.
James was a lay preacher, a practice he may have acquired in the SO's pious days. He seemed to have been much liked as a preacher, and liked the fees. He claimed that sometimes, when he had seen a suitable old lady in a front pew, he had taken small bets, say five to one shillings, that he would make her cry before he was done. The first war was still near enough for sad memories to be stirred.
One anecdote I have cherished was about his lunch in a manse, where he had not been entertained for some years, when he greeted the minister's wife: 'My dear, I have alas no memory for faces, but I never forget a hat.'
James's hotel had a well-run bar which gave him regular comfort, with varying results. It was presided over by the landlady's pretty daughter, Honey. Once, on a Sunday morning, James, asked by Honey's mother what he would like for breakfast, said: 'Oh, a roll, in bed, with honey.' This nearly led to his ejection.
In the end James had to go. His drinking got out of hand, and his absence and oddities became to much even for the kindly Naismiths. With some friendly contrivance he became as assistant postmaster in Friockheim, in Angus, and was heard of no more.
When James vanished, the SO was in the hands of William Morrison, with me as general factotum. William, hereafter, will be called Willie Mo, or even 'Mo'. He had a key post in the main business, and presided in a glassed-in office looking over the main office, a broad rectangle open at one end to the public, who came in with their printing orders, or in search of a suitable couplet or quatrain to embellish the death notice of Aunt Maggie or Cousin Archie, to be found in a book provided by a thoughtful management.
Willie Mo and I became lasting friends. The gay fraternity does not seem to have been invented in the 1930s, but when I reflect on the past, from better knowledge, I think Willie was a non-practising homosexual. Since I was a devout and exclusive hetero, I was never a target of Willie's, who may never have had a target anyway.
His background became gradually known to me. He was the eldest child of a couple who lived in a suburb of Motherwell. There were three younger brothers. Father and brothers were manual workers, in the steel works, hard working, and well doing, bringing in a very good family income. Willie was the indulged cuckoo in the nest. He had a white-collar, well-paid job, with consequent domestic prestige. He had a sitting room of his own, where there was a large wind-up gramophone, and big records, Beethoven and Brahms. There were paintings, real paintings, not mere prints and a few books.
Willie was very fussy about his tailor-made suits, kept his hair neat, and his collars shiny. I remember a good deal of agonising about the cut of a winter overcoat. Was the waist too narrow? (It was.)
When Sherriffs melted away, Willie and I produced the SO. Willie looked after the contributors, buttered them up, paid their fees. Willie spoke correct English, a tribute to the Scottish school system, but he was not literate in the sense of having read any books or knowing any languages. I was priggishly bookish, and had spent most of my time reading books, from infancy.
I wrote some of the weekly routine bits, the diary, the joiners, the captions, and occasionally book reviews, with a cautious eye on what other reviewers had written. I still have some of the books I reviewed, the only documentary proof that I was part of the SO in 1932 and 1933. Two of them: 'Flush', a biography, by Virginia Woolf (Hogarth 1933) and 'Greek Astronomy' by Sir Thomas L Heath (Dent 1932), a snip for me. Hadn't I got through Higher Greek at school, by the skin of my teeth?
Willie and I, with our lovely free tickets, attended all the concerts of the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow, under John Barbirolli's baton, after a mixed grill at the Central Hotel. A life of easy opulence! I reviewed the concerts, after a glance at the Scotsman and the Herald to save me from gross error.
In the later, maturer (let us hope) stages the front page of every issue contained a large central print of a recent work by a contemporary Scottish painter, provided, usually, from Willie's contact with the Agnew gallery in Glasgow, a very respectable source. Some of the painters we printed no doubt became admired and established later. It would be nice to know who they were.
With the departure of the church support, some of the advertising fell off, and it was hard to catch the eye of new investors. Some of those we had became reluctant even to pay for their space in money, and offered goods instead. Swan pens, for instance, paid in pens. Willie, rightly, got the neat, pretty one, with gold bands. I got the big fat hideous mottled-brown one, which I took with me to Indonesia where the Foreign Office sent me when I joined them, in 1946. Sadly, a little brown hand, not put off on aesthetic grounds, relieved my desk of it.
I left the SO as it began to fade, enticed by a job as a subeditor in the Scottish Daily Express, which was trying, in rivalry with the Daily Mail, to break the script of the sober Scottish press. I got a substantial rise in pay, to £2.10s per week.
After I was gone the SO became ever more ghostly and was last seen, dimly, as the sub-title of one of the Glasgow evening papers. The rest is silence. But before I go, my memory has disgorged two episodes, one of them still stirring my mind with shame, and the other amusing me still.
Middleton Murray – A Painful Episode in Murrawell
I cannot precisely date the Scots Observer's encounter with Middleton Murray, but it must have been in the mid-30s, about the time of his 'Life of Jesus,' and perhaps related to his addiction to good works.
Whenever I think of this episode, even after 70 years, I shudder at the horror of it. Among the big names, the honchos, among the literary gents of the period, Murray had an honoured place. On the staff of the Westminster Gazette, editor of the Athenaeum, and, for many years, of the Adelphi, writer of many books of literary criticism, friend, uneasy perhaps, of DH Lawrence, and, at ease, of Aldous Huxley. He was obsessed with his wife, Katherine Mansfield, dead and alive. When I encountered him he was busy with his autobiography 'Between Two Worlds'; he was now a fading name.
Willie Mo had enticed him into a visit to Motherwell (pron: Murra Well) to talk to an audience of working men, on some quasi-political theme. Murray had made it known, through some grapevine, that he would respond to requests of this kind, and Willie had tried it on, with an eye to brightening a page of the SO.
Willie and I, on a wet autumn evening, met Murray on the platform at Motherwell railway station. He surely looked unlike any other passenger who alighted that night. Respectful greetings from us, leaving Murray rather mystified about who his greeters might be. We escorted our captive a hundred yards from the station to Mrs Fraser's tea room; big cool square shop, with tables for food on one side, and a shop counter on the other. Yes, it would have been high tea, modo Scottico, perhaps bacon and eggs and a pot of Mrs Fraser's best tea. Certainly no alcohol.
We set off, on foot, to the meeting place. No nonsense about taxis. There weren't any, anyway. We walked in the rain, up Brandon Street, an austere thoroughfare, with shops no one side, and to the left an immense brick wall, protecting the citizens from the main-line railway.
I remember fairly clearly what the meeting place looked like, but not what it was, working men's unclubby club, or some municipal device. A dismal rectangle, with dim lighting and wooden benches, and, at one end, a rickety pulpit-like erection, for Murray to mount.
The audience? I swear there were no more than a dozen – 15 at the outside – sad looking males, in wet dark garments, and matching faces, under flat caps.
Murray spoke for half an hour, maybe three-quarters. Even with the simplification of his vocabulary, which I seemed to detect, what he was saying, what case he was offering, combined with the completely alien and incomprehensible cultured English accent, with Fitzrovian overtones, floated somewhere in the mists surrounding the ceiling lights. There was no response of any kind from the flat caps.
I cannot bear to dwell on this scene. Willie and I walked Murray back to the station, for a train he identified, taking him, I hoped, on a shorter journey somewhere equipped with friends and proper food and drink.
A Farewell Party: HG Wells's 70th birthday
In 1936, Willie Mo had two tickets, thanks to the SO, to attend HG Wells's 70th birthday party, given by his distinguished friends, in one of London's smart hotels, I think the Hyde Park.
The dinner was in a large handsome room, with the grandees' table along its length, with many seats occupied, suggesting an alarming array of speakers. The humbler guests were seated at round tables, set for four, and generously spaced. Our two companions, both famous in their different ways, but now long gone from memory, where Annie S Swan and Paul Vincent Carroll. Neither figures in the 'Oxford Companion,' but both were well treated in 'Longmans Companion to Twentieth Century Literature.'
Annie S, then 76, was the Barbara Cartland of Scottish novelists at the turn of the century, starting in 1878, and ending with her autobiography, 'My Life' (1834). Quiet, neat, elegantly and simply dressed, with lace, and an amiably pleasant face, which proved to need more and more self control as the evening progressed.
Paul Vincent Carroll, a playwright, was there in full flood of success. He was 36, and survived until 1968. He was born in Ireland, but had much to do with Glasgow, where he had been for a time a teacher, and was later a key figure in the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, linked with James Bridie. His play 'Shadow and Substance' was a big success in the Dublin Abbey, and in New York.
The top table had, in addition to Wells, JBS Haldane, Bernard Shaw, a political figure I do not recall, a royalty – I think the Duke of Gloucester – and at the very end of the line, hidden among the plants, a token Scot, CM Grieve (aka Hugh MacDiarmid).
Wells had a high squeaky voice. Haldane told a very unfunny story about the sexual preferences of the hippopotamus (loud applause), Bernard Shaw was in good form, as ever, but managed to say something which caused a susurrus of disapproval, because of the presence of the duke. Shaw remarked that people had thought it odd that King George the Fifth had not conferred some honour on Wells. Shaw thought it unlikely that the King had ever heard of Wells.
The last speaker was CM Grieve, but by this time no one was listening, and he was magisterially boring, and spoke in some barbarous tongue.
Willie and I were in black ties. Carroll's dress was more relaxed. There was probably a tie, but I am sure of the colourful sweater – Fair Isle, or Aran – with long sleeves which covered his hands to the knuckles. He was very conversible, and at that stage only slightly elevated, if that is the word, and kept us amused during the eating bits, with stories so typically Irish, as the British see the concept, that he seemed to be giving the performance that was expected of him. One tale, listened to by Miss Swan with becoming composure, was about the disposal of his old car, which he drove at its highest speed, deeply into the Lake of Killarney – where else? – and swam to the shore. He was very funny.
As the speeches progressed, Carroll had devised a cat-like ability to be absent from the table from time to time, and to return, unobtrusively, letting it be supposed that he had been responding to a call of nature, although Willie assumed another motive, the hotel's generosity having its limits. Annie S held on to her composure and gracious bearing, but it contained some degree of nervous misgiving.
Carroll had sunk into his chair, and had become silent, even in the gaps between the endless speeches. Willie and I were silent, and Annie S had a fixed look and a slightly less benign smile.
And then, without any sound, and a barely perceptible movement, Carroll wasn't there. Vanished. I did not see him leave the table. The three of us looked at each other, mystified, and aware of some alarm. Yes, Carroll had gone quiet, and, we thought, simply asleep, a polite way of being bored without making a fuss about it.
But he was not asleep. He had taken with him a large empty crystal glass, and was rubbing the edge of it with a finger. As we sat, tense and fearful, a strange light but penetrating noise began to pierce the air of the dining room, locatable only in a vague way, but we knew where it must have come. We tried kicking gentle at the body below. No effect except renewed piping.
There were silences, and then the unaccountable noise again took to the air. Heads rotated, guests whispered among themselves, inquiringly.
After one of the last speeches, punctuated by the wine glass's eldritch squeal, when Willie and I turned our faces back from gazing at the speaker, there was no Annie S Swan. She too had vanished. She had not joined Carroll under the table. She had slipped away, sensible woman, and although her novels were full of drama, she had found it wise to avoid the denouement in good time.
Lack of moral fibre, as they used to call the condition in the RAF, inspired Willie and me, so when the guests began to move off, after Hugh MacDiarmid's barbarous tones had ceased, we slipped away, like Annie S. The crystal music had ceased, and like cowards, we decided that the well-trained staff of the Hyde Park Hotel could be left to clear up any debris, however unexpected.
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