Last week the Scottish Review republished some intriguing fragments of memoir by the journalist Colin MacLaren
, which had originally appeared in SR in 2005. I write 'the journalist' as though we should know who he was, when our knowledge of him is confined to what he chooses to tell us. SR's editor remembers that the piece just turned up. Their author was never encountered, and in all probability has died since. By his account, he'd worked as a sub-editor on the Scottish Daily Express before joining the Foreign Office, which immediately sent him to Indonesia. The year was 1946.
This time and these places weren't what he wrote about, however. His subject was an earlier period in his career, when he was in his description 'the general factotum' to the publisher of the Scots Observer, a weekly paper that came from the same press as the Hamilton Advertiser. Founded in 1926, the Scots Observer survived only into the 1930s and seems to have been a strange publication, beginning as a mouthpiece of Presbyterianism and ending as an advocate of 'new writing' about Scotland, meaning the kind of essays, poetry and short fiction that would find their only home in its pages. MacLaren draws a witty portrait of this odd paper and the equally odd people who worked for it: memories of this kind form a little genre, and his contribution is one of the best. A small but near perfect thing.
On one point, however, I feel able to help him. 'And the name, the Scots Observer,' he wonders, '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.'
In fact, you do not need to delve very deep. A brief history of the previous Scots Observer is contained in John Gross's 'The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters,' an engaging account of British literary journalism in the 19th century, in which Scotland played no small part. According to Gross, a group of wealthy Scottish Tories set up the Scots Observer in 1889 as a rival to the well-established literary weekly, the Saturday Review. W E Henley, whom Gross describes as 'the most belligerent Tory man of letters of [his] generation,' was appointed editor and at first ran the paper from offices in Edinburgh. That didn't work. Gross writes, 'Trying to run a national weekly from Scotland proved an awkward business and within two years the paper's name had been changed to the National Observer and he shifted his headquarters back to London.'
It never sold more than 2,000 copies and couldn't be reckoned as a commercial success. According to Gross, it was 'too Conservative for most intellectuals, and too intellectual for most Conservatives.' But before it shut up shop in 1897, it had published quite a lot of Kipling's poetry and made a name for itself as a loud voice for late Victorian imperialism. Henley left as editor when the paper changed ownership in 1894, which was also the year his only child died of meningitis.
Henley's was not a happy story. He was born the son of an unsuccessful Gloucester bookseller and always troubled by pain and disease. Tuberculosis of the bone meant that as a young man he had his left leg amputated below the knee. Trying to avoid the same drastic cure for his right leg, he travelled from London to Edinburgh to seek treatment from Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery. His two-year stay under Lister's watch at the city's Royal Infirmary had four important consequences.
First, his leg was saved, though the treatment sounds extremely painful (the diseased bones were gouged and refilled with lint steeped in carbolic oil) and he spent the rest of his life using crutches and sticks.
Second, he met Robert Louis Stevenson, who was so impressed by Henley's pugnacity (he would stump around the ward shouting about French novelists) that it inspired his most famous character. Henley's 'maimed masterfulness,' Stevenson wrote, 'gave me the germ from which [Long] John Silver grew.'
Third, he wrote a series of poems that was eventually published as his 'In Hospital' sequence. Selecting the doughtiest of these poems for the 'Oxford Book of English Verse' in 1900, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch gave it a name: 'Invictus', meaning 'unconquered'. The second verse goes:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
As an anthem to perseverance, it was to the first half of the 20th century what Rodgers' and Hammerstein's 'You'll Never Walk Alone' came to mean to the second. Nelson Mandela was fond of reciting 'Invictus' to his fellow prisoners on Robben Island. Today its title is best remembered in the paralympic-style games where disabled military veterans compete.
Fourth, he got to know the daughter of an Edinburgh mechanical engineer during her many hospital visits to see her brother, a fellow patient of Henley. They married and had a daughter. She was only five when she died of meningitis, but even so had time to meet her dad's friend J M Barrie and make her mark on literature. She tried to call him 'Friendy', which came out as 'Fwiendy' and in Peter Pan became 'Wendy'.
There we have it. So far as we know the editor of the second Scots Observer left no similar impression on the world. According to Colin MacLaren, he was a bachelor who lived in a small commercial hotel in Hamilton, who liked a drink and did some lay preaching on the side. He used to boast that his sermons could make old women cry.
What does it tell us, this little history of Scottish Tories, Long John Silver, literateurs and literary magazines? Perhaps only this: that the past is always more complicated than the present insists.
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