Before the venue for James Davie's funeral was announced, I'd never heard of the church of St Vedast-alias-Foster. The City of London has several churches with titles that suggest fancy dress and secret societies as much as the Christian religion, supposing those three things can ever be separated at the higher end of the Church of England. Perhaps St Andrew's-by-the-Wardrobe and St Andrew Undershaft had hidden the light of St Vedas-alias-Foster under a bushel.
At any rate, the facts as I discovered them are that it dates back to the 12th century, was rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire, and lies close to Wren's magnum opus, St Paul's Cathedral. As for Vedast, he was an early French bishop who is said to have made a blind beggar see. In Latin he was Vedastus
but in Normandy he was known as Vaast
– a name corrupted in its journey to modern English as Fastes, Faster and eventually Foster. This explains the 'alias' and also the church's address, which is Foster Lane. One fine morning in March, as I walked down Foster Lane towards James's funeral ceremony, I thought how typical it was of him to have led me into such a strange little thicket of history.
I knew him for more than half a century. We met in the features room of the Glasgow Herald where, when I first saw him, he was dressed in a green corduroy jacket and a tweed waistcoat and trousers, and smoking a cigarette in a gilt holder. There may even have been a bow tie. All this was striking: in 1965, the editorial staff of the Glasgow Herald, like their newspaper, tended to avoid flamboyance.
But an even more noticeable feature of James's appearance was his baldness. This wasn't a condition that could be softened by words such as 'balding' or 'receding'. James didn't have a hair on his head – not even an eyebrow – so that it shone pinkly in the office light, like an impossibly large baby's. He was only 25. There was some suggestion of a breakdown during his final year at St Andrews University, but nobody knew for sure, probably because nobody had been bold enough to ask. In any case, it soon proved to be the least interesting thing about him.
The features room was my first encounter with journalism and the five or six people in it treated work in a way I'd never seen before. Was it work at all, in fact, or was it play? Everyone seemed to enjoy being there. Their chief duty, so far as I remember, was to produce a page called Miscellany that appeared every Saturday; lesser responsibilities included the supervision of the London Letter and other items on the editorial page, and the daily production of a paragraph no more than 70 or 80 words long that highlighted what was worth watching or hearing on the next day's TV and radio. That became my job. My seniors encouraged and corrected me. 'I liked that sentence…but do you know what 'decimate' actually means?'
James was the jolliest of these welcoming people, pecking away energetically at his typewriter and always finding something that would make him smile or laugh – an innocent, slightly high-pitched sound that made his eyes tighten and invited you to join in. He was what in those days was called 'well-spoken', with an accent that was neither Kelvinside nor Morningside, though it certainly suggested England rather than Scotland, and a private rather than a state school. In fact, all kinds of influence must have been at work, from his school (Daniel Stewart's in Edinburgh), to an upbringing in Montrose by an Australian mother. There was very little of what we think of as the 1960s in him: he had no interest in rock or pop or marijuana, and his personal liberation came 30 years later.
We became friends. We had a mutual enthusiasm for railways and ships – his father, who died when James was only nine, had served aboard a destroyer in the first world war and later skippered the ships of the Blue Funnel Line – and, beyond those boyish things, for history and architecture and all kinds of oddities. He was intensely sociable. It was thanks to him that I attended my first Sunday lunchtime drinks party, which he hosted at his little Dowanhill flat, and some years later lunched, again adventurously on a Sunday, at a forgotten but once very smart restaurant called Prunier's just up the street from where the Queen Mother lived in St James. This was by way of experiment. James liked discovery – the process of finding something out and then sharing it, which sits at the heart of all good journalism.
We didn't stay long together in the features room. I went off to serve more of my apprenticeship at two small papers in Lanarkshire, while James joined Willie Hunter on the Herald's new daily diary, the Samuel Hunter column. Samuel and Willie were not related – the former was one of the Herald's first editors, a big confident man of 18 stone (and therefore two of the things Willie was not), whose bulky 19th-century silhouette stood at the column's head. Willie and James got on, a perfect match of introversion and extraversion, though the column itself never became to the paper what William Hickey was to the Daily Express. The Herald had too little confidence in its own inventions and the talents of its staff.
James moved south to the Sheffield Telegraph, where he wrote leaders, and then further south to London when he joined the Daily Telegraph's colour magazine as chief sub-editor. The title disguised his responsibility for getting the magazine out in good time and good shape, under an editor, John Anstey, who could be whimsical and despotic, with unpleasant habits such as suddenly firing members of staff by letter to their home address. James coped for several years and then left for the Radio Times, where for the next two decades he held various roles, including regional features editor, and where he was probably happiest. But he rarely confined himself to editing. As well as his staff jobs, he wrote fiction reviews for the Herald and frequently contributed to a restaurant column, Eating Out, which ran in the Guardian. He was an amusing and perceptive writer, and could be curious about almost anything.
His enthusiasms by the 1970s had broadened to include cooking and cycling. He collected cookery books and used their ambitious recipes for his dinner parties, at first in his rented house in south London and later at his flat in the Barbican. His bike took him to the houses of his many friends in London and across the handier parts of the English countryside. In these ways, he prefigured fashion. The word 'foodie' had yet to be born and Lycra had still to replace the cycle clip.
We remained friends. Letters in a lovely italic script came from Sheffield, describing train journeys he'd made and wondering if I might come in his direction. When I did, we went to see Sheffield Victoria station (which closed not long afterwards) and the remains of its grand railway hotel. Later, when we both worked in London, we made an excursion to look at the architecture of Bath, the first of what James promised to be a series of trips to every spa town in Britain, including Matlock, Woodhall and Strathpeffer. None of these transpired, though a rather more surprising thing did.
Sometime in the 1980s, he asked me to be his guest at a meeting of the Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks, one of those ancient, back-scratching institutions known to the City of London as a livery company, which have the same purpose (I suspect) as a freemasons' lodge in Kirkcaldy. The dinner was eaten off candle-lit tables in a grand, shadowy hall; everyone there apart from the waitresses was a white male; from worldly conversations with my fellow diners, I gathered that parish clerks believed in good times. The drinking – in the later stages it was called 'promiscuous toasting' – lasted into the night.
'I give you St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe,' the parish clerk of St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate would stand to say, raising a glass. And then the man from St Andrew's would need to stand and do the same for St Mary Woolnoth; and so on and on it went, till something near a full circle of four dozen churches had been made and the whole company was tired of bobbing up and down.
It became clear that James might be attracted to the Anglican church for more than the usual cultural reasons – music, architecture, promiscuous toasting. He might actually be a believer. That seemed too private to discuss at the time, though I think now that the reticence was more mine than his.
In 1989, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Some years later, aware that his mobility was declining, he booked a trip to Australia on the P&O liner Canberra, one of that grand old ship's last voyages. We met at his flat after he came back and had a typical conversation that included details of the Canberra's menu and steam turbines, and James's train journey to Brisbane in an elderly sleeping car. Eventually, I got up to go. James asked me to stay a bit longer because he had something to tell me. 'You see, I've decided I'm gay,' he said. I sat down again, and James told me another version of his trip to Australia, one minus the steam turbines and with the sleeping car included only as a venue for a sexual encounter with a man who was similarly disabled. 'There was a tangle of walking sticks in the corridor,' James said, gleeful at the memory, laughing like a man released. He was in his mid-50s before he came out.
James lived with multiple sclerosis for another 20 years and more. Work was the first thing to be abandoned. Slowly, his faculties slipped away. A mobility scooter replaced a walking stick, his grasp of cutlery grew slacker, books became impossible to hold, his speech thickened towards the incomprehensible. What remained right to the end was his fiercely stubborn and gregarious spirit. Here was a man who never stopped having parties; who could enjoy a party from a bed-ridden, horizontal position; who would beam up at the guests who stared down on him or brushed food from his shirtfront. To be so fond of human society and to have to leave it must be exceptionally cruel.
His wicker coffin went down the aisle of St Vedast-alias-Foster at 9.30 on the morning of 16 March. We sang hymns and listened as soloists in the gallery tackled the 'Kyrie Eleison,' the 'Agnus Dei' and 'In Paradisum' from Fauré's 'Requiem'. We heard hand-bells and smelt incense. Later, in the parish hall, we drank tea, ate cake and inspected the photographs of James that were displayed on pin-boards. One of them showed him as a kilted young man. Who could have known, in the features room of the Glasgow Herald in 1965, that this is where one of our stories would end?
James Coutts Davie was born on 2 February 1940 and died on 1 March 2018. He is survived by his sisters, Marie and Ann, and by his civil partner, Michael, who cared for him until his death