Monday, May 31, 2010

A remembrance of my friend, Alan Ruddock, who died yesterday

Where to start with Alan Ruddock? Just before the start, perhaps. Hard to explain, without impugning the reputations of others, but when Alan was introduced as editor of The Scotsman in 1998, Sue Douglas, the left-hand woman of The Publisher, Andrew Neil, made great play of how “collegiate” he was going to be. The previous editor had many strengths, but being collegiate wasn’t one of them. And so it proved. On reflection, Alan was perhaps too collegiate at times. But on the one or two occasions when he tried to be monstrous, he wasn’t very good at it, and bad consequences ensued.
We called him Chieffy, though not to his face. He was the best of the six or seven Scotsman editors I worked with, at a time of great turmoil in the paper. His good qualities seem like obvious qualifications for an editor, but they aren’t always. He was intelligent, and personable. He liked people, though not all people. He was curious. He had read some books and had a wide vocabulary. He liked good writing, and believed in the notion – unfashionable then, unheard now – that good writing could sell newspapers. He was a fine writer himself, when the fancy took him.
There is no immortality in newspapers. They come and go with less consequence than good journalists hope. But at the risk of seeming sentimental, I think it’s worth remembering what Alan’s vision for The Scotsman was. Yes, he wanted to give proper space to an understanding of Scottish politics and culture (running a series of essays by Angus Calder, illustrated by Alasdair Gray, was a highlight of my time), but, as an Irishman, he had no time for Little Scotlandism. Alan’s vision was of a great European newspaper, which happened to be headquartered in Edinburgh. He wanted to look outwards, rather than navel-gaze. That’s still the Scottish newspaper I’d like to read.
The word journalists always use about Alan is “urbane”. I’ve never known what this meant. In Alan’s case, I suspect it alludes to the fact that he was fond of a glass or three of Jameson’s and smoked too many cigarettes. He wasn’t always prompt when it came to morning conference, and by the time he did arrive, he often looked as if he had run through a car-wash en route. But his mind, once the fug cleared, was scalpel-sharp.
If not urbane, what? He was a team-player, and as a boss he sometimes gave the impression that he’d rather not be in charge. His dream, oft-expressed, was of a staff who took responsibility, and stopped bringing him problems. I’m not sure he understood how insecure everyone felt back then. He may have misjudged one or two people, who acted as if they were on his side, but weren’t.
Alan edited the way he talked, in a murmur. In one-to-one meetings, I was often aware that his attention was elsewhere: he had a habit of staring into the far distance, at the horse racing on the television. And at the end of the week, his focus drifted, towards home, and the evening plane to Dublin.
This refusal to move to Scotland was cited as one of the reasons he was sacked. I’m not sure that was true. I tend to think the problem was the opposite. Despite weekending in County Carlow, he had started to go native, in a period when the paper’s proprietors prescribed a more sceptical approach to Caledonian affairs. Towards the end of his reign in 2000, Alan commissioned me to fill the front page of the Millennium issue of The Scotsman with an essay on the subject of time. I didn’t much fancy this idea, and pressed him for more details. “Just make it up,” he said, rushing from the building with a half-packed holdall. “I have a plane to catch.”


  1. Hi Alastair

    Long time no see.

    Very sad about Alan and very unexpected. I agree with almost everything you say about him. He did bring an air of sophistication and, yes, urbanity to the Scotsman during turbulent times and he was by far the best of AN's appointees. I think he understood the Scotsman from his Dublin perspective. What he wanted, I'm sure, was an independent Scotland though he'd never have been allowed to say so in the paper. In that regard the Scotsman would have taken on much of the timbre of the Irish Times. Credit though should go to Andrew Jaspan for wanting the Scotsman to have international aspirations and real cultural heft and demonstrating how it could be done. Why Alan was sacked I'm not sure. Was he ever told? I was at a meeting in London once at which a certain person said it was time the Scotsman had a new editor. Alan had been in the job just over a year. Others round the table were aghast. Did we not at last have an editor capable of doing the job? Apparently not. It seemed that Alan had committed the sin of not replying to that certain person's emails. When I relayed this to Alan he said that if answered all the emails he was sent he would have no time to edit the paper. At that London meeting his job was offered there and then by phone to several others, all of whom (Geordie Greig was one) had the wit to say no. Having said which, it's never good when the editor national newspaper bails out for another country early on Friday evening. Ach weel, it's all chip paper now.

    Hope you're well and thriving.

    All best.

    Alan T

  2. Hi Alan,
    Good to hear from you. And scary to hear what you say about that London meeting.
    You're right, of course, to say that Andrew J demonstrated a similar vision at the Scotsman. He doesn't appear in my reckoning merely because I never worked at the Scotsman with him (only at SoS). And he deserves full credit for re-energising Scottish newspapers.
    From a broader perspective, I find it rather baffling that Scotland's appetite for home-produced news seems to diminish as Scottish self-confidence grows stronger. But maybe that will change now that Messrs Cameron and Clegg are in power.
    Anyway - all is good with me. Hope we can catch up properly some time. A