Monday, May 31, 2010
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.”