My last meeting with Hugh

26Hugh M.jpg

THE MASTER: Hugh McIlvanney with his customary cigar           Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

In an edited extract from his recent memoirs, Singing in the Lifeboat, former Express sub IAN BAIN recalls his last meeting with his old friend and colleague Hugh McIlvanney.

Hugh and I worked together on the sports section of The Observer back in the Seventies. He was chief sports writer and I was initially a Saturday sub and occasional sports feature writer. From a journalistic perspective, it was like being around someone who could do magic. Ten years older than me, Hugh was – and clearly remains – an heroic figure. 

By example and sometimes by comment and encouragement, Hugh taught me there was more to writing than putting words together in an orderly fashion and to remain aware of my tendency towards linguistic laziness. 

We both wrote for the now defunct magazine Sports World and, after reading an article of mine, Hugh reportedly told Alan Hubbard, the editor: "The big man can write a bit." It was just a passing comment, but one that Alan felt worth sharing. To me, who has always needed affirmation of my writing ability, it wasn’t far removed from a pat on the head from God. 

One thing he didn't need to teach me was how to drink to excess; we were both masters of that dark art.

On Saturday nights, after dictating his match report for the first edition, he would return to the office and rewrite it almost completely for the later ones.  With the sports pages finally put to bed, we would dwell long in The Cockpit pub next door, sometimes resulting in Hugh missing his last train home to rural Surrey. 

It became something of a practice for me to put him up in my London flat where we'd do serious damage to my supply of malt whisky, and debate the finer points of Scottish self-destructiveness. That he would sometimes stay until Tuesday was a hardship only for the booze cupboard. Well, maybe for my first wife, Isobel, as well.

Towards the end of 2016, Hugh embarked on a short tour of his home country with a treasure chest of memories and a small band of managers and minders, telling stories and signing books.

Mister Bain ... how long has it been? 'Thirty-eight years,' I replied. My God, that long.

I joined the audience of 300 or so drawn to the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, by the promise of compelling tales. It was a long evening, his third performance in as many nights, and by the time he sat at a table in the foyer to sign books, he was noticeably flagging. As I joined the line I momentarily endured a notion that he might not remember me. 

Before Hugh moved to the Sunday Times, I had left for the Middle East where I lived for the rest of my working life and, for no particular reason other than distance, we hadn’t connected again in the meanwhile.

When there was only me left in the line, Hugh looked up and said: “Mister Bain ... how long has it been?”

“Thirty-eight years,” I replied. 

“My God,” he said, “that long.”

We went out to the street where he lit the remains of a Cuban cigar. I wished in the moment that I hadn’t given them up. We had shared some remarkable times in the years when Fleet Street was still an enchanted place. There was much to talk about but no time to do it.

“Do you fancy a drink?” I asked.

“I do,” he replied, “but we have to get back to Glasgow tonight and I’m completely knackered.”

We stood in silence for a moment or two, sharing the smoke from his Havana and a wealth of unspoken memories until the chill Easterly wind began to reach into our elderly bones. Hugh discarded the butt of his cigar and tightened his scarf. 

 “Well, take care of yourself, Hugh,” I said.

“You too, big man,” he replied, gripping my arm with both hands.

When I reached home, I saw he had expressed on the inside page of his book the hope that I would remember the old days with warmth and affection. Oceans had flowed under the bridge since we'd last met and it was unlikely we’d see each other again. The passage of the years weighed heavily and I felt a great sadness. 

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre