Hugh McIlvanney: A Moral Compass and the Power of Words

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 30th 2019

The tributes paid to Hugh McIlvanney spoke volumes for the influence of the man, his writing and for his humanity. They were laced with recollections and memorable stories of late nights, pressurised deadlines, and long conversations – often involving drink. They came from far and wide across the spectrum including Donald Trelford, former editor of ‘The Observer’; Alex Ferguson, ex-manager of Aberdeen FC and Manchester United FC; Graham Spiers of The Times; Liam McIlvanney remembering his uncle; stars such as George Foreman and Gary Lineker – and even the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

McIlvanney wrote on sport for over fifty years, starting at the Kilmarnock Standard in the 1950s, having a spell at The Scotsman before moving to The Observer in 1962 where he spent thirty one years, before moving to the Sunday Times where he remained until his retirement in 2016. In that time he covered some of the most memorable football and sporting moments from Celtic winning the European Cup to the Ali v Foreman ‘rumble in the jumble’. But he also covered more – addressing, for example, when sport and politics mixed at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 and Munich games in 1972 when in both cases disaster and death struck.

In amidst the powerful testimony of McIlvanney’s prose and his care for detail, accuracy and the semi-colon was a discernable lament for the passing of a now lost world. This centred on numerous areas: a golden age of journalism and long form essays, a time when writers could get access to some of the greats and then get unguarded copy free from the constraints of PR advisers, and an age of working class self-education and advancement without forgetting about who you were and what was important.

McIlvanney was born and grew up in Kilmarnock and attended James Hamilton Junior Secondary School and then Kilmarnock Academy, the latter which his younger brother William also attended. This was a school with the claim to the fame of having two Nobel prize winners (Alexander Fleming and John Boyd Orr) – which only Eton shares the honour with in Great Britain.

There is in the fulsome tributes an awareness that McIlvanney’s passing, along with Willie in 2015, marks the final denouement of a past Scotland. This is a land in which working class communities, through education and the social challenges people faced, created men and women with strength, purpose and a wider sense of responsibility.

It is not an accident that the greatest football managers Scotland ever produced: Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, came from the same sort of environment as Hugh. These were granite men, build by the coalface of the Ayrshire and Lanarkshire pits and their cultures, and they never forgot the sacrifice and discipline that defined where they grew up. Alex Ferguson said when recalling McIlvanney: ‘Hugh came from the same mining areas, just the same as Jock, Matt and Shankly … They were a breed of really clever, intelligent people … most of them self-taught, but they also had to climb through the economic areas they came from.’

There is also the passing of a certain kind of Scottish man with the death of McIlvanney. He possessed an inner authority, certainty and moral compass – all of which informed his view of the world. He shared this with the above figures and the likes of Jimmy Reid – communitarian, believing in solidarity, and being contemptuous of those who forgot their roots and the values which helped create them.

Fundamental to McIlvanney was the power and sound of his voice. It had a distinctive ability to command attention that many will attest to in terms of conversations and arguments over the years. It had a centredness and rootedness that besides its gravel intonation made you stop and listen, making McIlvanney ideal for TV and radio.

One underlying thread in the memories of McIlvanney has been that he knew how to conduct an argument. This meant you had to choose your ground and case with him carefully because if he felt you weren’t being serious or were too flippant he could pounce. Liam McIlvanney wrote movingly in The Guardian of family occasions and the ‘downsides to a life lived at this pitch of intensity [and] apocalyptic flytings, with curses and denunciations ringing out of the wilderness …’

This quality, well known amongst many Scots in the not too distant past, and one I can distinctly remember as part of my own childhood in Dundee covering seemingly every big subject under the sun, and of course, football, highlights the diminishing quality of public debate and conversation, a point brought further home in the last week (if it needed to be) by an exchange between Andrew Neil and Brexit-supporting James Delingpole on BBC’s ‘This Week’.

Delimgpole was rightly savaged by Neil for propagating a ‘No Deal Brexit’ he knew little about, yet was happy to advocate without any care for repercussions or who it could hurt. Subsequently he took to the uber-right wing media site Brietbart who he works for to make the case that ‘one of the reasons Oxbridge graduates tend to do well in this shallow culture of ours: their education essentially entails spending three or four years being trained in the art of bullshit’.

This is how far we have fallen across Britain: arrogant, not that bright, nearly always privately-educated Oxbridge men are happy to dominate public life and the media sounding off with an effortless belief in their self-importance on subjects they know little about. Brexit has been nirvana to such types but it has been a long time brewing and is far removed from the deeply considered and reflective views and writing of McIlvanney.

Hugh and Willie McIlvanney were driven by something nobler and more important than the vices of James Delingpole or the virtue signaling which now shapes so many exchanges. They had a quiet sense of who they were, and the responsibilities and expectations which came with being a public figure who had influence and knowing their words mattered. They were driven by an understanding of right and wrong, in believing some things were just immoral and unethical such as stigmatising and demonising poor people and felt there was no way this could be excused no matter which party was doing it.

In recent times the only other Scottish writer who carried such a clarity of purpose with a way with words was the late Ian Bell and McIlvanney’s death – combined with Brexit and the rise of right wing shock jocks shows how far public debate has become in too many places debased.

But if Hugh was in the words of Liam ‘the last of the big land animals’ this shows the long descent in Scottish journalism and intellectual life. Who are our moral guardians and guides today who will reflect back to us the collective stories we want to tell and ask us if that – in all honesty – is really us? There are of course voices who can speak to the public mood on a single issue or for a fleeting moment but perhaps voices such as McIlvanney are no longer possible.

Of course in today’s world even a male voice could not be as male as Hugh – or Willie – were. But they both touched so many of us emotionally, connected us to a higher plane and level, and had an inner beauty which came from the values they believed in, and wrote and spoke in a language of poetry. Where are those much needed qualities in our public life and if, as you might agree they are missing, how do we encourage them to grow in, or to return to, Scotland?

It isn’t an accident that McIlvanney’s talent went way beyond to writing on sport, but to the heart of the human condition, writing some of his moving pieces on the death of people he knew such as Jock Stein, Matt Busby and the Welsh boxer Johnny Owen.

I first came across his writings in the unraveling of the ill-fated Scottish expedition to Argentina in the summer of 1978 which was filled with such high hopes for Ally’s Tartan Army. The story is a familiar one but it was given a sort of noble grandeur in failure by McIlvanney, as well as searching to answer the question: why did football matter so much?

His most evocative piece of this period, ‘A Case of Kamikaze in Cordoba’ (the stadium where Scotland played their first two games against Peru and Iran and were humiliated – and also the famous victory against Holland) is worth quoting as he surveys the debris after the first two matches:

If there is ever a World Cup for self-destructiveness, few nations will have the nerve to challenge the Scots. It seems astonishing that the race has never produced a kamikaze pilot, but perhaps the explanation is that all the volunteers insisted on attacking sewage farms.

Then he went on to ask what is it with all this investment of hopes and dreams in football when there are more important things in life:

Some of us have been acknowledging through most of our lives that the game is hopelessly ill-equipped to carry the burden of emotional expression the Scots seek to load upon it. What is hurting so many now is the realisation that something they believed to be a metaphor for their pride has all along been a metaphor for their desperation.

Even forty years later the passion and insight in these words ring out. I remember as a teenager reading them in The Observer, and they affected me in a way, along with George Orwell and P.G. Woodhouse, which made me realise the power and joy of writing and inspired me then to post-Argentina take up writing, starting a music column in a community paper.

Hugh along with his brother Willie lifted us up. They took us to a higher plane where it was possible to discern the huge emotional, moral and philosophical issues humanity faced. This has a particular Scottish story, – but is a universal one.

Look around the world. Look close to home. Look at your home town, your neighbourhood and your street. We owe it to Hugh and Willie and countless other brilliant working class voices and talents of past and present not to be quiet and to dare to point out the inadequacies and moral bankruptcies of so much of modern life. Daring to say enough is enough in the corridors of power and polite society at home and further afield. Now that would be a fitting tribute to Hugh and Willie, and one I am sure they would appreciate.