Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Farewell to the Voice

 I first met Bill McLaren when I was about ten years old and he was refereeing a fiercely contested rugby match between Hawick Trinity and Parkside Primary School. I have a vague memory of being penalised for foul play in the first minute but he didn't hold it against me.

Bill was already a household name for his unique, couthy commentaries of international rugby matches on the BBC, but it was typical of the man that he was happy to give up his Saturday morning to encourage not just the grass roots of the game, but the tiniest seedlings. As a referee, his fairness was legendary and he carried it over into his commentating and his newspaper reporting. He loved Hawick and Scotland with a passion but he never once allowed it to show.

He always reckoned that a day out of Hawick was a day wasted. In the years before his death this morning he didn't waste many days. He was never happier than sitting in the conservatory of the lovely house he owned overlooking the Teviot valley or on the touchline at one of the town's rugby grounds where you were as likely to find him watching Hawick Wanderers as Hawick RFC.

When I started working for my local newspaper in Jedburgh we'd often share a freezing cramped press box at Poynder Park, Riverside or Mansfield, and he was unfailingly kind, offering advice, sharing insight and information and handing out Hawick Balls, the minty sweets from his home town which he was never without. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone and he could charm a quote from the most abrasive prop forward or the shyest scrum half.

He's probably unique in that he became a Scottish rugby icon without actually playing for his country and it was a lifelong regret that his opportunity to wear the dark blue of Scotland was curtailed by the bout of tuberculosis that nearly killed him in 1947.

But Scottish rugby's loss was the rugby world's game because he took the same enthusiasm and knowledge of the game he showed as a player to become the best known voice on television for something like four decades, the true Voice of Rugby. His style was unique, the sonorous tones of his Borders roots allied to a talent for vivid, dramatic description and a turn of phrase that made him a legend.

Scrum halves were one of his favourite targets. Roy Laidlaw was forever lamenting the fact that while his half back partner John Rutherford was hailed as a gazelle he was always a Border terrier or a Jack Russell.

Who can ever forget descriptions such as:

He's like a demented ferret up a wee drainpipe

He kicked that ball like three pounds of haggis

They'll be dancing in the streets of (Merthyr/Kelso/Harrogate) tonight

He plays like a raging bull with a bad head

And of course, the one that became his catchphrase:

It's high enough, it's straight enough and it's long enough!

When he retired from the BBC in 2002 it was the end of an era. Many have tried but nobody has ever quite managed to fill his place at the microphone, how could they?

Bill the commentator was never less than brilliant, and his contribution has been recognised by the award of the MBE, CBE and OBE, but it is Bill McLaren, the true gentleman who never failed to share his sweeties, that I'll always remember.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

My Hero is back

A large parcel arrived through the door yesterday from Transworld. It's the copy edit manuscript or Hero of Rome, my next novel, and is the first opportunity you get to see the book as it will more or less be in its published form.

This part of the process is always exciting, and a little bit daunting, because it's probably the most important stage after the editor casts his verdict on your first draft and it's the bit where someone clever points out all the embarrassing mistakes that would have made you look like an idiot if they'd made it into print. I've never met my copy editor, but from the moment I saw what she'd spotted in my first book, Caligula, I knew I was lucky to be working with her. She types out her comments on an old fashioned typewriter, acid little asides that make you feel as if you're back in Primary 1, but which hit the mark every time.

With Hero of Rome most of the 23 notes are about my cavalier use of Latin plurals and the difference between a ballista and an onager, two types of Roman catapult artillery the legions use to batter the Brits into submission. I've been very fortunate that none of the three books has needed really major work at this stage, just a few minor tickles and a bit of polishing. What makes it fun is the attention to detail. Last time round with Claudius, I had a passage comparing a Roman legion to the constituent parts of an insect: a big orange centipede. I thought it was quite clever until the copy editor pointed out that a centipede isn't an insect at all, but a member of the genus arth.

A case of me not knowing my arth from my elbow...