Monday, 30 January 2012

The days of sunshine and hunting big cats

There's a black and white picture I meant to upload for this blog, but it seems to have vanished somewhere so I'll try to describe it. At the top, on a high stone plinth, stands a tall, shirt-sleeved young man with a vaguely aristocratic air and floppy fair hair that hangs over his eyes. He's holding what looks like a lead, which in turn is attached to a truly enormous lion who lies sleeping with his great maned head pillowed by paws the size of beach balls. In front of the plinth is a slightly rougher character also in shirt sleeves, but with dark hair, a dodgy moustache and an air of mischief in his eyes.

The one with the dodgy moustache is me, aged about 27, and the chap at the back is my friend and then journalistic jedi apprentice, Benjie. The picture was taken in the 80s, when we still had proper summers, and reminds me of the carefree days of local newspapers. Benjie was fascinated by the recurring sightings of 'big cats' and I'd promised that I'd find him one, so one day off we went into the blue, safe in the knowledge that nobody would mind as long as we came back with a story. Then, as now, I put such sightings on a par with alien kidnappings and Scotland World Cup qualification, events so unlikely as to be preposterous, but I knew I'd find a big cat at fascinating Monteith's Aisle, otherwise known as the Douglas Mausoleum (you can see some excellent pictures here), which stands on Lilliardsedge, north of Jedburgh. The Aisle houses the tomb of General Sir Thomas Monteath Douglas, 1787-1868, who now lies forever beneath a domed roof pierced with stars, with a tall angel at his head and feet. Sandstone lions, one asleep and the other awake, guard the entrance.

Benjie very sensibly left journalism to become a merchant banker in London, where he now doubles as the Makar or poet in residence to the City. I loved working for the local papers in Jedburgh, Kelso, Melrose and Gala, because you were in a unique position at the very heart of the community and if you knew what you were doing you could get a story out of just about anything. You never worked nine to five, you spent most Saturdays on a muddy touchline, and you never knew what you were doing from one day to the next.

Occasionally reporters from 'the nationals', hoary, grizzled creatures who smoked too much and spent most of their time in the pub working out how to maximise their expenses, would descend on your patch. They'd pick your brains, file their stories and if you were lucky buy you a pint. Their one universal piece of advice was 'stay where you are, son. Better off in the locals'. Of course, they were right, national papers are just one long grind of constant pressure, tight deadlines and demands for more and better stories, punctuated by the occasional bollocking when you get something wrong. But there's also a magic to them, an illusory glory that meant the advice just had to be ignored. I spent longer in nationals (Scottish variety) than in local papers, but my fondest memories are not of great scoops, or incredible news days like 9/11 or Dunblane, but of days like the one with Benjie, covering the unchanging rituals of the Jethart festival, or delivering competition prizes up in the Cheviots on a rutted one-way track that started in Scotland and ended somewhere in England.


Anonymous said...

So enjoy reading your blogs Dougie, they are so good. keep it up I thoroughly enjoy them x

Ellen Arnison said...

They were right though, weren't they? I loved my first job in a local paper. Sigh.

Doug said...

They were Ellen, but after a while you realise 90 per cent of the pressure is just so much unnecessary macho bullshit perpetrated by insecure people to show the insecure people above them how 'committed' they are. Pound for pound, if you take into account quality of life, people in local papers are definitely better off.