Donald Trelford’s tribute to Hugh McIlvanney

Hugh McIlvanney wrote like a butterfly, stung like a bee

The Sunday Times columnist who died on Thursday aged 84, was the greatest sports writer of all. His friend Donald Trelford remembers the brilliant, irascible perfectionist who wrestled, kicked and boxed with every word

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Hugh McIlvanney pictured in 2016 in Richmond                             FRANCESCO GUIDICINI

The Sunday Times, January 27, 2019


When Hugh McIlvanney retired in 2016 from The Sunday Times after 23 years on the sports pages, following a 30-year stint at The Observer, the tributes were remarkable. No reader could have been left in any doubt that he was the finest sports writer of the age.

As if that weren’t enough, there exists an even larger claim for his talents: “Hugh McIlvanney is very probably the best writer ever to apply words to newsprint.” That supreme accolade is contained in The Great Reporters by David Randall, a global study of newspaper writing from William Howard Russell’s dispatches in the Crimean War to the present day. Even Hugh might have been embarrassed by such extravagant praise.

It is arguable, even likely, that no sports writer will ever produce a comparable body of work. There is no shortage of talent or energy in every generation of sports journalists, but no one has the access McIlvanney and his generation enjoyed to the world’s leading sportsmen and women and to the people around them. The protection of agents, publicists and clubs is making it impossible for sports writers to become friends, as he did, with figures such as Muhammad AliPele and George Best.

McIlvanney wrote religiously about boxing, in particular the exploits of the legendary Muhammad Ali

JOHN ROONEY

He also acquired a profound knowledge of football through mixing with the greatest managers, including Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson (a common background in the west of Scotland will have helped there). Except through press conferences, this route is now mainly blocked.

I knew Hugh, as a colleague and a friend, for more than 50 years. He leaves a huge gap in my life and in the lives of the few friends he trusted enough to open up to. It is hard to accept that one will never again pick up the telephone and hear that deep, mellow voice with its precious gift of making you feel that you were the only person in the world he wanted to talk to. In case that sounds a bit sentimental, I should add that the resulting conversation would often take the form of an icy blast in the ear if you had said or written something that fell short of his exacting standards.

We knew we were accepted as his friends when he commanded us to attend the many special occasions he wanted to celebrate. In his later years these were usually lifetime achievement awards from the ruling bodies in many of the sports he wrote about, and also included his marriage at the age of 80 to his beloved long-term partner Caroline, also a writer.

Hugh had joined The Observer from The Scotsman in 1963; I joined in 1966, the week England won the World Cup. One of our first pub conversations was about an altercation with the England manager, Alf Ramsey, who objected to something he had written. Ramsey sneered at him at a press conference, “How many caps have you got?” When Hugh eloquently defended his view, Ramsey muttered, “Words, words, words.”

Hugh replied, “Alf, they’re very handy if you want to say something.”

His sharp wit was evident at another press conference after Joe Bugner had been badly beaten by Ali. “I’ll fight anyone,” declared Bugner defiantly, “even Jesus Christ.”

“Ah, Joe,” said Hugh, “you only said that because you know He has bad hands.” Hugh once said Bugner had “the physique of a Greek statue but fewer moves”.

These flashes of wit, though typical of his conversation, belie the agony that went into his writing. He researched every detail, never accepting information from any source unless he had double-checked it himself. The reason he was so good is that he worked harder at it than anyone else. Harassed sports editors said extracting his articles was like pulling teeth.

Once, when begged to release an article he had been labouring over for many hours, he said: “I just hate letting it go if it’s not as true as I can make it.” On another occasion a sports editor rang Hugh to find out how he was progressing. He replied gloomily: “I’m having trouble with the colon.” When the desk man offered sympathy, asking if he was in pain, Hugh replied: “No, I mean I can’t decide if I need a colon or a semicolon in this sentence I’m struggling with.”

There is a much-repeated story about him hearing from fellow football reporters on a train that a shot Hugh had described as hitting the crossbar had actually been pushed onto the bar by the goalkeeper. Hugh, horrified, insisted on getting off the train at Crewe and ringing through a correction to the report he had sent (this was long before the mobile era or even TV replays). He spent the night on Crewe station.

He used to refer to the pain of composing his weekly article as “the tunnel”, out of which he could emerge only after a marathon struggle through the dark. He would usually start writing at Friday lunchtime, after talking to everyone he could find and reading everything about the subject he could lay his hands on. He wouldn’t finish much before dawn on Saturday, if then. In his earlier days, BC (before Caroline), he would then set off on a bender and sometimes go missing.

Any honest account of Hugh McIlvanney’s life in newspapers cannot ignore the roistering of his early (and sometimes not so early) days. Sometimes, after a marathon drinking session, he would rely on his fists, rather than his wit, to win an argument. For that reason the political columnist Alan Watkins, who had seen him in action in the Fleet Street wine bar El Vino, always called him “McViolence” (though not to his face).

One Saturday I remember saying to the sports editor at The Observer: “I haven’t seen Hugh’s piece yet.” He pointed to his secretary, who was busy on the telephone. “She’s checking out his safe houses,” he said, meaning places where Hugh had previously been known to land in the early hours.

With colleagues in the newsroom I once put together a quick paperback about the siege of the Iranian embassy in London, where hostages were rescued by a daring SAS raid. We wrote the book in a week and assembled in the office on a Sunday morning to complete the final chapter.

As we opened a door, we found Hugh fast asleep with his head on the boardroom table. He looked up, opened one eye and grumbled, “The doorman, perhaps — even a security man — but not the f****** editor.”

He once asked me to meet his brothers in the Mermaid Theatre, across the road from our newspaper office. I went after we had sent the first edition to find myself facing three broad backs at the bar. When I said the word “McIlvanney”, all three spun round like gunfighters in a western.

I was struck by the subtle shades of difference in their faces. The hard, four-square features of the eldest brother, Neil, seemed to be cut from the coalmining stock from which the family derived in Kilmarnock. William, the youngest, who became a successful novelist, was gentler and more willowy, with a Clark Gable moustache. Hugh was a mixture of the two — tough, but with eyes that displayed a wry humour and a piercing intelligence that never left unchallenged any careless opinion or the faintest trace of pretension.

From 1969, when I became deputy editor, to 1993, when I left The Observer (soon followed by Hugh), it was my job to keep McIlvanney on the paper. This wasn’t easy, because it didn’t pay good salaries and Hugh was in great demand from papers that could offer him much more. Sometimes, when he had received an outside offer, we would sort things out over a bibulous lunch at the Garrick Club. Quite recently, when I was staying there, an old waiter said to me: “I thought you’d like to know that the record you and Mr McIlvanney set for lunch at the club all those years ago, finishing at 7.25pm, has now been beaten.”

More often, though, Hugh would put his head round my door at about 6pm and say, “Donald, could we have a wee word?” I would ring my then wife and say, “I’m going out with Hugh McIlvanney.” She would say, “See you in the morning.” Off we would go into the night, usually ending up in the early hours in some seedy Soho drinking club, where we would sometimes engage in a bout of friendly arm wrestling and a tearful Hugh would swear his undying love for The Observer. “I’ll never leave it,” he would say.

Unfortunately, he did leave it in 1972, when the Daily Express doubled his salary. I warned him that it only wanted his adjectival brilliance and, after a honeymoon period, would start cutting back on his space. In less than a year he rang me to say I was right and could he come back? He had rung the Express sports desk to ask what length of article he should write and been told 800 words. “Eight hundred words!” he exclaimed: “Jesus Christ, my intro’s longer than that!”

Hugh McIlvanney was friends with stars such as Pele, pictured here with Bobby Moore

JOHN VARLEY

The bond I had with Hugh was strengthened on the occasions he strayed from the sports pages onto territory I controlled. He led the front page with vivid reports on the Hillsborough disaster and the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. He also wrote a compelling account of Mike Tyson’s trial for rape.

On the eve of the 1968 Olympic Games, when troops in Mexico City killed more than 200 protesters and injured more than a thousand, Hugh was sharing a room with Chris Brasher, the athletics correspondent who won steeplechase gold at the 1956 Games. Both men insisted on writing the news story and had a row about it. They sent me separate intros and asked me to choose between them. I managed to persuade them that the seriousness of the story required them to work together.

Once, while Hugh was abroad, I shuffled around some paragraphs in an article he had filed. This was a daring thing to do, for nobody messed with McIlvanney’s prose. I was expecting a nuclear confrontation when he returned to the office, but he saw the point of my changes, and after that I sensed our relationship had improved: he accepted that I shared his feeling for words.

While Hugh took the high road to London and lived there for the rest of his life, his brother Willie stayed in Scotland. But they remained close and admired each other’s work. My wife and I have a lasting memory of a dinner where the two brothers, sitting at opposite ends of the table, sang a plaintive Celtic ballad as a duet with no accompaniment. It was quite beautiful, and the room stayed silent for some time afterwards. Hugh’s smooth rendering of Frank Sinatra classics lit up many another evening.

He was lively, even exuberant company, with a stock of funny stories from his past. The only exceptions were when he had discovered a grammatical or other mistake in his published story; then a gloom would descend that alcohol served only to deepen. He once rang the office in the early hours to ask the night editor to change “late spring” to “early summer”. The night editor’s response is not recorded.

Hugh had a profound knowledge of literature, especially Shakespeare, and was a frequent theatregoer into old age. His muscular writing style was emphatically his own, an extension of his speaking voice, though if pressed he might have acknowledged traces of AJ Liebling, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller.

Politically he was firmly of the left, a staunch republican and a supporter of Scottish independence. I never asked him about Brexit, for as a leaver I feared I might be blown out of the room. Recently, when the name of Boris Johnson came up in conversation, his rage took some time to subside.

He was such a perfectionist that even preparing a short speech was a form of torture for him. I remember him speaking at a memorial service for Richard Baerlein, The Observer’s racing correspondent. St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street spilt over with owners, trainers and jockeys, who were busy whispering and passing round bits of paper. I discovered that they were laying bets on how long Hugh’s speech would take — an impossible calculation, since he was still scribbling additions to his text as he went up to the lectern.

Over 60 years in the newspaper business I have come across most of Britain’s finest journalists and worked with a fair number of them. McIlvanney was the most exceptional writer and the most irreplaceable. He could also be a kind and generous man, easy to forgive, at least for those who loved him, when the dark clouds came down.

I am proud to look back on the tiny part I may have played in his career — not in relation to the writing, for that was all down to his own blazing talent and the painful labour that brought it to birth. But perhaps for helping at times, just a bit, to keep that mighty motor churning.

After we both reached 80, Hugh and I had a macabre, light-hearted wager on which of us would attend the other’s funeral. There are some bets it is very sad to win.

Donald Trelford was editor of The Observer from 1975 to 1993


© 2005-2019 Alastair McIntyre