I’m always uneasy writing after a death. Clearly you must be respectful and appropriate but I can’t help also being truthful, yet most of the remarks I read about the deceased are impossibly charitable. Nobody is a saint and the last thing (literally!) I want is someone to speak with forced charity about me – once they’ve stopped dancing on my grave.
So with Angus Macleod with whom I partially shared a newspaper past (were both 63) and for some years a Saturday morning radio studio…he was cantankerous, argumentative and a diva. He was also passionate, warm and a professional.
He would arrive at the BBC before 7 am and after warm Good Mornings – he never failed the greetings test – would launch into a complaint about the BBC. ‘How many reporters do they have and yet they managed to miss the real story yesterday…Reporting Scotland was dreadful…who’s running this place?’
The call would go up ‘black coffee, lots of black coffee’, and once he was settled with a pile of newspapers at his desk I would instigate a political discussion to test my latest theory against his knowledge and insight. I never said so but I cherished his opinion and was genuinely pleased when, occasionally, we concurred. Mostly we didn’t.
My gentle prompts would be dismissed contemptuously. ‘They’ll never give that job to Murphy’, he’d scoff. ‘Someone needs to check Salmond, I’m telling you…’ Mostly we disagreed over independence and the SNP whose administration he quietly admired. He told of civil servants glowing in their respect for their nationalist ministers and of the admiration the Times editor held for Salmond after meeting him with Angus and anointing him Briton of the Year.
But he was a die-hard on the Union and was genuinely afraid of what might happen if there was a Yes. Yet, when challenged I only remember one justification for his stance. ‘I love England and the English people’, he’d say. To which I replied: ‘Me too’. We were as far apart on that one issue as it was possible to be and he certainly wasn’t having me writing in his paper. It was noticeable that throughout the whole campaign, despite having a budget, the Times didn’t utilise a single Yes voice as a regular columnist but did offer space to Unionist writers like Alex Massie and David Torrance. I know he did try to hire an unnamed Nationalist as a columnist in 2011 but was turned down.
He wrote his script in longhand and would come into studio when we were on air to hand it over so I’d know how to lead on to each item – if I could read his writing. Often I couldn’t and would say so live just to wind him up.
I know from many conversations that his energetic Hebridean outpourings delighted listeners and injected a sense of bemusement about the crazy modern world that reflected the common experience of life. If a phrase summed it up it would be: ‘Has the world gone mad?’
I was instructed not to read his last ‘and finally’ in case I was tempted to trump him with a joke. He didn’t like to have his thunder stolen and when we invited him into a political debate on the programme he would listen to the other contributor (Iain McWhirter perhaps) and shake his head in amusement at his answers. And woe betide us if we put him against two guests who disagreed with him. ‘You set me up’, he’d roar. Honest, Angus, we didn’t.
He brought a colour and a distinctive tone to broadcasting which without challenging characters can easily become bland. We regarded him as a star and so did he. When he thought he wasn’t being paid enough, a campaign was begun roping in presenters and producers to the cause until it went to the head of department who eventually caved in. He wasn’t a man to make an enemy of.
He was proud of his class of trainee journalists who had all gone on to have rewarding careers (including James Naughtie) and he moved effortlessly from the tabloid Sunday Mail to the Times. I remember his delight and pride at becoming Scottish editor after Magnus Linklater.
He loved to gossip and shared more than he perhaps should about people’s earnings, their incompetence and backroom dealings. He was forceful and not prone to self-doubt and a member of his staff told of being run ragged with demands, reasonable and otherwise. Patience wasn’t his virtue.
But plain old humanity was. He was as transparent as the sea on the Lewis shore, wearing his emotions like an old jumper, one minute barking at you, the next laughing with you. I last saw him shuffling away down the BBC corridor with the air of one whose journey began in another age of journalism and who had risen to master the new one – shrewd and trenchant, knowing and unbowed.by