Pardon Monsieur… Am I hearing You Right #5

Kirstie alleyMY Pardon Monsieur moment with American Emmy award-winning actress Kirstie Alley was random in the extreme.

It was 1991, and Kirstie was at the height of her TV fame playing Rebecca in the US sitcom Cheers. It was also a weird time for music and movie celebs buying pieces of Scottish real estate.

Paul and Linda McCartney had long been established at their farm on the Kintyre peninsula, while former Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson had bought a Scottish fish farm and comedy star Billy Connolly was eying up a Highland castle.

So when the small island of Gigha (pronounced Geeya) was put up for sale in the summer of 1991 it did not come as much surprise to hear that both Mick Jagger and Kirstie Alley had expressed interest.

At the time I was in my first editor’s chair at the small weekly newspaper The Argyllshire Advertiser while also covering the adjoining Campbeltown Courier.

I decided to try and harden up the rumours of the celeb interest in our wee west coast island of Gigha – population 140 – and telephone both Mick Jagger and Kirstie Alley.

I was given short-shrift by Jaggers’ agent, but surprisingly had much more luck from Miss Alley’s who promised me an interview.

I was gobsmacked some few hours later to receive a personal call from the sitcom star. And as it was about 2pm our time, she must have been ringing very early morning from the States.

In either case, her Kansas drawl totally flummoxed an English editor still coming to terms with the Argyll lilt of the Scottish West Highlands.

“Hi, am I talking to Nic?”… I could just make out, as I answered my phone.

I could barely translate the next line, but am sure she said: “I gather you want to talk about Giga.”

Or she may have said she was ‘buying a cider’!

I was already confused.

She then went on to tell me how she loved the Scots, how ‘wonderful’ she thought Scotland was and how it was her spiritual home.

Or she could have said: “I love a Scotch, I think Scottish bands are wonderful and I am thinking of becoming a spiritualist.”

To be frank she could have told me anything. And to be fair to Kirstie I am sure it was just a communication breakdown between two diverse accents that meant that after a 10 minute interview I had nothing written down in my notebook.

Nothing at all!

And I still do not know, some 22 years later, whether she wanted to buy Gigha.

 

There ain’t no going back when your foot of pride comes down

ashdownI HAVE always been a political animal and am proud to be labelled a socialist and a pacifist.

But as a journalist I have tried to maintain a political neutrality and treat politicians from all parties just the same.

I was close personal friends with the late Tory politician Bill Hodgson and the SNP’s Margaret and Fergus Ewing. I also class as friends former Labour Defence Secretary Des Browne, SNP Leader Alex Salmond and the Lib Dem MP Charles Kennedy.

Among politicians, as in life, there are good and bad, and in my opinion these were some of the good guys.

But “proud and smug” are just two words I would use to describe the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.

It is probably wrong to feel so strongly about one man after just two short intercessions, but Ashdown pressed the wrong button for me, and now when I see his face on TV or hear his voice on the radio… I turn off!

I will take you back to early 1992.

I was in my first editor’s chair overseeing The Argyllshire Advertiser, a wonderful small weekly paper in the west of Scotland.

Our paper happened to sit in the middle of the marginal Westminster constituency of Argyll and Bute.

It was a General Election year. The seat was held by likeable Lib Dem MP Ray Michie, but under threat from the Tories and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Indeed after the Tories committed electoral suicide by deselecting their own candidate, the SNP’s Neil MacCormick was coming up fast on the ropes as an unlikely favourite to take the seat.

Meanwhile, nationally it appeared that John Major’s Tory Government could be defeated by the narrow swing in just a handful of seats.

Argyll and Bute was one of them.

So in March 1992 I decided to commission a public opinion poll on the streets of our principal towns to gauge which way the votes might fall. We polled 450 people (about half that of a typical Mori or Gallup opinion poll) and were amazed to find that Prof MacCormick was ahead of the sitting Mrs Michie by about 3%.

The ramifications of this poll were bigger than anything I imagined at the time.

Within 24 hours of my paper publishing the poll results, both BBC and ITV were reporting on it. They wheeled out each of the party leaders for comment and each in turn gave their own turn or spin on the result.

Except for a clearly rattled Paddy Ashdown who in an obvious fury branded our poll as: “A Mickey Mouse poll taken by a Mickey Mouse newspaper”. Quite amusing in hindsight as my paper had been known locally for almost 100 years as “The Squeak”!

I was angered by Mr Ashdown’s outburst and sought to get a response for the following week’s edition of my paper. Each party obliged by giving us good reactive comments. But Mr Ashdown refused to even speak to me and the Scottish Lib Dems moved into dirty tricks territory to discredit our poll and our paper.

As it turned out the Mrs Michie held the seat at the General Election that year with a 2,600 majority.

She later privately told me that she often found Mr Ashdown: ‘quite pompous’ and she apologised for the way he had treated us.

But it wasn’t quite the end of my affair with Mr Ashdown.

Some years later while I was a reporter with Scotland’s national broadsheet The Scotsman I had to attend a question and answer event with the Lib Dem leader.

I sat at the front of the audience of about 200 people with my carefully prepared questions.

When it came to my turn to ask a question, I gave my name and publication. Ashdown looked down at me from his podium and as if he did not hear me, moved on to the next questioner!

This was Paddy’s cold shoulder.

 

Pardon Monsieur… Am I hearing You Right #3

Jackie StewartTHERE are few interviews I have ever conducted in my journalistic career quite as bizarre as the one with former Formula 1 World Champion Jackie Stewart.

The story may lose something in translation into print, but it has to be told.

It was sometime in 1996 and I had been running a short campaign at The Scotsman to support female race ace Sarah Kavanagh’s breakthrough into Formula 1.

I had already spoken at length with Sarah, her manager and her sponsors; and the day before had managed to tie down F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone for a few words.

Meanwhile, I had made a few bids for a telephone interview with Jackie Stewart or his son Paul.

Then the call came.

“Hello, is that Mr Oooterside?” said the voice at the end of the phone.

Before I could answer, I was deafened by a “Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.” The unmistakeable noise of a Formula 1 racing engine.

“Sorry, we are on practice,” said the voice again.

Then another: Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Hello, Mr Stewart, it is Nic Outterside. I would like to ask you about Sarah Kavanagh,” I replied.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“It’s not a good line,” said Jackie Stewart.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Sarah who?” he added.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Sarah Kavanagh,” I almost shouted back.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“We are in Spain testing a new engine,” replied Jackie.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Well, do you think Sarah is good enough to make it in Formula 1?” I asked.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“Yes, but I think you ought to speak to Paul,” came the answer.

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“He’ll be here in a while.”

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

“What’s the weather like back home?”

Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr.

You will get the drift by now.

I interviewed Jackie Stewart for a full 15 minutes and his son Paul for a further five minutes.

When the phone call was over, I looked at my shorthand notebook.

Deafened by the interruptions of “Whooooorrrrr roooooshh errrrrrrrrr”, the only things I had established were that Jackie Stewart was testing a new F1 engine with his son Paul, somewhere in Spain; they had both heard of Sarah Kavanagh; the weather was warmer in Spain than in Scotland and they were travelling onto France later in the week… the rest of the interview was lost somewhere in translation.

 

Darkness at the break of noon

WEDNESDAY, 13 March 1996 will stay etched in my memory for every day of my life.

But it started like any other day.

It was a typically dreich spring morning in Edinburgh as I settled down to a diary of interviews and enquiries in my job as an investigative reporter at The Scotsman – at the time Scotland’s most pre-eminent broadsheet newspaper.

Back home in Perth – some 33 miles north of my office – my partner was planning a shoe shopping expedition for our two young daughters. Over a rushed slice of toast a few hours earlier she said she planned to browse a couple of shops in our fair city and maybe venture out to Dunblane or Stirling later in the day.

Here in The Scotsman’s Victorian offices I looked out over the grey North Bridge towards Princes Street, checked my diary and clocked a quick coffee before waiting for a telephone interview with Scottish born actor Tom Conti.

Tom was a champion of the London based organisation Justice, which campaigned on behalf of those imprisoned as a result of miscarriages of justice by the Scottish and English courts.

At the time I was running a campaign on behalf of a young man named Craig MacKenzie who had – in my opinion and according to the facts I had obtained – been wrongly convicted of murder of a fellow Edinburgh teenager David Edwards. My campaign had been running over three months with little movement from the Scottish legal system to intervene. I saw the interview with Tom Conti as a key move to add weight to our demand for an appeal.

The newsroom was quiet and I sipped my coffee. The phone rang at the arranged time and the unmistakable burr of Mr Conti’s voice greeted me at the other end.

The star of Shirley Valentine and The Norman Conquests was relaxed as we shared notes on the weather in Edinburgh and London and the state of British politics. It was like meeting an old friend for a coffee in town as we progressed to discuss our work and recent challenges.

Eventually, after what seemed 20 minutes we began to discuss the Craig MacKenzie case. Tom was up to speed with the case and agreed with me that MacKenzie’s conviction was probably unsafe and we should press hard for an appeal.

We began to discuss the details in earnest when suddenly the Press Association (PA) updates on my monitor began to flicker an instantly disturbing piece of news: “Six children believed shot in Dunblane”.

I reported the news immediately to Tom, just as a clamour of noise erupted around me in the newsroom. And with it came a further update from the PA wires: “Ten children shot”. I quickly relayed the information again as a voice from the newsdesk was shouting in my direction.

Tom and I politely suggested to each other that we leave the interview for another day. He rushed to his TV, I glanced once more at my monitor to see the horror of Dunblane unfolding before my eyes. We put down the phone.

The news editor ordered my friend Stephen and fellow colleagues, Jenny and Lynn, to get to Dunblane as quickly as they could. “And be safe,” he added, as they scurried out of the newsroom, notebooks in hand. He turned and asked me to stay at my desk and collate information as it came in and try to make some sense of it all.

But my mind was in panic.

Which children had been killed and exactly where in Dunblane? And, selfishly, where was my partner and my two gorgeous daughters?

This was 1996 and very few people had the luxury of mobile phones, least of all newspaper journalists and their families.

I tried our home phone vainly for an answer.

Had she gone to Dunblane already?

My heart was racing.

Then PA reported the shooting was confined to the town’s primary school, but there was no word as to whether the gunman had gone on a rampage elsewhere.

Within an hour the death toll had risen again before my partner telephoned me to ask if I had heard the news about Dunblane.

I think my reply was something akin to: “Of course I feckin’ have, where the hell have you been?”

She calmly told me she had heard the news on a radio in a shoe shop in Perth!

Back in the fray by mid-afternoon it was clear the gunman was also dead.

The day had become a blur of adrenalin

By early evening, a couple of my colleagues had returned from Dunblane and I had pieced together information about the shootings from many different sources:

After gaining entry to Dunblane Primary School, 43-year-old former shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton made his way to the gymnasium and opened fire on a Primary One class of five and six-year-olds, killing or wounding all but one.Fifteen children died together with their class teacher, Gwen Mayor, who was killed trying to protect them.

Hamilton then left the gym through the emergency exit. In the playground outside, he began shooting into a mobile classroom. A teacher in a mobile classroom realised that something was seriously wrong and told the children to hide under the tables. Most of the bullets became embedded in books and equipment.He also fired at a group of children walking in a corridor, injuring one teacher.

It later transpired that Hamilton had returned to the gym and with one of his two revolvers fired one shot pointing upwards into his mouth, killing himself instantly.

A further eleven children and three adults were rushed to hospital as soon as the emergency services arrived. One further child was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Along with my colleagues, I worked until 9pm that evening and turned in a 12 hour shift the following day, trying to keep a clear head and report calmly the events which had transpired on that fateful Wednesday.

Sleep on the Wednesday and Thursday nights was impossible as my mind ran overtime. It was like being on speed in something akin to the movie Jacob’s Ladder.

Friday morning dawned and I grabbed my toast, kissed my sleeping daughters goodbye and again drove the 33 miles to Edinburgh.

Ensconced at my desk, I managed to look and at marvel at the Thursday and Friday editions of our paper side-by-side. Those papers still fill me with pride at what my editor, news editor, page designers and reporting colleagues had achieved.

The front page sub-deck written by our columnist Ian Bell still rings true: “Call it madness or evil, sickness or sin: those are just the words we use to give a name to our incomprehension. Thomas Hamilton was one of us, part of the species. There is horror in the suffering he inflicted but a deeper horror, a terror, in the fact that we cannot explain how one of us became what Thomas Hamilton became.”

So while the families and friends of the bereaved were going through their own personal hell, the Friday at work was all about investigating what had gone on at Dunblane, how Hamilton had acquired such an arsenal of guns and, I suppose, who else was to blame.

We needed some clear lines of enquiry for our Saturday edition.

I had to keep my clear head fully engaged.

It worked and when the news editor said we could all go home at 5.30pm I felt I had at last finished the longest shift of my life shift.

I recall getting into my car and driving through the rush hour haze towards the Forth Road Bridge and the journey home.

The car radio was tuned to BBC Radio 4 and I was half listening to live feed from the House of Commons.

Suddenly the voice on air was instantly recognisable as the Ulster Unionist MP Ian Paisley. Politically, I detested the man, but his words at that moment rang clear and true: “And I say, suffer little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

Just as I drove my car up to the toll booth at the southern end of the bridge I broke down. Tears flowed uncontrollably as I choked for breath and fumbled my change into the hand of the booth attendant.

To this day I still don’t remember the rest of the drive home, just a blur of trying to focus on the road until I pulled up outside our house.

That evening I sat with my young children and partner and drank too much red wine while talking incoherently about the events of those three days.

Early the next morning, we agreed to make the short drive to Dunblane and lay flowers at what was becoming an international shrine to those killed in the carnage.

The scene that greeted us is also still with me now as I write these words… flowers and cards lining the road up to the school for more than 200 yards, with red-eyed police officers standing sentry duty barely able to meet the eyes of the scores of mourners and parents surrounding them. Tears and choking grief like I had never felt or witnessed before or since. Incomprehension.

We held our children close that day and forever afterwards.

Note: I never did finish the interview with Tom Conti. Craig MacKenzie was eventually released from prison in 2005 after winning a partial appeal. He was sadly found murdered in his Edinburgh flat earlier this year aged just 40.