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Remembering Gil Heron

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Even into the post-war era, the number of black players who had plied their trade in British football still stood in the single figures. When Celtic signed their first non-Caucasian player, Gil Heron, the press, ever prone to glibness, dubbed him “the Black Flash”. And the received wisdom regarding Heron is that he was rather a flash in the pan, an exotic wayfarer who briefly tantalised but ultimately failed to deliver on his promise.

So abbreviated in fact was the Jamaican-born striker’s impact at Celtic that there was little fanfare when he died a year ago, aged 86. Unquestionably, however, the memory of him resonates in Celtic folklore. When Heron came to Glasgow he left a son – Gil Scott-Heron – at home with his mother. Now 61, Scott-Heron would go on to become a radical jazz poet and soul singer and write a whole new chapter in the history of American music in the 1960s and 70s, but his father’s own life was, in many respects, just as remarkable.

Besides being a footballer, Heron was by turns a pilot, a boxer, a cricketer and a football referee. He was also a photographer and a jazz aficionado and later became a published poet in his own right. Born in Kingston, he moved with his family to Canada and as a young man enlisted in the Canadian Air Force. He showed promise both as an athlete and a boxer but in 1946 signed full-time for Detroit Wolverines and was their top scorer as they won the North American Professional Soccer League in its inaugural season.

By the time he was spotted by Jimmy McGrory’s scouts on a summer tour of North America in 1951, he was already 28 and playing for Detroit Corinthians in the more prestigious American Soccer League. Invited over to Celtic Park for a trial, he was offered a contract and made a scoring debut in a 2-0 win over Morton in the League Cup. But after netting twice in his first three games for his new club, Heron only made two more appearances before being released the following summer. And after short spells at Third Lanark and Kidderminster Harriers he soon returned to the States.

Sean Fallon, now 87, was Celtic goalkeeper at the time. “Gil had a lot of ability,” he says. “He was big, over six feet, slim, and he had good skill, but he didn’t really get on in the team for whatever reason.”

Tom Campbell, the Celtic historian, offers one reading of the situation in his book Charlie Tully, Celtic’s Cheeky Chappie. In it he states Heron was “a victim of the cliques operating within Celtic Park”, making it clear that Heron and certain others were not popular with Tully, winger Jock Weir and striker John McPhail.

“Five games and two goals is not a bad return,” Campbell says. “And they were two beautiful goals. I remember being in the jungle for his first game, a soaking wet night, and he beat Jimmy Cowan, who was the Scotland goalkeeper, from 20 yards. The next one, against Airdrie, again in the League Cup, was another spectacular goal.

“He was a wee bit of a phenomenon – I think there was an element of it being a publicity stunt when he signed. But to be perfectly honest I thought he had good potential as a player, he was tall and athletic and he had a good burst of speed, but his team-mates didn’t support him.

‘The official view was that he lacked persistence, he wasn’t chasing every ball or making wild tackles, and maybe he wasn’t quite adapted to the physical nature of Scottish football. He was probably more akin to a modern-day striker than the old-fashioned kind in that regard; he was a stylish player. But when John McPhail came back from injury Heron only played two more games.

“There were definite cliques within the club. McPhail was a charismatic character, he was the centre forward and he’d won the Cup for Celtic in 1951, but I think the other players kind of played to him, and almost visibly resented any player trying to take his place. There wasn’t quite the professionalism there should have been.”

Another of the surviving members of Celtic’s 1951 side, Willie Fernie, now sadly has Alzheimer’s, but his wife Audrey, who was McGrory’s secretary at the time, remembers Heron as “a very pleasant chap” who often carried photographic equipment with him and once took pictures of herself and others in the billiards room at Celtic Park.

And photography was but one of his interests: while in Scotland he managed to play cricket for both Poloc and Ferguslie, and when he stopped playing football, following a second spell at Detroit Corinthians, he became a referee. Later in life he devoted himself to music and poetry and in 1993 published a collection of verse which included a eulogy for the Celtic of his day (“a bit doggerel but very effusive about Celtic”, according to Campbell).

“We used to call him Mr Music,” says Fallon. “I think he was into the music more so than the football probably, which I think let him down a wee bit. He liked the bright lights.”

It is possibly true then that Gil Heron made as much of an impression on drab post-war Glasgow with his zoot suits, his yellow shoes and his appetite for jazz as he did with his football: besides being skilful and quick on the park, he was a dandy off it, a “flash” of colour indeed in a world of grey.

“He was exotic for the time,” says Campbell. “And he would be seen around town. The Celtic players used to hang around after training in Lewis’s on Argyll Street, where you could play the records on the pretext that you were going to buy them later on.

“Footballers in those days weren’t the peacocks they’ve become. They just had a couple of suits and a sports jacket. This guy was a bit different.” A fleeting presence in Scottish football, Gil Heron was nevertheless a pioneer, and in more ways than one.


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The journalism of Neil Munro

This article appeared in the Scottish Review of Books

In the eight or so decades since his death, few have hastened to call Neil Munro a “fashionable” writer. Besides his misfortune to be bundled in with his “kailyard” contemporaries by too many wrong-headed critics, he specialised in a kind of genre fiction – serious, involved historical novels about the Scottish Highlands and Scottish Highlanders – that made no pretence at getting to grips with the urban condition. His pen can seem redolent of the Victorian age, an implicitly patriotic age, and he lacks the self-importance of the so-called Scottish Renaissance writers whose fame eclipsed his in the 1920s and 30s. He anticipates modernism in certain regards but his worldview is not easily grasped and he lacks the vehemence of authors whose attitudes of mind were cast – as opposed to being numbed in middle age – by the Great War.

One possible reason for the lack of a fuller understanding of Munro is that during his life he seemed at pains to distance himself from a significant part of his own output. It was under the pseudonym Hugh Foulis that he created such Glaswegian figures of fun as “Erchie” and Jimmy Swann, and, in the fictional Clyde puffer the Vital Spark – captained by the wily Para Handy – a parallel comic universe to rival those of Wodehouse.

Meantime as a journalist – Munro’s “day job” for much of his life – he often chose to write under such guises as ‘The Looker-On’ and ‘Mr Incognito’, albeit regular readers knew exactly who they were getting. And it was the greatest paradox of his life as a writer that while he professed to deem journalism a low, dishonest profession and made no secret of his desire to be done with it altogether, he was exceptionally good at it. For the earnest writer of fiction to have to resort to hackwork is not unheard of; what is unusual is for such writing to retain its vitality and its powers of regalement a century later.

Munro does not concern himself as a journalist with heavyweight political subjects – again, his worldview remains elusive – but from it we get an intimate sense of the kind of man he was. In his introductions to The Brave Days and The Looker-On, the two volumes of Munro’s journalism published shortly after his death and now re-printed for the first time by Kennedy & Boyd, George Blake, a friend and colleague of the deceased and a novelist in his own right, explains that while the author of John Splendid and The New Road frequently toiled over his most serious work (falling prey to the novelist’s “despairs and self-mistrusts”) his less exalted prose came easy, read always crisp, alive and whimsical and was “hammered out”.

That these collections account for only a fragment of all his journalism supports such a thesis. And significantly they confirm that this writer of “romantic” novels had also that most under-valued of literary gifts: he was a humourist of the finest order. By all accounts Munro generally went about life “gay” in the old sense, kept a mischievously sardonic tongue in his cheek and deplored pomposity; and the sketches, features, essays and reminiscences culled from the Glasgow Evening News and from the Daily Record and Mail reflect this. His wit is for the most part subtle, often self-effacing and rarely savage. Often the humour comes from what is left unsaid, as when he describes the rural quiet of a sleepy village being disturbed by the arrival of sailors visiting: “The blacksmith’s shop – which may be called the parish club – disgorged a surprising number of farmhands and idlers, who had been watching a man getting his hair cut.” He delights in picaresque descriptions of various aspects of Glasgow and West Highland life, revels fulsomely in the popular song and theatre of the day and gently savages the fin-de-siecle spiritualist craze. A certain Rabelasian drollery is put to work on various “odd fellows”, cranks and chancers but rarely without an accompanying ration of fellow-feeling, and he even feels sorry for the poet William McGonagall, in whose honour he attends a dinner, the Dundonian bard unaware that he is the subject of cruel mockery.

It was during Munro’s journalistic career that the so-called “new journalism” emerged in Britain, and there would be no greater practitioner of it in his lifetime in Scotland. In his early years in the trade, he recalls, “it seemed to be assumed that politics, commerce and the law courts exhausted almost the entire field of human interest”. At some point in the 1880s he edited St Mungo, a short-lived “satirical-humorous” weekly journal in Glasgow that was “meant to be a playground for all the bright young journalists who had not sufficient opportunity to let themselves go with joyous abandon ‘on their lawful occasions’.” Over time, however, at the Glasgow Evening News – the newspaper in which he wrote for almost forty years, full-time for long spells, and which he edited from 1919-24 – he was given increasing license to let loose his brio on features and causeries relating to almost any matter of his choosing. According to Blake this was largely thanks to the good sense of the proprietor, James Murray Smith, whose enlightened attitude meant that “a writer of unusual gifts had an opportunity of self-expression quite unique in the history of newspapers.” “It is no exaggeration”, Blake adds, “to say that Neil Munro made that paper.”

That his articles were so prized must have been due in large part to the way they reflect and interpret Glasgow. Though born and bred in Argyll (he was the illegitimate son of a kitchen maid at Inverary Castle) and for much of his career seemingly desperate to return there, he has a special feeling for “the city” per se, its dynamism and its mystery.

One crepuscular scene, actually in Greenock, contains echoes of Conrad’s London in The Secret Agent: “When [the lamplighter] lights the lamps, the night, which is a giant bird, comes swooping down like a moth attracted by the candle, and men walk for a space of hours in the shadow of its wings. And in this shadow, slimey and leperous walls, and squalid entrances, windows foul and broken; make-shift expediences of poverty or slovenliness; the dirty, patched, degraded and ramshackle – all that affronts the day is half-transfigured, half-concealed.”

The sense of dread we find in Conrad, whom Munro knew as a friend and admired, is not altogether absent, but neither is Munro’s Glasgow the same as the Glasgow that filled Edwin Muir, his not quite contemporary, with abject fear and loathing. Munro’s Glasgow is rather the city of the Clyde in its tumultuous pomp, a city of “lascars and Chinese” and “boys just off the heather”; it is the city of the Glasgow Boys and the International Exhibitions of 1888 and 1901, a city of both art and commerce and the city of which the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia is reputed to have said in 1880: “Glasgow is the centre of the intelligence of England.”

There is much to delight the social historian within Munro’s accounts of Glasgow. He describes an exodus of 30,000 people on trains from Queen Street in order to skate on the frozen surface of Loch Lomond in February of 1885, and recalls that Miss Cranston’s tea-rooms (the lady herself “always with something of the fete-champetre in her costume”) were among the first businesses specifically tailored to female predilections. He remembers that in his youth Trongate was a “Saturnalia” on Saturday nights and makes certain long-vanished city centre taverns and restaurants sound reasonably appealing, others less so. Fine dining existed, but even the well-to-do tended to lunch on a mutton pie; the Glaswegian diet, it would seem, has always been gelatinous.

He also relates that in 1899 a group of “wealthy and influential Glasgow men”, when shown a cinematograph, convinced themselves that “moving pictures could never successfully compete with the waxwork, the menagerie and the diorama.” Munro himself is fascinated by technological innovation and new inventions and in one delicious episode he and Conrad end an evening X-Raying one another with a machine belonging to their host, a doctor on Bath Street.

Munro’s acquaintance was wide and varied. Besides Conrad he knew Arnold Bennett and, at the behest of Andrew Carnegie, entertained the American novelist George W Cable on a visit to Scotland. He was on friendly terms with Sir Thomas Lipton and with Kennedy Jones, the Gorbals boy who became editor of the London Evening News and secured its purchase, cut-price, for the future Lord Northcliffe. He was a director of the short-lived Scottish Repertory Theatre Company and a member of the Glasgow Art Club, and knew well a number of the Glasgow Boys and other significant figures in the art world, including Muirhead Bone and Whistler’s trusted Glasgow-based dealer, Alexander Reid.

Given that the record he left of himself in his journalism is the closest Munro came to any autobiographical endeavour, it invites us to scour his essays in criticism and his verdicts on others for clues as to his own weltanschauung. As regards literary figures he revered Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott – both enormous influences on his work – but hated the cult of Scott-worship. He admired Carlyle and Kipling, despite branding the latter a “recruiting officer” for the British Army in a rare moment of political asperity. (His reticence on such matters as war and Empire is marked. He lost a son, Hugh, at Loos in 1915, but cannot be dissuaded from exploiting the war on the western front for gallows humour: the French, he says, are “a romantic people, whatever you may think of the claims they made to compensation for damages to middens in Picardy”.)

Elsewhere, he is scathing of “kailyard” literature and of the Celtic Twilight but demonstrates a keen appreciation of Burns’ earthiness and use of the vernacular. Like Burns he is unswayable in the view that majesty and profundity are to be found in the common man and common herd. But his equability and willingness to view his fellow Scots in the best possible light is such that he seems incapable of entertaining dissenting views of them. Commenting on some scathing remarks about the oppressive nature of Scottish religion – made by Cunninghame Graham, another towering figure he knew well – Munro simply states “Scotsmen are not made like that now.” And the conclusions he draws from meeting George Douglas Brown are, at best, breathtakingly counter-intuitive: “In what could only have been the impulse of a reckless mood, he had written a prose Song of Hate [The House with the Green Shutters] about his native village, every feature of which – town or landward – he actually loved as a crony of old years”.

Disdainful of “intoxicating” literature, mysticism and, with regard to the Highlands, myth-making, at other times Munro seems not immune from such tendencies, writing in flights of fancy about ghosts and superstitions and old Highland traditions. In his novels he often allows the “romantic voice” to speak through him, ironically, as he satirises various aspects of the clan inheritance or martial Gaeldom, in particular the notion of a noble, warrior race. Underpinning this, however – and it comes though in his journalistic musings – is a lapsarian view of an essential goodness lost, an exaltation of a “true” Highland culture corrupted and deformed successively by tribal warfare, feudalism and, later, clearance. It is a weird sort of myth and one in which there is always room for pathetic fallacy: things are never allowed simply to be, landscape must always yield up a sorrowful human narrative.

If he anticipates Neil Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon in this regard, he anticipates Hugh McDiarmid in another. In praise of Cunninghame Graham’s prose style, infused as Munro perceives it to be with the influence of his mother’s tongue, Spanish, he could easily have been referring to his own use of Gaelic vocabulary and prosody; substitute Lallans for Spanish and you get Scots modernism: “It is not enough to know it as the teacher instils it – by looks or on the Berlitz system; it must be a language you can think in, a language whose every idiom gives access to the inner life of the generations of the people who have used it. Any language will do that has passion and poetry in it, but preferable is a language that has not known the blight of ‘progress’ as English has done, and best of all is the language that – like Spanish – retains its ancient spirit and enshrines a little – not too much – noble literature.”

His own linguistic dexterity, the preponderance of contradictions in his work and a certain intellectual elusivity are all decent enough reasons for renewed study of Munro. The sheer enjoyment to be had from his journalism is another.

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No belief deserves special status

The decision this week to allow the former head of sustainability at the property firm Grainger plc to chase the company for unlimited compensation on the grounds that he was made redundant last year due to his “philosophical belief about climate change and the environment”, has greatly ruffled some climate change “warmists”.

On the face of it one would have thought they would be cheered by such an endorsement of their creed and the seething reaction to it of religious people of varying stamps. Their discomfort has arisen, however, from the implication that Tim Nicholson’s “philosophical belief” should be afforded merely the same validity as religious beliefs, which due to the cravenness of our policy-makers have been protected by law for some years. To the chagrin of those who believe anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to be beyond debate, their dogma has finally been categorised for what it is: an evangelical and absolutist faith shot through with misconceived altruism, millenialist visions of catastrophe, and delusions of grandeur.

Mr Nicholson, availing himself of multiple invitations to gloat about Mr Justice Barton’s ruling live on television, said: “I believe man-made climate change is the most important issue of our time and nothing should stand in the way of diverting this catastrophe.” Even in the face of mounting grounds for scepticism and the reality that warming isn’t currently happening at all, then, it is not enough that one should acknowledge climate change MAY be afoot or that man-made carbon emissions MAY be a significant factor in the process. No, green activists who subscribe to the notion of “runaway” climate change – and there is no “moderate” position on this – brook no opposition to their views. Theirs is an aggressive secular fundamentalism, one which necessitates the rest of us being cajoled and bullied into mending our ways.

We do not know what will come of Mr Nicholson’s appeal against his sacking. We do not know the circumstances of how it came about. His complaint that the firm’s chief executive, Rupert Dickinson, responded to his concerns about saving the planet with “contempt” tells us only that he had his views gainsaid. The freedom to hold whatever “philosophical beliefs” one happens to find agreeable is cardinal to democracy; but so should we be able, in the name of democratic freedom of speech, to challenge or even disparage beliefs held by others. Where the great and the good on the liberal left, ever in thrall to the misguided ideology of multiculturalism, have erred gravely is in encouraging people with religious views to believe everyone else must respect (“tolerate” is no longer enough) every aspect of their faith and traditions.

The law, of course, offers most protection to those it fears: to the Islamists calling for the enemies of Islam to be “beheaded”, “massacred” and “annihiliated” in the aftermath of the publication of the cartoons of Mohammed got up with a bomb on his head, but not to the counter-demonstrators daft enough to have brandished images of the Prophet. And certainly not to other groups whose views do not chime with the government’s: like the Catholic adoption agencies who were told they must allow same-sex couples to adopt children. But once it was written into the law that adherents of non-secular belief systems automatically qualified for our respect – and that anything less was actionable – it was only a matter of time before others with agendas of their own caught up with the game.