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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.