Requiem for a Heavyweight – The retiral of Hugh McIlvanney.

On Monday morning, I came across an article which proclaimed that strong writing was a skill to prioritise in 2016. The same article went on to bemoan the fact that many social media and digital editors failed to recognise the craft involved in being able to tell a story in an engaging fashion or to report simple facts or provide an opinion using words which were informative and which stuck in the mind.

Instead, the modern emphasis was on catchy by-lines, clickbait intrigue and innuendo, and modern sales techniques designed to provoke a reaction.

The sheer joy and simplicity of good writing was being ignored – and that was to be regretted.

“Well said” I thought and moved on only to come across the news that after 66 years the great Hugh McIlvanney was retiring from the field of journalism in general and sports journalism in particular.

If ever there was a better advert for good writing – and the effect good writing can have on the reader – than Hughie McIlvanney, then I am yet to see it or read it..

McIlvanney always regarded himself as a journalist first and foremost and apparently felt that he had a duty to impart the news and tell the story to the reader. However, his method of doing so was to employ the use of carefully crafted words which would not only describe the scene he was depicting, but which would entertain, inform and stick in the mind of the reader for ever more.

Further, as his face, and more importantly his voice, became more widely known throughout the world of television broadcasting, it became impossible not to hear that gravel laden voice in your head whenever you read one of his columns. In short, his writing became a piece of Hugh McIlvanney that somehow simply lived in your head and spoke the words on the page.

When the the call of academia passed him by he chose to learn to type and take shorthand when it was somewhat unfashionable for menfolk to have such skills. He served his apprenticeship in court and news reporting and learned the importance of meeting deadlines and getting the facts right.

These same skills, together with his ability to observe and turn a phrase, were to turn him into a world class journalist and a master wordsmith.

Commenting upon his retiral, Patrick Collins – no mean writer himself – said that to call McIlvanney a great writer was like saying that Muhammed Ali had been a useful heavyweight.

There is no doubt in my mind that McIlvanney is responsible for inspiring generations of journalists and now bloggers to record their observations and opinions by way of the written word.

He was voted as Sports Journalist of The Year on no less than six occasions by his peers and he is the only Sports Journalist to have been declared Journalist of the Year. His columns over the years on Football, Boxing, Horseracing and numerous others sports have contained some of the most vividly descriptive phrases ever written.

For example he once described Joe Bugner – the boxer – as having “the physique of a Greek Statue …. but fewer moves” and described Frank Bruno’s attempts when facing Mike Tyson as being “no more competitive than a sheep in an abattoir!”.

Comparing Ali’s defeat of George Foreman in Zaire to the resurrection of Christ, McIlvanney opined that Ali “having rolled away the rock, he hit George Foreman on the head with it!”

His collected columns on any subject matter should be compulsory reading for every English student as they demonstrate both the story tellers art and the news reporter’s pragmatism.

They also show the humanity of the man who is troubled by the notion of fat cats paying to watch two men knocking seven bells out of one another and by the passing of the mercurial George Best who lost his fight with the bottle ….. and himself.

However, away from Sports McIlvanney was and is a lover of the Theatre and I have no doubt that he would have made a world class, if perhaps reluctant, Theatre critic.

With his torpedo cigars, that sandpaper voice, his raincoat, pen and his notebook, the image I have of McIlvanney is of a man who has witnessed many an amazing event and who is sufficiently comfortable in his own skin to have the courage to record those events in his own words and in his own style for the benefit of others.

By doing so, over the past 66 years he has been able to put his own stamp on those same events merely by bearing witness and engaging the reader with his well crafted words.

However, the most important lesson to learn from the boy from Kilmarnock who did not go to University (unlike younger brother Willie) is that if you apply yourself to your job – and by that I mean the preparation and determination to be in the right place and the right time to do the job of work in the first place – and can speak and write good English to the extent that you are worth reading and listening to – then the world can be your oyster.

If I were ever to appear on Desert Island Discs and had to face the question about which person from history you would choose to be if you had the choice then I would be hard pushed to come up with a better and more pleasurable answer than Hugh McIlvanney.

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