A SPECIFIC illness, in my case terminal prostate cancer, is accompanied by all the loneliness and soul-searching the world can throw at you, but it’s difficult not to become absorbed in it . In all probability, it’ll send some readers into an unfathomable torpor concerning its idiosyncratic ways.
I’m taking a different tack today in order to address something that has troubled me – or, more likely, troubled others, these past 20-odd years: How, then, on God’s bountiful earth, did I manage to secure the best sports job in national newspaper journalism? This blog requires two parts.
It was apparent to me, at an early age, that I liked a drink. This was demonstrated at the Scottish Daily Express in Glasgow when two news sub-editors and this 23-year-old went for our customary break and managed to swallow six pints each which we unilaterally extended from half-an- hour into a round hour.
Such an extension played havoc with our reasoning and we returned to work in the most militant of moods: simply put, we adjudged we were being rewarded in sweeties rather than pound notes. Thus, it made sense that we with-held our labour. This intolerable state of affairs did not last long.
The editor, the incomparable Ian McColl, otherwise known as the Wee Man, summoned us to his capacious office and picked us off one by one to download our troubles. My colleagues were just on the wrong side of intelligible, but worse was to come: my inarticulacy was a bucking bronco, and when I attempted to mount the beast, I tumbled back to the floor.
‘Paid being I am £25 a week,’ I started as the startled eyes of McColl fixated me, opening up a horror script.. ‘Oh, Christ!! Here have been I here, for, oh, for fuck’s sake…but…’ The sentence never located a full stop. It was interrupted by a by-now fulminating McColl.
‘The three of you are drunk…foustie drunk! Now get out of my office, you foustie ginks!’
How I survived that particular encounter with an editor who favoured temperance, I’ll never know. But, within a few weeks, I was on my way to Fleet Street, via the Crawley Advertiser. A year later, in 1969, I was appointed as a stone sports sub on the great Daily Mail, and rubbing shoulders with such luminaries as J.L.Manning, Janet Street-Porter , Colin Reid and Ian Wooldridge. This is where the my life left the rails and tumbled down an embankment.
As my job in the composing room entailed late nights, I was given a year’s complimentary membership of the Press Club. Now, if Fleet Street pubs such as the Old Bell, Albion and King and Keys could give evidence, they would submit that alcohol ruled and wrecked many lives. The Press Club instituted my familiarity with hell.
I became a habitue of the place and soon was drinking with the likes of light drinkers Kelvin McKenzie, Tony Boullemier (Kelvin’s great pal), and heavy bevvy merchants such as Hugh McIllvaney and Peter Batt. But even their considerable talent for imbibing was eclipsed by a guy who was fine arts correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. I can’t recall his name, but I do recall that this Scot’s capacity for drink was phenomenal. Significantly, he had an even greater capacity for insult.
Sean, the head barman, was usually addressed as C*** Face. And if he was tardy in serving up the drinks, he was liable to find the cash register pushed off the bar into an area adjacent to his toes. Yes, drinking in the Press Club could be a hazardous business. I, meanwhile, had developed a passion for brandy, in addition to the vodka and pints of lager, not to mention red and white wine. On occasion, such anaesthesia encouraged Dr Jekyll to try his luck as Mr Hide. There came a time when that luck ran out, however.
There was one particular guy who insisted on declaring himself a public nuisance and Mr Batt, who already claimed that unfortunate title, was quick to point this out to him with a round-house swing to the jaw. This guy was particularly resilient, being roughly 6ft 5in, and rose to answer the violence. Stimulated by the action, I joined in and sent the aggressor back down from whence he came.
I reflected on my actions. By this time, I had left the Mail and joined Tbe Sun and it seemed only right that I should reinforce my colleague’s pugilistic lead. The next day, both Batt and I were summoned to an emergency meeting of the Press Club committee. We declined the invitation and promptly received notices that we were banned forthwith.
A verdict of sine die deterred neither Batt nor I and, drinking outrageously, I began to find myself in scrapes that not even the Marquess of Queensberry would have underwritten.
And so we move, swiftly, on to my appointment as Scottish football writer in 1974. By now, alcohol was my closest confidante. First fame made me believe I was a big noise: I lived in a top-class hotel for six months, took taxis everywhere and tried my best not to underestimate my expenses. Was I a fully-fledged alcoholic, a dipsomaniac? Was there any difference.? Not that I could notice when I consulted the mirror each morning, saw a thousand stars staring back at me, after vomiting spectacularly.
There were dramatic repercussions, of course, particularly so when the Scotland football squad flew to Spain in February of 1975 on European Championship qualifying business. Having imbibed outrageously with the Daily Mail team of Ian Wooldridge and Brian Scott in their Valencia city-centre hotel, I bore down on my resting place on the outskirts of the city, which happened crucially to be the team hotel. By the time I reached that destination, walking was an nigh on an impossibility, with talking a close second.
Unfortunately for me – and perhaps for Valencian society and the Scotland football team – there was an official reception for the visitors that night. The doors burst open to reveal a man who was drunker than Tam O’Shanter – and insulting with it. I do remember one burning insult to Charlie Cooke. Something about being a tanner baw player.
I do not remember anything else. Perhaps it’s just as well. They tell me I was assisted by the Scotland backroom staff up to the reception desk, where they asked me for the number of my room. Apparently, I gave them the only one I could remember – and that belonged to the Daily Mail team back in Valencia.
I was deposited in the space I had drunkenly requested and left to sleep it off. Some chance. A few hours later, as dawn provided drama on the Spanish skyline, I awoke with that uneasy feeling that something untoward, even disastrous, had occurred.
With my pulse belting out a discordant tune, I slipped out of the hotel and began the long walk (make that stagger) back to the city. It took me ages. When I eventually arrived at the restaurant where the troops were gathering, my immediate past returned to haunt me. The rest of the journalists managed to suppress their glee as John ‘The Voice’ Mackenzie, of the Scottish Daily Express, laid it on the line.
Strangely, there was no application of candy coating. ‘The SFA committee are holding an emergency meeting, Bryan.’ I tried a casual approach, though the bile was already beginning to tease the back of my throat, and asked what was on their agenda. ‘Oh, it’s about you and your behaviour last night,’ an unrelenting McKenzie added. He went on to delineate every faux pas of which I had been guilty. Evidently, Charlie Cooke had not been the only recipient of my outburst. For some obscure and provocative reason, I had decided that the Scots players would be hard pushed to kick a steady backside.
But the hotel bedroom scenario had exacted the worst toll on my future. It had belonged to an SFA selector and he became naturally aggrieved when he was initially denied entry, only to find yours truly occupying a king-sized bed.
They could not awaken me, so they sent for the doctor. His initial prognosis, allegedly, was not promising. It is claimed he could not locate a pulse and declared me dead. Only on further inspection did they discover required the word ‘dead’ to be accompanied by the word ‘drunk.!’
The bile was now demanding to find an exit. Hughie Taylor ostensibly provided it. Just as Mackenzie was removing the black cloth from his head, Taylor, who suffered from a minor speech impediment, munched into a seafood platter, and said:’You should try these calamaresh, Coon – they’re sh-sh-shmashin!
It is not necessary to enter any further detail about that awful night in the hinterland of Valencia, except to say the SFA’s response was a protest letter that was equivalent in length to the Dead Sea Scrolls – and banned me from travelling with them again. There was no appeal. I was out of a job some weeks later, and it took me another three years to test the dangerous rapids of journalism again, this time with the Daily Express.
Now, I cannot say that this unfortunate incident cured me of my dipsomania. Indeed, it did not. But it inserted a warning light in my brain that over-indulgence could be a serious obstacle to my career. That light turned to strobe in 1986 when I was whisked into an intensive care unit in a Kirkcaldy hospital with an enlarged heart.
On returning to England, I was invited to attend the world-famous Harefield hospital. The consultant surgeon delivered the troublesome news with a suitably inscrutable visage. ‘Of course, this means you will never drink again – and if you do, I shan’t perform the necessary heart transplant!’ Did anyone need a better excuse than to say goodbye to John Barleycorn?
The fact is that the goodbye was scarcely unequivocal. Thus, over the years, I have disengaged myself from the hook of sobriety, but only on very special occasions. And, during my most recent wrestle with the old prostate, I have not touched a bloody drop.
Which brought my conversation with my doctor into sharp focus. She asked me to nominate my favourite tipple. ‘Remy Martin,’ I responded, my lips scarcely moving. ‘Well, why don’t you have one before you go to bed,’ she added.
One? Bless her. I told her I’d think about it and I did, long and hard. As a recovering dipsomaniac, I wasn’t bold enough to divulge that my particular trouble is that one is never enough. Especially not with brandy!
NEXT BLOG: I STRIVE FOR HIGHER THINGS