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The Best of 25 Years of the Scottish Review

Letter from the Editor, Islay McLeod

In 2017, long before hand sanitiser and face masks had become a staple of daily life, Kenneth Roy and I hatched a plan. We would comb our way through every edition of the Scottish Review – print (i.e. the early editions) and online – and select the best for an anthology celebrating 25 years of the magazine.

The first edition of SR was created in a small office in Bank Street, Irvine, in January 1995. It had the theme of 'Homecoming' and a subscription to this new quarterly journal would have set you back the princely sum of £18 (including post and packaging). It was the first of 49 print editions. In 2001, Kenneth set up the educational charity, Institute of Contemporary Scotland, and SR became its official journal, with the office relocated to Kilmarnock. The last print edition was published in 2012, by which time SR had established itself online, having launched the website on 15 February 2008.

As with most projects, the anthology was started enthusiastically and by the summer of 2018 we had made exceptional progress. However, when Theodore Roosevelt said 'Nothing worth having comes easy', or words to that effect, he wasn't kidding. We soon charged full speed into an inevitable obstacle... technology... or rather the lack of it. The 1990s don't seem long ago but memory sticks hadn't been invented (they wouldn't appear until 1998) and floppy disks were practically extinct, so each selected piece had to be carefully typed out from scratch. The knacky typing skills of Fiona MacDonald, Rachel Sharp and Barbara Millar were enlisted to reproduce over 100 pieces.

Then the unthinkable happened. Kenneth was diagnosed with terminal cancer in October 2018. He died just one month later. The project was put to one side – to be continued at a later date. A special thank you must go to my colleague and friend Fiona MacDonald, whose design and editorial expertise has been vital in the project getting back on the road.

And now, albeit later than planned, I'm delighted to present to you the first three issues of The Best of 25 Years of the Scottish Review. Each can be downloaded in pdf form or as an ebook. Full details on how to do so are 
given here. It's worth noting that this collection doesn't aim to be uniform. Earlier pieces are much longer than those written for the website. Some issues will make you laugh, others perhaps bringing a tear to your eye; some will bring back memories, and others will provide new material previously unpublished on the website.

The first Hogmanay, Memoirs; the second Four Investigations by Kenneth Roy; the third, Crime and Punishment, Devolution and there will be 12 issues in total, all being released in the next year, and all free to download. Collect the set!

Clonakilty, God help us, (Issue 3: Travel), Kenneth states that: ‘Journalists are not remembered'. They should be – not only journalists but those thinkers who enrich our lives with their words and ideas. And so it seems only fitting that each issue in this series should be dedicated to SR's founder and my much missed friend Kenneth Roy, but also to the considerable number of other contributors who are no longer with us. They won't be forgotten and this record of their thoughts, inspiration, research and humanity will live on.

Thank you – our subscribers and Friends of SR – for your continued support and readership in this bleak year. I hope that you will enjoy our literary gift! In the sage words of Professor Anthony Seaton, I wish you a happy but safe Christmas and a vaccinated New Year. SR will return to normal service on Wednesday 13 January with our first edition of 2021.

Click here to download issues 1-6 of The Best of 25 Years of the Scottish Review Edited by Islay McLeod. There are three different formats available:

pdf - This can be opened and saved on all computers and devices. Double click the prompt below and it should open automatically

Mobi - This is the suitable format for Kindles/ Kindle app. Double click on the prompt and download the file onto your computer or, alternatively, email the file to your Kindle address. It should then automatically appear in your library

ePub - This is the suitable format for most tablets and iOS devices (Apple). Double click on the prompt and download the file onto your computer

Below are the issues in pdf format...

Issue 1 - Hogmanay, Memoirs, Philosophy
Issue 2 - Investigations by Kenneth Roy
Issue 3 - Crime and Punishment, Devolution, Travel
Issue 4 - Lockerbie, Politics, Religion, Greatest Scots
Issue 5 - Island & Rural Life, Independence Referendum, Errors & Corrections
Issue 6 - Scotland, The Banking Crash, Arts and Literature
Issue 7 - Biography, Dundee, Inveramsay
Issue 8 - Glasgow, Public Life, Urban Life, Sport
Issue 9 - Diaries, Science and Nature, War
Issue 10 - International, Health, Food and Farming
Issue 11 - Education, Language, EU Referendum

Kenneth Roy

Kenneth Roy, founder of the Scottish Review, died in November 2018. In his final days in his hospital bed, he did what came naturally to him throughout his life – he began to write. The result was his final book, 'In Case of Any News – A diary of living and dying'. But there was one more thing to be written – his obituary – and, of course, he wasn't going to leave that to anyone else. He said he rather enjoyed the novelty of writing about himself in the third person:

Born in March 1945 in Falkirk, where his parents were both active in the amateur theatre, Kenneth Roy had an unhappy time at Denny High School, which he left as soon as legally possible. He had work lined up: having volunteered as Bonnybridge correspondent of the Falkirk Mail at the age of 13, a role for which he was paid in postage stamps, the paper promised him a full-time job as a junior reporter as soon as he acquired proficiency in shorthand and typing from Skerry's College in Glasgow. But it was not the most auspicious start to a career: the paper folded less than a year later.

After a short spell with the Greenock evening paper, and still only 19, he joined the Glasgow Herald, which assigned him to cover the criminal courts. He said later that this experience gave him a dark view of human nature, particularly as his duties were sometimes combined with a night-time trawl of the city's police stations for copy. When he quit the paper, he treasured a note from the editor, Alasdair Warren, predicting that he 'could have had a promising future in journalism'. A barren interlude in public relations followed.

He moved with his young family to a crumbling Victorian villa near Edinburgh, where he published, from 1969 to 1973, his own monthly magazine, Scottish Theatre, a precarious venture that quickly ran into financial difficulties. These were compounded when he diversified into the publication and production of plays by prominent Scottish writers, all of which enterprises lost money. He was left to eke out a bare living with jobbing work on Radio Scotland arts programmes and as an adjudicator of drama festivals.

Floundering in debt, he was rescued by Hugh Cochrane, newly appointed head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, who offered him a job on the teatime news programme, Reporting Scotland, where his long, prematurely greying hair proved too much even for the urbane Cochrane: he was ordered to get it cut. For several years he copresented the programme with Mary Marquis.

In search of more creative challenges, he seized an opportunity to work with the head of religious programmes, Ian Mackenzie, on The Yes, No, Don't Know Show, an early experiment in audience participation, which focused on ethical issues. The series achieved uniquely high ratings for late-night religious television, but was bitterly opposed by the Church of Scotland hierarchy, which saw it as a threat to the sanctity of the God slot. In 1979, Roy left the BBC and rented a 16th-century castle on the high street of Maybole, where he lived with his wife and two sons. It was from there that he engineered a bid for one of the first independent local radio franchises in the UK. Fighting off competition from Radio Clyde, the little-fancied 'Maybole consortium' brought West Sound on air in the autumn of 1981 from studios in Ayr. Roy's preference for news and talk over needle-time gained an unexpectedly large audience, but his backers decided that he lacked the expertise to make a commercial success of the business.

He then set up his own small publishing company, profitably establishing the biographical reference annual, Who's Who in Scotland, while returning to BBC Scotland as presenter of the weekly politics programme, Agenda.

After a long absence from newspaper journalism, he was offered two berths on Scotland on Sunday when it launched in 1988 – as the paper's television critic, for which he was twice named Critic of the Year in the Scottish Press Awards, and as a peripatetic sketch writer. Switching to The Observer, he travelled the country for a series of observational pieces entitled 'Kenneth Roy's Britain'. At his most prolific he also contributed a weekly commentary on current affairs to The Herald, which earned him the title Columnist of the Year in the 1994 UK Press Gazette Awards, as well as a daily notebook, 'Kenneth Roy's Pocket Companion', on the back page of The Scotsman.

In 1995, Roy founded the Scottish Review, an independent quarterly of topical essays, biography, contemporary history and travel. When it migrated to the internet as a weekly in 2008, its small readership was dramatically enlarged. The online version acquired a sharper edge than the print version and was noted for its campaigning on such issues as the defective fatal accident inquiry system, the policy of detaining mentally disturbed young women in prison, and the need for greater transparency in public life. Having edited the magazine for almost 24 years, he retired in the early autumn of 2018 because of terminal illness. In the hope of stimulating a social and cultural counterpoint to the fledgling Scottish Parliament, Roy established the non-political Institute of Contemporary Scotland (ICS) in 2000, persuading 800 prominent Scots – mostly recruited from the pages of his own Who's Who in Scotland – to bankroll the venture. A bitter row between the founder and some of his influential supporters, who claimed to find him impossible to work with or control, was soon being played out in public.

Undaunted, Roy went on to create the Young Scotland Programme, an annual series of courses for the intellectual development of people in the early stages of their careers, exporting the concept south of the border through the foundation of a separate charity. He regarded his work with young people – more than 3,000 participated in the courses between 2002 and 2018 – as the most rewarding thing he did in his professional life. Late in his career he wrote two deeply personal accounts of the post-war Scotland in which he was born and brought up. The Invisible Spirit, which dealt with the period 1945 to 1975, was described by Ian Hamilton QC as the most remarkable book about Scotland he had ever read. Its sequel, The Broken Journey, which continued the narrative to the brink of the millennium, failed to achieve the sales of the first volume despite the endorsement of The Scotsman's Allan Massie, who nominated it as one of his books of the year.

In 2000, Roy won the Oliver Brown Award given annually in recognition of outstanding service to Scottish culture. His native Falkirk made him the town's person of the year in 1978 and hosted a civic dinner in his honour. But perhaps the honour he valued most was the invitation from the family of Jimmy Reid to conduct the humanist service for the Clydeside legend at his funeral in Glasgow in 2010.

A memorial service for Kenneth was held in Glasgow City Chambers in March 2019. You can watch it here:

‘Overwhelming love. Overwhelming love. Overwhelming love. I am surrounded by it, wrapped in it, and I am trying to learn at the end of my life to learn how to deal with it and respond to it. It isn’t easy. It’s the most difficult thing I have ever done’

The end of the year is often a time of reflection, particularly on those who are no longer with us. David Robinson is moved by the bravery and honesty of Kenneth Roy’s memoir on his terminal illness, In Case of Any News.

In Case of Any News
By Kenneth Roy
Published by ICS Books

Try as I might, there is no way in which I can give this month’s column a seasonally jolly topspin. It’s not about Christmas, carols, cracker jokes, stupid sweaters, office parties, balloons or stuffed turkeys. It’s about saying goodbye to all of that, about the empty chair at the feast. It’s about dying.

Most of us have read books by people who know they are dying and want to put into words what their life meant, to describe their experience of love and friendship before it all goes away. I’ve ghost-written such a book myself, on behalf of a man dying of a brain tumour, and in terms of how much it meant to its subject, it is probably the best thing I have written. But in the vast literature of death, I have never come across anything quite as moving or brave as the late Kenneth Roy’s In Case of Any News.

I didn’t, I hasten to add, know him: I never met him, saw him on television, or heard him speak. I haven’t read any of his other books, heard of the charities he founded, or written for Scottish Review, the magazine he founded and edited, in either its printed quarterly (since 1995) or (since 2008) online weekly iterations. My admiration of his book isn’t tainted by friendship or professional courtesy: in short, it’s not personal.

I had, though, read his journalism for years. From it, I had constructed a mental picture of him: a bit crabbit, perhaps, not the sort to throw himself into the mad social whirl but commenting on it from a laconic distance. A cynic, possibly; definitely not a joiner-in or a booming extrovert. One thing for sure: his byline was a byword for clarity of thought and expression, usually with a dollop of wit on the side – ‘writing worth reading’, in the words of the Scotsman advert from the days when he was writing for it or Scotland on Sunday.

Magnus Linklater begins his excellent introduction to In Case of Any News by saying that he always saw Kenneth Roy as ‘the conscience of Scotland – a writer who gave it a wee nudge when he thought it had strayed off course’. I’d put it slightly differently: that he had a knack for asking awkward questions. If he were reviewing his own book, for example, he’d probably ask what on earth the living could possibly hope to learn from a book written by someone who is dying. He might even have been sceptical about the whole project: that would, after all, be the contrarian position, and Roy never shied away from taking the minority view. What, he might ask, can a writer teach us about Death when it is already in the hospital room, scythe raised?

This drastically foreshortened focus is the truly remarkable thing about Roy’s ‘diary of living and dying’. He began writing it on 4 October 2018, just after being told that his cancer was terminal and ended it on 1 November, four days before his death, and yet for all his caveats about not having had time to edit it properly, it is complete in its own right. A rare and ultra-lucid despatch from very edge of life, it is a last testament of will from a writer who ‘wonders how near the finishing line I can get and still file a line or two of copy’. And that’s the key: these are the final pages of a reporter’s notebook, and he will struggle through sleeplessness and embarrassment (vomiting, soiling the bed) and pain to fulfil that oh-so-simple-sounding journalistic instruction to ‘tell it like it is’.

But that, he says, is the easy bit. Recording what is life like in Room 303, Station 9, at Ayr Hospital is straightforward reportage of the kind that writes itself (yeah, right). The really worrying bit, he adds, is that if he suddenly runs out of any added insights into the business of dying, any last words of wisdom, the whole project will be doomed to failure.

Now this, remember, is what Kenneth Roy has decided he will do with what remains of his life. Finishing this book is his one remaining ambition. Not reading poetry, because the words float away, unabsorbed. Not watching films, because or reading histories because, well, what’s the point? Even music palls. Religion doesn’t help, because he’s not a believer. The news no longer matters and will happen without him. Philosophy doesn’t console, not even Seneca. Pastimes are pointless when there is so little time to pass. But 3,000 words a day: that counts for something, doesn’t it, even if only a fragment to shore up against ruin? Spurred on by his estimable consultant Dr Gillen, he carries on.

Of course, he has his visitors, and they have their place in the reporter’s notebook, although – and again, this is another way in which this book differs from most other examples of this curious sub-genre – they are not its primary focus. As family and friends take turns by his bedside, one is never quite sure who is who. Perhaps he didn’t want to embarrass them, but my own guess is that he didn’t want to dwell on the love and friendship he was leaving behind him lest it undermine his own purpose. Wallowing in self-pity isn’t his style. Nor does he bore us with the details of his treatment, because that’s what they are, just details.

He tells us something of his life, and it’s not remotely what I expected. A bleak background in Bonnybridge, driven to truanting aged 12 by a bullying maths teacher and leaving school three years later without a single qualification. An embarrassing, alcoholic father (‘no good purpose. would be served by a celestial reunion’) and reserved mother. Wondering why he and his sister never talked much about either of them, he notes that ‘dying doesn’t necessarily release inhibition; it can actually reinforce it.’

And if belatedly confronting the past is a strange experience, so too is life on Station 9. ‘Overwhelming love. Overwhelming love. Overwhelming love. I am surrounded by it, wrapped in it, and I am trying to learn at the end of my life to learn how to deal with it and respond to it. It isn’t easy. It’s the most difficult thing I have ever done.’

Read that paragraph again, you can see just how far it is from my initial mental image of Roy (crabbit, cynical, witty etc). Yet his affection for the NHS staff who look after him (and to whom the book is dedicated) is clear enough. If there has indeed been a change in him, it has happened in front of our eyes as we are introduced to them – the assistant nurse who helps him to shave, the nurse who makes time for a kind word before she goes off shift, everyone who cleans up after him or cares for him, or who quietly understands what it’s like to be afraid to go to sleep when you’re not sure if you’ll wake up in the morning. The palliative care expert who quietly asks him if he wants to carry on.

Maybe, if he had time, he would have edited that paragraph about overwhelming love. But that’s the point. He hasn’t. He notices how his whole style is shifting, becoming less energetic, less elaborate and more direct. He has things to say, but it’s getting harder. He is fighting against tiredness, interrupting his own narrative even more than the most po-mo novelist (has that first chapter been lost for good? Has he gone over the top in the heartfelt tributes to Station 9 at the end of his self-penned obit in Scottish Review? Should he have written it straighter, maybe with a joke in the first par?). But he hasn’t time to change anything. It’s there, 49,000 words, at one and the same time raw and thoughtful, and delivered, somewhat miraculously, just in time for that final, and sadly unalterable, deadline.

I wrote earlier on that I had never met Kenneth Roy, and that’s true. But In the course of writing this, I remembered that I had received an email from him. Three years ago, compiling one of those Books of the Year round-ups, I had asked him to pick a couple of books that had impressed him. He replied courteously and in time for my own deadline. So I’d like to repay the compliment. If anyone asks me for my own book of the year, this is it.

In Case of Any News by Kenneth Roy is published by ICS Books, priced £14.99.

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