Ian Wood tribute: He was even funnier face to face

Ian Wood's wit in prose that flowed with the charm of liquid gold. Picture: Mark Jackson
Ian Wood's wit in prose that flowed with the charm of liquid gold. Picture: Mark Jackson
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MIKE AITKEN pays tribute to Ian Wood, a former sports editor and golf correspondent of The Scotsman.

One of the most original and consistently involving columnists to grace the pages of the Scottish press over the past half century or so, Ian Wood’s enduring appeal stretched far beyond the confines of the sport section thanks to an unrivalled flair for turning the minutiae of life into the comedy of social experience.

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Just as P.G. Wodehouse, one of his most esteemed influences, created a fictional utopia full of dysfunctional aunts, brilliant butlers and prize-winning pigs, so did Ian transport his readers each Monday morning in The Scotsman to a terrain in which a hamfisted golfer tilted at the windmills of an unsympathetic modern world with the gift of laughter.

In the real world, Ian was an accomplished club golfer with long-standing memberships at Duddingston in Edinburgh and Gullane in East Lothian. The truth was, this student of Ben Hogan and Bobby Locke bore little resemblance to the bumbling hacker who occupied centre stage each week in both “The Last Word” and “A Slice Of Life”.

In many other respects, though, Woody was just like his alter ego. He was an usher at my wedding in an Edinburgh hotel and, when asked to direct the groom’s guests to the seats on the right, enquired: “The right side of what?” Needless to say, my friends and family were scattered to the four winds during the ceremony.

For 25 years or more, Ian was a guest in my house on Christmas Eve. On a rare occasion when he wasn’t asked – my wife and I were out for dinner with family from Australia – Woody came anyway. Since my mother and stepfather were babysitting (he was my son’s godfather) Ian joined them for a couple of hours of conviviality and enjoyed a dram or two.

Christened John in 1934, he was known as Ian, the Scots for John, while his friends called him Woody. Whenever he phoned, the conversation always began with the clarification: “Wood here”. Educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Ian’s father was a publican who ran the Liberton Inn. His brother, Sandy, went into the family business and over the years owned establishments such as the Golf Tavern on Brunstfield Links. After National Service, Ian chose a career in newspapers with The Scotsman in 1954 and, like his dear friend and contemporary, Arnold Kemp – both men loved books, jazz and the Hibs, not necessarily in that order – became a production journalist who wrote with the finesse of a lyricist.

Although his prose flowed with the smooth charm of liquid gold, the work involved in crafting those seemingly effortless weekly essays took its toll on Ian. He was a painstaking craftsman who chiselled every word as if sculpting from granite. Of course, the effort was always rewarded. Ian’s columns resembled a Shorty Rogers’ trumpet solo – mellifluous variations on a recurring theme constructed from an invisible thread of dazzling technique.

People who amuse in print, in my experience, are rarely hilarious in person. Ian was an exception to that stereotype of the tearful clown and even funnier face to face than he was on the page. Of all the talented souls I’ve been fortunate to meet in my life, only Brian Meek, another Royal High alumnus, could match either Ian’s wit or talent for story telling.

Having served his time on the backbench at The Scotsman, Ian was promoted to sports editor. As a newcomer on the paper I was enlisted by Ian, along with Angus MacLeod, later editor of the Times in Scotland, to help out on the sports desk in 1976 after John Rafferty became ill. When the Raff died, Ian thought I’d done well enough to merit filling the permanent position of football correspondent. In later years I discovered there was a strong sway of opinion on North Bridge that favoured recruiting John Fairgrieve, another fine sportswriter with far more experience. Woody stood firm and, in one position or another, I spent the next 35 years with The Scotsman.

That stint, mark you, might have been far shorter but for Ian’s gifts as a ventriloquist. On my first major trip abroad with Scotland to South America in 1977, I faced a quandary in Rio de Janeiro. Reporting on Scotland’s match against Brazil from the Maracana stadium, the telephones for the press were located in a closeted room with no view of the pitch. Before the kick-off, the only paper from the UK with the correct phone number in Rio was The Scotsman. When my phone rang, I dictated the teams to a copytaker and gave Woody a list of new numbers which he passed on to sportsdesks all around the UK.

While the other sportswriters received calls during the game, I never heard from The Scotsman again that night. Luckily, the match, which Scotland lost 2-0, was broadcast on STV. With peerless style, Woody ripped off 850 words from the office typewriter and inscribed my by-line. Like Brazil, the report danced to the rhythm of a samba beat. On returning to Edinburgh, Eric Mackay, the editor, took me to lunch and told me I’d made a decent fist of my first big assignment. “I particularly enjoyed your copy from Brazil,” he said.

In later years at North Bridge, Ian followed in Norman Mair’s footsteps as the golf correspondent and made a splendid job of that challenging assignment. On retiring from full-time employment in 1994, he continued to write his weekly column as a freelance, mostly for The Scotsman but also with an intermission at the Scottish Daily Express before returning to his spiritual home.

Of course, the advent of the internet and the availability of online content introduced Ian to a broader audience outwith Scotland. I don’t think there was a male sportswriter in the UK who commanded a stronger female following. Heavens, there was even a fan club!

As well as my boss, Ian was often my partner and room-mate at the golf writers’ home internationals (don’t ask about the sleep walking) and a dear friend. He was a gentleman and gentle man who enjoyed a rewarding life filled with laughter. In the last sentence of his final column for this newspaper in 2011, he wrote: “Don’t think it hasn’t been fun.”

For those of us who will never forget the privilege of knowing Ian Wood, either in person or print, it’s sure to be spring again, Stan Kenton is at the piano, Severiano Ballesteros is holing a putt and Gordon Smith is forever on the wing.

IAN WOOD’S FINAL ‘SLICE OF LIFE’ COLUMN FROM 2011

Time to climb the fence, pick up my out-of-bounds ball and hop on the bus

Time marches on, as they say, and I’m beginning to feel that not only is it marching on, it’s trampling all over me. The joints are in a bad state and when I shuffle off to the shops I am constantly overtaken by toddlers who whizz past me as if I’m standing still.

Assistants in supermarkets have started to offer to pack bags for me, and when I board buses I have to hasten up the aisle before someone with a caring nature ushers me into one of the seats reserved for those who are finding the going unbearably heavy. The cumulative effect of all this has forced me to the conclusion that the time has come for this column to be laid to rest before I am.

The column’s been going since, I think, 1987, and I’m supposed to have been retired for the last 17 years. Retirement was a disappointment. At first I had dreams of lolling around reading improving books and going to exhibitions, but as things ground on it became increasingly evident that there was no chance of that. It wasn’t that much writing was involved – just a quick blast on a Sunday morning – but columns have a devious way of enslaving whoever is compiling them and no sooner is one column completed than the mind switches to what’s going to be on next week’s menu. It got to the stage where I could hardly walk down the street without taking mental notes of the strange ways of people, children and dogs – anything that might trigger a fruitful train of thought.

Fortunately, golf, which has been the main source of inspiration – if that’s the word – has provided an abundance of material and there’s no sign of it stopping. Even as I was wondering how to set about this piece, news came through that a Duddingston member with a remotely controlled trolley had got a bit too remote and uncontrolled at the 18th and watched trolley and clubs plunge into the swollen waters of the burn.

A fair example of the material on offer was the golfer I played with at Southerness while on holiday in Galloway. He was a tidy player and spanked his opening drive down the middle before pitching deftly to the green. I, meanwhile, had gone through the green with my second and, after I’d chipped back, he removed the flagstick and stood by until I’d putted out. He then replaced the flagstick and began to walk towards the next tee. As he did so, I noticed he had his golf ball in his hand. “Aren’t you going to putt?” I asked him. “No,” he answered, “it just spoils everything.” I was a bit shaken at the time, but looking back on it, his course of action, while perhaps a shade defeatist, was an eminently sensible one.Why should an irritating little chore like putting be allowed to mar a golfer’s enjoyment of an otherwise pleasant round? I’d have done it myself if I hadn’t known the kind of flak I’d have had to take from my regular golfing set who are, in the main, insensitive and tend to go for the jugular.

That same golfing set, however, provided a rich vein of material over the years, though they didn’t always know it. One of their number, a virtuoso of the show-stopping phrase, shot into print as a result of a remark made during a round in Spain. His tee shot at a par-3 hole had climbed as far as it was going to and was now plunging inexorably towards a yawning bunker. Another member of the fourball murmured: “That’s in,” to which our man responded: “Shut up and give the ball a chance.”

The same man struck again in Spain when, at the conclusion of an appalling round, he topped his drive to the last hole and, exasperated, took a fairway wood for his second – never a great idea. Moving into the address position with the veins throbbing in his forehead, he hissed: “Right, no more of this finesse!” As his last remaining golf ball sailed gracefully out of bounds, I remember racking my brains to recall traces of finesse I’d detected during that round but, really, I couldn’t think of any.

Musselburgh’s old championship nine-holer was a rich source of memories, though it was at Monktonhall that I first got on speaking terms with a golfing great – Jack White, the Open champion of 1904. He told me to clear off. Down at Levenhall, it was someone else who cleared off. A tall, gangling lad from Portobello, against whom I’d been drawn in a competition got off to a bad start and sliced clean off the course at the fourth on to the adjacent main road. Climbing the fence, bag and all, he retrieved his ball from the far gutter, boarded a passing tram car and I haven’t seen him since.

It was an odd way to end a golf match, but my hat’s off to that lad, for by his actions he effortlessly achieved the sort of smooth and painless departure I’ve been trying to effect here with gritted teeth and going flat out. However, don’t think it hasn’t been fun.

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