Edinburgh Evening News journalist John Gibson retained an unmistakeable glint in the eye and a grin with a hint of conspiratorial mischief – the hallmark of all great newspaper people, writes John McLellan.
He was Edinburgh’s very own JJ Hunsecker, except John Gibson wasn’t a caricature like the newspaper columnist so memorably played by Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success. Throughout his long association with the Edinburgh Evening News and Dispatch, he was the real irascible, irrepressible, irreverent, unpredictable, often unmanageable deal.
Gibson, Gibbo, Gibby the Hibby, died this week aged 85, a one-paper journalist (when the News swallowed the Dispatch in 1963, it had to digest Gibson too) who pre-dated old school and documented Edinburgh’s world of showbiz and sports stars, publicans, restaurateurs, politicians, and one or two whose brushes with the law were more than infrequent, with unbridled affection and enthusiasm.
In more than 60 years at the typeface, he hardly spent a night in, or, some might say, much of his own money; if there was one thing Gibby liked more than being a newspaperman, it was a freebie.
In the hey-day of print, he was the go-to man for celebrities visiting or performing in Edinburgh, a must for showbiz agents like the subsequently disgraced agent and fixer Max Clifford who, at the peak of his fame, singled him out at an awards ceremony as the one Scots journalist he admired.
The many market research exercises we carried out always produced the same result: Gibson was the one name every reader, and some who didn’t read, knew. In the days before multi-channel TV and the internet, his place as a local celebrity was on a par with his subjects in a way that’s impossible for someone working only in print to achieve today.
For his favourites, and that included anyone who ever crossed the Easter Road whitewash in the famous green-and-white jersey, there was nothing but warmth, and for his pet hates nothing but vitriol. What poor Sandy Toksvig did to annoy him I’ll never knew.
He simply loved being an Edinburgh Evening News journalist, to the extent that, in the years after his “retirement” in 1999, he was still first in the office every morning. Not so much to ensure his copy was bang up to date, but to snaffle the morning papers before they’d been cut to ribbons by the newsdesk.
As his powers declined and his columns became more and more unpredictable, we recognised that bringing the association to an end could actually pose a threat to his health, so instead we just reduced the frequency. Just dumping Edinburgh’s best-known journalist and potentially sending him to the hereafter wasn’t an option.
His health deteriorated badly a couple of years ago and after long hospitalisation there were fears he would never get out.
But although hunched in a wheelchair, there he was last year at the Scotsman’s 200th anniversary reception with a glass in his hand, his long-time partner Linda Murray by his side.
She tapped his shoulder and bent down to his ear to point me out and he slowly raised his head. I expected the tired look of those on whom severe illness and great age have taken their toll.
What I got was the unmistakeable glint in the eye of a man still intent on ruffling feathers and a widening grin with that hint of conspiratorial mischief which is the hallmark of great newspaper people the world over.
Gibson’s day has long gone and now so too has he, but for years to come when real Edinburgh people think about the Edinburgh Evening News, they will think about him too. Because John Gibson was one of them.
Plot twist in Demarco archive saga?
For someone who built a reputation as a showbiz reporter, one of Gibson’s pet hates was the Festival season and the crowds of tourists, so every August his columns railed against the throngs getting in the way of wherever it was he was heading.
He was more a popular entertainment man, with the same disdain for the avant garde as many Evening News readers, so to some extent at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum from that other great Son of North-east Edinburgh, Richard Demarco.
A remarkably sprite 88 after recovering from serious illness, Demarco is continuing to press for the saving of his old school, St John’s Primary in Portobello, to house the section of his vast archive relating to his up-bringing.
This column revealed his involvement and a previous commitment from the National Galleries of Scotland to store his archive at a new collections centre in Granton, but now it appears it might not be a done deal.
An email campaign to save the school swung into action at the end of the week but its chances of success are slim at best, but the Demarco archive saga might have more twists before the finale.