John Gibson taught me everything I know, he’d want me to tell you, writes Aidan Smith, ‘the son he never had’.
It’s midsummer’s night in the Second Summer of Love. Rock music has got into bed with dance music and big band music is nowhere. The Stone Roses are bringing the hot, new sound to Edinburgh and I want to be the one pronouncing. I want my name on the review.
But in order for this to happen I have to secure the say-so of Mr Showbiz. Yes, that guy in the far corner of the nicotine-dripping newsroom, the wee, shuffly, baldy one in the ancient sports jacket whose catchphrase, though he had many, was: “They’ll never work this town again.” I was sure he wouldn’t be interested in the Stone Roses. He was waiting for the return of big band music which would never come. This show was in the capital’s foremost toilet, not his scene at all. Nevertheless I had to ask.
Approval came with a grunt and a brisk hand waving me away. A crumb from the great John Gibson’s table! So began a beautiful relationship. Soon after I got my move to the features department of Edinburgh’s Evening News and would sit opposite Johnny for the next five years. Colleagues would tease: “You’re the son he never had.” At this moment, writing these words about his passing at the age of 85, he would want me to say: “Jaygee taught me everything I know.”
Well, I know this much: journalism was never more fun, before or since, than during those five years. Without the benefit of my dear, old chum’s wit or expenses budget or brass neck or contacts or the devil-may-care he showed towards his editors or indeed his capacity for red wine, I’ve tried to believe it is still the best job around. That I do, even in these tough times for the industry, is mostly down to him.
Woops, I almost called that Stone Roses gig “seminal”. That was one of Johnny’s pet-hate words. When he handed over his prose to the subs’ desk, he would sometimes call it “seminal” in mockery of pretentious types. Either that or he’d say his latest epistle was “symptomatic of the genre”. As the News’ television critic he didn’t much care for a highbrow BBC Scotland chat show called The Pleasure is Mine hosted by my father – indeed when Dad was made redundant following the closure of the Beeb’s Edinburgh studios, Johnny rejoiced in print. This was before he and I started working together and, even when he found out the family connection, we didn’t discuss it. All’s fair in luvvies and showbusiness, I decided, and besides we were all fans of the same football team who were under threat of extinction. There were far bigger things to worry about.
What did Jaygee like? Hibs, big band music, Frank Sinatra, Alan Whicker, films about the war, mentioning the war, reminiscing about his own war career, embroidering that career to give himself the retrospective rank of rear gunner, Ken Dodd, Norman Wisdom (“Mr Grimsdale!”), speedway, the Conservative Party and a shapely ankle, be it on a high-kicking dancing girl or Maggie Thatcher. He had plenty of outlets for his enthusiasms, bestriding the News as critic (TV, movies and pop), columnist, man about town and big-interview specialist. He was the Butcher of Northfield Broadway, the Sammy Pepys of the Foot o’ Leith Walk. At dawn’s early light I repeatedly tried to beat this byline-hungry demon into the office but always failed.
“There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” he’d say, borrowing a line from Old Hollywood, “but we’ve got none of them!” Johnny, though, invariably nabbed the plums. His tip-off merchants had to form a holding pattern every morning to ring him with the latest gossip. London PRs were semi-bullied into booking the swishest restaurants for a chance for actors and authors to meet Embra’s man of letters. He was a legend in his own lunchtime and somebody else was always paying.
Punk poet John Cooper Clarke once quipped that the Daily Express was a paper “where William Hickey meets Michael Caine/Again and again and again and again”. Johnny didn’t actually sit down once every few weeks with novelist Leslie Thomas; it only seemed that he did. My favourite interview of his was with Tony Benn. Ideologically, the Labour firebrand was far from being Johnny’s cup of tea (or plate of veal milanese) and, suspicious of journalists, Benn always arrived armed with a tape recorder. Johnny, who never used them, asked to borrow mine – purely for an opening gag about the encounter resembling a Wild West shootout with the pair squabbling over who was Wyatt Earp. I’m pretty sure Johnny didn’t bother transcribing his cassette but as always trusted the notes he scrawled on a pad of mini newspaper bills, as if to advance his case for having the day’s best story.
There were six million hilarious moments in Jaygee’s Naked City. One of them was him reading aloud from an ex-colleague’s stab at fiction, the exploits of a sexual adventuress, with one of her conquests being “the esteemed Edinburgh journalist John Gibson” who “stood as proud before me as the Scott Monument itself”. Another was him gatecrashing my wedding at Leith Town Hall, waving his Hibs scarf. Maybe the best was when the newsroom switched to computers and became much quieter, apart from Johnny defiantly hammering away at his knackered typewriter like the last woodpecker on earth.
Papers were changing and PRs were plotting to seize the agenda. “Let’s head them off at the pass,” he’d often say. “You and me, our own agency, we’d clean up.” Back then I strongly suspected he’d be permanently out to lunch, leaving me with a phone pressed to each ear and stressing about the cash flow. Right now, though, that sounds like fun.