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Alan Taylor: Writing Writers’ Lives

Any expectations of an academic dissertation on literary biography had already been undermined by my reading of a libel case judgement that quoted extensively from Alan’s Sunday Herald Diary. What we heard was a steady flow of anecdotes, delivered without notes, which would perhaps be best reported by video upload to You Tube. Something we might think about. But no! We are writers.
Although apparently impromptu, reflection suggests that the whole evening was carefully crafted, which in itself gives an insight into our speaker and the reasons for his success as a journalist on The Herald and Scotland on Sunday and now as editor of The Scottish Review of Books. Alan Taylor revealed a little of himself, more about his career and even more about the famous writers he has met, interviewed, visited and stayed with.
A former reference librarian, he became a journalist overnight – over a weekend anyway – on Scotland on Sunday with Andrew Jaspan, SoS’s eccentric editor, whose hiring policy varied from taking on no-one taller than himself, people with names of countries or of English counties to someone he chanced to meet in a shoe shop. No experience required. Sink or swim. And they mostly swam, like Alan, who was promoted to Features Editor, Literary Editor and Diarist. In fact Alan already had considerable experience of the literary world, having co-edited a library magazine with our President and done it so well, it was a Have I got News for You publication of the week. He was also well acquainted with writers such as Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal and Ben Okri, all of whom he had invited to read in the library.
As Literary Editor he wrote profiles of Norman MacCaig, Alasdair Gray and Sorley MacLean, who complained that this unwanted publicity would make it ‘impossible for him to walk the streets of Plockton (population 378) again.’ From writing profiles, Alan moved to spending several days with best-selling authors. He found Jeffrey Archer ‘boastful’; Barbara Cartland was like ‘interviewing Angel Delight’; but was clearly impressed by Jackie Collins. Despite her initially doubting his credentials, because of his tweeds and brogues, he spent several days with her and was even invited to join Paula Yates and Jackie in bed on The Big Breakfast Show, tweed jacket and all.
Alan was by now moving in very elevated circles and obtained an invitation to interview Gore Vidal in his home in Southern Italy. Due to a confusion over the directions as to how to get there, he became lost in the woods, entered a likely looking house, was offered a drink and eventually discovered he was in Greta Garbo’s house.
In the States he interviewed John Updike and Joseph Heller, whose reply to the question, ‘Why haven’t you written a book as good as Catch 22?’ was ‘Who has?’ Bored by the interview Heller struck a deal that he would buy them a meal, as long as Alan returned the favour if ever Heller came to Scotland, which he did – apparently just for the meal.
John Irving, wrestler and author of The Cider House Rules, came over as ultra-masculine, fresh from the gym, dressed in lumberjack shirt and jeans. He was driven by a desire to be noticed by his absentee father, who he believed had walked out on the family. In reality his mother had thrown his father out and thwarted any attempted contact. Read his novels with new insight.
Muriel Spark was the ‘best Scottish author in the last sixty years’ and, through Gore Vidal, Alan was able to interview her. She met him in her Alpha Romeo, accompanied by her companion, Penelope Jardine. As a result of the piece he wrote, she invited him to stay with her for a month, during which they travelled the world. He recalled that she did nothing for herself but was kept up all night by the Reader’s Digest book How to do Just About Anything; she would list the contents of people’s bags (presumably for character development rather than innocent curiosity); was friends with the Queen of Greece; shared a racehorse with the Macmillan family, because she loved their racing colours. She worked hard, had charm and glamour, and no false modesty. When told that Aldous Huxley was an admirer of her work, she said, ‘Why wouldn’t he be?’ and with money from the David Cohen prize in 1997 went straight out and bought an Alpha Romeo.
Putting authors in an unusual situation is the trick to getting a good interview. They prefer to talk in bars, galleries and restaurants. By contrast, musicians such as Randy Newman, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson, who has a house in the Highlands, preferred to talk about books. Alan never interviewed Bob Dylan but Kris Kristofferson was sweeping the studio in which Dylan was recording Blonde on Blonde and said it was like ‘ Keats’s words set to music by Mozart.’
Alan had a long association with the Booker Prize, firstly as part of the administration panel and as a judge in 1994. He described the administration job as perfect, having ‘power without responsibility’. The panel chose the judges, the chairman of the jury and how much money to award. We might be surprised that they missed Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Birdsong but knowing that they are required to read 140 books in a year makes that understandable. The chairman of the 1994 panel was John Bayley, Oxford academic and husband of Iris Murdoch, who would pocket potatoes from lunch to help break the journey back to the dreaming spires. On the day of the award and with time running out, the jury of five was split two and two with Alan having the deciding vote. ‘It’s in your hands, Alan. You can award the prize,’ encouraged Martyn Goff, the Machiavellian eminence grise behind the prize. Alan decided that the choice before him was a weak compromise, whereas James Kelman’s How late it was, how late had only one opponent, the Reform Jewish rabbi, Julia Neuberger. Kelman got the prize and Baroness Neuberger still lives despite declaring the prize would be awarded to Kelman over her dead body.
Take away thoughts from an evening overflowing with ideas and stories: Scots make good journalists; always check your facts; and keep your documentation. Not everyone is like Alan and wins their libel case.
All that remains is for him to join the ranks of John Aubrey and Lytton Strachey with a Brief Lives of Eminent Writers. A guaranteed best seller.
James Rose

Alan Taylor with Ayr Writers' Club President Nigel Ward

Alan Taylor with Ayr Writers’ Club President Nigel Ward

One comment

  1. Carolyn O'Hara

    Thank you, James, for that fascinating glimpse of last week’s speaker – but I’m spitting feathers that I missed it!

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