Many years ago Sir Alec Guinness appeared in the West End production of John Mortimer's play 'A Voyage Round My Father'. As I recall, the father was a blind barrister and his son's portrait was ambiguous and impressionistic. Indeed the message was that the father, like all fathers, would inevitably remain mysterious to his son.
Although my father, Robert Kemp, was as kind, gentle and loving a parent as anyone could wish, allowing his study to become the family den even as he worked away at his plays, his novels, his radio and television scripts and his journalism, I became aware that beyond the attentive domestic figure there was another, subtly different personality that moved about in public. This figure had friends that were talented and raffish, engaged in the politics of theatre though rarely in the politics of parties and parliaments, loved his Saturday lunchtimes and occasional evenings at the Scottish Arts Club, where he served a term as president, and relished his hour in the Northern Bar on Saturday nights with the Pink News and a small gathering of friends.
I suspected, too, that in his youth there had been riotous patches. Indeed, my mother once disclosed that he and a friend had been thrown out of a music hall in Manchester. Later I sometimes came across his spoor, at the Cafe Royal or the Abbotsford, where those who had known him in the old days spoke of his conviviality. There were occasions of course, when we glimpsed it at home, when he had visitors, and certainly our household was rarely too far away from laughter. But I suppose he felt he had to set us all an example of restraint, and like all parents, perhaps, he kept part of himself hidden.
He tried to inculcate the conventional values of honesty, integrity, sobriety, restraint, good manners and respect for others. Much of this was carried on, in collaboration with my mother, at our table. But there was talk, too, especially as we grew older, about ideas, history and cultures. And it was through his often complex attitudes that he most truly moulded me. He was a son of the manse and entertained a most lively dislike of science which, I suspect, came down from the days of the old Darwinian controversies. He wanted us to excel in the arts and humanities, though I fear we often disappointed him. He tried to communicate his own love of Scottish traditions, and would offer us a pound if we learned by heart 'The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens' or 'Tam O'Shanter'. If the school report spoke ill of our attainments in Latin, French or English, his brows would beetle in disapproval. But once I failed a science O-Level spectacularly, walking out before the end and scoring 3%. He was delighted, and congratulated me as if on a notable achievement.
His conversation must have planted in me the idea of being a journalist. My mother was a teacher of English, for whom there was hardly any greater lapse than a grammatical error, and so between the two of them they hammered me into shape as an apprentice for my father's trade. After Aberdeen University, where he won the gold medal in English, he joined the Manchester Guardian. He was, as he liked to recall, the last reporter to have been appointed by the great C P Scott. At the interview he was most impressed by the piercing gaze of the great man's right eye which, he felt, penetrated into the inner reaches of the soul, stripping away all duplicity. Only afterwards did he learn that this was a glass eye; he had been barely aware of the feeble and watery left eye through which Scott dimly saw the world.
After about seven years in the Manchester newsroom, he moved to the BBC features department in London. Radio documentaries, in those days, were fully scripted, and it was here that he began to learn his craft as a dramatist. The process continued at BBC Scotland, where he became a producer. But it was not until the success of his adaptation of 'The Three Estates', in the brilliant production by Tyrone Guthrie at the second Edinburgh International Festival of 1948, that he felt confident enough to leave the BBC payroll and embark on an independent career as a writer. Of course, the BBC remained an essential source of patronage but he devoted much of his energies to writing and with others consolidating a professional theatre company at the Gateway.
By then, too, he had become convinced that it would be possible to evolve a Scottish dramatic style. Like many of his contemporaries he admired the achievements of the Irish theatre and hoped to emulate them. His particular theory was that the theatre in Scotland had not been destroyed in the dark night of the Reformation; rather it had gone underground into the 'low theatre' of music hall. He detected in the art of the Scottish comedians something distinctive, more physical than the brittle artificial naturalism of the English stage, more reminiscent of French theatre with its mime and flowing movement. He saw his theory personified in the figure of the late Duncan Macrae, for whom his translations of Moliere into Scots were written (although Macrae, lured by the rich pickings in pantomime, only performed in the first). All his comedies owe something to this perception but equally they are rich in characters from the Scotland in which he had grown up, first in Orkney, then in Buchan and finally in Deeside, and from its burghs and cities. His plays are peopled by the characters who came to the manse which, as he later observed, stood as a panoramic social observation point with an eye on both the gentry and the common folk.
He loved Orkney, and remembered coming home from school one day during the first world war to find that the Grand Fleet had slipped into Scapa Flow in the course of the morning. But Buchan, where he spent his early teens, was more truly formative. The farmers there, many of whom owned their land, were stiff-necked and independent-minded. In Deeside, at Birse, he was astounded by the abundance of the trees but repelled, also, by the luxuriance of the snobberies and the deference to the landed class.
His upbringing, and the spirit of the times (the Scottish Renaissance was in the making) made him something of a nationalist. He lovingly collected examples of Scots speech for his radio series 'The Guid Scots Tongue'. This, he argued, was a language in its own right, not a dialect. He reviled the slipshod urban demotic which has since replaced Scots as a standard vehicle for literary expression, as in the works of Kelman and Welsh. He believed that Scots, once the language of the court, should be spoken with grammatical assurance, as indeed it still was in the country districts and small burghs.
Many of his own plays were very successful in his own time – for example, 'The Other Dear Charmer', on the theme of Burns' affair with Clarinda, or comedies like 'The Penny Wedding'. His first and best novel, 'The Malacca Cane', is a comedy set in an Edinburgh where raffishness subverted a rigid lower-middle-class respectability, in that distant city of scrubbed common stairs and punctual church attendance and silent sabbaths. His plays did not translate easily to the London stage and by the time he made any serious attempt to confront the West End it was too late. The theatre had moved on. Bourgeois dramatists had been supplanted by the kitchen-sink school. He was in good company: Rattigan, the king of the West End, slipped into obscurity almost overnight.
My father detested the idea that theatre was some sort of cerebral or psychiatric laboratory and was dismayed by what he saw as the intellectual pretensions of the Edinburgh civic theatre at the Lyceum, under the directorship of his old friend Tom Fleming, into which the Gateway had mutated. He was not, however, afraid of social realism though he never wallowed in it. His one-act play 'The Asset' was denounced by Ayr Presbytery because of what now seem mild scenes of drinking and swearing. This, and the fact that the little ministers had neither read the text nor seen the work, so infuriated my father that he briefly left the church. His plays are not much performed now, and hardly appear consonant with the brutal, self-revelatory frankness of our times. A national theatre, if we ever get one, may still find them worth exploring.
Behind the French influence, behind the rich and sentimental characterisation, there lay something else which I can best describe as a dream of social harmony. There was, therefore, something of an old-style Toryism in my father's political attitudes. The old Toryism believed in mutual obligation and valued the contribution of all to the social matrix. He once rebuked me for speaking slightingly of a news vendor. He was an honest man making his living, he said sharply. Yet he was also quite capable of ticking off a bus conductor who greeted him with 'How are you, Jimmy?' with the reply, 'Well, thank you, Marmaduke.'
He was once asked to stand as a Nationalist candidate but wisely declined. He would not have coped well with the infighting of politics. The Ayr Presbytery controversy caused him a disproportionate amount of distress and the campaign against the plan for an inner ring road in Edinburgh almost certainly hastened his death, so choleric did he become about a project that would have lopped the end off our graceful crescent at the fringe of the New Town and destroyed many more properties in its brutal sweep. He did not live to see the campaign's victory or the adoption, decades later, of its suggested alternative – an outer relief road.
His cultural nationalism remained dominant. He believed passionately that the distinctive traditions of Scotland should be celebrated, sustained and, if possible, renewed. He wrote several historical plays, for example about John Knox and Robert the Bruce, which show the depth of his knowledge and understanding. But the old Scotland was vanishing, the forces of assimilation and consumerism were taking hold, the Church of Scotland and the Tory party both beginning a period of rapid decline. Yet my father kept going. He had a fruitful relationship with television, writing several original plays for it and becoming the Glasgow Herald's television critic (and Saturday diarist). He was extraordinarily industrious and let little go to waste. A short story would resurface as a play and then as a novel.
His attitude to London and the English remained ambiguous and even contradictory. He counted English people among his dearest friends; he was devoted to his London agent, Derek Glynne; he gave his best years to Scotland but towards the end of his life, as new brooms came into the BBC and the work began to dry up at home, he aimed at last for London (he had two successful runs of late comedies at Windsor but ill luck, and perhaps the changed climate, kept them out of the West End).
My father died in 1957 at the age of 59, carried away by a stroke which, I suspect, was brought on by medical treatment he was receiving at the time for an ulcer. Scarcely a day goes by when I do not think of him. It is a sad truth that you remember your parents more vividly in their declining years than in their prime. Towards the end of his life he suffered sometimes from melancholy which, in a man of such wit and merriment, was sad to see. But, with only a little effort, I look beyond, to the sunlit days of our childhood beside the Water of Leith, to his love, his companionship, his cultivated intelligence and his lack of conceit or self-satisfaction. It is one of the delights of advancing years sometimes to see in my grandchildren, in a look or a laugh or a mannerism, sudden glimpses of both my father and my mother.
I suppose I have inherited some of his attitudes – his francophilia and his belief, sometimes strained in the face of mindless crime or excessive greed, in the possibility of social harmony. When I became the editor of the Glasgow Herald between 1981 and 1994, his influence was the most pervasive of all, perhaps because it operated unceasingly and often at a subconscious level. I had learned my trade from three fine masters – Alastair Dunnett, Alastair Hetherington and Eric Mackay – but any editor will tell you there is no single right way of doing the job. Everyone must find an approach and a method. I think I was more than usually sympathetic to contributors and freelances. If so, this was because I had seen how my father, down the years, had suffered at the hands of the mediocre and the arrogant. As a freelance, he usually had to grin and bear it, although sometimes he didn't.
But most of all, I think, he influenced my rejection of Thatcherism. Its emphasis on the marketplace would have offended his concepts of social harmony and he would, I fancy, have detested its hectoring tone, just as my mother did. His premature death still fills me with a sense of injustice and every year by which my own lifespan exceeds his seems an ill-deserved bonus. Above all, like many Scots, I sense in myself that everlasting struggle between the bourgeois and the bohemian. In his case the bourgeois won but the bohemian was always there too, never crudely dressed but wrapped in wit and irony. Philip Larkin's infamous judgement on parents does not apply to mine.
Arnold Kemp died in 2002
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