You may have noticed that you haven't seen much of me this year. The editorial, for so long a regular fixture at the top of the home page, has appeared less and less and recently not at all. It wasn't a case of column-writing fatigue. Though as I wrote my first column – the Bonnybridge Notes in the Falkirk Mail – in 1958 at the age of 13, the best-before date expired long ago.
The truth – I will detain you no longer – is that I have received an unwelcome diagnosis. That isn't an original euphemism, by the way. I'm indebted to Michael Morpurgo for thinking of it first in a recent Spectator diary about his own situation. 'An unwelcome diagnosis' – I smiled in admiration at this neat way of avoiding the actual word.
At that stage I was still officially in denial. Privately, though, I was staring into the void – silently, often for hours at a stretch – and whenever I dared to ask the void what I was thinking, the same answer always came back in a booming voice: 'Your mortality, of course, you idiot. What else?'
I will spare you the details and give you the edited highlights, which bear no resemblance to the present Ayr United season: the constant references to Dr Google for comfort (ignore that quack, please, if you wish to retain your sanity); the increasing unexplained fatigue – the post-lunch nap now brought forward to coffee time; the loss of appetite; the inconclusive GP appointment; the iron supplement that didn't seem to be going anywhere; the growing sense of dread; the inner knowledge that a crisis was imminent. The void was telling me so. It was just a question of waiting for the last bus.
'Pulse faint,' said the ambulance man. When they got me to the hospital, I was taken at once to a large private room on the ground floor and received the first of the blood transfusions. I heard someone say, '15 minute obs.' Night and day they ministered and monitored.
Early one morning – around 7.30 – I was surprised to receive a visit from a consultant. 'I didn't realise you guys were around at this hour,' I said. He explained that he didn't sleep much beyond 5am so he reckoned that he might as well be at work. We chatted for a bit and he said they'd be running some tests; he was keeping an open mind. He was slow and gentle, with a lovely voice. An actor's voice.
But when he returned after they'd run the tests, his face on entering the room said it all. The moment had come. From the depths of the void I was about to receive my unwelcome diagnosis. He said he didn't believe in sparing his patients the facts. I was grateful for that.
And for the first time in months I was no longer staring into the void. Instead I felt only peace. Bit odd, I have to admit. I mean…in all the circumstances.
I didn't realise then that everything had changed in an instant. That realisation came the next morning when they arrived with the morning papers. The choice wasn't wonderful: Record, Sun, Mail. I thought I might enjoy being infuriated by the Mail, so the Mail it was.
Except, for once, I wasn't infuriated. Halfway through quite a thick edition, I had found nothing to interest me. Did I care about any of this? Did I care if we crashed out of Europe? No. Did I care about Boris Johnson proposing to steal Theresa May's thunder at the Tory conference? No. Did I care if there was a second independence referendum and, if there was, did I care about the result? Perhaps a little; but only a little. The world of events, so preoccupying for the last 60 years ever since my first Bonnybridge Notes, had slipped away, and would never return.
Well, not for me, anyway.
Instead I started thinking – between the giving of blood and the taking of blood – about what I might like to read if it wasn't the newspapers any more. I thought of the clean prose of 'A Moveable Feast,' a book about being young and in love in Paris. I thought of the closing fall of 'The Dead,' the most sublime work of 20th-century fiction, and of the snow general all over Ireland. I thought of Chekhov (of course) and of Simenon, still so under-rated as an anatomist of the darkness in man's soul. I considered Orwell for my reading list expecting him to be a shoo-in, but he didn't make the cut. I think I'm through with Orwell. But I decided that I could do with a dose of those uncompromising Stoics, Seneca and Aurelius, and that I might even like a short essay by grumpy old Priestley. And then I thought of 'The Cost of Living Like This,' a forgotten novel by an almost forgotten Scottish novelist, James Kennaway, which fell apart at the seams when I read it first time around. The man at the centre of it was falling apart too. By the end I was left holding single pages of a life.
I'm working from memory, late at night in a hospital bed. I feel I've only started with my literary bucket list. But the newspapers – I'm done with them.
This left a practical problem: what to do about the Scottish Review. For obvious reasons I can no longer edit it. I'm on the last bus now, front row nearest the driver, and heading for the terminus. And hoping all the traffic lights are at red.
So this is what happened: there was an emergency meeting of the trustees in my hospital room. I gave the company secretary, who also happens to be my deputy, a straight choice. I told Islay (McLeod) that we could either pack it in 15 months short of the magazine's 25th anniversary, adding that there would be no dishonour in that. Or she could take over the editorship with immediate effect. She unhesitatingly chose the latter – a brave decision since she carries heavy additional responsibilities as a member of the Young Programme organising team.
Allan Massie has described SR as a miracle: a small independent magazine that has survived in Scotland for almost quarter of a century. The torch now passes. If anyone can keep the miracle alive, it is the indefatigable Islay McLeod – with your support.
In Bonnybridge in 1958, no self-respecting function was complete without an omnibus vote of thanks. It is time to offer my own omnibus vote of thanks – to the many writers and readers of the Scottish Review who have made my editorship such a privilege. Farewell.