Miles Kington: Occasionally, the reality does match the stereotype

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The Independent Online

Chic Murray, the Scottish comedian I was talking about yesterday, was a completely unknown name to me until one day in the 1970s when our editor at Punch magazine, William Davis, decided we should have a Scottish number, and Chic was one of the people he commissioned to write for the issue.

I can't remember much of what Chic Murray said about Scottish humour except that he insisted that the Scots found death funnier than other nations did. I didn't believe this until years later, when I was up in Scotland watching a television programme featuring Rikki Fulton (another Scots comedian we never hear of down here) in which Fulton played a salesman in a coffin showroom. He was trying to deal with a woman whose husband had just died, and who had no very clear idea of what kind of coffin he might want, until she remembered that he had once expressed a desire to be buried at sea.

"We have the very thing right here, madam!" said Fulton, and conducted her along the line of coffins until he came to one which had an outboard motor attached to the end. Brilliant ...

When the time for the launch of the Scottish number came, William Davis insisted on going to Glasgow for a publication party, and also insisted on a writer (me) and cartoonist (Stan McMurtry, now Mac of the Mail) going along with him, and this led to the only occasion on which I have ever seen real life imitate the old tired clichés of Scottish humour, which is what this article is really about.

We got to Glasgow in time for William Davis to do an interview on local radio, which he did faster than anyone I have ever seen. (He told me once that he had learnt the secret of successful radio chat the very first time he was doing one on Radio 4. He overheard someone afterwards asking the producer how Davis had been. "He was just great!" said the producer. "He was in and out in under five minutes!")

We then wandered in and out of several Glasgow newsagents, putting Punch on top of Private Eye, and when the novelty of that wore off, David looked at his watch and realised that we still had six hours to go till the launch.

"What can we do in Glasgow for six hours?" he said plaintively.

"Let's go on the Glasgow Underground," I said.

It was something I had always wanted to see. It was something David had never heard of, and it took some effort for us to get him down there.

But it paid off, because while we were waiting on the platform for the first train, he became transfixed by a poster on the wall. It was for our very own magazine. It said: "Buy Punch every week – only 6d. Read such writers as A P Herbert, J B Boothroyd, H F Ellis, Richard Mallett...!"

"Good God!" said Davis. "How long has that poster been there for? It's still got a pre-decimal price on it! We haven't been 6d for 10 years at least! And half those writers are dead, or retired... What on earth are they playing at? When I see the Punch reps tonight, I'm going to give them a hard time !"

And sure enough, when we gathered for the launch, he made sure he shepherded the local reps into a corner at one point, and described the poster he had seen on the Glasgow Underground that very afternoon, and demanded an explanation of why something so palpably out of date should be allowed to be seen in public.

The reps were shaken by the fact that Davis had actually gone down into the Underground to do such accurate research. But one of them was brave enough to give him the answer.

"The thing is, Mr David, we get that poster site at a very advantageous rate, and we are afraid that if we change the poster, they might notice and bring the rates up to modern standards!

I'm not saying there really is a careful, penny-watching side to the Scottish character. All I am saying is that it is nice when, just occasionally, reality does match the stereotype.