Yesterday we mentioned that David Robinson was leaving The Scotsman, but what we hadn’t mentioned was that we’d been invited to his leaving do at Summerhall last night.
There can’t be many other such parties that have included Tam Dalyell, Richard Holloway, Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin on the guest list. Normally it’s a few Argos vouchers, an awkward speech from a line manager who hardly knows you and tipsy rants about the top brass all round. Not so for David.
In 30 years at The Scotsman, 15 of them as books editor, David has made a huge number of friends in publishing, journalism, photography and many other fields, and they weren’t going to let him go quietly. Nick Barley, the director of the EIBF and linchpin of the organising committee, led the tributes at the event held in the dissection room bar.
Stuart Kelly spoke of the vicious ways in which critics are often described by authors, most memorably as “the piano player in the brothel” (it doesn’t matter what tune they play, the work upstairs still goes on), but that none of them have ever been applied to David. Jamie Byng, from whom we’ve stolen this post’s title, said that David had always been a presence in his life since founding Canongate yet, being a true Yorkshireman, is extremely difficult to kiss.
Edinburgh Makar Christine De Luca read a poem composed for the occasion, which was presented, framed, to David. If we could get a copy, we’d love to reproduce it here. In classic This is Your Life style, one short speech was delivered by a proxy, in this case from Ali Smith “who couldn’t be here tonight” by her agent Jenny Brown. Smith was there in spirit, though, having sent along four bottles of Ardbeg, three of which were polished off by the guests throughout the evening.
Next up was Alexander McCall Smith, who said the precedent that authors should send their agents along to all events was one everyone should follow. Sandy’s global hit, 44 Scotland Street, began just over ten years ago as a serial in The Scotsman, suggested over lunch and wine by David. His initial response was that one chapter a week could be tricky. When told David wanted one a day, Sandy said, “that was when the machismo kicked in” and he agreed on the spot. The rest is publishing history, as 44 Scotland Street is apparently now the longest literary serial ever published.
A trip to Botswana with David was then recounted, with them both freezing under the stars during a night in the Kalahari. Sandy was fine, though, as he found enough aluminium foil to cover himself. Only himself, mind. His speech closed, as does every book of 44 Scotland Street, with a poem by one of his characters, Angus Lordie. David has been a guest of Angus’ parties (something I remember well, having once had to correct his name from an absent-minded ‘Robertson’ in the copy), so to have had one of his flights of high metaphor (ranging from firemen to fireraisers) addressed to him must have been a special treat.
David himself had the penultimate word. He began by noting that journalists are not as cynical as we are painted, and in fact we are romantics, always trying to recapture a Golden Age. Running swiftly through his three decades as a “hack”, he thanked Magnus Linklater for being such a great editor. The mark of a great editor was, of course, to leave him alone as much as possible.
For a true Golden Age, though, he went back to 1817, the year of The Scotsman’s launch, and showed us the front page. On a day when Luddites were running wild, protesters were being attacked by troops in Manchester and many other huge historical events, the tiny headline read (if memory serves): “THE CRISIS IN LITERARY STYLE”. Now that’s a Golden Age for book sections.
To close, he then introduced his niece, Ciara Harvie, to sing a couple of arias. Expecting a nervous, possibly embarrassed performance, the whole audience stood slack-jawed as this tiny 17-year-old belted out an incredible sound that… well, have a listen for yourself.
So a near future of lie-ins, late breakfasts and, above all, lots and lots of reading awaits David, but we’re sure he won’t be satisfied with that.
In all, it was very much an evening to remember, and if you ever get anything like it when you leave a job, you’ll know you too are definitely someone special.