Jimmy Logan, selling water and playing safe

The Herald, Editorial Notebook, 29 May 1993.

THE water in the Grand Canal looks filthy but the fat lady from the Bronx reclines in the gondola and trails her fingers langorously in it. This early in the year the smells are not yet ripe but the occasional pong wafts up to the restaurant where we sit in the garden as evening falls.

With or without gas? asks the waiter. He does not doubt that we shall be drinking mineral water and its aeration is the only issue to be settled. The Italians love the stuff, and I have spent many idle moments trying to decipher the various claims of a quasi-medical nature which adorn the labels on the rival brands.

The best translation I can manage is: ”This water may have diuretic effects and assists in the processes of digestion.” The Anglo-Saxon version might be more explicit but I prefer the soft Italian euphemisms, and I have to admit that, yes, it does have a diuretic effect. But then so too does beer.

Not for the first time I wonder about this craze for bottled water. We used to drink tap water with pleasure in Edinburgh and circumspection in parts of Glasgow because of the lead pipes. Now the supermarket shelves groan with the rival brands and there is serious money to be made. The misfortunes of Perrier three years ago filled many a column in the Financial Times.

That great and good man Jimmy Logan was often a bit ahead of his time. He was your original entrepreneur. He didn’t hang on to his money; he used it to do interesting things. He went into Scottish Television with Roy Thomson when risk-averse Scottish financial institutions hung back nervously. He made a pot but he lost a bit of it again on his great love, the theatre.

Win some, lose some, he never complained. I thought of Jimmy in Venice last week as I quaffed yet another littro of Saint Somebody, because on the question of water he was again ahead of the game. And when I got home to Glasgow we spoke on the phone.

You wouldn’t have thought he was recovering from a quadruple by-pass operation. (I am told he has come through it very well.) He did not linger on the question of how he was but instead poked around in his memory so that he could tell me the story of his little company, Scotch Water.

It was, I think (although neither of us could be sure), in the sixties that Jimmy got the idea. He had friends among the leading night-club proprietors in Paris, and at the time Scotch whisky was the fashionable drink. On such matters the French seek perfection. They noted that when they diluted the Scotch with French water, the taste was changed; indeed, it was slightly tainted. Why not, they said to Jimmy, export a Scottish water for the specific purpose of mixing it with whisky?

It seemed a pretty good idea to Jimmy. And so he went round the distillers of the day. They were doing pretty well and weren’t interested. This ties in with historical accounts of DCL, later to be taken over by Guinness. It was a complacent company run on confederal lines and its most senior management rarely dirtied their hands with commerce; they travelled the world in an ambassadorial manner. Your career in the company prospered if you had a good golf handicap coupled with the good sense never to beat the chairman.

Jimmy persevered with his idea. He managed to get together his Scotch Water Company. He engaged a bottling company to put the water into dumpy bottles and he shipped it from Leith to Belgium and France. The water cost next to nothing but the label and the container cost a fortune. He couldn’t remember the date of all this but he did remember that it was 6[1/2]d (sixpence-halfpenny in the old money) FOB at Leith. For the benefit of younger readers I should explain that a penny was a twelfth of a shilling and that a shilling was five new pence. For my own benefit Jimmy told me that FOB meant ”free on board” — that is, all the costs of putting it on the ship had been met before the ship sailed.

Jimmy, said I, if you tried to send a consignment of water from Leith you might find there weren’t any ships to take it any more. You might have to stick it on a lorry and send it somewhere else. Is that so? he said. Together for a moment we silently pondered our country’s sad history of industrial and maritime decline.

Then he said: ”There was a lot of laughter at my idea. People said, You’d have to be a comic to sell water.” If so, then Jimmy was the wisest fool in Christendom. The trouble was that nobody listened.

Maybe in this wee parable there is a truth about our decline. Here was a good idea that withered because people had no imagination and wanted to play safe. It seems a common story.

This week Babcock Energy at Renfrew announced extensive redundancies because our Government is too feeble-minded to have an energy policy that would commission a renewal of nuclear generating capacity as the old reactors end their lives, or to plan for sustained employment of men in the pits (the two objectives are pefectly compatible).

The excuse for this retreat from responsibility is ”respect for market forces”. When we have to replace our nuclear power stations, as we must, then we’ll have to buy them from abroad, for our own skillsbase will have gone.

There’s no point in looking back in anger. Jimmy does not. This year he’s appearing at the Edinburgh Festival in a celebration of our music-hall tradition. He plans to do once more the teddy-boy sketch that made me laugh a long time ago at The Empire, Edinburgh. I hope he includes his butcher’s boy who said, ”Sausages is the boys”. This was the comedy of the age of innocence. I raise my glass (not of water) to a gent and a visionary.