Observer stalwart who revelled in the joy of journalism

Robin McKie The Observer, Sunday 9 September 2012

Arnold Kemp

Arnold Kemp in a bar, where he would lead glorious conversations that could go anywhere. Photograph: Observer.

Arnold Kemp, who died 10 years ago this month, joined the Observer in 1996. He made an instant and profound impact, partly through the fine journalistic example he set us, but also in the way he demonstrated how our craft could be enjoyed. Above all, newspapers should be fun, he decreed, an edict he demonstrated vividly when writing his columns for the Observer‘s Scottish edition, many of which are included in a new collection of his journalism, Confusion to Our Enemies, which is edited by his daughter, Jackie Kemp, and published on Monday.

Apart from producing a perfectly honed 700-word feature on that day’s topic (as the following two extracts reveal), Arnold added a frisson to the task by including a phrase or saying that was to be proposed by subeditors Jonathan Bouquet and John Barton. Their first diktat was straightforward: include the words “the revocation of the Edict of Nantes” in your column. Given that Arnold was writing about Scottish tourism that week, this was not an enviable assignment. As you will see, he passed the test with ease.

Other teasers set for him included the phrase of former Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol – “Put three Zionists in a room and they will form four parties” – and Nikita Khrushchev’s warning: “If you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you.” Arnold effortlessly slotted them into his copy as if they were the most natural of phrases that could have been used under the circumstances.

Then it was time to head for the pub, where he would lead glorious conversations that could go anywhere, from the erratic use of the chord A suspended fifth in rock music to the value of personal worth in the novels of Jane Austen. Drinks and colleagues would roll in and the tempo, but not the emotion, would heat up. It was glorious, exhilarating mayhem that ended inevitably with his favourite, stalwart toast: “Confusion to our enemies.” It was, quite simply, a wonderful time to work at the Observer.

Arnold Kemp was a newspaperman to his bones. “It’s given me 40 great years,” he would say. “I’m a lucky man.” But really, it was simply fair trade – for he gave journalism four decades of genius and graft.

Haste ye back? But no late breakfast

The ills of Scottish tourism are familiar. To the natural disadvantages of climate may be added a lack of national aptitude.

It has always been my impression that the Irish take more naturally to tourism than the Scots. Proprietors of guest houses in the Republic do not, for example, tend to snarl at visitors, or send them away hungry if they are more than 10 minutes late for breakfast, or festoon their premises with notices, about such matters as bathing, which have an implacable sternness unmatched since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

The Irish, too, have exploited their golf courses as a major tourist resource; the Scots, who invented the game, have signally failed to do so. The Irish have also supported their tourist authority with far greater resources.

The Scottish board’s chairman, Lord Gordon, has protested about the intemperance of the criticism it has encountered. And it is true that no central authority, no matter how well funded, could entirely compensate for the under-capitalisation and uncertain revenue streams that explain much of tourism’s difficulties in Scotland, any more than it could wave a wand and banish from our two-star hotels those characteristic aromas of disinfectant and stale frying fat. Or outlaw the surly barman who makes clear his distaste for all except the local drunks, and the maladroit waiter who inadvertently clips the diner’s ear with the plate while serving soup.

Yet we must persist in our efforts to raise standards and to provide better training. Apart from fish farming, forestry and farming, tourism is the only hope for our remoter communities. If the Scottish tourist board needs top-flight management, it also needs more money and more powers to disqualify the incompetent from its seals of approval.

It also needs a strong wind of political will behind it, to resist the squeals from offended regional or commercial interests. A serious drive for higher standards will not be painless. Unfortunately, our political leaders seem to lack the bottle for the task.

September 2001

On tour with the Tartan Army

In Brussels, after cordially booing the referee for denying Scotland a penalty, I felt cleansed of life’s petty irritations. Our expedition was what used to be called a wayzgoose, or a works outing, by some of the Scots on the Observer. Such expeditions sometimes meet the fate that befell Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes: they can be fatally ruined by long lunches.

But by dint of iron discipline and a little luck, we made it to the ground on time and found the Tartan Army in good heart; as ever, it was full of booze, hope and humour. After the game, it responded with resigned patience to the extraordinary inefficiency of the Brussels authority, which grotesquely over-policed the crowd and, at the end, lured the Scottish foot soldiers into an interminable march through the outer city suburbs before depositing them at a metro station where, two hours later, the queues had barely diminished. The King Baudouin stadium is a long way out of town but this great capital of the European project is oddly short of taxis. As for the buses, they ran inscrutably to remote destinations, anywhere but to the city centre.

As we marched, some brave spirit relieved the monotony by plunging into the pool below a fountain, but in general the mood was a sad acceptance that the team simply had not been good enough.

We used to believe that though we were a small country we could, on our day, beat the best. Occasionally we did so, although we often stumbled, as if out of ennui, against lesser sides. But since the daft days of Ally McLeod, Scottish coaches, from Stein onwards, have not just managed the team but have managed the expectations of the fans, too. This has had some beneficial results. Triumphalism of the English sort is not only unattractive; it is clearly unobtainable and, therefore, ludicrous. And so the Tartan Army has made its good behaviour its calling card and dignity in defeat its motto.

But we must move on and recover some of our old cockiness. Lloyd George said: “Don’t be afraid to take big steps. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.” We must stop thinking small.

September 2001