David Randall, author of The Universal Journalist, presents 13 in-depth profiles of the best journalists who ever lived - nine Americans and four Britons, ten men and three women, whose lives were full of adventure, wit and the ingenuity to bring the story home.

Hugh McIlvanney
Reporter, The Observer, Daily Express, and Sunday Times

When it comes to writing, there are several operators – Liebling, Red Smith and Tom Wolf – said to be journalism’s champion. But in my view, this Scotsman, born on a council estate in Kilmarnock and who became the world’s premier sports reporter, beats them all. Here he is on:

The late January weather on Ayr racecourse: “It was the kind of wind that seemed to peel the flesh off your bones and come back for the marrow.”

Boxer Joe Bugner: “the physique of a Greek statue but fewer moves.”

An opponent of Mike Tyson’s: “Bruno was no more competitive than a sheep in an abattoir.”

And George Best: “feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket’s hands “.

I worked with McIlvanney and know that, although his features were sometimes filed to a deadline that bore no relation to the one we in the office were working on, he could, if it came to it, ad-lib down the phone a 2,000-word report of a major event that was, when you received it, as inventive, lucid and considered as if it had been written with a goose-quill pen over three weeks. To this talent, he added a capacity for reading and research that bordered on the compulsive. His quest for precision and talent for getting to the essence of anything was best shown in his report on the death of the young, painfully shy boxer Johnny Owen following a bout in Las Vegas:

…Boxing gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression. Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.”

McIlvanney is simply the best writer ever to apply words to newsprint.

All text and logos copyright David Randall

Book cover images copyright Pluto Press