In his introduction to this amazing book, author Peter Ross recounts the story of attending a friend's birthday party in Glasgow. The pub was full of journalists, men and women who in their thirties and forties ought to be "star writers or senior editors on our national newspapers." Yet most had been caught up in "one the endless rounds of redundancies" sweeping across the industry. "You could almost see the wasted ink seeping out of the door and running down Hope Street. It would be an exaggeration, but not too great an exaggeration, to say that the life and lives of Scotland are in danger of going unwritten."
In the age of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, we're not sure we completely agree. Far more is probably being written about the life and lives of Scotland today than has ever been written at any time in the past. Just as many more photographs are being taken today than have ever been taken before. And when your hear of the impending demise of journalism it's sometimes hard not to ask whether that should be a cause for regret. The impact of some journalism on society these days is little short of corrosive, as fake news and click-bait supplement the drive for sensation and the lowest-common-denominator that has long been pursued by some.
Against this background, it's easy to forget that there is journalism out there that is beautifully written and meticulously researched by men and women of integrity who care deeply about their subjects: and it's equally easy to forget that the results can sometimes be inspiring. Even the very best journalism, however, suffers from the old adage (very old, as hygiene standards mean it has long ceased to be literally true) that today's news is tomorrow's fish and chip paper. Journalism is essentially ephemeral: here today and gone tomorrow. Some if it deserves better, and "The Passion of Harry Bingo: Further Dispatches from Unreported Scotland" by Peter Ross ensures that some of it has received better.
Peter Ross is the sort of journalist who gives journalists a good name. This book is a collection of over forty of his pieces, previously published in papers such as Scotland on Sunday, the Guardian, and the Big Issue. They cover a bewildering range of subjects, though most are about Scotland or the Scots in some shape of form (one of the exceptions being a piece about the World Crazy Golf Championships in Hastings). As you read the pieces the common theme that emerges from many is that they are about the author's observations of, and interactions with, people. The piece about the Whaligo Steps may say that they are "Unsignposted and unphotographable, even if you find them you can't keep them", but the author's central interest is in the story of the man who looks after the steps. "The Eagle's Bairn" recounts a traditional Shetland story about the rescue of a young girl stolen by an eagle, but tells it from the perspective of one of her descendents. Topics covered range from the quirky, such as the Scottish National Poultry Show, to the profoundly serious, such as the helicopter crash on the Clutha pub in Glasgow; or a day in a hospital A&E department. This is a book that deserves to be read.