The last message I received from the late, great Bill Jamieson was an email last summer with this in the subject box: “BEWARE THIS SNAKE OIL.”
In his beautiful, bristling prose, Bill chided me for being too kind in a recent article about an industrialist who advocated letting the pound fall to boost manufacturing. He wrote: “Down with the pound! It has such an easy charm – all the seduction of instant solution. But this is the cure-all of the snake oil salesman.”
While Bill, who died last weekend of cancer, aged 75, accepted the loss of a heavy manufacturing base as tragic, he argued the ambrosia of a cheaper pound would have a devastating impact on the country as it would result in higher import costs, higher inflation and the “subsidisation of the inefficient”.
He went on to pour scorn on those who scoffed at the “non-manual, light-footed, dirt and sweat-free service economy as if ‘service’ were vulgar, superficial or unworthy”. Oh, God, he added, how much happier they would be “metal bashing in Merthyr Tydfil or chiselling at nuts and bolts on some heritage-award assembly-line with a Gradgrind boss on an overhead gantry barking foul imprecations and monitoring our toilet breaks”.
It was classic Bill: caustic, cutting and funny but most of all his long tirade – which was as entertaining as one of his famed columns – showed how deeply he cared about his chosen trade, and the state of his country. And that he never missed the chance for a feisty spat with me, or anyone else.
As I chuckled over his email, I had only to close my eyes and imagine his familiar voice booming through the ether from his Scottish home, to where he had retired after writing for and editing The Scotsman.
Reading his words again took me back to when we worked together at The Sunday Telegraph City office in the mid-1990s when he was economics editor and I was covering the City beat. They were glorious days, and so were the long lunches at Gatti’s – his favourite Italian haunt – at which we put the world to rights.
Bill held court in the far-right window corner of our tiny Salters Hall newsroom in Fore Street, resplendent in colourful bow ties and red socks, his Benson & Hedges smokes by his side and downing black coffee by the pot. His black tie attire would hang on the coat stand, ready for his many jaunts to the opera which he loved. Head bent low over his keyboard, from Thursday onwards Bill would type away frantically, muttering to himself, or crying out: “More coal,” by which he meant more stories.
The best moments – usually minutes away from the Friday night deadlines – were when he edited our copy. What would he think? We hung to his every word. The ones we hoped to hear were: “I can read this until the print falls off the page,” one of his many jollier expressions.
When Bill did wield his red pen, he did so with unfailing courtesy, and was always generous to younger journalists with advice and access to his extensive City black book. Yet there were volcanic scenes too, usually over some financial scandal or political idiocy that he was chasing or writing about, and then he would erupt into big belly laughs of joy or despair, often hard to tell which was which.
Most of those idiocies were to do with Britain’s relations with the EU, which for him was an undemocratic institution into whose straitjacket the UK did not fit well.
Bill was an early Eurosceptic, well before most of us had a clue what he was talking about, and can claim to be one of the pioneers of the movement from the 1970s onwards. He wrote endless and relentless columns – and many books on the subject such as Britain Beyond Europe.
With rigorous analysis, he showed how the UK’s overseas investments and trading relations were already expanding into every corner of the globe but declining with the continent. He was ahead of his time, and Brexit was the inevitable conclusion of his prognosis.
It’s rare for a newspaperman to be a powerful columnist and old-school story-getter: Bill was one of those rarities. On duty late one Friday night in February 1995, he received a call from Charles Moore, the editor, who had heard Barings was bust. Bill went into the office on the Saturday, calling one of his Bank of England contacts at home. His wife answered, telling Bill her husband was at the office.
Bingo! Bill called his contact at the Old Lady, who told him he couldn’t help. That was all Bill needed to know. He immediately sent a photographer to the Barings HQ in Bishopsgate. The photographer phoned back to say the building was lit up like a Christmas tree. Bill had his story.
The following Sunday, Bill went to Barings to find out more, walked past the doormen and into the bank. In the corridor, he bumped into Francis Baring who spilt the beans. Bill got the next part of the scoop, and the rest is history.
Those who knew and worked with Bill will mourn his joyful presence but remember his fine words. So too will readers for his wise – and often eerily prescient – views.
The author is executive editor of Reaction.