Caught up today with the only man who is listed in my contact file as “guru”, simply because I can’t quite think of any other title that quite covers what he does/is.
The first time I met David Johnston was in the late 1980s when he was head of news Radio Forth. If the stories from the time are to be believed, DJ was also on a handsome retainers from both The Sun and (the now defunct) Today newspapers. What is indisputable is that he was about the best informed journalist in Scotland at the time.
He knew the Fettesgate and Magic Circle scandals inside out, he published the first credible book on the Lockerbie Bombing long before anyone was brought to trial and he was generally at the heart of many of the other biggest stories of the day. He is also soon expected to publish a book (co-authored with Tom Wood, former Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police) about the World’s End Murders.
David keeps his hand in journalistically (its impossible not too for a man with such a well thumbed and extensive contact book) by placing the odd story here and there. But he’s long since given up the radio job and now enjoys far more genteel pursuits, both on his East Lothian estate (well, two acres!) and at his Hebridean holiday home on Colonsay.
The main reason for today’s meeting was to discuss his latest venture – the Colonsay Brewery. Along with three islanders, he has spent the last year perfecting an IPA, a lager and an 80 Shilling, all brewed and bottled 17 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean on an island with a population of just 90. The infrequent ferry visits mean the costs are stacked against the operation – and DJ cheerfully admits the small group could brew exactly the same tipples on the mainland for a fraction of the price. But won’t, because it would defeat the purpose.
Any catch up with David is replete with irreverent chat (he refers to two of my pals as “smarm” and “the speaking clock”) and journalistic stories from the wackiest events and people to have cropped up during his eventful career. My two favourte stories today were:
1 – The former reporter trained by DJ who went on to officer training at Sandhurst. Years later, during a catch up, he was telling David how much he was enjoying the thrill of army life – particularly the time when he turned up at a wedding in a rabidly Nationalist area of Northern Ireland. He had enjoyed the pure adrenaline rush which came of being in a room with 200 other people who wanted to kill him.
When DJ asked how the gathered crowd knew his former protege was a British soldier, he looked at David as though he was daft and said: “Because I was the only man in there with a tweed jacket on, of course. How else do you think I was supposed to keep my gun and holster out of sight?” Truly barking. Still, the former reporter is now also a former soldier, having landed on his feet – by marrying the heiress daugher of an Aussie vineyard owner. It seems fortune really does favour the brave.
2 – DJ also regaled me with the story of his time covering the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986. Crooked newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell had stepped in to “save” the financially troubled event in Edinburgh. Even though the impressively eyebrowed entrepreneur hadn’t yet been exposed as a cheat and a charlatan, there were many in the media who knew he was rotten – including two of David’s journo pals who took delight in pricking Maxwell’s pomposity at every opportunity. That was usually at the lavish press conferences called by Maxwell at every opportunity.
At one such event, DJ’s pals were happily Maxwell baiting during a stormy Q&A until, in a fit of rage, the lardy newspaper magnate demanded to know where their information had come from. The hacks retorted that the info had been provided by the Games’ very own press officer (we’ll call him) Jimmy Smith. To which the spluttering Maxwell demanded: “Jimmy Smith! JIMMY SMITH! Are you in this room?”. Then, when the hapless fellow stood up to identify himself he was greeted with a finger point and a roar from Maxwell who announced: “You are now the EX games press officer!”
Publicly sacked in front of the gobsmacked world’s press – what a way to go. Those were the days!