The Edinburgh International Book Festival is upon us, and with it the opportunity to spend a few moments in the company of writers famous and obscure. Having been on both sides of the pen, as both author and punter, I am fascinated by the etiquette of the signing queue. How long can one hog the writer before annoying the person behind? How many books is it appropriate to ask to be signed?
I once chaired the musician and fashion maven Brix Smith Start, whose memoir The Rise, The Fall, And The Rise charts an extraordinary life from childhood in Los Angeles through her marriage to Mark E Smith and beyond. Afterwards, there was a sizeable queue for autographs, and she’s a right gab so it took ages. Last in line was a sixtysomething gentleman, Tom Young, natty in a blazer, blue jeans, a miasma of aftershave, and a shirt patterned with hunners of guitars. Oh aye, he said to Brix, he used to be in a band himself. ‘Have you heard of O’Hara’s Playboys? We had a semi-hit in Germany, but then along came The Beatles and buggered us up.’
She sympathised, signed a book, posed for a photo. ‘Right, see you, son,’ he told me. ‘I’m buggering off back to Kirkintilloch.’
Brix is alright. Good for a glass of wine and some craic in the green room. Not all authors are such easy company. The memory of James Ellroy still gives me the screaming abdabs. Backstage, in the dressing room, he stood in the toilet cubicle, the door wide open, legs wide apart, urinating long and loud. Well, it must have been loud as I could still hear the stream despite the fact he was howling like a wolf.
My wife asked him to sign her copy of Silent Terror. He obliged with marriage guidance. ‘To Jo,’ he wrote. ‘Fear Peter Ross!’
Adventurer, soldier, bon viveur, entrepreneur, raconteur – one would be tempted to describe Major Ruaraidh Hilleary, the laird of Edinbane, as the last of his kind were it not for the suspicion that there has never been anyone quite like him and will not be again.
Major Hilleary lives in Skirinish House, an eighteenth century pile-ette at the end of a private road in the north-east of Skye. He has plump pink cheeks, and white hair swept back from his face; his blue eyes have a sparkle of mischief, like ice in gin. He has lived a life somewhere between James Bond and Falstaff, but now – at the age of 91 – the Falstaffian side has the upper hand. ‘A damn good supper of lobster or grouse, and beer for breakfast,’ is his idea of larks.
I drove from my home in Glasgow, setting off before dawn, rewarded for the early start by the sight of wild goats on the road at Shiel Bridge, satanic and majestic with sooty pelts and scimitar horns.
On the island, in the village of Upper Breakish, I passed a thatched cottage with whitewashed walls. This is where Hilleary’s maternal grandfather, Duncan, was born. One of ten children, he left for Liverpool and got a job selling lemonade, before moving to New York. ‘When he got there, it was about the time of Prohibition, and he realised that whisky was rather a better bet.’
He made a fortune, and the acquaintance of Al Capone, and moved back to Skye rich enough to buy an estate and Victorian mansion. Hilleary, born in 1926, spent his school holidays at the mansion, Skeabost, which brought him into an extraordinary social circle. Pop into the kitchen and you might find Harry Lauder enjoying a cup of tea with the Reverend George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community. One vivid recollection is of the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli examining some local tweed. ‘She was quite a figure for a child. You could see her aura. I remember her in rather grand furs and smelling wonderful.’
Anyone with memories of this sort ought to write a memoir, and thankfully Hilleary has done so. It is called Whatever You Are Doing … Don’t! – a phrase which was often on his maternal grandmother’s lips. He was a spirited child with an innate distaste for conformity. The passing decades have not brought him into line. He remains a rebel to his bones.
School wasn’t much fun. His housemaster at Eton was the mathematician HK Marsden, a noted sadist known as Bloody Bill who seemed to take pleasure in caning the boys under his charge. ‘A big gangling sort of chap,’ is Hilleary’s recollection. ‘A pretty frightening figure. Extraordinary brain. He used to play pocket billiards with his balls while he talked, and he knew Bradshaw’s railway timetables by heart. I became very fond of him.’
The same could not be said of the man who tutored him in Latin one summer – the poet Robert Graves; ‘Dreadful chap!’ Hilleary soon saw him off – or ‘orf’ as puts it – by locking him in the squash court.
There is physical evidence to support this anecdote. On an old desk by the living room window at Skirinish is a tarnished silver cup full of pencils. Close examination reveals it as a squash trophy dating from 1937. Hanging from one of the wooden shutters is a fox’s brush from the same year. It was Hilleary’s first hunt, age eleven; his pony bolted and he found himself in at the kill. He was a great enthusiast for bloodsports as a boy. Schiaparelli’s perfume is not the most evocative scent from his childhood. That honour goes to ‘gun oil and the hill’. He shot his first stag at twelve, or rather his first four, having bagged that number on his debut.
This was all great preparation for later adventures in Africa. I had heard about these the first time we met. It was April 2015 and I was on Skye to cover the general election. I’d called in to ask Major Hilleary how he was planning to vote (Tory, naturally) but the conversation went off-piste. My notes: ‘I worked my passage out to South Africa on a cattle boat for a shilling a month … I got sacked from the ranch for putting a donkey in the manager’s room … I went down the Zambezi in a dug-out with a friend of mine. We were shooting crocodiles …’
He has three children, ten grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and ‘two more in the oven’. A fourth child, Iona, to whom his book is dedicated – ‘In loving memory of my darling daughter’ – died in a car accident while Hilleary was driving. He had been going too fast and will never forgive himself. ‘It’s been lurking in my conscience for a long time. It was a very difficult time. She was seven.’
It is an ‘eternal regret’ that VE Day came along before he had a chance to fight in France. He missed out by just a couple of weeks. He knows that he would very likely have been killed, but the influence of Churchill’s speeches had him aching to do his bit. ‘I couldn’t wait to get at them.’ Instead, in the early days of peace, he was posted to Trieste, where the Scots Guards were responsible for patrolling the line between Italy and Yugoslavia, keeping the peace.
‘It was very difficult to get fresh milk in Trieste, so I had a goat. Boadicea, it was called,’ Hilleary recalls. ‘One day, somebody, a Pipe Major I suspect, cut off its beard and painted it with purple stripes. And the Guardsmen used to give it cigarettes. It loved cigarettes, but they made its milk taste filthy.’ He also had a goose, Caractacus, which ate so much bread soaked in brandy that it became an alcoholic and could no longer be relied upon for eggs.
There is so much more to Major Hilleary’s life. Far too much to set down here. Joining the SAS, starting a salmon farm with Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, brothel-creeping in Brussels, tobogganing in St Moritz. A typical anecdote might begin – “When I took 230 people to dance reels in a palace in St Petersburg …” – and end, “And it turned out that the lady who answered the door was the sister of the Duchess of Rutland!” He is, in short, a hoot.
We say cheerio in the porch, surrounded by Barbours and wellies. Major Hilleary’s madcap days are behind him, sadly – ‘When I fall over, I can’t get up. Like a cast sheep. Bloody awful.’– but he intends to attend the Skye Gathering Ball this September. He has been going since 1947 and has been secretary since 1974. It is hardly a bacchanal, though one can still get a lumber. His kilt is rather tight these days, and his legs aren’t really up to dancing; nevertheless, he loves to stay up till dawn and watch the sun rise over Portree Bay.
‘I hope,’ he says, ‘to be remembered with some laughter.’
To London, to take part in an all-day public reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The venue is Senate House, a huge white art deco wedge rising out of Bloomsbury, which served as George Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth.
Fifty or so readers take a turn – journalists, activists, politicians, actors, academics and so on. Among them is Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary, a rather Big Brotherish role, although the man himself is distinctly avuncular. He had been assigned a passage in which Winston Smith is tortured in the Ministry of Love.
Johnson is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to talk about his latest volume of memoir, The Long And Winding Road. In Room 101 of Senate House (yes, really – it’s used for temporary exhibitions) we speak about his passion for Orwell, who he says has been a ‘pole star’ in his political thinking since 1964. A long-haired bohemian English teacher introduced Animal Farm to the class, and suddenly 14-year-old Johnson had a new hero to rival Paul McCartney.
At a certain point, shortly before Johnson read from Nineteen Eighty-Four, I found myself backstage in a very small room with him, Melvyn Bragg and Ken Loach. As my wife – unheeding of James Ellroy’s advice – later observes with a disconcertingly erotic trill, ‘Some women of a certain age would pay good money for that.’