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A journalist’s memories of Scotland

Andrew Haynes recalls his experiences as a PJ journalist on assignments to report pharmaceutical conferences in Scotland

by Andrew Haynes

Andrew Haynes recalls his experiences as a PJ journalist on assignments to report pharmaceutical conferences in Scotland

See other Christmas miscellany articles

 

Andrew's memories of Scotland

Three years ago Graeme Smith, now deputy editor of The Pharmaceutical Journal, wrote in the Christmas Miscellany (PJ, 24/31 December 2005, p789) about a disastrous experience reporting a conference in Egypt.

As a retired member of the PJ staff I also have some dire conference memories, but mine all relate to meetings not overseas but in Graeme’s home country of Scotland.

My very first conference assignment for The Journal was in October 1976, only a month after I had joined the editorial staff. I was asked at short notice if I could report the annual weekend meeting of the Pharmaceutical Society’s Scottish Executive, to be held at a hotel in Cults, on the outskirts of Aberdeen.

Now, having accepted a substantial drop in salary to become a journalist, I was already committed to pharmacy locum work every Saturday so that I could continue to attempt to support my family in the manner to which they would have liked to have become accustomed.

But I found that I could still do a day’s work and then join the Saturday night sleeper service to Aberdeen, arriving just in time for the conference proper on the Sunday. All I would miss was the social programme on the Saturday evening.

So I booked a berth, plus another for the return journey on the Sunday night, intending to go straight to the office on the Monday morning to write my report.

After a tiring Saturday at the dispensary bench, I headed for King’s Cross and boarded the sleeper, which also served as a mail train. The Royal Mail compartment was not far from my berth and, since this was before the days of double-glazed, air-conditioned sleepers, I had to suffer much mail-related noise from the platform before we set off.

I managed to nod off, only to be woken in Peterborough by postal workers yelling at one another and throwing mail bags around. We moved on, and as I began to doze again we reached Doncaster, where once more I was awakened by shouts and thuds.

And so the night progressed, with further disruptions in York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne.

By now I had given up trying to sleep. When we next pulled into a station I looked out of the window expecting to see Edinburgh. But no. For some unscheduled and unexplained reason we had crossed from the east coast to the west and were now in Carlisle.

Eventually we set off again and I managed to slumber briefly before being woken abruptly by the sound of complete silence. The train had stopped in the middle of nowhere.

Beneath an inky sky I could just make out a near-black landscape dotted with slowly moving shadowy shapes that may or may not have been insomniac sheep. There was no sign of human life and not even a snore from a fellow passenger to be heard.

We sat in this desolate spot for nearly an hour before resuming our journey. As a result, we arrived late in Aberdeen. A taxi dropped me at the hotel just as the first conference session was starting. Had it not been the day on which the clocks went back from BST to GMT, I would have been an hour late.

I was warmly welcomed by the conference organisers but thereafter the event was uneventful. After it finished I found I had a long wait before my return journey to London.

Take my advice. If you ever need to kill several hours make sure you do it somewhere other than Aberdeen on a Sunday night in the 1970s. There was absolutely nothing to do except wander the empty streets looking longingly at the darkened pubs and cafés.

Eventually I was able to board my train, convinced that I would sleep soundly after being restricted to a few catnaps on the previous night. I was wrong. Tired though I was, I slept even less.

I arrived back at the office in zombie mode. Half way through the morning the editor woke me up and sent me home.

M9

My second Scottish adventure was on the occasion of a Veterinary Pharmacists Group conference in Dunblane. The journey there — by British Airways shuttle flight to Edinburgh and then train — was unmemorable, as was the conference itself. The adventure was on the way home.

Three of us needed to return to Edinburgh for the 7pm British Airways shuttle back to Heathrow. One of the conference participants was a Pharmaceutical Society Council member, the late John Myers, who nobly offered us a lift to the airport before he went home to Glasgow. We gratefully — but, in hindsight, foolishly — accepted.

Setting off south along the M9, we soon reached a junction labelled “M9 Edinburgh”. John ignored it and carried on, passing Stirling Castle on the left and following what was now the M80. We ignorant Sassenach passengers initially assumed that, as a local, he must know a better route. But once we had penetrated the outskirts of Glasgow, he reluctantly accepted our protestations and turned back at a roundabout.

Now logic suggests that, having travelled south-westish instead of south-eastish, it would be sensible to assume that a somewhat easterly direction would now afford the shortest route to our target destination. But John insisted on travelling back the way we had come.

When Stirling Castle again appeared — now on the right — John once more managed to miss the “M9 Edinburgh” turn-off. He carried on north to the next exit, just four miles short of our starting point in Dunblane. We again turned through 180 degrees, to head south once more.

This time, as we approached Stirling Castle for the third time, my colleague in the front passenger seat was ready to grab the steering wheel and take control.

We eventually reached Edinburgh airport just in time to press our noses against a glass wall and watch our plane taxiing slowly away from the terminal. There was a two-hour wait until the next shuttle — the last plane out of Edinburgh that day.

The airport shops and restaurants were closed and the concourse was empty apart from the late-night cleaners who vacuumed around our legs as we waited.

I arrived home very late and had trouble getting to sleep. But I struggled into the office the next morning to prepare my conference report. At lunchtime the editor woke me up and sent me home.

The year of the Great Storm

But my worst experience of reporting conferences for The Journal has to be another VPG weekend, held in the Scottish borders in 1987. That was the year of the Great Storm that wrecked buildings and felled five million trees in south-east England. Unfortunately for me, the conference took place on the weekend immediately after the storm.

My plan for Friday 16 October was to spend the morning in the office, leaving at lunchtime with my junior reporter’s conference kit. Since the conference hotel had been carefully chosen to be as far as possible from any convenient railway station, I would pick up my car from my North London home and head north by road.

I had booked Friday night in the hotel at my own expense and intended to visit Edinburgh on the Saturday, returning for the start of the conference in the evening.

I woke early on the Friday morning after a sleep disturbed by the stormy weather. At first I had no idea of the scale of the wind damage, but when I headed for the bus stop I learnt from a passer-by that no buses were running because a tree had crashed across the exit from the local bus garage.

I walked a mile to a tube station to discover that no trains were running either, thanks to fallen trees on the line. I walked two miles to a station on a different tube line and found that there was no service there either, for the same reason.

I walked home, had a cup of tea and tried again. As I reached the bus stop, a convoy of buses was approaching, having finally managed to escape the depot. I gratefully boarded one of them, but the journey into town took forever, with diversions to avoid toppled trees and damaged buildings. By the time I arrived at work the afternoon had arrived too. I phoned to cancel my extra night in the hotel.

So much for Plan A. My hastily concocted Plan B involved a leisurely drive to Scotland starting early on the Saturday. I headed up the A1, shocked to see huge woods completely flattened by the storm. But after the border crossing from Herts to Beds there was little further damage to be seen and the sun was shining.

Eventually I left the A1 and followed the A68 through stunning countryside to reach the conference venue at the Waverley Castle Hotel in Melrose by mid-afternoon.

Despite the long journey, I arrived feeling relaxed. I checked in and was directed to my top-floor single room. As I opened the door, it slammed into the side of the bed. Squeezing in, I found myself in the smallest hotel room I had ever seen — a potential candidate for the ‘Guinness book of records’. Oh well, I thought, it’s only for one night and I’ll only be using it for sleeping.

After unpacking I scrambled back over the bed, edged through the door and strolled off to explore the hotel and its grounds. The building had an odd appearance in that the ground floor clearly had lower ceilings than the upper floors and there were indications that a broad external staircase may once have swept up to an imposing first floor. Chatting to the desk clerk, I learnt why. The hotel had opened in 1871 as a hydro, with smart function rooms on the first floor and baths at ground level.

Later I met friends who told me that their ground floor accommodation reminded them of a swimming pool changing room. I was able to enlighten them.

(Only when researching this article did I discover that the building’s exterior rendering was not a veneer covering a traditional stone or brick structure. Oh no. It was there to disguise the fact that the structure was Scotland’s first mass concrete building.)

Dinner turned out to be an uninspired set menu. The hotel manager had reluctantly agreed to provide a fish course for the two of us who would not eat meat. Those decadent enough to want wine with their meals had to approach a side table where, for cash only, the manager would sell them a bottle from his small choice of plonk — regular or unleaded.

After dinner and a drink at the bar I took myself off to bed. Soothed by the sound of the rain lashing against my tiny window — for the weather had by now changed for the worse — I fell asleep. But not for long. I woke with a stomach pain that gradually worsened and was soon joined by a growing feeling of nausea.

Before long, I fell off the bed into the minuscule bathroom and vomited copiously. I was to spend much of the rest of the night there rather than tucked between the sheets.

In the morning, I forced myself to wash, dress and pack and headed downstairs for the morning session of the conference. Several times I had to leave my tape recorder to deputise for me while I dashed off to be sick again. My tape recorder learnt more about the diseases of sheep than I did.

But perhaps I was lucky. I was to discover later that the other conference-goer who had chosen the fish option was not seen again and may well still be entombed in a forgotten back room of the hotel.

By lunchtime the nausea was wearing off, but I didn’t dare eat. Somehow I made it through the afternoon session, which had an emphasis on the ailments of cattle. There was no further vomiting but my lack of sleep was catching up with me.

When the meeting finished at 4pm all I wanted to do was to get home as quickly as possible. I packed my gear into the car, jumped in and headed south through the growing darkness and the relentless rain.

Now those who know the A68 as well as I didn’t will be aware that much of its route takes the form of a switchback. After climbing each hill I would coast down into a dark flooded hollow on the other side. Before starting to attempt the next slope, I would have to negotiate broken-down vehicles that had hit the floodwater too hard and conked out with waterlogged engines.

Because of such hazards I did not reach the safety of England and the A1 until late in the evening. Being in no state to drive the remaining 250 miles, I turned off into Darlington and stopped at the first hotel I saw.

It had one free room — not one of its best rooms, I was warned, so would I like to inspect it first? I’m sure it will be wonderful, I replied, and within minutes I was in bed and fast asleep. I woke 12 hours later, refreshed and ready for a hearty northern breakfast — the sort that would have involved black pudding had I not been a wussy pescovegetarian.

I eventually reached London and hit my desk at about lunchtime. Early in the afternoon the editor woke me up and sent me home.

Honestly, despite these three memorable experiences, I have nothing against Scotland, but I do suspect that it may have something against me.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10043822

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