“Apart from the incident, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?”

It was around 1960, and I was an irreverent kid in high school. Part of the irreverence involved me and a friend in writing comedy sketches for our (very traditional) school pantomime. So I paid keen attention to what was happening in the world of jokes.
In America Mort Sahl was happening, and a great revolution was producing the very first “sick joke” . . . which you can see above. When I first heard it,  I had the “watcher of the skies / when some new planet swims into his ken” feeling — as P.G.Wodehouse, a very different type of humourist, once put it, to describe a sense of discovery of something totally new. The Lincoln joke showed that suddenly nothing was out of bounds. There were no things that you “just couldn’t joke about.” Not anymore.

I rode the new wave enthusiastically. Even in my first university year at St. Andrews, I was involved in writing and performing comedy sketches with a group of friends. There was no money involved, but we got free tickets to the fancy, formal Balls for which we provided the half-time entertainment. By the second year I was the MC of an occasional student night-club in an empty church hall. For reasons hidden in the mists of time we called it GAP (too bad there was no copyright on the commercial use of the title we invented) and although we didn’t bother with a liquor licence, we drew packed crowds to dance and enjoy the music and the unforgettably witty sketches. (We even drew unruly crowds at the door, but that, and the fight with a head-butting sailor, is another story.)

These were the days when “That Was the Week That Was” ruled BBC  TV on Saturday night, and satire was a big part of what we wrote and performed. Sick jokes made an occasional appearance: I remember one “bedtime story for little ones,” read by a leering uncle figure. It was a variant on the traditional story of Greyfriars Bobby, the little dog that charmed all of Edinburgh by his daily trips to sit sadly at his master’s grave. Our variant, I’m sorry to say, involved Bobby (a bone-loving little dog) in seeking daily sustenance at the grave. The howls of outrage as the implications dawned on the crowd were very pleasing to us.

Later in that second year I had a minor role in a real stage performance (Ionesco’s The Leader) which involved me in shouting, “The leader, the leader” very loudly and excitedly. The director was a student friend, Alan Strachan, who in later life went on to be the famous head of The Greenwich Theatre in London. Alan formed a group of us — four men and two women – to produce a comedy revue, a little like “Beyond the Fringe.” We took over the town theatre, The Byre, for a week of evening performances. We even ran matinees of “Six After Eight” on Wednesday and Saturday, when the show proved to be a hit.

I wrote and performed  and even sang! One of the high points was when I appeared, front and centre, to produce a Malcolm-Muggeridge-style lecture on “Trends in Humour.” I told the audience that “Satire has come and gone. Now, many experts in the field are predicting that the new trend will be slapstick.” Before I could continue, a bare arm reached around the curtain and smashed a large cream pie into my face. Blackout and delighted laughter! I had to be led, blinded by banana cream, off-stage by a kind stage manager. Even in the dressing room as I gasped to clear my face to breathe again, I could hear the audience still laughing.

When people who see the current stage show Stories About Storytellers ask if I’ve done much stage work in the past, I tend to say, “Not really, but I did a little back in university.” Now all of the interest in the new movie about Lincoln has brought back memories of the impact of that original Mrs. Lincoln joke. Lincoln may have been involved in things like waging the American Civil War, and freeing the slaves. But, as you can see, he had a continuing role in what we might call my dramatic life.

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Federer, Murray, and Gibson

In September 2008 I was driving across Scotland after a day at St. Andrews when I realised that I was only ten minutes away from Dunblane. That set me thinking. I was aware that Andy Murray came from that little town, which I know very well, since my brother’s funeral was held in the cathedral there. And I realised that in just two hours Andy Murray would be playing against Roger Federer in the final of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships in Flushing Meadows, New York, in the biggest game of his life.

Time for a spot of enterprising, you-are-there reporting, on Watching Tennis in Andy Murray Country as Local Boy Makes Good or Disappointment Hits Home Town.

I rushed to grab a notepad and pencils, gulped down a sandwich then drove to downtown Dunblane.

“Where can I see the Andy Murray match?” I asked a group lingering outside a pub.

“Yer best bet would be the Community Centre . . . they’ve got a special screen set up doon there.”

I found the centre, parked boldly in the Bowling Club lot, and strode in doing my best Canadian sports reporter imitation. “Hi, I’m from Canada.” (Ok so far.) “I’m with the Toronto Globe and Mail,” I went on, brandishing my notebook (well, I had written a number of articles for the Globe over the years, and I did plan to submit this unexpected tennis article to them). “Who’s in charge of this event?”

So I was promptly introduced to Nora Dougherty, and asked her a few questions, taking ostentatious notes. She in turn introduced me to others, including old friends of the Murray family. When David McFarlane told me, “No matter what happens, Andy will still be just a wee laddie from Dunblane,” I had to stop myself from punching the air in glee. Unprofessional. But I knew that I had my lead.

I pounded it out the next morning and fired it off to the Globe’s Jerry Johnson (a very surprised man, but calm under fire), who ran it in the Focus section on Saturday, September 13, 2008. You could look it up, as they say.

Here, however, is my original version:

A WEE LADDIE FROM DUNBLANE; Watching Tennis in Andy Murray Country

by DOUG GIBSON

“No matter what happens, Andy will still be just a wee laddie from Dunblane.” It’s a very unusual evening in Dunblane, and David McFarlane (“I used to play tennis against his grandfather”) is clearly speaking for the 70 or so diehard Andy Murray fans gathered in the Dunblane Community Centre to watch the local laddie play for the U.S. Open Tennis Championship in far-off Flushing Meadows, New York.

Until recently Dunblane was famous for two things. Set in the heart of Scotland, 10 kilometres north of Stirling, thanks to its grand mediaeval Cathedral it qualified  for the title of “city,” although it can still only muster about 10,000 citizens. Its second claim to fame was a tragic one. In 1996 its name rang around the world when a madman invaded the primary school and wiped out a class of five-year-olds and their teacher; that incident changed Britain’s laws on handguns.

In the past few years, however, Dunblane has acquired a proud new claim to fame as the birthplace and home of Andy Murray, the 21-year-old thin white hope of British tennis. In Scotland, despite a curt and combative interview style and a scraggly beard that sets matronly fingers reaching for scissors from coast to coast, he has become a national icon.

Dunblane knows him well. As Nora Dougherty, the Community Centre trustee who helped to organise this evening’s event, puts it, the Murrays are “a well-known local family,” with relatives who excelled in sports ranging from soccer to golf, and Andy’s tennis career began at the Dunblane Tennis Club. His mother, Judy, is a well-known tennis coach and encouraged her talented son to go off to tennis school in Barcelona. Dunblane watched proudly as he won junior championships and then earned a place on the professional tour, racking up enough victories to arouse unrealistic expectations for the teenager among the success-starved Wimbledon crowds.

For all of his excellence as a shot-maker with a shrewd tactical brain, young Murray was built along the lines of a long-armed stick and his stamina tended to let him down in long matches, while injuries interfered with his progress. Hard work in the off-season with his support group (a coach, a fitness coach and a physiotherapist) added pounds to his frame and helped to produce a string of good wins, until on his day it seemed that he could beat anyone, twice managing to defeat the legendary Roger Federer, the perennial world Number 1.

What has the  crowd buzzing tonight in the square room hung with two blue Scottish saltire flags and a series of hand-lettered youth club signs (“C’mon, Andy,” “Go, Andy, Go,” even “Andy Rules”) is the Federer back-story. Described by no less an authority as John McEnroe as the best tennis player of all time, the Swiss has for years seemed invincible, except on clay, where the muscular young Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, reigned supreme. Then this year Nadal crushed him easily on clay in Paris and beat him on the grass at Wimbledon. Was this a changing of the Guard, as Federer’s loss of the top ranking implied? Certainly Federer’s confidence seemed to have melted into the Wimbledon grass, so that soon he was losing to second-raters. Yet now, here he was in the U.S. final, trying for his fifth successive championship. Was Federer on the way down, or was he on the rebound?

As the crowd shuffle their seats and tables around for the best view of the large Sky TV screen, they watch a replay of the dramatic semi-final, when Murray did Federer the enormous favour of removing his nemesis, Nadal, from the tournament. While beer and potato chips are stockpiled on tables, the crowd delights in watching their Andy play the best tennis of his life to defeat the all-conquering Nadal. Wise heads (and this is a sports-conscious crowd, including, visitors are informed, a world junior curling champion) opine that Murray will have to serve at his best to beat Federer.

The players appear to a roar from the crowd in the Arthur Ashe stadium that is almost matched by the somewhat smaller Dunblane group. “C’mon, Andyyyyy!”

The match begins, with Federer serving. Serving well. So well, in fact, that a distressing pattern soon emerges. He is holding his serve with ease, while Murray, as early as his second serve, is flirting with break points. Soon Federer does break him, to go to 4-2. The Dunblane crowd is being taken out of the game, with nothing to celebrate. When Murray hits a net cord that luckily drops over to win the point he waves a formal apology to his opponent, but in Dunblane the crowd goes wild.

The pattern continues, with Federer in supreme form, running around his backhand to blast forehand winners to both corners. He is playing very well, not letting Murray, who is not, into the game. First set to Federer, 6-2, in just 26 minutes. The calls of “C’mon, Andy” take on a plaintive note

In the second set Murray’s serve improves, and the games go with service. Now at 2-2 Federer is at Love-40 on his serve. A shot of Federer wiping his face on a towel has David McFarlane joking, ”C’mon, Andy, you’ve got him sweatin’!” Love-40! Surely this will be in every sense Andy’s big break. But the Swiss fights back to deuce with the aid of some baseline calls that have David commenting indignantly, “That was oot!” Unexpectedly the match’s Hawkeye camera – not called upon in this case — confirms David’s judgement, as Sky informs us, but the point goes to Federer. So, in the end, does the game, to general dismay.

The contest is more even now, with Murray trying more ambitious shots, although Federer’s anticipation and gliding speed around the court allow him to hit winners off what would have been winners against other mortals. But with Federer serving first and holding, Murray is always playing catch-up. A shot of Murray wincing as his right knee gives a twinge provokes worried headshakes all round. “Aye, that’s his bad knee.”

Murray’s returns have been improving, and he’s been gaining a couple of points on each Federer serve. But never enough. Suddenly, it seems, after a close-fought 5-5 , it’s 7-5, to Federer. Significant looks are exchanged in the centre. “Ah well,” says one man in a resigned sort of way.

The people in the Dunblane crowd know this sort of feeling. Scottish sports supporters are connoisseurs of losing. The role goes with being an underdog nation, used to being outnumbered, and reminders of the exceptions (like the successful battle of Bannockburn, just 15 kilometres down the road) are greatly cherished. The trick, for the supporter, is not to get hopes up unreasonably high. For the player, the key is never to give up, to lose gallantly, fighting to the end. Scots study these matters.

In that light, the third set is shaping up as a disaster. Federer is in superb form, covering the court with ease, hitting winners from all angles, making the fast and nimble Murray look almost slow. “Virtually flawless” is how the Sky commentator describes Federer’s performance, and as he racks up the points he nears 4-0. A 6-0 loss would be terrible. “ It looks like an early night,” says a woman in the quiet Dunblane hall, an odd comment for 11:45 pm.

In despair a TV cameraman covering the event pleads with the subdued crowd to start demonstrating filmable enthusiasm. The younger members react obediently: “C’mon Aaandy!” is followed by rhythmic chants and clapping, “Andy! Andy! Andy!”

In the din Andy loses five points in a row. The law of unintended consequences seems to have kicked in. “Shut up!” cries an older fan, to general delight. The silent treatment seems to work. At 5-0 down, just one game away from losing the match, Murray holds his serve 5-1. “That’s more like it, let’s go!” cries the crowd.

After being two points away from final defeat, Murray breaks Federer’s serve for the first time in the whole match. Bedlam in Dunblane. David McFarlane has a wonderful joke for the situation. “Andy was just gie’in him a start!” It’s an interesting theory, but now two sets down, at 2-5 with Federer to serve, Andy may have left it a little late. And so it proves. Federer nails down the game. 6-2. Andy went down trying.

It is 12:06 and the crowd starts to file out into the night, some helping with the stacking of chairs. But not before there have been “Three cheers for Andy Murray” and general delight at the prize-giving announcement, where Andy is gracious in defeat, that he will be leaving New York with $1 million — whistles, and pleased smiles. As Margaret McFarlane, who taught Andy at Dunblane Primary, said, the evening was “a wee bit of history.”

Perhaps the Dunblane reaction was caught best by the pre-game poster on the wall: “ Good luck, Andy. Well done.” This was an honourable sports loss, in no way a tragedy. Dunblane knows the difference.

 Special to the Globe and Mail. Publisher and editor Doug Gibson is both a former Scot and a former tennis player.

I enjoyed my brief career as the Globe’s Special Tennis Correspondent. It all came back to me on Sunday, July 8th when Federer and Murray had a rematch in the final at Wimbledon, and Britain closed down to watch this historic game. It produced the same result as the 2008, but Andy  Murray played well against the sublime Federer and lost narrowly, wryly summing up, “Well, I’m getting closer.”

I waited in vain for the call from the Globe that would whisk their Special Tennis Correspondent Doug Gibson to Wimbledon. Maybe next year.

CBC Stuff

January was a big Scottish month for me, but it was for the CBC, too, and I found myself as “a prominent Canadian Scot” playing two unexpected roles.

First, on Michael Enright’s excellent CBC radio show The Sunday Edition on Jan. 22 I was part of a discussion involving me, a Canadian born in Scotland, and Luke Skipper, a Canadian raised in Alice Munro country (Kincardine) who now works in London for the Scottish Government as they try to arrange a referendum on Scottish Independence. On a recent visit to Scotland I roamed around doing an informal survey of opinion on the matter and found a wide range of responses.

Our discussion was interesting, but I was so busy answering Michael’s last question (if Scottish expatriates were allowed to vote on this, how would you vote) by explaining that I was an outsider and had no fixed opinion, that I failed to make the general point that I do not believe that Canadians should vote in any foreign election.

I’m glad to be able to state that now.

Second, an email on Saturday, January 21 from George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight said that they needed someone to do a funny stand-up talk about Scottish words that might baffle a Canadian visitor.

These Strombo guys work fast! By Monday at 1 p.m. I was standing outside the CBC studio (wearing a tartan shirt . . . the man has no shame) talking into a camera, beginning with the words “Hi, George,” though I never saw him at any point. The two guys running the shoot, Fraser and Andrew, did a great job of spinning straw into gold, producing a passable clip that was apparently seen by every living Canadian between the ages of 20 and 40. You can find it on this blog.

January

Since Rabbie Burns Day falls on January 25, this is a big Scottish month. And since I grew up in Burns Country (Ayrshire) in Scotland, speaking the language, I’m kept pretty busy going around making speeches at Burns Suppers in Toronto, Hamilton, and Montreal (even once being re-imported to Scotland to do so). My Translation of “The Address to the Haggis” into modern Canadian has made me thousands of dollars, and over the years has become semi-official, so that it is featured at the annual event staged at home by Margaret Atwood and Graeme (no relation) Gibson.

This year I did my stuff at a Scottish Studies fundraiser at The Granite Club (scandalizing the audience by revealing a Burns link with the slave trade). On the day itself I marched around the Burns statue in Allan Gardens with 20 other kilted eccentrics (at the pub afterwards, a “warm up event” in the fullest sense) I concluded the “Toast to the Lassies” with the story of the lovestruck John Kenneth Galbraith, the farm girl who was the object of his affections, and the cow. It’s in my chapter on Robertson Davies, who loved the story.