Derek Cooper — a tribute, Brian Wilson writes 25.4.14

My first encounter with Derek Cooper was inauspicious. Having decamped to Portree for a summer in the recently-acquired Seafield House, he was intrigued by the appearance of a new newspaper and empathetic towards its opinions.

He telephoned me in Kyleakin and, as the conversation progressed, held forth on the failings of the local planning authority. After I published some of his less complimentary remarks a follow-up call advised me in no uncertain terms that it had been a private conversation and I had breached the first rule of journalism.

I doubt if we ever had a disagreement thereafter. Derek became the Free Press’s self-appointed ambassador at large. He wrote both for it and about it, most notably in the ‘Sunday Times’ magazine, an article which took the fledgling newspaper to an early level of celebrity. He became a mentor and friend who could always be relied on for wisdom, enlightenment and laughs.

Derek’s company was permanently entertaining and often hilarious. A contem­porary had described him as “the wittiest man at Oxford” and it was not difficult to believe. When, in the early Free Press days, the great Amhuinnsuidhe by-pass story evolved, Derek knocked off a minor work of genius, one verse of which encapsulated the relationship between the two principal characters:

About this by-pass Burton, here’s something for the kitty; A handsome cheque for forty thou’ to help things through committee; Floreat Etona; see you in Brooks, old swell. God helps those who help themselves and helps us jolly well.

I read in one of this week’s obituaries that Derek once won first prize in a ‘New Statesman’ competition for the best parody of a John Betjeman poem. The runner-up was reputed to have been Betjeman himself, writing under a pseudonym. With such a hinterland, a few scathing verses for the Free Press may not have represented much of a challenge but for both the paper and its readership, such inputs were early gold-dust.

What I learned quickly about Derek was that his facetious, self-parodying exterior concealed a razor-sharp mind and a campaigning zeal. He embodied a most unusual combination of skills. His voice might have been honed in heaven with broadcasting in mind. But he could also be an investigator and interrogator of the highest order when the subject demanded. Often, he inveigled his way in with the voice and demeanour in order to apply the skewer.

Derek had a deep love and knowledge of Skye. His father was a clerk with the old LNER who each year was given a travel pass for the family. This invariably took them in the direction of Portree where Derek’s mother, Jessie MacDonald, had been brought up. At the outbreak of war, he had been shipped off to Portree to complete his schooling.

Actually, the stronger family connections were with Lewis but he only caught up with them in the 1980s. There is a wonderful chapter in his book ‘The Road to Mingulay’ – I always thought Derek thought of the titles first and then had to write the books – in which he describes that first encounter with the relatives; Zena Nicoll, Norman MacKenzie of the Caberfeidh, half of Leurbost.

Derek stands in the ruins of the old family home at 55 Leurbost and unsentimentally ponders the lives that must have been lived there. This takes him seamlessly into evidence given to the Napier Commission, the poverty of the people and the cruelties of landlordism. Without the reader noticing, an amusing account of a family gathering becomes a well-researched history lesson. That was vintage Cooper since there was often a sharper-than-expected edge to what he wrote, or to the words he intoned.

The more metropolitan his base, the more Skye mattered as the place with which Derek most closely identified. To some extent, it was a time-warped relationship and it was the Skye of his youth that he wanted to believe in as his home. Before I knew him, he had paid his dues to the island by writing the definitive reference source, ‘Skye’, which has never been out of print since it was first published by Routledge in the 1960s.

Derek’s early career included a 10-year stint in Singapore working first for the BBC and then setting up the broadcasting service of the short-lived Malaysian Federation. On his return in 1960, he became a much sought-after “voice” but also a serious front-line reporter for the BBC.

He did a piece for the ‘Tonight’ programme about the appalling food which normally greeted visitors to Britain, and that was the start of the role with which he became so closely identified and in which he did so much good. Routledge asked him to produce a book under the title ‘The Bad Food Guide’ which became a best-seller. When they sought a sequel – ‘The Beverage Report’, you see what I mean about titles? – Derek cut a deal which meant they would also publish ‘Skye’.

He combined to some extent his Skye sojourns with his food preoccupation. The West Highlands and Islands was, at the commercial level, a culinary desert though the area abounded with the finest of natural ingredients. That dichotomy formed the basis of many Cooper polemics. He railed against CalMac catering and the role of the freezer in the Highlands and Islands catering industry.

The other side of the coin was that he became a great encourager and promoter of any establishment which went down a different route or any individual who attempted to market local produce. Many businesses, not least in the West Highlands and Islands, have reason to be grateful for that support. Increasingly, as food scandals compelled interest in what we consume, he gained recognition as a campaigner who had been ahead of his time in identifying scandals within the food industry.

Derek sometimes delighted in playing the toff, usually in the company of those who made that assumption on the basis of his accent, before disconcerting his audience by declaring himself a life-long Labour voter. As usual, the humour of such situations concealed something much deeper for his interest in food and diet were extremely political at the most fundamental of levels. It was mainly the poor who had been conned into eating expensive, dangerous rubbish.

Always the freelance, Derek worked incessantly. Then, quite suddenly, ill health overtook him. He was predeceased in 2010 by his wife of 53 years, Janet, a no-nonsense Yorkshire architect who had been largely responsible for encouraging his interest in good, honest food. Over many years, their kindness to me in Portree and in London was immense and a big part of my life and influences.

Even in death, Derek has made me laugh by prompting a look back through ‘The Road to Mingulay’ and an account of two feuding social anthropologists who had alighted upon Lewis. One, a Dr Ennew, complained of having been spat on by the local children. The other, a Dr Mewett, dismissed her work as “idiosyncratic and inadequate”. Cooper reflected: “Better perhaps to be spat on quietly by children than put down so publicly by a colleague”.

Derek was a great writer and peerless broadcaster who made a real difference. He was also a loyal and kind friend whose passing signals the march of time and the closing of a personal era.