Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

Thomas Sheridan, the father of the more famous Richard Brinsley Sheridan, devoted himself in the 1760s to ‘rubbing away the roughnesses of the Scottish tongue’. His volume of Lectures on Elocution was once a great hit in Edinburgh. The other Thomas Sheridan, known as Tommy to the tabloids and to friends and enemies alike, is the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, and his efforts to represent himself in a defamation case against the News of the World has been providing the city with a theatrical spectacle the Edinburgh Festival will struggle to equal. Unlike past Sheridans, Tommy appears to harbour no fear of the tongue’s roughnesses, and the courtroom drama surrounding his attempt to dismiss the rowdy newspaper’s allegations (of adultery, three-in-a-bed romps and visits to Cupids, a swingers’ night-club in Manchester) led to no end of homespun and vividly worded disclosures – the kind that politicians don’t sell by the yard these days.

The Court of Session, of course, gets both the first and the last word, and it seemed on the first day to click its Scottish, buckled shoes when it held that what was at issue was whether the reports in the News of the World had ‘falsely and calumniously’ given the impression that Sheridan was an adulterer. The English press was seen at that point to consult its dictionary, but no dictionary could have prepared them for the wordings of Mrs Sheridan when she gave evidence on her husband’s behalf. If Mary Queen of Scots had been an air hostess – and Darnley a frequenter of Cupids – she might have gone about standing by her man in much the same way as Mrs Sheridan. But even the historically fragrant Mary Stuart, with her talent for poetry – ‘I am but a body whose heart’s torn away’ – would have struggled to compete with Mrs Sheridan’s estimation of her husband’s hirsuteness. ‘He looks like a gorilla,’ she said. ‘He’s covered in hair frae heed tae toe. There’s mer hair oan his boady than there is oan his heed.’

Sheridan had sacked his defence team two weeks earlier. He felt they weren’t doing a good job, but defending himself meant he had to put questions to his own wife that might more comfortably have been put by someone whose wig was unquestionably on their head. But Mrs Sheridan rose to the occasion, talking to her husband as if they were in the middle of a marital squabble cum declaration of love. The gorilla point emerged when it was put to Mrs Sheridan by her husband that he was accused of having enjoyed ice cubes being applied to his person, which were then sucked by the dominating personality (‘Ice cubes?’ Mrs Sheridan said. ‘Only if they wanted to swallow a hair ball.’)

One of the sources of the allegations, Katrine Trolle, a former party activist, was quoted by Sheridan as saying that before they had sex in the Sheridans’ home he had offered her a glass of red wine. ‘Red wine?’ offered Mrs Sheridan. ‘You wouldny know one end ae a wine boatle frae the next. You wouldny know how tae open it. You wouldny even know where it wiz kept.’ She went on to say he was ‘really boring’ and that his face was, as they say in Glasgow, ‘tripping him’ – not entirely sunny. She also said that he’d ‘thrown a maddie’ when first confronted with the allegations and that certain people were ‘shagging everybody and his dug’.

Dug means ‘dog’. But Mrs Sheridan would hardly need explain that to her delighted audience. People in Scotland love a woman who comes out fighting, and Gail Sheridan has everything: the fingernails, the whitened teeth, the expensive-looking but actually quite affordable new outfit every day, the blow-dried hair. She had a familiarity with her husband’s failings that seldom eclipsed her affection, something familiar to many in the public gallery who appeared last week to be willing her on. If Mrs Sheridan were appearing in a 19th-century drama, her valour would be understood to conceal a personal sadness. But nobody who saw her stride into the Court of Session could imagine her to be concealing anything. The smile for the cameras, the starlet walk, the grip on her husband’s hand: everything about her spoke about her faith in herself and her man’s view of justice.

After giving her evidence, Mrs Sheridan was entitled to sit in court to hear the other witnesses. But she preferred to stand outside smoking menthol cigarettes and sipping Diet Coke. Sometimes she went shopping for an hour or two. Sheridan’s mother, meanwhile, sat in court reading a prayer book. Both women are aware of how significant Sheridan has been in Scottish political affairs, and so is the general public. They remember, above all, that he led the campaign against Thatcher’s poll tax, and went to jail in 1992 after preventing the flogging of items seized by bailiffs from a single mother. Because of what he says – but also because of the way he speaks – Sheridan is that rare thing in British politics, a folk hero, someone whom a significant number of people believe understands their troubles. In the murky world of Scottish politics, with its constant sense of injury, figures who hold that position come round only a couple of times a generation. None of the Scottish politicians in the cabinet has that kind of pull, and the ones who are spoken of in the same manner – Donald Dewar, John Smith – are as dead as the Scottish kings.

In the end Sheridan won his case and relieves the News of the World of £200,000. The fate of possible perjurors is still unknown, but it will be some time before the country is so riveted by a trial, one that has seemed, in the battle of its language if nothing else, to describe some important new contours of public and private life in Scotland. Sheridan took a stand against the ruthlessness of the tabloids, a political act with a personal occasion. It remains to be seen if the people who read those papers in such numbers will now see his point and abandon them in a way that might truly pay tribute to his position as national hero.