At the seventh annual Bo’ness Revival hillclimb event in September 2014 I was sitting in a camping chair, halfway through a hugely entertaining conversation about the design and build of a Porsche replica (a dry subject, you may think, but trust me, it was a hoot), when I was knocked sideways both physically and spiritually by a playful smack on the head. I turned round crossly, eager to bestow beneficial advice upon the impudent young perpetrator of this outrage, and found myself staring at the beaming face of Bill Henderson, who to my certain knowledge had turned 90 several months before.
Because Bill was behind the slapstick, it was all right in a way it would not have been if anyone else had performed it. When I first met him I was a shy eight year-old in a Chinese restaurant on the return trip from a motorsport event my father had taken me to. I thought of him then as a kind, encouraging and friendly man, and had never had a reason to think of him as anything else since. I would neither speak a word against him nor listen to anyone who did.
Bill was at Bo’ness in his capacity as a photographer. I wasn’t aware at the time that this part of his career had started at the same central Scotland venue back in 1946. What nobody could have realised was that it was ending now, 68 years later. A cancer scare had come and gone, but the disease was about to pay a second and final visit. As October 2016 drew to a close, so did the amazing life of one of the finest people I ever knew.
Since I knew nothing about the cancer, and was surprised as well as saddened to hear of his passing, it’s fair to say that my relationship with Bill was not particularly close. He was, however, one of a very small number of friends with whom I could not imagine ever having an argument on any subject. Only once, in all the years, did he show any sign of disapproval.
I was 16, and the Sunday before my exams started I was at a race meeting, simply because to be anywhere else would have been unthinkable. Bill, by profession a teacher, gave me a slightly odd look. “I thought you might have been at home revising,” he said quietly, before moving on to other topics. My exam results were probably no worse than they would have been otherwise, but the point was that he had done nothing more than briefly voice a concern rather than loudly haranguing me as most other teachers I knew might have done. I liked him all the more for that.
Later, he displayed great diplomacy to my considerable benefit. By now both a reporter and a competitor, I was faced with an extraordinary amount of hostility from two officials at certain events and couldn’t find a way of resolving the situation. Bill, who had a connection with one of them, could hardly believe this when I mentioned it to him, but made sure he was within earshot at the next encounter.
“I see what you mean,” he said afterwards, and promised to have a word. I don’t know how the conversation went, but it was probably short and quiet, and it was certainly effective. To the credit of all concerned, but especially Bill, relations improved immediately and permanently.
Unlike some of the unsavoury specimens I encountered at my own school, he must have been a fine teacher. His subject was Art, and he was himself a splendid artist. Motorsport competitors and enthusiasts all over Scotland own Bill Henderson paintings and line drawings, for which I know there was an exceptionally long waiting list. He also loved fishing, and was proud of – but as far as I know rarely spoke about – his time in the Royal Marine Commandos during the latter part of World War II. The extracts I’ve heard from the diary he kept during those days make it clear that his adventures behind enemy lines were frantically dangerous. It’s a wonder he made it past the age of 21.
He did, though, and in 1950 he was asked by his older friend and fellow Glasgow School of Art graduate Gregor Grant to become the Scottish correspondent of a weekly magazine Grant had decided to set up. The magazine was Autosport, and Bill was still contributing to it in the early years of the 21st century. In the 1990s I heard staff writers expressing exasperation that Bill had never changed his policy of sending in handwritten race reports. I could see their point, but I thought it was a quaint practice and found it delightful that he was still doing it.
His writing style was pleasantly archaic too, though he won’t be remembered for that. His legacy, at least as far as journalism is concerned, is in the photographs. There are thousands upon thousands of them, taken at everything from club-level events to the British Grand Prix, and more are being discovered. In March this year, Bill’s grandson Robbie developed a roll of film which had been lost for decades and was assumed to be ruined. In fact it was perfectly usable, and Robbie became the first person ever to see images Bill had taken at Charterhall race circuit in August 1955, more than sixty years earlier.
Bill photographed globally famous drivers across many eras, Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham among them, but of course Scots in particular feature highly. His enormous portfolio includes pictures of Ron Flockhart, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, David Coulthard and Allan McNish practising their craft at home before moving to a bigger stage. A small but growing portion of his work can be found at www.thebillhendersoncollection.co.uk, painstakingly maintained by his son William. Do please have a look at it.
While gradually building his enormous portfolio, Bill also devoted time to encouraging younger folk, partly me (though I was never a photographer of any skill) but more importantly John Fife, Jim Moir and many others whose photo collections are in their own way as impressive as his. They too speak of his kindness, and as far as I know they have not a bad word to say about him.
Along with the kindness there was great humility. Years ago I suggested that Bill should be presented with the Jim Clark Award, which is in the gift of the Association of Scottish Motoring Writers, and even now I’m more proud that my colleagues agreed with me than I am of almost anything else. Where appropriate, it was frequently pointed out at the annual ceremony that the manner of the achievement was of equal importance to the matter of it, as was the case with double World Champion Clark himself. Success attained with modesty and grace, the way Bill’s was, is, as far as I’m concerned, the finest success of all.
I never heard him speak highly of himself, but at yesterday’s well-attended, standing-room-only funeral, during which laughter occasionally and appropriately relieved the general sadness, I was delighted to hear William recount a story which showed his father was well aware of his talent even though he rarely said so. In answer to the question, “What kind of artist are you?” Bill had once replied, “A damned good one!” He sure was – and a damned fine man too.