writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

1914 – 18 A Huntly Loon Goes to War, by Keith Ferguson

My Dad’s writing career produced many published works, including a three part history of Glenrothes, a brilliant – and still useful – textbook on local government law in Scotland, and a contribution to the Stair memorial Encyclopedia on Scots Law, the magisterial tome that all Scots lawyers start their research at.

His final book was a very personal one. Following Mum’s passing in 2011, he was determined to use his extensive family history research tell the story of her father, Charles Leslie Anderson, my grandfather, who had fought through the First World War. Unfortunately Dad died before the book could be published, but my sister had worked with a friendly book designer and a publisher to get a proof copy organised for Dad to see while he was in hospital, and 200 copies have now been printed.

Although my Grandpa Anderson ended his days in Glenrothes, where I knew him as a kindly, wise old man, much loved by my brother, sister and me, he spent most of his life in Huntly, Aberdeenshire (for the uninitiated, ‘loon’ is Doric for ‘lad’). Dad was mindful, as all writers are, of a potential market, and had always intended that the book come out this year on the centenary of the outbreak of the so-called Great War.

Book launches are planned for Huntly and Glenrothes – more details soon.

Here’s the spiel:

1914 – 18 A Huntly Loon Goes to War, by Keith Ferguson

Keith Ferguson’s final book is a personal history of the First World War seen through the eyes of his father-in-law, Charles Leslie Anderson. An ordinary soldier who fought right through all four years of the War, ‘the kindest, most modest and uncomplaining of men,’ he endured all the horrors of trench warfare, including being wounded and gassed.
Ferguson relates the main campaigns Charles and his comrades in the Gordon Highlanders fought through, and how the local media of the time reported such terrible bloodlettings as the Battle of Loos. The Huntly Express, reporting a letter from a local man who was an officer: ‘It was a great sight to see the lads charging. No regular… could have been cooler, and they had 470 yards to go, too, which is some distance. They were magnificent. We had six casualties amongst our officers in the first three quarters of an hour…’
Ferguson intersperses the account of the battles with personal notes from Charles and others. You learn how to de-louse a kilt, and why he (and many others) always had a soft spot for the ordinary German soldiers. The book also tells us the personal story of a man who, from the most deprived of rural backgrounds, rose to be a respected bailie of the burgh, a shopkeeper, father and grandfather who carried German bullets in his legs for the rest of his life but rarely – and only then modestly – spoke of his part in World War One.
The book is 44 pages, with black and white photos from the author’s own collection, and colour illustrations. Price £4.95 inclusive of UK p & p; contact for orders: andrewcferguson [at]blueyonder[dot]co[dot]uk


Charles Leslie Anderson in full dress uniform at Bedford barracks, late 1914, just before embarking for France.

Invidious Comparisons, Next Levels, and Turning It Down From Eleven

Invidious Comparisons, Next Levels, and Turning It Down From Eleven:

Bombay Bicycle Club, Rae Morris, Flyte at Glasgow 02 Academy, 3rd March versus Kid Canaveral, Randolph’s Leap, Death Cats at the Cool Cat Club, Beat Generator Live! Dundee, 8th March.

Two gigs in a single week – am I mad? Have I taken this Festival Dad thing way too far, and forgotten that parental responsibilities extend beyond providing the educational opportunities offered by rock and roll events?

Fear not, gentle reader. The memory of the sleep deprivation brought on by driving back from Glasgow after the 02 gig, with a full day’s work the next day, is enough to persuade me this won’t be a regular occurrence. It actually felt like I had a hangover, when I hadn’t had a drop to drink. And, if you’re under the age of 35, trust me – middle-aged hangovers are worse than when you’re a youngster. They just are.

At least the second gig had the sense to be on a Saturday night, so a decent lie in was possible the next day. And as I lay there on a lazy(ish) Sunday morning, I got to thinking about the two gigs. Obviously, with one being at the Glasgow 02, featuring one of the indie bands of the moment, Bombay Bicycle Club (BBC), and the other being in a sweaty Dundee joint a fraction of the size with far less well known bands, comparisons would seem invidious.

But are they? What was each experience, as an experience of a rock and roll, er, experience, like? Were there any advantages the smaller gig held over the bigger one?

Well. Part of the answer depends where you’re coming from, of course. Daughter and Heiress had been listening to BBC for a couple of years; had most, if not all, of their albums; and placed them only just below another of her Clubs, Two Door Cinema, in her personal musical pantheon. Whereas yours truly had undergone a crash course lasting, oh, a week or so, and, frankly, hadn’t totally felt the love yet.

Whereas, in the case of the Dundee gig, both of us had had roughly the same exposure to the two main bands, Randolph’s Leap and Kid Canaveral, having been to a previous gig with them at the same venue about a year ago, and listened a few times to one of the former’s CDs, bought at the self same event.

But let’s start at the beginning in both cases. Being the opening act is, frankly, a thankless task (and yes, I’ve been there, boy, have I been there): the audience is either taking on ballast at the bar, waiting to meet people, or simply physically not there; the sound guy is still twiddling with things; in culinary terms, you’re not even the starter, you’re an amuse bouche in a distracted restaurant at the table next to the toilets. Plus side, of course, is that you might well still be playing in front of a far bigger audience than you could muster for yourself, so pucker up and play.

DeathCats!!!, the openers at Dundee, were a three piece from Glasgow who made pretty good use of the opportunity. There was a pleasing punk edge to the rock that came blasting out from the get go; the lead singer/guitarist had some charisma, even if his inter-song announcements were a bit hard to follow; and they did what all opening acts are meant to do: got up, did their thing, then got off fast.

Post gig reports suggest that said lead singer had been, er, experimenting extensively with lager before coming on, which would explain the incoherence between songs. Didn’t appear to affect the songs themselves, though, which were pretty decently crafted for their type. There was something missing, though, and it was probably just the extra musical subtlety more instrumentation would add: even another guitar, or better still a bit of keyboard? I know a mean harmonica player for hire.

Opening the batting in Glasgow were a band called Flyte, a guitars/drums/bass/synth combo from, er, somewhere in England, whose single, We Are the Rain, recently got the nod in the Guardian as ‘whimsical and melodic.’ Online info is scanty (if looking for them in Facebook, type in ‘Flyteband,’ otherwise you get some American bozos doing a cover of I Kissed a Girl) but their lead singer reminded me of none other than the youngest of the three Galloway boys I used to play football with as a teenager, key difference being he didn’t storm off stage in a strop because someone had booted the ball too hard at him when he was in goal.

Anyway, that’s probably not important right now. Flyte were young, charming, and possessed of that synthy, chimey sound that is currently quite hot courtesy of Metronomy, as the Guardian pointed out. They even threw in more major chords per song than is usual with an indie band, particularly on said single (for the musically uninitiated: major chords = upbeat, poppy, songs; preponderance of minor chords even in the chorus = indie/gothic/dark etc).

Whatever his goalkeeping abilities might be, the lead singer did well to win over what might have been a surly or even just indifferent Glasgow crowd, given his accent. Telling them he and the guys would be hanging out at the back of the gig after their set did, I’m sure, help boost the band’s following. In a venue the size of the 02, it seemed an old-fashioned kind of touch.

What was not to like? Very little – and I could certainly see them in a year or so stealing up on the rails past the likes of Metronomy to scoop all sorts of awards for that kind of synthy, chimey, indie pop thing. And yet there was something just not quite right. They seemed … well, just a bit underpowered really, like a 1.4 model when really you’re looking for the 1.8 GTi. The guitars, especially, just didn’t seem to be coming at you the way DeathCats!!! did in Dundee. I mean, when DeathCats!!! were playing, you could feel the music through the soles of your shoes – generally a sign that things are turned up, if not to eleven, at least to an appropriate level for the playing of rock and roll.

Whereas Flyte seemed, well, like I say, the family saloon rather than the sports version. Now, it might be they wanted it that way: or that the sound guy was still twiddling with levels – certainly, at one point, the lead singer was asking for the bass to be turned up. A more cynical explanation might be that the main act(s) weren’t so keen on the newbies getting to turn it up to eleven. Who knows? Inter-band relationships on  tour are, I very much suspect, multi-layered, complex organisms, depending on such delicate issues as relative fame, how close the support act might be in musical style, level of drug-induced paranoia amongst key personnel, etc, etc.

Not that I’m suggesting any of that here. All I am saying is that no such volume level problems appeared to affect the second support act in Glasgow. Rae Morris is beautiful, and also a beautiful singer. Backed by a good band, what was missing here wasn’t a lack of decent amplification – being BBC’s former backing singer clearly has its advantages – but that the songs were, to be honest, not that memorable. She sounded like an excellent voice in search of a songwriter. Still probably one to watch, though.

Back in Dundee, the relationship between Randolph’s Leap, the second band on, and Kid Canaveral, the closing act, was less defined than support and main attraction, although Adam Ross did ask KC’s permission to do an encore, of which more later (the response being a cheery F*ck Off! followed by Aye, go on then). This was more by way of a professional courtesy, though, to avoid eating into KC’s time.

Leap are basically built around the words and – by extension – personality of Ross, who describes himself in one song as ‘at best endearingly shambolic,’ but although the set had its shambolic moments (Adam, man, what are you doing changing capo mid song?) I defy anyone not to like Randolph’s Leap. I mean, mid-song-capo-change-fluffing moments aside, they are musically a force to be reckoned with, and the lyrics are funny, self-deprecating, but at the same time sharply observed. Of course, I am biased towards bands with decent words behind the noise being a writer and all, but if you haven’t done so already, check them out.

Onstage, one got the impression that Leap are – at the very least literally – too big for a venue like this: with two guitars, bass, drums, keyboard, violin, and two-person brass section, they were struggling for room, especially when, at the end of their well-received set, they exited into what appeared to be some kind of broom cupboard while the audience shouted for more. Thanks goodness the crowd were so keen: it looked like the Black Hole of Calcutta in there, and if the response had been lukewarm, we could have had a health and safety incident on our hands.

I wish I could tip Leap for the top, but their brand of brass and electric augmented, lyrically quirky folk is probably too damn quirky to catch the ear of the A & R men. But then, I guess, nobody could have predicted the success of Mumford and Sons. Or, closer to home, the Proclaimers.

I don’t have much to say about Kid Canaveral, except that they were excellent again. They’re a solid indie rock band, who should be progressing to the next level. In the meantime, as an experience, seeing a band of their quality in a small venue was a fine one, and you even got to buy merch from the lead guitarist before they came on – something you wouldn’t get from a headline band at the next level, you can be sure. My only cavil was the levels between lead and rhythm guitar – Kate, you need to get your lead singer sorted there! – but it was consistently strong stuff.

And so to the final act in Glasgow. What is it with Club in indie band names at the moment? Bombay Bicycle Club. Two Door Cinema Club. Tokyo Police Club. Indian Cavalry Club. Okay, so the last of these is an Indian restaurant. Actually, Bombay Bicycle Club, as well as being a band, manage to purvey pakoras and tikka masala on Edinburgh’s Brougham Street, but you get the gist.

BBC were clearly the main attraction at the 02, and they didn’t disappoint. From the opening bars of Overdone to the final encore, Carry Me, the band were in fine form. Particular favourites were Shuffle and Always Like This.

I promised Daughter and Heiress I wouldn’t make the comparison with the Foals gig I reviewed recently, and such a comparison really would be invidious, given that Foals produced The Best Rock Gig Ever. However, BBC were really, really good, and the advantage of the bigger venue – apart from the obvious one of better acoustics and sound system – was the potential for extra elements like the intriguing animations projected onto a backcloth behind the band, as well as the conventional light show.

So. As an experience, which one? Both. The Dundee gig had the advantage of you being up close and personal with the bands, and if Beat Generator! Live isn’t exactly a Las Vegas lounge bar, look what playing Vegas did to Elvis. I kind of like the idea you can buy the t shirt off the lead guitarist.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for Bombay Bicycle Club appearing in a mystical swirl of dry ice, and disappearing off the same way, rather than into a broom cupboard; that too is what rock and roll is all about. And either of them is preferable to the next level but one up, the stadium rock show.

Final thoughts? My ideal line up between the two would be Randolph’s Leap, Kid Canaveral, and Bombay Bicycle Club, at the 02. But only if the sound guy was under strict instructions to turn it up to eleven for all of them.

Scottish Standard English, Scots, and Fifty Ways to use a Scunner

Two things inspired this, the first being a post by the brilliant cygnoir about how she enjoyed hearing Scottish Standard English being spoken every day. The second was from an almost equally prestigious source, the Times of London’s letters page. I’d love to point you at the latter, but Roop charges for Times Online, and frankly, I think getting one of his newspapers once a week is more than he deserves, of which more later.

First of all to cygnoir, who is my friend and fellow Edinburgh-based writer Halstead Bernard. In her December 18 post, she wrote:

“Today I am having a day of expat feelings, so I am going to talk about something I love about living in Scotland and something that annoys me.

I love hearing SSE (Scottish Standard English) every day. In fact, I have done tireless (read: not tireless) research to bring to you the absolute best (read: or just really good) sentence to hear in SSE: “Will you tell the girls about the murder rate of squirrels in third-world countries?” I also love hearing the following words: dreich, guddle, drouthy, numpty, outwith. I hope I didn’t offend anyone by writing this. At least I didn’t say …

Haggis. I am vastly annoyed by the punchline to jokes from non-Scots being, “Haggis!” And I love haggis, so it’s not like I object on culinary grounds. It’s just such a lazy joke, like responding to anything Italian by saying, “Spaghetti with meatballs!”

Hm, now I’m hungry.”

Typically sweet of Halstead to concern herself about offending someone by liking their accent. Rather than offending, it motivated me to put a clip of those words up on Freesound as one example of how SSE sounds. However, in the unlikely event of any of my fellow Scots being so tightly wound that they are offended, I say only this.

Firstly, Halstead, and her husband, Funkyplaid, are as far from the stereotypical brash Yankee as you could possibly get. They are charming, educated folks, who have actually gone the length of coming to live and work in this dark, cold, rocky outcrop of the European mainland with us.

Secondly, we should thank our lucky stars other English speakers find our accent charming. A brief Google search discloses that SSE speakers are considered the most reassuring to hear in an emergency; that call centres value us as our voices are thought to reflect probity and caution; they’re even rated second most pleasing to listen to after something called ‘Queen’s English.’

Compare that with the poor old Scousers, the Liverpool accent being considered ‘least intelligent and least trustworthy,’ amongst fellow Brits.

The only time I’ve been to the States, at a conference in Nashville, (where, actually, I didn’t meet hardly any stereotypical brash Yankees – hey, maybe we should revisit that stereotype, eh?) there was indeed a charming lady who peppered with me with questions until confessing that she was only doing it to hear my accent. Come to think of it though, she didn’t ask me about the murder rate of squirrels in Third World countries.

Was that so bad? I didn’t think so (just for the record, anyone with Irish (Northern or Southern), Spanish or French accented English automatically gains extra points from me. I know that’s not the way it should be, but it is. Apologies to any of those I pepper with questions).

In my Freesound clip, I used what I understand to be SSE: in other words, what I would use in normal everyday speech, particularly if speaking to a non-Fifer (like everyone, I guess, my accent does broaden out when speaking to fellow natives).

So much for Scottish Standard English.  What about that rather more contentious, not to say slippery concept, Scots?

Accents fascinate me. Probably because I’ve been born and brought up in Scotland, I’ve always had an ear for the way intonations and pronunciations of Scots accents change, even if you travel a few miles in any direction. I could tell you if a person came from Kirkcaldy or Dunfermline, for example, the two biggest Fife towns, about ten miles distant from each other. I could be pretty sure of my ground if you asked me to tell if a person had spent most of their life in North Fife, or across the Tay Bridge in Dundee, where the accent changes again markedly. Going further north, the Doric of Aberdeen changes the pronunciation again.

Which makes rendering them into a written approximation doubly difficult. Take the phrase, ‘see you later.’ In Fife, the pronunciation turns that into something like ‘seeyuh lu’er,’ with a glottal stop replacing the ‘t’ in the last word (interestingly, the phrase seems to lend itself to heavy accenting in other languages, too – the Spanish ‘hasta luego’ (lit. until then) is classically pronounced ‘aasta loowego,’ but generally comes out as ‘’sta logo.’)

There are about a zillion other examples. ‘What,’ is pronounced ‘Whit,’ Whut,’ or even, in the North-East, ‘Fit.’ Some of these variations are better documented than others, and Fife hasn’t to my knowledge been much written down.

When I was working on my chapbook of Fife football fairy stories, I had to basically create a whole etymology of words and phrases to smooth out the different tries I’d had over the course of three stories at getting Fife pronunciation on the page. When I was working on my Soundcloud version of Thrawn Janet, I even had to take a red pen to Robert Louis Stevenson (I know! The sheer impertinence!) to make sure I was comfortable with one or two of the Scots words.

According to English Accents and Dialects, (5th edition) Hodder Education, 2012: “Describing Scots as a dialect of English is problematic in a number of ways … historically speaking, it would be more accurate to say that Scots and English are dialects of a language that is the common ancestor of both, because both derive from a West Germanic dialect that was imported to Britain from northern Germany and Denmark  in the mid-fifth century. The history of Scots is just as long as the history of English in these islands … but even today many Scottish people are not altogether sure what distinction is intended by the use of the term ‘Scots’ versus ‘Scottish English.’”

As our American friends might say, you bet your ass, buddy. And I’m not even going anywhere near the socio-political implications of Scots being a distinct language. No sirree Bob. Not in Referendum Year. Instead, let’s go back to see what the Times of London letters page was mithering (a good Mancunian word) about.

Referring to an earlier report (which I didn’t see, as we take the Guardian during the week, only succumbing to the blandishments of News International because, frankly, the Guardian’s Saturday edition isn’t as good, no matter how bleeding heart liberal it might be) entitled “Scots mind their language and hang on to braw words,” there was a minor stushie (nope, didn’t think Microsoft Word would recognise that one) over the meaning of Scots words still in current use.

First out of the blocks was a William Warrack of Sheffield, and the meaning of three words, ‘braw,’  ‘glaikit,’ and ‘scunnered.’ Mr Warrack, rather unsportingly I felt, let slip that his reference point, Chamber’s Scots Dialect (sic) Dictionary, had been compiled by his great grandfather, the Rev. Alexander Warrack.

According to this authority, ‘glaikit’ is defined as ‘giddy or foolish in an affected manner;’ ‘braw,’ rather than being beautiful, is handsome or even able bodied, and rather than being bored, ‘scunnered,’ according to Mr Warrack’s great-grandfather, “implies loathing, repugnance or disgust.”

Meanwhile, a Mary Pirie of Tighnabruaich felt that scunnered meant annoyed, rather than bored.

So who’s right, the Sheffield-resident descendant of a celebrated etymologist, or the redoubtable Mrs Pirie? The answer, of course, is both of them, and neither. Because the whole point of these surviving Scots words is there is no exact English equivalent. That’s why we keep using them!

Take the simplest of these, ‘braw.’ It could be applied to either sex, to mean beautiful or handsome. There are probably more handsome women in Scotland than beautiful men, but let’s leave that to one side: the point is, it’s a good general term indicating positivity, something the Scots are not universally noted for, it’s fair to say. (I was reminded the other day of the phrase from Wodehouse about there being no difficulty differentiating between a ray of sunshine and a Scot with a grievance. Outrageous English propaganda, of course.) Braw can also be used to denote general satisfaction with a state of affairs, as in, ‘that’s braw.’

And now, ‘glaikit.’ I fear I must depart from Mr Warrack’s great grandfather, as glaikit to me doesn’t mean ‘giddy or foolish in an affected manner.’ It may be it meant that in 1911, but to me the nearest standard English equivalent is gormless. It denotes, I think, a lack of common sense, a lack of self-knowledge, or just plain witlessness: but, crucially, is also usually associated with how the person looks.

There was an excellent example the other day when I was dropping off Daughter and Heiress somewhere, and she asked, not without an element of sarcasm, whether she could wait in the car or whether I thought she should ‘stand outside and look glaikit.’ Now, D & H is in full possession of her mental faculties: I would even go so far as to say she has more than her share of common sense for a teenager. It wasn’t that she was glaikit; it was, notwithstanding any internal degree of cerebral activity, that she would look glaikit. I let her wait in the car.

However, that’s only my opinion, and that, I think, is what makes Scots as a language so slippery. Even if one is to consult noted authorities such as Mr Warrack’s great-grandfather, it’s not the end of the matter. The etymology of words changes with time, and with geography. There’s no central medium like the movies or the telly to create some sort of universal acceptance of what a word like glaikit might mean. That’s why I tend to disagree with attempts to codify Scots into some kind of unitary linguistic organism called Lallans.

Which leads me, finally, to scunner. Ah, scunner! Shall I compare thee to a Scottish summer’s day? Thou art yet more changeable and inconstant. Mr Warrack and Mrs Pirie are, again in my view, both right. Scunnered can involve the English words they use: it can imply loathing, repugnance or disgust. It can also mean annoyed.

But they’re both also wrong. Scunnered can encompass boredom. It can involve varying degrees of annoyance, boredom, loathing, repugnance and disgust. In fact, almost any word in a similar vein can be implied by the use of the word scunnered. You can be scunnered with your job, your nearest and dearest, with the fading fortunes of your football team, or with the whole lot of them. It can denote that you’re finished with a topic, or an aspect of your existence.

As a verb, it can be in the active or passive voice. You can be scunnered with something, or you can even scunner yourself. Used as a noun, it can be a wearisome or troublesome activity, or even something more like a feeling – Stevenson, in Thrawn Janet, uses it to mean a feeling of dread. It also can denote loathing, repugnance, disgust or similar with a person – as in, ‘That George Osborne (or it could be Rupert Murdoch, Ed Miliband, or Alex Salmond) is a pure scunner.’

Right, that’s all for now. I think I might have scunnered myself with the whole thing.



Crowd Surfing, Clothes Throwing, Flea Bites Optional (or not): Foals and Cage the Elephant in what may be The Greatest Rock Gig Ever

I’ve been thinking a lot about mindfulness, recently, mainly because it’s all about you everywhere you turn these days. In the papers, on the telly, on t’Internet, some bozo’s earning a few bob recycling this concept of, if you can live in the moment and forget about the past and the future, it’s like, such a healing place to be, you know? The Buddhists have been doing it for years apparently. Who knew.

I was even thinking about this during the early stages of the Foals set on Sunday night, as they began tearing up the O2 Academy, Glasgow, with a barnstorming performance. And why not? Isn’t that, after all, what the truly great gigs do – transport you from all your workaday worries and back story of woe to a place where you are just there, in that moment, enraptured, the magical wrangling of your synapses by the guitars/bass/drums/keyboard/vocals (or, I guess, if it floats your boat, random electronic bleepings) making you wish this moment could go on forever, that this, this was real life, and your other life, the one you call real life, was just a mildly disturbing dream you’d now woken from?

Yeah, well. If you’re anything like me, there are a million things to drag your mind’s sorry ass back from that rapture. To use Sunday as an example, the car being parked somewhere that looked like the place to park if you wanted to do a drug deal in the Gorbals. The guys to your right being more bent on getting the next pint in than sitting still and actually listening to the music, which you kind of thought was the point. Whether you’ll need to pee again before going back to collect what’s left of the car. The really strange smell coming off the seating.

And so to the music. We’ll gloss over the first support act, That Fucking Tank, a guitar and drums duo from Leeds. To be honest I had a really snarky riff about how they might have got started, but on the principle of if you haven’t something positive to say, don’t say anything at all, I won’t say anything at all. Besides, they were out there on stage getting paid for what they do, and your reviewer was in the front row of the balcony getting eaten by the local wildlife, so who is he to be snarky?

Besides, things took a distinct upward turn with the arrival of the second band, Cage the Elephant, a six-piece from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Now, it’s fair to say your reviewer hadn’t heard of Cage the Elephant before, far less Bowling Green, Kentucky, but frankly any town unimaginative enough to name itself after a recreational pastime’s playing surface sounds like the kind of place you’d want to form a rock and roll band and get the hell out of, quam primum, as they say in Kelty. Or even Kentucky.

Bowling Green’s loss turned out to be Glasgow’s gain, big style. The band’s Wikipedia entry describes their musical style as ‘alternative rock, garage rock, punk blues, indie rock,’ which I suppose just about covers it, although it was definitely more punk than blues, with a generous dollop of bands like the Ramones prominent in the bone structure. Lead singer Matthew Shultz had also clearly attended the Iggy Pop Finishing School of Performing Arts, and it wasn’t long before he attempted his first – but by no means last – crowd surf.

Ah yes, the crowd. ‘You guys are animals,’ Shultz informed them on making it back to the stage, before taking his top off and diving back in for more. And indeed they were. The Cage the Elephant set unleashed a growing frenzy in the stalls, and one could only lean over the balcony and watch, and marvel. There was lots of good natured (I think) slamming into one another amongst the young bucks, as well as a seemingly endless stream of stuff getting thrown: water, beer, other unspecified liquid substances, plastic (thankfully) containers, items of clothing. Shirts, socks, everything.

Most of this seemed to end up elsewhere in the crowd, rather than on stage, and the band played on as crowd members emulated Shultz, crawling over the heads of their fellow audience members, like drones ejected from the swarm, and looking for a way back into its warmth. Eventually these bold spirits would reach the front, where the security guys would pick them off and pass them along to the sides, where they would be released back into the hive mind.

As another review of the gig has noted, Cage the Elephant seemed to be in danger of stealing the show. They closed their set in a squall of feedback, Shultz lying on his back on stage, facing away from the audience, stripped to the waist and glistening like a sweaty reincarnation of Jim Morrison himself. All he needed was the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, but who knows, maybe only pussies drink JD in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

So Foals had a bit of work to do to reclaim their audience. They started slowly, with Prelude, before building through Hummer, Olympic Airways, and My Number. By this time the stalls were a seething, boiling mass of activity, and when frontman Yannis Philippakis disappeared into the crowd before rising, slowly, like a tiny bearded rock god, still playing his guitar, you could have sworn the fans bearing him aloft had fused into one adoring organism, made solely of flesh, beer, and plaid cotton.

Philippakis was a cooler, slightly less frenetic presence than Cage the Elephant’s Shultz – he had a guitar to play, after all – but ultimately the more charismatic of the two: and that’s saying something, because Shultz was no slouch in the crowd pleasing stakes. Ultimately, though, Foals as a musical unit have a really pleasing, unified, sound, with the guitars working off each other really superbly. I may write more about the frenetically scrubbed sound of many indie bands another time, but here the high-pitched riffing of Jimmy Smith’s guitar was complemented by the more rocky, lower register crunch of Philippakis’s.

The whole set was perfectly pitched, with highlights perhaps being Spanish Sahara, Providence, and Inhaler. The sound was just amazing, the light show (not something this reviewer is usually bothered about) astonishing, and the atmosphere – the sheer unbounded joy of the crowd bouncing around to every last drop of the thing – unforgettable.

And yes, even your festival dad reviewer, with all his accumulated lists of things to think, plan, and worry in advance on, lost himself in the midst of it all, found the rapture, and admitted to Daughter and Heiress that yes, this might be The Best Rock Gig Ever. Even better than Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Birmingham, 1987. Really. That good.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. The sound system blew out on the final encore, leaving the band to close the show with the muted growling of the onstage monitors. They could have dispensed with the first band and given themselves and Cage the Elephant longer sets. And there were the insect bites to consider the next day. But then, the Best Rock Gig Ever isn’t necessarily the Most Perfect Rock Gig Ever. In fact, it almost definitely isn’t. It needs to be hot and sweaty. Beer needs to be drunk, and indeed thrown liberally over other people. Steam has to actually rise from the seats at the end of it (yes, really!)

And Foals saw that all of that came to pass. And lo, Foals looked down upon their followers, and were pleased. And lo, the feeling was entirely mutual.

Flea bites though. Genuine, honest to goodness critters sucking the blood out of you. I’m taking the insect repellent to Bombay Bicycle Club on 3rd March.

Keith Ferguson – a remarkable man

Normally, this blog is meant to be a repository of the quirky, surreal, and all that sort of stuff. However, I can’t let my father’s passing simply go unmentioned.

Dad was admitted to Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy, on 27th December last, and died in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on 22nd January. Although he was 85, and he was admitted with a serious condition, we always expected him to recover, so his loss is all the worse for us because of that. His funeral on Tuesday helped a little, but life will not be the same without him.

For those of you who weren’t fortunate enough to know Keith Ferguson, his obituary is on the Scotsman website. He was a remarkable man with many achievements – achievements which he was still adding to right up to his final illness. In a few weeks I’ll be telling you about his book, which we’re publishing posthumously.

For now though, here’s what I gave the Humanist celebrant by way of my contribution to the tribute at the funeral. Sleep well, Dad. We miss you more than we could possibly say.


Dad was an inspiration, even when I didn’t think he was. I never had that Mark Twain moment of thinking he was the most ignorant man in the world when I was 14, only to find out he’d learned a lot by the time I was 21.

But when I was 17, I was determined to go to University, but do anything other than law, like him. I ended up doing law.

When I was 18, in my first year, I was determined I would do anything other than end up becoming a solicitor, like him. Wrong again.

It wasn’t that I didn’t admire him even then, and what he did. But I saw what life as a high level lawyer in a public sector organisation took out of  him. By the time I was 21, he was in hospital getting a triple bypass, and I was deciding that, ok, I would probably end up being a solicitor, but I definitely wouldn’t end up being a solicitor in public service, like him. Guess what.

Fortunately, Dad was an inspiration in far more important things than career choices. One of my fondest memories of teenage years was the way he used to bring me a cup of tea in bed to encourage me to go off to the pool with him, first thing, before school and work. His successful management of his heart condition by exercise and sensible eating was not lost on me, and I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I’ve kept good health up to now.

More importantly than that, he taught me the virtues – and benefits – of hard work, positivity, courtesy, kindness, listening to the other point of view, and treating people the same no matter what their age or social class.

Of backing up your arguments with facts. Of having at least half an idea of things like Latin, and nineteenth-century authors. The importance of revising and revising anything you wrote until you were pig sick of it, and then putting it away in a drawer to let it settle before you revised it one more time. The importance of being Scottish.

Even more importantly, he taught me how to bowl a leg-spinner, and the googly. Crucial life lessons about the right amount of water to put in your whisky, how to wear a false moustache with style, how to tell a good anecdote.

When I think back on Dad, as I now must do, there are a million tiny things he taught me by example, about being a man, a husband, and a father. There’s a phrase we non-fiction writers like to put in the start of our books when we thank sundry folk for their help in editing, commenting, doing research, or otherwise getting the book over the line. The errors, we say, are all our own.

That’s how I feel about Dad. All my best bits come from him. The errors are all my own.

Oh, and dreams. Not giving up on them. He definitely taught me that, too.


Resistance is Futile: Collaboration can be Fun!

Gavin Inglis’s recent post about collaborating on a Bloc event had me thinking. Collaborating on a creative project (as opposed to with occupying forces: that can really come unstuck when you find yourself on the wrong side of history) can be such a fruitful venture, why don’t people do it more often, especially writers?

Needless to say, anyone from a musical background will find the question strange. Collaboration – whether in an orchestra, a rock and roll band or a jazz quintet – is the rule, rather than the exception. Even the great lone wolves of rock such as Dylan or Van Morrison need to at least give their band an idea of what they want them to play (although in the case of the former, maybe not so much, apparently).

And the production of recorded music is almost always the result of joint working (see, e.g., Oh Mercy, one of my favourite Dylan albums, and the product of a not entirely painless collaboration between the His Bobness and Daniel Lanois, his producer, amusingly described in Chronicles).

Collaboration in the songwriting arena is, again, the norm. Lennon and McCartney famously wrote their songs separately from each other, but you can bet your bottom dollar they had a massive input on each others’ work once it was brought into the rehearsal room, even before George Martin got his hands on it.

Other pairings have had different approaches: Elton John writes the melody first, and then hands over to Bernie Taupin to come up with the lyrics. Carole King and Gerry Goffin churned stuff out in a cubby hole in the Brill Building, and at home over the piano, while King tried to get the kids to sleep at the same time.

In the context of literature, however, the romantic idea of a lone writer, hammering away at the typewriter in a garret, holds a lot of mystical power. This is my vision, my masterpiece! And a curse on any editor who dares to suggest a single comma is out of place!

The reality is, of course, that writing with someone else can produce something which is greater than the sum of each others’ creative parts. Perhaps it’s because I was playing in bands before I decided I was a writer that I’ve found collaborating on writing and other projects a natural thing to do. Or maybe I just don’t have enough decent ideas of my own.

Whichever, I have in the past collaborated with a lot of people on stuff, ranging, in the context of writing, from poems and short stories to full length books: the late, great C Bruce Hunter (Legacy of the Sacred Chalice, as well as articles and several other so far unpublished book length works) Hannu Rajaniemi, Jack Deighton (short sf stories, also both sadly unpublished so far) Jane McKie (the poetry pamphlet Head to Head) to name but a few.

Writers’ Bloc is a seething mass of collaboration. We like to liken ourselves to a band, and although the reality is actually somewhere in between the tight collective creative burst of Revolver-era Beatles and a bunch of wildly different individualists going off and doing their own things in separate corners, each show is – to a greater or lesser extent – a collaboration, and we have, in the past, even collaborated on stories together.

So what would my top tips for a successful collaboration be?

1. Collaboration is a Negotiation

Life’s a negotiation, right? Well, collaboration definitely is. The language of a commercial property deal might taste strange when describing a wonderful coming together of two or more creative types, but actually it applies just as well. You should approach it with the clear intention of being a win-win; be co-operative rather than competitive; establish what your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is. See it from the other person(s)’ point of view, but also try to take a Third Party Perspective. All that stuff.

2. What Actually is it You’re Collaborating on?

This might sound obvious, but there’s no point one of you handing over a libretto for a four-hour opera and the other one with a 90-minute film score. Is there a market in mind/Fringe show slot oven ready if you only had the material? How long, how much, how genre-specific? What’s the elevator pitch, the strap-line and the press release? Actually, in Bloc we’ve found  coming up with these three things will go a long way towards pointing you all in the same direction.

3. The Project Initiation Meeting/Thought Shower/Eight Pint Session

Okay, so you’ve decided it’s going to be a science fiction space opera, using a classic Cowboy Western plot device featuring female Bulgarian choir singing. But which classic plot – the aged sheriff strapping on his Colt 45 to drive the guys in the black hats out of town, the Bounty Hunter, or what? Which universe? Eastern or Western Bulgarian plainsong?

All of these boundaries will start to move you in one way or another, and help to focus the slow-burn of mutual creativity on the lower levels where you can really establish something unique. Sometimes, though, the first set of bonds you choose might start to chafe: the sf element really isn’t adding anything, for example, or at least it isn’t for some of you. Which leads me to the next point:

4. Is there a Grand High Pooh-Bah?

As Gavin says in his post, with two of you it’s relatively straightforward: it’s about mutual trust and respect. In Tribute to Venus Carmichael, for example, my musical joint project with Kelly Brooks, it’s pretty simple. Either the arrangement of a particular song works for both of us both, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, we move on to something else: there are plenty of songs to choose from (and some new ones have been mysteriously appearing recently, TTVC fans, so stand by for news!)

In a band with four or more of you, that approach can still work. It just depends on personalities: if there’s a big lead singer/lead guitarist dynamic going on, it might mean they dictate to the others, or be at each other’s throats, or both. Cf  Jagger/Richard, the Gallagher brothers, etc., etc.

Monty Python had an interesting way of working: they tended to produce sketches in pairs, and then bring them together in the wider group. The general rule was, if someone really, really hated something, they didn’t do it. But then, the nature of Flying Circus meant the whole thing didn’t have to be totally joined up, in a making sense kind of sense. So no Grand High Pooh-bah there.

The Bloc show with John Lemke and Poppy Ackroyd at last year’s Book Festival Unbound was a bit different. We had to come up with a bunch of words which all made some sort of sense in the overall story arc, to be performed alongside/over the top of music by two different composers which we’d just been given, comprising a series of tracks with fairly gnomic labels like ‘Dorothea II.’ Actually, now I write it that way, it makes me shudder to think we even thought of attempting it.

So we, like, totally needed a Grand High Pooh-Bah to pull it all together. The music was just great, and highly suggestive, but it suggested different things to each of us, so the Project Initiation Meetings (there was more than one) involved a lot of ideas, many of which went off in several directions at once. Gavin was a really excellent Grand High Pooh-Bah. All the same:

5. Accept You Must Bend to the Collective Hive Mind Sometimes

I actually found the project initiation sessions quite difficult. I tend to come up with lots of ideas, some of which I kind of know right away are crap, some of which I get quite attached to. I also have a fault of Just Wanting To Crack On, which will sometimes lead me to think: that’ll do fine. Let’s crack on. Others in Bloc tend to be better at holding off a final decision and letting the flavours stew for a bit.

6. First Draft is only ever First Draft

The first draft bit is the bit I really like: that moment of creation, of converting a tune in your head into something that, on the first run through in the rehearsal room, sounds pretty damn good; that moment when the words on the page start to flow until you reach a full stop and think, actually, I think I’m still going to love that tomorrow.

However, the second draft is usually where your collaborators will come in: has what you’ve created off in your corner part of the overall tapestry, or does it stick out like a camper van parked next to Harold getting one in the eye at Hastings? Hive mind, remember. Grand Pooh-bah may make a Ruling. You may not like it. Negotiate.

7. Getting the Soyuz off the Runway

Ok, so we’re at second, third, or twentieth draft stage (depending whether you’re collaborating with a whole crew of Completer Finishers – did I mention Belbin’s Team Roles is also a useful analysis of how your fellow creators might operate?). If you haven’t done so already, now would be a good time to think about how you’re going to make the project fly. In Bloc, to keep the Soviet analogy going, we sometimes refer to this as getting the Soyuz off the runway.

Which of you is going to persuade the Methil Ladies Singers to act as your East Bulgarian Undead Choir (we jettisoned the sf idea, remember, and followed the current industry standard advice of putting a zombie in it)? That Hammond organ solo the lead singer can just hear in his head but hasn’t a Scooby how to play – which of you is still on speaking terms with the Hammond organ guy in the last band? And which of you took the compromising pictures of the Festival Director at the fetish club with someone else’s wife? (To be clear, that’s not how we got the Book Festival gig. Honest.)

8. Keep a Bolt-Hole

By which I mean, it’s sometimes handy to keep a project all of your own simmering on another ring while all of this is going on. So when the Methil Ladies Singers are giving the atonal East Bulgarian Death Chant a good seeing to, you can always think of the book-long sequence of poems about Fife’s transportation infrastructure you’ve been tinkering with for a while now, and get that warm glow creatives get when they’re thinking about that sort of thing.

9. Plan, Do, Review

Or in other words, like all projects the logical paradigm is to follow a three stroke cycle of planning it, doing it, and then sitting down afterwards and seeing if you want to do it all again. If you do, is it with the same people, or is it time to have that chat with the rhythm guitarist? Have you now remembered why the Hammond organ guy was in the last band, and not this one? Would you go to Kelty rather than Methil for your zombies next time?

Don’t wait too long to do the review stage. Like childbirth (I imagine) the awful pain you went through at the time recedes and is replaced by a warm, fuzzy memory of an event/gig/best-selling novel that makes all the participants up for more.

10. There’s Always the Door

If you do collaborate, the worst thing, the very worst thing, you can do is go along with it when you’re really not happy, and then disown it when it finally sees the light of day: ‘well, to be honest, it was all really Colin and Clarissa’s thing, I was looking more for the Western Bulgarian vibe, or maybe even a bit of Albanian, but (rolls eyes long-sufferingly) you know what they’re like…’

Don’t be so pathetic and passive-aggressive. If you don’t want to put your name to it, don’t then (and don’t lay claim to any of the royalties neither, when Bulgarian Zombies – the Musical! takes off on Broadway).

To be fair, this has never happened to me – but I have seen people walking away from joint projects, and I have always respected them for it.

A few years ago, Hannu, Gav and I were both involved in some meetings about an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with a group of people, some of whom we knew, some of whom were new to us. It was all quite exciting initially, particularly as it looked as if there might be some money in it, and people from as far away as London and Birmingham were making the trip to talk to us.

Then, one by one, everyone walked away. I remember one participant telling another (without any apparent rancour) ‘you’re a very rude man.’

A few months later, Gav assembled a crack team (and me) to produce something with ARG-ish elements to it for the City of Literature’s campaign. The thing that made it work especially well, I think, apart from Gav’s gentle Grand Pooh-Bah-ing, was the fact that we had disparate talents around the creative arts, so that the whole thing had a rounded, transmedia element to it that a bunch of poets could never have managed by themselves.

It was called Hunt the Poem and it was really rather good. Have a look – it’s still up there. I would work with all of those guys again in an instant. And that’s not just the warm fuzzy glow talking, either!

The Surrealist Year Ahead



The rock world is shocked by the news that the Rolling Stones have been using prosthetically enhanced lookalikes on stage for years. Jim Henson is credited with giving the session musicians such convincing makeovers that the only original band member to remain on the tours, Charlie Watts, was completely fooled.

‘I’ve been playing with muppets for years,’ an ashen-faced Watts tells reporters, adding, ‘I thought they sounded a bit better than usual recently.’

The real Keith Richards, currently floating in a tank of methadone in a private clinic on the Dutch Antilles, is unavailable for comment.


December 2013’s heart-warming story of the couple who had to deliver their baby at Sainsbury’s petrol station at Cameron Toll, subsequently giving their son the middle name Cameron, inspires a rush of copycat births at other retail outlets, in a desperate bid for media coverage. Campbell Starbucks Straiton Sweeney is one picked up by the headline writers for the alliteration, but everyone agrees Louis Vuitton Multrees McLatchie’s parents should have known better.

Mrs Jane O’Rourke is reported as having been thinking about the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, rather than the birth location, when naming her daughter Precious. However, the manager of Poundstretcher’s in Gorgie Road tells the Evening News he was still ‘proud tae lend a hand.’


A new dance craze known as gwerking hits the world of celebrity. Soon global figures as influential as Katie Price and Kim Kardashian are spotted wearing v-neck Pringle pullovers and National Health specs, flailing their arms around in a spasmodic manner to Seventies disco hits such as Chic’s 1978 hit Le Freak.

Men of a certain age remain unimpressed. ‘This is just dad dancing dressed up as being something new and cool,’ storms Ronald O’Donald, 49, of Peckham. ‘We’ve been doing it for years.’

However, no one in celebrity land listens to those kinds of people. Miley Cyrus creates a Twitterstorm bitch-fight by saying she’s ‘too young to gwerk.’ ‘I can see it would work for people like Kim,’ she tells !Celeb!!Biz!Online! ‘Maybe when I’ve fully pushed the envelope of the twerk, I’ll be ready to gwerk.’


An alien race from near Alpha Centauri finally make contact with the world’s media via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

‘We’ve been waiting for you guys to develop something compatible with our systems for aeons,’ the spokesperson, Zog the Archaic (1,003) says. ‘Well done you for getting there in the end. Lol.’

Before  - inevitably – posting a selfie, he adds: ‘We tried visiting you direct, but there was something wrong with the satnav and we kept ending up in a car park near Bathgate. Even we’re not perfect, obvs.’

In a related development, Clackmannanshire Council respond to a Freedom of Information request, admitting that the strange silver disc-like object on the roof of their headquarters in Alloa is in fact a form of router to boost the Alpha Centaurians’ wi-fi signal.

‘We thought it was the least we could do, after that unfortunate misunderstanding in Skinflats,’ a spokesperson says.

@zogthearchaic soon has more Twitter followers than Cheryl Cole. But then who doesn’t these days.


Fed up with stand up comedians making fun of the lyrics for her 1996 hit Ironic as not being examples of irony (blackfly in chardonnay, a traffic jam when already late, yada yada) Alanis Morrisette issues a remix, where the line ‘isn’t it ironic’ is replaced by ‘isn’t it a bit shite.’ Although she keeps the original song title. Which critics agree is a bit ironic.


A news report of an escaped baboon in a Morningside tea shop turns out to be based on a typo in a Tweet about an escaped balloon, slightly dislodging a cake stand at a children’s party.

However, in one of an increasing number of examples of life imitating the internet, a female baboon called Dorothy does escape a few days later from Edinburgh Zoo, making it as far as Corstorphine, where she holds down a job as a waitress in a cafe for several weeks before being recaptured.

‘I did find her a little difficult to understand, but I thought she was maybe just a bit foreign,’ the short-sighted owner, Calista McFlockhart (63) explains. ‘She was very popular with the regulars, although I noticed the scones were disappearing a whole lot faster than usual on her shift.’

Dorothy soon acquires her own Twitter account, @dorothyscone.


A last ditch attempt by the Scottish Government to make the Commonwealth Games more inclusive sees the rules changed to ensure at least one local competitor is given a place on the starting line up of each sport.

In the 100 metres final, Davey MacSwedger, 37, of Castlemilk, beats Usain Bolt by a clear 7 tenths of a second, and becomes the only gold medal winner in the Games’ history to mount the podium still clutching two packets of meat and a box of disposable razors.

Constables Shaun McDaid, 43, and Malky Malcolmson, 22, come a creditable 7th and 8th despite not being formal competitors. In interviews, MacSwegan thanks them for providing him with his ‘motivation.’

‘I’d also like tae thank Aldi fur providing the trainin facilities,’ he adds. ‘And fur no pressin charges.’


A new crop circle controversy breaks out in East Lothian, where fields of barley sprout what appear, at first sight, to be landing strips for alien craft, the distances between each marker on the strip being 3.14159259 metres, prompting feverish speculation amongst mathematicians as to why aliens would measure things in units of Pi.

After a week two conceptual artists claim responsibility, explaining that the ‘installation’ is meant to represent a giant ruler, being a comment on the unavailability of space for conceptual art in Edinburgh during the Festival. ‘The work plays with sensibilities on space in every sense of the word,’ simpers Jason Twistleton-Smythe, 27, of Chipping Norton.

In an unrelated incident, Damien Hirst  recovers from gunshot wounds in Cumberland Infirmary after an altercation over the use of drystane dyke materials to build his latest artwork on a hillside near Carlisle. The work, a shark made of slate entitled Set in Stone, is believed to be an ironic reference to Hirst’s most famous work, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a 14-foot tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde.

On being charged with the shooting, local farmer George Tomkins (69) comments, ‘It were worrying my sheep.’


The independence referendum is stopped in its tracks by a writ from Donald Trump, who successfully argues that the vote might interrupt his constitutional right to ‘screw as much money out of the little guy as I conceivably can.’ Trump becomes an unlikely hero with the Scots who, scunnered with the whole Yes or No debate, vote to have Trump’s hairpiece declared a Listed Building under the relevant legislation.

The Scottish Government retaliates by making wind turbines compulsory on the pin flags of all golf courses constructed in the last three years.


Following the inconclusive result in the independence referendum, David Cameron announces the most fundamental shake up of the UK Constitution in a thousand years.

The country will be divided into a house system, similar to that used at most public schools. England will be divided into ‘Southerners’ and ‘Northers’ (beyond Watford Gap) with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each being given their own house. Houses will elect their own Head Boy and Girl, and compete in a series of sports such as lacrosse and cricket to win points.

These will then affect how much money goes to new regional assemblies, known as ‘Common Rooms,’ to spend in the respective regions.

Everyone that matters agrees it’s worth a jolly good go, although there is some predictable whining from Dragon, Saltire and Ulster Paisley Houses.


A new phone tapping scandal comes to light. Journalists trying to hack into the private phones of Met Office experts mistakenly gain access to a coach party of pensioners from Swansea driving past the building.

The pensioners’ anxious speculations about the weather, fuelled by earlier tabloid predictions of ninety days of snow and too much prescription medication, set off a feedback loop of inaccurate media predictions which then, in turn, create even wilder speculations on the coach the next day, to be picked up by headline writers the day after. Pieces like ‘Christmas Killer Wave for Cardiff,’ ‘Tsunami to hit Sheffield,’ ‘Snowfall to Flatten Forfar,’ and ‘Avalanche Threat to Aberdeen,’ become commonplace.

Veteran newscaster Michael Fish is wheeled out to confirm that the whole thing is untrue and that a new ice age is not, in fact, due to spread south as far as Macclesfield by next Tuesday lunchtime.

Nobody believes him.


Scientists announce a research breakthrough: a chemical found only in Brussels sprouts is the cure ‘for almost everything.’ However, clinically significant doses involve daily ingestion of at least 8 ounces of the gas-producing cultivar of Brassica oleracea. R & D departments of major companies go into overdirve trying to refine a more acceptable alternative than eating industrial quantities of the stuff.

In the meantime, as the western world belches and farts its way through Nigella Lawson’s new bestseller A Kilo Of Sprouts A Day Keeps The Ex-Husband At Bay, the Chinese come up with way of extracting the chemical into a single pill to be taken once a day, and keep it to themselves.

As methane levels reach dangerous new highs, however, they relent, and trade the secret process. In return for Scotland, Peru, the Balearic Islands, and the New York Mets baseball team. And the secret recipe for Coke.

Then 2015 dawns, and things get a whole lot weirder.


With thanks and love to Heather and Keith Ferguson for their suggestions

Dawn Breaks Over The Scottish Lowlands (well, more like mid-morning, really…)

A healthy and happy 2014 to all my readers. The crystal ball’s a bit cloudy this morning, but I hope to have The Surrealist Year Ahead finished up in the next few days. As they say, you heard it here first!

Andrew xx

Writing On Spec, and the Greatest Song Tom Petty Never Wrote

There are few things less appealing than a writer whining on about not being published – especially one that manages to stay in decent reserves of Rioja and Chilean Cab Sauv thanks to the day job – so I’ll keep this brief.

Readers of this blog – all two of you (1) – will have seen quite a few navel-gazing entries about how I might never write a story again, blah blah blah. There are a few personal reasons for that which can be shorthanded to bereavement, health scare, and  Big Birthday, but I’m pleased to say my navel has now had enough examination, and really, it’s fine (2).

Here’s the thing. I’ve been calling myself a writer, and seriously trying to get stuff published, for 25 years or so now. I keep a Word document called ‘Works’ which shows me I’ve had 76 poems and stories published in various magazines and anthologies in that time. About three a year, in other words. Not bad, I suppose, especially when most of it has been done on spec.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines ‘on spec’ as:

1: without having a definite buyer or customer but with the hope or expectation of finding one when work is completed;

2 chiefly Brit: without being sure of success but with the hope of success.

It’s a term that’s used a lot in relation to, for example, consultants in the construction industry, but yup, that sounds like what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years with my poetry and fiction!

There’s an interesting comparison to be had with my non-fiction ‘career,’ if I can call it that. The co-written book on the Templars and all that jazz, Legacy of the Sacred Chalice, was mostly written on spec, but with a reasonable prospect of publication given that my friend and fellow writer Bruce Hunter (now sadly no longer with us) knew the editor at Macoy and was able to work him around to taking it.

My law book on common good was written following an elevator pitch, several cups of coffee with my editor and publisher at Avizandum, the marvellous Margaret Cherry, and some rainmaking on my part to get core funding for what was always going to be a very niche product.

My next legal book, this time co-written, involved me taking Margaret out to lunch, pitching the idea, myself and my co-author writing a sample chapter each, another coffee or two, and a contract. What a perfectly civilised way to do things! I’ve finished the first draft of my half in a highly motivated frame of mind, with the prospect of a publication date next year being something that at least has the solidity of a shared understanding, rather than a crazy dream of my own.

Same experience with most non-fiction articles I’ve written: a pitch to an editor who knows I can write and deliver on time, followed by a slow, steady climb towards a completed piece which appears, and, not unimportantly, attains some sort of monetary value. This latter point isn’t because I’m financially motivated. It’s more about the vague idea of my work having some sort of value beyond me thinking it’s the cat’s pyjamas for a greater or lesser period after I’ve written it (3).

Contrast this with the north face of the Eiger anyone in my situation peers up at every time they send out a novel. It goes (following, to the letter, the detailed and yet curiously always slightly different submission guidelines) not to someone who might publish it, but to an agent. Certainly in my case, this agent will not know me from Adam. S/he will be unlikely to have read any of my 76 published stories or poems, and almost certainly not Common Good Law or Legacy of the Sacred Chalice. I will be a speck of seaweed, a plankton farted by a whale, amidst the tide of emails s/he will receive from unknowns.

I also have a full poetry collection, and at least one non-fiction book, in the back, written on spec. I’m very much open to offers.

On the other hand, writing for an anthology  – or a spoken word show – you’ve been asked to submit to, is great. Although even more fun is playing guitar with my buddies.

Which is why, back in November, I tried to combine these activities by putting on a spoken word and music show of my own. I called it Duality Tango, to give it the thin veneer of a theme, but in reality it was a kind of showcase of different styles of story and music combinations I’d been working on for about a year. Central to the whole philosophy of it was heavy use of a looper pedal, pre-loaded with backing tracks I’d  done myself with drum loops, guitar, and keyboard.

I even had feedback forms, and all of the 9 paying punters (4) faithfully filled them in.  Opinions were generous, but varied as to what people liked best. Quite a few of them liked Gavin Inglis best.

So what have I learned?

ü  I   I’m not fussed for writing on spec any more.

ü  I   I am, however, still available for weddings and barmitzvahs as a writer-for-hire (this may not necessarily involve your actual money).

ü  I   I do want to make this blog a repository of all things quirky and unexpected, and any other words that mean things like quirky and unexpected. No more navel gazing (5)

he  The Bongo Club is a bloody big place to fill on a so-so November night.

ü  I   I need to work through all this and match the bits I find fun to an audience that wants to turn up to those bits. This may take some time.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to more musical experimentation with Kelly Brooks, Kenny Mackay and Mark Allan.  Tribute to Venus Carmichael will be starting to emerge from under the tarpaulins soon, as long as baby Brook continues to prosper; but there are some other, equally interesting, projects in the wings.

I think Kenny may only want me for my looper pedal (it’s more reliable, cheaper and way less moody than a real drummer, and it lives in a drawer quite happily) but I want to hear The Greatest Song Tom Petty Never Wrote. Which apparently Kenny’s written instead. Wouldn’t you?

Coming soon blog-wise, The Surrealist Year Ahead. And my short story, Blink, in Spanish.

In the meantime, here’s a recorded version of one of the pieces I did at Duality Tango. It’s called Whitby.

Have a great winter break, and here’s hoping 2014 is a happier year for all of us.


(1) For the record, my highest hit rate in a single day was 115. I have 13 ‘official’ followers (thanks, guys).

(2) The stomach muscles around it could do with a few more abdominal crunches than I give them, but as tummy buttons go, it’s ok.

(3) Often only days.

(4) Thanks again, guys!

(5) Interestingly, the entry which – by a long chalk – gets most hits on this blog is the review I did of the Vox AGA acoustic amp, some time ago. 16 views the week I started writing this alone. I’m not quite sure why that is. However, if Vox want to give me one of their gutars to review in return for, oh, let’s say, keeping it, I’m open to offers. Or Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, etc.: I don’t want to seem too fussy.

Review: Abba Night, Channel 5, Friday 13th December


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