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Little did he know...

Ryan Van Winkle and Calum Rodger

If Chuck Palahniuk did poetry readings they might be like this.

Fifty eight people out of ninety in the queue are allowed into the Demonstration Room at Edinburgh’s Summerhall venue. We have been standing with our craft beers in a small car park surrounded by shabby Seventies offices. We look like a rag tag collection of jobbing actors waiting at the back of some Hollywood studio lot to audition as extras for a Seattle coffee shop scene. There is a high grunge factor.

Summerhall is a labyrinth of creative, studio, exhibition and event spaces. It used to be a school of veterinary studies. To find the Demonstration Room you cross the courtyard, head down the alley at the back left and turn right. Or so I’m told by the lady on reception. It doesn’t look like there will be an arts venue down there, and groups of the uncertain and the unconvinced loiter in the area outside the bar, waiting for someone to follow. It is cold and they are chilled, not chilling.

The Demonstration Room is a bleak, claustrophobic amphi-lecture-theatre with steeply banked wooden bench seats, which are arranged in concentric semi-circles. It is thrillingly grim. I can’t begin to imagine what heinous acts of brutality have been enacted on horses in here, using specialised instruments that belong in a museum of Victorian torture, all in the name of education. We have gone through the looking glass to a Dickensian house of horror, or maybe Pinochet’s Santiago.

The MC is a polite, well-spoken boy with a Just William haircut. He looks like he is not long out of flannel shorts and brown leather satchels. Or perhaps he is the man that the boy in The Sound Of Music grew up to be. He is a perfect Aryan specimen, a blonde Boy From Brazil. Just Wilhelm. He obviously likes himself. There is something of the peacock about him. He struts. I don’t warm to him. Fortunately he is low on ado.

We are here to hear original poetry collaborations as part of Edinburgh City Of Literature’s European Literature Night. Ten contintental duos will duet or duel their way through compositions that are being performed in public for the first time.

It turns out to be more riot than recital. The performers are swigging wine from the bottle and diligently working their way through bulging tote bags full of Tennent’s Lager. There is a high edge factor. We are flirting with chaos from the outset.

It is noisy.

The performances are noisy. They use noises. Several of the acts use a Heath Robinson collection of guitar effects pedals and synths to improvise a backing track to the words. They multi-task as poets and roadies.

The noise and sounds will be one of my abiding memories of the evening.

Random noises. And random words in random languages. It is compelling. It is fascinating. It expands my definition of poetry.

The linguistic highlight of the night is Seven Ways To Kill Sophie by Ann Cotten and Esther Strauss. It is clever. It is inventive. It is moving. It is funny in places. It is a genuine collaboration. The parts are great. The whole is greater.

Ann Cotten is clearly enjoying herself. She manages to stifle a fit of giggles. She swigs from a quarter bottle of Famous Grouse and describes an “episode of gaiety” with a Sikh barman. She has a German accent which makes the turn of phrase even funnier.

Calum Rodger, who performed earlier, laughs out loud. He is sitting right in front of me. He can’t sit still and he is drinking heavily and having banter with his burly hipster friend. He is animated. He is a ball of wired, fidgety energy. He has all the mannerisms of Sick Boy from Trainspotting. He is highly amused by Ann’s discussion of racism with the Sikh barman. He is Sikh Boy.

Seven ways to kill Sophie

Ann Cotten & Esther Strauss – Seven Ways To Kill Sophie

Sikh Boy has it coming.

Just Wilhelm is back, this time as performer. He is Steven (SJ) Fowler and he performs alongside Jorg Piringer. Their collaboration is, apparently, a metaphor for how the labour party catastrophically misjudged the Tory voting intentions of the British electorate a week earlier.

Fowler reads, shouts, screams passages of Shakespeare at the audience. But, despite his volume, he is barley audible over the wall of sound being created by Piringer.

He tears pages from the book from which he is reading. He bites the book and spits the shreds at the audience. He climbs into the audience, a-tearing and a-spitting . He returns to the stage. He is in a lather. He loses it. He launches into Sikh Boy. He rips the jacket and shirt from Sikh Boy’s back. There is beer everywhere. There is beer on me. The girl next to me is clearly shocked. There is a frenzied tussle. A girl behind me shouts “Was that staged Calum?” He says no. He had no idea. He is shaken. He makes like he enjoyed it. Maybe he did. Bawdy ribaldry? I’m not sure. Nobody is sure. It is awkward.

The rest of the show is relatively uneventful, inevitably so. Then it is over. Two hours have passed quickly. Just Wilhelm and Sikh Boy hug and make up. The smell of beer. A slightly stunned audience  is slow to leave its seats.

I’m not sure it was poetry but it sure was a trip.


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The exhibitionists

The National Museum of Scotland. Where exhibitions are made.

The National Museum of Scotland. Where exhibitions are made.

I have posted a second Salmon and Bear short story.

It is called The Exhibitionists and it involves a near-death experience for poor Salmon, who was just trying to live a little.

“I’m going to create a diversion,” said the boy, “Something that is temporarily more interesting to a bunch of school children than a seven foot bear reverse waterboarding a salmon.”

I was lucky enough to be chosen to read my first story at the 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival as an Edinburgh City of Literature Story Shop competition winner.



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"Tell me about any ads you can remember seeing recently."

“Tell me about any ads you can remember seeing recently.”


Advertising research has got much harder of late.

So says a researcher friend of mine.

As if it weren’t bad enough to have to schlep out to the suburbs three nights a week, and subsist on breakfast cereal for dinner, those pesky people just don’t want to talk about ads any more when you get there.

In fact it’s worse than that. They’re not just unwilling but also unable to talk about ads it would seem.

It used to be the case that you could warm up eight strangers gathered together in a ninth stranger’s living room by asking them to describe any ads they had seen and liked recently. Sit back, relax and watch the group bond for a few easy minutes.

Not any more apparently.

These days the hapless researcher is likely to be met by stony silence and bemusement. It’s an awkward tumbleweed moment.

Have we liked any ads recently? Sorry, we don’t understand the question.

The idea that people might have seen, liked and remembered any advertising does not compute.

Eight people can not recall a single remarkable piece of advertising between them.

It has happened to my friend in enough groups for it to become remarkable, a thing.

He now takes along some self-curated ads as extra stimulus material. Breaking the ice about advertising has become a laboured, prompted act rather than the effortless, spontaneous one it used to be.

Advertising’s credentials as a commercial art form are evidently not as strong as they once were.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a comprehensive essay on the ins and outs of why that might be.

But I will say that the industry is exercising too much restraint. Advertising, particularly television advertising,  is caught between a rock and a hard place.

You only have to watch an evening or two of prime time television to know that the processes and quality control procedures by which TV commercials come to be are not fit for the purpose of producing work that people want to talk about. Exceptions to this rule, the Yeo Valleys of this world, are depressingly fewer and further between. Lowest common denominator briefs that avoid the parapet at all costs, coupled with stultifying, over-intellectual approval procedures, restrain creativity and deny television the opportunity to do the job that it does best.

Another form of restraint is the tendency to view advertising, especially good old fashioned telly advertising, as the wrong answer, even when it is palpably the right answer.

Our brand is in desperate need of a shot in the arm. We need to get people to sit up and take notice of us again. We need overnight positive reappraisal.

If ever a brand were crying out for TV advertising…

And yet, even when the money is available, marketers are reluctant to do the right thing.

We want an innovative solution*. We want a shareable† content strategy that engages‡ our audience and drivesº word of mouth through social networks.

There’s another kind of awkward tumbleweed moment when the seasoned marketing communications professional recommends television as the right tool for the job to the thrusting young brand manager with an unhealthy innovation fixation.

Television isn’t innovation. Television isn’t clever.

This attitude conveniently forgets that television is big. Bigger than any audience you’re going to earn in social spaces.

It’s neither big nor clever to walk away from the obvious solution just because it is obvious. But brands are doing just that.

If advertising is unfashionable in marketing circles, should we be surprised that its status is similarly diminished on the sofas of Slough, Salford and Sheffield?



* If you recommend TV we’ll view you as lazy even if you’re right.

† You mean shareworthy. Any old shit is shareable.

‡ WTF does that mean?

º They are people not sheep.



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When business model is incompatible with brand experience. Repellent.

When business model is incompatible with brand experience. Repellent.


instead of giving me customer service you gave me a stern talking to and let me off with a caution

Ever had that feeling when someone you’ve known and liked for years inadvertently gives you a glimpse of their hitherto well-hidden or well-suppressed nasty side, and it irrevocably changes things between you? Something dies inside and, ever after, you’re inwardly more guarded in your dealings with them, although you probably decide not to outwardly say or do anything about it. It doesn’t suit you to let them know that you know.

Well in this instance, Direct Line, it does suit me to let you know that I know about your nasty side.

I ‘fessed up to a minor scrape with another car and instead of giving me customer service you gave me a stern talking to and let me off with a caution.


The Direct Line call centre script for these circumstances dispenses with any pleasantries.

It happened like this…

There was traffic mayhem when I dropped my eldest off at her Glasgow University halls of residence – dozens of luggage-laden vehicles vying against each other to make progress in opposite directions through the narrow corridor that was left between double-parked cars.

On the way out I had to reverse to let incoming traffic pass. I ended up trapped too close to a parked car on a corner and I stupidly scraped against it as I pulled away. It was so soft – the vehicular equivalent of two snooker balls kissing – that I almost didn’t notice it.

I pulled in at the side of the road as soon as I could and got out to check. The paint had been scraped off the rear passenger side wheel arch. So I was not surprised to see that similar damage had been done to the other car when I walked back to look.

After several minutes of waiting the owner had not returned and so I left my name and phone number under his windscreen wiper.

He left a message for me later that evening and, in return, I left him a voicemail with my insurance details. We didn’t get to talk and so there was no need for any awkwardness. It is uncomfortable to say the least to know that your insurance may be rendered invalid by the basic human decency of owning up and apologising when at fault. My Direct Line policy makes it very clear that, under no circumstances, should you admit fault to the other party and that you should inform them immediately if the other party does. I had a mini speech prepared that would have expressed regret in such a way as to imply an apology without explicitly making one, but I didn’t need it as things turned out.

I tried to call Direct Line to alert them to the incoming claim but their lines has shut at 5pm. I had a busy day on Sunday and didn’t get round to calling again. Ditto Monday.

On Tuesday they called me.

The Direct Line call centre script for these circumstances dispenses with any pleasantries.

“I understand that you have been involved in an incident.” (Tone of voice: matter of fact.)


“When were you going to tell us about it?” (Tone: accusatory and stone cold.)

My hackles were already up at this point and in my head I was saying to myself, “Just who the hell do you think you are talking to?”

But I kept it calm and explained that I had tried to call after they shut on Saturday.

“Well the lines were open until 5 o’clock on Sunday too.” (Tone: downright condescending.)


 Direct Line’s advertising promises The Wolf, but I got the Pit Bull.

I made a conscious decision to hold my tongue. The call was being recorded and I’m not sure what training purposes would have been served by, “I’m a widowed father of four and I had much better things to do on Sunday than be made to wait on the phone for ten minutes only to take crap like this from an upstart like you.”

And so it went on.

Direct Line’s advertising promises The Wolf, but I got the Pit Bull.



On the TV Winston Wolf solves problems. On the phone Direct Line was giving me a headache.


It’s called data you clowns and you’re meant to use it to make my life easier.

At some length I gave details of me and my motor that they already have on file. It’s called data you clowns and you’re meant to use it to make my life easier.

I then described the incident in detail to an audience that was more intent on affecting incredulity than helping its customer.

Then a standard issue Q&A that is clearly designed to give Direct Line the raw materials it needs to avoid paying out on my behalf if it can possibly help it.

Maybe they think they are helping you but even after I had clearly stated that I had collided with a stationary vehicle the questions were still of the wriggling on the hook variety.

“Was the weather a contributing factor?” (Tone: hopeful).

“No. It was a beautiful sunny day.” (Tone: triumphantly at fault).

Eventually she gave up.

“This will have to be an at fault claim then.” (Tone: the bitter resignation of someone whose KPI dashboard has just been spoiled. The tone of a site foreman who, after a minor bricklaying incident, has had to reset the “days since accident” sign back to zero when just shy of a company record).

She is clearly disappointed that I have had the foresight to protect my nine years of no claims bonus.  But she has the satisfaction of the last admonishing word, warning me that my no claims protection is now hanging by a thread for the next three years until my rap sheet is cleared.

I didn’t record the call but I made sure to remember it for blogging purposes. Hopefully Direct Line can learn from the experience.


An at-fault claim shouldn’t be the telephone equivalent of pleading with a sledgehammer wielding bailiff who has come to take your telly in lieu of unmet payday loan repayments.

The lesson is this. I want my experience of your brand to be consistently good. I want you to be as polite and considerate when dealing with me over an at fault claim as you are when I renew my policy without shopping around for a cheaper deal.

Here’s what Direct Line’s group website says about its Direct Line brand.


We target customers who have a high brand affinity and focus on a quick and straightforward customer experience.

That’s me.

And to be fair that was you too. Quick and straightforward until, after nine years of staying on the right side of you, you gave me a glimpse of your nasty side.

Here then, Direct Line, are some things that I’ve recorded for training purposes.

Your business model (only pay out as a last resort) is incompatible with providing a decent brand experience (we solve problems).

Your corporate vision (doing the right thing – see below) is incompatible with your customer service (treating hapless customers like criminals).

An at-fault claim should not be the telephone equivalent of pleading with a sledgehammer wielding bailiff who has come to take your telly in lieu of unmet payday loan repayments.

Consider this a stern talking to and a caution from a customer who, unlike you, is prepared to give the benefit of the doubt.


Direct Line's left hand gets it but its right hand doesn't.

Direct Line’s left hand gets it but its right hand doesn’t.





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Indy Goggles™.

The fence is not an option in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

To exercise your democratic right to vote is to get off your bum and jump down on one side or the other. Yes or No, black or white, the stark choice of the ballot box makes no allowance for the many shades of grey that characterise the majority of thoughtful voters.

I’ll be worried but also more than a little excited if Scotland votes Yes to independence.

I’ll be voting No because I remain unconvinced that the whole thing has been properly thought through. And the consequences of getting it wrong are dire, more dire than leaving things in the sorry state that they are in now.

But it will be beholden on all of us living in Scotland to seize the opportunity if it goes the other way. I’ll be tremendously excited. Hell, I might even go into politics!

I’ll make the most of it, wholeheartedly, if it happens, but I can’t bring myself to vote for it.

I dare say that this attitude will be a red rag to many Yes voters. They will see it as a form of have-your-cake-and-eat it abdication. I’m voting out of Fear rather than Hope.

This Fear/Hope dichotomy is another of those stark choices that have been conjured up by both sides of the campaign. Well, if that heavily loaded representation of the referendum is meant to goad people like me into voting Yes, it will backfire. Even if I were voting No out of fear, I would not be ashamed to do so. I’m not going over the top into no man’s land without a plan when Mr Salmond blows his whistle. Sorry but I’m not.

Regardless of whether your glass is half full or half empty, Hope and Fear are concepts born of uncertainty. They are functions of the unknown. And that is surely the point. There should be a more robust basis for voting Yes than vague Hope.

A momentous decision should not be made on the basis of momentary euphoria.

Voting Yes in the Scottish Independence Referendum should not be about street parties, nor the instant gratification of waving two fingers in David Cameron’s face.

For all the reasons I outlined in Scotland’s Dr Pepper Moment, a Yes vote should be more thoughtfully cast than a No, not less so. A Yes vote is a radical vote. It might be the ticket to a fairer, better society. But it might also lift the lid on Pandora’s can of worms. Look before you leap.

I can see the attraction of the radical option. I am spiritually drawn to it.

But I’m not going to vote for it. It remains, sadly, a leap of faith, which isn’t good enough with the stakes so high.

The burden of rational, objective proof lies with the Yes campaign. Theirs is the case to make. They have to remove reasonable doubt. There has to be a grand plan underpinning the grand idea. Salmond’s Plan B fiasco in the television debate is the most obvious example of the failure to provide one.

My first politically motivated post ever prompted several committed Yes voters to kindly point me in the direction of places to find more detail on how independence might work. But, sadly, the partisan tone of these “resources” undermines their credibility.

10 key facts that prove Scotland will be a wealthy independent country.

“Prove”? I don’t think so. I’m left with that same ill-equipped feeling that made me tend to No in the first place.

The White Paper is not a plan. It is a compendium of ideas and policies. And policies are just promises, political chat-up banter, if there is no maths to back them up.

We need to see your working out, not just your answers.

As the excellent Guardian leader said at the weekend, “The hard evidence is thin,” and “In the end it is a false prospectus.”

I’m not going into the polling booth wearing my Indy Goggles™.

All the self-determination hype has the political effect of too many pints on a Friday night. The referendum equivalent of beer goggles.

This idea approaches you at the bar. Its name is Yes. You think you fancy it and it looks like it wants you, so what the hell? But the idea appears more attractive than it actually is because your vision and your judgement are temporarily impaired. Carried away by the moment you go for it anyway.

Trouble is you won’t be able to kick this idea out of bed in the morning.





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The worst that could happen if Scotland votes Yes in the Independence Referendum is far worse than the status quo, and that’s why I’ll be voting No.




It’s not about the trains. It’s about the track. Independence is a licence to rip the track up and start again.


My grandfather once met William Hill – the William Hill – at Aintree race course and asked him which horse he was backing in The Grand National. Mr Hill politely replied that he was not a betting man.

I bet he wasn’t.

No-one is better acquainted with the futility of gambling than a bookie.

Most of us are just occasional gamblers. We do little or no research and we play with stakes we can afford to lose. We do it for fun. A little risk adds a little spice to the proceedings but our glass is half full. We bet on the basis of the best that can happen, because the best that can happen is pretty good and the worst that can happen is not too bad.

We are all just occasional voters too. Every four years if we can be bothered.

We do little or no research.

It’s not as much fun as a flutter.

But the risks associated with a general election are also relatively low in the grander scheme of things. Experience has taught us this. Voter apathy would be lower and election turnouts would be higher were this not the case.

The worst that can happen in a general election is that it becomes the wrong party’s train set for four years. They might push the trains in a different direction to a different timetable, and bad things might happen to the economy. But experience suggests that bad things happen to the economy no matter whose train set it is.

The Independence Referendum in Scotland is different.

It’s not about the trains. It’s about the track. Independence is a licence to rip the track up and start again.

The stakes are higher than they are in a general election.





(It is about so much more than getting rid of David Cameron; a laudable goal but not one worthy of such drastic, irrevocable measures.)


the best that could happen is that we all pay more tax to be as good as Norway


The worst that could happen is a disaster.

And the best that could happen, as far as I can tell, is that we all pay more tax to be as good as Norway, or some other small country I wouldn’t choose to live in.

Some months ago I attended a referendum debate at Edinburgh University between the two Blairs – Blair Jenkins (Yes) and Blair McDougall (No). And what struck me most was the disingenuous manner in which the Yes campaign was happy to conjure up the image of a Scandinavian-style Utopia, whilst refusing to be drawn on the detail of how that would be made to happen.

“Do you think the Scottish electorate would stomach the kind of tax regime required to fund that level of social services?” asked a member of the audience.

“Taxation is a party political issue to be decided after Independence,” was the evasive answer from Blair Jenkins.

I was left with the strong impression that the Yes campaign is blagging it, which is not good enough when my childrens’ futures and my family’s long term financial security are at stake.


I fear that a momentous decision would yield only momentary euphoria.


The No campaign has been poor. But it has the harder job of the two camps.

The best that can happen and the worst that can happen in the event of a No vote are more or less the same. Despite last minute promises of more devolved powers it would be pretty much business as usual. Far from perfect, plenty to fix, but operational.

Better Together is a strong, supportable, credible proposition. But, in effect, what the No campaign is saying is “Things can only get worse.”

The Yes campaign is saying “Things can only get better.”

And for many people in Scotland that too is a strong proposition.

It is also a notion that plays to the heart as well as the head. Seize the moment! Seize control of your own destiny! Rise now and be a nation again!

By contrast, that kind of stirring, optimistic, emotive appeal is sadly lacking from the No campaign.

I can understand the temptation to vote Yes. I have felt it. It would be liberating, historic, momentous. And we could make it happen, be part of it.

Were I younger, were I not a father, if my financial security were not largely dependent on the value of my house, I might even do it.

But I fear that a momentous decision would yield only momentary euphoria.

I remain unconvinced that this grand idea has been properly thought through. The dots have not been joined. Alex Salmond has his eyes on the prize, but his prize, his place in history, is not the same as mine.

So I shall be acting like a bookie rather than a gambler next week. The worst that could happen is too great a risk to bet the house on some vague, unsubstantiated notion of what the best could be.

I don’t want the country I have lived in for over twenty years, in which my children have been born and raised, to be The Butt Naked Boy of Europe…





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I used the Authors’ Toilet at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Once upon a time this would have been an act of mischief, a low level dare.

On this occasion I was not just allowed but encouraged to do so by a nice person with a walkie talkie.

Nonetheless it still felt naughty and fantastic (the idea of admittance rather than the act of relief.)


Phil was 'ere.

Phil was ‘ere.


“Once upon a time.”

Was it real or a fairy tale?

It was both.

It must have been real because I received an email from Sarah at Edinburgh City Of Literature, pretty much demanding that I send an invoice for my reading fee.

What’s more she insists that I turn the resulting cheque into money.


CASH IT! You earned it and then some. Feel free to take a picture of it and frame the picture, but cash the cheque.

It was real and it was a fairy tale and it was a professional gig.

I’m still inclined to pinch myself, but the temptation to do so is assuaged by my author’s lanyard.

I have an author’s lanyard.

An Edinburgh International Book Festival author’s lanyard.

I picked it up in the Authors’ Yurt, a tranquil oasis amongst the trees and tents of Charlotte Square, next to the Authors’ Toilet.

At the new writers’ reception a few evenings previously I sheepishly raised my arm when they asked the authors to put their hands up.

It was definitely real.




I wrote a short story called Blood Bath, about a salmon and a bear who share a flat, and submitted it to Edinburgh City Of Literature’s Story Shop competition.

And it was chosen. It was one of seventeen stories, and I was one of seventeen previously unpublished Edinburgh writers, to be chosen.

We each got to read our story, one a day, at 4 o’clock in the Guardian Spiegeltent at the Book Festival.

That’s to say that we performed our stories. Our written words were chosen by the Story Shop powers that be on the basis of their potential to hold an audience when spoken.

To help us writers become readers, City Of Literature kindly organised a workshop in which we were schooled by professional voice coach Alex Gillon. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience but boy was it useful. How and when to breathe. The importance of eye contact. The art of selling our words. Making every capital letter, every italicised word, every element of punctuation mean to the audience what it meant to us when we wrote it. Alex Gillon is the epitome of constructive criticism. Hard rather than harsh and always fairly so. She wanted us to be great. She and City Of Literature are both class acts.

Alex insisted that for me to have any remote chance of being a class act on the day I had to read Bear’s dialogue in a Russian accent. Cue steep learning curve ascent.

I am eternally grateful to the internet and to benign nutters like Jay Britton for their simple, practical and (in Jay’s case) highly amusing video tutorials, which gave me a fighting chance of being laughed with rather than at. Jay really gets going at about a minute into the video below.



Who knows if the reading (the performance) was any good? Some very nice people who took time out to come and support me said some kind things afterwards. But I genuinely have no idea.

I approached the lectern at 4pm precisely. At approximately 4.01 the heavens opened and Edinburgh’s best impression of a monsoon battered the Speigeltent roof for the next ten minutes.

There was a microphone but I was behind both it and the speakers. I couldn’t hear myself. Apparently the whole thing was audible over the percussion but I couldn’t tell at the time. As a result I belted it out and “projected” a little more than I had intended.

The rain was but the tiniest fly in the most magnifcent ointment. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Sarah and the rest of the City Of Literature team for such a wonderful opportunity. It was a dream. A dream come true.

And thanks to Claire, who had the original idea for Salmon and Bear. It’s going to be a lot of fun writing more together.


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This hideous ride.

This hideous ride tattoo


A needle to the waist punctures the girl’s bravado.


“Holy shit,” she gasps as the gun rattles to life, and I’m glad I opted for the upper arm rather than the lower abdomen. Trevor said it would be more comfortable for a first-timer like me and the look on the girl’s face tells me that he was right. She’s puffing and blowing her way through the pain. Her eyes are moist and she’s biting her lip. She’s suffering for her art. I think she’d take some gas and air if it were on offer. I think she’d sign the waiver for an epidural. I think they should have pieces of leather – individually wrapped, sterile, single use only – for clients like her to bite down hard upon.


A minute ago she was all teenage hubris, showing off the autograph which Gary Barlow had written on her arm with a Sharpie pen, and which she’d had fixed and made permanent with sharp needles and ink. The voice of experience.


I don’t know what she had done but it was all over mercifully quick. Not so cocky now. Take that, Gary Barlow fan.


The artist with the gun in his hand is an Aussie. He has a short residence at the studio, en route to his next visiting gig in Hawaii. It is hot outside by Edinburgh standards but he’s wearing a beret and a heavy shirt. I suspect the rolled up sleeves are for show rather than a concession to the weather. His forearms are, erm, impressive. I think he’s concerned for the girl. I think he’s being as gentle as he can be. But that is a seen-it-all-before smirk if I’m not much mistaken.


Between the girl and I sits a stout young man. He remains mute and apparently impassive as some kind of Godzillaraptor is deftly rendered on his arm by a second artist who is hunched over his work. The artist has his back to me and I can see that it is a hunch of focus and intense concentration. The stout man is a cadaver. That’s the name given in tattoo circles to clients who don’t speak whilst being worked on. Let’s call him John Doe.


The reptile on John’s arm is magnificent but I suspect it lacks narrative. A decorative dinosaur with no back story. Skin deep in every sense.


But maybe the story is already told. Maybe the unknown artist of unknown provenance is devoting his rapt attention to imbuing John’s bicep with secret meaning that has been vouchsafed unto him alone. And maybe talk would only cheapen the proceedings.


Either way I’m feeling a little cheated. I assumed that the parlour would be a den of gut spilling; ink as therapy. I envisaged three clients on three chairs simultaneously sharing hopes, fears, dreams and momentous life-defining events. I imagined the air thick with comingled stories that would permeate our tattoos like cigarette smoke in your clothes after a few pints in an old style snug bar.


At least there’s Trevor [that’s not his real name but I daftly didn’t seek his blessing to write this post].


I suspect there’s no such thing as a dull tattoo artist but, for the record, Trevor is an interesting guy.


His work/life balance is pretty much sorted. Much more sorted than most of us. He is just back from the Seychelles and talks about how tattoos fund his scuba and natural history habits. He shows me videos of giant tortoises. He laments the rising of the oceans. He laments how Dubai keeps the lights on in sports stadia at night, just so that they can be seen from passing airliners. He laments how Dubai treats coral reef like furniture, digging it up and moving it around in a gross form of urban feng shui. Trevor doesn’t have much time for Dubai and citations are probably needed for much of this paragraph.


Talking takes my mind off the insistent, scratching pain of the tattoo gun. It’s not too bad actually. Trevor is using a single needle for the outlines and lettering. This draws approving comment from his fellow artists. It is uncommon, evidently, and the sign of an artisan. Trevor explains that it is more usual to use several needles soldered together. In that arrangement the needles more or less auto-regulate the depth of puncture. A single needle should keep the words clear and legible for twenty years or more, but he has to be careful. “If I keep pushing it will just keep going further and further in,” he tells me. Oh ok.


I explain the significance of the bottle, the sense of losing control of my emotions to elemental forces which, like wind, currents and tide, have chaotically determined my ups, my downs and my sense of direction since Rachel’s death. Trevor changes the subject.


I’m not sure I like hearing Trevor describe the needles and gun as his “works”. I totally trust in the parlour’s heath and hygiene practices but sharing needle nomenclature with drug addicts is disconcerting.


Works don’t come cheap it seems. The alloy handle on Trevor’s gun cost £120. It makes me think of Formula 1 wheel nuts.


Trevor hails from London. Tottenham Hale as it happens. He has worked as a bricklayer and labourer and spent a short time in the family business at Smithfield Meat Market. He made hand-drawn flyers for the London rave scene in the late 80’s and achieved minor celebrity status within that community. And from there into tattooing. Despite the demand and the money, Trevor laments the extent to which tattoos have become mainstream. He harbours a nostalgic hankering for less lucrative, more authentic times.


Trevor does a mean lament.


I wonder what he thinks of me. Just another mid-life crisis probably. Would I be sitting here if getting inked weren’t so normal these days? Who knows?


To be fair my tattoo does indeed speak of crisis, just not of the mid-life variety.


If each man is given just one life-stage crisis to deal with then mine came when I turned thirty. And if that represents mid-life for me then I’ve got twelve years left and those pension contributions are futile as well as inadequate. Rachel, my late wife, was three months pregnant with our first child at the time and the morose introspection hit me like a freight train. My twenties were gone and they weren’t coming back. What had I achieved? To what unavoidable regrets was I already committed?


Fortunately I don’t remember it lasting very long. Fatherhood amazed and delighted me. And I didn’t have enough spare cash to blow it on anything stupid.


Turning forty was a breeze by comparison.


This hideous ride.


The words belong to Johnny Depp, and I borrowed them for the message in the bottle.


They are from a letter that Depp wrote to Hunter S Thompson on 29th July 1997, during pre-production for Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, in which Depp would play the part of Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke.


Some time later Depp read the correspondence between he and Thompson in a series of videos posted to YouTube.


It appears that Thompson was somewhat concerned (for which read freaking out) about how he might be portrayed by Depp in the movie. And Depp – no mean writer himself as it turns out – is seeking to reassure him on the basis of best intentions and his skill as an actor.


At 3 minutes and 50 seconds into the clip below he says…


We are at the beginning of this hideous ride and things are just starting to take shape, only starting, so don’t freak out. Give it and me a chance.


It is a curious choice of words. Depp is clearly anticipated a rocky road but he says the words with some relish, and refers to a previous quote from Thompson himself.


Who is the happier man? He who has braved the storm of life and lived? Or he who has stayed securely on the shore and merely existed?


And that is what my tattoo is all about. A permanent reminder that life is a bitch and a hell ride. But a reminder also that you shouldn’t want it any other way. Fear and loathing are the salt and pepper that make our three score years and ten more palatable rather than less.


I think Trevor is pleased with his work. I know I am. But he has more prosaic concerns than the meaning of life. He tells me how to nurse the skin trauma with nappy rash cream, and how to protect my clothes with cling film.


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Les lads en tour.

Lads en tour à la Tour Eiffel.

Lads en tour à la Tour Eiffel.

My daughter Penny’s French teacher is French.

She speaks English with an accent that is (eez) pleasing on the ear.

Penny and her friends (and her French teacher) are not long back from a school exchange in Versailles. They stayed en famille and a week of speaking French improved Penny’s accent to the extent that she now sounds not unlike her teacher. Formidable!

Not for tout le thé en Chine would I want the dubious privilege of wrangling dozens of self-consciously Cray Cray fourteen year-olds on these trips. Anyone would need a six week summer holiday after that.

Not that they are bad kids. I’ve met quite a few of Penny’s friends. They are lovely. High spirited, confident, and on the loud side of outgoing. Occasionally cheeky, but in that endearing, funny-and-they-know-it way. And not a hint of malice.

But I would not want to shepherd large numbers of them round a foreign city.

On group outings to Paris each teacher was responsible for a rolling maul of around ten hyperactive adolescents. Crowd control was apparently achieved by means of a pre-agreed code-phrase. No matter how boisterous, no matter how hyped up on chocolat chaud, no matter how high en vie they were, the group would immediately restore order the moment the phrase was called. In theory at least.

Penny’s teacher made the mistake of allowing her group to choose its own phrase.

A deliberate mistake of course.

Canny and shrewd. Literally as well as metaphorically streetwise.

She knew that the kids would choose a phrase designed to embarrass her. But she knew that by giving them ownership they would feel more inclined to respond as desired to their own self-imposed stimulus. A minor joke at her own expense, a joke that might even make her seem like one of the lads, would be a small price to pay for safety in an emergency.

Penny’s group chose “Lads on tour”.

“Nous choisissons ‘Lads on tour’ madame.”

So each time that the savvy Gallic professeur with the admirable sense of humour had to herder les chats, she had to shout:

Lads (silent s).

On (pronounced ‘en’, silent n).

Tour (lips pursed as if saying ‘confiture’).

I imagine her tone was not dissimilar to a Bow Street runner shouting “Stop thief!”.

However it sounded, Penny tells me that it worked.

Clever teacher, giving a lesson in communication planning.

She had thought about her objectives. Her purpose was not to be obeyed. It was was not to impose her authority. Her purpose was to ensure that the kids would respond immediately. And she had an ingenious strategy that demonstrated an understanding of her audience, of teenage psychology, and of the subtle relationship between stimulus and response.

Vachement chouette!



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Pressure Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh David Haig

“I believe that it’s easy to be deceived by this chart.”

Everyone who saw the preview showing of Pressure at The Royal Lyceum Theatre on Saturday 3rd May knew that it was good. Very good. Exceptionally good.

No doubt everyone who acted in the show knew from the audience reaction that it was very good too. We were enthralled and entertained from the get-go. Palpably so.

But it has only just dawned on me why it is so very good. Two reasons.

One: Passion is sexy.

Passion is sexy and infectious. Passion for an unlikely subject has the added dimension of being surprisingly sexy, and is all the sexier for it.

In this case it is Group Captain James Stagg’s passion for the weather that is sexy. He makes that most British and most boring of subjects feel intense, dramatic and vital. Stagg has the unenviable task of providing long range weather forecasts to General Eisenhower and his staff in the run up to the Normandy landings in 1944, using the limited data available at the time. The weather was obviously critical to the invasion and the wrong call could have cost thousands of additional lives.

Played by David Haig, who also wrote the script, Stagg is the meteorology equivalent of the brilliant maths teacher who makes the subject come alive for their class. He conveys a sense of wonder in the weather, and a fervour for scientific method over hunch, in the most testing, most pressurised of environments.

Much of the dialogue in the play pertains to a giant weather map at the back of the stage. The map is changed several times over 48 hours (2 acts) as tensions mount and stakes are raised. And the joy of this show is that, through Stagg’s understated charisma, a meteorological chart comes alive as the centerpiece for some utterly gripping storytelling.

Two: Back stories are cool.

Some people mistakenly think that cat pictures are what the Internet is for. Fools! The Internet is about back stories. Things you didn’t know about things you’re interested in. When back stories are done well, a little knowledge becomes a delightful thing.

Pressure is a delightful thing.

Pressure is a back story done extremely well.

One of the friends with whom I saw the show remarked that the story was compelling despite the fact that you knew what was going to happen.

On reflection I disagree. We didn’t know what was going to happen. That is the beauty of back stories. Knowing the outcome is not the same as knowing what happens.

We all now the outcome of the film Downfall. We know that Hitler and Eva Braun will take their own lives. But that is not the point of the film. The film is about what happened during the final days in the bunker, back stories that we didn’t know, and that is what makes the film so engrossing.

The main back story in Pressure is about the most important weather forecast in modern history.

But there are several human back stories to the back story that add richness and depth to this wonderful play. Say no more for fear of spoiling it for you. Suffice to say that the back story back stories are passionate in their own right.

And that is sexy.


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