Laughing in the face of fear

Less than a month before the launch of my new book and thoughts now turn to the reaction of readers. Scary, really, but that’s the thing about this writing lark; you spend so many months locked in a room, hammering out words on a keyboard and then one day, way down the line, those words eventually see the light of day and you can only hope that people like what they see,

In the meantime, no one will be able to fault my lovely publishers for the effort that is going in to letting people know that the book exists. There are press releases and publicity postcards ready to fly and lots of little independent bookshops are receiving cardboard tubes stuffed with – not only postsers depicting the book – but delicious wrapped chocolates too. That’s not completely gratuitous because my chocolate eating habit is a running theme of the book.

Then there are the promotional videos that have been running on social media – set to hit a reach target of 100,000 before the end of the month. I hate to brag (he lied), but the most successful of these has been the one I suggested around the date of the book’s launch: Halloween. Against a backdrop of spooky images and sound effects, it poses the simple question: what frightened you when you were young? Already we’re receiving answers from around the country. Many talk about a fear of the dark or confined spaces, others mention mysterious noises in the attic and one person singled out the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Have a look yourself and feel free to share your own childhood fear. I promise we wont laugh (much).

When you are glad they are going – but can’t say it.

Dame Jenni Murray’s graceful exit from Women’s Hour  yesterday reminds me of the times I’ve been asked to write or say a few words on the occasion of a departing colleague. It’s easy enough to do if you actually liked the person and thought they were good at their job. It’s so much harder if you are secretly glad to see the back of them or, even worse, have actually been the boss responsible for their departure.

     “So how do you do a speech like that?” a colleague once asked me, “I mean, you must feel like a total hypocrite saying all those kind words in front of an office full of people with cake in their mouths.”

   At that point I tapped the side of my nose, winked and began to impart my wisdom before he thought I was having an allergic reaction to the cake.

   “It’s easy,” I said, “You talk about the role, rather than the person.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “Well, instead of saying what a hard-working funny guy the person was, you talk about what’s needed in the job and people assume you’re talking about the person who’s leaving.”

   “Give me an example.”

   “OK. Suppose it’s the leaving do for Joe Bloggs and everyone knew he was a lazy, arrogant, conceited so-and-so.  You begin your speech describing Joe’s job and the skills and dedication required for success.”

   “Go on.”

   “Joe occupied a position of real importance here in the company. It’s a role that required long hours of hard work, infinite patience, a lot of humanity and real dedication.  It’s no lie to say that it’s going to be hard to find Joe’s replacement.”

   “But that sounds like praise.”

   “Sounds like it, but it isn’t. And you can live with yourself afterwards and everyone can enjoy the cake and go home happy.  No bad atmosphere.”

   My colleague seemed suitably impressed with this gem of advice and I thought nothing more about the conversation until a year or so later when I was the one leaving and the same colleague had been called upon to say a few words about me.

  “The role Jeff occupied,” he began…and I knew I was in for my comeuppance.

   All of which brings me back to Jenni Murray and the kind words uttered about her by the outgoing Director General, Tony Hall.

   “The airwaves wont be the same without her.” he is quoted as saying.

   You can take that any way you like.

A sweet read, but no party

“So,” said a friend, “When’s the party?”

“What party?”

“You know, your book launch party. Like you did last year. That was a great night…all that beer and wine and those chocolate teacakes…”

“And books,” I added, in case the point of the night had slipped his mind.

“Oh yes, books. Yes, of course. Books too. So…when is it, when’s the big knees-up this time?”

“Well, due to these unprecedented circumstances…”

“Oh, don’t give me that! You mean there’s to be no booze-up?”

“Sorry. Not allowed. Against the law, actually.”

My friend was quiet for a moment. Sullen, even. I tried to appeal to his better nature.

“So, I’ll be relying on pals like you to spread the word. You know, share all those lovely promos my publishers are putting on Facebook and Twitter and so on.”

He didn’t seem enthusiastic.

“What’s in it for us?” he asked.

“Well, nothing…except you’ll have my eternal gratitude.”

“Ha! How about a free teacake? You know, for those of us that do the best social media sharing.”

 I considered this and decided it might be impractical.

“They’d get squashed in the post.”

My friend agreed that might be a problem.

“OK, how about a bag of sweeties. Like those ones you always talk about then you tell a story about your childhood. I bet your book is littered with mentions of Caramac bars and Opal Fruits.”

“Well yes, but…”

“Or a promotional mug. Or even a mug filled with jelly tots or sherbet fountains.”

“That might be going a bit far,” I said.

“Well, think about it,” he said, “A little random reward for friends who help spread the word about your book.”

“I’ll discuss it with my publishers,” I said, “But no promises.”

“And you’re sure a party is out of the question? Even a secret one? I wont tell anyone, I swear.”


“I hate this virus malarkey,” he said.

“Me too,” I said.

The Book Detectives

I pride myself on having a good memory, but I know I’m deluding myself to some extent. At least that kind of self-awareness may have saved me from some embarrassment as I’ve been trying to recall events from my childhood for my new book. Along the way, I seem to have recruited a band of enthusiastic detectives who have helped me fill gaps in my memories or, in some cases, replace those false memories with actual facts.

Among those helpful sleuths have been old school pals who helped me pin down the name of a young music teacher who fell victim to my clumsiness in a way you’ll have to read the book to understand.  I realised I had mixed up her name with the that of the English teacher who helped us set up the school magazine.

Then there was the lovely townspeople of Carnoustie who rushed to my assistance on the ‘Our Carnoustie’ Facebook site when I had trouble identifying the locations pictured in some old family holiday snaps.  The photographs were more than fifty years old, but eagle-eyed followers were still able to distinguish the paddling pool pavilion at Carnoustie from a similar one that once stood in Arbroath.

The lockdown of libraries over the summer months was particularly frustrating as I tried to discover the location of my family’s home in Glasgow before we all moved to Easterhouse. No amount of Googling could help me find Forest Street, but the online staff at Glasgow City Archives pointed me to some old maps and suggested I try a different spelling. Sure enough, there was the now demolished Forrest Street in the old Calton area. That extra ‘r’ made all the difference.

Had the libraries been open, I would have been able to look at old telephone and post office directories to make a list of every neighbour we had in the square at Corsehill Street. Instead, I relied on the more reliable memory of my big sister Rose, who features a lot in the book’s early chapters. While admitting that her artistic skills were somewhat basic, she did draw me a picture of our old three-storey block and list the names of families who lived there. In the picture, she drew us both leaning out of the window, with me uttering the words; “I don’t want to be a nun!”

If you want to know what that’s about then, you’ve guessed it, you’ll have to read the book. It’s out next month so not long to wait.

A Towering Idea

water towers at Craigend

For much of my teenage years I lived under the shadow of two enormous structures which have been likened to spaceships on stilts. The water towers at Craigend sit at the end of Jerviston Road, pre-dating the construction of that 1970’s housing scheme by at least two decades.  We moved there at the end of 1973 and thought nothing of having these local landmarks on our doorstep. In later years, when I returned to visit my dad there, I noticed that the bare grey concrete had been given a lick of white paint and that coloured floodlights now cast a purple hue over them which could be seen for miles around.  Someone, somewhere, had realised that these functional edifices – built to store a million gallons of water and maintain pressure on higher ground – had intrinsic artistic and architectural merit.

Last month, I was back in Craigend as part of the final research for my forthcoming childhood memoir – and noticed that the paint was flaking and the concrete columns now sat in a fenced off landscape of overgrown grass and litter. Yet, all around, there were signs of renewal as the old three-storey blocks of flats in Garthamlock have given way to new housing developments and rows of pretty terraced homes with gardens.

As my book hurtles towards its publication date, I keep thinking of these towers and so, yesterday, I posted a photograph of them on the ‘Glesga Schemes’ Facebook page. I added the provocative suggestion that “a new lick of paint, a rooftop café and a visitor centre’ could turn these 1950’s giants into a tourist attraction offering panoramic views over the city and the Campsie hills. Within minutes, dozens were sharing my idea and posting their own memories of the towers. One man described how his nephew once scaled some scaffolding to plant a flag in one of the tower’s windows. He said there was a staircase inside the central column which led to the roof. Someone else suggested the addition of a helter-skelter ride as a means of exiting the proposed café. A less enthusiastic Facebook poster worried that my plan would cut off water supplies for thousands of residents who wouldn’t thank me if I replaced that with another café.

But that needn’t be the case.  I was reminded of the hydro dam at Pitlochry which also has its own visitor centre and eatery. Further afield, I once visited the Zizkov TV tower in Prague which has a a viewing platform, a function suite and a swish restaurant.  It also has famous sculptures of babies climbing the outside of the tower. Don’t ask me why.

So, rather than just content myself with these fanciful thoughts, I contacted the Media Office at Scottish Water and asked them for their thoughts. Naturally, their spokesman was fairly guarded, not wanting to start hares running.  He told me that the towers were currently “operational assets” but if they were ever sold, it would be up to the new owners to decide what to do with them.  Given that other city water towers have been demolished and replaced with underground reservoirs, maybe we should start planning for something now.

I’m not sure about the helter-skelter though.

The water towers at Craigend/Garthamlock

Back in the Zone


Much excitement late last night when my lovely publishers at Lunicorn decided to announce the title of my latest book and, for good measure, a picture of the cover.  It’s called Travels from my Twilight Zone and, at this stage, it’s that cover art that’s the received the most attention and admiration. It’s been a creative collaboration between Lochwinnoch illustrator Laura Jackson and Edinburgh designer Heather Macpherson at Raspberry Creative Type.  I think it captures the tone of the book which I could describe as a sort of  drug-induced travel guide to my subconscious. The drawings on the signpost refer to different stories in the book – some are childhood memories and others are pure fiction.  The travel element involves locations in Glasgow – Easterhouse, Dennistoun – and then it branches out to include Ayrshire, Tullibody, Stirling, Broughty Ferry, Monifieth, Carnoustie and Arbroath as I describe school outings and cross-country trips in my dad’s old Dormobile. I also talk about being the youngest of eight siblings and the strange culture clash of having a Scottish mother and a Polish father.

The book begins in Dundee, of course, which is where I was at the start of this year, recovering from surgery and dreaming about my past while under the influence of morphine. There were also dreams about talking elephants, over-ambitious hand-shadow shows and a sinister plot to murder Santa Claus – hence the fiction section of the book. If you want more, well, there’s a volcano in Edinburgh and a monster in Loch Ness – but you knew that, didn’t you?

There’s also a foreword written by BBC Radio 2 Presenter, Ken Bruce, who got in touch last year to tell me how much he enjoyed The Red Light Zone.  He’s one of the few people to have actually read Travels from my Twilight Zone and I’m chuffed by what he had to say about it: “His irrepressible desire to entertain enlivens every page.”

The official launch of the hardback edition will be in October, but you can now pre-order at Waterstones and other real bookshops. It’s £12.99.



Time for BBC Radio England?

BBC Local Graphic.

Once, naively, I went to a meeting of BBC Local Radio editors and suggested that they cut their output in half and pool resources to create a night-time service called BBC Radio England. Well, I wouldn’t have provoked so much shock and disgust if I had stripped off and danced naked on the conference room table. To be fair, my suggestion was made with the best of intentions and after I had heaped much praise on the various BBC local stations I had heard on my various trips through England’s green and pleasant lands.  I remember singling out BBC Radio Newcastle which had an excellent morning news show and an equally good afternoon arts programme. I’d also heard the output of stations in Devon and Cornwall and on Jersey.  All good at what they were doing and I had a quiet chuckle when I heard the local presenters diverting from the centrally-dictated music playlist and responding to what their local listeners were actually asking them to play.

That, it seemed to me, has always been the core contradiction about BBC Local Radio. The stations are set up to respond to particular local communities but, every now and again, a diktat comes down from on high which betrays an absurd  one-size-fits-all approach to local broadcasting. Over the years they have been instructed to forget music and focus on news. Then that was reversed and there was the universal focus on mythical listeners called Dave and Sue. Producers and presenters were told to get to know these fictional listeners and do all they could to grab their attention. There was also a brief period when the stations went all-out to attract the World War 2 generation until those same listeners reacted by telling the BBC they had already fought the war and didn’t need to be reminded of it every day. These centralised commands ignore the fact that each of the 39 BBC local stations work in different market environments, with different demographics and different competitors. It also neglects the appeal of local presenters who have spent years building a relationship with their listeners.

In the latest round of cuts, BBC Local Radio is again being subjected to some shoe-horn thinking from on high. One cost-saving measure will mean an end to all twin presentation formats. This is the kind of thinking that comes from executives who have lost their ear for good radio. Sure, some solo presenters are brilliant, but others need an on-air companion to bounce ideas back and forth and to take different sides on an issue. The best twin-presentation formats understand how each of the two presenters can represent the different views and experiences of the listeners. That can be as simple and man/woman, but it can also be young/old, urban/rural, serious/funny…and so on. Where the presenters don’t understand that and both do the same thing then, yes, bring down the axe.

And BBC Radio England?  Well, the reason I made such a blasphemous suggestion all those years ago was because, in my listening travels, I heard many BBC Local stations sharing evening content in a patch-work style that was difficult to understand.  So, sometimes BBC Jersey would take programmes from Cornwall, some other BBC station would take network content.  I thought one single sustaining service might be clearer and cheaper and allow the station managers to invest funds back into their daytime shows.

Now it seems, BBC Radio England might be becoming a reality by default and for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time. Just when local radio can and is providing up-to-the minute coverage of the coronavirus – and offering multi-lingual health advice in virus hotspots – the BBC is talking about pulling back from localness. And, as you have heard me blether on this before, this is also a time when commercial radio is also reducing local content and thus leaving a gap in the market for the BBC.

But there is one good reason to go ahead and create something called BBC Radio England. It might remind the bosses and producers at BBC Radio 4  that’s not the name of the service they’re working for.


Fake news and the sex book that never was.

They say one sure way to sell copies of your book is to generate some kind of public contoversy about it.  Well, a bit late in the day, I’ve done just that…albeit thanks to the Fake News Media that Donald Trump is always going on about.

In this case, the fake news is my little way of experimenting with various bits of software and some of those new apps we are being bombarded with on social media these days. So this basic animation comes courtesy of Toonly and the presenters voices are generated by Speechelo. The rest of the mix is done on Wondershare Filmora.

This is how I’m occupying my time while I wait for my tongue-reduction surgery (due in August) and the Editor’s verdict on my next book (due in October).

I dunno, maybe Twilight News Tonight should become a regular feature. Or maybe not.

Radio…someone still loves you.

Coronavirus - Mon Jun 29, 2020

A few days ago, I got talking to an old BBC chum about the launch of Times Radio. It’s a new venture from Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and will sit alongside the company’s others stations such as Talksport and Virgin Radio.

“So, what do you make of it?” asked my old chum.

I had to confess that I had only heard snippets and really not enough to form a judgement, but I was more interested in the actual decision to launch a speech radio station with the intent to rival the likes of BBC Radio 4, BBC 5 Live and Global’s LBC and super-slick LBC News.

“Here’s yet another commercial company investing in radio,” I said, “You know, that medium that the BBC strategists kept telling us was at death’s door.”

My pal laughed but as our chat continued, I recalled the frustration I used to experience working at the BBC when it felt you were constantly having to make the case for radio in meetings dominated by executives from television. On a good day, my radio gum-bumping was tolerated with a few patronising nods, on a bad day it felt like I was arguing for the return of ration cards and powdered eggs .

“Poor old Jeff,” you could imagine them thinking, “He doesn’t realise it’s all about the kids these days…and the kids don’t want radio.  They want Netflix and podcasts. Hasn’t he seen the research?”

Yes, I had seen the research. The same research that told us that average life expectancy in the U.K. was now 81 and that it might be an idea if listeners in their 40’s and 50’s had something exciting to look forward to from the BBC in the next four decades…other than having to pay the licence fee, of course.

Mind you, it was the same kind of youth-oriented thinking that led to the decision to axe BBC 3 as an actual TV channel.

“The kids will find our edgy shows on the iPlayer,” the strategists told us. “Television channels are a thing of the past.”

Of course, no one told that to the people at Freeview where there are still about a hundred channels to choose from…and four hundred on Sky.  Thing of the past, though.

But back to radio. You’d think the BBC, with its proud history in audio broadcasting, would be a brilliant place to work if you were passionate about radio. But it didnt always feel like that because somewhere along the way, the executives at the top of the BBC tree stopped believing in it and whenever a round of budget cuts was announced, you could be sure that those same executives would be looking down at radio and seeing fantastic opportunities to save money. Oh, how I used to fantasise that someone would remind the BBC of its public service obligations and either ring-fence the money for radio or else remove radio completely from the clutches of TV bosses who neither understood it nor cared for it.  I have friends who work in commercial radio and for all that they might have to cope with smaller budgets, salaries and production teams, you do get a sense that they are working for companies that live and breathe radio.  Sure, the aim is to make money by selling advertising – and that has led to some fairly brutal shutdowns and job losses – but the BBC has been slow to see that as an opportunity to step in and fill the gap.

BBC budget cuts are always preceded with some management-speak about streamlining workflows and re-organising  the management structure of the corporation for the next decade/century/millennium.  As if viewers and listeners care about such stuff.  Rarely does the process start with discussions about the kind of new services and programmes the BBC might be able to offer to viewers and listeners of every age group. You know, like a couple of new radio stations maybe?

This time around…as the BBC announces six hundred job losses across Nations and Regions, there’s also talk about spending one hundred million pounds on “diversity on television” – something you might have thought they should have been doing anyway.  And what kind of diversity? Regional diversity, cultural diversity, diversity of age groups? Is all diversity equal or is some diversity more equal than others?

Ach, that’s enough ranting for me because I can feel my old frustrations starting to make me grumpy. Now there’s an idea: Radio Grumpy.  If the BBC wont back it, maybe I can interest Rupert Murdoch.  It seems like his kind of thing.

Pull them off their plinths

Blokes on Blocks

It was 27 years ago and one of the first radio programmes I made for BBC Radio Scotland was about statues. It wasn’t the most audio-friendly idea I’d ever come up with, because those ‘blokes on blocks’, as I called them didn’t have much to say for themselves. But I soon discovered that plenty of other people had lots to say about them.  Among my interviewees for the series was Scottish sculptor Sandy Stoddart who argued that statues should provoke debate and argument. It was, he said, proof that they were still important pieces of art. All the better, he argued, if people felt so strongly about a statue that they wanted it torn down.

He was referencing what had happened in the former Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine, where hundred of statues of Lenin were toppled and dragged to the rubbish heap. In Russia many statues of Lenin and Stalin can be viewed in special museums and that, to me, seems like a good solution for our own blokes on blocks that we no longer want to see in public places.  Shove them in a museum and place them at eye level so that we can admire the skill artistry of the sculptor and read why the blokes immortalised in bronze or granite no longer deserve their place on a plinth.

And just think what you could do with a public space the size of George Square in Glasgow.  Clear it of all that sculpted clutter and city planners could finally realise their dream of creating a modern civic gathering place.  That was the plan put forward eight years ago, but it was rejected after public outrage.  Eight years ago, people wanted to keep the statues.

Funny old thing, public opinion. It keeps changing.