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.
“Where everybody was slashing everybody.”
That top line sounds like something from the theme tune of a 1980’s Glasgow sit-com. Perhaps one set in a neighbourhood bar called ‘Chibs” The kind of pub where everybody not only knows your name but also where you live and how much you still owe to the loan sharks. In fact, though, it’s a line from the opening of a very funny memoir written by the TV and online comedy star Limmy who describes his childhood in Carnwadrick, a council estate on the south side of Glasgow.
“in terms of how it felt living there, it didn’t feel as rough as some other places I’d heard of like Govan or Easterhouse, these places where it sounded like everybody was slashing everybody.”
As an Easterhouse boy myself, I’m well used to people bench-marking their own social status against my own home turf. Sure, there are parts of Dundee and Edinburgh which have rough reputations, but tell those east-coast tough guys that you are from Easterhouse and you can see them clearing the top step for you on the poverty podium. Offer the same information to people from Bearsden or Carnoustie and you can see them going for gold in the hundred metre sprint.
I’ve always been able to laugh at those who mock Easterhouse, mainly because I knew they were wrong. I remember the columnist and radio presenter Frank Skerritt writing an article published in a summer festival brochure. In it he included a joke about “how do you know a letter has come from Easterhouse? Look at the stamp on the envelope and you’ll see the Queen is holding her nose.” Ah, the old ones are the best.
Often the topic of my upbringing has been raised when I’ve been interviewed for a newspaper feature. I always go to great pains to confound expectations by describing my childhood as “idyllic” and, for the large part that’s true. I have memories of sunny days, wide open spaces, street games and laughter. It’s even been suggested I could write a book about those days, but others have beaten me to it. A few years ago, Rikki Brown wrote about his experiences growing up in the area and he, with great humour, was able to describe witnessing actual gang fights that did, indeed include some knife slashing and other assorted violence (some involving the use of a golf club). Rikki’s book, ‘Frankie Vaughan ate my hamster” also describes the highly publicised attempt by the showbiz star Vaughan to broker peace between rival gangs. There was also a weapons amnesty which lasted for just as long as the press photographers were there to capture scores of young boys (some of whom might even have been gang members) depositing sticks and bricks into a large metal bin.
Such incidents are far removed from my own memory of Saturday morning bike rides to Drumpellier Loch and ice cream sundaes at Shandwick Square shopping mall. Or the tree swing across the Monklands canal. Or fossil hunting in the peat-fields near Commonhead. Or snowball fights in the square at Corsehill Street. I could go on and my current connection with the Platform arts group in Easterhouse would give me a brand-new list of good things to say about the place.
And yet…I realise I have chosen to blanket some bad memories. Like the time Danny Pryce and I wandered down to watch the new electric trains at Easterhouse station, not realising we had trapped ourselves in no man’s land between two warring gangs: The Skinheads and the Toi . As the battle raged either side of us, we beseeched an elderly pedestrian to give us sanctuary and he escorted us back into safer ground. Or the time Danny and I were walking to school and a bloke pulled a gun on us. It turned out to be an air pistol, but the thwack thwack of pellets hitting a nearby tree made it no less fearsome.
So, yeah, one gang fight and some gunfire. Balanced against all the good memories, it’s not really enough to fill a book.
Or is it?
Take a look at this photograph I snapped off a few weeks ago in a branch of Waterstones. Tell me if you notice anything odd about the positioning of my book – apart, that is, from the fact that I, like so many needy authors, turned it to face outwards. Notice anything else? Well, unusually, the books on this shelf are not arranged alphabetically by author’s name. Yep, us ‘Z’ people tend to find our books on the bottom shelf of shops and libraries, with the consequent risk of back injury for potential buyers. I mean, all good books have a strong spine, but some books require readers to have one too.
To be honest, I’m not a stranger to this kind of alphabetical discrimination. I first encountered it in the early years of school. On ‘medical day’ when all the pupils were lined up to see the nurse for the ‘head lice and hygiene’ check, Carol Armstrong and John Anderson were at the top of the queue. After the nurse had a quick peek at their scalp and pants, both were free to hit the playground for fun and games. Meanwhile Anne Marie Young and I inched slowly forward from the back of the line and, by the time the bad-tempered nurse called us she was already snapping elasticated waistbands in anger, playtime was over and we had missed the first fifteen minutes of an arithmetic lesson. This might have seemed like a bonus at the time, but perhaps explains why I still struggle with long division. Happily smart phones have proved teachers’ prophecies were wrong and we do, indeed, have calculators with us all the time.
Then there was the Glasgow telephone directory. We were the last name in the book and found ourselves the target of pranksters and ill-informed bigots. Not understanding that our name had a Polish origin, I was mystified by the semi-regular calls from morons suggesting that we should “go back to Pakistan where you belong.” Oh yes.
Between school and college, I had a brief period of “signing on” for unemployment benefit. It’s not something I tend to boast about and I didn’t back then. So imagine my embarrassment when lining up at the local dole office to discover the counters had been delineated, not just alphabetically, but by the use of surname. As I waited patiently in the ‘MACDONALD to ZYCINSKI’ queue, as indicated by the huge makeshift poster above the front desk, I doubted that anyone seeing the name MacDonald would automatically connect it with a particular individual (except maybe Ronald) but the Zycinski clue tended to narrow the field.
Names beginning with Z are fairly uncommon in Scotland, so much so that in the days of paper address books, people regularly used that page for noting shopping lists or for doodling. This must surely explain why no one called me much or invited me to parties. Even now, when checking into a hotel, receptionists assume that the first ‘Z’ they spot on their computer terminal is likely to be me. That’s why, last Thursday, I found myself checked in to Mister Zarwan’s room at the Holiday Inn in Glasgow. Luckily he had secured a much cheaper rate than I had and, when the mistake was spotted, the hotel kindly allowed me to keep that lower tariff. What happened to poor Mister Zarwan, I never found out.
But back to books and my advice to any would-be authors out there. Do consider an alphabetically advantageous nom de plume. Put it this way, Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie are still being talked about, but J.K. Rowling? Ah, maybe that’s where my theory falls down. So, I’ll stick to my spot on the bottom shelf. I’ll just tell everyone that people have bent over backwards to get my book. Or forwards. Whatever.
Just in time for summer, comes this cracking little review from Radio User magazine. When it comes to singling out lines of praise, it’s hard to beat the following: “This is a very well written book, which gives an excellent insight into the life of a BBC producer and station controller. It deserves to be successful and should be read by everyone working in or contemplating a career in the media.”
Well, that covers quite a lot of people, so be sure to pack your copy alongside your sun cream and shades. And I really don’t mind if you get blobs of ice cream on the pages. It’s a fun read, after all.
I’m worried that my BBC de-toxification process hasn’t worked because every time I see a newspaper headline screaming abuse at my former employer, I have an instinctive urge to leap to the defence of my old chums and colleagues. In recent weeks there have been stories about massive hikes in executive pay, plans to strip pensioners of free tv licences and reports that the new BBC Scotland channel isn’t attracting enough viewers. The executive pay story is the hardest to defend, so I wont even try. The BBC’s rationale for boosting the already large salaries of its top bosses runs something like this: “we’ve cut the number of managers so those who remain are asked to take on additional duties so are being rewarded accordingly. But don’t worry, we aren’t giving them double the money…just a wee twelve percent bung here and there…so, you see, ha ha, we are actually saving money…ha ha. Calm down, everyone.”
The trouble with this strategy is that those remaining managers don’t actually have more time in their day to do twice the work. Not unless those savings are being invested in the kind of time-changers last seen in Harry Potter books that allow people to be in two places at once. This means that staff who complain that their bosses are rarely visible might have to accept they might now dissolve in to a puff of smoke. I know some staff who would welcome that.
Then there’s the free licence fee for the over-75s. This was a social benefit that was being funded directly by the Government, but now the buck (or lack of bucks) has been passed to the BBC who claim that they’ll have to cut programmes and services to pay for it. A clever move by the Government and the BBC’s attempt to explain the situation is not really helped by the aforementioned hike in executive pay.
And so to the new BBC Scotland TV channel. I watch it on and off, as I do with most TV channels, but the fact that I’m tempted to stop as I thumb the remote control through the Freeview listings tells me that there is, most days, something worth watching. More than that though, I’m impressed with the range of new faces and performers I see on screen and the way that Scotland is being portrayed as more than just hills, glens, bagpipes and crime lords. I’m seeing genuine stars of tomorrow make their debut in formats such as Comedy Underground where this week’s host, Gareth Waugh, turns out to have the facial expressions that make for comedy gold on the small screen. The end-credits of programmes are interesting too, because they offer evidence that a range of small Scottish companies are gaining a foothold in the competitive world of TV production and, so long as the BBC Scotland channel continues to thrive, they will gain in confidence and expertise and will power a new creative industry in Scotland.
Of course there’s stuff I’m not so keen on. I don’t watch The Nine – not because its isn’t a well- produced and respectable news programme -but because by the time nine o’clock comes around I’ve usually seen enough news and there aren’t enough exclusive stories to tempt me to stay with the programme for an hour.
And, yes, sure, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool radio guy, so I would also like to see BBC Scotland invest in a new music station for Scotland and improve the quality of the local news opts on Radio Scotland.
But the great thing about no longer working for the BBC is that I can say these things out loud, in public, online and maybe even in the newspapers. But you know how they twist these things. Look out for the headline “Ex Radio Boss Slams Pay Hike for ‘Invisible’ Beeb Bosses’.
At least it’s not a puff piece. Apart from that Harry Potter reference, of course.
An hour-long chat with Niall Anderson last night for his show on the Glasgow Hospital Broadcasting Service. Niall pointed out that our paths must have crossed many times over the years, but neither of us could remember the other.
Niall’s Sunday night show mixes music and chat although he did have to apologise to listeners for playing so little music last night because our conversation ran away with us. Well, that’s radio geeks for you.
At one point we got to talking about how, as a teenager, I would contribute spoof detective stories to Mike McLean’s ‘thru the night’ show on Radio Clyde – way back in the early eighties. I don’t think Niall could quite believe the lengths that some fans might go to when a big, bad radio station boss cancels their favourite show.
*with kind permission of HBS.org.uk
I’m now in love with Lochwinnoch and everyone in it and every house, shop, pub and paving stone. Especially the pubs, though. I was last in the village for the arts festival there and you would be forgiven for thinking I either bribed, hypnotised or drugged the editor of the local newsletter, Chatterbox. Bill Bryson is my hero and inspiration. I just hope he doesn’t spot this.
Delighted with Margaret Chrystall’s piece in the Highland News today. She actually came to my house to do the interview and we had a good old chinwag – something which is increasingly rare for newspaper journalists these days. They often complain about being chained to their desks. One secret to share about that photograph, though. It might look like I’m relaxing in my vast library, it was actually taken in Coffee Affair, a marvellous wee café in downtown Inverness which has bookish wallpaper in a corner nook. My own shelves, packed with Michael Connelly crime novels, Stephen King horrors and the entire Bill Bryson collection, might not have looked so earnest.
There’s an extended version of Margaret’s Interview on the whatson.north website. We discussed my unpublished novel and what happened when Radio 1’s Chris Evans came to Inverness.