My appearance on Byres Road this week made a piece in the Herald Diary. Reporter Ken Smith was rather taken with my story about ‘The shy Highland lass who walked backwards down a mountain because she was too embarrassed to call for help”. This true tale was one of my first scoops as a young journalists and came about simply because I asked a colleague what she had got up to at the weekend. Mind you, I might not have been so curious had she not arrived in the office on crutches.
I told the same story to Julie Currie who writes for the Southern Reporter and the Berwickshire News. She included it in her profile piece about me and my days working for the BBC in the Borders. She also described my shock singing debut on stage at the Tait Hall in Kelso.
Julia’s story here
and you can see some more picks from Byres Road on the video below.
It was a special night where nothing went exactly to plan but everything turned out much better than expected. We were at Waterstones in Byres Road and I had a bet on with publishers Lyn and Laura that, as the rain fell and temperatures dropped, we wouldn’t get more than 17 people through the door for my book bletherings. There was an entire quid at stake and, I have to tell you, I lost my bet within minutes of the door opening.
Some old colleagues were among the first to arrive; John Thomson and Steve Ansell (both ex BBC) and John MacCalman (ex Radio Clyde), then came my oldest brother Frank and his wife Anne. Gosh, had it really been that long since we’d last met up? Next through the door was rugby and broadcasting legend, John Beattie and we had a good old natter about the new BBC Scotland TV channel and the weekly media review on Radio Scotland. I began to lose count as more and more people filed past me. I spotted Drew Carson from Radio Haver and a whole gaggle of familiar faces from the Lochwinnoch cultural establishment. Pretty soon the three rows of seats in the middle of the bookshop were almost full. At this point, all we were missing was the host as Nation Radio’s Suzie McGuire had been caught in traffic. Much relief all round when she made her entrance and hit the ground running with a well-researched introduction that even included a mention of my son’s recent team triumph in the Scottish Press Awards. As he modestly acknowledged the applause, I had to shout over ‘Hoi. This is supposed to be my night, you know!”
Suzie finally brought me to the front and quizzed me expertly about my book and then invited me to read an extract. This being Glasgow, I had decided to take a risk and had chosen the section about how, in the midst of my dad’s funeral, I got word that the crime writer Ian Rankin had written an unflattering poem about me. My reading necessitated repeated use of the f-word. No, not the bad f-word. The word that rhymes with Granny. The one that Americans use instead of ‘bum’. OK, it was ‘fanny’. Happy now? It went down well and afterwards the question and answer session gave me a chance to rant about the decline of local commercial radio and why the politicians seemed to be doing little about it.
Lots of books sold and signed and as an added bonus for the night, the gifted photographer, Douglas Timmins, famous for his portraits of Glasgow characters, had arrived with his camera and managed to herd Suzie, Lyn, Laura and myself into some sort of order.
As I say, a special night.
In a couple of radio and newspaper interviews over the past few days, I’ve found myself naming Let’s do the Show Right Here as one of my all-time favourite radio projects to be involved with. I’ve written in the past about the show we did in Aberfeldy and I’ve played a clip of the late Paul Daniels in Brookfield. But now I’ve found the ten minute video we made where producer Stephen Hollywood explains the concept of the show and how it worked on the night. Given Jackie Bird’s recent announcement that she had stepped down from presenting Reporting Scotland, I thought this might be a good to remind ourselves of one of the many other things she got up to over the years.
I’ve been a published author for all of three months now and I’m still learning lots about this strange world of publishing and promotion and bookshops and bloggers and festivals. It’s all fun to me, but there’s also a lot of intrigue, jealousy and personal paranoia. I’ve experienced a bit of the latter myself thanks to the availability of instant data about who is buying the book and how many people visit this website. Amazon’s ‘Author Central’ facility, for instance, gives you a chart – updated every hour (yes hour!) that tells you where you sit on their sales ranking. You can become obsessed with this. If a friend calls to tell you he or she has bought your book, you cant get off the phone quick enough to see what impact this has made on the graph. Madness, I tell you.
Then there’s this this website. The backroom boffins at WordPress give you a daily, weekly, monthly bar-graph of ‘visitors and views’ and then there’s a map of the world that colours itself in various shades of pink or red depending on where those visitors are based. I’ve always done well in the U.K and U.S.A (thankyou guys) and I gave a small cheer when I finally made it into Russia last month. But I’ve hardly made a dent in South America, Africa or the Middle-East. And, frankly, I thought I would be doing a lot better in Poland. I mean, I have family there for goodness sake.
Not that I’m becoming fixated on world domination…but I am, kinda.
I was recently asked by a former colleague what changes I would like to make if some new insanity swept through the senior management of the BBC and I was put back in charge of Radio Scotland. The colleague in question was Gerry Burke – one of the most intelligent disc jockeys I ever encountered. Gerry was presenting shows on Radio Clyde around the time I was in the newsroom hammering out stories about crime lords and chip-pan fires. He now lives near Dunkeld and, a few weeks ago, he was among the select crowd who showed up for my intimate ‘meet the author’ event at Waterstones in Perth. I suspect he might have posed the hypothetical question more out of pity than curiosity, given that the others in the group that night were either shy or had quickly exhausted their supply of book-related queries.
So, what would I do differently if I got the chance to go back? That night I responded to Gerry with some prattle about the style of news programmes on Radio Scotland and how I had often been frustrated because News wasn’t the responsibility of the Head of Radio. Since then, however, I’ve been giving the question a bit more thought…and actually Thought for the Day on Good Morning Scotland comes to mind.
Those short ‘faith-based’ monologues are too easy to satirise. Everyone from Alan Bennet, Billy Connolly and Rikki Fulton have had a go at sending up the format and the lazy comedy idea is that you can talk about anything under the sun and then add…”and you know, that’s a bit like Jesus” before drawing some over-simplified comparison between, say, discount supermarkets and the distribution of loaves and fishes. In reality, most of those thought pieces are well written and it takes a seasoned producer to work with new and experienced church people and help them hone their script and, by the by, stay within the BBC guidelines on impartiality, taste, decency and God knows what other rules apply. The ‘thoughts’ are usually delivered live, so there are logistical and technical issues to be considered too. Studios have to found and transport booked.
Frankly, though, and this might be a particularly sacrilegious thing to say on a Sunday, I often wondered if they were really worth the time and money involved. More than that though, I thought it was simply daft and old-fashioned to have a two minute religious message dropped into the middle of a rolling news programme – especially if it meant actual news pieces or political interviews had to be curtailed or shifted in the schedule to accommodate the words of the reverend so and so.
Once, under pressure from the Good Morning Scotland editor, I did try to make some changes and set out to persuade the ‘thought’ contributors to pop into their studios a little earlier in the morning so that the peak listening hours for news could be allocated to, well, news and stuff. There was a meeting…a gaggle of church ministers led by Richard Holloway ganged up on me and I quickly backed down. Coming in earlier would be inconvenient, they said, and recording a topical Thought for the Day the night before was just unthinkable. To be honest, the battle wasn’t worth fighting, not when I was already being attacked by the traditional music lobby for schedule changes to ‘Take the Floor’ and by the poetry lobby for the station’s dearth of sonnets, villanelles and limericks . Ironically, I did once manage to dispense with Thought for the Day for one whole week and substitute it with a daily poem. No one complained.
From time to time, the secular and humanist groups complained that the Thought for the Day slot on Radio 4 (and presumably Radio Scotland) should be opened up to non-religious contributors. On the face of it, this might seem reasonable. After all, social media is awash with memes and life-affirming videos from self-help gurus and others of that ilk. So why not give them a couple of minutes each day on the radio to give our inner selves a little verbal boost? But does it really have to be in the middle of a news programme? Perhaps they might be better suited to the sports output and the half-time break in a Scotland football game when we quite often need a bit of a pep talk.
So, to finally answer Gerry’s question… I’d keep Thought for the Day where it is and widen it to every religion you can find. We’d do it alphabetically and I’m sure by the time we got to the scientologists , listeners might come to realise what a daft bit of radio it really is.
But that’s just a thought.
I’m calling it the ‘season finale’ of my Waterstones bookshops tour. That’s me hedging my bets, just in case there are more Waterstones visits in the coming months, in which case I’ll be touting the summer/autumn or winter tours. Anyway, this coming Thursday I’m back in the west end of Glasgow. On Byres Road…a part of the city I associate with my early days in the BBC – mainly from before I became a management suit and actually did useful things like make programmes. Oh, there was a time I could name every pub, chip shop and curry house on that stretch of the city from Queen Margaret Drive down to Partick. I’m sure many of them went bankrupt when I left for Inverness and everyone else crossed the river to the shiny new H.Q. at Pacific Quay.
Lots of stories to tell and hopefully I can persuade a few old radio chums and colleagues to pop along and see me being interviewed by Nation’s Radio Scotland’s Suzie McGuire. Maybe the photographs flashing past in this video might jog a few memories.
It was good fun chatting to Drew Carson, host of the Drew Carson Show on Radio Haver. If you haven’t heard of Radio Haver, I urge you to check it out. It’s an ambitious internet station with a compelling mix of interview shows and music formats and all aimed at the artistic community in Glasgow and beyond. It also plays host to podcasts made by others who share Drew’s aim to offer smart but accessible programming.
Drew Carson linked up with me on Skype to talk about my book, about the future of podcasting, about local journalism, politics, drama and the dangers of getting on the wrong side of egotistic musicians when interviewing them. Drew once had death threats after a show!
At one point, when we were talking about the skills involved in programming a music show, Drew reminded me of the days when we used to make mix tape compilations on cassettes – usually for those special people in our lives or, in my case, a girl at my school who I could only admire from afar. Have a listen to this wee clip and then check out Radio Haver for all the other shows in their schedule.