I was honoured to be invited to address a group of prisoners and staff at HMP Saughton, after being specifically chosen by library users as an author they'd like to visit at part of National Libraries Week 2019. As when presenting a similar event at HMP Barlinnie last year, I was made to feel most welcome by staff and prisoners alike. My talk took place in the small prison chapel, where I read extracts from my novel, BrainBomb - revised chapters printed out on A4 as opposed to the version published on a short print run in 2009. I was delighted to sign copies of the original paperback, together with a short-story collection published in 2010, entitled Bedlam.
I described my journey towards becoming a writer, starting with scribbling anti-war/CND lyrics for post-punk band 4 Minute Warning back in 1980, through to being published alongside various Scottish literary giants (including Alasdair Gray, Iain Crichton Smith, Liz Lochhead, Ali Smith, William McIlvanney, Iain Banks, Janice Galloway, Ian Rankin, A. L. Kennedy and Irvine Welsh to namedrop a few) in the Picador Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction in 1998. I outlined the events leading up to me becoming an in-patient at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in 1987 and again in 1990. Afterwards there was a frank Q and A session, focusing on mental health. I was asked if being sectioned and spending time in psychiatric hospital was cathartic in giving me the inspiration to write BrainBomb, to which the answer was 100%.
The visit was a rewarding experience.
BrainBomb is a novel based on my experiences of bipolar. I suffered severe depression in 1987 then its bipolar opposite in 1990, when I underwent a prolonged period of hypomania. Although my moods were 'up' rather than 'down,' I was equally manic.
July 1990. The central character, Neil, is convinced he has found God. He decides to affirm this newfound positivity by gatecrashing a service at St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh. While stoned.
Rummaging through photos stuffed in a drawer, I unearth a snap of me, circa 1982. I’m going through my Mark E Smith fanboy phase, complete with grey blazer and argyle pattern tank-top. This was taken at a stag party for a colleague when I worked for Scottish Widows, my first full-time job. I recall a muted affair, tequila slammers and ogling pole-dancers replaced by pints of export and a darts tournament in a rugby social club. Perhaps the only stag do in history to feature a game of dominos. The most raucous part of the long evening was when someone scrawled ‘I suck knobs’ on the prospective groom’s Adidas t-shirt in white chalk from the dartboard.
Sucking another eye-watering lungful of skunk deep into my diaphragm, I lift a pair of scissors. Struggling against the tremors coursing through my fingertips, I remove the other hard-partying insurance clerks to leave a gurning close-up of me. I pop this inside the letter I’ve composed for Cathy Dennis.
Like some starstruck teenager, I’ve decided to send her fan mail. While her music, chart-friendly dance-pop, is far removed from what I’m otherwise listening to these days, either post-punk, Madchester or techno, her face and figure are alluring. And she’s at a level of prominence – regular Top of the Pops appearances while mostly remaining outwith the Top 20 – she’ll still be approachable and will answer correspondence personally. So I’ve invited her to drop by whenever she’s visiting Scotland. This is by far the least eccentric of my planned activities for this morning.
Forgetting to add a stamp as I poke the envelope into the post-box around the corner, I now make my way for St Mary’s, the Episcopalian cathedral whose three tall Gothic spires dominate Edinburgh’s West End.
As I head along Dalry Road, the trio of steeples growing ever closer, I contemplate the reasons why people all over the globe congregate on their respective places of worship: church, mosque, chapel, synagogue, temple or forest clearing within convenient hugging distance of the nearest tree. There are times calling for celebration, or simple thanks. There will be occasions when comfort is required, particularly after natural disasters referred to, with a supreme irony that seems to evade the worshippers, as Acts of God. There are many instances where comfort is sought after personal loss.
As I make my way inside the cavernous building to clumsily ease into the end of a row, five from the front, I accept I fall into none of these categories. Instead of utilising the moments prior to the priest’s arrival for quiet introspection, I’m gawking. My eyes are riveted by the magnificent stained glass windows capturing the sunlight, the gleaming silver crucifixes, the resplendent tapestries.
I am in awe of these icons and trappings because I was brought up in the far more austere Church of Scotland. Sunday sessions during my childhood made watching paint dry seem a riveting alternative. This lurid setting is also a Protestant church but Scottish Episcopalian, closely allied to the Church of England with its archbishops and incense, and therefore much, much ‘higher’ than anything I’ve experienced. It must be akin to being inside a Roman Catholic chapel. But I’ve targeted this cathedral for that very reason. The atmosphere seems so much more colourful, so much more intense than the stern services in drab surrounds I recall from Sunday School pressgangings. This is churchgoing on acid.
I recall school lessons about the Reformation. How religious freedom defined Scotland as a nation, Presbyterian plainness a reaction to the corruption and hypocrisies of Christendom at that time. As for the Anglican thing, one reason all these worshippers are here today can be traced right back to England’s King Henry VIII, spree killer of wives. He had required a quick divorce and when this was refused by Pope Clement in 1527, he simply started his own, Anglican, church.
Obviously there were longstanding and complex political machinations but I’m thinking it all boils down to Henry’s sex life. Specifically, the lack of the single gene present in the Y chromosome of the spermatozoon when he sploodged and impregnanted Anne Boleyn: the tiny swimmer that would have given him a male heir.
So the origins of this high Protestant church, with its ornate paraphernalia and artistic splendour, bearing such a close resemblance to its Roman cousin, is down to biology. Those very facts of life derided and denied by dogmatic preachers over the centuries. A resemblance paradoxical and deeply ironic given the fathomless hundreds of thousands who have died violently in the aftermath of the sixteenth century schism. Of course, one sperm differently programmed at that moment inside Mrs Hitler, Mrs Pot or Mrs Stalin, would have prevented millions of deaths.
As one christened into the Scottish ‘Kirk’, I feel like a Trotskyite in a Tsarist palace. But my main reason for soaking in this ambience, listening to the beautiful organ melodies piping over the congregation and swirling around the cavernous interior, has nothing to do with political ponderings or even worship. I just needed an outlet for how I’m feeling right now. Because if this is a ‘high’ church, then I am the highest thing in it. I've toked so much this morning I feel a miniscule chemical imbalance away from tripping. When I assumed this position a moment ago, it felt less like sitting down and more like melting into the furniture. It took all my resolve to stifle a fit of the giggles when I realised my t-shirt was reeking with skunk, enough to draw several knowing looks. But no more than that. I'm sure there are no "thou shalt nots" in their prized book about hydroponically-produced psychoactive drugs, although a lot of the stuff about feeding 5,000 with seven loaves of bread and some fish, not to mention the parting of seas, was surely scribed by someone out their face on some equivalent.
This manic obsession with religion began when I bumped into a daughter of one of Mum’s friends, Rosie, who lived in our street and was part of the gang when we played outside as kids. Now a married woman in her early twenties, she enthused about St Mary’s. Like myself, she was christened into the Kirk but she was drawn into the flamboyance of the Episcopalian service. And, as a diffident teetotaller, its burgeoning social scene, with all manner of clubs run by the high percentage of under-30s forming the Sunday congregation.
In my hyperactive condition I just thought it sounded like a potential pool of untapped single, cheery, unsophisticated females. There is surely a fine line between mainstream religions such as this, and the numerous cults which have twisted off on more hedonistic paths. There’s a definite hippy vibe with a lot of the young women I’m clocking here, sparking my urge to congregate.
Flanked by sub-ordinates, the priest enters the arena with much swishing of thick, velvet curtains. He raises his arms and his white robes billow. The congregation stands. Many of them raise their right hands to the heavens in what initially appear to be alarming fascist salutes, although when I study the gesture through my bleary eyes I realise their pinkies and index fingers are subtly parted, alluding to the crucifixion.
A few prayers, some chanting and several inspired gospel-style hymns later, I am buzzing with visual, aural and sensual overload. Satiating my senses with Christianity. My head is spinning. All the silver crosses capture the sun filtering through the multicoloured stained glass windows at the same moment to burn like fluorescent strip lights. Everywhere I look there are gorgeous looking females, inanely smiling, eyes closed, their features betraying how much they have abandoned themselves to the moment.
I suddenly realise, with the alarming certainty that only this moment will bring, I am about to projectile vomit. Everyone is asked to pray. When the flock bow their heads, I leap from the wooden bench. My Sambas pad swiftly down the aisle. I hurry towards the sunlight bathing the arched entrance. Outside, I am immersed by Sunday morning normality. Tourists stroll by brandishing cameras and maps. Traffic flows. Sparrows chirrup from the trees. The only thing out of the ordinary is lurking just outside the doorway of the late 19th century cathedral. A young man is throwing his guts up like a scene from The Exorcist.
Every year one in four adults and one in ten children will have a mental health issue. Because of the persisting stigma attached to mental health, only one quarter of those experiencing problems will undergo ongoing treatment.
It is so important to feel able to broach the subject and talk about issues. Sharing experiences is one positive step anyone with problems can take, helping them to feel less alone. Mental health awareness is certainly far more prevalent than it was, say, 10 years ago, but the stigma remains.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder over 30 years ago and have been living with the condition, thanks to medication and a loving family. I wrote a novel based on my experiences, BrainBomb, the first version of which was published in 2009. I've rewritten it extensively since. To mark World Mental Health Day I'll be tweeting excerpts, along with blog posts I've written about mental health issues.
October 1987. The central character, Neil, signed-off work with "stress," has actually been undergoing a serious mental episode for some time. Today he has tuned into TV coverage of the Tory party conference being held in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. His delusions spiralling out of control, he thinks the latest speaker isn't talking to the crowd any more. He's talking directly to him.
I stare at Norman Tebbit addressing his rapt audience. His drawn and brutally humourless features remind me of a younger Peter Cushing, except there’s no endearing twinkle in these eyes. He seems scarcely less intimidating than his thuggish puppet on Spitting Image.
Although he’s referring to an autocue, I know the score. When he states the only thing restraining the economy is the prevalence of shirkers and social scroungers, it's not for the benefit of his middle-aged congregation. It's for me. He's talking to me. Blaming me. I feel his accusations boring into me. Everything grinds to a halt while I become his sole focus. Any moment now he’s going to mention my name.
Glancing out the window I notice two bricks on the walls of the opposite house, a sootier colour than those surrounding. They aren’t normal bricks. During Tebbit’s tirade they’ve been activated. They’re actually stereo speakers. As the Tory Chairman rails against me, his sunken eyes following me as I squirm, these twin amplifiers are channelling his diatribe across the back greens. Over the surrounding streets.
I march into the kitchen where Mum is rinsing dishes. ‘Okay, son?’ she says.
‘I’m going to hand myself in’.
‘What? What d’you mean?’
‘I’m going to hand myself in. To the police. Today’.
‘The police?’ She positions a bowl in the dish rack.
‘What are you on about now, son?’
‘I’m saying. I want to hand myself in.’
‘Well, what are you supposed to have done?’
‘I’m a malingerer.’
‘Aye. I’ve been warned.’
‘Warned? By who?’
‘Tebbit. Amongst others.’
‘Mum. I know I’m being watched. And it’s not just the stereo speakers.’
‘What are you babbling about, son?’
Although she’s maintaining a lucid tone, had I been capable of thinking straight I would’ve recognised the despair she was fighting to mask.
‘I’m not… babbling. It’s true. When I was in the bath yesterday, I could hear someone up on the roof. They were inserting bugging devices. Or a camera.’
Mum shuts her eyes. Sighs. Finally mustering a smile, she says: ‘Neil. There are people who can help. We’ve made an appointment for you.’
‘At the hospital. This morning. With a Dr Grant, one of the psychiatrists at the Andrew Duncan Clinic. Let’s see what he has to say?’
‘A head doctor? The Andrew Duncan? That’s the nuthouse! D’you think I’m round the twist, or something?’
'Of course I don't think you're round the twist, son,' she replies, grateful for the excuse to about turn and switch off the tap.
Dad’s back pain is acute. After having spent most of the past few days confined to his bed, eating meals from trays, peeing into a bottle, he’s heard me bleating to Mum I’m not going to be keeping any appointment. So he’s struggled out of his bed and is now resting on his knees in the hall, glaring up at me like an irate Toulouse-Lautrec.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, son. Why are you being like this? It’s for your own good. Please. You’re making your mother’s life a misery at the moment.’
Bunching my right fist I fleetingly entertain the sickening thought of sparking him out. But like so many other poisonous notions flitting through my mind the thought has scarcely materialised before it evaporates.
Turning, I scuff sheepishly into my bedroom. Wrench open the wardrobe door. How can I even contemplate setting foot outside? I can’t remember when I last ventured over the front doorstep. There are characters in post-apocalyptic novels crammed with humans mutated by nuclear fallout who are filled with less trepidation about facing the distorted world I know lurks out there.
I rifle through the jeans and trousers draped in their hangers. A musty smell clinging to everything. All these clothes are somehow spoiled, as if I’ve been living like a tramp for the past few months. Except Mum has been faithfully washing my garments as she’s always done; and if I get impression some of the clothing hasn’t been washed for a while, it’s simply because I haven’t been doing anything. For weeks on end.
Eventually I select a pair of beige Chinos and an Armani shirt with black and white stripes. My mates used to rib me I looked like an American ice hockey umpire. It has been a long time since I’ve been slagged by mates. Now those bastards just talk about me, scorn my failings. I wore this shirt to many night clubs; strutted up to single women, emboldened by alcohol and acting as brashly as its stark colours. Now that image merely mocks me it is so far removed from the person I’ve regressed to.
Mum holds open the passenger-side door. Further up the street, joiners are working on an attic extension. The rat-a-tat of their hammering synchronises with my motion as I stumble awkwardly towards the car. They are goading me, inferring I’m an automaton. I can’t look up as I jerk robotically at the handle.
Twenty minutes later we are seated in the waiting area in the Andrew Duncan Clinic. Mum squeezes my knee, hands me a travel mag. I glare at images of holiday resorts where the sea is flat as an ice rink but sun-dappled. Smiling people are draped on a golden beach where the only taboo conversations will be Great Whites and skin cancer. Another view of a world I am barred from.
An overweight man with a greying comb-over sits beside us. His baggy green cords are peppered with stains and he is puffing from the exertion of his two minute walk from the car park. Sweat courses in rivulets down to the creases between his chins. I imagine the dirty bastard has just left a dominatrix who danced a flamenco all over his pimply folds before fucking him within a hair’s breadth of cardiac arrest.
He says: ‘Hello, Neil. How are you?’
Recognition. Arthur Wells, one of my lecturers at Napier the previous year. But his presence compounds my dread. His coincidental appearance becomes another ingredient in the paranoid soup clogging my mindset. I turn to Mum. ‘I’m offski’.
With that I toss the magazine into Arthur’s flabbergasted lap, leap from my seat, march towards the exit. Mum heads me off just as quickly. ‘Neil. Be reasonable. How will you ever get better if you refuse to see any doctor?’
‘There's nothing wrong with me, Mum. This has all been a big mistake.’
On Tuesday 23 July 2019, Boris Johnson was elected leader of the Conservative & Unionist Party, and Prime Minister of the UK (the 20th schooled at Eton.) Due to the way parliamentary democracy operates, his victory resulted from 92,153 votes cast by his party's membership, representing not only 0.13% of the UK electorate, but the narrowest of demographics (97% white, 70% male, 40% over the age of 66, and one-in-20 earning over £100,000 per year.)
Always more of an extrovert than his predecessor Theresa May (unless Abba was playing), Johnson has long been accused of employing a superficial veneer of charm, coupled with choreographed eccentricity (during the above London Olympics stunt when he 'got stuck' on a high-wire, it transpired this was arranged, ensuring headlines around the world featuring 'plucky Bojo,' a politician who relished laughing at himself.) This clownish persona has served him well. Articles he wrote for the Daily Telegraph in the early 90s seemed straight from a satirical publication like The Onion, containing outlandish warnings about EU bureaucrats imposing straight bananas or 'one-size-fits-all' condoms on Britain. If he reveals an inability to grasp basic facts while being grilled by political interviewers, this is laughed off. Boris is being Boris.
Where Tommy Robinson and his ilk are reviled for racist uttering in a working-class accent, Johnson, like that other plummy-voiced bigot, Prince Philip (with his talk of 'slitty-eyed' Chinese) is able to denigrate minorities at will and get away with it. As with the Duke of Edinburgh, there is a long list of Johnson gaffes, including describing black people as 'piccaninnies' with 'watermelon smiles'; gay people as 'tank-topped bumboys'; Muslim women in burkas looking like letterboxes; and on Scotland: 'government by a Scot is just not conceivable in the current constitutional context.' All just Boris being Boris.
But even his most fervent apologists must agree there are red lines he skirts with reckless abandon. His comment that the police should stop investigating historic pedophile suspects ('money spaffed up a wall') went way beyond curmudgeonly old-Etonian repartee. It was a crass insult to the victims of child abuse. As was his publication of an article smearing the 96 Hillsborough victims while he was editor of The Spectator In 2004.
With such a scattershot approach, where self-deprecation, hyperbole and banter are effortlessly interwoven with more offensive opinions on ethnicity, denying someone's suitability for high office in the UK on the grounds of Scottishness is yet another example of something which he can quickly dismiss as high jinks or irony or a skit or one of the other terms honed at the Bullingdon Club dinners.
There's nothing remarkable about Johnson's patronising dismissal of Scots. Mistrust of a nation which hasn't given his party a majority since the 1950s is ingrained in Home Counties Tories. This attitude has been compounded by Brexit, overwhelmingly rejected north of the Border, but bulldozing ahead by 31 October, with or without a deal, because Johnson has staked his political reputation on it. And 63% of the Tory members who voted for him have admitted they'd rather the UK broke-up as long as Brexit remains the number one priority.
All eyes on Halloween, then.
Sympathetic supernovas. Train carriage secrets. Intergalactic lovestruck geckos. The incomprehensible loneliness of the unknown.
Thanks to a hugely successful crowdfunder, 404Ink Magazine has been revamped and revitalised, and its latest edition (no 5) is showcasing writing 'as diverse as the galaxy itself.' Under the heading SPACE, examples of Scotland's finest fiction, poetry, non-fiction, interviews & more have been ingathered to offer an eclectic collection of space-themed musings.
En route to the cosmos, the reader encounters Brian Binnie, the first Scot in space, catches up with Round Table Books to discuss the importance of creating inclusive spaces in the book world, mourns the loss of NASA’s Opportunity rover, celebrates the world of Doctor Who, and learns first hand from the incomparable Adriana Ocampo how it feels to be a NASA legend. And that’s just for starters.
Also included is my own short story, The Nimble Men, about a curator from the Culloden Visitor Centre whose life unravels when he receives an unexpected text. He seeks solace on Culloden Moor, scene of the last battle on British soil. As the light drains, the rugged terrain and its bloody history gives way to the star-spangled majesty of the heavens.
Contributors: Alycia Pirmohamed, Annie Summerlee, Ashley Cline, Asmaa Jama, David G Devereux, Georgia Dodsworth, Helen McClory (book excerpt), Kathryn O’Driscoll, Lucy Jane Santos, Marcus O’Shea, Mark Fleming, Mark Gallie, Rhiannon Walsh, Rikki Santer, Sean Wai Keung, Stefan Mohamed, Stephen Watt, Stuart Kenny and Tom Pickles.
Buy your copy of 404Ink Magazine - Issue 5 (Space): here
Pete Shelley, singer/guitarist with Buzzcocks, one of the original wave of punk bands, passed away this morning.
He was inspired to start playing rock n' roll after seeing the Sex Pistols at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976 (along with punters who would go on to form Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths and Slaughter and the Dogs.) This was a seminal moment in the cultural history of Shelley's home city. Everything that unfolded over the next few decades - Factory, New Order, Spike Island, Madchester, The Smiths, the Hacienda - could be traced back to here.
But Shelley's band were so much more than 'punk rockers.' After original singer Howard Devoto left to pursue more ambitious soundscapes with Magazine, Shelley became the principal songwriter. And what brilliant songs he crafted. Buzzcocks signed with United Artists (at Manchester's Electric Circus on 16 August 1977, the day Elvis died) then went on to release some of the catchiest three-minute anthems to have graced the charts. Shelley's sonic cocktail involved taking the essence of pop - bittersweet lyrics and irresistible hooks - then propelling everything with an adrenaline-rush of guitars.
I saw them at Edinburgh’s Odeon in September 1979, supported by Joy Division. They were touring on the back of ‘A Different Kind of Tension,’ third in a sequence of stunning albums after ‘Another Music In a Different Kitchen’ and ‘Love Bites.’
40-plus years later, his love of music was undiminished. His passing in his early 60s has come as a shock to his legion of fans but the music he created, with Buzzcocks, as well as six well-received solo albums, is timeless.
I was honoured and delighted to be featured in the fabulous website run by local Portobello blogger, Joanne Baird, PortobelloBookBlog. This is another excellent outlet championing literature and writing in Scotland, and is teeming with book reviews and author interviews. You can check out my own contribution here, describing how I first got into writing, scribbling lyrics for a punk band many many moons ago, right up to the present.
Fault Lines by Doug Johnstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Doug Johnstone's ninth novel is an explosive thriller, metaphorically and literally. Unlike so many crime novels set in the capital, delving into the shadows of Old Town closes or foreboding peripheral schemes, the fantastical twist here is Johnstone has created his own setting - an imagined version of the Firth of Forth where volcanic activity has created a new island, The Inch. This premise provides a captivating backdrop to the terrible crime introduced early on.
The central protagonist, Surtsey, is a flawed individual, desperately struggling to uncover the truth behind a brutal slaying while simultaneously fearing the exposure of her own double-life. The problem is someone else seems to know a lot more than she does.
Mentioning much more of the plot would start giving too much away, so here's a broader overview. This crime thriller is a fantastic read, its characters plausible, the plotline harbouring unexpected twists and turns at every corner. The Inch, active and prone to seismic activity, dominates the landscape, an unpredictable and volatile presence mirroring the tension on the mainland. The narrative, terse and unhampered by sentimentality, propels the reader towards a shattering climax.
What resonated with myself was the Edinburgh setting, particularly Portobello, its coastal suburb. It always makes an entertaining read when you can almost recognise the characters, and I could imagine spotting Surtsey in our local, The Espy!
Essentially the performing nom-de-plume of contemporary Merseybeat poet and singer Louisa Roach, She Drew the Gun released their second album, Revolution of Mind in October 2018. A sumptuous blend of 'melodic psychedelic pop' and a challenging anti-establishment lyrical stance, its 11 tracks cover an eclectic and uplifting range of musical bases. Sometimes stripped-back, allowing the relentless vocal drive to strike home, at other times offering layers of dreamy melody to lift the listener, the overall effect is a perfect balance of psychedelic sensibilities and protest music. Check out Something for the Pain as an apt illustration of this wonderful tightrope walk. www.shedrewthegun.com
I am immensely proud to have been singled out by Kirkcaldy High School, specifically Gillian Cunningham (Literacy/Equity) English teacher, to be appointed Writer-in-Residence. In the summer, the Scottish Book Trust announced 10 schools throughout Scotland had been awarded fully-funded author residencies, and over the next weeks authors, storytellers and creators will be working to inspire the next generation of Scotland's readers and writers. Further details of the residencies is available here.