I recently owned a beautiful keyring. Elegantly designed, it was a slim metal cylinder with one rounded end. The other end butted neatly to a small metal cube which had a circular hole through it, above which the keyring attached. The cylinder could be unscrewed – a piece of precision engineering, with a nice weight and action to it – to reveal the spiral shaft of a corkscrew, the cylinder then sliding into the hole in the cube to become the crosspiece. It was sleek, but underused. In the two years I had it attached to my keys, alongside a bottle opener that has accompanied me for a decade, it served its hidden purpose only a handful of times.
In honesty, I had forgotten there was a corkscrew on my keyring, because I used it as a keyring more than as a means of removing the stops from wine bottles. I was only reminded of the fact in the same instance that I ceased to own it, in the moments when Bristol’s airport security identified and confiscated it.
In truth, it was a civil and almost pleasant interaction, as a female agent (surname Ilyas, if any journalists want to verify this account) checked whether she could return it to me. With only hand luggage, I would have to surrender the item. I could, she said, collect it on my return. I needed to point out that this was me returning, flying home to Glasgow after a weekend away. They could retain and post it to me, she advised, and in a decision I now regret I declined. They wanted to charge me shipping and a handling fee of six pounds, and I hastily reasoned that it would cost almost as much to just buy a replacement.
It is a shame that Glasgow’s security staff were not as vigilant. If they had clocked the offending object, I would have left it in their possession until my return. At a push, the person who dropped me off at the airport could have come back and taken it away for safekeeping. Glasgow Airport, however, home of a famously-thwarted terrorist attack almost exactly eight years ago, also allowed me to board my flight without once checking my passport.
Permit me to repeat that. At Glasgow Airport, on Friday 3rd July 2015, I was able to effortlessly board my flight without having my identification checked and while – it transpires – carrying a restricted item.
How did I manage it? By checking in online, with no hold luggage to deposit at the desk. I took my hand luggage straight to security and merely scanned my boarding pass to gain access. At the departure gate, an airline representative again scanned my boarding pass, but without asking for or looking at my passport. On the plane, I was able to just walk in and take my seat.
I am certain that interested parties with the relevant clearance will be able to confirm this by studying the CCTV footage which must surely exist.
It says very little about the “security” measures implemented in airports, suggesting they are for show – and rely on sheer luck – as much as they depend upon intelligence and scrutiny. That keyring has flown on my person three times from Glasgow, once from Berlin, and once from Bristol. It was noticed ahead of the sixth flight it was bound for.
My carrying it on all occasions was purely an oversight, with no criminal intent. The realisation, combined with this complete failure to verify my identity – on the parts of both airport and airline – does not exactly instil confidence.
I can accept that a partly-concealed corkscrew will go unnoticed for a while. With the advancement of technology and the increases in legislation and prohibition, it is important that airports do not forget the basic age-old check of looking at passports. It should not be possible to board a plane using only a home-printed piece of paper.
A rewriting of an article that appeared online today, Easter Sunday 2014, and which is now truer than it ever was when the MOS published it. Some original text kept, the rest written for parody.
I write occasionally about my friend who lives next door to me. We are very close, a fact physically represented by our respective front doors being only a metre apart. People have noted that we act like a married couple, and there is some merit to that – we love each other, we argue regularly, and there is no sex. When I asked if she was happy with that statement she said, “No, I hate you,” which I think sums it up well.
She popped in to see me today, and when she went home she thought she could smell gas in her hall. I crossed over our thresholds to check, initially not picking up on it. Eventually the odour hit me, and she insisted that we call the emergency helpline. I read the number off her meter, she dialled and then handed me the phone. I explained the issue to the operator, who asked me a series of basic questions before agreeing to send an engineer out. She provided safety instructions, and I listened as I walked from the living room into the bathroom – where the meter is located.
I obeyed the woman’s command, cutting the supply by giving the handle on the pipe a quarter-turn. As I pulled it from the vertical to the horizontal, my friend appeared in the hallway before me. “Don’t turn on any lights or use any switches” the call handler said into my ear, at the precise second when my friend switched the overhead light on. Timing, as they say, is everything. As I tried in vain to prevent the action, by making a cut-throat gesture, she instinctively and immediately turned the light off again.
I went home, and the gas van arrived quickly. The way it was reported on Facebook, “Scottish Gas guys arrived, checked my gas meter and said: “Girl. Glad you phoned us, cos you would probably die overnight from gas poisoning!! There was a serious gas leak.”
She texted me to say they were changing the meter, adding “that’s why I couldn’t breathe properly and my stomach hurt for a couple of days.” This was news to me, and I remembered that there is a carbon monoxide detector in the bedroom beside her boiler. I had looked at the boiler when I went in, but neglected to check the alarm. It is a safety device I have meant to buy for my own flat, and never quite got round to.
“Did the gas alarm in your bedroom not go off?” I asked.
She checked it. “The light changes from green to red. I had red for a few days, but I ignored that.”
Sometimes she terrifies me. She elaborated “I thought it must be like that,” adding further “but I was being sick every day, and my stomach hurt at night, and the breathing difficulties – now I know why!”
We had spoken today about her possibly leaving Glasgow. I am in no way ready for her to permanently leave the world.
The consensus online is that gas is dodgy, and any hint of a smell should be investigated and reported. This evening, especially, I am happy that she insisted on notifying the authority. Once the seriousness had passed, humour took over. One of my comedy acquaintances publicly admired her “strive for efficiency” in trying to blow the whole street up, and not just me.
She replied – in a way you would understand if you knew her – by saying that she enjoys group sex, and group death too. This incident happened to coincide with the gas main being replaced over the road, and it was nearly the perfect crime – they would have blamed the workmen.
Tonight, online, I bought a carbon monoxide detector and two smoke alarms. I like to feel I have learned something from this experience, besides having my nerves shaken when I read the Gas Safe information about poisoning symptoms and fatalities. It is disconcerting to know that someone I care so deeply about has been breathing in toxic fumes for a few days.
She always claims to be unlucky, and I will now forever disagree. Borrowing her trademark phrase of “face>desk”, the only real method of taking the edge off was to make further light of the situation. There is no other way. I doubt we were poised to annihilate ourselves in an explosion, but it is generally best to avoid inhaling noxious vapours for any length of time. At the risk of coming across all Michael Buerk in the 1990s emergency re-enactment series 999, it does not cost much to protect yourself.
I doubt I will ever be entirely certain, but it is possible that I may once have attracted the amorous attentions of the writer of a Golden Globe-winning, Gold-selling, chart-topping single. There is the distinct possibility that it was all completely innocent, of course, and that is the version of the story I hold to be true. The following is told without prejudice.
I studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, a degree which allowed me to arrange work placements in my final year. Many of my peers elected to gain experience with companies in Scotland, most notably Scottish Opera and the Theatre Royal. In my very finite wisdom – in hindsight, making contacts in this country would have been sensible in the long run – I decided that I would set my sights further afield than the venue which was literally across the street, and began applying for internships in America. Somewhere between a dozen and twenty emails later, one organisation replied offering me a place. Lasting nine weeks over the summer, it would count as two of my five allocations, contributing to my learning while also providing me with my first trip outside Europe.
As I would be studying throughout the summer of 2005, the payoff was time off during the preceding term – time spent hoovering up every available shift in the pub where I was ordinarily employed at weekends only. I saved hard, since the gig provided accomodation and nothing else, and booked my flights. A couple of months later, I was in the USA. I quickly befriended the Assistant Technical Director, bonding on the first day while talking about music.
“I like metal, but I like it messed-up,” he said. “Like Mindless Self Indulgence.”
“You should check out Combichrist,” I said, referring to an act I had discovered and seen a month previously. I saw them for a second time in New York City, about a month after this conversation, and Graham was at the gig with me. He was the only one wearing trainers (sneakers) and I was the only one wearing a kilt. MSI and Combi later toured together, and eventually remixed singles for each other too. On the way out of the venue I stole an event poster off the wall, which I still have. In December 2013 I saw Combichrist play live for the twenty-eighth time.
I found Americans to be friendly, happy to engage with the “crazy Scotsman” in their midst. The girls loved my accent, and there was at one time a photograph showing me at an opening night party, surrounded by four or five women. They were seen to be hanging on my every word, and what was never clear from the picture is that the word they were hanging on was “squirrel.”
“Say it again!” they cried, delighted as I truncated the “u” and rolled the Rs. Being a wind-up merchant of some years standing, it did not take long before I aped their pronunciation. “Say ‘squirrel’!”
I worked on a number of shows as a stage carpenter, learning a lot about life and professionalism (as well as my trade) in the daytime, and out-drinking most of the crew and other interns in the evening. I have a lot of fond memories of that time, and maintain a handful of friendships with those I met. It was a place outside NYC where new plays could air to audiences without the pressure of critical scrutiny, a safe workshop environment where – while I was there – a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright could test his latest script, starring someone who would later become a Muppets villain.
At some point, in all of this, I was introduced to the lovely Amanda McBroom. She was working on lyrics for a new musical adaptation of a film, having once penned a song – famously sung by Bette Midler – called The Rose.
We spoke a few times, on various occasions at company parties or in the production office, and she told me that she had visited Glasgow and eaten in Ashton Lane’s famous restaurant The Ubiquitous Chip. She was usually accompanied by her friend and stage manager, a pleasant Englishwoman who had served her time in the West End. Back then, I had vague notions of pursuing a career in that hallowed district – soon abandoned when I realised that I do not even like visiting London, and would find living there to be unbearable.
When the 7/7 bombings happened, I called home to check my wee cousin was okay – thankfully she was. The stage manager, having far more contacts in the vicinity than I, made frantic phonecall after frantic phonecall, visibly upset as she did so. I remember the callous – almost ridiculous – uttering of our production manager, a man with the unenviable knack of making you feel uncomfortable by merely speaking to you. He would look at you slightly longer than necessary, as if waiting or searching for a response, for some continuation of the conversation or expected answer which was not apparent. As this poor woman desperately tried to reach her friends and relations, his attempt at sympathy extended to a misguided “Now you know how we felt on 9/11.”
After a series of fun adventures I returned home, receiving an email shortly afterwards from the stage manager. Amanda was working on a new project based on Shakespeare’s female characters, and I was asked if I would record myself reading the Lady Macbeth lyrics. This would serve as a basis for her to practise and recite it in a broadly-authentic accent, taking into consideration that Macbeth was not Glaswegian and that US ears would need to comprehend the language.
Theatre being an industry that often thrives on favours, especially when you are a student of the craft, I thought nothing of it. I altered the perfect English of the writing to reflect the Scottish vernacular, changing the “didn’ts” to “didnaes” and so forth. As I recall, I read it aloud into a microphone and converted the digital recording into a file small enough to email across, including with it my version of the lyrics. I was careful to only reflect the local dialect, turning things like the “ofs” to “aes”, because however much of an ego you may think I have, it does not extend to redrafting the work of someone who only missed out on an Oscar nomination because her song predated the film that made it famous.
It was during this endeavour that the question was asked of me: “Why are you doing this?”
“I was asked to.”
“Aye, but – have you not got a lassie friend that could read it. Would that not make more sense, for her to learn from another female instead of a deep-voiced guy?”
I had given it no thought. Perhaps naively, I believed I was simply fulfilling a request that had been made of me, from someone who had been warm and friendly when I met her in a foreign land. The implication that she “maybe had a wee thing” for me had passed me by until that point. I genuinely do not know. Granted, I am tall, dark-haired, was then aged twenty-three, and had spent the summer wearing a kilt instead of shorts. However, I am not big-headed enough to presume that I did anything other than make an acquaintance.
Furthermore, dealing solely in facts, it remains the only time that a multi-award-winning songwriter – responsible for a world-famous hit – has asked me for any kind of collaborative input. I was happy to oblige.
Two weeks ago, a couple of guys from the water board chapped my door and asked me to check if my cold water was running.
There has been an issue with the pressure in my tenement, and they were trying to ascertain – not for the first time – if the boundary stopcock outside the close entrance was affecting supply when they turned it. On that occasion, it was not. I still had water coming from my taps – in truth, the best place to have water coming from when it is in your home.
The guys thanked me and, as I left some minutes later to go about my day’s business, I passed them spraypainting around the metal plate on the ground outside. I thought no more about it.
On the other side of the street, a digging crew has appeared recently and begun laying a new gas main. I surmise it to be a gas job on account of the size and length of trench they have dug, and due to the large yellow plastic piping that is on site. Their workspace is cordoned off using orange and white striped barriers. Last week, an unmarked white works van pulled up outside my front window and offloaded half a dozen blue plastic barriers and a couple of temporary traffic signs. I was curious to know what was going on, having received no notification of work to be carried out in the vicinity.
I presumed it to be preparation by Scottish Water, given that they had marked the ground, due to the different type of barrier and the quantity left, and because the crew working over the road are – well, working over the road. It made no sense for them to mark out a second site while tied up with the first, the replacement of the main clearly some way from being completed.
If water maintenance was required, it would mean erecting barriers that would severely impede access into this building. If I was also going to lose my supply, I would like to know when and for how long, which I do not think is an unreasonable request. Shortly after the equipment was delivered, I called Scottish Water.
“Are you about to dig up the pavement right outside the front door?”
The girl checked her computer. “No, the only work in that street is for gas. Phone the Scottish Gas Network.”
I thanked her and called them.
“Are you about to dig up the pavement right outside the front door?”
“No, that’s not us, we’re working over the road. Try Scottish Water.”
I called Scottish Water a second time. I explained, again, why I initially thought it was them and why my call to the Gas Network confirmed my suspicions. The girl this time checked another system available to her.
“Oh yeah, it is us.”
“Am I going to lose my water supply, and if so, when?”
“We usually put letters through before we start work.”
“And you usually don’t drop barriers at a site until you’re ready to start work.”
“I’ll see if someone can phone you back.”
“Try that, but I’m not convinced they’ll be able to work the buttons.”
I posted the above summation of two hours of conversations onto social media. A friend revealed she works for the water company, and informed me that these days many works can be done without switching the water off. When I gave her more detail she provided an in-depth explanation. I was grateful for that, because Scottish Water never did return my call. The pavement was dug up the next day, after I had gone out, the disruption not affecting me personally as the job was done by the time I came home. Considering they were replacing a communication pipe, their own communication was sorely lacking.
Full credit to the Scottish Gas Network though. They had an engineer contact me promptly, from an unblocked mobile number, to say that the barriers were not theirs but that they would be working on my side of the street at a later date. On my side it will only be a partial replacement, and he did not have details to hand about whether that will involve loss of service. As promised, he did then check the blueprints the next morning and left me a voicemail (and his direct contact number to field any questions) to say that this future work will not involve my tenement or the two east of it.
It is not difficult, in this technological age, to share information effectively or communicate easily. Too many large corporations have yet to master it.
I maintain that life is absurd, and this is never better demonstrated than when it comes to death.
A one-time colleague of mine died recently. We were not close, despite working reasonably closely on a short project nine or ten years ago, yet – unlike some others I have worked with before and since – he was memorable. When I read of his death I recognised his name immediately and could instantly picture his face. Given that I freelance and meet a lot of people, the same is not true of everybody I have worked with.
I was sorry to read of his passing, always figuring that our paths would cross again some day – socially, if not professionally. Instead, I am left with a memory of that project which has been blurred by time and events that have happened since. While it did not seem appropriate to share my faint half-recollections alongside the tributes being paid on his Facebook page, I went through and read many of them. The public outpouring of love and affection was touching.
What struck me, generally speaking, is this: it seems really sad that you have to die before most people are prepared to reveal the extent of their love for you.
The old adage is true, everyone loves you when you are dead. To my mind that appears a little late to express it. If someone matters that much to you, is it not worth letting them know while they can fully appreciate it?
This world makes no sense. At the risk of being facetious while trying to illustrate this point, next time I am feeling low I might kill myself, just so people say nice things about me.
I think my favourite voicemail was received, from a friend, in December 2006. The friend and I studied together, both of us graduating to careers in theatre, with work and life meaning our paths stopped crossing as often as they once did.
It had been a while since I had heard from her, and I emerged from my place of employment after the matinee performance of a pantomime to see that I had a message to listen to.
“Hi there,” she began in her cheerful and chatty way. “I hope you’re well, I’ve not seen you in ages. Anyway, I’m working at The Kings just now, and – you probably know this already – but Cafe India is on fire, and I know your flat is right next to it, so I just thought I would tell you. But yeah, speak to you soon.”
Cafe India was not just on fire, it burned so thoroughly that it was later demolished. Writing in 2014, the space now houses a supermarket on the ground floor and an entire block of flats above. It was originally a single-storey restaurant, next to a two-storey backpackers hostel, and then next to that was my tenement flat. I had the top floor, my living room being the gable end, and there were huge cracks in the interior walls. Cracks you could have painted Michaelangelo’s “Creation Of Adam” on, had he not chosen the Sistine Chapel as its location.
I was, therefore, a little concerned to hear that the dwelling that housed all of my possessions might be in danger of combusting. With the adjoining structures drastically weakened, I was not convinced that the tenement’s end wall would stay up. I raced home, circling the police cordon as the last of the smoke billowed from the ruin, and walking past the fire engines in attendance to the rear of the property. My flat was above a pub, and as I walked along the back of the building I saw the landlord. I had briefly worked for him, and went over to speak to him. I found out that the entire row had been evacuated, in case the flames spread, but that tenants were finally being granted access again.
I went upstairs, checked everything was in order, and then had to leave immediately in order to be back in time for the evening’s performance. It was not the most relaxing period I have spent between shows.
Full credit to my friend, however. They always say that “in the event of fire, remain calm.” I do not think she could have been any calmer, absolutely exemplifying that as she relayed the news to me via answer-machine. The panic and the relief both faded, but the message was memorable for its unhurried delivery.
I lived in that flat for three years. It was my first residence in Glasgow, and I moved out four months after the fire – having no desire to live next door to the building site it was destined to become. On the plus side, the structure of the walls proved sound, and the building still stands.
Above: Still taken from STV video footage. My annotations.
Working for different film, TV, and theatre production companies, I have been based in various different stores and seen the facilities utilised by some of my colleagues for their personal kit. They vary in location and quality, but a couple of them have rented shipping containers on private land. It looks to be a convenient and reasonably low-cost option – shelved and racked on the inside to accomodate tools, equipment, and other occasionally essential gear.
One memorable job involved a visit to my friend’s lock-up. He has, or had, a place located down a side-street near Glasgow’s River Clyde. The short street was run-down, despite its proximity to the city centre, with the building that ran the length of one side displaying no intact windows. All were broken to some degree or missing entirely, with boards plugging the gaps behind the remaining shards. On the other side, two high Victorian buildings were both boarded up too.
Between these monuments, a connecting single-storey entranceway had been demolished, the rubble still piled high and adorned with illegally-dumped beds, mattresses, and other such junk. Our container was one of a dozen lined along the grounds, accessible by unlocking some Heras perimeter fencing, of the “mesh” type seen around every outdoor music event you have ever been to. Unfortunately, our ingress was prevented by half a dozen fly-tipped fridges. The abandoned white goods littered the kerbside directly in front of the only gate, and inevitably we would have to move them. “Let’s have some fun,” my friend said. “There’s spraypaint in the back. I’m thinking ‘robots’.”
We left the cab of our van, and manhandled the appliances into position. We stood them upright, and I dragged one onto its side and shunted it between others. Lying prone, I took rogue circuit boards and pipes and stuffed them into the door – the poor refrigerator’s guts spilling forth.
With our path cleared, the gate was duly opened and we walked the short distance to the line of units. Andy – everybody in this industry is called Paul or Andy, in my experience – proceeded to the first blue cabin in a line of red ones, their vibrant colours long since faded. He jammed the key into the padlock, and it yielded with ease. Removing it, he swung open the first of the double doors.
His store contains shelves and racking, powertools and crates of assorted gear, workspace and associated art implements. None of that was visible. There was only one thing in the container – a silver hatchback. The vehicle comfortably filled the space, and I became acutely aware of my surroundings. It was dark and wet, a Glasgow evening in a deserted and vandalised area – us alone by the ruins of an old building, by a length of shipping crates. Is this not how films start? I joked that I had better not find a dead body inside, shining a torch into the rear window and peering through. In my head, somebody silently appeared behind us, two bullets swiftly ensuring we could never speak of our discovery.
It was not much of a discovery, although I must admit I gave the interior only a cursory glance. I had no desire to lay my eyes on a corpse, nor on any conspicuous plastic sheeting. This was close enough to an abandoned docks to put me in mind of a dozen crime film cliches. The greater question, for Andy at least, involved the contents he had expected to see. The key fitted the padlock perfectly, and he had to wonder if his possessions had been stolen, then replaced with a car. It seemed an odd way to commit burglary, and was quickly discounted.
He had only been to this location twice before, and all he could recall was that he had a blue container. Resecuring Box Number One, he tried his key in Box Number Two. This padlock complied as well. In we went, retrieving the items for which we had come, while light-heartedly pondering our abilities to hotwire the motor next door – evidently these two containers had locks that shared an identical cut of key.
With our gear subsequently loaded onto the van and the location secured. we grabbed tins of spraypaint. This would be a fun end to the day. Andy set about giving the fridges eyes and mouths, and I liberally applied red – blood – to the deceased one. I tried to give it crosses for eyes, but the rain lying on it its surface hindered the effort. It was like painting a puddle, if you have ever attempted that or can imagine how ineffective it would be. Nevertheless, a few photographs were taken to preserve the moment, and we quietly disappeared into the night. The killer cannibal robot refrigerators stayed behind, gathered around their fallen victim.
I wrote the following joke today. If you want to be offended by it please check a dictionary first.
The Retardis is a time machine that only goes backwards.
That reminded me that I have not yet seen the feature film World War Z, but I once put it on long enough to watch the end credits.
This may seem a strange decision, to begin at the ending without viewing a single scene or giving the plot any attention. However, the film was partly shot in Glasgow, my home town, and I was curious to see which of my industry friends had worked on it. I noticed something in the cast list which caught my attention.
Filmed in 2011, the parts were cast long in advance of the BBC’s much-anticipated announcement about the actor who would play the new Doctor Who. It was 2013 when, publisihing details of their own output as “news”, it was revealed that Peter Capaldi had gained the role.
Peter Capaldi, the credits told me, had a part in World War Z. With hindsight, the way they worded his appearance as a member of the World Health Organisation seems rather apt.
I am not, to any great extent, superstitious.
I try to avoid walking under ladders, but that is because I do not want to dislodge them and neither do I want anything dropped on my head. I greet solitary magpies when I see them, with a general “hello, magpie” as I am not personally acquainted with any of them. I always look for a second one – ‘two for joy’ – and have written the word twice in the previous sentence in case, like me, you appreciate the reassurance of seeing a pair. I am aware of how ridiculous that sounds, and I have tried to wean myself using logic and rational thinking, but it is a habit long ingrained in me – since childhood.
Today, I woke with an incredible itch in my left palm. To my mind, that signifies the coming into of money. An itchy right palm denotes that you will soon shake hands, indicating an imminent new meeting. A less superstitious person would point out that having an itchy palm suggests you should scratch it. Even the superstitious are not agreed on what either means – there are countless (about ten) variations.
Having alleviated the irritation, by scratching it, I let myself imagine that perhaps this week will bring my considerable lottery win. I play twice a week, because I am sick of not being a millionaire. Last week I won £8.40, which is a start. I spent it on more lottery tickets, and suspect that I have walked straight into their trap.
My left palm still tingling, I came online and discovered that I had received a new email from a company I did some freelance work for late last year. They have amended my booking to adjust the rate, the upshot of which is that I am now in line to receive an additional £7.61 on top of the fee I had agreed.
Half of me is intelligent and enlightened, knowing that it must be mere coincidence to receive notification of incoming wealth so soon after my hand became itchy. Half of me is, nevertheless, struck by the indisputable proximity of both events. Another half of me struggles with fractions.
Given that the world is absurd, and that I have very much accepted the fact, the question is not “what does it all mean?” Rather, my question is: what am I going to spend this seven quid on?
The answer is probably pizza.