I think that cigarette-smokers are selfish and obnoxious in their habit; that people who vape are as bad, or worse, due to the vast plumes they exhale; and that I would be morally justified in spitting in the face of anyone who blows smoke into mine. I also dislike Scotrail, my local purveyor of late trains – I run a parody account on Twitter based in my dislike of them, I have been broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live talking about my dislike of them. I do not want you to go away from this thinking, “Maybe he quite likes Scotrail” – no.
In a series of pointless endeavours, I think my favourite – in terms of sheer ineffectiveness – was Scotrail’s taking the time to post No Smoking signs across their open station platforms. Have you seen it deter anybody? I am constantly at various stations across Glasgow, and I have never once seen somebody, on the verge of igniting their cigarette, notice the signage and reconsider. Most days, I let it slide – easier to be silently annoyed than to engage with someone and ask them to act. The only thing less pleasant than the stench of tobacco smoke is a belligerent smoker who is being denied nicotine. Furthermore, in the absence of any visible staff, you are directed to make a complaint via the Information Point, essentially a speakerphone which offers no privacy and which broadcasts loudly across near-empty platforms. To do that invites a whole other level of conflict, as you plainly grass someone up, in front of them, rather than address them directly.
I have considered why Easter Monday was different. It is fair to say that I am naturally grumpy, and for a rare moment I found myself enjoying relative peace and quiet, on a deserted platform, on a bright and sunny and comparatively warm day. This brief enjoyment was interrupted by the new, unmistakable, and disagreeable odour of burning tobacco – the source of which was quickly identifiable as a woman standing opposite me across the tracks. I watched as the sole Scotrail employee, doing her rounds and wearing her yellow hi-viz vest, approached this person breaking at least the rules, and possibly the law (despite it not being an enclosed space, I think the legislation was extended to encompass it. Scotrail is certainly quoted in the media as saying they would involve British Transport Police in such instances, should anyone refuse to comply with the ban.)
There was no admonishment. The woman, who had since sat on a metal bench, looked up as the employee passed, and there was some simple greeting in that moment – a smiled “Hi”, a slight raising of eyebrows perhaps: a shared and friendly acknowledgement of each other’s existence. The employee continued on her way, reaching the nearest No Smoking notice just seconds later. It was at this point, having observed the behaviour several times before, and with time on my hands as I waited on my delayed train, that I took the main course of action pursued by many of us – and used social media as a means of complaint.
Scotrail’s online grouch responded quickly, wanting to know if I had “made the staff aware.” Aware of what – the rule of law? A gap in their training or in their enactment of it? Of the duties involved in carrying out the job for which she was being paid? I answered with a degree of cheekiness, expecting this conversation to go nowhere – as most complaints to Scotrail (and all of their cancelled trains) do. It was their next reply that firmly angered me.
“Our staff wouldn’t walk past somehow smoking and not say anything,” I was curtly informed, with the blind indignant allegiance often reserved for use by the parents of children who bully, or who otherwise commit misdemeanours. I know what I saw. I could have filmed the infraction, and provided visual evidence, but I am not given to this imposition on people’s lives – you do not want to be recorded doing your job unsatisfactorily, nor having a wee seat with your bags of shopping, neither do I and I have no desire to make such intrusive records of other people. There is likely to be footage, of course, thanks to the prevalence of CCTV cameras – all they would need to do is look at the coverage of Platform Two, from 2:10pm on Monday 17th April.
Our conversation proceeded exactly as predicted. Not content to merely disavow facts with a quickness to rival that of America’s premier liar-in-chief, they also mimicked President Trump’s use of the “gaslighting” technique. Finally, defending themselves by referencing my choice of vocabulary, I was promised assistance and promptly ignored – the wall was up, no correspondence would be entered into because I had written a sweary-word. I could let them know next time, they said, and they would act. I countered that I had let them know this time, but they had showed no interest. Why would I waste my time again? Why did they waste theirs, putting up signs that seem to be purely decorative? At best, complaints are discouraged (“Please use the loudhailer to alert the entire vicinity”) or mishandled, and, at worst, they are completely disregarded and your personal credibility will be disputed. I was eventually given a link, to make it formal, but I have no reason to believe it would achieve anything. Instead, I have written and will publicly share this, feeling better that I have used the experience creatively.
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.
Having sent this email and received a reply so brief as to be almost non-existent, which also continued in its failure to address anything I had said, I wrote back without particularly holding back:
Dear Mr Farress, “Customer Relations Consultant”,
I trust you had a pleasant Christmas, and presume that you over-imbibed: only the presence of a monstrous hangover can possibly explain the brevity of your latest reply.
The alternative is that Virgin Trains are even less interested in providing adequate customer service than they are in ensuring trains run punctually, or at all.
I have written two letters of complaint, totalling eleven full typed pages, and so far you have failed to directly address a single sentence. Putting in a modicum of effort is unlikely to kill you, despite how it might feel – suffering as you must surely be from your festive alcoholic over-indulgence. I would have been happy to wait until the New Year for a response, had it meant you were sufficiently clear-headed to send me an appropriate reply.
I see now why your previous letter was full of copied-and-pasted (albeit irrelevant) paragraphs – left to your own devices, you have misspelled the word “cancellation,” an error which seems glaring given how many times you must encounter it in the course of your working life. Furthermore, you have asked me to “send through the relevant tickets” – I attached photographs to my original email, and you will find them there if you peer closer through your booze-induced fug. I can send them again if you prefer. You have already wasted so much of my time, you may as well squander a little more.
To remind you of the facts, I had booked four Virgin Train journeys in the space of six days. Of those four trains, two were cancelled and one arrived late. You have completely failed to address any issues mentioned with the staff, the service provision, or the level of customer service encountered thus far – most of which has been unsatisfactory.
I understand that, as a major company and in line with others of your size, you do not need to particularly care about any given customer’s experience. We are all but drops in the ocean to you. However, you most certainly do not lack the funds to reimburse me for my tickets and for the inconvenience and distress caused. Even discounting the refund of the concert ticket, which you refuse to pay despite forcing me to miss the gig – my sole reason for travelling – you should still be held to account.
I therefore repeat my request that you issue me a payment of £120 to cover my expenses, the abomination of a service you barely provide, and the stress and worry caused as a result of your actions and inactions.
I would also like a full reply to my original complaints, regarding the failure of station and train staff to adequately convey information.
I would ask to “escalate” this letter, but am informed by your Twitter team that I must telephone to do so – at my expense. They inform me that escalation will also occur if I include the VT-reference number attached to my initial email, however (having already included it in my follow-up communication) that previously returned straight to you. It is hardly escalation if we continue going round in circles, all my replies answered by the same work-shy inebriate who has exhausted so much endeavour in celebrating Christmas that he has no inclination to perform his job with any degree of competence.
Nevertheless, I will play by your rules. Please ensure this letter is escalated, and – once your New Year hangover has subsided and you feel able to write with relevance – I will be happy to hear what steps you will be taking to resolve this. In addition to receiving the payment and reply asked for.
While waiting for a reply, I am considering sending the whole of my correspondence to the CEO.
Update: I plan to write a separate blog to conclude this tale, but the upshot is – three letters totalling twelve pages later – they have refunded me £24 in cash (cheque) and sent me £100 in rail vouchers. My Virgin Train tickets, for the journeys which merited these complaints, cost me £90.
Post updated to include a photo of their reply, 22nd December 2014. A follow-up complaint, addressing this and the cancellation of my London train four days later, can be read here.
Dear Virgin On The Ridiculous,
It gives me no joy to write this, which – coincidentally – is precisely the same amount of joy (none) which you provided on my journey to England yesterday. As I anticipate that this will be a lengthy missive, I recommend that you make yourself a cup of tea before you begin reading.
My favourite band tour the UK once a year, and it has long been my habit to see them a few times in that week, up and down the country. I reason that, since I have to wait twelve months for a seventy-five minute show, it makes sense to see a couple of their gigs, knowing that once they leave I will have another year to wait for their return.
To give you some indication of how passionately I love live music, and this one band in particular, I have seen them twenty-nine times, in five countries, on two continents. It was never my intention to become one of those fans who travels to see a given band, nor to follow them on tour, it was a natural progression and just sort of happened over the course of nearly ten years.
I am due to see them another twice this week, although that hinges – in part – on you managing to get me to London on my booked trains. After yesterday’s debacle, I have lost faith in your abilities.
With the recent Met Office warning that has been dubbed a “weather bomb” – enabling this country’s diabolical media to focus their front pages on photographs of waves when, if they had any kind of conscience to speak of, they would be systematically dismantling every lie to emanate from Cameron, Osborne, and Iain Duncan Smith – I was worried that my travel might be disrupted. So worried, in fact, that I looked into buying travel insurance that would cover cancellation, and “tweeted” you on Tuesday to ask about any known issues. I was assured that my train should be running “as normal”, and I subsequently packed for my overnight trip. Although I enquired if you offered any add-on insurance that I could buy, this went unanswered. Factoring in the costs of my excursion (train, hotel, gig ticket), and weighing it against the excess due on the one policy I found for UK trips, I realised there was little point purchasing any. Abandoning the endeavour would see me reimbursed a mere fifteen pounds. I would just risk it.
On Wednesday morning, with hysteria and panic leading mistitled “news” reports about a bit of wind and rain in mid-December, I considered it pertinent to check again. The service, you replied via Twitter, was still running. At my request, I was then directed to a webpage where I could verify for myself, nearer the time, that there were no drastic changes. The last thing I did before leaving the house was ensure my train was scheduled and punctual.
Having dedicated a not-inconsiderable amount of energy, time, and effort, to ensuring it was worthwhile packing and making my way to Glasgow Central – tempering my enthusiasm for being at the gig with the knowledge that I might not make it there – you may perhaps appreciate my dismay when, upon arrival at the concourse, the departures board announced that my train had been cancelled.
Crestfallen, I headed straight for Virgin’s office. The girl behind the counter cheerfully informed me that – despite the apocalyptic storm that had threatened to thwart my plans – it was a broken-down freight train causing my chagrin. With everything now in disarray, I wondered what my options were. It was 15:20 and my train was due to leave at 15:40, arriving in Preston at 17:55 – with venue doors opening at 19:00.
Somewhat less than ideally, I would have to board a chartered bus to Carlisle, catching a train there to complete my journey. Estimating two hours of coach travel, the girl suggested it might be a further hour by rail after that. Not particularly enamoured with the idea of heading two-hundred miles only to miss the sole reason for going, it struck me as foolish to abandon my plans at that stage. Better, surely, to take the chance and hopefully catch some of the headline band, at least.
Your office was filling up with people idly awaiting the promised coaches. I elected to wait outside, at the Gordon Street entrance if you know the geography of the station, desperately hoping I might get on the first coach and make a speedy departure. Denied. The more I looked for the promised bus, the more it was not there. Equally scarce were any Virgin staff – presumably hiding from the wrath of other disgruntled and inconvenienced would-be passengers.
Eventually, one woman did come out, a woman with the dark-haired, craggy-faced look of Alice Cooper about her. I neglected to mention that, out of politeness, but said politeness was sadly not reciprocated. In answer to my question, about buses and destinations, she curtly said “I’m going in here,” as she failed to break stride while marching back into the office. I have worked in customer service much of my life, and learned long ago that basic manners cost nothing and – indeed – reflect well on a company. I could have said as much to this woman, hindered only by the fact she had strutted off before the thought formed. Whatever her mission was, it did not involve the provision of timely information.
Two coaches eventually arrived, people thronging first to one and then to the other, as drivers tried to determine where they were bound. The little red-jacketed Alice Cooper woman – your representative in this sorry episode – reappeared and held a hasty conflab with both drivers, only after a dozen doddery old pensioners had taken ages hauling their snail-paced carcasses on board the rear bus. Duly it was announced that this bus would go to Preston direct, the front bus making the afore-mentioned Carlisle stop. These ancient ruins then took forever carrying their coffin-dodging selves back off the bus, while I silently hated them – with nerves shot and blood pressure rising from the stress.
Little Red Virgin Jacket promptly disappeared again, leaving me with absolutely no idea if I should take the Preston bus or go to Carlisle and transfer there. I figured it made sense to make my way directly to the concert location, rather than risk being stranded in northern England, climbing into the second bus. Stressed – in local parlance – out my nut, the bus finally departed a full thirty minutes after the scheduled train departure.
With no idea how long I would be incarcerated for, angry and frustrated at being forced to use a method of long-distance transport I despise, we were off!
I decided many years ago to always travel by rail or flight, and I have generally been happy with the service you have provided. My first coach journey was a nightmare, my naive and inexperienced nineteen-year-old self trekking to London for the first time, to see another band. The nine-hour ride lasted a full twelve hours, entering the capital at the very moment the support band took the stage. I was panicked, lost, confused, and harassed. Fourteen years later, you successfully managed to revive those feelings.
I enjoy the simple things Virgin offers – the promise of a table seat in a quiet carriage, with phone charging facilities; the chance to have legroom not designed solely for Douglas Bader or, for a more modern reference, Oscar Pistorius. These basic comforts were denied me, any semblance of quiet and calm annihilated by the banal chatter of people I can most accurately describe as tedious bastards. I mean, infuriatingly boring people with nothing to say, yet quite content to say it loudly and without rest.
One of the many, many reasons I jettisoned coaches as a method of going anywhere is the apparent seat design specification which caters only for frail old women. In my boots, I stand at six feet and four inches tall; I am broad-shouldered; I could do with losing some weight, but am not so fat as to have been mistakenly hunted for ivory. These moulded seats are, to me, some intolerable and mediaeval torture. They do not seem equipped to accommodate anybody with an internal skeletal structure – the base of the seat juts firmly into my hip bones, putting strain on my lower back, and the top of the seat back serves to force my shoulders forwards in an extremely unpleasant manner. Furthermore, I had the added discomfort of balancing my heavy backpack on my lap, as there was no room overhead. Please enjoy this image, of a well-built, tall, broad-shouldered man, crammed into a space so small it would barely serve my seven-month old niece. With my knees up to my chin, my belongings weighing on my legs, the only thing missing – sadly, not missing – was an inconsiderate arsehole jamming me in.
See, he was there too, trying to occupy the exact location of my left-hand side. Had he forced me to sit any closer to the window I would have been outside. His sheer bulk allowed me arm room that a thalidomide baby would have found inadequate. Having fully engulfed his own seat and half of mine, he promptly dozed off, legs spread so wide that he must surely have testicles the size of watermelons. His right knee so firmly touched my left knee that it caused me to wonder if this was his fetish: pretend to be asleep and rub innocuous limbs against other commuters.
I was unable, try as I might, to take up less room. With severe cramp in my legs, I also experienced extreme muscle ache in my left arm, as I was forced to hold it in a painful, slightly elevated and unnatural position – whereas normally I would have rested it. It seemed inappropriate to balance my wrist on his bald head, the only other option which presented itself.
Squashed between the two armrests digging into my pelvis, causing untold pain in my lower back, I tried to alleviate the multitude of aches by sitting up straighter. Instead, my foot found itself atop a crushed drinks can left on the floor by some previous detainee of this Guantanamo Bus.
All of this was accompanied, naturally, by somebody – most likely the driver – blasting the most horrendous music, which offended my ears when it was Madonna, and compounded my new idea of Hell when the Christmas songs started.
Crusher awoke from his dozing, and fast discovered that he knew the people in the seat behind us. Friends Reunited lives. Suddenly I expected an appearance from Cilla Black, yelling “Surprise Surprise!” or, worse, Esther Rantzen giving them both a little gold heart like she used to do on – well, I think her reunion show was probably called Hearts Of Gold, and I refuse to demean myself by checking. It is bad enough that these things are still in my consciousness two decades after they last aired.
Thankfully – being grateful for small mercies – this conversational development quickly subsided, and I was permitted to hear Wham’s tinny radio rendition of “Last Christmas I gave you a shotgun and a single cartridge,” which I would actually have enjoyed listening to if those were the real lyrics.
It was around this point that I engaged with Crusher, offering to remove my leg with a saw if he could find me one. He declined, which was damned decent of him, but neither did it inspire him to close his legs any or encroach less on my breathing room. With his right elbow lodged hard against my left elbow, I accepted it was stalemate.
With that impasse reached, I can detail my endeavours to obtain any sort of information from Virgin Trains verified Twitter account. Previously quite helpful, you shut up shop fast.
Keep in mind, please, that the sole purpose of my trip was to see my favourite band play their first UK show in a year. They have a new album full of songs I have never heard live, with new band members added to the line-up, playing instruments I have never seen (or heard) them use the past twenty-eight times. My only concern, at this point, was if I would get there in time to see anything other than the encore.
What I most wanted to know was the anticipated journey time. My train had been due to arrive about 18:00, giving me plenty of time to find my hotel in the dark, wet night. I needed to freshen up – a term I have never used in my life prior to this very sentence – then change, before attempting to locate the venue. I was confident I could find my way around but, not being Challenge Anneka, a strict deadline was an unnecessary pressure. I can send you the screengrabs, but here is the gist of this further miscommunication:
“Can someone – perhaps @virgintrains – check how long it’ll take a coach from Glasgow Central to reach Preston?”
“It will be a coach between Preston and Lancaster then train onwards, Jordan”
I appreciate you tried the personal touch in that reply, the only minor problem being that the rest of it related in absolutely no way to my question or my predicament.
Would I make this gig? How long should road travel take? I would have checked a popular online search engine’s maps app, only I am fast running out of my data allowance and – not being a Virgin train – this bus has no wi-fi facilities. Understandably, due to the variables involved, you were wary of committing: “However, they will try and get you there asap”
When is ASAP – is it 19:00? 23:00? Tuesday? January? I wanted a ballpark figure, and “ASAP” was not good enough – especially not when I had explained that I was on a tight and specific schedule. Instead, my tweeted requests for a figure, or for a “rough idea” were completely ignored. Like I said, you are welcome to screengrabs of all this, I saved it all.
Meanwhile, let us return to Crusher. At 18:34 – a hundred-and-forty minutes in – he finally swivelled in his seat, moving his legs out into the aisle. The joy of moving and stretching my own leg – a sensation I had nearly forgotten in the interim – was tempered only by how cold it felt once he ceased behaving like a human blanket. We continued on.
Seven P.M. came and went, the venue doors now opened for entry while I stared into pitch black motorway and wondered where I was, other than Sartre’s vision of Hell. I did not yet mention the stifling stench of feet, farts, and body odour which permeated our transport, as did the excremental fumes from the on-board cesspit – and added to by the further olfactory assault of crisps and similarly odoriferous foods. Three hours had passed, and the reek of sandwiches and ass gas had become unbearable. I would have opened a window but, coaches being how they are, it would have required a hammer. Having earlier established that there was no saw in the immediate vicinity, the likelihood of finding a hammer nearby appeared slight.
At 19:11 – and you will sense that I jotted notes for this complaint as I went – Crusher rose and made his way to the toilet. It occurred to me that a slow trickle of piss could have worked its way down, backing up as it filled his groin to capacity, and that that may explain why his legs were forced apart at the tops of the thighs. The poor man must have inflated, his legs widening as an alternative to his merely exploding in a stagnant burst of yellow spray.
There was no real time to note improvement, on his return, as we arrived in Preston at 19:32 – a mere ninety-seven minutes late. I checked with the driver that his arrival time will be logged, should you wish to verify it. I could not get off that bus fast enough. I have never had a good experience going by coach, and if I wanted to book a coach I would have done so.
Naturally, arriving so far behind schedule left me no time to eat. I raced for the hotel as quickly as I was able, trying to walk off the cramp that had built up. By the time I reached the venue it was gone 20:30 and with it the chance to see support bands and savour the atmosphere coming together.
I did manage to see the full set that, as a longtime fan and friend of the band, had been so important to me. However, it was entirely down to luck and you did nothing to ease my frustrations or worries.
I am annoyed at the shambolic handling of the coach boarding in Glasgow, the absence of informed staff (and of staff, full stop, out by the buses), and the further hold up caused by people being directed incorrectly.
I am disappointed that your once-helpful Twitter staff refused, point blank, to even attempt to provide the information I specifically requested, despite being told the reasons for it. Furthermore, they did nothing short of ignore my queries.
I am worried that you will fail me again. I am due to travel to London on Sunday, and – being considerably further away – there is no way a replacement bus will get me there in anything resembling a timely manner.
This entire experience was wholly unsatisfactory and unpleasant. In addition to the full refund I expect on my tickets, I think you should be reimbursing me for the gig ticket, given I missed all but one (thankfully THE) band, and compensating me for the utter discomfort which I have tried to document fully above.
I await your response.
Here is their response. My reply to it is here.
Above: Their wholly uninspiring stock reply. Read my response to it (and them) here.
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.
I walk a lot, and think nothing of it. I would like to say that this is indicative of a healthy lifestyle, but it is just something that was instilled in my nature a long time ago.
I grew up in a residential area, an area not served by public transport. Due to its relative proximity to the town centre, a walk from my childhood home to the nearest bus stop was, in effect, a walk to where I would want a bus to take me. The two primary schools I attended were similarly located, and my secondary school was not much further away. I had a bicycle for going longer distances – my friend’s bit at the top of the town; the local parks – but I made a two-mile round trip to school every day, by foot and whatever the weather. As a teenager, if I wanted to go somewhere, I walked.
When I moved to Glasgow, my first flat was situated at Charing Cross. This busy city intersection, where several motorway junctions converge with Argyle Street, Sauchiehall Street, and Great Western Road, was not well-served by public transport either. From the front door of my close, the nearest bus stop was at least halfway in the direction of where I wanted to be. Given the congestion, and our notorious one-way streets, I found that I could easily cross the city quicker than the average bus. While a double-decker bound for my destination idled at yet another set of traffic lights, I would be cutting down side streets and darting across junctions, making good time despite the weight of an extra couple of quid in my pocket – coins unspent on a fare.
As I came to know the layout of my adoptive hometown, I realised that everything is near everything else – if not geographically then psychologically. Aided by the grid system of the city centre, I quickly discovered that there are a dozen different routes to a given place, and it is remarkably easy to work out in which direction you are heading. I love this city (and its people) and, as much as I despise living in the UK, I cannot envisage living anywhere else. Part of my loathing for shopping malls stems from this desire to roam freely – I resent being herded along a single, congested thoroughfare.
Now that I live four miles from the centre of Glasgow, I still regularly make my way home on foot. One of my friends sees this constant walking as me seeking solitude, creating a space where I allow my thoughts to breathe, and this observation is astute of him. The road I walk, literally and not figuratively, is largely straight. Despite the distance, this makes it seem closer than it is – closer still if I have the partial company of someone who lives on the route. It is this last stretch, once we have gone our separate ways, and often in the early hours of the morning, where my plans formulate. The stillness of the night is remarkable, in stark contrast to the noise of four lanes of jammed and stationary vehicles which will congregate there a few hours later.
Whether I walk to think, or think because I am walking, it is a useful way to sort the notions and ideas in my head. Many is the one-liner or wee story that has come from this quiet time, or from an encounter just prior to it. Scenarios suggest or present themselves, and I twist them until I find the perfect way to express them – as a sentence, as a set of jokes that build, or as an entry on this site.
Earlier this year, at the West End festival, we followed it into and out of Kelvingrove Park. The park has a number of entrances, leading onto at least four main roads, and as the crowd dispersed a disoriented chap next to me stopped to get his bearings. “Whit street’s this?” he asked, as I passed, before working out which direction he needed to go in.
This incident came to mind late last week, when I went for a wander along the canal that is beside my home. I knew there was a path from it to the Botanic Gardens, but had never successfully found it. Although starting aimlessly, I took a turn off the towpath as idle curiosity drove me to seek it out. Taking this unknown route, passing through avenues of trees and diverting past some high flats, before negotiating down to and following the river, it would be easy to lose track of your position. I did not fear becoming lost, confident that I could always retrace my steps, but I imagined an exchange with the adroit wit of a typical, though non-existent, Glaswegian. We meet as we are walking in opposite directions along the canal, with me trying to find my way to this park.
“If I keep walking in this direction, where will I get to?”
if i was still doing stand-up comedy, I might have used this or transformed it into something else. Instead, it went unwritten. At the weekend, I came to relate all of this in conversation – an acquaintance asking:
“Which canal, the Forth and Clyde Canal?”
“Then it would take you to the Forth, or to the Clyde.”
“Oh yeah. It was well-named.”
You would still get to the coast, you would just come to a tidal river first.
Had I turned this into a tall story, I would now have a second or possibly even third laughter point in it. I yet might. I did, however, chance upon the correct turn-off – my walk along the waterway cleared my head, gave me a new joke, and the idea for this blog, and enhanced my knowledge of the local area. Compare that to the constant stop-start of smelly buses, noisily polluted by modern technology, arguing neds, crying children, and accompanied by the sounds of unnecessary air conditioning and a loudly-throbbing engine.
Buses can go fuck themselves. There is a more serene and scenic way to travel – foot.
It is fortunate that the UK does not have the same legislation as the US when it comes to the “crime” of jaywalking.
In Glasgow especially, traffic lights are provided more as a decoration, or as a suggestion, rather than as a mandatory crossing point. Crowds of people will cross the main city centre roads, regardless of traffic volume or colour of light. It is made very easy to position yourself in such a way that you have people to either side of you.
This is a useful tactic, independently recognised and adopted by some of my friends, that ensures if a car does plough into the swathe of pedestrians at least someone else will take the brunt of the impact.
Although I still have, somewhere, in some forgotten box, the badge signifying my membership of The Tufty Club, it seems this was not covered in the road safety advice doled out to schoolchildren in the early eighties:
It is such a common occurrence, and sight, to see people crossing using their own judgement that if it were to be made illegal they would be as well to just wall Glasgow in – given the size of a prison that would be required.
Any time I am with friends who shy away from crossing at undesignated points, or with traffic approaching, I tell them “they’re not allowed to knock you down.” This stems from something I was told once.
I was at a crossroads in the north of the city – where Cambridge Street meets Renfrew Street – and was, using my judgement and then-firm knowledge of the sequence of light changes (I studied in the area), awaiting the green man.
Over the street, a jakey (a young local with a taste for tracksuits and – gauging from his demeanour – tonic wine, cheap cider, and narcotics) began crossing towards me.
A bus turned the corner, narrowly missing him as he refused to let it impede his progress. As it passed he looked at me and confidently told me, with a swagger and in that infamous nasal whine adopted by those of his ilk, “They’re no’ allowed tae knock ye doon, mate. They’re no’ allowed tae knock ye doon.”
I admired his faith. I wouldn’t trust Glasgow’s bus drivers to not knock me down.
As one of my friends later said, when I related the story, in his head the law beats physics.
That was at least six years ago now. To this day, if anyone questions my judgement in darting across streets or in walking halfway across roads and waiting for further traffic to pass before completing my journey, and it has happened twice in the past fortnight, I tell them the same thing: they’re no’ allowed tae knock ye doon.
Strange how a chance encounter can leave such an impression.
I was at a launch party for the new Nachtmahr album last night. I’m not the biggest fan of them, and they are not a band that I particularly go out of my way to listen to. However, I do like some of their songs, having listened to the album Feuer Frei while typing this, and have seen them play live twice – once in Glasgow, and once at the Summer Darkness festival in Utrecht.
While it is only the music that interests me, they rely heavily on (and have been criticised for using) pseudo-Nazi imagery, which frontman Thomas Rainer protests does not reflect his political stance. He also surrounds himself with pretty young women, sometimes dressed very smartly and sometimes barely dressed at all.
The picture below is representative of their album artwork. I cannot find an uncensored version of the flyer I was handed last night, and regret that I deleted the photo that I took of it. This will have to serve to give you an idea.
I was reminded about seeing them this year, when they appeared on stage right before Combichrist.
Thomas said during his set “You’re probably wondering why I have four sexy girls on stage with me. Because I can.”
During Combi’s set, their frontman Andy LaPlegua said, with a cheeky grin, “You’re probably wondering why all these sexy men are on stage. Because we’re a real fucking band and we play live.”
His mischievous sense of humour and fun is one of the many reasons that Combichrist are my favourite band.
Later that evening, we joined the Nachtmahr aftershow party, which was in a hotel room almost directly under ours. I asked Thomas if he had heard what Andy said. The answer was no, and I later heard that he wasn’t entirely happy to learn. Unlike most of us, who found it funny.
And here are Combichrist, an hour later. Singer, Guitarist, Drummer, two Synth players who also have five- or six-piece drumkits for additional percussion duties, plus Tim Van Horn from Aesthetic Perfection on drums, and two drum technicians onstage to pick up all the gear that gets thrown around mid-set. Busy, relentless, energetic, and messy:
On the plus side, I did come home last night with one of the two Nachtmahr t-shirts that were being given away to promote the new album which I haven’t yet heard. It is called Veni Vidi Vici, and I feel – given the treasure I acquired – that phrase aptly sums up my evening… 🙂