Category Archives: COLUMNS

A mix of daft and hopefully poignant pieces from my tenure in a box on the letters pages of The Herald on Saturdays

Now I understand where Travis Bickle was coming from

“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Those weren’t quite the words that sprang to mind last Tuesday evening as I ferried my nephew and nieces hither and thither – to dancing, to Guides, back to dancing, then home – but the thoughts of Travis Bickle burbled faintly in the background. Existing solely to transport other humans through the rain and darkness can do queer things to a man.

Before I go any further, it should be noted that none of my sister’s offspring is a nocturnal creature of the kind Robert de Niro’s disturbed Vietnam vet-turned-cab driver looks down upon from the driver’s seat of his yellow Checker A11. They are variously a doctor in waiting, a little cherub with the world at her stockinged feet, an aspiring danseur and the future head of production at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Now that’s been cleared up, back to being a dutiful uncle. Having reached my fifth decade without once feeling the need to add to the seething mass of humankind suckling on the wizened teat of Planet Earth, I’ve been mostly spared the humdrum aspects of rearing children.

Not for me the all-night mewling of an infant; instead, a couple of minutes of oohing and aahing at the vision of swaddled innocence during a brief head-wetting – nothing to lose sleep over. Not for me the relentless bickering of ungrateful teenagers; in its place, happiness at hearing news of success academic or otherwise. And, crucially, not for me the demotion of self to a state of mere functionality – until now.

But rather than wallow in my relegation from commander-in-chief of my own life to supply taxi driver to Lila, Adam, Emma and Mia, I zealously embraced my new role.

The Killing Joke Peel Sessions CD was ejected and replaced by the cream of soft rock and yuppie soul courtesy of Smooth Radio. A “whoops!” sausage roll was bought for a mere 19p during a brief supermarket sweep for beer and nuts in between jaunts. And I nearly knocked a cyclist over (in my defence it was dark and wet and he didn’t have lights, proceeding recklessly through a red light on to a busy Pollokshaws Road, thereafter presumably causing further near-misses).

Shoddy tunes, an appetite for bad food and a death wish for other road users: Travis Bickle or private hire driver – you decide.

The thing is, I have to do it all over again next week, meaning this was just a (wet) dry run. Watch out, scum.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

On epitaphs, tendons and diet

“Your hamstrings aren’t horrific.” With those four words my fears are allayed. I can picture that on my tombstone, I tell Pamela, the physiotherapist. “Here lies Sean Guthrie, 1971-xxxx. His hamstrings weren’t horrific.” To be fair, she laughs, doubtless in sympathy at the stiff wreck of a specimen sitting in nought but shorts and burgundy Argyle check socks before her. I’ve always found absurdism a balm in times of trouble, and few appointments fill me with grave concern quite as much as an 8.30am slot with the physio, a time of day when my body is as flexible as a frozen oak.

Fifty minutes later, a printout of exercises in my mitt, I’m promising Pamela she won’t recognise me when we meet in a fortnight (9.15am, mercifully). “I’ll be bending like a willow,” I josh. “I might even dig out my pogo stick for the journey.” She smiles and ushers me out. Should I have said space hopper?

I walk to my car, drawing my navel into my spine and swearing to myself that these flexions and extensions will, nay must be done twice a day, otherwise my hamstrings will be … Well, you can probably guess. The golf season is on the horizon and I’m damned if I’m going to miss out because of back trouble and related not-quite-horrific tendons in my legs.

I’ve been addressing my diet, too. Having chucked the tobacco, it seems foolish not to. Her nibs keeps me nourished on homemade meals packed with salmon, mackerel and sardines; rice, lentils and couscous; olives, fennel and egg; mint, parsley and thyme; almonds, walnuts, raisins. You’d automatically assume I’d be in good shape, wouldn’t you? All I’ll say is I’m getting there.

There’s still some psychological tweaking to be done. After that breakfast-busting 8.30am appointment with Pamela I was thinking: bacon rolls. Two of them. But I resisted, plumping instead for granola with berries and yogurt. Granted, a sausage roll formed part of the subsequent lunch but you can’t deny yourself all the time.

Is this a health kick? Whatever, it’s as close as I’ve knowingly been to one. Golf isn’t the sole purpose; I’m entering a period of unquantifiable flux with the (hoped for) sale of my flat and purchase of a bigger, better home. This means not only keeping on top of solicitors, mortgage advisers and tradesmen fixing or checking on this, that and the other, but also jumping through countless administrative hoops too tedious even to mention here. And to carry out such tasks effectively you have to be fighting fit, which, it should be obvious if you’ve read this far, I am not.

It could be worse, though. My hamstrings could be horrific.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Golf fashion? Don’t make me laugh

If there were consistently funnier TV comedy moments in the 1970s and 80s than when Messrs Barker and Corbett read spoof news stories at the beginning and end of The Two Ronnies then I wasn’t privy to them.

Even now, the following – impeccably delivered by Ronnie Barker – makes me howl with laughter: “The perfect crime was committed last night, when thieves broke into Scotland Yard and stole all the toilets. Police say they have absolutely nothing to go on.”

Or how about this from his diminutive partner: “After a series of crimes in the Glasgow area, Chief Inspector McTavish has announced he’s looking for a man with one eye. If he doesn’t find him, he’s going to use both eyes.”

I’ll be the first to admit my comedy writing skills are non-existent, and due to my lacking a phone number for Corbett and Barker lacking a beating heart I’ll never know how they might have conjured belly-wobbling mirth from the news last week that thieves have stolen £26,000 of golf clothing from a shop in Linlithgow. It’s crying out for a punchline, isn’t it?

Given the woeful nick of golf fashion, if you can even call it that, you can only imagine the horrors being offered to drinkers in West Lothian pubs this weekend in exchange for hard cash.

Granita pink slim-fit slacks, sir? Yours for 20 sheets. No, I don’t have them in a 44in waist. Or can I interest sir in a floral-print shirt, new for spring-summer 2015? This natty little number’s £95 in the shops but sir may have it for a tenner. It’ll make sir quite the draw with the lady members. I’ll even throw in a matching cap – sir might need it to swat away the bumblebees.

My own approach to golf apparel is conservative. Trousers, shirts and sweaters should be unpatterned and a sober colour – grey is good; blue is better. Shoes should be plain white or black, sans the dreaded tassels, and should not resemble trainers or football boots.

With shorts, meanwhile, you can get away with a fine check but never, ever flowers. The latter would get you suspended sine die, and that won’t wash with your matchplay partner after he’s carried your inept ass to the semi-finals of the Macdonald Fraser Jubilee Quaich, repeatedly fibbing to his line manager about ongoing dental work to ensure a succession of early cuts and allow for tackling the pile-up of early-season fixtures that are the curse of the eager club golfer.

That said, Ronnie Corbett has form in the sartorial-crimes-on-a-golf-course department, and he makes me laugh like a drain. Maybe I should loosen up and embrace my inner golf twonk. Anyone fancy a pint in Linlithgow?

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Steve Strange and the power of the scowl


Steve Strange on the cover of Smash Hits
The late Steve Strange on the cover of Smash Hits, 1981.

My father and I are on pretty good terms these days. Not that we’ve ever fallen out, though there may have been one or two irruptions in our relationship that it would be imprudent to detail here. However, I doubt he was impressed with his youngest child when, at the age of nine or 10, my romance with the printed page bloomed through my addiction to Smash Hits.

Within a decade – after a fling with Jackpot followed by a mercifully brief flirtation with Golf World – the unapologetically pretentious Melody Maker and less verbose NME would usurp the place Smash Hits held in my affections and steadfastly remain there, barely a word going unread for the best part 10 years. Little wonder I ended up in this job.

I vividly remember taking the copy of Smash Hits pictured above on my first overseas holiday to Brittany, back in 1981. A boy needed something to read in English in a far-off, alien land, after all. And now, with the passing on Thursday of Visage frontman and all-round New Romantic ringmaster Steve Strange, I can’t help but feel one of the candles of my youth has been extinguished, never to be lit again.

Strange was 55 years old when a heart attack jolted the stylus out of his groove for the final time, which means he was a mere stripling of 21 when his sonsie face peered out from under a fedora at my impressionable peepers. It was a classic Smash Hits cover – conceptual (Strange was the star of a film called Smash Hits – certificate A, the 1980s equivalent of today’s 12A – with a supporting cast of Bad Manners, Kate Bush and Third World and guest stars including Kim Wilde and David Bowie), direct (the cover stars always looked you in the eye) and simple.

The music was almost a sideshow. Sure, I loved Fade to Grey – who didn’t? – but pop, to my unformed mind, was about colour, mystery, fun and the power of the scowl. Gary Numan was my first pop man crush, but Steve Strange came a close second for a while until Frankie Goes to Hollywood came on to the scene surfing a wave of S&M, unspeakable piercings and odes to orgasm.

It’s a wonder I didn’t turn out gay. Which is probably a comfort to my privately-educated, resolutely old-school father, who, while I was spending my pre-teen years in thrall to a series of gay or asexual male pop stars, was no doubt hoping I’d be the next Andy Irvine.

So while he’ll be watching Scotland take on Wales tomorrow, I might take a walk down memory lane to the soundtrack of Visage, Ultravox and Soft Cell. No offence, Dad.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Why paying for music matters

Hard as it may be to visualise the scene, the other day a senior Herald executive who shall remain nameless stopped me on my way out of the office to show me Spotify on his iPhone.

I know – a man with ink in his veins singing the praises of music streaming on a smartphone. My legs buckled and I collapsed, though that may have had more to do with the half-litre of single malt whisky I’d scoffed for lunch.

Upon regaining my senses, I remonstrated with my colleague, deploying the unequivocal lingo of a stevedore to inform him that I take a dim view of Spotify and similar services, especially when they’re bundled into a phone contract. The way I see it, the music makers get a mere nibble of the money generated while Spotify and the provider of the mobile phone contract feast on the financial equivalent of larks’ tongues, cockentrice and caviar.

Speaking from the perspective of someone with many friends who at one point earned enough to call rocking out a job, besides a few who still make music for a living, the rise of streaming and concomitant decline in sales of physical product have changed how we value music for ever. The dinosaurs had their meteor; musicians, or at least those operating in fields that can be found far, far down the rock family tree, have, by way of the internet, Spotify.

Uncountable are the occasions in the course of my work and life where a musician has bemoaned the lack of reward for their endeavours. Not angrily, but with resignation. A rubicon has been crossed.

But if, like me, you still think an album – often but not exclusively the sum total of years spent following and honing creative impulses, endless outlay on equipment and the attached upkeep, and the costs of recording, manufacturing and distribution – is worth your hard-won cash, I urge you to use services such as Spotify prudently and focus on ensuring your dough takes the most direct route possible to the creators of said album.

By using Spotify prudently I mean viewing it as a shop window or a listening post (remember them?). Give Glasgow acoustic ensemble Sound of Yell a spin; dedicate a few minutes to the lucid guitar work of Sir Richard Bishop; investigate the ambient splendour of Anjou. Then, if you’re so minded, buy a digital download, a CD, a vinyl record – anything, really, because anything is better than nothing. For a world bereft of investment in its greatest art form will be a world not worth living in.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

How I quit smoking: take two

Many of the finer things in life begin with a T – Talisker, for example. Trans Am, one of my favourite bands. Tiramisu. On the other hand, the letter kicks off two of the most pernicious elements of modern life, or mine at least: tobacco and Twitter. As of today, however, I am putting an end to both.

My first column in these pages detailed my success in quitting smoking after two decades of dependency on hand-rolled tabs. I’d removed my 70th and final nicotine patch at the end of a rigorous withdrawal programme and was understandably buoyant about changing my lifestyle, a modification advised by my GP and embraced with gusto.

My newfound liberty was not to last, however. The Christmas before last I found unexpectedly difficult to cope with, and I bent like a willow. A pouch of baccy was bought. And smoked. I didn’t buy any more for a while but would cadge off friends, “treating” myself now and then. The cigarettes tasted foul but boy were they a comfort.

One thing led inexorably to another and after a few months I was back to normal, looping just about every daily deed round the hook of nicotine, back in the sweaty, phlegm-flecked grip of addiction.

Months passed. After much effort on my part, the wheezing returned. My sense of smell vanished. But a nagging thought wouldn’t go away. “Stop this, dude,” counselled Numbskull No1, at first in a whisper, then louder and louder until very recently, when I could hear him bellowing above the deafening volume of my chronic morning cough.

So today I start again on the patches. Because life is short, and frequently extraordinary. I want to feel its every pulse with no obstacles to the experience.

Tweets are short too, but rarely extraordinary in any respect other than their glibness and inanity, so as of this morning I am abandoning Twitter as well as smoking. “You’re following the wrong accounts,” I’ve been told. No I’m not. I’m following the right ones, but I can’t hear them. The internet, so my web buddha Colin tells me, is “a moving wall of s***”. And I’ve grown tired of spraying my opinions on it via Twitter.

I’m starting my own website instead., in case you’re wondering. So I can still spout and froth about whatever takes my fancy without the pressure to summarise my thoughts in 140 characters before hoying it into the ever-churning washback of thought-poop that is Twitter.

Another word that begins with a T? Ta-ra. To tabs and tweets.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Signal failure

As I piloted her nibs’ tatty VW north after five days and nights in London, through increasingly hostile conditions culminating in 60mph crosswinds that buffeted the car hither and thither throughout the length of the branch-strewn M74, little did I know worse lay ahead.

After the best part of a week in the capital I thought I’d seen the lot – chicken batter with a salt content of 98 per cent; an epidemic of compulsive jogging among the under-6os; rats the size of, well, rats – but yank down my breeks and call me Farquhar Colquhoun if I wasn’t wrong.

It wasn’t the debris cluttering the street outside the flat that beggared belief. Nor was it the sea of cat litter and fur blanketing the floor. Not even the gangrenous month-old tangerine mustering at the bottom of the cage of doom formerly known as the fruit bowl. No: the TV was dead. As in: no signal. The aerial, I deduced with all the smarts of a cross between Mike Hammer and Stephen Hawking, had fallen victim to the wind.

On the first evening back it wasn’t an issue – we’d recorded Location, Location, Location and were fair scunnered after the drive. That night, I dreamed of Phil and Kirstie, and awoke thoroughly bamboozled by my nocturnal imaginings.

The next evening, I donned my finest alpine apparel and fought my way across snow-struck Glasgow with a case full of poker chips in one hand and a bag of beer in the other for an irregular gathering of amateur gamblers. No TV required.

Come Saturday, though, and all hell almost broke loose. Two episodes of series five of the engrossingly gritty French cop drama Spiral and Match of the Day played out in living rooms up and down the land, but not in mine. BBC iPlayer informed me all too vaguely that MOTD would be available “soon”. Soon? Next time they come calling, I’ll tell the TV licensing people I’ll cough up my licence fee soon and report back with their response.

There was nothing else for it but class-A drugs, deception and murder. Another typical night in Whiteinch, I hear you quip, except the action took place in Albuquerque and the protagonist was Walter White. That’s right: about a year after everyone else we got round to watching the concluding episodes of the peerless Breaking Bad. Better late than never.

The TV’s back up and running. As usual, I barely watch it. As my late mum used to say when there was no sense to be found, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” And no, she never got an answer either.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

To the island I sing

Lately my thoughts have drifted to an island I’ve neglected somewhat: Arran. Over the past decade or so I’ve tended to migrate north and west when the compulsion to surround myself with sea grips me, a seed that was itself sown and nurtured on Arran. The Inner and Outer Hebrides have supplanted the land where the summers of my youth played out, and while I’m not complaining, I do feel I need to show the old girl a little love.

My longing for Arran has been burgeoning steadily since we made a family foray to the Black Rocks of Whiting Bay to scatter Mum’s ashes. There was me, Dad (at 77 less robust than when he and Mum would cart us down the Ayrshire coast and across to the island for Easter, summer and October holidays), Aunt Judith, my sisters, my brother, various nippers and Katherine, all putting our grief to the side to celebrate Mum’s life at a place she’d loved since she was a girl. The lichen-licked rocks, in full view of the hillside cottage where she and later we roamed free, took the last pieces of her to their bosom and the wind blew our tears dry.

My sisters and brother have been back since, renting a cottage just down the road from ours (the family sold it about 10 years ago) and taking in Arran’s charms through older eyes and ears, though I couldn’t make the trip. My loss.

And that is what it is: a loss. In many ways, Arran made me, and I have failed to repay it. Without being repeatedly abandoned at Whiting Bay golf club (par 63) with a pencil bag and some pocket money on long summer days, I doubt I’d have taken to golf – and orange Aeros – with quite so much gusto.

Without the lofty demands of Uncle Robin, the alternately bellicose and benign foreman of many a cottage-fettling mission before the annual letting season, I wouldn’t have such reserves of stamina for mind-numbing yet essential maintenance tasks such as mowing endless lawns, weeding beds, hacking back marauding ferns and applying coat after coat of whitewash. Oh, how sweet was the tin of McEwan’s Export that was your reward.

Hiking, cycling, climbing trees – Arran was our playground, and one where only the bell of darkness could cut short our adventures.

Then last week I was caught in my tracks while reading The Walk in today’s Herald Magazine. It’s a ramble I recall fondly, round the south end in Blackwaterfoot, across Shiskine golf course and up the coast to the King’s Cave where Robert the Bruce learned a salutary lesson about the value of perseverance from a determined spider. And it made me think: Arran, you and I are long overdue a reunion, and not a fleeting one. It’s time to rekindle the fire of our love.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

New Year blues

Plenty among you will be dreading Monday morning, when the past fortnight evaporates and dissolves, leaving in its wake an inch or three around the waist and a newfound vulnerability to dyspepsia. Returning to work will hold as much appeal as locking yourself in a room with Sydney Devine’s 50 Country Winners on an endless loop, and your colleagues will regard you with the same thinly-veiled resentment as you do them. “Is this it?” you will all think. But not aloud. That would be too brave.

Do I feel a jot of sympathy for you? The hell I do. Not for the newspaper journalist the luxury of two weeks off at Christmas and New Year, spending time with loved ones and getting the odd lie-in. Granted, NHS staff forgo the same family time, in many cases with less to show for it and at greater personal risk, but at least they get a final salary pension.

Yes: over the past two to three weeks this newspaper and its growing litter of sister titles has been staffed by dedicated professionals who jeopardise their marriages and their health in order to soldier in to the office and keep you, the reader, reading.

I say health – this being midwinter, the Herald office is gripped by a throbbing orgy of bugs. So consistent and violent are the eruptions of coughing, sneezing and sniffing it’s like half-price-for-pensioners day at the World Snooker Championship. Never mind a 147 – I can barely see the cue ball through the gunk fouling my eyes.

On top of all this, there is – whisper it – not much happening, which somewhat hobbles people whose job it is to report and contextualise what is, er, happening. And while some areas of employment allow you to fill such dead time by tidying your desk, trolling ex-partners on Facebook or flirting with Helga from Reception at the Clix machine until you’re assigned a task, in our line of work there is always – always – space to fill.

Ergo some of the less than earth-shattering news items in the press and on broadcast news: nobody died during an earthquake in Iran; the Advertising Standards Authority is miffed with the Honey Monster; repeat sexter and so-called comedian Jason Manford reckons David Cameron has botched the NHS.

So why do we do it? I suppose, as many in other lines of work doubtless feel, we don’t think we’re fit for anything else. (Though thanks to Son of Lurgy I’m not fit for much more than the knacker’s yard right now.) And if that means working while Alistair and Joyce take Tarquin and Lily off to Val d’Isere for a week on the slopes over New Year then so be it. Come Monday morning, we’ll be the ones free of post-festive dread, though a spare tyre and dyspepsia are hazards if the job, if truth be told.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

The highs and lows of 2014

So, did you achieve that long-pursued goal? Snare a new lover? Write an invigorating new chapter in your life? For me, the highlight of 2014 was getting through 12 months without having to don my increasingly ill-fitting black suit to attend a family funeral. I’m probably not alone.

A second Christmas without Mum came and went without quite the depth of grief that frequently struck me at the same time in 2013. I’ve had my moments, where life itself has suddenly lacked structure and all sense, where the knowledge she is manifest in my every breath has never seemed so distant, but mercifully these have been fleeting. The loss of my big, strong cousin Clark last November at the age of 41 reared its head more than once too: paramedics live for ever, right? Wrong.

No argument, this is a tough time of year for many. Call it a lack of vitamin D. Call it SAD. Call it whatever – the unrelenting dark, cold and wet make for a grim few months in northern Europe (on the upside, in early autumn the population receives an almighty jolt).

Strange, that it is the absence of others, of what were once constants, that makes you grateful for the very fact you are alive and able to derive joy from whatever takes your fancy.

For me, the most significant achievement of 2014 was finally “getting” whisky. Until that point it had been little more than a recurring fad. Just two weeks ago four friends and I gathered to, um, savour five exemplary single malts paid for by the simple means of squirrelling away a tenner a month each over the course of the year.

For the benefit of the connoisseurs among you, these included a 19-year-old 1995 GlenDronach finished in oloroso casks; a Springbank 18-year-old; and a sublime Adelphi bottling of a 24-year-old Linkwood. It all got a bit hairy towards the end of the night, as it damn well should, but the whiskies we took home will warm the cockles for a while yet. We’ve also invested in a cask of the first pour from the infant Harris distillery, so it’s the long haul for us. I’m sure Mum would approve – “easier on your back than golf”, she’d say. Amen.

It’s also been a year or thereabouts now since I began this column, so I’d like to raise a dram to yourselves and offer my sincere gratitude for sticking with me. I hope I’ve avoided repeating myself. I hope I’ve avoided repeating myself. Come the bells, I’ll remember loved ones who’ve passed, those still among us, and wish for a stellar year to come. Chin chin.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.