Another ten things that happened to me on the way to age 45, following on from the first lot…
11. I found Turgaud
2014… He wasn’t actually missing, but I found him anyway. Turgaud (or Turgot) is the story I’m not good enough to write yet, and it’s based on the life of a Saxon noble who found a unique way of surviving the Norman conquest. I began working on the story in 1996 and I remain not good enough to tell it, although I’m getting better all the time. A few years ago my wife and I were made very welcome at Durham Cathedral, on the day a new bishop was being enthroned (which had its own drama). After exploring the oldest, oldest parts of the building, our lovely tour guide took us to the vestry, where, we established, Turgaud’s tomb was somewhere under a carpet. We were given permission to lift the carpet. Just as we did, our tour guide’s ring slipped off her finger and rolled away. My wife went to help her retrieve it, and so it came to be that I was alone when I saw the broken words “Turgot Episcopus” carved into the stone floor. I’d known this forgotten guy for 20 years, he’d been dead since 1115, and there he was, maybe a foot or two below me, and it was just him and me in the world. “Hello, mate,” I said quietly. What else could I have said?
12. I didn’t become a priest
I often joke that, as a good Catholic boy, I was given all the options in the world – I could be a priest OR a teacher. I did indeed test my vocation, and for several years in my youth it seemed clear that I would indeed become a priest. I went all the way to Blairs College in Aberdeenshire, and very quickly realised it was just another school with bullying, cheating, fighting and misbehaving; that there was no one very special there, and that wherever I was going in life, there needed to be special, unique people to inspire me. I’m proud I tried, and proud I made the correct choice, to be neither priest or teacher, but something similar – a storyteller, with the important role of inspiring and engaging people, in the hope they’ll find ways to become better versions of themselves. I have a handful of close friends who also tested their vocations, and decided not to become priests, and I’ve found their insights into life, and ways of dealing with problems, to be slightly different from the way other friends do things; and I’ve found their reasons for behaving the way they do to be thought-provoking and inspirational.
13. The joy of Mr Mallon
My parents are teachers, my ex-wife is a teacher, two of my grandparents were teachers. They’re a unique breed of people, and if you get one who really impacts your life, the experience never leaves you. So it was with Mr Mallon, teacher of English, who steered my future wife and I through Sixth Year Studies English and imbued a completely different passion of literature than anything I’d felt before. Of course, it was his personality that was the inspiration. He used to stand outside his class as we all trooped to whichever room we had to be in next, spouting little facets of knowledge to those and such as those. I always tried to reply when he blessed me with a comment. Future wife, who he referred to as “The fragrant Miss S,” quite often dogged class, meaning that, instead of any formula lesson, Mr Mallon and I just talked about books, the world, and indeed, the fragrant Miss S. I suppose the whole experience added up to a few hundred hours, and I couldn’t tell you how we filled them. But I can remember the pleasure of being in the company of someone I respected, and feeling that I was respected in turn. The confidence that brings a young mind is powerful and long-lasting.
14. I began MacLife young
In 1984, having missed the final, seriously last, we mean it this time, we’ll sue you, deadline for his book So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, Douglas Adams offered to typeset the manuscript after having written it. There were two reasons… the official one was to meet the print deadline by mashing the writing and production deadlines together, thus avoiding legal action; the second was that he was a bloody control freak, and having mastery of what went on the printing press gave him even more personal power. I appreciated both aspects – and indeed, when the time came for me to sign my own publishing deals, I negotiated for the production work too, for his two reasons. The computer that made it all possible was the Apple Macintosh. Adams is thought to have been the first Mac owner in the UK, unless Stephen Fry was. I met the little beige box at school in 1988, when I became editor of the school magazine, and it changed my outlook on the process of writing. I’d had typewriters and word processors, but the Mac was so much more; I can equate it to a musical instrument as opposed to a work tool. It made me WANT to work, such was the style and class of how it did what it did – and that’s the difference. These days Apple computers are certainly overpriced, probably underpowered and definitely overhyped, but I still use them. The best way to thank my parents and grandparents for teaching me to read and write is to keep reading and writing, and the best way to thank Apple for teaching me the skills that led to a career in media production is to keep using their creations. So, yes, I am an “Apple fanboy”… but not for the usual reasons. Mine are personal.
15. Prog kicked my ass
I’m not your average music journalist, in that I’m far less interested in music than I am in the people who make it. After years and years of working in “the bizz,” the act of attending a show or listening to an album became part of the job, and not as much fun as it used to be. By around 2012 I was seriously jaded, although I was enjoying my role as online news editor for Classic Rock Magazine. A few months later I started the same gig for Metal Hammer, then also Prog Magazine – and the Prog experience was what saved my interest in music. You can dismiss the prog world if you like (watch me care) but what I found, as a relative newbie, was a healthy community of creatives, genuinely trying to help each other achieve musically, for the sake of the art itself. They know they’re not cool and unlikely to make loads of money, so what’s left is a raw pursuit of creative satisfaction. And regardless of whether it’s music, literature, theatre or any other form of expression, that focus on the art itself is what makes it worth doing. Stripped of any pretence (except the comical kind) the prog world refreshes itself, and welcomes everything; and I have to say that the efforts of Prog Magazine in become the focal point of the community are not only impressive, they’re valuable and valued. Everyone goes through periods of being disillusioned (or more accurately, being sick of having to accept an illusion)… prog came along just when I needed it, and remains a place I enjoy visiting. (You’ll note I haven’t spoken about the music, or namechecked any artists. That’s entirely deliberate, because it’s not what I’m talking about.)
16. I became haunted by Alex Harvey
1997… A mutual friend introduced me to Ted McKenna, who was looking for someone to write the official biography of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. It was a cold night in Cumbernauld, but it had got colder while we spoke in a pub, even though the conversation was warm. Instead of a nice smooth departure, Ted had to de-ice his car then fight to make it start, all while parked just outside the window of where we’d been sitting. So our polite waves every time we caught each others’ eye became funny as they continued, and then silly, and then embarrassing – and it’s funny to this day. Alex Harvey died when I was 10 years old, but he’s been a huge part of my life since that night. The book was finally published in 2004 (it’s in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Permanent Collection, hem-hem) and I managed the band for a couple of years. For a long time I misunderstood the responsibility of being one of several guardians of his legacy, and, unfortunately, offended a lot of people in the process. But I know, having thought about it, that someone like Alex would have admired my determination to do my best, even when I didn’t know what my best was, or indeed what we were doing! (Only five years to go before the debts are paid off…)
17. I took a picture that mirrored my intention
1999… It was a bitterly cold day on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, but I didn’t care because it was my first visit and I was loving the place. (I’ve only ever had the chance to see two places in the snow before seeing them without – Lindisfarne and Kilmartin Glen – and both remain winter in my mind, and I love it.) I was more into photography at that time than at any other time in my life, and I was experimenting away. The shot I saw in my mind’s eye was over-exposed, with the staffs that mark the route of St Cuthbert’s Way vanishing into the distance, where sand and mist made everything peculiarly milky, even though there was clear sky above. This is the first time I shot exactly what I saw in my head, and remains one of my favourite images. Something about walking towards the light, something about planning a route through even the vaguest of landscapes, something about… och, whatever. I like it, and I’m the only person who has to.
18. Robert Fripp – My part in his upfall
2013… It is the lot of a storyteller to find himself, on most occasions, to the side of the action and taking no part, in order to record and reflect on the events around him. Sometimes that can make you feel as if you’ve achieved nothing in your life, but only hung off the achievements of others. When I got the opportunity to interview Robert Fripp, who’d split King Crimson and retired at the time, that was a bit of an achievement in itself. When the interview, published by Classic Rock Magazine, it went some way to resolving the issues between Fripp and certain music industry executives. I have an email from him, inviting me to one of the revamped King Crimson’s shows, and saying “without your support at a critical time, neither of us is likely to be headed to this gig!” Making a difference – you can’t beat that for a feeling.
19. A trailer full of water barrels got the better of me
1986… Our Scout troop went on a camping trip to Rowardennan, on the shores of Loch Lomond, and I don’t think an hour passed without something outlandish happening. It inspired me to my first attempt at writing a book, which I’d love to still possess, but I lent it to an early girlfriend to try and impress her (such geek!) and I never got it back, or the girlfriend (such geek fail!). If I’m asked to recall one moment, it was the moment when, with the chief Scout absent in his car, we took his trailer, filled it with our empty water barrels, and wheeled it along a dirt track to the public water tap. Four massive barrels were easy to manipulate when empty – when full, it was another story. I don’t think we moved more than eight feet before the front of the trailer dipped, the back lifted, and at least five of the eight of us were thrown in the direction of everywhere. Meanwhile the Scout leader who accompanied us helpfully howled with laughter to the point of agony. What made it worse was that we had to navigate the trailer past a Boys Brigade unit, who joined in the agonised laughter. “It’s character-building,” we were advised. By the end of that trip I had more character than I’ll ever know what to do with.
20. The first ghost I ever saw
2002… I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, the kind that miraculously appear and disappear, wearing supernatural blankets. But I’ve seen a few. The first was in a luxury lodge on the Portnellan estate at Crianlarich. That part of the estate had always had a bit of a weird vibe, I’d felt, although I had no problems with staying in the lodge. I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, and I woke to the sure certainty that a woman was leaning over from behind the sofa, staring intently at me. The entire experience was in negative vision – light was dark, dark was light – and I can describe her to this day. I knew she was just checking to see I was okay, and, having established that, she was gone. The following day, as I left the lodge to go home, I looked back to see her moving away from the building in the opposite direction, as if she’d finished her shift of watching over me. It seems that, a few weeks later, someone else encountered a similar experience there, and did something about it, and the weird vibe dissipated, and nothing untoward was ever seen or felt there again.