Recently it was announced that the actor Peter Sallis had died at the age of 96. He played Norman Clegg on the long-running pish Sunday night ‘comedy’ Last of the Summer Wine, but to many of us he is better known as the voice of Wallace, the inventor and cheese fanatic from Wallace and Gromit. For those poor souls who have never encountered Wallace and Gromit before, and you truly haven’t lived, Wallace and Gromit is a series of animations involving a madcap inventor and his dug who is much, much smarter than him, produced in clay by Aardman Animations and created by Nick Park. It is meant for children, really, but since I grew up with it, I suppose I can justify keeping an interest. I identify more with Gromit than Wallace, since he is silent and a rolled eye can say so, so much, but there are so many great Wallace lines. One of them appears on the mug I drink out of and it pretty much sums up my outlook on life, taken from A Grand Day Out, when they go to the moon on a Bank Holiday to look for cheese:
‘It’s like no cheese I’ve ever tasted’.
I haven’t watched Wallace and Gromit in a few years. The last time was watching A Matter Of Loaf and Death, including one of those fabulously cheesy names, Piella Bakewell. But my most recent W&G experience was at Blackpool Pleasure Beach about three summers ago. It was a birthday present. I had never been to a theme park in my life and there I was with my family at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. I went on my first rollercoaster at the age of 25. But a major highlight was going to the Wallace and Gromit ride, where you sit in a slipper and get guided around a medley of scenes and lines from the various W&G films. Quite seriously, a life highlight. Even more so was the adjoining gift shop where I spent sixty British pounds on T-shirts, keyrings and plush toys. I still wear my grey T-shirt bearing the red glove worn by the Penguin on the Wrong Trousers from time to time. Anyway, a souvenir of the day was the photo I got took with Gromit. It is one of the few photos of me in my house; one of the others is me with the Scottish Cup. We actually waited until the galoot in the Wallace suit went for a fag break before pouncing to get a photo with Gromit. It’s still on the mantelpiece, pride of place.
I’ve liked Wallace and Gromit since I was a kid. I’m autistic and having a fidget toy has always been important for keeping pace with the sensory overload that is life as I know it. When I was a kid, I used to have keyrings mainly but for a while it was a little figurine of Wallace. I lost it, though. We used to walk our dog each night across Winterfield Park in Dunbar, in all weathers and all year, even in the dark with a torch. One of those dark, dark nights, I lost Wallace. The day after I carefully combed the park though it was nowhere to be seen. Somehow when I went back to school, one of my teachers produced another one. It wasn’t the same somehow but the thought was there.
A few years ago, I had a job I didn’t like. Everyone has one on their CV. It was not long after I had been to Blackpool Pleasure Beach and on my desk was not only a photo of me with Gromit but also a Gromit soft toy. It kept me in touch with my childhood side and looking to Gromit from time to time reminded me of happier times.
When I heard about Peter Sallis’s death, it reminded me of the place Wallace and Gromit has had in my life. Off-the-wall humour, quirky and detail-orientated, the world is the richer for it. As it was for the life of Peter Sallis.
‘This train is for Edinburgh Waverley. This train will call at Croy, Falkirk High…’
I hear this refrain with considerable regularity, the voice of Fletcher Mathers relayed across the Scotrail service I’ve just boarded bound for the capital. Waverley is the main railway station in Edinburgh, sitting in Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of the Castle and much of the city centre sitting high above. At the end of the platforms facing towards Glasgow, you can see Princes Street, the National Gallery and the Bank of Scotland offices. If heading south, you get a view of Governor’s House, the last remaining part of the old Calton Jail that once sat where St. Andrew’s House, the Scottish Government premises, are now. Governor’s House isn’t visible from Regent Road – it is the tower that sits on a rock, pretty much only visible from the eastern end of Waverley Station. An underrated perspective you get from Waverley is when you step onto Market Street. Facing you is the old Scotsman building, now a luxury hotel. The printing presses would have been juddering to life and producing the public prints just across from the station.
The first glimpse of the capital that many get on leaving Waverley is walking up Waverley Steps towards Princes Street. Many folk of course take the escalator that was recently installed when the station was tarted up. The Steps were covered over since the top was the windiest place in Edinburgh, the product of walking up from a valley onto a busy, bustling city street. At the top of Waverley Steps, look left then right. Left you get a glimpse of Edinburgh Castle high up on its rock and Princes Street stretching out with buses, trams and all else; right you get Register House, Leith Street and up to Calton Hill, the Nelson Monument and the folly. There is also the Balmoral Hotel just right there.
I have spent a lot of time in Waverley in my life. One of my most vivid childhood memories is from when I was a kid. I was diagnosed as being autistic when I was 6. It required several trips to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children (otherwise known as the Sick Kids) in Edinburgh. On one of them we were standing at the door of an intercity train when we were delayed because one of the roof tiles had smashed above us. I have memories of when my school class used to go to the outdoor education centre in Linlithgow and walking up the platform for the train, looked after by one of the older girls in the class. We also went on a magical mystery tour to Dunfermline, which I think I’ve written about here before, and came to Waverley the week before to sort the tickets.
As a day tripper, Waverley soon became even more familiar as most Saturdays, then most weeks, I darted from a (normally late) train from Dunbar across the station to a train some place else. When I started going to the football again, the spirited walks from Easter Road to Waverley in time for the train started too, this time late at night to catch the last train I could get for my connection back in Glasgow. Scotrail, naturally, put on engineering works later at night on that line last year meaning that the last train I could get back to Glasgow was not only 10 minutes earlier but went via Bathgate and Airdrie, taking longer.
The quickest, though not always the easiest, way to get from Dunbar to Edinburgh was by train. Trains were infrequent, mostly every two hours in both directions, though of course the last year or so I lived down there saw Scotrail introduce a more regular service. The last train to Dunbar on a Saturday night from the capital used to be 7pm. It is now about 10pm, I believe, though for many years, my day trips usually had to be curtailed by 7 so I could catch the last train home, an intercity train invariably full of folk heading for hen or stag dos in Newcastle. Or home from hen or stag dos in Edinburgh. Either way there were loads of drunken Geordies. Nice.
Regardless how often I’m there, arriving into Waverley gives me a great thrill every time. It’s a combination of being in a dear, familiar place, the hustle and bustle, the brightness from the glass roof and just the spirit of adventure even if my reasons for being there are prosaic and dull. The appeal continues even while I sometimes grate my teeth at the ‘Heart of Midlothian’ emblems that appear within the station. Waverley is one of very few railway stations named after a novel and to be fair they have acknowledged it well with loads of Walter Scott quotes, hence the hearts. The quotes are great, the endorsement of Ian Cathro’s mob really isnae. I think Network Rail has realised this and some of the station’s signs are now green, just to sate those of us on the side of the angels.
Edinburgh is the city I was born in so I have a special relationship with the place, even while I call Glasgow, its great rival, home and contentedly so. Undoubtedly the best way to enter our capital is by train, so you can walk up Waverley Steps and hit Princes Street, even if you might want to be off it pretty rapidly. Any station named after a novel is fine with me, especially one where you can go pretty much anywhere in the country with not much difficulty and definitely one which shows off its city to its best effect from whatever angle.
I feel bad. This post was written absolutely yonks ago, well back in January, and it has been pushed back and pushed back as other things have been written and jumped the queue. So, I am publishing this tonight and another post I wrote ages ago tomorrow night. I have a great backlog of stuff to go up and at this rate I could publish it all and not write anything until September, which isn’t going to happen. Without further ado, here’s a post about a museum visit.
The other day I was reading a post on a museum blog entitled ‘I Really Hate Clipboards’, which brought back a powerful childhood memory. I went to primary school in Edinburgh, in a special needs unit, and we were taken one day to the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, particularly to the bit that had just recently opened on the corner of Chambers Street and George IV Bridge. (I still think of this part, which used to be called the Museum of Scotland, as the ‘new’ bit despite the fact the bit formerly known as the Royal Museum, the ‘old’ museum, has now been redone and is now very much newer.) We were issued with clipboards with questions and prompts of things to look out for. I remember being in the Beginnings section in the basement, the bit with lots of dioramas and taxidermy just before it gets interesting with Pictish stones and torcs, and being bored out of my skull clutching this clipboard and a pencil. Afterwards my teacher asked me what I thought of the day and I said I hated it because of this wretched clipboard, to which she replied that she thought I would like it and it had been done partly for my benefit.
Even back then (I was 9), I was bright and curious, happy just to wander and take in what was there. A clipboard completely changed how I saw the museum. I am of the view that a learning experience, such as it is, can happen anywhere. I can think of more history I learned stomping about castles and museums than I did in a classroom. I know that schools have experiences and outcomes to meet, bits to tick off forms for the benefit of school inspectors, councils and the government, but the world is beyond the wit of the Curriculum for Excellence or 5-14 as it was when I was a boy. I have worked in museums and I know that museum education is an artform. Many people do it very well, including National Museums Scotland. They know how to engage people and clipboards aren’t the answer, for kids like I was or anyone else.
Recently I read an excellent book, Saturday, 3pm by Daniel Gray, a series of essays covering the essence of the football experience. I read a staggering amount about football in a given week, some of it well considered, thoughtful and measured, most of it really not. Saturday, 3pm I read on a day when Hibs were playing and I was 70 miles away, relying on social media for updates, constant refreshing of the screen to make sure I didn’t miss a single moment of the action as I also tried to do what I’m actually paid for. I have never read a book that gives such a good insight into what many of us feel on away trips or when the fixture list for the new season comes out, little things that mean a lot to thousands of people all across this land.
About twenty years ago, I was in primary school. I went to primary school in the east of Edinburgh, about thirty miles from where I grew up. I was in a special needs unit which catered for children on the autistic spectrum, some high-functioning like me, others less so. In those years, we went on some amazing trips, including to the Scotland Yard Adventure Playground in the New Town with its bikes, slopes and sand pits, and Gorgie City Farm with sheep, pigs and cows, naturally enough. One of the most special, though, was to Easter Road, a place I was already very familiar with as the home of my team then as now, Hibernian FC. We had a tour of the Holy Ground, then half-complete with the Famous Five and South in their present form but the West and East still more rustic. I suspect I was one of the few that really enjoyed the short journey to Easter Road but I do remember one of my classmates, who was brilliant at drawing, sketching out a huge likeness of the then Hibs badge when we got back to school.
I was reading an interesting post on one of the Hibs forums about a dad whose lad is on the spectrum and how he is trying to get a sensory room installed at Easter Road, which is an excellent idea. I am fortunate that the sensory experience of football for me is mostly comfortable. Most issues I have at the football are more practical and anxiety-related, like will I find my seat okay or will someone ask me to move to fit their pal on the row or whatever. Most of my life I try very hard to be calm and I have pretty much mastered walking up and through a row of stewards towards a turnstile looking quite unruffled while internally willing myself forward. I have a system when I go to Easter Road. I usually make sure I have change in my hand for my programme and my Happy Hibee tickets, often counted out having paused on Albion Road for a moment. My motor skills aren’t the finest and it tends to be awkward when I’m all awkward scrambling about for change. A lot of folk are very understanding about that, though, thinking my fumbling is because my hands are cold. Usually by the time I reach the turnstile I have a programme in one hand and some change and my season card in the other. By the time I get to my seat, high up in the East Stand, I can have added a couple of pies and a juice to the mix, all balanced with a minimum of fuss.
I go to the football partly because I like the crowd. I like being part of a common cause. It would be nice to know more people at the ground but I am used to being alone. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me. I tend to be at the ground early so I spend a fair bit of time watching the ground fill up around me, peering down to the warm-ups and across the city through gaps in the stands. The East Stand where I sit is blessed/cursed with a rubbish sound system. The music played over the tannoy is often muffled and quiet so I don’t always pick it up. I can still hear it but it’s more like a radio in the background. That is an unintended advantage, a reasonable adjustment on the part of the club that I greatly appreciate. When I was at Hampden the other day for the semi against Aberdeen, the PA was loud and boomed. The Hibs one doesn’t boom. I must be one of the few people in the stadium who is happy with our crap tannoy.
Until the end of this current season, the Easter Road singing section will be in the East Stand, a couple of sections along from where I sit. I quite like that – I like being near where the action is and that extends to being near where the songs start – and the drum doesn’t frighten me as much as it used to. It has the pleasing sound of a train going over tracks and that can be more soothing, especially when there’s a bit of distance. Next season, the singing section is moving to the Famous Five Stand, to the right of where I sit, about half the length of the pitch away, and I am sure it will be better acoustically. I am desensitised to the drum now and loud singing rarely bothers me either. In fact the only time recently I remember getting even vaguely overloaded was the game at Tannadice, which was also a night game and loud generally.
For me going to the football is about focus. On a good day I can have a hyper-focus. I am there to watch a football game. I might be taking in the other details, the ad hoardings, the songs, the folk around me, but what I am really focusing on is the game itself. I am fortunate that my spot at Easter Road is in the centre of the stand about three-quarters of the way up, affording possibly the best view in the stadium of the action, high enough to see the whole pitch without any issue whatsoever. My preference where possible is to be side-on as opposed to behind the goals. I don’t mind being behind the goals – as in recent trips to Stark’s Park, East End Park and Cappielow – but I like to see the action, not squint into the distance. I think it’s about difficulties with filtering information. The National Autistic Society’s strapline of ‘Too Much Information’ is spot on. It’s about focus and if I can see properly, there’s less to filter and figure out. I remember being at games as a kid and on the way home checking the news to see who actually scored in the game I was at.
I don’t tend to think about the business of actually going to the football as much as I do the being there. Being a Hibs fan is a key part of who I am. It helps me talk to people, particularly men, as football is common ground for many of us, even if our teams differ. Hibs have also given me some very good times, foremost among them Saturday 21st May 2016 when the Hibs went up to lift the Scottish Cup and the three times I have so far seen Hearts beaten and beaten thoroughly. As I write this, the season is about to end. I am excited about the next one – the other blog post today is called ‘The close season’ about the trips next season to Premiership grounds – though what has become a key part of my routine will be lost for a couple of months. Luckily there are museums to be visited and shorelines to be walked and soon it will be July, the season 2017-2018, back in the Premiership and maybe to win our Cup back too. It’ll be worth it.
As befits someone who spends a lot of life writing, I carry at least two pens at pretty much all times. Of course this is also useful when I am working since libraries never have a functioning pen when one is so required. They are also useful for when I need to find what the scientists call local coherence, or in other words when I feel slightly awkward or overwhelmed and need to focus on something else. Just yesterday I was at a social gathering and I took out a pen, just for a second, and pressed its top, open and close, just once. It didn’t involve much conscious thought and it was all done in a matter of moments. I even do it sometimes walking along the street. I used to get told off before going to job interviews for always having a pen in my hand. But then again not having a pen in my hand might have led to Donald Trump-esque hand gestures to emphasise whatever points I was trying to make so there’s always an argument to be made on both sides.
It’s why I just laugh when I see kids with the latest in-thing, fidget toys. I’m autistic. I’m the king of fidget toys. At various points, I’ve experimented with figurines of Wallace (from Wallace and Gromit), keyrings, S-loops that are used to hang paintings and elastic bands. Indeed I went to the gym recently with an elastic band still around my wrist from work. Fidget toys are interesting looking, sort of like a safety protector for a plug socket but flat. I have seen shops around the place with signs saying ‘Fidget Toys Sold Here’ and it makes me grin broadly each and every time.
It’s strange seeing the world slowly come round to one’s way of thinking. At the moment designer stubble is fashionable. Shaving too often bothers my skin so I inadvertently keep to that particular trend. A wee while ago, ‘geek chic’ was all the rage. I’ve had glasses since I was 10 and I don’t dress like David Gandy anyway. Or look like him or any other male model. That wasn’t a problem either. When I joined Facebook a few months ago, I found that people I went to school with spent their weekends with their families going around castles. Castlebagging is a real term to describe this thoroughly intellectually and spiritually enriching pursuit. It was written about in the papers a few years back and at the time I felt momentarily irritated at the thought of carpetbaggers filling up good castles when I had some of them to myself for years.
Recently the (very worth reading) Anonymously Autistic blogger shared a link on Twitter to a Kickstarter for something called a Fidgi Pen, or a fidget toy disguised as a pen. I didn’t know there was funding available. I just buy pens and they do the business. As I was thinking of what to write next just now, I played about with a Berol Handwriting pen that I bought in a pack of three from the supermarket for a couple of pounds. No disguise required.
It isn’t always easy to know when you fit in. I am 27 now and I have reached a point when I somehow function in society just fine. I wear clothes for comfort rather than fashion. My glasses were expensive but that’s because I need them to see. I wear Skechers shoes (as written about here – other shoes are available) because they are comfortable and don’t hurt my feet. I generally do okay with people. I am not that confident but that’s okay. Indeed with some people that makes the situation more bearable. In society more generally, the fact that fidget toys are popular with neurotypical bairns can only be welcome. We can only hope that the world changes ever more to embrace our unique way of thinking, rather than just tolerate or accommodate it.
First, a disclaimer. This post is mildly sweary. It is part of the story to be sweary this time and I have a policy of not using asterisks as the world doesn’t need to be bowdlerised.
That being out of the way. Last weekend Hibs won the Championship. We will be promoted to the Scottish Premiership next season, which is brilliant. We won the league with a 3-0 win against Queen of the South, after Falkirk drew with St Mirren. When we won the Scottish Cup last year, there was an epic pitch invasion which is still being investigated by Police Scotland. Near the end of the Queen of the South game, the stewards started putting up barriers separated by flimsy red and white tape right in front of the East Stand, which is where the rowdier elements of the Hibs support sit and also where I sit. The absurdity of this made me laugh but what made me howl was the response of the singing section, which was the chant ‘What the fucking hell is that?’ to the tune of ‘You’re Not Singing Anymore’. Class.
Why I’m telling you this is I had a similar response to this when I was in Dunbar the other day. In fact, twice. When I was at high school, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I often went out for a walk at lunchtime and ended up in one of two places, on the Prom or if I felt like walking further, to the bottom of a park called the Glebe, on a point jutting out into the sea. I walked along there to find a fence a good ten feet from where the cliff dropped and right in front of where I used to sit. My response was ‘What the fucking hell is that?’ Seriously, East Lothian Council! Without sounding like the Daily Mail, health and safety gone mad. Indeed whenever I am in Dunbar I make a point of sitting there for a while. I did this time too, by climbing through the fence and plonking myself on the grass and eating my pieces, on the wrong side closest to the sea. It was brilliant as the sun came out and I sat in my T-shirt as I ate and looked over to the harbour and to the folk climbing on the rocks nearby.
Time number two was when I walked on the Prom. As long as I have been alive, the Prom path has always been cracked. Indeed when I was a kid I used to walk along the cracks for much of the route. But a small part, as it passes the Pin, has been tarred. No idea why. No other part of the path, which runs to about half a mile, has been tarred. It was very recent, not recent enough to draw your name in it or anything but only a week or two old. Even newer was a John Muir quote chalked onto the tarmac, namely:
I spend a lot of my life thinking thoughts along the lines of ‘What the fucking hell is that?’ One of the ways I keep sane is marvelling at how absurd the world is, in how people think and what people think is a good idea. I don’t normally sing it, though, but I might just have to start, even just to be absurd myself for a bit.
April is Autism Awareness Month. I did plan to post something on World Autism Awareness Day, which is April 2nd, but the only autism post I had wasn’t quite right. It might appear some time in the future – it’s about special interests. Anyway, I want to write something about autism this month but to do it in my own way. There are plenty of autistic bloggers out there. They cover the Actually Autistic perspective well. When I write about autism, I always feel it is a diversion from what I like to write about, visiting places and what I see along the way. Writing about autism, particularly its drawbacks, is hard and doesn’t feel quite natural. I haven’t known any other life than the one I’ve lived. To write about what it’s like being autistic needs a certain amount of looking from an outsider’s perspective and indeed one of the characteristics of being on the spectrum is not being able to see things from another’s point of view. I can to some extent but only so far.
What I am getting round to is that being autistic can be hellish. But it is who I am. It gives me the problems with eye contact as well as the words that make other folk laugh when I say them or think when I write them. It makes me good for helping fill out forms or sort out dissertations but less good at speaking up when I have a problem. I hear too much and I have to focus extra hard. Sometimes I fall into bed exhausted from my day being all social. If I could change it, though, I wouldn’t. I would be a different person and that wouldn’t be right. I am me, autism and all.
This blog has been one hell of an undertaking. It is a blessed relief and a beast that needs fed regularly to keep it sweet. It is written by an autistic person but not necessarily fuelled by autism. I write out of more than my condition. I write because it is how I best express myself. It is loosening my shoulders as I write. Writing releases the thoughts and tensions of the day and the life I’ve lived and it is, some of the time at least, an absolute joy. What appears here is an insight into my world, how I see and how I think. Autism is a part of who I am. But I am also what I write about here. I find fulfillment in writing but also in walking the world, visiting castles and watching the mighty Hibernian FC in action.
The strapline of World Autism Awareness Week this year was:
‘Until everyone understands’
Until everyone understands. I’m not sure I agree with this. Understanding is one thing, accepting is quite another. I don’t entirely understand neurotypical people. That doesn’t mean I necessarily want to or have to. But I accept them without question. I have to. I quite like neurotypical people, well, some of them. They form the majority of the population, after all. Some of them are funny, thoughtful, interesting. Some of them might even be sexy. Or not, as the case may be. Understanding and acceptance comes when you least expect or realise it. It takes time. Autism is hard to write about because I live with it every day. It doesn’t go away when the whole world feels like it is smiling nor when it’s falling around my ears. It’s why if I have something interesting to write about autism then I’ll share it whenever I feel like it, not waiting for a particular month to come around. Awareness is good, though, and I hope it continues into May and June and all the way back around to next year and the year after. Then it builds into understanding and acceptance then maybe even love, which we all need most of all.
I subscribe to a newsletter of a website called ‘The Mighty’, which invariably pops into my inbox in the wee small hours of the morning. When I read it (at a more civilised hour) this morning, there was a link to an article with the intriguing headline: ‘How to Explain an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis to a Child‘. The pay-off was when the author met a young child with autism who explained his diagnosis thusly:
‘I have autism. Sometimes, I struggle with things like looking people in the eyes. But it also means that I have a great imagination.’
In my years, I have used various formulae to explain my own condition. I went as far as having a standard form of words I used to use in job applications in times gone by. I have an autistic spectrum disorder, diagnosed when I was 6. While I have some difficulties with communication, particularly in making eye contact, it does not impede my ability to work, indeed often it enhances it. When I talk about being autistic to people, which I do occasionally, I tend to have a standard spiel. I talk a little about being diagnosed, how it affects my brain and how it’s wired. I usually talk about how sometimes it can be difficult to process information in all its varieties. Sometimes I nick a quote from Temple Grandin, who said that an autistic brain can be like being in a busy office with one functioning fax machine. I tend to keep it personal. If you go into psychological speak, people glaze over.
In my work, I always believe it best to level with people. When it comes to describing who I am, I prefer not to bullshit. I also don’t like people thinking I’m amazing. I’m not, really. I’m not inspirational or all that special. I have a brain that is wired a bit differently. Being autistic can be a major pain in the arse. It can be isolating and it comes with a whole load of other concerns. I am quite anxious some of the time and I have bowel problems too. But it is also a major part of who I am. However, it is by no means the only part. It is one label.
We all have labels. We attach labels to ourselves and each other. All too often, they define us in others’ eyes. We are more than our labels. Off the top of my head, I am a writer, blogger, library assistant, Hibs fan, brother, son, uncle, cousin, grandson, nephew, friend, colleague, subordinate. And I am autistic. I might be weird or I might be a geek. So what? We are all people. I was brought up to treat everyone the same. Think of your favourite celebrity, your bit of pash or whoever. They put their trousers on the same way as anyone else does. They go for a dump, they fart, whatever. They are just people, whatever their label.
We are all in the business of selling the best version of ourselves. The explanation of autism as coming with setbacks but blessings chimes with my own perspective and hopefully it will be reflected in the wider public perception of autism in time to come.
Every so often, Hibs run tours of Easter Road Stadium, otherwise known as the Holy Ground or the Leith San Siro. The tours are run by a really nice gent called Tom Wright, the curator of the Hibernian Historical Trust who have done great work showing off our club’s history around the ground. I went on a tour about a year ago on a grey January afternoon and I enjoyed it immensely. Being in one of my favourite places on the planet and getting to see behind-the-scenes was an absolute pleasure. During the tour, though, one of Hibs’ PR guys kept getting the group together for a photo. One of the photos duly appears now and then on the Hibs Twitter and Facebook feeds, as shown below, with me on the bottom left. I should explain that I tried very hard not to be in the photograph and had to be cajoled to be in it and right at the front too.
I hate getting my photograph taken. I am quite self-conscious about my appearance and in most photographs I tend to be either gurning or have a bright red nose. Last year I was in the local paper for a Bookbug session I had delivered and not only was my nose bright red, my smile was wonky and the paper got my name wrong, to top it all. There was a group photo taken when Langside had its 100th anniversary and I am probably the least comfortable looking one there, by smile and general demeanour. A couple of times recently, though, I appeared on Twitter delivering a class visit to primary school children at Langside, one of the photographs surprisingly quite flattering as I was focused on speaking to the group of children massed in front of me, my face pale and hair slicked up and not at all out of place, a very rare event indeed.
A high percentage of photographs taken of me in the last few years involve me in a costume or with someone in a costume. An exception is the photograph I have of me and the Scottish Cup, taken after our game with Dundee United in October. In our living room is a photograph the day we went to Blackpool Pleasure Beach. I don’t think I have ever shared here my deep love of Wallace and Gromit. Indeed I drink out of one of two mugs in our house. One bears the image of David Gray just having scored the winning goal in the Cup Final, the other has Wallace and Gromit and the legend ‘It’s Like No Cheese I’ve Ever Tasted’, which I think can pretty much sum up my outlook on life. Anyway, the photograph shows me standing next to someone in a Gromit costume. Other photographs exist of me dressed up at various museum events, as pirates, vampires or as 1960s people. I say they exist, hopefully they have been expunged by now.
The first time I saw the tour photograph, I was slightly bothered. Now I am not at all fussed, even while I was quite spotty in the photo concerned. It’s like speaking to a group. The first time makes you nervous, the hundredth time is familiar and comfortable, just another bit of business, well, mostly.
Catching up with programmes on the iPlayer tonight led me to watch a documentary marking the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, one of Scotland’s great newspapers. (It is available for just over three weeks on the BBC iPlayer here). It made me think of a childhood memory. I went to primary school in Edinburgh, more precisely in an unit specifically for autistic children. Each day we had a copy of The Scotsman though only I read it in much depth (I was always a weird boy). One of my classmates did usually look at the sport though. The Scotsman was and is the morning paper of Edinburgh and surrounding areas, just as The Herald is Glasgow’s, The Courier Dundee’s and the mighty Press and Journal of Aberdeen. It was only natural that the paper we got was published only a few miles away, at that point on North Bridge in the very heart of our capital though soon to move to Holyrood Road in the shadow of the then-new Scottish Parliament. I became deeply interested in the Parliament after I was encouraged to do a project on it and then I read of its doings and sayings each morning, sitting in my little cubicle ‘office’ in the Miller class flicking through The Scotsman.
I haven’t read The Scotsman in a long while, at least in paper form. I do read it, or parts of it, most days online, usually from links on Twitter. I might buy a copy once a year, perhaps if on a long train journey and it hasn’t changed much in a while. When I was a kid, it was a broadsheet while it has been a tabloid for quite a few years now. I never paid too much attention to its politics, which is probably for the best since when I read it regularly, it was a High Tory sort of paper. I would read it for the news, not bothering to stay for the views.
The stablemate of The Scotsman is the Edinburgh Evening News, or the ‘Evening Blues’ as I sometimes call it because it used to be exceedingly bloody miserable when I looked at it each day as it came into the library. Very often I buy a News if I am in Edinburgh, mainly to catch up with Hibs coverage. That stems back to a tradition of my boyhood. I got a taxi each day to school in Edinburgh and the driver and his wife always had a copy of the News, keeping aside the Monday sport supplement for me to read the latest affairs of Hibs over the weekend, catching up even if I happened to be at the game or indeed if I had read about it in the Pink on the Saturday night (blog post on that subject here). Courtesy of one of my relatives, I have a complete set of the News, including its special tribute edition, following Hibs winning the Scottish Cup last year. It felt right.
When I was a teenager, I used to read The Herald, an unusual move for any teenager or indeed someone living in the east of Scotland. I now see The Herald at work and it is a friendlier paper than its Edinburgh rival in typeface, design and even its history. Then for lots of years I read The Guardian each day until I realised I read more of it online than in print. At one point I read four papers on a Sunday and two on a Saturday, one on a weekday. Now I buy a paper at best once a month, sometimes on a Sunday, sometimes if I’m travelling. I read my news online, like most people, and again like most people I don’t pay for it. That does give me a moment’s pause but I am also employed to give people books for free so I like free knowledge.
The Scotsman is now produced in a drab office block on Queensferry Road in Edinburgh, to be fair with quite nice views across the north of the city. Its previous homes on North Bridge and Holyrood Road are both beautiful in their ways – the former dominates a fair bit of the city centre, stood high up on North Bridge and hitting the ground outside the station on Market Street, while the latter is a modern building in the shadow of Salisbury Crags. One is a hotel, the other, ironically, housing new media in the form of a video games company. Undoubtedly The Scotsman has seen better days. Whether it is on the right side of political opinion now, as it often was in the past, foremost in the campaign for Home Rule, who can say? Particularly in these times of Brexit and Donald Trump, we need a free press and we need The Scotsman, and every other paper, just as much as ever to keep the powers, princes and potentates honest, in Edinburgh and a lot further afield.