Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tis The Season To Be Merry, So Pardon Me If I Respond To The Gaiety Of The Season By Hiding In The Wardrobe

And so, another year draws to a close, and with it, another decade. It is, I now realise, customary to greet the passing of the winter solstice by noting grimly that the past 12 months have been dire, and to hope for better in the coming Spring. But 2009, has been an unholy stinker, hasn't it? We have endured the worst recession since people began compiling worthless statistics about the terribleness of recessions, and if we have not yet had an economic depression - thanks to the largesse of that Robin Hood-in-reverse, the Chancellor, Mr Darling (he takes from the people to give to the banks, who then refuse to lend to the people, so that they may award themselves bonuses as a kind of compensation for being dull enough to become bankers) - it has been such a glum old year that I shudder to contemplate it.
As I write, the country is in the grip of winter. Planes are sliding from runways, sheep are shivering, and the Scottish news is full of interviews with motorists expressing shock and awe at the trickiness of steering a Citroen Picasso through slush. "It was like driving on a sheet of glass," one of them said on the radio this morning; curiously, as if the experience of driving on double-glazing would be more understandable than skidding on ice. Last night in Edinburgh, temperatures fell to minus 12 degrees Celsius, or Centigrade, whichever is the colder. In Peebles, it was warmer, though that was largely on account of the judicious application of hot water bottles, and my habit of sleeping in a railwayman's overcoat. (The railwayman is famously tolerant).
Personally, it has been a year of industry and indolence. You may have noticed that my blogging has become less regular. I would like to excuse this by explaining that I recently embarked on a career as a stunt double for Mr Michael Palin, allowing me the excuse of foreign travel, under cover of which I delivered medical supplies and designer sunglasses to the poor orphans of rural Romania. Or, I could tell you that I have been caught up in a clandestine romance with Ms Kirsty Wark (you may have noticed that she has been dressing like a 30 year-old and often presents Newsnight with what my mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) would have called "hair like a startled strumpet").
But, sadly, neither of the above is true. I have spent the year eating beans, contemplating oblivion. I don't regret the beans, but I could have done without the oblivion. It happens, usually, after watching Cash In The Attic, and lingers until EastEnders, which reminds me that things could be worse. I could, for example, be living the life of Mr Max Branning, whose generosity of spirit has allowed him to attempt a reconciliation with his lovely wife, Tanya, the plump headmistress of Booty's beauty salon, despite the fact that she buried him alive in Epping Forest, on account of him having an affair with his daughter-in-law, who subsequently became mentally ill and stands, now, on the brink of inter-racial lesbianism. Poor Max survived a second murder attempt by his teenage daughter, Lauren, but his generosity of spirit - and his unfortunate habit of selling insurance policies to the poor and needy and pocketing the cash - has taken him to the brink of ruin.
But, like Mr Ronnie Corbett, strapped to a rabid camel and left without water in the windblown wastes of the Kalahari, I digress. This year has not been entirely fruitless. I have spent the last three months working on the Peebles Showboaters' Annual Festive Extravaganza, a Christmas production of Mr Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, in which Godot arrives on the Melrose to Edinburgh (via Peebles) bus, dressed as a woman, and dispenses topical bon mots and Hawick Balls to the audience. The production process has not been easy. The estate of Mr Beckett is very particular, and usually insists that his plays are presented in a form that is true to the author's wishes: in other words, with a complete disregard, bordering on contempt, for the audience. Initially, they were sceptical about my plans - the Hawick Balls were a particular bone of contention - but after enduring the touring production of Godot starring Sir Ian McKellen and Mr Patrick Stewart, I argued successfully that the play had already been turned into a witless pantomime, and could only be improved by the addition of buttery peppermints. I also produced letters written to me in the early 1970s, by Mr Beckett, who was then exiled in Paris, which showed that he spent most of his waking hours adjusting the television aerial so that he might be able to better enjoy broadcasts of his favourite programme, Steptoe and Son.
In the end, the show went on. I was allowed to proceed on the condition that no explicit mention of Mr Beckett or his play was made. I can now report that Waiting For The 62b ran for three nights this week, to near-capacity audiences, at the Peebles Aquarium. It was well-received (a three-star review, written in advance, in the Peebles Times-Picayune). There is talk of taking the show to next year's Edinburgh Fringe, though that will be dictated by the availability of a church hall large enough to accommodate a Leyland Leopard. (I think we may also have to lose the lion).
There is more that I could say, but I fear it would not add to the gaiety of the season. These are, without doubt, difficult times. As a child raised in the spirit of Calvin, I have always been suspicious of pleasure, but even I am finding the joylessness of the age hard to stomach. The decades pass so quickly, too. I remember 1999, and our fear of the millennium bug. Now we have global terrorism, River City, and the imminent end of the world through pestilence, greed, and patio heaters. I may have to retire to the wardrobe for a while, to hibernate until better days appear. But happy Christmas to you - and may all your fires light with a Zip!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Queuing In The Post Office With The Old, The Infirm and the Merely Discombobulated, Is Like Waiting Around To Die

Today, the posties are on strike. Post will be delivered, but not sorted. Tomorrow, apparently, it will be sorted, but not delivered. The day after that, when the men return from their braziers, sorting and delivering will resume, but will be hampered by the backlog of mail which has accumulated during the strike. The postmen will have more work to do, and less time in which to do it. They will have sacrificed wages and public sympathy, and the Post Office - one of the great state institutions - will be further weakened.
This is a matter of some sadness, but also bafflement. We are continually told that the Post Office cannot survive in its current form; its business model must be opened to the brisk winds of private finance. Yet, whenever I visit the Post Office, I am forced to queue, rather in the manner of a dustbowl farmer heading west in The Grapes of Wrath, with the old, the infirm, and the merely discombobulated. Some of them have heavy objects to post, many are paying bills, or receiving benefits. Some come only to drool. Whatever their business, the office itself is always busy, and always understaffed. There are many more serving windows than there are clerks. The clue is the queue. It snakes around, through roped lines of the type you find at celebrity red carpets, except that the ropes here are designed to show that in this context, the customers are Very Unimportant Persons. In their captivity, they are "entertained" with advertisements for insurance, and banking. Standing in these lines feels very much like waiting around to die.
What, to quote Vladimir Ilyich, is to be done? At the Labour Party conference there was talk of turning the Post Office into a People's Bank. That sounded like a good idea, though how it will be achieved, I cannot foresee. The banking wing of the Post Office is currently domiciled in Ireland, so - with all due respect to the Irish, who need all the help they can to pay for the upkeep of the pebbledash bogside bungalows - it is not doing a great deal to help the British people.
But what of the post itself? Apparently, it is in decline. People no longer send letters. They text, and tweet, and generally behave like sub-literate twits turned indolent by a diet of mechanically-recovered meat and the idiot fantasies of reality television. They are richer than any previous generation, yet feel poorer, and take umbrage at everything. The horizons of their mornings blush red with anger. At night, they cook TV dinners and watch TV chefs. They are encouraged in their fury by a media which prizes participation over intelligence and reaction over reason. They shout at everything and understand nothing. Politics is reduced to a football phone-in, where merely being aggrieved is enough; or a reality show, in which serious political pundits, and the profoundly un-serious Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, Mr Cameron - a blue-blooded PR man whose big idea is to be a Stars-on-45 remix of Mr Tony Blair's more vacuous tendencies - make political capital from the Prime Minister's reluctance to reveal his favourite biscuit to the babytalking interlocutors of something called Mumsnet.
There is much heat in this dispute, and little light. But it seems clear to me that the talk of the post's decline is exaggerated, as it comes at a time when internet shopping, and eBay, and many other methods of spending money without standing up, are leaving our High Streets full of nothing but betting slips and discarded chicken buckets. The post, I suspect, is like the trains, which were privatised and condemned to a condition of expensive chaos, followed by collapse, and the further intervention of the state.
In the meantime, I write letters I cannot post and wait for mail that never comes. Outside my door, there is a mountain of red elastic bands.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Blu-Ray Henries Of The Conservative Party Display Poverty Of Metaphor When They Compare Britain To 'The Wire'

I was intrigued to note the comments from the Shadow Home Secretary, Mr Chris Grayling, comparing the United Kingdom to the television series, The Wire. I understand that Mr Grayling has form in this regard, having previously compared life in this sceptred isle to the Channel 4 drama, Shameless, and also to the Jeremy Kyle show.
Now, it is reassuring to note that Mr Grayling takes such an active interest in television, but I do wonder about his logic. Unlike the front bench of the Conservative Party, I have not watched The Wire, but I have read enough about it to understand that it portrays the state of lawlessness which exists in Baltimore. I understand, also, that the Baltimore which is depicted in the drama is far worse than is likely to be found in even the worst of British urban environments, though I confess I felt uneasy when trying to buy a fly cemetery in Dunbar recently, after a bracing walk on Belhaven sands.
Similarly, I have not seen Shameless, or Mr Kyle, but I know them to be bracing in their assessment of our national life. Yet all are popular, which may be why Mr Grayling felt the urge to cite them in his speeches.
The truth is, real life is nothing like television, and never has been. This weekend, Edinburgh will be occupied by a linen-clad army of nincompoops, as the Guardian-sponsored International Television Festival lays siege to the Conference Centre, and the bar of the George Hotel. Take a walk down Morrison Street on Saturday, and you will see that television people are not like the rest of us. They are peculiarly self-satisfied, which is odd, given the dire state of television. I have attended this festival in the past, when there were vague plans to turn me into a television chef, but I consider myself fortunate that Mince With Everything never got off the drawing board. (Over a glass of warm ginger ale and a piece of haggis pakora, I was informed that I was sexually and demographically unattractive, which was reassuring).
My brief experience of the (non)commissioning process demonstrated that the television is a patronising industry. It is made by idiots, for idiots, and continues to prosper because some of us are idiotic enough to tune in. Where does the intelligent viewer find succour in today’s schedules? Tonight’s highlight is the return to the BBC of Shooting Stars, in which Mr Vic Reeves (not, I understand, his real name) introduces a new item called “Celebrities Disguised As Hitler”. I am not sure how much of my licence fee went into funding that little item, but it was too much, and I would like it back, by return of post, with some compensation for my embarrassment.
But, like Ronnie Corbett pursued by an angry ostrich across Gullane Bents, I digress. My point is the poverty of metaphor which has overtaken the Conservative Party. Why do they insist on comparing everything to television? Have they not read a book? I would suggest that if they want to be alarmist, and I fear that they do, they might start with the Old Testament, particularly Deuteronomy 19. They will find every horror they need in there, and more.
Meanwhile, I will light a candle for Dixon of Dock Green, and dream gently.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The BBC's Deracination Of Dennis The Menace Is Not Political Correctness Gone Rife. It Is Much Worse Than That

It was with some alarm that I read the news that DC Thomson’s imp of the perverse, Dennis the Menace, is to be “toned down” in order to suit the requirements of the BBC’s children’s channel, CBBC. Dennis’s catapult is to be banished, and he will no longer be allowed to pick on Walter the Softie, for fear that this might encourage “gay-bashing”. Even Dennis’s horrible dog, Gnasher, will be given a personality transplant. This, according to company which makes the series, Red Kite, will help Dennis appeal to the “iPod generation”.
Now, there are many ways in which to take offence at this news. Most obviously, this appears to be a case of what my old editor at the Hootsmon – who was actually rather young – used to call “political correctness gone rife”. (She was a creature of the Daily Mail, where things are always going rife.) I dare say that in this case, it is true. The BBC stands accused of not encouraging youngsters to thump each other. When children shoot each other’s eyes out with catapults, the Director General, Mr Mark Thomson, will be able to look himself in the mirror, take a drink from his £400,000 water cooler, and consider his conscience clear. Of course, now that Dennis has been equipped with a skateboard – in place, I assume, of his “cartie” – the BBC has opened itself up to the charge of encouraging knee and head injuries to children, not to mention endangering the lives of innocent pedestrians. One need only take a walk in Edinburgh’s Festival Square – also known, by the writer Mr Neal Ascherson, as Hypothermiaplatz – to understand that a teenager on a skateboard is more dangerous than a toddler with a “cattie”.
As it happens, I once spent a day in the Dundee offices of the Beano, and found it to be a most agreeable workplace. It was a small room, with two artists facing the comic’s editor, Mr Euan Kerr, whose style was, I think it fair to say, “hands-off”. There was no conversation in the room, and precious little merriment, because the art of being funny is very serious business. Mostly, the artists stared out of the window, awaiting inspiration. During my stay, this involved the appearance in the street of a child with a pump-action water pistol, which was immediately incorporated into the next Dennis the Menace storyline.
I am pleased to see that Mr Kerr is still in his post – which must make him one of the the longest-serving editors in Scotland – and I am confident that he will do all he can to preserve the innocent essence of Dennis in a grim world. (Though I note, with some horror, that Desperate Dan has traded his Colt .45 for a water pistol. I trust he will not be swapping his cow pies for a rocket salad and a glass of Evian: that would not be Cowtown).
Leaving the arguments about political correctness aside, I remain concerned for Dennis and Gnasher. As a thespian, I am a trained observer of character. Take away Dennis’s aggression, and his tendency to violence, and what remains? Will the infants of the iPod generation, their veins running orange with Sunny D, be satisfied by a tousle-haired twerp in a stripy jumper? Dennis, pour soul, will be adrift on a sea of indecision. What, he will be asking with every vacant twitch of his catapult hand, is my motivation? And what of poor Walter? If being a softie is no longer an acceptable ambition, what should he do? He cannot read books, since books are to children what unicorns are to zoologists – a comforting rumour, never to be encountered in real life. Should he attempt to befriend the beastly Dennis, and wallow in the absence of threats to his person? Surely not.
Besides, I do not understand why thumping softies has anything to do with “gay-bashing”. To suggest that it does is to imply that homosexuals are weak, and that, I think, is called homophobia.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

After Ten Years Of Devolution, The Scorrish People Are Fat And Tanned, Which Is A Success Of Sorts For The Senior Retainer, Mr Salmond

Suspicious as I am of anniversaries, it has not escaped my notice that it is now ten years since the election of the first devolved Scottish parliament. How long ago that seems, and how near. This great experiment in representation without taxation has changed the country, but left it exactly the same. If I were an optimist, I might construe that as progress.
What has changed? Well, the other morning I had to visit the airport at Edinburgh to meet my literary agent. I am not fond of aeroplanes, unless they are in the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune, and my visits to Turnhouse are rare. I was there in 1964 when Miss Marlene Dietrich touched down for her appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, and at that point it was possible to construe some glamour in this airstrip by the Forth. Subsequent visits have been less inspiring, not least because of the airport's proximity to a Chunky Chicken factory, which ensures that all visitors to our glorious capital are forced to breathe the air of a fowl crematorium. You may call me old-fashioned and I would thank you for the compliment, but I have never been of the opinion that the smell of dead chickens can be equated with a warm welcome.
The airport has changed. It is bigger, and has a minaret-like watchtower and carparks which stretch all the way to Ingliston showground. On one of these carparks, directly opposite the main exit, there is a large sign, which welcomes visitors to Edinburgh, "the home of RBS". The smell of dead chicken remains.
Ten years ago, the road signs on the fringes of Edinburgh featured a logo proclaiming the Scottish capital to be the "Festival City". This was a bold claim for a town which used to take pride in its joylessness, but not without merit. Rare is the month in the Edinburgh calendar when a festival of some sort is not taking place. But these days, the road signs have a different slogan. Edinburgh, they say, is "Inspiring Capital". Not, please note, "an inspiring capital". This slogan, I assume, refers to the golden years of the economic boom, when Sir Fred Goodwin and his merry bandits were making unwise investments with imaginary money and building monstrous headquarters' and bridges to nowhere on the western fringes of Edinburgh. I think, in the interests of decency, the council should come up with a new catch-phrase.
I am, I realise, digressing. But at the risk of turning metaphysical, there is a different energy in Edinburgh these days. The cold architecture of the banking boom now looks jaded and unwelcoming, while the centre of the city has been reduced to roadworks in the service of the tram. In glamorous Dumbiedykes, Mr Donald Dewar's Casa Popurului has bedded in nicely, and is now indistinguishable from the award-winning council schemes which surround it. The architect, Mr Miralles, is posthumously-revealed as a master of stained concrete. (I would have preferred pebbledash, but no matter).
On questions of substance, I am less sure. The Senior Retainer, Mr Alex Salmond, seems comfortable as the Ego of The Nation, and does a good job of cheerleading and empathising with the victims of catastrophes, natural and man-made, for which he is never to blame. He inhabits the role in a way that Messrs McLeish and McConnell did not, despite his belief that speaking in the vernacular is a valid substitute for substantive action. Still, a decade-on, it is a matter of regret that the parliament has failed to cultivate a politician of serious standing. Miss Wendy Alexander is retired and tending to her twins. Mr Tommy Sheridan awaits further examination in the courts, and has exhausted his popular appeal in the Big Brother house. About the rest, I know little, except that when they speak I am possessed by the urge to run, toot-sweet, for the Pentlands. It is, I think, a failure of devolution that its political class can, on a good day, be classed as jumped-up cooncillors, and, on a bad one, numpties.
And what of the electorate, those poor fools known by Mr Salmond's diminutive deputy, Miss Nicola Sturgeon, as "the Scorrish people"? Well, the Scorrish people seem happy with the glottal-stopping gobstopper of Scorrish nationalism, as long as they do not have to pay for it.
This nationalism is not imaginary, the Scorrish really are coming. There are kilts everywhere, and the people are fatter, physically and metaphorically. Edinburghers now look like Glaswegians, with their nuclear tans and their designer clothes stretched tight over lardy frames. The national football team has lost all ambition, while the nation has abandoned its newspapers, which themselves have lapsed into localism, with predictably dire results. Radio Scotland is in decline, though no one in broadcasting has yet dared to suggest that this might be related to the fact that its output is similar, if not inferior, to an eavesdropped mobile phone conversation on the number 27 bus. River City continues, and the posthumous reputation of Garnock Way is enhanced.
On that note, I will pause. I have more to say, but lack the energy to say it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The "Munter" Miss Susan Boyle, The Elephant Man, And The Polar Magnetism Of Mr Simon Cowell's Teeth

In the matter of deadly sins, I am far more likely to covet my neighbour's ox than to submit to jealousy. However, I can't deny that the unlikely success of the Blackburn chanteuse, Miss Susan Boyle, has set my heart aflutter with unusual palpitations.
To be clear, I do not envy the woman her fate. Anyone submitting themselves to the slings and arrows of reality television will come, I suspect, to regret the decision. Reality television, which has little to do with reality, and not much to do with television, is an idiot contest in which victory can quickly come to seem like defeat, as was evidenced by the unfortunate Miss Jade Goody, who was compared in death to Princess Diana, yet had far more in common with the Elephant Man, Mr John Merrick. She was served up as a freak, lived a freak's life, and died a freakish death full of simulated emotion and hard cash. May she rest in peace and be remembered fondly by her family and no one else.
Miss Boyle is slightly different, in that she has talent. She can sing. But singing is not what is being celebrated here. Miss Boyle may have achieved her celebrity on a programme called (with suitable disregard for grammar) Britain's Got Talent, but her fame is based on her ordinariness. Unlike most famous women, she does not resemble a blow-up doll. She has not been "styled", or had botulism injected into the sunken corners of her face. She looks like what she is: a church volunteer from the rusty buckle of the Central Belt. She is, according to The Guardian's overweight columnist Miss Tanya Gold, a "munter". Miss Gold, while not easily confused with Miss Dorothy Parker, is one of Miss Boyle's supporters.
What a strange and perverse world it is that ordinariness should be viewed as being so peculiar. I have known many Susan Boyles. The church is full of them, though usually their talent is expressed in traybakes or melting moments, and not through song. But we have had our share in The Peebles Showboaters; of actors, singers and dancers, some of them as handy with a tune as Miss Boyle, some of them less good-looking, but none of them driven enough to subject themselves to a trial in which the judges, the munter-gatherers, are Mr Simon Cowell - a man whose smile is comprised of artificial teeth so large that they can be viewed from outer space - and Mr Piers Morgan, whose self-love is such that his dressing room mirror could be excused if it collapsed through nervous exhaustion.
My point is straightforward enough. Miss Boyle could sing before she was served up as a high-definition dish on teatime television. She lived a good life with her cat Pebbles, harming no one. That, I think, was her gift. Now she is being patronised by the planet at large. We munters must hope that she, and her blessed pipes, make it through to the other side.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

If the Credit Crunch Sounded Like A Breakfast Cereal, The "Downturn" Is A Meteorological State Which Must Be Endured With Stoicism And Spam

Firstly, an apology. I have been absent from these pages too long. I offer no excuses for my absence. I was in a blue funk and had nothing constructive to say, so decided to adhere to a maxim passed on to me by my mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am). Perhaps in deference to the wartime propaganda posters about loose lips and sinking ships which decorated the pantry, she was an advocate of eloquent silence. "Chatter," she used to say, "is the diarrhea of a constipated mind." (Generally, as a cure for this unpleasant condition, she prescribed fig rolls, before meals, until the bloating abated).
My absence has coincided with the event known by the BBC as "The Downturn", and which was previously known by the much friendlier cognomen, "the credit crunch".
'Credit crunch' sounded, I always thought, like the kind of breakfast cereal Sir Chris Hoy might have eaten before pedalling a Moulton Mini around the lower slopes of Mount Everest, and as a metaphor it was of limited use to those us who have always abhorred money-lending, share-dealing, or any of the forms of licensed gambling which have kept the whinnying nitwits of the Stock Market in Champagne baths while the rest of us have us been left to compute the rising cost a sliced pan loaf. I have neither a borrower nor a lender been yet, for some reason, I am being invited to enjoy the unpleasant side-effects of everyone else's economic incontinence. How this happened under the watch of the Prime Minister (nee "The Iron Chancellor") Mr Gordon Brown, I am unable to say.
So now we have a "Downturn". I am no economist, but the technical explanation of this state of affairs appears to be roughly as follows: the bankers encouraged people who couldn't afford it to take out loans in order to buy things they didn't need, to the extent that their banks had to behave in the same way, borrowing non-existent money from each other and paying themselves monstrous bonuses as a reward for their economic perspicacity. This was cowboy economics, except that the men in the black hats who were robbing the stage coach were the bank managers themselves.
That, of course, is all in the past. The downturn, which is sometimes known as "the recession", occasionally as "the slump" or "the depression", has become an almost meteorological state. There is no other game in town.
And yet, these days do not feel so bad. The supermarkets are still crammed with unnecessary products, and young men still have the wherewithall to fortify their stomachs with communion wine every night. The gutters run with spew just as quickly as they did in the boom years, and the pavements remain sticky with Juicy Fruit. The bust is much like the boom. (Hemlines, it's true, are rising, which is said to be a bellwether of grim times, but this is a hardship that we must learn to bear.)
Stoicism is required. Fortunately I have plenty. I keep it in the coal hole, next to the emergency rations of Marvel and Spam.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Golliwogs and Miss Carol Thatcher: Another Case Of 'Political Correctness Gone Rife'

I have some experience in the matter of political correctness gone rife. My old lady editor at The Hootsmon used this phrase almost as a matter of punctuation to express her disgust at every aspect of modernity; a trick she had learned at that temple of unreasonable ire, the Daily Mail. But the sacking of Miss Carol Thatcher by the BBC is a puzzler. She should have been sacked long ago for being a bumbling halfwit who was only employed because her mother blasted the Argies in the Guerra de las Malvinas. But if - as my friend, the Conservative blogger Mr Iain Dale, attested on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme - she was referring the tennis player Mr Andrew Murray, then she really should have been more careful with her language, and stuck to the received wisdom that he is a tone-faced, whingeing Jock.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Cutbacks At The Hootsmon Canteen Are A Sad Symbol Of The Decline Of Our Notional Newspaper

I was saddened to hear that the staff canteen at my old employer, Scotland's Notional Newspaper, The Hootsmon, is - as the jargon has it - facing cutbacks. Employees at the paper will be forced to fend for themselves on Sundays, and will go hungry on weekdays after 2.30pm.
On one level, of course, this is good news. Journalists, as a species, tend towards obesity, on account of all the free lunches they are forced to endure, and going hungry for a few minutes will do them no serious harm. Perhaps some will revert to bringing piece-boxes and Thermos flasks, instead of eating subsidised dinners on the hour, every hour. Some do this already, of course. One venerable sub-editor of my acquaintance used to endure his shifts on the obituaries desk by eating bananas non-stop. He did this, I suspect, to give him the energy to deal with death on a daily basis. Still, it was always a surprise when he burst into an impromptu chorus of "I'm the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP", using his bicycle clips for percussion.
I recall also, a terrible moment during one of the paper's Vichy regimes, when a harrassed features editor arrived at his station with a 56lb sack of tortilla chips to fuel him and his colleagues through another day of earnest discussions of hemlines, botox, and leading articles on whether black was the new white. The poor chap was last seen on the higher slopes of Salisbury Crags, his kipper tie beating his face like a flag of surrender.
To be honest, the canteen has been in decline ever since The Hootsmon moved to it's mall-like offices in Dumbiedykes. The new canteen has discouraged custom in many ways: money was replaced by a system of identity cards stocked with credit, which, coincidentally, supplied details of journalists' movements. (Still, it would be paranoid to suggest that this information was relayed to a Dr Strangelove-style bunker in which the paper's proprietors stroked white cats while pumping their profits into a penny falls machine).
The canteen in The Hootsmon's old building was a better place entirely. There was no blond wood, hardly any light, and prison bars on the windows. One of the dinner ladies was a kind-hearted daftie, who was in the habit of mistaking me for Mr Clark Gable, and rewarding me with an extra helping of beans on account of my fine performance in Run Silent, Run Deep.
There was a subterranean feel in that dining room. Occasionally, the ominous silence would be punctured by a suicidal pigeon crashing into the glass, or the sound of an autistic teenager practicing the drums in the Cockburn Street arcade. The food was hearty, calorific and untainted by cosmopolitan pretension. It was mince, mostly, fish on Fridays, and chips with everything, including the jam roly poly.
One Halloween, soon after the erection of a sign encouraging Hootsmon employees to "put a smile in your voice", the chef took a funny turn and decorated the servery with a morbid tableau based on the Mexican Day of the Dead, with a severed pig's head at the centre.
It seemed ominous then, and it seems ominous now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ask Not For Whom The Burglar Alarm Tolls. It Tolls For Me. And It Keeps On A-Tolling

This morning, as yesterday, I awoke to the sound of a burglar alarm. The house opposite the Old Manse, a council property, has been unoccupied for some time, and empty, as far as I know, of valuables. The burglar alarm, as well as being unnecessary, is sensitive enough to be triggered by the flap of a starling's wing, the wisping of the breeze, or the cracking of thin frost, and can usefully be relied upon to ring from November to March. In spring, when the gales arrive, it starts again.
At first, I tried telephoning the police, to no avail. The Peebles Constabulary are a law unto themselves, and prefer tackling crime to answering the phone. (It is worth noting that most of the crime they are intent on tackling seems to take place within the womb-like vestibule of Big Eb's chip shop). I telephoned the council, too, and was rewarded with an electronic answering service which required something called a touch-tone keypad - an accoutrement which is beyond the means of my Trimphone.
And so the ringing continues. Sometimes, as the noise of the day builds up, it recedes, and it is possible to believe that the bell no longer tolls. Then, as the traffic dwindles, and the jets fly by, it begins again, an alarm with no cause or purpose, other than to irritate, endlessly.
It is like tinnitus, but less fun.