Category Archives: personal

Fly, my online beauties, fly

Fly, my online beauties, fly …

In terms of internet years, I’m a dinosaur.

I remember irc, The Rough Guide To The Internet, Compuserve, dialup modems, AOL, Netscape Navigator, telnet, Alta Vista.

A long time ago in an internet far, far away

I remember booking half an hour in a cybercafé and running out of websites to look at. I remember when the internet was an unmoderated, unpredictable and – frequently – undesirable place to be. The wild wild web; the new frontier.

And I remember hitching my Teach Yourself HTML In 24 Hours book to my virtual mule and staking my claim.

First came Mystic Molly Of The Web, the internet’s foremost feline psychic. What started as a Viz-style joke site ended up with a devoted following, some of whom seemed to believe in my then moggy companion’s supernatural skills, based on some frankly rather unsettling emails I received at the time.

I still love Toy Story 2

Mystic Molly begat Screen Scene, a film review site, where I adopted a number of personas (Orson Carte, Arnold Willis, Baby Jane and Nikita Blue, if memory serves, each of whom was an ‘expert’ in their chosen genre). Some of their quotes still to this day appear on Rotten Tomatoes.

Screen Scene begat Happy Hopper, which for the life of me I can’t remember the rationale for the name of. A gaming site, I published cheats, walkthroughs and reviews of titles, many of which – like Daggerfall and Fallout – were the pixelated predecessors of games I play to this day. That begat an opportunity to freelance for a now-defunct site called Games Domain, and for me to receive free copies of usually dreadful PS2 games to give an online mauling to.

Screen Scene begat HeadCleaner, ‘the UK-based alternative music e-zine’. I reviewed every single and album I purchased (and I purchased a lot), everything from disposable pop nonsense to weirdcore muso ramblings. I also managed to interview such luminaries and heroes as David Gedge, Carter USM and Sigue Sigue Sputnik…

Happy memories (and too many boxes of obscure old CD singles)

After a while, my interest in my one-man media review publishing empire began to dwindle. I can’t quite recall why (probably because I was exhausted).

Several years later, I got the urge again. Although the internet had progressed far beyond the dusty canyons of those frontier days, I still felt a need to carve out a tiny part of it as my own. That urge coincided with the month I saw over 80 shows at the Edinburgh International Festivals, and – partly because I didn’t want to forget what I’d seen – I set up the Edinburgh Festival Insider blog and reviewed every sorry last one of them. By the end of the festival season that year, some of my quotes and star ratings were pasted up on posters across the city. I was hooked once more (bear in mind this was back in the days before there was as many reviewers as performers …)

I really should do more with this one…

Edinburgh Festival Insider thus begat Edinburgh Spotlight, a year-round news, review and photo site covering Scotland’s capital city. Now in its eighth year, it goes from strength to strength largely down to the sterling efforts of my business partner Alison, as I have – once again – butterflied off to something shiny and new.

That, of course, is my fiction writing (and, I suppose, this blog, which still carries faint echoes of Mystic Molly, HeadCleaner, Happy Hopper and the rest). Last year my writing almost died on the vine too, but as I’ve mentioned already, 2017 sees me and my creative fires back with a vengeance.

One flame of those fires will return to Edinburgh Spotlight, something I often feel ashamed of neglecting so much. Most of the remaining energy will go into the writing, that’s a given.

But I feel a glimmer of an itch of an urge again. The same one that first appeared when I realised the web was a place where anyone could play.

And although I’m not sure what it will be yet, I predict the imminent birth of a new website…

Thank you, Mr Turner

When I was 17, I wanted nothing more than to be an artist. All the decisions I made at school were in line with realising this goal, culminating in a sixth year dedicated to building my portfolio in order that I could apply for a coveted place at one of Scotland’s art colleges.

Fatefully, when I was 17, I also wholeheartedly embraced the pleasures of nicotine and alcohol. If I was being kind to myself, I could say I was already living the hedonistic life of a successful artist. In reality, I smoked and drank my way through the months until I realised my portfolio was – at best – a hyper-minimalist study of the emptiness of the human condition. In other words, it came as no surprise when it was swiftly delivered back to my home with a polite series of rejection slips from the four Scottish art colleges I’d applied for.

My artistic dreams thus evaporated, I turned my rather shamed teenage self to more mundane ambitions, ending up in a sensible job with a sensible salary and sensible career aspirations. My sense of creativity however refused to give up, and my love of art continued to burn, unable to be snuffed out by even the most soul-sapping morass of corporate machinery.

Today, through my writing, that creative sense burns brighter than it ever has, and I am grateful for that. Back then, I still drew and painted, unfettered by the pressure of trying to make a career of it. That was short-lived though – primarily due to practical reasons of time and energy.

But one thread from that previous artistic life has remained. An annual pilgrimage; a meditative journey where I contemplate on what might have been, and more importantly, what I’m still capable of.

And I have J M W Turner (and the Scottish National Gallery) to thank for that.

Every January, the Gallery brings it unrivalled collection of Turner watercolours out of storage. Originally, this was done in observation of the bequeather’s request that the works only be exhibited at this time of year, due to the weak January light being kindest to the delicacy of the 19th century paintings. Now, with advances in lighting and ambience, such precautions are no longer needed, but – rather wonderfully – the National Gallery has reverently upheld the benefactor’s original wishes.

Now I’m sure I’m not the only person whose January is artistically marked by a viewing of the watercolours. And I’m certain I’m not the only one who finds Turner’s masterly depictions of land, sea and sky as vibrantly inspirational today as they must surely have been when they were first exhibited.

Perhaps however I am the only one who visits with a sense of poignant reflection on a life that might have been; the sole viewer who associates Turner’s evocative portrayal of lightning hitting Venice with the sudden realisation that my dreamt-of future had vanished in an instant. And I’m fairly certain I’m in a small minority of people who recalls exactly what they were feeling, thinking and dreaming of every January since 1985.

Looking back today, some of those dreams have realised, but most have been as transient as Turner’s scudding clouds and ephemeral light.

But one constant remains.

A realisation and remembrance that I burn with a desire to create, to wrest something out of nothing, to leave marks where none previously existed.

And now, perhaps more so than ever, the poignancy is lessened, replaced by the midlife determination borne from an acceptance of the relentless march of time.

So I make you a promise, Mr Turner. 2017 will be a creative year, perhaps my most creative yet.

And in twelve months, I will stand here once again in front of your paintings, reflect on what I achieved, and give thanks for that. I will smile at your clouds; give thanks to your seas. I will mouth something silent and private to your lightning bolt in St Mark’s Square.

And I will create until I am capable of creating no more.

How I make time for writing

No news is good newsI’m more serious than ever before about writing.

I get antsy if a day passes and I’ve not written at least 1,000 words. And ideally done some plotting and editing and revising as well. And now that I’m treating being an indie author seriously, my writing to-do list is never a short one.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Writing is my passion. And whilst it may not yet be my vocation, writing full-time is my goal.

At the moment though, I’m not able to. Like many writers in my position, I have a full-time job and other commitments. So, in order to reach my goal and not go insane, something had to give.

Here then is a list of things I have (and haven’t) given up. And an honest view of how I feel about that.

I now no longer…

  • Watch television / films – I was never a huge TV junkie, to be honest. I used to watch cult shows and documentaries, as well as the odd drama or crime serialisation. I enjoyed a good movie. Now, I watch nothing. I still get pangs when I see people on Twitter talking about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or a film which sounds intriguing. But I know that the time investment required to watch anything longer than an hour is something I can’t afford. So I’ve made my peace with that.
  • Kill Your Television

  • Read the news – Giving up this one was easy. It’s also recommended by some as a way to be more mindful and present. For me, it’s ensuring I don’t spend time worrying (or getting angry) about things I can’t control. So whilst I may not be aware of the latest parliamentary debate or what’s happening on the other side of the world, I’m a lot less bogged down by feeling I have to keep up with current affairs (and possibly also happier as a result).
  • Use Facebook – I used to spend useless hours on Facebook, putting out satirical humourous updates and quite enjoying the banter. However, I realised that most of the ‘friends’ there are people I don’t know — and that the energy I used to put into trying to be entertaining there would be better utilised in my writing. So I now no longer feel obliged to let the people in my flimsy social circles on Facebook know what I’m up to. And I feel absolutely fine about that.
  • Take photos – for the past ten years or so, I was a passionate photographer, even to the extent of doing it freelance. However, as my writing passion took over, I realised it was a huge time sink. Not only the shoots themselves, but the sorting, processing and filing afterwards. I now realise that photography was an attempt to meet a need I had to be creative. And that need is now more than fulfilled by making up stories and writing them down.

Things I will never give up…

On the other hand, there are other things I know I will never give up (and I’m not just talking about eating custard creams or sleeping). The things which complement the writing; the things which make me feel human; the things which help me keep things in perspective.

  • Reading – with the absence of TV and movies in my life, I’ve rediscovered a love of reading. As well as being a way of improving my own writing, reading the words of others and visiting the places those words conjure up in my imagination is much more personally satisfying than sitting back and letting things wash over me.
  • Cup of tea

  • Learning – be it researching historical facts and events, or delving into more details about the topics, people and places I’m interested in — I’ll never stop learning about things which inspire me: from art to archeology; theatre to technology. And I keep up to date on these things — I suppose then that this is my substitute for reading the news. But a far more relevant substitute which adds value to my life rather than causing me to stress about it.
  • Socialising – I may be an introvert and driven by my desire to lock myself away and meet my wordcount, but I still need to interact with people too. I have a small circle of friends, but I’ve found as I focus on the things I’m passionate about — like storytelling for instance — this circle is increasing. And being filled with people I have a vast amount in common with, and whose company enriches me.
  • Twitter – when I was a Facebook junkie, I never really bothered with Twitter. Now, after putting my social media eggs into Twitter’s basket, I find it hugely rewarding. I’ve made some fantastic contacts and I learn about things which are relevant to me. If my friends are my lifeline to the physical world, then Twitter is my link to the online one.

What are the cons?

I’m not that great at small talk (‘no, I didn’t see Breaking Bad / Doctor Who / that documentary on gigantic dormice‘) — but then I never was. I’ve got less personal patience for things I view as irrelevant (mainly negative stories and opinions on the internet or in the press) — but then I don’t tend to come across them anymore anyway.

And the pros?

I’m focused. I’m doing what I love. I feel fulfilled. I’m happy.

And I’m not going to argue with that.

In fact, having time to write is almost a bonus.

North Berwick

photo-1

Since visiting there every year as a small boy (my grandparents used to spend their annual summer holiday there and we — as a family — would take them there, visit them halfway through, then bring them home again), I’ve loved North Berwick.

I have memories of cowrie shells and sandcastles; of shops selling magical trinkets and cloyingly-sweet tablet; of boat trips and paddling pools. And, returning there regularly as an adult, many of those things are still there, reinforcing and resurrecting the childhood memories.

The town continues to prosper thanks to its quick rail link to Edinburgh, and it is as enjoyable to visit today as it was all those years ago. Now, viewing it through the eyes of a writer, it is also alive with inspiration, thanks to a combination of its evocative scenery and seaside views, and its varied and fascinating history.

Such as…

  • The 19th century ‘Rocketeers’, a group of local men who rescued stranded ships by firing ropes attached to wires out to the stricken vessels, then hauling them ashore.
  • The 16th century North Berwick witches, who allegedly attended midnight masses in the grounds of the Abbey Church, with the devil himself in the pulpit.
  • The town’s reputation as the ‘Biarritz of the North’, in the summer holiday heydays of the 1950s (a perfect setting for a cosy crime thriller right there)
  • And the castle of the Lauder family on Bass Rock, where popping out for your messages must’ve been quite an undertaking…

I can therefore see myself writing some North Berwick-inspired words soon…

My storytelling debut

Take a bite...?Halfway through my storytelling course now, and I’ve found it’s something I’m absolutely loving.

When our course tutor Janis Mackay invited us to come along to Edinburgh’s Guid Craic Club, a monthly storytelling night, I therefore jumped at the chance. She even planted the seed that some of us might want to get up and join in. I went along in two minds about this: one, fired up by my new-found storytelling passion, very much wanting to; the other, the inner critic, telling myself I wasn’t ready, that it’d be too busy, that nobody would want to hear my story…

Nevertheless, I went along with a printout of a piece of writing I’d written in class a couple of weeks ago. Just in case.

The Guid Craic club was brilliant. A diverse and impressive range of hugely talented and engaging people, all holding the audience in the palms of their storytelling (and musical) hands. And with, as quickly became apparent, no bits of paper in their pockets.

Everyone was doing this from memory. It was, after all, a storytelling club, not a spoken word event or a recital.

However, after tentatively allowing my name to be put down in the book of people willing to contribute (with a suitable get-out clause in case my inner critic won), I stepped up and told my tale. As it was one I’d written, I found I knew enough of it off by heart to tell it without having to read from (or hide behind) my bit of paper. I even managed to make up a suitable beginning for it, and change it from first to third person (changes which I frantically ran through in my head whilst chainsmoking outside during the break).

So I told my tale. And I loved it. I feared I would stumble, or come across as too nervous, but I found that once I got into it (and helped no end by the friendly relaxed atmosphere), the power of the story took over. And, far more importantly than my own internal hangups and demons, the audience seemed to appreciate it too.

A massively rewarding buzz. And an addictive one.

So my inner critic can hud his wheesht. I’m a storyteller.


Here’s the written piece which (fortunately) stayed in my pocket. When I told it, I added in a bit at the start making it obvious it was set during the events of the fairytale, with the characters witnessing Snow White’s ‘funeral procession’ through the forest.

‘What have you got there?’

My sister turned round from the tree, cupping her hands as if she was holding the most precious, magical thing she’d ever seen.

‘It’s beautiful.’ She gazed down, her eyelashes like spiders. My scalp tingled. It felt like someone was watching, through a window, far away.

I stepped closer. ‘It’s just an apple.’ My voice was sharper than I’d meant it to be. ‘Look — someone’s already taken a couple of bites out of it.’

Her face crumpled, but then she raised the apple to her face and sniffed at it.

‘Still fresh,’ she said, in the same voice she used to speak to mum when she was being accused of something. Then she wiped it on her dress, smearing a streak across the bright yellow material. ‘And now it’s all clean too. Look how shiny it is!’

It was. The apple shone like a deep red mirror, reflecting the world back from its smooth crimson skin. I could see my own face in it. I noticed I was sneering.

‘Just an apple.’ I turned away and walked along the forest path.

It was dusk now. The sky felt closer. I could see the moon: faint, almost see-through, like a ghost of itself.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘We’ll be late if we don’t hurry. You know what they say about this place after it gets dark.’

The sound of my little sister biting into the apple was like a heavy foot crunching down on deep, white snow.

I spun round and watched as the apple fell from her hand, tumbling amongst the tangle of twisted roots.

She fell a moment later, her dress ripping on the thorns which grew beside the tree.

It was dark now.



Stories on and off the page

I’ve had the opportunity this year to read a couple of my short stories aloud in public. Something I thought I’d never do, but something I ended up quite enjoying — and, more importantly, so apparently did the audience.

A couple of them even went so far as to compliment me and say I should consider being a storyteller. So, when I was looking at Edinburgh University’s Open Learning courses a few weeks ago, one of them — Stories On And Off The Page — called to me louder than the rest.

I went along to the first class of this ten-week course last night. It’s split equally between creative writing inspired by myth and fairytale (right up my street), and the techniques of delivering a story orally (less so, but a street I’m now keen to at least have a walk along).

It’s lead by Scottish children’s author and storyteller Janis MacKay, and her lyrical enthusiasm for the story was infectious, with her quickly having split the eleven attendees into small groups, sharing tales of the stories behind our names, the first anecdote that sprung to mind, and sensory-laden tales from our childhood (mine was about the origin of my custard cream addiction).

With a group small enough to not be intimidating, but lively and committed enough to be inspiring, this course looks like it’ll be fun and productive — and I’ll have the chance to develop that little storytelling spark into something bigger (and ideally brighter). Janis even made some mention of possibly focusing on our own storytelling projects later in the course, which certainly appeals.

On top of all that, I now have this stuck in my head too (which does little other than to demonstrate my age)…


Post-festival inspiration

I didn’t expect (apart from reviews) to get much writing done in August, and I was right.

From the 2nd to the 26th, things were pretty much full on with the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe and — my favourite — the Book Festival.

However, as in years previous, it was a bewitching and inspirational experience. From the sheer amount of creativity emanating from every pore of the city, to themes and influences discussed by authors and artists: part of my intention was to let everything seep in.

And seep in it has. After doing the annual mind map, I’ve got ideas for three short stories and premises for (at least) two novels soaking into my brain.

Organised chaos - the post August mind map 2013

Organised chaos – the post August mind map 2013

I’ll fling these about my mind for a bit longer and see what settles, but for now, a massive and heartfelt thank you to everyone who came and shared — directly or indirectly — the irresistible allure of their own creativity.

I miss it, yes. But now — at last — I am writing again.