Strangers next door

This mid-80s Mercedes 230E – a beautiful car – shares a garage with me. It’s been there since I moved into my flat last summer and clearly hasn’t been touched by anybody other than kids. The grime was there when I moved in, as were the flat tyres you can’t see in that photo.

I’m fascinated by it.

I don’t know who owns it – the parking spaces are numbered, but don’t correspond to any system I’m privy to; the person who parks next to me lives in a completely different block – but I’m assuming the residents’ association does. The garage is a private one, residents only, and if you park when you shouldn’t you’ll have a letter on your windscreen before you’ve even got the key out of the ignition.

I’m intrigued by the possibilities, because this is costing somebody money: the garage is part of the deal here, and if you’re an owner you pay ongoing fees for it, for the lifts and for other communal things. If like me you rent, part of the rent covers that. So clearly somebody’s paying.

That probably rules out death. A dead tenant pays no rent; a dead owner pays no service charges.

Unless they’ve paid for a year or more up-front, of course.

Maybe the person is alive, but elsewhere. Maybe they work overseas. Would you keep paying service charges for a place you don’t stay in? Maybe, if you own the property and intend to keep it for many more years.

Or maybe the owner is still there. Maybe they can’t use it any more because of mobility issues.

But if the car can’t be used, or won’t be for very long periods, wouldn’t you sell it? It’s a W123, the last of the bombproof Mercs, and they’re still in demand: I’m currently looking at the same model, in roughly the same condition, on a 1984 A-plate. It’s on Auto Trader for £14,000.

That one’s unusual, though: barely driven, having spent most of its life in sunny Cyprus and used occasionally as a holiday car. This one’s rotting away in considerably less sunny Partick, and clearly worth considerably less money.

They can’t be keeping it as an investment. They’d have washed it occasionally, or covered it up. They wouldn’t have left it looking like this.

It’s a mystery.

This is a car that was loved, or at least looked after. Beneath the grime the chrome still shines; the sky blue paint still shimmers. Somebody cared about this car once, and yet here it is with flat tyres, a patina of grime and crude graffiti.

The owner lives, or lived, in the same flats as me, no more than a stone’s throw from where I’m writing this. And yet I’ve never seen them, and I suspect I never will.

Update, 14/3: The car owner filed a SORN (statutory off-road notification) in 2012. The car’s been parked longer than I thought.

The inkies were the internet of the 80s

It’s been a logo slapped on a generic lifestyle title for years, of course, but the official end of NME – formerly the New Musical Express, the last of the famed “inkie” music magazines – is still sad.

The music press was the internet of my childhood: a lifeline, proof of intelligent life beyond the boundaries of my home town. Q and Empire founder David Hepworth once described a good magazine as feeling like a letter from a friend. For me, that was NME.

The NME had a huge influence on my writing style, and I can remember tons of the sub-editors’ puns. Punning headlines are an art sadly lost in these days of search engine optimisation and clickbait. My personal favourite was one that annoyed the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers: “You Sexy Merthyr Fuckers”. I laughed for about a week at that one.

We’ll no doubt see a bunch of think pieces banging on about Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons and Paul Morley of the 70s NME, but to me the late 80s and early 90s were when the NME was at its peak. It had better writers, too: Steven Wells and Sylvia Patterson never failed to disappoint and often delivered astonishing journalism. The photography was often superb too, with the likes of Kevin Cummins and Roger Sargent producing some truly iconic images.

It wasn’t just influential, although of course it was: in those pre-internet days the music press could, as the cliché had it, build ’em up and knock ’em down. But it was also educational, ambitious and frequently very, very funny. My abiding memory of the NME isn’t the music, or any of the bands. It’s of laughing so hard it hurt.


Notes on the Kelpies

The Kelpies are two 30-metre statues near Falkirk. I think they’re beautiful, and even the best photos don’t really do them justice. Standing at the foot of them is awe-inspiring.

I love them, and I’d love it even more if people made this kind of thing a thing: this is a photo my friend Chris from the BBC took there yesterday showing a note someone had left for other visitors.

Imagine not just one note, but many: a mane of affirmations and hopes and prayers like the locks on Paris’s Pont Des Arts.

Wouldn’t it be great if the Kelpies became not just a beautiful work of art, but a beautiful, living work of art?

“A conniving hypocrite with a layman’s grasp of the Bible and a supernatural lust for earthly power”

One of the people I’m connected to on Facebook, a communications trainer, posted about the death of US evangelist Billy Graham the other day: “You may or may not agree with his message,” he wrote, but you can learn many lessons about effective communication.

You may or may not agree with his message?

Which message?

That jews had a “stranglehold” on the country?

That AIDS was a judgement from God?

That the US must nuke Vietnam?

That civil rights campaigners shouldn’t be so uppity?

That homosexuality was an abomination that inevitably lead to a sordid death?

That the US must become a theocracy?

Many LGBT people are getting astonishing abuse on social media right now for pointing out just one or two of these things, all of which are widely known and well documented.

As Bob Moser writes in Rolling Stone, Graham was gifted and influential, “the most famous and heavily self-promoted Christian of the entire 20th Century.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was a good man or a universally positive influence.

he was not only a virulent homophobe, but a few other not-so-Godly things as well: Jew-basher, aspiring war criminal, back-stabbing political operator and Christian Dominionist predicting imminent apocalypse, for starters.

I’m not so sure there are lessons to be learnt for aspiring communications professionals beyond: if all your rivals are crazed, woman-grabbing racists, not coming across as a crazed, woman-grabbing racist is a good way to differentiate yourself.

Beyond that, Graham’s deal was pretty basic: persuade people that there’s a need for what you’re selling, then sell it to them. Carnival barkers, snake-oil salesmen and politicians have been doing this stuff for centuries.

In communication terms, Graham wasn’t dramatically different from any other charismatic demagogue.

Let’s pick one.

Lewis Charles Levin agitated against the subversion of America by degenerate “aliens” in the 1840s and 50s. Like Graham he did so by harnessing technology to spread his message far and wide: in his case the steam-powered “penny press”; in Graham’s, TV. Levin has since been described as the Donald Trump of the Nineteenth Century.

Levin’s message was simple. America was under attack from people whose objective was “so monstrous, so appalling, so hideous, as the possible overthrow of American Freedom.” He railed against the evils of political correctness, although of course it wasn’t called that back then, and was a hugely influential political force.

Levin’s aliens to fear and fight? Catholics.

I didn’t pick Levin’s name out of a hat. Some years later, Billy Graham was the prime mover in an attempt to stop a Catholic, John F Kennedy, from becoming President. He hosted a meeting of religious leaders where the participants discussed “the nature and character of the Roman Catholic Church” and “were unanimous in feeling that the Protestants in America must be aroused in some way, or the solid block Catholic voting, plus money, will take this election.” However, news of the meeting leaked and caused a PR disaster.

The meeting’s most prominent guest was the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. In the aftermath of the meeting:

He was condemned in a published statement by a hundred religious leaders, excoriated in both the religious and secular press and dropped as a syndicated columnist from a dozen newspapers.

Peale took the fall, but Graham was the leader.

In response, JFK said:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.

Graham’s message was the opposite.

Moser again:

You might have called Billy Graham the rock star of Biblical literalism, except that he was bigger than Elvis and the Beatles combined.

And like rock stars, the character you see isn’t necessarily who they really are.

Fight the power

There’s been a fascinating spat between Irish feminists and anti-trans English people over the last few days: noticing that the secretive A Woman’s Place speaking tour was coming to Ireland, the Irish feminists promptly wrote an open letter telling the group to sod off:

We can see from your social media posts about your tour and its contents, that your opposition to the GRA is based on the idea that feminist organising and women’s rights will somehow be harmed through trans inclusivity and organising with our trans sisters. We know this is not true.

The response has been predictably awful, with really abusive posts on social media, jokes about the Potato Famine and other unpleasantness. And while a few people have taken the bait and responded in kind, most of the response to the unpleasantness has been thoughtful, measured and fair minded.

This twitter thread, by Aiofe aka @flyingteacosy, is superb. And so is this one  by Eilís Ní Fhlannagáin, aka @dirtycitybird.

In the first thread, Aiofe talks about the difference between “power over” and “power with” or “power through”:

Power OVER is brittle. It’s the power of divide-and-conquer. The power that is all about ME: my control over you. It about what I can force you to do. It’s the power of patriarchy, class, white supremacy. It’s also the power of the coloniser… [it’s based on the myth of scarcity]…

If the only power you know is power-over, then all you can do is try to get as big a slice of the pie as you possibly can. And then hold onto it with all you’ve got. That’s why it’s so damn brittle: all it wants is to perpetuate itself… You want power-over? You build walls. Kick out everyone who doesn’t belong. Take the pie. Hoard the forks, cause you’re terrified of being the hungry one.

That’s where we come to “power with” or “power through”. Instead of focusing on power OVER you to get what I want, this means: power to create, THROUGH the relationships we build and work we do together.

“Power through” is creative. It’s not about me over you, so your ideas don’t threaten me: they inspire me. It’s adaptable: we can support one another and lift one another up, ’cause we aren’t threatened by one another. And it’s EFFECTIVE.

And in the second thread, Ní Fhlannagáin (I hope I’m using the surname correctly here – if not please tell me!) makes some important points about engaging with people who fundamentally disagree with you and why it isn’t helpful to get angry, no matter how justified.

if all folks are getting on the one side is poison dripped in their ears *someone* has to do the hard education work…

there are people doing the dialog work and anything we say that makes that work more difficult hurts us all in the end. And yeah. We’re not gonna be perfect at that. I’m certainly not. But we can be better at it.

It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid

My 2017 was pretty uneventful. How about you?

To echo Taylor Swift, Gary can’t come to the phone right now… because he’s dead.

That’s okay, though. He’s gone to a better place.

So this is a big Christmas for me. It’s the first Christmas as a separated parent; the first Christmas in many years where I’ll wake up alone; the first Christmas where I won’t be visiting in-laws or my father; the first Christmas where I won’t be doing bedtime stories for overexcited and highly sugared kids.

The first Christmas for Carrie.

It’s been an interesting year, both in the traditional sense of the word and in the Chinese curse of “may you live in interesting times.” I toyed with the idea of a “things I learned this year” list, but I think I’d rather share a single — albeit quite long — thought. It’s kinda sorta about being trans but not really about that at all.

You hear the word “transition” a lot in discussions about transgender people, usually to refer to a physical process: somebody assigned male at birth (ie, born in an apparently male body) may transition to female via hormones or surgery. But to me, the real transition is more abstract and more powerful.

It’s about moving from a miserable life to a happy one.

There are many things I wish I’d done differently this year and many things I regret, but I don’t regret that transition. I took a photo a few days before I finally came to accept that I was trans and I looked like somebody had just dug me up. I took a photo last night and in it I’m so happy I want to punch myself, because there’s nothing that annoys me more than happy people.

Part of that transition from sad to happy has been to really question my attitudes. I always believed that if people discovered I was trans they’d shun me or build a giant Wicker Man and burn me inside it, but I was completely wrong.

If I was wrong about that, what else was I wrong about?

I referenced David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” in my last post, and this year I’ve made a point of trying to embrace what he called “real freedom” — the “unimaginably hard” choice to reject the default mode of “fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self”.

Wallace was right. It isn’t easy. I certainly don’t manage it all the time: I try not to grumble “who are all these people in my way?”, but that’s the default so of course it’s easy to fall into that way of thinking. But I’m trying, and I’ve found that by doing so — by working on the assumption that my core assumptions and beliefs may well be wrong — I’m experiencing life in a very different way. And that helps when people say terrible things about me or people like me too: rather than assuming they’re terrible people or bigots or whatever I try to understand and emphasise.

I still tell them to fuck off and block them, though. I never said I was a saint.

I’ve challenged a lot of things this year and taken steps I never thought I would. But by far the biggest thing I’ve done is to constantly try and do what DFW wrote about and what Mark Hollis of Talk Talk sings about trying to teach his children in Happiness Is Easy: “to recognise excuse before it acts.”

Here’s a silly wee example: Christmas lights. Who are these people with their stupid lights on their stupid houses every October?

Here’s a better question: who am I to judge? If they get a happy feeling from switching on their big daft Santas, that’s great: it’s a bit of joy in a world that often seems awfully short of it. My default is to judge, but realising that means I now greet people’s OTT illuminations with a smile rather than a sneer – so I get a little bit of joy from it too.

The people with the lights may well be assholes, but I don’t know if they are so I choose to imagine them as portly, jolly grandparents who just bloody love Christmas. Who cares if it’s true or not? It’s a much better assumption than my grumpy default, and the lights make me happier as a result.

As DFW put it:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

And that’s what I learnt in 2017. May your Santas light up the sky.

Merry Christmas x

Dad / daughter music maths


My musical career

Age: 45

Years playing gigs: 25

Gigs played: 100s

Disastrous gigs played: 100s

Gigs that ended in ignominy, in financial disaster, with chairs being thrown into ponds, with destruction or theft of equipment, with credible threats of physical violence or with severe chafing: too many to count

Most prestigious venues: Glasgow Barrowlands (opening for Mansun), T in the Park (unsigned stage)

Biggest crowd: Barrowlands, 1,000ish (probably a lot less)

My daughter’s musical career

Age: 10

Years playing gigs: <1

Gigs played: 2

Disastrous gigs played: 0

Gigs that ended in ignominy, in financial disaster, with chairs being thrown into ponds, with destruction or theft of equipment, with credible threats of physical violence or with severe chafing: 0

Most prestigious venues: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow School of Art

Biggest crowd: Concert Hall, c. 2,475

I always knew she’d outshine me, but I didn’t think it’d happen quite so quickly.

That’s a nice name

A young woman is doing my nails and we’re having one of those odd conversations you have when you’re spending a long time one to one with someone you don’t know. She mentions her kids, and as a parent I know we’re now on the safe ground of shared experience.

But we’re not, not really. I became a dad at 34. She became a mum at 18. I didn’t separate from my wife until I was 44. She was a single parent from the get-go. My kids were born into a two car family. She doesn’t drive.

We talk about our kids, about the cost of extra-curricular clubs and the problems of buying uniforms or kit for clubs the child might suddenly decide to quit. We talk about the lack of provision in her part of town, the binary choice of dancing for the girls and football for the boys. Her boy did hip hop dancing, just like my daughter, but he was teased for it and quit.

I ask her what her son is called, and she tells me. It’s one of _those_ names, the kind that tells you everything you need to know about the parent. The kind of name that makes you roll your eyes when it’s yelled across a soft play by somebody who’s having a much worse time than you.

That’s a nice name, I tell her, although I don’t really think it is. Was it something you arrived at quickly, or did you spend forever in baby books?

There’s a pause, and then she tells me.

They told her he was dead. A miscarriage. She cried, a lot. And when she went in for checks, checks to see if there was anything of him still there, they found a heartbeat.

There were other traumas, other indignities. But she left hospital with a miracle, a beautiful baby boy. A boy they said she’d lost.

Her family don’t like the name. They think people will judge her, and one day judge him. Sometimes she worries they’re right. Sometimes she is right. But when she sees him, her beautiful, strong, happy young boy, she can’t imagine calling him anything else.

I think it’s a beautiful name, I tell her. And this time I mean it.