Herald Columns

Various columns from The Herald Magazine. Copyright belongs to The Herald. 

Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine

IT was a beauty, that ornamental crocodile. A majestic, fearsome swine with teeth like dwarves’ gravestones. I’d envisaged it on sentry duty on my tenement landing, warding off Avon reps. They’d abruptly reconsider interrupting my tea break to expound the benefits of Clearskin Invisible Blemish Corrector if they were confronted by the death stare of a six-foot reptile.

A bastard in a boiler suit scuppered my plan, though. A pawnbroker, by the looks of him. Canny type. If I bid two pounds, he’d go four. When I reached six, he’d stake eight. When we breached £16, I threw in the towel – otherwise I’d have been short for the bus fare home.

This wasn’t your average decorative crocodile. It had history. Personality. Authority. For starters, it was the property of Strathclyde Police – one of countless items accrued in the lost and found departments of west-coast police stations or used as evidence in criminal trials. The croc ended up in Ayrshire to be flogged off at a police auction and then, alas, into the mitts of the boiler suit.

Strathclyde Police’s quarterly sales take place at Wilsons Auctions in Dalry. Lothian and Borders Police – who are holding a sale at Wilsons today – and the Irish Garda also use the firm. All in, the Strathclyde sales recoup upwards of £60,000, money which is reinvested in community policing.

In theory, the auctions are clinical and businesslike. Eye up the lots, however – some 1,500 appeared at Strathclyde’s last auction – and we’re talking haberdashery in earth’s base wares. The goods range from shoplifting staples (DVD players, cordless drills, hi-fis, iPods) to curios (a wheelchair, a box of life jackets, a toilet seat, size five pink flip-flops).

There are unwieldy combinations: “quantity of socks and Sony VCR”; “snooker cue, hoe and one other item”; “two dog ornaments and three garden gnomes”; “cricket bat, walking stick etc”. Then there is the downright meagre: a £1 Tesco voucher, sports socks, Christmas cards, candlestick, tights, razor blades. There are even two CCTV home security systems up for grabs.

Sparklers, it turns out, are a major draw: necklaces, rings, earrings, pendants, bracelets, brooches and bangles in a fusion of designs and finishes. A few bear inscriptions: “F loves D”, “J&M forever”, “To my love Debs”. Here, squatting in clear plastic bags with little lotnumber tags, they are no longer symbols of intimacy, their vulgar idiosyncrasies serving only to mark down the price.

Whether it’s walking sticks or dog ornaments, Jim Forsyth isn’t at all surprised or overwhelmed. “After a while, you don’t get shocked. The unusual has become, well, usual, ” says the head of Strathclyde Police’s unclaimed property department.

With such a diverse bag, however, the odd bad lot does slip through. Strathclyde Police itself sold PC hard drives containing hardcore pornography two years ago. West Yorkshire, meanwhile, profited from specialist hydroponic lights used to cultivate cannabis. Even the Crown Prosecution Service accidentally sold exhibits from a burglary trial, causing the case to collapse.

Such mishaps, it has to be said, are uncommon, and the regular patrons at the Strathclyde auction care only about the bargain. A ragtag of facial scars, notepads, ponytails and substandard dental hygiene, they are crammed into the hall, each clasping a bidding number.

Jim Scott, a pinstriped auctioneer of 20 years’ standing, surveys the Dickensian scene. Crowds of this scale are commonplace nowadays, he says. “eBay has created a real auction culture. And with all the daytime TV shows, they have a far higher profile. People come out of curiosity.”

A few minutes later, hammer in hand, Scott climbs to the stage. By the second lot, he’s found his rhythm. The mob is in thrall to his scattergun sales pitch.

“Start me at twenty ten five. Fiver? FIVER? Two. Two? Two pounds. No? Anyone? Yes, sir! Two! Thank you! Two. Coupleofpoun. FOUR, anyone? No? Two. Two. Two. ONLY two. All done? Two. Twopoun. Going once. At two. Two. TWICE. All done? SOLD for two pounds.” This guy talks the way rabbits make love.

The lots are dispensed with quickly – Scott estimates his rate at about 100 an hour. Lot 1,222: toy model of A-Team van, £28. Lot 1,626: family Bible, £2. Bang. Bang. A catalogue of swindles and perversions, junk and genuine steals. Proof, too, that Mr T is 14 times more popular than John the Baptist.

I never did find out how the saltie came into the hands of the polis, but I’d like to think it was suitably dramatic – the clinching prosecution exhibit in a murder case, perhaps. “I put it to you, m’lud, that the fatal injuries sustained by grandmother-of-17 Senga McPhumpherty, battered in cold blood as she watched Deal or No Deal, could only have been inflicted courtesy of a severe and frenzied battering with this here ornate beast . . .”

Then again, perhaps not. But as Strathclyde Police knows only too well, stranger things have happened.



Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine

THIS afternoon, far away in a secluded castle near the Moray coast, a secretive exercise in genetic cloning reaches its macabre finale. From the doors of the petal-pink Castle of Park in Cornhill, Aberdeenshire, dozens of Dame Barbara Cartlands will file out, bearing lapdogs, pastel chiffon and the literary schlock to obliterate all taste and sensibility.

For the past week, their intensive tutoring has covered many bases: dissecting the alpha male; penning logical loopholes; and, most importantly, ensuring sex drips from every vowel. The romantic fiction workshop has taught them well. Now, on a Black Saturday for modern culture, they will begin to write the unspeakable.

The figure behind the seminar, which costs £665 a head, is Sharon Kendrick, an American writer of romantic fiction. She has 65 formulaic titles to her name under the Harlequin Mills and Boon imprint, including Surrender to the Sheikh, The Paternity Claim and The Billionaire Bodyguard.

Popular though Kendrick’s books are, the reigning queen of romantic poppycock is Sue-Ellen Welfonder. A former flight attendant, the Floridian is an aficionado of all things tartan. Founder of her own Clan Macfie society, Welfonder’s profligate yarns detail kilted warriors and brawny noblemen in medieval Scotland. Only For a Knight, for example, follows Robbie Mackenzie, sole heir to the Black Stag clan. “For ten lusty years, he has savoured the sensual pleasures that only a man with no wife can taste,” Welfonder writes. That’ll be Findus microwave lasagne-for-one, I presume.

The business behind this tommyrot, though, is deadly serious. US book sales are £750m annually, while Mills and Boon has 16 editorial offices worldwide, producing 800 titles a month and selling five every second – the market, much like the readers’ gussets, is on the verge of saturation.

Still, I reason, perhaps there’s a spare udder on the cash cow that needs milking. Browsing through the Writer’s Handbook, I find my vanguard. Barbara Collins Rosenberg, a Massachusetts-based literary agent specialising in romance, women’s fiction and chick-lit. Like most agents, she fires a piqued caution across the bows of prospective clients. Letters from budding authors must be singlespaced in a legible font and printed on white or cream 20lb paper. And for the love of God, make sure you proof-read. “If my name is spelled incorrectly on the envelope, ” she forewarns, “I automatically discount whatever the writer has written.” Nae borra, Babs . . .

FAO Barbara Collins Rosenberg,

I am writing to outline my recently completed period novella, a Celtic romantic adventure set in the early sixteenth century. It would, I believe, represent the first such title in the growing canon of historical romance to have been penned from the nib of an authentic Scottish clansman.

Entitled ‘Heat in a Highland Hamlet’, it charts the nineteenth year of one Shona MacHaddock, a bonny, noble lass growing up in the quaint fishing village of Dennistoun. Tied at home to her wicked stepfather and head of Clan MacHaddock, Shug, and his plotting wench, Elsie, Shona spends many of her days on the nearby Eilian-I-Stag. A slither of land located in the middle of the tranquil Loch Buckfast, it is here she flees to talk to the squirrels and drape her supple young thighs around the thick branches of the oak trees.

It is while on Stag Isle one day, however, that Shona’s pale blue eyes fall upon a strange ship approaching. At its helm is a fiery red beard. It belongs to Phil MacOach, Baron of St Enoch and notorious pillager and murderer. The isle, come blood or fury, is to be his.

Only Hamish McAirse, a proud but simple cockler with a tanned torso and forearms like sides of meatloaf, is prepared to risk his life by helping Shona save Stag Isle. Reluctant of his coarse ways, she nonetheless realises his offer cannot be turned down. Together, the pair seek out Dennistoun’s wise men and hear stories told by firelight of MacOach’s violent crusade. It stems from heartache, they say – an angered life irrevocably changed after his only daughter was snatched from him at birth by a rival clan.

As their quest progresses, the hearts of Hamish and Shona forget their contrasting class and status to melt together. After much blood is shed, they will discover that it is Shona herself who may be MacOach’s lost heiress and that MacHaddock may be the true villain. Swords will clash, lips will touch, and Hamish’s Highland hamlet will get very hot indeed.

A first novel some 94,300 words long, the work is coloured by my own knowledge and experience as the founding member of Clan McLaughlin (and indeed, as a red-blooded Scot). Structured around real-life historical battles, figures, and folk stories passed down from my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, it puts the sex into the sixteenth century.

I have read extensively around the category of historical romance, and believe the readers of authors such as Sue-Ellen Welponder would be keen to read the words, feel the heartbeats, and live the life of a true clansman and romantic writer. Please find enclosed an SASE for your reply. I would be keen to send The Rosenberg Group a synopsis of the work along with sample chapters. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours aye,

Martyn McLaughlin



Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine

LIFE in the nebula of administrative impotence otherwise known as Scottish local government occasionally throws up a mote of gumption.

Somewhere the odd industrious soul can be found beavering away. David Milne, for example, is probably the only community councillor in Scotland to have volubly extolled the pleasures of thrush while strumming a tennis racket.

A 34-year-old maintenance worker for Tayside Contracts, his days are spent replacing bulbs in street lights and cleaning council vehicles across Angus, Perth and Dundee. In the evenings he contributes to the modest work of Kirriemuir Community Council. Hard rock really shouldn’t enter the equation.

A week today, though, Milne will assume the mantle of Harvey Goldsmith and shake up the town, until now revered for gingerbread and Peter Pan, by paying tribute to its most infamous son – Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott, the late singer with the rock band, AC/DC, born to Chick and Isa in Kirriemuir on July 9, 1946.

Ever since a friend gave him a tape of AC/DC in primary school, Milne has been a fan. Having moved to Kirriemuir from Dundee five years ago, he’d heard talk in pubs of Scott’s links with the town. After further research and a “tooth and nail” fight with his fellow community councillors, his grand plan is taking shape.

Next Saturday, on Bon Scott Memorial Day, a specially commissioned plaque will be unveiled in tribute to the “world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll legend”. Local bands will play the town hall, and in the finale, Volts, a Scottish AC/DC tribute band, will perform their “live non-stop two-hour rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza”, that will, it is said, “blow your head of (sic) your shoulders!” Their guarantee, not mine.

Scott’s family were well known in Kirriemuir during the 1940s through their successful Bank Street bakery, churning out the town’s beloved gingerbread. A young Bon was first exposed to music there, courtesy of his father’s involvement with Kirriemuir Pipe Band.

At the age of six, though, he emigrated with his family to Fremantle, near Perth, Australia, never to return. Even so, Milne is convinced the cause is a worthy one. Earlier this year, the National Trust of Australia decreed Scott’s grave a classified heritage site and Milne is keen to follow in their footsteps.

“Bon never took himself seriously, but he was a star, an inspiration, ” says Milne. “It’s about getting the young bands involved and raising Kirriemuir’s profile. Not everyone agrees with the way Bon lived his life, but we can do good from this event.”

The “way” Scott lived his life, for those not in the know, resembled a Catherine wheel. His days and nights were a wayward drift of liquid excess. To have experienced his onstage performance – his larrikin pomp and stentorian squall – was like witnessing a sermon of rock.

Bare-chested and with a mullet pulpy with sweat, he was, recalls Milne, a “scuzzy” helmsman who spat couplets laced with innuendo and rancour through jagged riffs. At just 33, Scott was found slumped lifeless in a car in a London street after a raucous drinking bout. “Death by misadventure, ” recorded the coroner. It would have made a fine album title.

All in, he’s not the kind of chap you’d expect Major Roland Proctor to admire. The 61-yearold chairman of the community council and curator of the Black Watch Museum in Perth is more familiar with Royal Stewart tartans than codpieces and leather chaps. “I’m more of a Cliff Richard man, to be honest, ” he confesses.

But the major readily recognises that, apart from a modest display last year in the town’s Gateway to the Glens museum, Scott’s legacy has not been maximised. “Fortunately for us, David’s a big AC/DC fan, ” he says. “Old duffers like me wouldn’t know where to begin.”

To date, only around a quarter of the 400 tickets for the all-day event have been sold, but Milne and his fellow organisers have faith. And across the mesmerising spectrum of AC/DC websites, the plans have not gone unnoticed.

Glenn Robertson from the nearby village of Newtyle, runs www. crabsodyinblue. com – a Scottish fansite complete with “virtual graveyard”. He shares Milne’s view that the event will boost the economy, and ensure that a “long overdue” tribute will be paid. Gilly, a regular poster to www. acdcpower. net, isn’t convinced: “Local kids’ bands playing? Shitty sandwiches made by grannies with pishy knickers? Won’t be going to that one.”

It is, at least, a reaction. A few days ago, I telephoned the headquarters of Epic Records in New York. The spokesman was neither aware nor keen to hear more of next weekend’s happenings in Kirriemuir. The only upcoming AC/DC event of note, it seems, is the impending release of a “deluxe boxed” set featuring a model of the band, accessorised with guitar, mic, bass and large cannon. As even the major could tell you, that ain’t rock ‘n’ roll. Kirriemuir Community Council, we salute you.



Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine

THE moment the envelope dropped through The Herald’s letter box, I knew it was from Philip Hamilton. Most of the mail I receive falls into one of two categories: turgid wedges of council agendas or fulminations from fantasists with a Crayola set and the unshakeable belief that their milkman is in the pay of MI5. Few of them have a Paddington Bear stamp.

Hamilton is, I should point out, a manchild. A grandfather in jumper and slacks with a wavy thicket of snow-white hair, he does not hold much truck with adult ways. He’s the missing link between Willy Wonka and Father Christmas. Together with his family, the 72-year-old runs the Hamilton Toy Collection, a cubbyhole of childhood esoterica based in a converted guest house in Callander.

Having digested Hamilton’s A5 pamphlet on the collection, I arrive in his tranquil Perthshire enclave on a Monday afternoon to be greeted by a plastic tray bearing coffee and – bliss – caramel wafers.

The collection, along with two shops (one for boys, one for girls), spans two floors and several rooms containing thousands of die-cast soldiers, vintage bears and dolls, toy cars and trains, and stacks of sci-fi and television memorabilia.

Edwardian dolls sit alongside Action Man figures (rare George Best and Argyll and Sutherland Highlander editions among them); beautifully restored Picot puppet theatres nestle next to refurbished merry-go-round horses; and moth-bitten Sooty hand puppets rub shoulders with antique Armand Marseille dolls. It is an exciting, if overwhelming, rag-tag of rarities.

The collection began in the 1970s, when Hamilton, his wife Patsy and children Cris and Catriona started frequenting jumble sales, fetes and car-boot sales. “Sometimes it’d get near the end of a sale, ” Patsy remembers, “and the stallholders would just let us fill a black bag with great items for 50p. Real bargains.” The Hamiltons even rummaged through skips and dumps for discarded gems.

Come the 1980s, the family home in Croydon, south London, was fit to burst. Toys were stuffed in every nook of the three bedrooms, loft, lounge, garage and two garden sheds. Patsy issued a matriarchal ultimatum: either the toys went or the family opened a dedicated museum. The choice was made, and 11 years ago nine 250 cubic-foot containers were moved to Callander.

The cloth-eared specimens have their own histories, which make the family fascinating curators. Patsy’s childhood doll Yvonne, for instance, was rescued from an obliterated shop in France during the Second World War and bought by her father from servicemen’s stores as a Christmas present. To this day, it wears the same shawl her mother knitted in the 1940s.

Gerdhart, meanwhile, a bedraggled Steiff bear, dates from 1919 and was the toy of a German girl afflicted by scarlet fever. Decades later the owner, then in her seventies, advertised her bric-a-brac in the classifieds. Now a patched-up Gerdhart has retired to Callander, alongside a faded 1924 black-and-white photograph of the little girl who cherished him so.

A childish wooden plane, on the other hand, was hand made by a German prisoner of war in Oxford in the early 1940s. A friend of Hamilton traded the PoW a packet of cigarettes for the simple sculpture.

“The toys are a social history, ” reasons Hamilton. “You’d be lynched if you made them now, but we need to document these things. They show us who we were, and who we are.”

A fine point, and a covert reference to the golliwogs. The Hamiltons have hundreds of them, scattered around in all shapes and sizes: dolls, soft toys, die-cast figures, plates, mugs, the famous Robertson’s marmalade jars.

It is, in truth, more absurdity than obscenity, much like a dubious curio of Hanna Barberaendorsed merchandise dubbed Smoking Animals. “Put a cigarette in the mouth, ” hollers the packaging blurb, “light it, blow out the flame and watch the animals blow smoke rings!” Action figures of Yogi Bear, Deputy Dawg and Huckleberry Hound all suck on the demon weed.

Over the past decade, the collection has remained beneath the public radar, despite attracting about 4,500 tourists a year. There have been changes, of course. The children flew the nest, with Cris working in model and toy shops, and Catriona, a psychiatric nurse, getting married to a work colleague, John Hunter, an avid hoarder of sci-fi merchandise.

It was like that for a while, but this year the extended Hamilton clan – including Catriona and John’s son, Calum – is united once more. Three-year-old Calum, according to his grandfather, is “quite blase” about growing up in a home dedicated to childhood playthings.

The collection will be bequeathed to Cris and Catriona, and there is talk of finding larger premises. Pesky grown-up matters such as rising insurance premiums threaten to get in the way of the play. But then, change is unavoidable. After all, these days Yogi, Deputy Dawg and Huckleberry have to pop outside for a fag.



Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine

THE cat doesn’t look long for this world. It’s a panting hunch of fuzz, tail trawling through the trackside gravel, eight short of its complement of lives. This mouser needs a taxidermist, not a vet. “I don’t think I can take this, ” it croaks. “I might pass out.” Poor puss hasn’t seen shut-eye in 24 hours. Friday night has melted into a 100 watt spring Saturday. Yet somehow the tom must rouse himself for the next 90 minutes.

Twenty minutes to kick-off and a melody seeps through the PA system, an instantly recognisable jaunty lilt. “TOP CAT! Thee in-diss-pyootabull LEE-DURR OF THE GAA-AANG” The moggy raises himself up to his full six feet. Paws like dustbin lids clodhop towards the turf. He rumbles past the May Hughes School of Dancing – a teenage collective of hotpants, pom-poms and goosebumps. Still the music blares: “He’s the BOSS, he’s a PIP…” A huddle of young boys bounce and hoot in their plastic seats. Gambolling awkwardly, the blue cat claps and waves, his dance possessing the natural grace of a Pickfords worker wrestling a wardrobe downstairs. “He’s the CHAM-PIYON-SHHIP he’s the most TIP-TOP TOP CAT!” Applause. To my left, a fan thrashes his palms. “I like that song,” he bellows. “It’s better than What’s New Pussycat? That made Cappie look like a poof.”

Welcome to Cappielow, home for the last 132 years to Greenock Morton Football Club – and one Cappie the Cat. Beneath the fur, Cappie is a 19-year-old childcare student who, for the sake of the children, shall remain nameless. He began his love affair with Morton as a toddler. Stints as a ballboy and programme seller followed. Now he is the official mascot. “Best club ever, ” he beams.

Today, chasing promotion, the club is hosting Ayr United. The visitors have failed to win any of their last 13 games and victory seems a formality. By 2.40pm there is much hoopla. Scarves swish around while stewards hand out sweets to a row of disabled fans: fistfuls of Hawick balls, rhubarb rock, mint humbugs and millions (“Ideal for eating in class, ” so the slogan goes, “so small they’re undetectable!”).

Behind it all is Douglas Rae, founder of Golden Casket, Scotland’s largest independent sweet manufacturer. His sugar-coated philanthropy makes him the perfect lower-league chairmancum-benefactor. From high in the stand he watches on with Arthur Montford, the infamous commentator and lifelong fan of the club.

Just five years ago, Morton were teetering on the verge of liquidation, anchored to Scottish football’s basement league for the first time in their history. Such was the discontent with the previous owner that Cappie’s predecessor, Tonasaurus (aka Pat Gillon, a well-kent Inverclyde youth football coach), stood in the local council elections campaigning for a donor to save the club. Even the young cat remembers. “The club didn’t have a penny, ” he recalls. “The showers in the players’ dressing rooms were broken so I came and repaired them.” Money, as ever, was not an issue.

Cappie is one of a small army of volunteers that also includes Alistair Wylie, a fellow scout leader (Cappie’s lethargy today is the legacy of a “stay awake” fundraiser for his cub troop). Wylie spends match days selling lottery tickets. Tommy Norris also sells tickets while his wife volunteers in the club shop. “All of us love it, ” Norris says. “It’s not a choice for us.”

Three o’clock and the whistle blows. The game is ill-deserving of the pomp that preceded it; the opening half-hour a stramash of limbs as the bungling wage war with the blundering. Jim McInally, Morton’s coach, wears the expression of a dog trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

Forty minutes later, though, it’s even worse as Paul Weaver thunders the ball into the roof of the net. One-nil Ayr. “They’ve got to clear their bloody lines, ” comes a bark. I turn to find it is the voice of God: 5ft 11ins, wearing a sports jacket, with two teeth.

Mention Andy Ritchie to any middle-aged Greenockian and you’ll send them into a silent reverie. Known as the Ambling Alp for his unorthodox attacking style, he is a Morton legend, the only player to win Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year while working on the roads. Now retired to Portugal, the prodigal son returns whenever he can. “I don’t miss anything apart from the Ton, ” Ritchie confides. “If you peel back the skin of this club, it’s not about big business or huge wages. It’s about a local family-oriented side.”

It’s half-time. Cappie takes to the pitch to try to revive the crowd’s spirits to a burst of Abba. Norris and Wylie mingle among the spectators selling tickets, but Ayr go on to score another three goals in the second half. The 4-0 defeat will hurt the Morton fans hard, as will the loss to Peterhead a few weeks later that condemns them to another season in the second division. None of it, though, will deter them from coming back. The countless unspoken deeds will continue, all for the love of the club.



Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine

FORCEFUL yet soft, the sound meets my temples like a snowball, its waves morphing and twisting into a velvet-lined shiver. “Haalf paa-st t-welve/And I’m wat-chin’ the Late Show in my flat all a-lone/How I hate to s-pend the eve-ning on my ooowwn ?” “More breathy! Floaty!” the conductor calls out, her arms falling and rising with each note. Before her stand tiers of women, moulding the melody. The pitch is dropped by leads and contraltos, picked up again by sopranos. These girls can sing, I think to myself, toes tapping.

Suddenly the conductor’s elbows flail violently. “Drive it!” she rasps. “Push it! Punch it!” Forget singing. It’s shouting time. “GIM-ME GIM-ME GIM-ME a MAN after MID-NIGHT! WON’T some-bo-dy HELP me CHASE the SH-AD-OWS A-WAY! GIM-ME GIM-ME GIM-ME a MAN after MID-NIGHT! TAKE me through the DARK-ness to the BREAK of the DAY!”

If this sound is a snowball, it has a rock at its core. It’s barely left nine on Saturday morning and two-thirds of a hangover are squatting on my anterior fontanelle like a fried egg. All I want is a mug of camomile and a 15-tog duvet.

This brew of waggling tonsils is the ninth Harmony Junction, an annual gathering of Scotland’s ever-swelling contingent of barbershop singers. With the sun casting a marmalade haze over a snow-speckled Ben Vrackie, more than 200 of them have commandeered the hilltop baronial splendour of the Atholl Palace Hotel in Pitlochry for a weekend of lead dodging and Chinese sevenths.

I arrive in Perthshire early on Friday evening to register for the bash – a relatively straightforward process requiring the downing of a Glayva. In the bar the enthusiasts are topping up and coaxing larynxes into life. Their polo shirts are colour co-ordinated, Krypton Factor-style, by choir and chorus.

Edinburgh is represented by the 35-strong Rolling Hills Chorus and the 75 members of the all-female Forth Valley Chorus. Alongside are smaller groups: Close Shave, from Glasgow, the Perth Barbershop Singers, Argyll’s Fynesiders and the Granite City Chorus from Aberdeen.

They range from dimpled teenagers to octogenarian stout abusers, doctors, teachers, lecturers and women rugby players – even one very high-ranking police official who, to honour a rum-flavoured bribe, shall remain nameless. “All the laddies and lasses just get together for a wee dram and a song, ” explains Donald Marshall, a 65-year-old barbershop stalwart. There’s no one type of person who does it.”

Over dinner with the Fynesiders, I get chatting to Jack Fevany, an 18-year-old from Whitehouse, Argyll, who’s been a member for three years. This isn’t his only musical outlet – he plays guitar in a rock band – but it’s the “community and the having a laugh” that draws him here. Charles McArthur, a former shepherd, has only been singing for a year. The music gives him fulfilment, he explains. McArthur has had multiple sclerosis for 40 years and now uses a wheelchair. The tunes, though, seem therapeutic. “It can be hard getting your voice to hit the notes when you’re sitting down, but I love it, ” he says.

Some vocalists have competed in major events in Reno and Tulsa, but studied professionalism is not commonplace. A capella harmonising, a mix of the white, middle-class America of Norman Rockwell and mid-19th-century black minstrel shows, is a proudly diverse fare, and one which has prospered further afield.

On these shores, the British Association of Barbershop Singers (Babs) runs its own internet radio station. It even books choruses and quartets for functions such as, its website suggests, a garden fete, or, rather ominously, “mayoral and masonic” gatherings.

Back in Pitlochry, the evening whittles by and the standards are torn up. I hear the U2 song With or Without You and Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness. They don’t all come off, but flowing drink oils the applause.

Come 3am, falling bedwards, I encounter a youthful straggle of shoppers, shirts untucked and beverages in hand. Plunged into the lobby’s sofas, they howl out drink-sodden refrains. This is what they call woodshed – informal and invariably drunken sing-songs.

At this hour, and in this state, there are only sshongs – a hazy slobber of voices bobbing up and down on a sea of malt, strangling the Irving Berlin number Alexander’s Ragtime Band. “Cch-OM-on an’ hear-, cchh-OM-mmon andear -, ish-Al-exsh-AN-der’sh-aaaraaAAaag-time-baAAand!”

The caterwaul exhibits a delightful contempt for the mechanics of singing. The secret of barbershop, it seems, is in the gathering of lungs and livers, the community behind the syrupy vocal lattices that glides through verses and clenches choruses by the throat. There is only the one, throbbing, aural organ, its muscles and tendons contracting and reeling with bouncing restraint. It is a magnificent soundscape, a queer pastime of unrelenting joy.



Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine

ARE you proficient in the use of industrial potato rumblers? Do you savour the prospect of life anew atop the luminous sandstone cliffs of Praia da Rocha as a fast-food chef? No? HR manager in Stara Zagora? It is, I’m assured, a “challenging international work environment”. And those Bulgarian nightclubs? There’s only one word for them – distinctive.

Such prospects are in abundance at the Emigrate 2006 exhibition. Held in the SECC, Glasgow, hundreds of employers, government officials, citizenship consultants, currency specialists and tax advisors have come to offer advice to reams of Scots seeking escape from this corner of the northern hemisphere. There are more than 6,000 people here, all enchanted by images of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – it’s scarcely surprising the nation’s population is expected to dip below five million by 2036.

It is the first time the weekend conference has ventured north. Hosted by Outbound, Britain’s “leading emigration media publisher”, it is a regular date in York and Surrey. Scotland, reasons Mike Schwarz, Outbound’s MD, is “a market which needs exploited”. And it’s lucrative, this lark. The most recent accounts for TR Beckett, a subsidiary of Johnston Press and the company behind Outbound, show an annual profit of £2.34m.

I meet Schwarz bustling away in a back office shortly after ten on Saturday morning. A man given to statistical forecasts and middle-management speak, his perception of 21st-century life in Britain is unashamedly the stuff of Daily Mail leaders. “Around 200,000 Brits emigrated in 2004, ” he tells me. “Over the next 25 years about six million will leave. The weather’s a factor but it’s more than that. People are fed up with loutish behaviour, petty crime, hospital waiting lists and clogged motorways.” And more: “They’re not happy with our government’s immigration policy. Skilled people aren’t coming in and that’s annoying.”

Out in the hall, the numbers are swelling – families, retired couples, twentysomethings. I join the circuit tour, taking in the vast array of stalls: the sour-faced functionaries from the Canadian High Commission; the plumpy cheer of the Education Personnel stand (here to “guide you through the red tape” to teach in New Zealand); the perma-grinned real-estate moguls from Turkey’s Sunset Homes. £48,000 three-bedroomed apartment in Akbuk? I’d sooner entrust Granny to programme the video.

I strike up a conversation with a lad in his late twenties lingering by the Australian Migration Services outlet. Oz, he says, is the ideal location; the employment matters not. “I’ve spent three years in Scotland trying to get a job suited to my applied physics degree,” he says. “So I might as well go somewhere with a better standard of life and try there.”

Sue, 35, is here with Graeme, her eight-year-old son, to pursue a new life in Canada. Graeme’s father died of cancer three years ago. “There’s nothing keeping us here,” Sue says. “My boy is young enough to adapt. I work part-time in a school canteen and Graeme’s been getting bullied. What is there to lose?”

For such prospective travellers – the Office of National Statistics estimates 72 per cent of young Britons are contemplating emigration – there are several seminars arranged by Outbound. Most have aspirational titles such as New Year, New Life, or, in one Whitmanesque instance, Discovering the American Dream.

I sit in on the former. An introduction to emigration, the presentation consists of 200 pairs of ears and the speaker, Paul, a man with the charisma of an asthmatic stoat. His overture is propelled by the kind of outside-the-box slideshow last considered cutting edge at a 1983 convention of SodaStream distributors.

One slide comprises a mocked-up road sign bearing a question mark; what could this cryptic image mean? Luckily, Paul is on hand. “Emigration is a long road,” he fingers, “and there are hazards ahead ? okay, next slide.”Click, whirr. Images . ash up of emigres and their offspring; the weans rosy-cheeked and bouncing, their parents all tan, teeth and tits – a Wimpey Homes brochure come to life.

Throughout, I notice Paul’s speeches carefully follow the Outbound party line espoused by Schwarz. “Every time Tony Blair opens his mouth I think about emigrating, don’t you?” he booms. “Isn’t British culture nowadays just louder, faster and brasher than anywhere else? Isn’t it all about lager, lager, lager?” Twenty minutes in, I feel the need to flee. Otherwise the urge to sever an artery with a complementary Moneycorp pen could prove too great.

On my way out of the hall, I think of Sue’s story. Like many here, she is not so much in search of a new life as seeking escape from her old one. About to leave, I catch sight of a stall I hadn’t seen before. Sponsored by Currencies Direct, it is a prize draw offering “the chance to win your very own acre of the moon!”. Not even this world, it appears, is big enough.




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© Martyn McLaughlin 2007 – 2021 unless stated otherwise

Portrait by John Devlin

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