Maybe websites will live on after you are dead

Glasgow’s Necropolis certainly knows how to look after the dead. Many of the city’s richest merchants, landed families and ecclesiastical figures are buried there. Scotland’s most iconic graveyard is full of broken down tombs and while visiting footsteps will cause more damage, it seems fitting that the living should take precedence over the dead. Many of the chiselled obituaries have now been wiped clean by the inevitable crushing of time and those who pass away are usually forgotten about within a generation.

Not that I want to speculate about my demise but I will inevitably perish in the twenty-first century and my existence will be erased from memory in the twenty-second. Sounds harsh but how many flowers are left at the gravestones of those who passed away in 1892? Nobody really recalls their Great-Great-Great Granddad who enlisted to fight in the Boer War as a callow youth. Likewise no one will remember a blogging Scotsman who worked in online web content during the first half of the twenty-first century.

Graves like memories are not supposed to last and even the grandest tombs end up being mossed over without a trace. Overlooking the soot-stained Glasgow Cathedral, the opulent neo-classical tombs of the Necropolis were originally inspired by Ancient Greece and now lie smashed open by Victorian grave diggers and cider swilling tramps. Their inhabitant’s identity erased from memory after centuries of neglect. Unsurprising really as the vast majority of dead people are of no interest to anyone apart from amateur genealogists or school children tracing graves as part of their history project.

Crumbling like bits of cheese over time, graves are metaphors for life itself and yet traditional cemeteries are undergoing a technological revolution. Quick Response (QR) codes are going to be installed in graveyards allowing visitors to scan headstones for online biographies of dead people. Unlike in the past, where graves collapse over time, embedded QR codes could potentially revolutionise the cemetery experience.

Costing a mere £300, QR codes will provide the dead with a Wiki style biography that will include images, videos and tributes from family and friends. By scanning a smartphone, the life story of the newly buried can be downloaded within seconds – outlining their birthplace, nationality, mutual friends and tagged Facebook photos from a flat warming party in the 01’s. A remarkable development that will ensure even the dead will become stars and constellations in this new virtual world.

Our souls may perish but our life stories will live on thanks to modern technology. Checking in for what must seem like an eternity, no one will be mourning this blogger in the twenty-second century, but I am now confident that my data will live forever. Six feet under and yet better connected than ever before.

Door to the River

After graduating from Glasgow University in July 2004, I had several ambitions in life and like many arts graduates none of them involved having a career. Well at least I had absolutely no intention of retraining as a history teacher, which at the time appeared to be the only option available to me.

Instead I embraced a hazy world of denial and escapism and this involved travelling around Europe on borrowed money and giving up a £65 a week bedsit on the Great Western Road. Such an undertaking came partly as a lust for knowledge and a desire to explore new cultures and languages. Scotland for all its charms is geographically isolated, monolingual and bordered only by England.

However, I must acknowledge that one of the most compelling reasons behind my desire to travel was the chance to ditch my joke finance job at the Abbey National. So before I abandoned Glasgow for the olive fields of Andalucia, I had one ambition left in life and that involved writing my own fanzine.

Such was my love of Kelvinside and its bohemian leafy character, I came up with a pun title derived from a mediocre John Fante novel and set about producing an irreverent guide to post-graduate life in the West End of Glasgow. An inky offbeat publication capturing small town blues, film reviews, Chinese takeaways and unwise polemics against high street chuggers. Ask The Kelvin seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unknown to me in the mid-Noughties, I had set about producing a dead tree publication long before the wonders of tagging, Tumblr and all the social interactive elements that assist writers today. Unable to share my thoughts on a global scale, there was no danger of Ask The Kelvin ever going viral. Living in a make-believe world I knew at the time I couldn’t make any money out of a fanzine but for some strange reason I felt compelled to make one anyway.

On embracing the self-funded model, I produced fifty copies at the local stationary store and distributed them at Fopp, Offshore and a ragtag collection of Byres Road charity shops. Back then Facebook didn’t even exist and the audience I secretly lusted and craved for during my sleepless nights in Otago Street never quite materialised. Indeed looking back it does seem really twee and provincial, especially when I compare it to some of the sexy projects on Kickstarter.

Based in New York and providing a self-funded platform to raise funds on a global scale, Kickstarter allows random individuals to become patrons of their favourite projects. Almost like a counter-culture version of the BBC Dragons’ Den, Kickstarter involves a video pitch alongside a synopsis explaining the reasons why you should support them. Not with a lazy like you can get away with elsewhere but with hard cash.

Kickstarter is an amazing place to support new talent and my personal favourite is theNewerYork, an experimental lit mag based in Brooklyn that celebrates radical poetry, love letters and seriously weird pieces of art. Like stumbling into your favourite record shop as a 17 year old and discovering heroin tainted rock zines for the first time, if you tire of the NewerYork, you are tired of life.

Surreally decorated with unfamous quotes and the occasionally haunting story, their magazine blows my wee Glasgow fanzine out of the water. Beautifully humbled by their efforts, I must confess that on reading their e-version, some 3500 miles away in an English metropolis, I never stood a chance back in leafy Kelvinside. Alas I am now older than the 23 year old locked inside a Glasgow bedsit but still similarly way inclined.

Unlike the NewerYork I don’t think I would get $8,119 in funding for the second edition of Ask The Kelvin, even allowing for the social media tools available to young writers and artists today. However, I do take some inspiration from one of their many slogans: everything has been done before, so do it better. 

Quarter of a Century

Glasgow is a city with a brooding gothic soul. A city I once wrote about regularly, even if it was just the banality of routine. With its violence menace, religious iconography and twee bourgeois sensibility, Glasgow captured my imagination at a particular period in time. Back when I described the insignificant truth of this solitary journey to the cinema on a cold weekday evening. A melancholy love letter so to speak. I had just turned twenty-five. 

Tuesday, 10th January 2006

Moth to a Flame

I go the cinema when I’m bored and lonely. It all begins with an over familiar route through the West End and after several twists and turns I will magically stride through Garnethill down towards the largest cinema building on Planet Earth.

The beginning of the journey is arguably the most comfortable upon the eye, it is invariably dark and rectangle shades of affluent light can be seen frozen behind coloured glass. I walk across the Byres Road up towards Great Gibson Street, where mercenary cranes hang over an underdeveloped patch of soil; it is a docile but rapidly changing stretch of road.

The sharp gradient tightens the muscles on both of my legs and I have reached the peak of the road, where in sudden twist of fate I feel compelled to go down the hill towards Gibson Street. I used to live around here, the car park is still a muddy disgrace, littered with crass aluminium shells and alien sized craters. The park dominates the area, it is a spooky place and lit only by a curved silver moon; its iron gates lie open but I dare not enter.

I stride past fancy Lebanese and Scottish restaurants, it is an ordinary night but they both appear full of people. I cross over the gentle river, there are no grebes or mallards to be seen and only now do I start to accelerate towards my destination. I twist past two Protestant churches and a cold young fox lying dead in the leaves. The road ahead is empty and without a soul, it appears darker now, the motorway is within walking distance.

I head towards Charing Cross, it is very quiet and all the cars have gone. It is not the right time but I prefer to take to the skies than walk alongside them. I adjust my legs and walk over an arched granite causeway; it elevates me above the carnage of the roads and provides access to the mysterious ways of Garnethill.

I am in the city now, there something sinister about this place, something threatening, although my mind is playing tricks on me. It is dark right now and no one is here. The street is awash with neat green lawns and vacancy signs, there are places to stay on my left, while to my right there are scattered bins and graffiti strewn fire exits.

I walk ominously closer and there is a Catholic Church approaching, which is separated by yew, rowan and a piercing iron fence. This secretive place of worship performs mass in Latin and the priest is kept hidden behind a secret silver veil. The church is small but intimidating and I don’t think it likes me at all. I walk on alone and without a God, the winter air is biting my cheeks, my hands are beginning to get cold now.

I walk towards the famous art school and admire its subtle and decorative style, there are no students in the nearby eighties lounge. I am almost there now and feel like a distant stranger, people are on the move down below me, there is a collection of buckfast and vodka sitting alongside a corrugated steel gate. The streets are colliding into one, there are cars passing by me, it is now sparkling with light and the silence has gone.

A Stateless Nation

On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

Arrested Development

WestEndWalk

After the Guardian revealed Lord Wei of Shoreditch is unable to fulfil his Big Society duties because working for free is incompatible with ‘having a life’. Lord Wei not only exposed the sham of a government expecting people to work for nothing in an era of massive spending cuts. Moreover it shone a torch on the murky world of corporate exploitation in the modern workplace. Earlier this week Richard Bilton’s excellent BBC documentary showed how class continues to restrict access to professions and well-paid careers to all but an exclusive pool of well-connected individuals.

Anyone looking for work in the publishing, fashion or media industry will already be familiar with internships. The vast majority of media jobs in Britain are based in London and anyone lucky enough to receive an offer can be expected to work for 3 months unpaid and still have no guarantee of employment. With 1 in 10 graduates now out of work, I can recall my struggle to make a break through after graduating from the University of Glasgow in 2004.

After the privilege of studying at a world-class 15th Century institution, the harsh reality of finding stimulating employment became all too apparent when I temped for the financial services industry. While I wanted to use my creative writing skills for a living, I sorely lacked confidence and with no connections, I found myself trapped in a vicious circle of dead end temping jobs to pay the rent. Glasgow is the call-centre capital of Europe and after graduating, I would turn up every day for £6.04 an hour wearing a Britney Spears headset on behalf of the Scottish Co-Operative Group.

With my dignity in tatters, I quickly realised that in order to improve myself, I had to go down the Scottish voluntary route. By doing so I religiously scoured the internet and worked for free on behalf of tourist boards, local restaurant guides and a global university website. Eventually I quit my administrative day job to focus entirely on voluntary writing positions I had initially agreed to fulfil in my spare time.

On not wanting to let my future references down, I eventually gave them my full working week for nearly 5 months and used credit cards to pay the rent. Clearly unsustainable I fortunately managed to get a salaried media job in London as a result of my volunteering and agreed to move down south.

While I have clearly benefited from volunteering and believe it is often a necessary passage for young people to get ahead. Anyone doing a voluntary internship in London will have astronomical overheads compared to what I had to pay in Glasgow where the cost of living is far cheaper.

If young graduates want a media job in London then they will be expected to serve not one but several unpaid internships before getting a salaried position. Expecting people to work for nothing inevitably favours upper-middle class children from the South East, who have financial support or live within commuting distance of their parent’s home. This new aristocracy of coming from a home owning family is increasingly divisive and helps to form an unfair and disproportionate workplace in some of the most desirable sectors.

Once you’re inside the door then depending on your employer it is increasingly down to the dark arts of networking and internal friendships to progress. While it would be desirable to think you can progress through ability and hard work alone, I often find social intelligence and the ability to ‘work a room’ is all too prominent in making that elusive connection to get ahead. From a personal perspective I have always found the charm offensive very difficult because I don’t have a silver tongue to seduce random strangers at launch parties, meetings or screening invites. We are all made differently and the path ahead is not always going to be a fair or equal one.

When Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke of the British promise being under threat by cuts to public spending. He tapped into a deeper trend of how the current generation cannot expect to exceed the wealth and standard of living of their parents. There is nothing clever about making the best jobs only for the rich and by narrowing the best opportunities to rich home owning families it only serves to create an increasingly divided and unequal society.

Clearly there are social, moral and long-term economic benefits from having a well educated workforce and to frighten off potential students from poorer or lower-middle class backgrounds is foolhardy in the extreme. It makes me extremely angry that higher education is perceived solely as a means for people to make money.

Surely in the current economic climate our future values have to change. We should be looking to create a fairer, balanced and more equal society instead of this myopic chase of prosperity. Even by writing inside a rented box in the sky for nothing, I am still enormously proud of my university education and feel it should be open and accessible to anyone. Something even Lord Wei would agree about as he reduces his voluntary hours in order to pay the bills.

Nationalism is a Created Product

After attending the Pioneering Painters exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, I began to question why I never learned about the Glasgow Boys at school. Radical, bold and fervently European in their outlook, the Glasgow Boys represent a new progressive Scotland. However, the art collective remained off my cultural radar until I attended Glasgow University and stumbled upon their works at the nearby Kelvingrove Museum. On re-examining their most radical and exciting works at the Royal Academy of Arts, I drew an immediate contrast with Burns Night.

Reflecting back on my primary school days in Aberdeenshire, I vividly remember my P6 teacher’s poetry recital classes with ‘A Man’s a Man for all That’ being the proverbial jewel in the crown. With my Anglo-Irish vowels, I always dreaded Burns week and felt extremely self-conscious that I couldn’t recite verses in guttural Doric like my Aberdonian peers.

While I eventually grew to admire some of Burns vernacular gifts, I have remained curiously ambivalent about Burns Night. It always felt somewhat contrived to me. Almost like a post-modern image of Scottishness that bears no relevance to day-to-day life.

Burns Night is arguably the biggest literary event in the world with an estimated nine million people participating last year. A typical Burns night has poetry recitals, bagpipes and three courses of traditional Scottish fair, which usually involves cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties and a complimentary dram.

With the greatest respect this dour cuisine is certainly not the most alluring of European dishes. If there is a Scottish restaurant in Rome or Barcelona then I certainly haven’t seen one. All the while the Haggis represents a comic sentimental image of Scotland and I find it deeply regrettable that a foul peasant condom is our national dish, when the nation’s glens, forests and lochs are home to some of the finest game and fish in Northern Europe.

Whereas other countries define themselves around wars, revolutions and kings, Scotland remains a stateless nation and embraces cultural nationalism to exert her identity. Burns Night remains consistent with the twee sentimental image of Scotland constructed by Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth century.

After nearly two hundred years of progress, Scotland is still renowned for its kilts, whisky and majestic Highland landscapes. Anyone walking past a triumphant Visit Scotland billboard will be in no doubt of the country’s national identity. What is fascinating is that the Glasgow Boys emerged towards the end of the 1870s and radically vowed to challenge the sentimental Victorian obsession with the Highlands.

By challenging this twee conservative vision of Scotland, I found inspiration from the Glasgow Boys exhibition that there is an alternative to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. The Glasgow Boys were bold, radical and experimental painters, whose stunning collection of works represent a genuinely progressive movement. A collection of artists that dared to look towards the Mediterranean and Japan for inspiration instead of turning inwards towards the Highlands.

What I find surprising is that the Glasgow Boys remain a quirky afterthought in Scottish culture. If I hadn’t stumbled upon their paintings in the Kelvingrove Museum, then I could easily have remained ignorant of their existence.

A truly confident country should look outwards for inspiration and I see no reason why the Glasgow Boys shouldn’t be universally affiliated with Scotland like Dali, Gaudi and Picasso are with Spain. It is regrettable that this radical confederation of painters have been unable to impose a greater cultural influence in their own country.

Robert Burns remains Scotland’s most iconic and influential poet but anyone tucking into their Haggis tonight should be under no illusions that nationalism is anything other than a created product.

The Illusionist

After leaving my university town of Glasgow in search of a media career in London, I have often found myself trying to preserve my Scottish identity. By living and working in a global metropolis, I fear my Scottishness will eventually become so diluted that I’ll lose touch with my Aberdeenshire upbringing.

Nostalgia can be very misleading but on recently watching Slyvain’s Chomet’s animation The Illusionist , I immediately knew that I wanted to return to Scotland for the festival season. Chomet’s visual love affair with the Scottish capital is a melancholy fairy tale and offers a romantic throwback to a seemingly more innocent era of steam engines, roast fires, whisky drams, red post boxes and candlelit evenings.

The Illusionist is about an elderly French magician who has become increasingly marginalised and ignored after the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Unable to sustain his vaudeville show in France, the magician travels over the English Channel and performs on stage in empty theatres in the far north of Scotland. Such is the remoteness of the Hebrides in the 1950s they represent one of the few remaining indigenous communities in Britain unaffected by the cultural impact of America.

On a remote Gaelic island, the magician meets a young girl called Alice, who secretly follows him back to Edinburgh. They quickly form a paternal relationship and spend their lives surrounded by eccentric miscreants, loners and forgotten souls. They are the moths of the world with troubled hearts, living beyond their means in a cosy domestic abode. Struggling to communicate in their adopted tongue, the pair slowly drift apart in a sad and beautiful tale of two outsiders trying to find their way in a lonely world.

Slyvain Chomet creates a melancholy vision of Scottish capital and it is set around the death of the British Empire. This fading spectre of imperialism would have been keenly felt in Edinburgh, which even to this day represents a kitsch romantic version of Scotland wrapped in kilts and colonial union jacks.

Chomet’s love affair with Scotland explores the green fringes of the city and takes you on a cinematic journey northwards towards the Forth Railway Bridge and the luminous fields of Fife. While to the south you can marvel at the gentle rolling hills of Lothian, which fades aimlessly into the horizon like an electric green sea.

Edinburgh is a beautiful place and during the summer it is comparable to classic European cities like Paris or Prague, especially when every accent in earshot is almost inevitably from outside of these shores. What is so remarkable about The Illusionist is the grainy imperfection it lends to its adopted landscape. This beautiful animation captures the sensation of walking through the Old Town at night, where it literally feels like you are walking in ink.

Chomet’s elegiac vision of Écosse is tinged with a homely sentimentality and dangerous as this might be, I am looking forward to walking in the Illusionist’s footsteps this summer. The textural grace of the Scottish tongue may be slipping from my grasp but I hope to reacquaint myself with my homeland, while listening to the sound of pneumatic tyres rippling over the cobbles of the past.