Thursday, 24 June 2010


It may not seem like it, but tonight's blog actually has quite a serious point to it, and may come across as slightly depressing in places. If it does depress you, I can only apologise and hope that you can forgive me. I need to say what I need to say though.

I can honestly say that as a teenager, I never experimented with alcohol. When we were kids, mum and dad would encourage us to try whatever alcohol they were drinking, although it was generally red wine and I still don't like it. I never saw any point in drinking something I didn't like, so I didn't get into it at all. That is, until I accidentally got drunk on 4th July 1992, the year I was 19. Actually, I think I got drunk the night before, but I do know that I attended a barbeque for some visitors from the US with a God-awful hangover.

Ok, time for a quick diversion: I sat my driving test when I was 1 month past my 18th birthday and (for the record) passed first time, although I succeeded in stalling the car now fewer than 3 times and mounted the kerb whilst reversing round a corner. Anyway, I digress - you'll find I do that a lot, especially when I'm tired (as now) or distracted.

When I passed my test, I was suddenly introduced to a wonderful world of relative freedom. The year I passed my test, I started dating a girl I'd shared an entire secondary school career with but with whom I didn't hook up until after we'd left school. We drove to places like Edinburgh, Aberfoyle and Aberdeen within the first 18 months of me having my licence (and being able to persuade my mother to let me use the car). Anyway, the day after my first dalliance with the "demon drink", it dawned on me that I would have to be extremely careful if I was going to experiment with alcohol now that I had a driving licence, which posed no problem whatsoever.

A few months later I was given tablets for some medical condition or other, although I don't remember what that was. When the doctor gave me the prescription, I asked him what I was allowed to consume in the way of alcohol since I'd got into the habit of going out for a few drinks on a Friday night. The doctor's response was to limit me to a single pint of cider per day. With this in mind, my next visit was to the police to find out what the legal limit was for alcohol and driving. The police gave me a few generalities about quantities and strengths and so forth, but the message that I left with was that I shouldn't consume any more than a pint and a half of lager before getting behind the wheel. So far, so good.

I've now had my licence for 19 years, during which time I've had 1 speeding ticket. I've been stopped a few times, and I've had the odd accident here and there but that's about it. One thing I can definitely say is that I've always managed to be extremely careful not to exceed the legal alcohol limit. I frequently go out "for a pint" and take the car with me. Mostly that's because I'm on-call for work, but very often it'll be because I've got stuff to do the following day, or because I just don't want to need to rely on public transport. Either way, I don't mix drink and cars.

Now, I'm going to go completely off-piste here folks but please stick with me - it'll make sense when you get to the end of it.

On 27th of June 2003, I was going out for the evening with a girl I worked with. You could call it a date if you wanted but you'd be wrong - it was just two mates having a night out at a gig. The gig in question was a former colleague of mine who has formed a number of bands in his time and who was playing in Glasgow. I'd been talking about the gig for a while and had managed to persuade this girl to come with me. Because I was living in Helensburgh at the time, I'd opted to drive which meant I couldn't drink but that was fine with me.

When we left work that evening, we went into a pub just round the corner from work and had a single drink with another colleague who was waiting for his girlfriend to pick him up. We shared a drink, and then Suzanne and I went our way, and Stuart went his. We saw Mark's band playing that night and I then ran Suzanne home to the house she was sharing with her sister. We watched some of the coverage of that year's Glastonbury festival and then I drove home to Helensburgh.

To cut a long story short, after the weekend I walked into work on the Monday morning. After depositing my jacket at my desk, I walked into the canteen where one of my colleagues turned round and uttered words that I'll never forget - "Hi Ian, how's things? Bad news about Stuart eh?". As he turned around to walk out of the canteen I grabbed him and demanded to know what had happened. As Ross was about to explain, the Operations Manager walked in and asked me to accompany her to her office. When we got there, Mary closed the door and told me that she'd been trying to reach me all weekend but didn't have my mobile number. Now, the reason for this is because I was fed up of getting calls when I was off sick or on holiday, so I had my number removed from my record but that's by the way. Anyway, it turned out that on the Saturday morning, Mary had been in the office preparing to attend the funeral of one of our call-centre workers who had been killed in a house-fire. Just as she and the rest of the staff had been preparing to leave for the funeral, the police had arrived and asked if Mary could help them with their enquiries. They had presented her with an employee badge that had been recovered from the scene of an accident, and asked her to confirm that the owner of the badge was one of our employees. It transpired that the badge had belonged to Stuart whom Suzanne and I had shared that drink with the previous night. Mary had been trying to reach me to let me know what had happened.

What I later found out has made my blood boil ever since, because in my opinion this represents one of the major failings of the Scottish and indeed British criminal justice system. Stuart had indeed been meeting his girlfriend, but it was much later so he was fairly well oiled when he was picked up. However, on the journey home they were involved in a collision with another driver who was under the influence of alcohol, to the extent that when the police attended the scene and pulled the other driver from his car, he was so drunk he was unable to stand unaided. To make matters worse, it later transpired that he had already had his licence revoked for driving whilst drunk, and yet this particular night he had had about a dozen cans of Stella Artois (familiarly known in this part of the world as wife-beater) and had also had spirits, to the extent that by the time he left his boss's house he was heavily over the limit.

Stuart Campbell was one of the funniest and cheeriest men I knew. He had nothing bad to say about anyone, and could lift anyone's spirits with his cheeky grin and vibrating banter. He was also the same age as I was (30) when he was killed. To my mind, he didn't die that night but was killed. Perhaps worse was the fact that his girlfriend had two children who were robbed of their mother.

Now, you could argue that because he was so inebriated, the police had no problem pressing charges and the man in question did indeed receive a custodial sentence. And here comes the injustice of it all: for the manslaughter of two people, and the driving of a motor vehicle whilst over the legal alcohol limit, this man got four years in prison. Unfortunately, he also got time off for good behaviour which means that for taking 2 lives, he served less than 3 years in jail.

I don't want to get too much onto my soapbox right now, but I honestly believe that the criminal justice system needs to be seriously overhauled, so that people who go to prison for a set period actually spend that time in jail, with extra time being added on for any bad behaviour that merits it. Perhaps if that did happen, my friend would still be here today and those two children would still have a mother.

As a small aside, Stuart's funeral took place on Friday 4th July, a tremendously warm day across most of Scotland. Afterwards we all returned to work but after we'd finished we moved across the road to the bar in which Stuart and I had had that drink just 7 days before. The manageress of the bar had heard what happened to Stuart and had provided a full buffet for those that wanted it. I will never forget that night, of looking up at a bar full of my friends and colleagues, all of us united in our grief over the loss of Stuart, all of us telling funny stories about him and remembering all of the good times. It was karaoke night that night, and I almost broke down in tears as I sang "Wish You Were Here" and "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" by Pink Floyd. I count myself lucky to have known Stuart, and still mark the 28th of June privately.

To Stuart: you were and always will be one in a million and you'll never be forgotten. Sleep well my friend.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


When I was growing up, I was largely unaware of music. I mean, I watched Top of the Pops the same as every other kid, but I can't say that I really grew up in a musical house. Most of the vinyl in the house was from the 50s and 60s, although some of dad's cassettes were newer - I still have childhood memories of mum and dad listening to Johnny Cash.

When I was about 15 or 16, I had some friends who were in a band, and they were playing one Saturday night in Helensburgh. It was my first experience of live music outside school, and I loved it. It was made even better by the fact that I knew the boys playing.

A couple of years later, I was at a friend's house. It sounds quite old-fashioned, but it was basically four or five of us just sitting listening to records. The friend in question had a taste in music that was firmly rooted in the blues, especially blues from the American deep south. This particular evening though, the artist of choice was Eric Clapton (the Backtrackin' album if memory serves). When I left his house at the end of the night, it was armed with a copy of the album on cassette.

About seven years ago, I was chatting with a passenger in the taxi one evening, and we got around to the subject of music. By now my musical tastes had diversified quite radically, and I now boasted a CD collection containing such greats as Queen, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton (obviously) and REM, as well as Robert Cray, Carlos Santana and Kylie Minogue. The passenger I was talking to turned around and told me that I had a very Catholic taste in music - it was a long time before I found out that it wasn't an insult but never mind.

Nowadays the collection now also contains The Killers, Matchbox Twenty, Train and the Foo Fighters. By comparison to my taxi-driving days, I don't spend a huge amount of time listening to the radio but if I hear an artist that I like, I'll at least download the album. If I really like it, I'll buy it!

One thing that hasn't changed over the years is my love of live music. A few years ago my sister introduced me to her boyfriend's brother's band, a really talented 3-piece covers band and I never tire of hearing them play. In the past few years I've seen Matchbox Twenty and Nickelback playing in Glasgow, and just recently saw Train playing in London. I still get a real kick out of the vibe that you get at a live gig and just wish I could afford to do it more often.

Having said all of this, there is nothing that pisses me off more than the kind of drivel being pumped by Simon Cowell on X-Factor or Pop Idol. Yes, I get that it's giving a leg-up to people who otherwise wouldn't make it. The thing is though, if those bands and artists wouldn't have made it without Pop Idol, is that not just because they were sub-standard in the first place? The problem with X-Factor and Pop Idol is that they push their "winners" in our faces. As well as hearing their songs 24/7, they open our supermarkets. In fact, they'd probably show up for the opening of a packet of crisps if it involved some sort of media exposure.

As far as I'm concerned, long live original music. But most of all, long live the original music that comes of a bunch of guys (or girls) fooling with instruments and chords and putting their own talent out there, and succeeding through their own hard work rather than being swept to fame on a wave of television-induced teenaged hysteria.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Helensburgh and taxis

My sister and I grew up 25 miles from Helensburgh, in the quiet seaside town of Helensburgh. Helensburgh's nothing special, if you overlook the fact that John Logie Baird was born and lived there. It used to be perceived as a place that retired people moved to and to a certain extent it still is. However, it's also the nearest town to Faslane Naval Base which means that the town is an interesting mix of locals and naval families.

If you tell someone who lives in Glasgow that you come from Helensburgh, you can pretty much guarantee that their reaction will fall into one of three categories:
  1. They have great childhood memories of being taken to Helensburgh on the train during those long hot summers that we don't seem to get anymore. Whilst there they played on the sand, and ate chips and icecream. Most of the people in this category were children during the 60s which means that they're dangerously close to being old enough to retire there. As a matter of interest, I used to work with a couple of ladies who have retired and are actually buying a house in Helensburgh to live out their "golden" years, so that does still happen;
  2. They know someone who lives there, or who lives in Dumbarton (the next town after Helensburgh as you're heading for Glasgow);
  3. They've never heard of the place but have heard of John Logie Baird and are therefore able to connect the dots;

Both my sister and I were born in the Maternity Unit of the Vale of Leven Hospital, which is about 8 miles from Helensburgh. We were both educated in Helensburgh and I went on to find work in the area, whilst my sister (the clever one) got the hell out and studied at the RSAMD in Glasgow. As well as living in Helensburgh I also socialised there and believe me when I tell you that it gets very old very quickly. Helensburgh has a population of approximately 26,000 people and it used to be that on a Saturday night, you'd see the same faces week in week out. That's pretty impressive considering the numbers of people who go through Faslane.

Me living in Glasgow now is a second attempt at getting out. Fourteen years ago my then fiancee and I bought a flat in Glasgow's south side and ALMOST managed to sever ties with the town. I'm not going to bore with the details but in 1998 we moved back, and I spent another 8 years trying to dig myself back out of the place. In the eleven years between buying that flat, and moving back OUT of Helensburgh again, I married the fiancee and had two children before separating and finally getting divorced.

At various points in my blogging, I'm going to try and share the odd bit of wisdom with you. Today's wisdom slice is this: if you live in a small town, and you don't want to dislike it any more than you already do, do NOT take a job that involves dealing with a large number of the town's inhabitants while they're under the influence of alcohol. The reason I mention this is because, whilst facing certain near-future unemployment, I applied for a got a licence to drive a taxi in Helensburgh. Oddly enough, before the badge had even arrived I had managed to get another job but because the job I found was temporary, I still drove the taxi as a safety net. So, I worked five days a week in Glasgow and then a full day shift in the taxi on a Saturday.

In those days, a Saturday dayshift in the taxi wasn't that bad. I would start at 7 o'clock in the morning, at which point you'll get the occasional person who needs to either get to work, or get home from a heavy night out. Then you've got a slump because lets face it, who's out and about at 9am on a Saturday for choice? I was a smoker in those days, and worked for someone who was violently anti-smoking so if I wanted to have a smoke, I needed to get out of the car. Mid-morning would pick up again as people would start targetting the local supermarket before it got busy and you'd find yourself spending a couple of hours running between the town centre shops and the various housing estates. During that time you could be sure that you would get plenty of comments about how the weather was really good or bad. You might even get a casual enquiry about how your shift has been, when you started and when you'll be finishing. The weather comment tends to get a bit old towards the end of your shift, especially if the sun is splitting the sky or it's throwing down rain. You might get the occasional run back to Faslane with someone who had perhaps come into town to watch the football in one of Helensburgh's many pubs and was going home for dinner before doing it all again that night. I was always happy to get these runs just because it got me out of the town-centre-to-housing-estate loop but I almost never ranked at the base unless there was a lot of activity there.

Teatime could be fun. When I started driving the taxis, I heard a lot of calls over the radio for delivery cars. I volunteered for a lot of these. Deliveries in Helensburgh were a double-edged sword: if you having a slow afternoon and both ranks were at a standstill, deliveries were a useful way of getting moving and making money - chippy deliveries generally came one at a time but the Chinese restaurants usually gave you three or four to do at a time, and you charged a flat rate for each one. The flip side was that if the ranks were going like a fairground and the controller knew you, the chances were you would end up delivering fish and chips while the guy that had been behind you five minutes ago got a lucrative run somewhere way out of town. Mostly though, deliveries were easy money-makers and the tips could be quite good too.

Nightshift is a completely different ballgame. When I worked an evening shift, I would start at 6pm so I could still get on the end of the delivery business if I wanted it, but I would then drive straight into that period between people getting food delivered to them, and going out and hitting the pubs. There would then be another slump around 11pm where the folks that were going out had already gone, and people weren't yet drunk enough to be heading for home. Whatever time of day I drove, I always made sure I had a good book in the car that I could dip into between hires. A warning about this incidentally: don't pick an author you can't put down or you'll get very annoyed very quickly!

After I'd been driving taxis for about 18 months, the woman whose car I drove most regularly was attacked as she drove someone to Glasgow late one Saturday night. Luckily for her there was a Glasgow taxi driver on hand to come to her rescue but the experience left her very shaken, and very nervous about working a Saturday night. The problem is, if a taxi driver is going to make money, a Saturday night is the night to do it. So I volunteered to run her car from the beginning of the evening shift until the end of the night shift. Theoretically I could have finished anytime after the streets were cleared (about 4-ish) but you could get quite a bit of passing trade between 4 and 6 and it made it worthwhile. Besides, the company employed two nightshift drivers and if both of them were busy, I would sometimes be asked to assist. In those days, I was probably making about 50% of my money after midnight so I was happy to do it.

I could go on about the taxi driving for hours, because it was a lot of fun and in those days very lucrative. However after my ex-wife and I split up, I started working two shifts a week as well as holding down the full-time job that I still do. Eventually, something had to give and about five years ago, I finally quit the taxis. I can honestly say that if I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd probably go back to it and I don't regret any of the time I spent driving taxis. Wouldn't do it in Helensburgh though!

Why I'm doing this

Ok, so why am I doing this? I've been toying with the idea of blogging for a while, but to be honest was never that sure that I had anything worthwhile to say.

I just realised though: I do have stuff to say and some of it's even worthwhile. So, I'm going to say what I have to say and hope that it gives the next guy (i.e. you) some sense that you haven't wasted your precious time with reading it.

So, a wee bit about my life so far: At the time of writing, I am 37 years old, and live in Glasgow with my gorgeous and talented girlfriend. I have two children from a previous marriage who I see roughly every other week.

Work's a big thing for me. I'm not a workaholic or anything like that, and I'm not at the cutting edge of anyting either. What I mean by that is that I've been in pretty much constant employment since 1994. There have been very short periods of unemployment since then but believe me when I tell you that I find it difficult to cope with being unemployed. Anyway, my next blog will be a little bit about the town I grew up in.