I took a day off yesterday, Saturday, from Charlotte Square to catch up on a few events I haven’t yet told you about. There was a special treat as a series of book-paper sculptures of birds, Free to Fly, were unveiled with instructions on how to set them free. They looked gorgeous and symbolised the power of words to unlock the mind.
One was dedicated by Ian Rankin to the memory of Iain M Banks “who went the crow road far too soon”. If I find out where they all end up, I’ll let you know so you can go and look.
John Lloyd and John Canter
So, a quick catch-up on the end of the week. On Wednesday evening in the Scottish Power Studio Theatre Al Senter ebulliently chaired John Lloyd and Jon Canter discussing their new book After Liff, the latest instalment of the slim books that use place names to give a term for something that there should be a word for but isn’t. For example, Balerno is the spooky sensation that someone is about to explain déjà vu to you.
After reeling off a few more local Liffs, Lloyd and Canter went into the history of the series, which was born when Douglas Adams, who they both knew from his days at Cambridge, adapted a game his favourite English teacher had taught him. Adams, famous for his procrastination (he once said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”), was in Corfu avoiding writing the first Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel. Lloyd said Adams “used to sit in a big, enormous hat at the top of a hill and type three or four words and come down to the taverna and we used to play this game.”
Canter used a word from the new book to describe Adams, inspired by the “inordinate” amount of time he spent in baths (so now we know where the Golgafrincham “B” Ark Captain character came from), it was Beaucroissant, “a male flatmate who spends all his time in the bath”. There are, by the way, a couple of very good biographies of Adams, one by MJ Simpson and one by Neil Gaiman, who is a great admirer of Adams’ work as script editor on Doctor Who.
One story I hadn’t heard before in those, though, is that because after Adams fired Lloyd at the end of writing the Hitchhiker radio series, when they were working on the expanded version of the original Meaning of Liff, he wouldn’t work with Lloyd, so Canter and Lloyd worked together on it, meaning Canter was an uncredited third author. With the new book, many of the words have been culled from threads on websites such as h2g2 (an early attempt to do something that Wikipedia later became, only slightly sillier). Lloyd observes that although everyone can play the game, “most people are only able to write one brilliant Liff”.
Lloyd is also appearing at the Fringe at the moment in Liff of QI. He’d never before had any urge to appear onstage, despite producing many of the most successful comedy shows of the past decades, but at the annual Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture at the Hammersmith Apollo, 3,500-seater he had to present the winners of a competition to write a Liff. Despite not expecting to enjoy his 15 minutes reading them out, he suddenly responded to the laughter and “you had to pull me off with a walking stick”. A friend said “I’ve known you for 15 years and had no idea you were funny”. So he decided to give it a go.
Both Lloyd and Canter have a long history in television, and they gave us anecdotes on the making of many programmes on radio and TV including Blackadder, QI and Not the Nine O’Clock News, with many well-informed swipes at the current poor state of television in the UK compared to the US. One ray of hope though is that Lloyd thinks “the new director-general is going to make waves at the BBC”.
They were particularly full of praise for Mel Smith, who died recently. Lloyd said that on Not the Nine O’Clock News, they were trying hard to distance themselves from successes such as Monty Python or The Two Ronnies and “Mel really invented the acting style, which was completely new: a very dry, flat style, so that if you watched with the sound off you wouldn’t know he was trying to be funny.” A “brilliant straight actor” he brought his techniques to the show, said Lloyd, citing the classic Gerald the Gorilla sketch. He also, in starting the production company Talkback, launched the careers of many big comedy names, including Chris Morris, Armando Ianucci and Steve Coogan, reminding us that we really didn’t know what we had till it had gone.
Tim Burgess and Ian Rankin
On Thursday night, with the rain hammering down on the canvas, Tim Burgess chatted in the Baillie Gifford Theatre with Ian Rankin about his life with The Charlatans, captured in his book Telling Stories. Burgess was a little subdued, understandably, as Charlatans founder member Jon Brookes had died on Tuesday.
He began with a passage from the book on the madness of touring, “a mobile circus, a human zoo”, where “things get a little bit sketchy”, particularly the detailed and complex rituals of hiding drugs around the tour bus before border crossings: “An over-complex stock control system. We were like a team of monkeys running an Argos shop.”
He described his first job as a post boy at ICI in Northwich “riding around with my Walkman on” listening to mixtapes, though his overnight transformation into a punk after seeing The Vibrators on Top of The Pops (his mum made his bondage trousers out of old cricket whites) and Rankin noted “all the building blocks were there for you to have a career in music… apart from not being able to play an instrument.”
His love of New Order and Joy Division led to his ending up in a séance because someone said he was “was sharing a room with Ian Curtis”. A complex process of bands merging an splitting eventually created The Charlatans, with success coming very quickly after their debut single, Indian Rope, was recorded. “Before we recorded Indian Rope it felt very, very slow. I was 21, and it felt like I’d been waiting for all my life. But them everything just exploded.”
No-one “in the indie crowd we looked up to” every got into the charts, but they went in at 89. Then The Only One I Know was a huge hit and their tour venues got a lot bigger.
Rankin asked: “That must go to your head, the feeling that you’re invincible.”
“I really loved service stations, so we’d stop off at service stations up and down the country. We’d get back into the van and turn the radio on and we’d be on again.” A big laugh greeted the story that as they hadn’t made a video for Indian Rope, they just sent a photo to MTV with their manager’s phone number on it. Which MTV then used. As did the answer to the question “Why did Ronnie Wood lock you in his refrigerator?”
There were more stories of rock and roll daftness and the conversation turned to Rob Collins‘ run-in with the law, getting involved with an armed robbery. “Rob and his mate were pushing each other to the limits. Rob’s friend said to him ‘I’m going to hold up this shop’ and Rob said ‘I bet you don’t’.” He ended up doing eight months in jail and as soon as he was released he was reunited with the band in the Top of The Pops studio to perform Can’t Get Out of Bed.
When Collins died in a car crash in 1996, just before the band were due to play Knebworth with Oasis, Burgess, Burgess said he got a call from Jeff Barrett (the founder of Heavenly Recordings) saying “you’ve got to do this show, if you don’t you probably won’t play again”. When he asked how they could go on, Barret replied that Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie had offered Martin Duffy although “he doesn’t know about it yet”.
Burgess now runs Tim Peaks, supporting the David Lynch Foundation. The route to this was that after he went cold turkey, locking himself in a room for eight days, he’d been sober for three years. He’d been at a party, bored, when a friend told him that David Lynch had used transcendental meditation for 25 years. “I thought about Twin Peaks, which is my favourite show, and just how calm it was.”
After a few closing questions on his hair, Revels and which artists were on his old mixtapes, he was asked who his favourite emerging bands were. His recommendations, Throwing Up and Factory Floor could well be worth watching, as well as a young artist known as Ian Rankin, whose song is apparently still available on iTunes.
And, to wrap up my first week, I went along on Friday night to see professional troll Neil Forsyth, the creator of Bob Servant, whose campaigns to wind up spammers and con merchants have led to a series of books, a radio adaptation and TV outings. As I’d only read one of the books many years ago, I have to admit I was frequently lost. The audience was, as the chair Brian Taylor observed at the end, “the most Dundonian audience Edinburgh Book Festival has ever had”. And they were proud of it. No concessions were made to those of us who knew nothing of Chocolate Violets, Fisherman’s Bar nor East Ferry, but it was still an entertaining hour.
Forsyth began by reading an exclusive chapter from Fifty Shades of Bob Servant, in which Bob gets naughty with a woman he met in Safeway’s vegetable aisle. Here is a sample of this filth:
“You’re very dirty,” I said to the woman.
“Yes, I am,” she replied
“You really are,” I said, pointing to mud on her dungarees.
“I’ve been working on the berries,” she said.
“Perhaps you’d like to punish me for being so dirty?”
“Fair enough, how about a small fine. Say £1.50?”
Any more of this hot and heavy exchange and I might get blocked by David Cameron’s filters. It was a fun way into a short discussion in which it was pointed out Forsyth once came third in a “Spirit of Dundee” award behind Lorraine Kelly and a jute museum. But then it was straight into audience questions the first of which was about Black Box’s Ride on Time… for some reason.
A question about how he got Brian Cox to be Bob led to a convoluted story about going to watch a Dundee-Rangers match in a New York pub. This was picked up by Taylor describing a player in that match called David “Happy Feet” Robertson. Forsyth carried on that a fan had told Robertson: “Eh, Happy Feet, braw goal, ye scored it with yer erse.” I’m still not sure what this has to do with Brian Cox.
Bob was born when Forsyth read an article about “spam baiters, who were militant and angry about the whole thing.” “I started up an email address as Bob Servant so I could sign it off ‘your servant, Bob Servant’. That was it.” He created an older, unworldly character with money to become an attractive target and it took off. Using content from spammers was attractive as they are “an endless stream of straight men”, they don’t want royalties and “they never want to hear from you again”.
Does he have any sympathy for them? “No, they’re crooks. They’re not the worst crooks in the world, but they are.” Is there any evidence that people fall for the spammers’ tricks? “A lot of people fly to Amsterdam, Schiphol Airport and hand over money. A lot of posties seem to fall for it.”
The second half of the event was a reading by Victoria Liddelle and Jonathan Watson of a couple of Bob’s email exchanges. the first of which was a Russian spammer bamboozled and increasingly impatient at Bob’s offer to set up a church in the local toilets, culminating in the sermon he gave while the cubicle was being used. The second was with “Mary Reilly” a supposedly terminally ill American, who got sucked into an increasingly stupid plan to dramatise an “assassination attempt” on her in book form, by Bob’s publisher Sad Times. The result became Both Barrels, a hilariously incompetent misery memoir.
It was entertaining and, thankfully, those of us from south of the Tay could relax and enjoy it. It was, as Taylor pointed out, probably the only EIBF event to feature the words “knob-jockey”.