Nov 112019

By Suzanne Kelly.

Aberdeen Voice first interviewed actor Declan Michael Laird in June 2012, when he was a determined, optimistic 18-year-old trying to break in Hollywood.

Quite a few films, commercials and experiences have gone under the bridge since then. This catch-up seemed quite overdue.

“I believe that if things are meant to be, they’ll be” he said at the time – while putting in the hard work to make what he wanted to happen a reality.

Glaswegian Declan started out as a rising footballer, playing for Greenock Morton FC on a youth contract; football runs in the family. His brother Stefan is Aberdeen Football Club’s Academy Head and owns his own coaching company, SJL Coaching.

A combination of circumstances, accident, curiosity, luck, and mostly talent led Declan off the pitch and in front of the camera.

“It was all amazingly sudden,” Declan explained in an earlier Aberdeen Voice interview of his first brushes with acting,

“I went to the first filming and decided this was what I wanted to do – the cameras, the actors, being on set was amazing.  Football, which had been my aim for 10 years, suddenly fell to the back.  I did a few short films back home with independent filmmakers.” 

Determination and drive saw him attend the prestigious Stella Adler school on a full scholarship (the previous person on a full ride to the famous school was Robert DeNiro).

Fast forward to our present talk, which comes on the heels of the film ‘Hot Air’ debuting on Amazon Prime Video.

Hot Air is the latest from the inimitable, incisive Steve Coogan. Laird has a supporting role in the film, also starring Neve Campbell and Taylor Russell.

Before I knew Declan was in this film, it had my attention.

Coogan plays a far-right wing, bitter, manipulative, cynical shock jock à la Bill O’Reilly: a man who plays his perpetually furious, far-right wing listeners like a violin, creating ratings from fomenting their anger.

He has some great lines indicting the kind of journalism that is now poisoning American minds in particular (a disease spread by the likes of Breitbart and Kate Hopkins).

As someone who was on the O’Reilly Factor show some years back, I wanted to see if the dirty tricks, psychological games and ruthlessness would be captured.

They were.

Coogan’s radio talk show host is emotionally wounded and the cuts have festered over time. The Dei ex Machina appearance of his niece (Taylor Russell), child of his damaged, addicted sister provides a way to see how he wound up so twisted.

He gets some killer lines (‘How do you sleep at night?’ Is answered by him with ‘On a mattress stuffed with cash and the broken dreams of Hillary Clinton’), climaxing in his soliloquy damning politics and far-right media near the end.

This movie has a lot to say, and I like how it does it.

Declan does an impressive turn in this supporting role

It was great to see Neve Campbell as the love interest. You can see in her face her conflicting emotions – fondness, perhaps love for the rather unlovable DJ, and turmoil when he gets things so wrong at different times.

If you remember Trump’s preposterous recent pronouncement that instead of a wall we should have a moat, he may have picked that up from this film 

But there is humour, not least supplied by Declan’s character – a trustafarian young Russian man who lives in Coogan’s ultra-exclusive Manhattan apartment building who takes Taylor Russell out clubbing, to Coogan’s chagrin.

Declan does an impressive turn in this supporting role, from his accent, his movements from his hands through his fingertips.

I asked how he got his accent honed.

“I was always the guy doing impressions and mimicking people growing up – it came naturally to me. I did study dialect at Stella Adler as well; there were two years of accent training.”

“I asked the director ‘Do you want me to play it straight or do you want caricature?’ and he said ‘Well, we’re going to put you in an Adidas tracksuit with a thick gold chain.’ – so that told me all I needed to know.”

He was surprised to see Taylor Russell as a fellow actor on the project – he had met her before.

“It was the craziest thing – I met Taylor about three years earlier. We got introduced by a friend of a friend. Then she was in Lost in Space for Netflix.”

He saw her name on the scripts and that meeting came back to him.

“It’s funny how it’s such a small world.”

Ms Russell is in the acclaimed Waves, and has just had a 2020 breakthrough actor nomination for her work on the film in the Gotham Awards.

I didn’t ask Declan the predictable ‘So what was Steve Coogan really like?’ question, but I did ask what it was like to work with him. To many, Coogan is Alan Partridge; to others like me, Alan Partridge is a small part of Coogan’s work.

Declan said:

“He was kind of a quiet person, very polite. He thought I was Russian. When he asked me where I was from and I answered ‘Glasgow’, we got talking more. He was a great person to talk to and had lots of good advice.”

It was a bit odd how Declan landed the role – it was via one Skype call. He had done a reading of one scene with only one read through, and no input came back from the director – which can be very good or it can mean they’re not remotely interested.

“Forty-five minutes later my agent called and said I got it.”

“It was funny… I went to see it in a theatre with my girlfriend and this couple looked at me, and the man did a double-take. I heard him say afterwards to his partner, nodding in m y direction, ‘That’s the guy who was in the film!’ And she said ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’

“I laughed.”

Declan tells me about his girlfriend – they met in New York; she went to NYU and plans to direct and did casting for Netflix. I ask him if he has any interest in directing.

“Directing doesn’t interest me. I look at acting, writing, producing, and she talks about shots, cinematography, lightning.”

What’s next seems to be more acting and some producing.

“Zak Kadison has taken me under his wing,” Declan says of the producing side.

Acting-wise, he will be appearing in Green Fever next year.

Green Fever is a tale of a marijuana farm in California at a time of transition, directed by Gerard Roxburgh, written by Danny Acosta and Paul Telfer.

It is based on true events, but as Declan puts it

“My role is the only real fiction in it; I play a younger brother of a farm owner. The focus is on politics around the time weed was made legal. It’s an action/thriller/heist film.”

I cheekily ask whether the cast are taking the method acting approach to the project; Declan laughs and replies:

“There was a strong talk from the director to everyone about not smoking!”

A Scottish coincidence arises in the film’s crew;

“Gerard’s (the director’s) family come from down the road from my family in Greenock, and Telfor’s roots are in from Paisley.”

By this time, we’d talked politics, Trump (inevitably), earthquakes, San Francisco, football and more, and before I talked him hoarse, we wound up the call.

It is wonderful in such a time of upheaval and problems, and frisson between generations to see someone like Declan whose mature and hard-working beyond his years getting closer to the nearly impossible dream of Hollywood stardom.

If anyone can get there though, it’s him. I can’t wait to see where he’ll be in a further nine years.

Aug 252015

Koozie Johns has a musical career spanning decades and genres; he’s worked with a wide spectrum of the UK’s top talents. His latest offering is the recently released Folk Grinder album, ‘The Devil’s Mariner’ produced by Kirk Brandon. A second single, ‘Captain Johnny Clash’ is set for release shortly. Koozie talks to Aberdeen Voice’s Suzanne Kelly about music, muses, outlaws, his personal battle with Fibromyalgia and more.

Koozie Johns (4)Koozie Johns sounds pretty happy and relaxed when I phone. What I thought would be the 15 minute interview I normally do turned into 40 minutes, and could have gone on longer if not for my having another appointment. Johns has been in and out of various bands and musical projects for many years.

How do you get from a childhood near the Forest of Dean to creating punk rock songs of the sea for the 21st century?

Folk Grinder’s website describes the music:

“There are songs about pain and addiction, love and loss, songs that will embrace you with nautical tales of the sea and far away shores, sailor dives and dancing girls. Songs to redeem your soul to, to start over to, Songs for fallen comrades and long lost loved ones, songs to drink and be merry to or drown your sorrows to, you choose in fact there’s a song for everyone.

“A blend of upbeat shanty rhythms, punk folk, skiffle rock’n’roll, shades of rockabilly and Americana tremolo.’Skulls and bones stitched and sewn all by the hand of a drunken sailor’. HEAVE HO!!!”

The recent material seen in the two Folk Grinder albums is where a traditional sea shanty gets into bed with punk, folk, rock, cabaret and a bit of country. But how/why/how did this unique genre spring to life?

Koozie, how did sea shanties come to inspire your writing?

“Some years ago from 2005-07, I was living in Los Angeles – a place called Redondo Beach – in a lovely old 1920s wooden beach house. From the porch I could see the ocean and I used to sit there, play guitar and I’d drift off into a fantasy world of 18th century sailors, to the time of sail and tall ships.

“I wrote a batch of shanty-esque style songs like ‘England Dreaming’ which is on the first Folk Grinder album, a song I wrote about missing home my beloved, and dear old Blighty. Before I knew it I’d ended up writing an album’s worth of shanties and songs of the sea . I was inspired, living within the sound and sight of the ocean. 

“In some ways the life of a musician is not that dissimilar to being a sailor I guess, with regards to being away from home a lot, missing one’s loved ones or sometimes not….. looking for the unexpected or escapism and I’d say drinking certainly plays a part at some point. Every voyage, tour and show an adventure that holds something new just like a sailors tour of duty.

“When I was 17 I worked as a house painter with a former WW2 naval veteran a character by the name of Blondey Jackson a cockney that spoke old school rhyming slang which I had to learn fast in order to keep up with conversation. Every lunch time he’d tell me sailor stories of shore leave adventures, show me the faded tattoos on his arms and old faded war time photos, I look back on that time very fondly I learnt a lot from him and remember the stories well.”

The album is mainly songs of lost and found loves, and Johns’ personal experiences seem to inform most of it. I mention this and comment ‘you must have been busy.

“I’ve had quite a colourful life. With every relationship I have I do on average get about three songs out of them. [ We have a laugh over that]. 

Koozie Johns (3)“It’s not what I wanted. I wanted to meet the right girl and be with the right girl, but it’s never worked out for me for whatever reason.

“It’s hard having relationships being a musician and I guess I ain’t that good at them or easy to live with [laughs].

“I’m better off with a dog I think, if only human beings had the hearts of dogs …..  forever pleased to see you, loyal and total unconditional love …… maybe the next album will be an album of sea-dog songs.

“When you’re in a band and in that world you’re in a bubble – your own universe – sometimes it can be very hard on your partner as well as hard on yourself stepping in and out of two worlds so to speak.

“The trick is to find the right balance and the right girl I suppose ….. but not all the songs are about a failed love life ….. there’s other types of songs to drown your sorrows or rip it up to like the new single release ‘Captain Johnny Clash’ which is an upbeat folk punk shanty dedicated to Joe Strummer and other artists I’ve been inspired by that used to dress in black a lot.”

 I ask him about Folk Grinder’s live line up

“We’re a trio at the moment but the fG crew changes about sometimes pending on the type of voyage and who’s available at time of enlistment. On skiffle snare, percussion and bv’s there’s my old friend Chris Musto; who I’ve played with in a number of bands, working with him before with former Sex Pistol, Glen Matlock in a band called The Philistines as well as in past bands Shot and Sinnerstar.

“Chris is a very talented musician, drummer, artist in his own right. He’s played with Joe Strummer, Kim Wilde and Johnny Thunders to name a few and currently plays with The Bermondsey Joyriders who I really like. The man’s even been blessed by the Rock’n’Roll legend ‘Little Richard’ now how cool is that?

“On accordion, trumpet and bv’s is Helen Kane – who has recently come on board taking over accordion live duties from Folk Grinder’s Miro Snejdr. Helen was a former Marilyn Monroe cabaret performer/singer and session player a very talented lady indeed. Then of course myself on acoustic guitars and lead vocals.

When I saw Folk Grinder play in May, it was something of a first – a girl singing backing vocals and playing accordion with a three-piece doing updated sea shanties. “There’s definitely something special about her,” I suggest, “well, with the whole act.” Koozie agrees:

“Yes, we all have a good chemistry together that works very well. On both Folk Grinder albums produced by the legendary Kirk Brandon of Spear of Destiny/Theatre of Hate fame, the albums feature female backing vocals on many songs.

“Kirk introduced me to the idea of having female backing vocals on the recordings and so a trio of talented sirens were brought on board in the form of singer Tracie Hunter (daughter of Mott the Hoople front man Ian Hunter) Former Westworld singer Elizabeth Westwood and singer songwriter and gospel singer Phoebe White collectively known as The Rebelles.

Koozie Johns (6)“The female backing vocals and harmonies really added and complimented to the fG skiffle stripped back sound , they did a fantastic job on the recordings. So when the delightful Helen Kane came on board to play accordion and showed off her vocal talents it was a perfect addition for the live shows with having the female backing vocals in place.

“We all vibe off each other very well, which is especially important with a small live line-up.”

Fibromyalgia, the incurable nerve disease with uncertain cause and unpredictable symptoms hit Koozie Johns not long ago. Inevitably it has impacted every aspect of his life including his music. I offer to leave the subject out of our talk, but he had quite a bit to say on the matter. It seems to me that his comments are useful to sufferers and their friends and families.

“I recently played a charity event to help raise awareness and research funding for The Fibromyalgia Association, where I chose to speak publicly for the first time about my dealings with the illness. I got diagnosed at the end of 2009 and I hadn’t heard of it before. I knew nothing about it, so it’s been a bit of a journey. It’s a very debilitating illness with no cure and I’d wish it upon no one it’s life changing and robs you of so much. Doctors tell me it’s a mystery as to the cause. Apparently something traumatic or an intensive stress situation can trigger it.

“Fibromyalgia is basically chronic widespread pain with chronic fatigue, my everyday normal is like waking up with the aches and fatigue of a heavy bout of flu only it’s not flu, you don’t get better. The nervous system constantly misfires wrong messages around the body to and from the brain causing horrendous levels of pain in joints, muscles and nerve endings and if that isn’t bad enough there are up to 200 other symptoms on top. 

“Every day is a roll of the dice to see how well you can be. You caught me on a good day; it can affect my speech, my walking, balance and concentration a thing that’s called brain fog as well as there are severe sensory overload problems. I probably get around 60 other symptoms on top of chronic widespread pain and fatigue.

“My exhaustion rate is five times that higher than a normal person. It’s a very difficult illness to cope with; very tough. I’m learning about it more everyday and one thing I’ve learnt is how important it is to have a focus and to try and keep a positive drive is essential for survival. No matter how hard never give up.

“I’m in and out of pain clinics trying various treatments and learning how to manage an adapted life whilst in constant severe pain 24/7 – 365 days a year. In 2011 I woke up one morning and my legs wouldn’t work properly and for a while wasn’t able to stand, I then lost the ability to play guitar which was even more devastating and sent me off somewhere very dark. I thought my career was done and finished I thought I was finished too. 

“I figured I could either lay there cry and give up or fight back and so i fought back and relearned to play guitar. I did it a chord a day then a few chords building it up slowly until I could play a verse then a chorus and then eventually a whole song it took me eight months until I could manage around ten songs and slowly I improved from there. 

Koozie Johns (2)“My hands can sometimes feel swollen or even be swollen they can feel like they’ve been hit with hammers sometimes it feels like I have gloves on so the touch sensation has changed for me, as well as having stiffness and pain in all joints in my fingers and wrists and hands.

“Same went for singing I had to totally relearn breathing control whilst singing, because when you’re in pain all the time you breathe differently, you tend to hold breath a bit and of course your fighting fatigue too. I decided to book two shows to work towards for the autumn of 2011. One in London and in one in my home town of Gloucester, thinking at the time they could possibly be my last shows. 

“The first show was at the world famous 12 Bar club formally on Denmark Street London WC2H.

[I sigh; it’s about 10 days since I saw the bulldozed space where one of my favourite London venues used to be near Tottenham Court Road tube. A few chain restaurants and stores will take its place. Just what we need]

“After the London show my friend and peer Kirk Brandon who was in attendance came up to me and said ‘I love your songs Kooz and want to produce you’. 

“I was gob smacked and totally honoured. He was unaware of my health condition at the time and the journey I had just undertaken. 

“He told me about when Mick Jones of The Clash approached him back in 80/81 and produced Theatre of Hate (achieving the hit single ‘Do you believe in the Westworld’) Kirk spoke of how that had helped and enabled him to have an ongoing career that led on to Spear of Destiny. Kirk said he’d reached a point in his life where he wanted to return the favour, I was so taken aback.

“He said to me ‘You’ve played with lots of artists, but you deserve to be out there in your own right doing your own stuff, and I want to help you’. We’ve now done two fantastic albums together and he’s taught me alot. He threw a lifeline to me when I really needed it for which I am eternally grateful. I am lucky to have some good people around me – lovely, lovely people – and very talented friends and guests feature on both Folk Grinder albums.”

On the new Folk Grinder album ‘The Devil’s Mariner’, singer, song writer Koozie Johns’ lead vocals, acoustic guitar and tremolo guitars are joined by:

Guest backing vocals – Tracie Hunter, Phoebe White and Elizabeth Westwood collectively known as The Rebelles.
Guest guitar – Will Crewdson (Adam Ant/Rachel Stamp/Scant Regard).
Skiffle snare and percussion – Chris Musto (The Bermondsey Joyriders/Joe Strummer/Johnny Thunders/The Philistines) and shipmates Darrin Stevens and Igor Marjanovic.
Double bass – Kurt Barnes (King Kurt/The Grit).
Guest harmonica and Gothic saw – Jules Lawrence (Fat 45’s)
Violin – Sharon Forbes.
Accordion and piano is performed by fG shipmate Miro Snejdr. 

“I’ve discovered Playing music actually lowers my pain levels by about 40%: the adrenalin and serotonin levels go up as I play– it actually helps; it’s something that keeps me going but I do have to pace myself and be careful as there can be quite a physical payback afterwards.

Koozie Johns (5)“Having the focus of music enables me to battle the illness a lot better than without. I had to learn to adapt because I became unable to work with loud guitars and loud drums due to the severe sensory overload problems I get with the Fibromyalgia. In order to continue playing music I went for the skiffle stripped back acoustic approach I have with folk Grinder which I really love, I adore the simplicity of it.

“It’s been a difficult decision whether to open up or not publicly about my illness but the stress of trying to pretend and hide it all the time was making me more ill, especially when I started to use a waking cane due to having daily falls.

“People were thinking I was wasted all the time and drunk. Awareness is really needed, educate yourselves, educate others, anyone that will listen a cure needs to be found.

“I attended a seminar two years ago. A Fibromyalgia specialist Dr from Canada came over to talk; he discovered from his research that 70% of the deaths of Fibromyalgia patients was from suicide and that horrified me – absolutely horrified me. I understand the dark places you go to sometimes from the amount of pain you get.

“But when I found that out – about people killing themselves because of too much pain – I was just so upset I thought I have to do something very positive and show people with chronic pain and other chronic illnesses which are affectively invisible illnesses what can be achieved by having some kind of focus.

I’m stunned by these revelations, and while I had heard Johns had an illness of some sort, I’d no idea it was Fibromyalgia or much of an idea what the issues were. His descriptions of what it is like for him – and the importance of his focus – his music- to him in dealing with the disease provide an insight into this disease I hadn’t heard of before.

The talk turns to music again; We talk about the 12 Bar, and the diminishing number of live music venues. The 12 Bar on Denmark Street in London was a historic, centuries old forge turned into intimate music venue. A petition signed by tens of thousands failed to save this club – but has saved nearby buildings.

“I had a close connection with the 12 Bar club years before it opened as a club. The actual forge (that was the live room) dated back to the mid 1600’s was a store room/workshop, for the famous Andy’s guitar shop that was once next door and who had originally leased it. When playing in bands with former employees of Andy’s i used it as an occasional store room for the odd amplifier and speaker cabinet.

“I remember going in for the first time and thinking – ‘wow what a great little club this would make’. That was in the late‘80s and by the ‘90s it had become a little club that started off as a former gin alley back street word of mouth club and the actual bar was only probably about a metre long.

Koozie talks of old line-ups at the 12 Bar and tunnels underneath.

“[The tunnels] were used during the plague; they were transporting plague victims so as not to alarm people above; and buried plague victims in the area. At one time I was assistant manager there for a while and one day after lock up, we thought we’d have a look. We went down into the kitchen where in a store cupboard there was a piece of timber on the side wall; we pulled that off and behind that was an entrance to the tunnels.

Koozie Johns (1)“Part of it was bricked up and filled with rusty old fridges and stuff, but you could get quite a sense of what it was like.

“I had friends visit me this afternoon who made the documentary ‘The demise of Denmark Street’ and we were talking about the destruction of peoples communities that’s on the increase from all the redevelopments going on in London and one thing people don’t realise is there was a huge community that had its heart ripped out by the loss of the original 12 Bar Club and the music studios that once stood behind in Denmark Place.

“For myself and many others it was like a home from home and a bit of a safe house.

“Like many I miss it very much but have such great memories and a wealth of good friendships from it.

I realise too late I’ve not spent enough time talking about the new album. I think a second interview will be called for in the near future. We discuss some of the songs, and I mention the song from the new Folk Grinder album ‘Ballad of The Black Eyed Man’.

“ Ballad of The Black Eyed Man is a true story about a Texas outlaw by the name of William Longley. A friend of mine [Derry from EMF] his father Dick Brownson had studied and researched this Texas outlaw since the 70’s making several trips over to Texas talking with Longley descendants and then finally wrote this book about him called ‘Wild Bill Longley Texas Gun slinger’.

“He was responsible for getting a plaque put up for this outlaw finding his unmarked grave. William Longley came from a good family but after the Civil War like with so many, he couldn’t settle back into a normal kind of life. He killed a lot of people but in his words they were all bad people. Eventually he got caught, was imprisoned and sentenced to be hung.

“He was a very tall man with jet black eyes and a gallows sense of humour, he joked before he was hung saying to those stood to watch ‘Yes I deserve to die today for what I’ve done, but I am not a bad guy: I never stole a man’s horse’. I got really inspired by what I read and wrote the song which musically lends itself to an Americana genre. There’s been talk of it being made into a Hollywood movie.

The new Folk Grinder album ‘The Devil’s Mariner’ produced by Kirk Brandon is OUT NOW!!

Order your copy now exclusively from

I have to go; I hope I’m not too fast in closing out our call. If I didn’t have something else to get to – and if I wasn’t worried about taking up too much of his time – I’d have kept talking. I’ll make a point of doing so again sometime soon.

“No probs Suzanne hope this is okay for you and for the readers. I do hope not bland and that its an interesting enough article to read, a bit diverse in topics but hey that’s how life is for me.

I thank you again for your time and support I truly appreciate you listening.

Kind regards and a big Heeeeeeeeeeeave Ho!!!

Koozie x”

May 252015

One of Scotland’s fastest-rising young stars in Hollywood is actor Declan Michael Laird. Awarded a fully-funded place at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting based on his performance at a workshop, he’s been busy ever since. Now it seems he’s set his sights on more than acting. Declan talks to Suzanne Kelly.

DeclanLairdpic (1)At age 21 most of us didn’t have a clue what we wanted to do for our career.

Childhood dreams of being a ballet dancer, cowboy or an astronaut were being swapped for aspirations of a more practical kind. For those who wanted careers in sports, arts or entertainment; well-meaning family, friends and school advisors were probably trying to talk them out of it.

‘Too much competition,’ ‘No reliable prospects,’ ‘No money to be made for most people in that field’ would be some of the sensible persuasions used to veer young people towards surer, more conservative jobs.

Luckily for Declan, his family stood by his dreams. Initially he sought a career in football, and was doing well until an injury brought his pro career to an abrupt end. 

His second career choice? Acting. And his family stood by him again.

A mixture of support, perseverance and lashings of talent got him roles in River City, short films, and a prestigious scholarship to the legendary Stella Adler Academy of Acting in LA.

If luck plays a part in his meteoric rise, it is the kind of luck that comes from working hard, networking, and trying new things. With offers coming in faster and faster, you might think that sticking to acting alone would be Laird’s game plan; it isn’t.

Declan and I find a chance to speak for half an hour; he’s on his way from one appointment to the next. I’ve done a little advance homework, and am pleased for him when I see that at the ripe age of 21, he’s got his own Wikipedia entry. He’s always keen to talk about what he’s doing, but tonight he’s even more so; his voice is just that bit more excited; he’s speaking just that bit faster.

What do you discuss first with a Scotsman living abroad?  The weather, of course.  I bemoan the unpredictable time we’re having weather wise and the end of April snows we briefly had.

How’s the weather in LA?

“California’s been in a drought; but now something like a year and a half’s worth of water fell in a day.  All the roads are flooded.  When it rains here, it’s as if people have never seen it before.  It’s carnage; it’s like a futurist film.”

What are you up to right now?

“Right now I’m driving to Stella Adler for two reasons.  One – I’ve got work coming up in July, so I am brushing up and making sure I’m in class and all the mechanisms are well oiled.  But also two –  my photo has been put up on the Stella Adler walls.  They put up pictures of alumni such as Mark Ruffalo, Salma Hayek and Robert De Niro and now I’m up there as well.  I’ve got a huge smile on my face. “

Laird does sound like he’s smiling and on the verge of happy laughter; he continues:

“I remember coming here three and a half years ago and looking at the wall and hoping someday my face would be there.  The Head of School John Jack called last week and told me to bring up a head shot.

“I’m in a class right now called Character Class; the idea is to push yourself to new limits.  They assign you something completely different than what you would usually be cast as.  I’m playing in Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner. I am a 35 year-old heroin addict in Afghanistan. I can grow a decent beard but it’s funny; last night my mum texted me and asked what I was doing. I replied ‘researching heroin’. She thought I was talking about heroines – she didn’t get it.”

Laird’s got a lot on his mind; it’s coming out.

“I’ll launch into what’s going on. I booked a pilot which films in the Nassau in the Bahamas. I go out on 30 July, and the production company manning that are Stone Village. The executive producer Scott Steindorff and he’s a pretty big deal.   He was producer of the television show ‘Las Vegas’; he did ‘Lincoln Lawyer’; he’s a pretty big deal.

“I’m a series regular.  It is on location at a new Bahamas resort – the biggest and most expensive resort in the world.  It’s not open yet; it opens this summer.  It is a casino hotel.  The story is to do with the employees, the ins and outs and things that go on good and bad.   The actor playing the head of the resort is a guy called Rick Fox.  He’s an actor now but is a LA Laker’s Hall of Famer and a sports pundit.”

After pausing for breath Declan seems to be thinking aloud when he muses:

“How the hell am I managing to be paid to go to the Bahamas?”

Have you got anything else in the works?

DeclanLairdpic (2)I ask, even though I can tell he’s bursting to tell me more news.

I’m aware that Laird is also a brand ambassador in the US for Scottish brands ‘Kennett Timepieces’ and ‘Dumore Scotland’.

To me this seems like a lot of juggling for a 21 year old fledgling actor; but there has never been any hint of stress or pressure in our conversations or correspondence.

“When I come back I have three other projects, so it’s all on the go.  There’s a short film ‘What Happens at Night’ and the director is Gordon Maniskas.  Basically I play a new vampire that hasn’t made its first prey.  They want to do the festival circuit ; he’s a great director.  There’s such a huge built in market with it; people love it.  I like the ‘Twilight’ movies, but never got the huge appeal.  But if people like it, I can go with it –  I can go around biting people.”

I can hear the amusement in his voice at the idea of being a vampire; I’m sure he’ll make a far more complex, frightening and alluring one than some of the recent teen vampire actors have managed.

“I’m signed on for a movie, ‘The Rectory’ a horror about Harry Price, who was the first well-known paranormal investigator. It’s looking for the last bit of funding, and looks likely to shoot in January next year but seems like a million miles away. This summer hopefully there’s another movie I’ve booked. 

“The script is in pre-production; it’s called ‘Isolation’ and that’s going to be directed by Peter Foldy, who is Canadian. ‘Isolation’ is a psychological thriller aimed at late teens.  Sean, my character is a nasty piece of work. It seems to be the kind of role I fall into. Sean looks clean-cut but is maybe, well a bit of a dick. This month filming the ‘Kali the King’ – a supporting role.

“It’s amazing out here the saying is ‘work creates work’ and I never knew what that meant. But the guy from the Chevy film [Laird had a Chevrolet commercial] called my agent and offered me the part.

“I think it really makes a difference- if you show up on time, are polite and punctual, they want to work with you in the future. Kali the King is a movie about an ex sort of drug cartel leader in east LA trying to go clean; I upset him by accident and it may or may not cost me my life.

“On the other side of things I’m really broadening out. I’m working with Dylan Russell, a big film producer; I play on his footie team on Sundays sometimes. I am learning about producing and writing, and I’m in writing classes right now. I really enjoy it.  I’ve a few things on the go – producing and writing a very dark medical-based drama set in east LA doing with Dakota Lupo; he’s very successful.”

We discuss how working on one kind of creative endeavour can bring new, previously unsuspected insight and depth to other areas of work.

“It informs what you’re doing – I think you really have to be smart about it; it’s no use to dedicating time to writing if it takes time away from acting, but there are so many channels – Yahoo!, Netflix, etc., it may be easier to sell things.  But you really have to be passionate and I’m passionate.  I’m not writing roles for myself;  if I love the story I go with it.”

I intend asking what he thinks of the recent events back home from the SNP landslide to Celtic’s season – but I sense he’s not done yet discussing his projects.  And he’s definitely not.

“This summer I’ve just got optioned the life rights to the true story of one particular gentleman who was in a Budapest WW2 concentration camp. I am going to go to Budapest this August to do some research and Melbourne later this year to meet with him.  We’ll try to adopt his story into a movie, and I have a few different producers working with me on this.

“I’m doing that in August because I’ll be back then after the Bahamas.  I’m also doing a thing at the Edinburgh Film Festival.  The literary death match is very popular in the US.  Three writers write short stories and three actors go up and perform the stories or speak, and have three judges who decide which story / delivery was best.  The Edinburgh Film Festival got in touch and asked me to be a judge.

I am producing that short film with Dakota Lupo which will film across Scotland in Glasgow and Aberdeen and then Paris.  We will be casting for that when we’re here.  It will be fun to cast and be on that side of things.  It’s a comedy short; about 12 minutes but we’ll do it across Scotland and day’s filming in Paris.  That’s called ‘The Wake Up’.

“My plan is to come to Europe for 3 weeks between Budapest and whatnot and filming ‘The Wake Up’ and get casting, and hopefully spending 4-5 days at home to do nothing.  So from now until the end of the year it’s kind of mad.  It’s good. I’m getting joy in my classes.”

Home for Declan is with his family, just outside of Glasgow. I don’t see Laird getting either bored or jaded any time in the next few decades. The calibre and diversity of the projects is enviable, and will undoubtedly add considerable further strings to his bow.

Tell me please how Camp Abercorn is coming along? This is a web-based, crowd-funded series based loosely on scouting, and has had support of thousands of people – including George Takei.

“I think it’s wrapped for now; to be honest I’ve not heard much recently. I think they’re shopping it around. Up fronts are when all the pilots get sold to the networks. From what I saw the producers are still to sell it to a network. You just never know. If I get a nice phone call one day, then that’s great.”

I am conscious that time is marching on, and he’ll be at his alma mater soon, but I get a chance to ask what plays he’s reading, what films he’s seen.

“I’ve seen Mad Max’ – I’m very lucky that I’m in the BAFTA Newcomer Programme and get to go to screenings for free which is nice. ‘Mad Max’ was last night and it was absurdly fantastic. It was non-stop action start to finish; truly crazy; it was so fast moving it was almost as if I needed to have a rest after it.”

The film stars Tom Hardy; I know Declan’s about to talk about him. Laird’s previously mentioned Hardy with great admiration.

Tom Hardy – if someone had to ask me who I’d base my career on, I’d say him. I feel stupid saying this because he’s a huge star; but I’ve followed him for a while now, and now he’s popular everywhere. It’s like when you hear a song first and knew it was going to be massive, but you were one of the first to have heard it.”

Declan’s feeling about Hardy – which he admits is a kind of childish/possessive ‘I was the first to discover this’ feeling is wholly understandable. When you’ve found someone and were struck by their talent before the rest of the world recognised it, you do feel a bit proud, a bit possessive, a bit like you don’t want to be seen as just someone who got on the bandwagon late.

Truth be told, within a year tops it’s exactly, precisely how I am going to feel about having been introduced to Declan Laird so early in his career.

I can’t wait for our next conversation to see what he’s up to next.

Keep up to date with Declan on twitter.

Jan 302015

TV Smith is about to tour Germany with the UK Subs, and looks set to spend most of 2015 on the road as per usual. The recent album ‘I Delete’ contains all the observation on society you’d expect and is doing well. He continues to write his tour diaries; the latest is Book Of The Year, another candid account of a year touring, warts – lots of warts – and all. In between dates, merchandising, and admin, he talks with Suzanne Kelly.

 The Warm Up.

24_Credit Steve White

TV Smith Live – Credit: Steve White.

The Adverts dissembled a mere thirty something years ago, but Tim Smith doesn’t seem to have stopped touring or writing since. Before we speak, I watch a particular video of ‘I Delete’ again that I particularly like. The song speaks to me of our surveillance-happy society, personal memory overload, and the little acknowledged fact that sometimes the camera does lie or can be made to lie.

Smith’s vocals vary from quietly controlled but edgy to powerfully angry. ‘I Delete’ is the title track on the latest album – you can pick it up here as well as the tour diaries.

Around nine years ago he began publishing his tour memoirs; there are five books out now.

Aberdonians may be interested to know the latest one ‘Book of the Year’ closes with his date at the Moorings in December 2013 and his meeting Fred Wilkinson, Hen, Flash, and Flash’s sick parrot. The diary entries provide an insight into a life spent in music with a matter-of-fact humour and plain speaking, direct prose.

It’s perhaps a bit of a paradox, Smith’s music can convey such anger and frustration, yet he keeps his calm and keeps his head in situations that would tax anyone else to breaking point and beyond. For those who don’t know, life on the road for any musician is hardly one glamorous adventure after another.

Smith’s put up with late-cancelled shows, vehicle breakdowns, freezing cold hotels, disappearing sound people, kipping on floors, lack of edible food, lack of inedible food, and on more than one occasion amazing rudeness, daftness, incompetence and/or a mix of all these. If you wonder why he bothers, he’s written five engaging tour diaries that spell it out.

The Main Act

5_Credit_Minna Waring

Credit: Minna Waring

I call Tim; he’s at home after 4 UK dates with a luxurious two days to relax “surrounded by boxes of merchandise” before he joins the UK Subs European tour.

I tell him Fred Wilkinson’s tried to get Atilla the Stockbroker down here; and we both hope Tim can make it back to Aberdeen sometime soon.

He’s friendly and polite – he always seems to be.

I will say he sounds a little tired; he’s for one thing answered pretty much the same questions in interviews for 30+ years.

Added to that, his schedule would make anyone else exhausted.

We briefly talk about the phases the music business goes through, and I suggest that anyone who wants to have a career in music on their own terms is managing their career themselves.

“It’s not that far from the way punk started.” He explains.

“it’s the DIY ethic. Right back when that’s how it was. The original punks are older and smarter now. You did what you wanted to do then; that made it new and special. Gradually that DIY spirit got consumed by the industry – people see how terrible the business is now.”

We fairly naturally move to the subject of the ubiquitious TV talent shows and what that’s doing to new music and the more unusual artist.

“It’s an entertainment industry; it’s not about the music. It’s not like the ‘60s where there was at least the pretence of pushing good music.” 

I ask about this new tour he’s to start with the Subs.

“I’m on a never ending tour,” [ which of course he is now I think about it a bit more]

“Another thing that’s changed – you put a record out, went on tour, did nothing for a bit, then did another album and then the record company put you out again. I do 130 dates a year. The subs tour is a bit different. 5 weeks on the trot. For most of the rest of the year it’s 4 or 5 dates here, a trip to Finland or Switzerland, then back to the UK.”

I’m thinking about his accounts of cars breaking down in the middle of nowhere, of vans laden with gear with flat tires on the way to shows, getting lost on the way to clubs, cancelled trains, planes and automobiles. Then, as often as not, the problems start when he gets to a venue – no PA, missing engineers, strange people, malfunctioning equipment – it’s enough too give anyone nightmares.

‘How do you keep your cool on the road?’ – I genuinely wonder. I think of artists I’d worked with in the past who’d get threatening if their dressing room wasn’t to their liking.

“When you set your mind to do something and it becomes increasingly obvious there will be obstacles.. equinamity takes over and you can either just get on with it, or moan and give up. There is a tendency to start moaning and whinging but then the atmosphere gets even worse. It is hard; it is soul destroying and it is irritating. 

“But you have to try in retrospect to see the funny side. Re-writing what happens later is therapeutic. When the van’s broken down and it’s 25 degrees below zero in Finland and you wonder how you’ll get to the show, it’s not fun at the time. But if you lack confidence in how to achieve what you want to do, you’ll just sit and home and become a bedroom artist.”

3_Credit_Anne Schelhaas-Wöll

Credit: Anne Schelhaas-Wöll

His music has touched on virtually every modern social ill I can think of – Lies (senseless, cruel animal experimentation), March of the Giants (which I always associate with Trump), Straight and Narrow (our ‘justice’ and ‘class’ systems) and so on.

‘I Delete’ speaks to me of our CCTV surveillance society (it’s no secret I don’t think Aberdeen Inspired should track us by our mobile phones, by imagery and know how long we spend in any shop – it’s a blatant infringement of our privacy all in the name of ‘footfall’ and marketing – but is a handy tool for anyone wishing to get our details and routines – but I digress); we are apparently the most spied on nation on earth ever.

I spout a rambling question of sorts at Tim about this new song, about writing, about social commentary.

Somehow he’s made sense of where I was trying to go:

“I’m a bit shy about describing lyrics… if I could tell you where it came from I’d be doing it all the time; it’s kind of a mysterious thing. Every now and then you get a snap of an idea, you grab it roll around with it and see if something comes out if it. It’s as much a mystery to me now as it was when I started in 1975. 

“I’m always getting people saying thing to me like ‘that would be a good idea for a song for you.’ But the ones that filter into your brain and spark something off and you get some poetry out of it is a completely different thing than someone demanding to know why ‘I’ve not written something about the aborigines yet’.”

“It’s not my ambition to correct injustice but to write poetry – if I can combine the two, then I’ve done the job.”

It’s not a matter for me of ‘if’ he can do the job of mixing social commentary and poetry – but how often he’s managed to masterfully do so over the decades. Another look at his website and I find the archives offer a list of some of his songs ranked by fans.

‘Immortal Rich’, ‘Gather Your Things And Go’, ‘Generation Y’, ‘Only One Flavour’ – all of this material ‘does the job’ of mixing the issues and concerns of a bewildering world with poetry. I can’t remember which tour diary book (it’ll be the first or the last) this quote is from, but at one point Smith recounts a fan saying to him “You sing about what we’re all thinking.”

All I can say is – absolutely.

It must be these kinds of reactions that makes TV Smith go out year after year on tour. It’s not the food or the hotels. But I ask him about touring all the same.

“You’re a bedroom artist if you don’t get out there. At the end of the day if you see that people have responded to your songs it makes the whole journey worthwhile. If I get to a gig after going through manic situations [and some of them sound very manic indeed] – that’s the fuel that keeps me going. When people go home motivated with their eyes shining you can’t ask for anything else – except maybe heat.”

I mention Fred Wilkinson and that Fred’s keen to try and get both TV Smith and Atilla the Stockbroker back to Aberdeen asap.

“I remember Fred – he gave me two Toxik Ephex CDs after Rebellion last year. Give him my love.”

I will do – Fred will be over the moon.

I mention that when we next get him up here, we’ve got a great place for him to stay near the Moorings; a luxe B&B where he can stay up and drink all night if he so wishes.

“I have stopped the staying with the friends scenario – I’ve stopped it because it becomes a non-stop party. People assume you’re the life and soul but when you’re doing it 130 times a year…”

I’m not surprised. In his diaries he seems to always be hunting out the friend of a friend he’s meant to stay with, finding that he’s got a kids’ bedroom to sleep in and the kids have been sent off elsewhere; dogs and cats barge into what little sleep he gets; and everyone expects that he can wake up, travel for hours, not eat, sound check eventually, play, socialise, merchandise, pack up, and then stay up all night drinking and talking.

One hundred thirty plus nights a year.

Before I let him get back to the mountains of work that undoubtedly await, we discuss a few upcoming festivals, and that TV Smith and the Bored Teenagers will play at Rebellion this year. They’ll do two sets; and TV will quite probably do an acoustic set as well. I’m just hoping that he’ll find time to get back up this way soon.

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Aug 292014

When news spread that Jeremy Paxman was to do a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe, expectations varied widely as to what would be on offer. Scathing diatribes? Career retrospective? Tap dancing? No one agreed what on what his show would be like – but everyone agreed they wanted a ticket. The show sold out instantly. After weeks of chasing a ticket, Suzanne Kelly was lucky enough to get a seat for an added show. Was it worth hours on the train and an expensive B&B stay? Absolutely. Suzanne Kelly reviews.

PAXO 2 - Credit: Theo Davies (Pleasance Edinburgh Picture show) Jeremy Paxman, recently liberated from the BBC, has delivered the most highly-anticipated Edinburgh Fringe show in years, and it was a triumph.

If you managed to get a ticket to this sold out show, you’ll remember it for some time to come.

Let’s hope some enterprising production company turns this show into a television series, or that some nights were taped and will be broadcast; it would be a great pity if Paxman’s pronouncements on issues from malarkey to World War I were not shared more widely.

The Form

The Pleasance is arguably one of the major hearts of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with its many intimate performance spaces and enjoyable beer garden atmosphere. We are led into the cabaret bar; the stage holds a giant wheel, a la ‘Wheel of Fortune’; each spoke contains a word or a symbol. Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Spitting Image’ head lies on the mixing desk to one side of the stage.

Then Paxo comes out. I wonder whether he’s somewhat surprised at the demand for this show, and the affectionate, appreciative audience tonight; he looks more astonished than anything else.

He welcomes us, and explained that each spin of the wheel will result in him discussing the subject selected for up to 5 minutes. Wildcards will lead to audience interactions. ‘Language’, ‘malarky’, ‘World War I’, ‘Impertinence’, ‘Pogonophobia’, ‘Trout’ ‘X-ray’ and a few wild cards come up this evening; here is what he does with them.

On language he manages to take a swipe at the staid, fixed Academie Francais’ feeble attempts to control the evolution of the French language. On the other hand, the English language is, he notes, about to lose the distinction between the two words ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’. Disinterested has its specific meaning; those who are not concerned with a particular matter or incident.

This is different to uninterested – a person having no curiosity or enthusiasm in a topic or event. There was certainly neither a disinterested nor an uninterested person in the Cabaret Bar, and had someone dropped a pin, we’d have heard it.

Term after term gave way to further impromptu forays varying from the humorous (pogonophobia – fear of beards) to poignant. A 5 minute overview of World War I focused on the men whose faces had been badly disfigured by enemy fire during trench warfare, what reconstruction methods of the time could do for them, and how their lives went after the war to end all wars.

We saw harrowing photos of these poor men, whose faces had been reconstructed to a degree, but whose lives had not. One badly disfigured man had said how children were merely curious about his injuries, and they displayed none of the revulsion or disgust he saw in adults’ reactions.

I would be willing to say time flew far faster for the audience than it did for Jeremy Paxman. While he clearly knew his opinions on these topics and would have done some advance preparation, it was quite another thing to have to share these thoughts with a packed room knowing random wildcards would be coming.

Jeremy_Paxman_049 - credit to Chris Floyd (2)Soon it was time for words on his love of trout fishing and nature. I found this as interesting and insightful as Jan Moir of The Daily Mail found it boring. For instance, when Paxman described trout fishing and a recent visit to Scotland and his appreciation for wildlife, I found myself hoping he knows about the horrible things going on here: the over fishing of salmon, seal shooting in Gardenstown, crashing wildlife populations.

When he spoke of seeing an osprey, I thought of all the good work done by Raptor Persecution Scotland, and all the bad work done by those who kill these birds and persecute animals illegally. We seem unable to catch those involved; and if we do, the fines are so low they seem like a cost of doing business.

Sorry for the digression. But I came to find out more about Paxman and his thoughts, not to hear him recite jokes or be a comic. There Moir and I differed.

The subject of beards came up when the word ‘pogonophobia’ – fear of beards – was chosen by the wheel. “Well” he confides, “there is a feeling that people who are too lazy to shave are not to be trusted to tell the truth either” – and then Paxo issued a small brief apology to the bearded man in the front row, to further laughter.

With another spin of the wheel, Paxman was assigned the task of speaking for 5 minutes on the subject of the weather. This he did by discussing, while not exactly waxing lyrical, about being forced into the role of weather boy during his Newsnight career. He played some splendid clips from that time.

In these clips, a world-weary, slightly (?) annoyed Paxman describes the weather: ‘it’s April. What do you expect?’ Who but Paxman could introduce caustic sarcasm into weather reports? Some 630,000+ people continue to view his forecasts on YouTube. Perhaps he missed a great opportunity.

We also talked about altruism, egotism, Yeats, Russell Brand and voting. I say ‘talked’ for while it was clearly his show, it was driven by the chance of the wheel and the audience’s input, and it felt more conversant than not. It certainly bore no relation to a headmaster on speech day (despite what two critics may have felt).

What The Papers Say

Paxo has been met with critical acclaim by nearly all reviewers. The telegraph’s reviewer used words such as ‘fascinating’ and ‘appealingly humane’.

The BBC reports that “One Man Edinburgh Show Gains Warm Reviews.”

The Independent reviewed the show and seemed largely satisfied, albeit the 18 August Indy piece also suggested that ‘There are times during the hour when he has the intelligently rambling air of a headmaster pontificating at Speech Day’.

What One Of The Papers Said

While most of the critics gave favourable reviews to Paxman’s Edinburgh run, one of his critics, Jan Moir of The Daily Mail was scathing, and also claimed that production staff gave her a hard time. Moir, who also complained in her review of the ‘fetid air’ in the venue (which I clearly missed) wrote:

“For this was less of a comedy show, not much of a chat show and rather a lot like a dress-down headmaster giving a speech on the last day of term… (Paxman) liked showing a collection of all his greatest Newsnight moments to a captive audience… self-satisfied and complacent”

As she wrote the above on 20th August, either the ‘headmaster’ comparison used by the Independent is so extremely apt she couldn’t think of anything better, or more likely, the ‘headmaster’ comment just came to her in a flash of creative inspiration. You decide.

As to being unsure of himself, nervous, self-satisfied and complacent all in one hour —  if this were true, then Jeremy Paxman is a very confused individual indeed. There was on the night a touch of uncertainty, and absolutely no self-satisfaction or complacency. Perhaps we caught different shows.

To her review I can only say how unfortunate it is that she expected either a stand-up comedian instead of a seasoned journalist, or was seemingly disappointed not to find Paxman in permanent Rottweiler mode. If Paxman wasn’t quite as prickly and aggressive as he was on Newsnight, this was clearly understandable.

The persistent, impertinent, scathing sarcastic Paxo we enjoyed on Newsnight is not artifice; these traits seem to be brought out by those who are incompetent or who have something to hide. The Pleasance audience obviously didn’t have anything to hide and weren’t being interviewed; Paxman wasn’t trying to dig information out of them.

In fact, if Paxman had tried to be the things Moir suggested he should be, it would have been rather dire.

Imagine someone of Paxman’s intelligence trying to reinvent himself as a stand-up comedian, or relying solely on his trademark Newsnight persona as his raison d’etre. That would have been unacceptable artifice. I think Paxman was trying to have a conversant and entertaining show; if that was the intent, then he succeeded marvellously.

Perhaps Jan Moir thinks he should have been the same person when dealing with an obstinate, evasive Michael Howard as when entertaining his Fringe audience.

Image 1 (2)Perhaps Paxman is only ever supposed to be an abrasively aggressive interrogator. By extension of Moir’s logic, if we are all supposed to be the same one-dimensional person in all of our many roles, then I should hate to run into Jan Moir any time soon.

Moir finally complains of some run-in she had with the show’s producers. I see nothing of this. I let them know I was there to do a review, and that I had two extra tickets to sell (and wanted a donation to charity if possible in exchange).

I also exchanged a few pleasant words with them briefly after the show.

They could not have been nicer. They were clear from the start that no recording or photos were to be taken, and I wonder whether if la Moir obeyed these simple, virtually universal rules. Otherwise we are to believe that Moir was so well known that she was instantly seized upon and upbraided for no reason. As important and well-known as she is, I have my doubts.

Important Yet Earnest

The word that sums up Paxo’s performance best tonight is earnest. I think he was possibly a bit worried being out of his element doing something he’d not done before; other critics believe this to be the case. Whether this is a flaw or a side note is in the eye of the beholding critic.

However, any unease hardly mattered to the content or audience satisfaction. A slightly unsure Paxman is an interesting juxtaposition to the man we think we all know.

I found the entire show uplifting – but some of the things he said about journalism and accountability those in public office should have were particularly so. He is surprisingly optimistic; advising that that none of the politicians he’d met are inherently bad people. He has so great faith and confidence in young people, and discusses University Challenge.

He asked the audience a question – it took us some time to do this; he told us how quickly the University Challenge students could answer this and similar questions. The stage was then set; he showed clips from historic University Challenge shows which didn’t exactly back up his claim but had us laughing. Such clips from past programmes were used throughout to great effect.

The good news is that we lucky few saw sides of this iconic journalist we’d never have seen otherwise. The bad news is that Jeremy Paxman confirms he will not appear on ‘Celebrity Come Dancing’ (whatever that is).

On Journalism and Politics

As interesting as the rest of his comments were, whether on poetry or X-ray machines, I was there primarily for his insights into journalism. When Mr Paxman spoke about journalism he explained how passionately curious he is – he wants to know things, and that when he find things out he wants to share his discoveries with other people.

He said he’d make the world’s worst spy. I believe he said his curiosity is what keeps him going and gets him up in the morning. He also explained the popularity of programmes like University Challenge, and asserted that television doesn’t have to feed us mindless garbage.

PAXO 8 - Credit Theo Davies (Pleasance Edinburgh Picture show) (2)Anyone who dismisses Paxman for rudeness, sarcasm and impudence is missing the point. It is because he cares that he refuses to back down.
He spoke on ‘impertinence’ which led to his reminding us all that politicians are not celebrities and are not above us: they are our servants.

Servants who do not deserve bad treatment, but who must be held accountable and must openly explain their actions: and he’s going to make them do so.

He believes journalists must be persistent, and that humour has a role to play in journalism. At an early point in the show, an audience member yelled one of Paxman’s catchphrases ‘answer the question!’ – evoking the unforgettable Jeremy Paxman v Michael Howard verbal wrestling match of 1997.

If this is an indication of why getting tickets for the Edinburgh show was nigh on impossible, some 750,000 people have watched this journalistic massacre time and again on YouTube. “Did you threaten to over-rule him?” alas, remains an unanswered question despite being asked of Michael Howard 12 times in the one clip. So as to being named ‘26th rudest person’ by GQ, Paxo’s response is:

I’ll have to try harder.”

An unquestionably Entertaining Performance

Aptly, the Tom Petty song ‘I won’t back down’ was one of the tracks used during our all-to-brief performance.

We’ve slightly overstayed; no one can quite believe the hour’s passed (except perhaps Paxo himself; this might seem informal and the subjects are all well researched – but doing this series of shows will not be easy). Everyone leaving is chatting to friends, to strangers, saying how much they enjoyed it. We could have stayed for hours more.

If anyone has any sense, then a television programme with Paxman and this format or similar will be forthcoming. What is next for Jeremy Paxman? I can’t wait to find out.

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Jan 162014

1003366_10201330766168277_548936980_nSuzanne Kelly interviews controversial local campaigner and activist Chad West-MacGregor

Chad MacGregor is a young local activist who supports the Conservative party and who campaigned for building in Union Terrace Gardens.

Following recent developments, he met with Suzanne Kelly for an interview.


Chad MacGregor may be known to those who follow political issues in Aberdeen; he is something of an activist for his young age. He was a supporter of the Granite Web scheme, and organised last year’s ‘protest against Aberdeen City Council.’ He is an outspoken campaigner, and has lately been working on a few projects for the Tory party, such as a website.

He hails from Torry, has lived and worked in the US, and for the record it happens that he is gay.

He has courted controversy online and is very outspoken to say the least. His language online can be provocative and peppered with four letter words. However, this hardly marks him out from the millions of other internet users in his age group.

So how did he find himself the subject of two Press & Journal articles, following his tweet which referred to SNP celebrity supporters as being ‘lefty Z-list celebrities?’ How accurate are these articles, how newsworthy are they, and could there have been any ulterior motive in their publication? What are MacGregor’s actual views, given that the internet has a host of contradictory, often inflammatory and offensive remarks attributed to him?

Chad’s activism has been known to me for some time now; his stance on the future of UnionTerraceGardens is pretty much in direct opposition to mine. I have seen contentions remarks – and a dubious image or two on his Facebook page, and elsewhere on social media. Quite frankly he is, on the face of it, someone I’ve not been able to understand.

One social media site has comments under his name with a photo, and other sites have completely contradictory opinions also attributed to him. However, I’d not given him much thought, until the Press & Journal ran two articles this week.

The first article came out on 6 January; it was written by Frank Cassidy. In part it reads:-

“Chad MacGregor, who claimed to be the party’s campaign manager in the city, branded presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli and actor Alan Cumming “lefty, Z-list celebrities” on Twitter.   The former Aberdeen Youth Council member went on to accuse comedian Janey Godley, a former Scotswoman of the Year nominee, of being a poor role model for her daughter, Ashley Storrie, after she waded into the row. Mr MacGregor removed his Twitter profile last night after rejecting Mr Singh Kohli’s request for an apology.”
– Press & Journal 6 January 2014

If the above paragraph made me wonder, then the follow-up article by Kenneth Watt forced me to do some research. On 7th January Watt wrote:-

“The Conservative group on Aberdeen City Council was said to be “all over the place” last night as a split emerged following online comments by a local party member… Group leader Fraser Forsyth insisted at the time that Mr MacGregor was not a party official. However, a new Aberdeen Conservative website launched yesterday, names Mr MacGregor as a campaigns organiser for the local executive committee.”
– Press & Journal 10 January 2014

MacGregor’s politics and views are more often than not the polar opposite to mine. However, these two stories and the paragraphs above made me wonder about a few things. A search of the internet made things more confusing: contradictory posts on a host of issues, the twitter messages, all of these pointed to a young man who ran hot one day and cold the next, who had great political ambition one moment, then appeared to be shooting himself in the foot the next. Who was this guy?

If he is a party official of some sort (and he is pictured, as a student, visiting the PM as part of a delegation), then his actions recalibrated the definition of self-destructive. I sent him a tweet.

An Interview with Chad:

In the past when I have uncovered political figures in contradictory or compromising statements, the responses to my contacting them tend to be dismissal and deflection, lack of response, and on more than one occasion threats of everything from legal action to my being reported to the Scottish Football Association (a long story). Chad however got straight back to me after I tweeted.

I sent him a list of some of the inflammatory, contradictory and just plain bizarre comments I’d found attributed to him. Was he going to sue or threaten? No, he suggested we meet to discuss.

I asked whether or not he was a party official.

“I am just a volunteer; I’m studying design and I’m good with computers. I made a website.”

We talk about the website Kenneth Watt referred to, which is not an official Conservative party site. It does list MacGregor as part of this grassroots group’s executive. The website clearly explains:-

“We are a voluntary organisation within the city which is solely funded by local party membership, subscriptions, donations and fund-raising events. We are open to all and everyone is welcome to join us or attend our campaigning or social events. We support the Scottish Conservative Party in a number of different ways.”

The Watt article doesn’t really explain what the website is about. Then again, the Watt article doesn’t tell you who Kenneth Watt is. Perhaps all P&J readers know that Watt is a Labour party member who, like his former Youth Council peer MacGregor, is a fairly active campaigner on local issues.

“The Press & Journal seems biased – Ken is a Labour man. After the second (Watt’s) article, people asked me ‘Why is Kenneth writing for the P&J?’ (The paper was hardly on Labour’s side over the web or in the present). I am most disappointed this made headlines; it must have been a very dry time for news.”

I think this is a very interesting question indeed, and one that made me wonder about the slant of this whole story, which after all is that a young activist conservative unionist tweeted that ‘Z list’ celebrities were being brought out to support the SNP, and that many tweets followed. It was hardly the twitter storm of the century. Indeed, neither side of the tweets show their authors in a great light.

Jane Godley’s tweets are certainly no more befitting a SNP spokesperson’s than this twenty-something activist with no official party role. She displays a good command of some four letter words and seems to have got stuck into the fray – but this is not reflected in the P&J articles.

However, if MacGregor was a party official of some sort, then age notwithstanding, he’s posted some extremely unwise remarks that would have reflected badly on his party. I ask if he wants a career in politics.

“Who would want to be a politician? If I were a councillor or someone who had a role, I’d have an obligation [about what to tweet and post]. I don’t see why anyone would want that kind of scrutiny. But I do think everyone should be active. These are times of austerity and drastic changes. Many people have become disillusioned.”

Cautionary Tales:

We talk about some social media sites. Either the man has some mental health issues and holds opposing views at the same time, or someone has made at least one or two fake accounts in his name in the past.

“I wrote to one of the social media sites when I learned about some of these posts, but have heard nothing back.”

It seems clear that there are comments out there attributed to him, which have nothing to do with him; he is concerned about them, and is continuing to try and do something about them. I contacted one of the social media sites in question on this matter, and likewise have had no response.

Why a Tory:

Chad was raised in Torry, where there is one elected Tory city councillor. It is not exactly the hotbed of conservatism. Chad explains that when his mother was struggling to bring up her children, it was a Tory party member who gave her practical advice and helped her find the best solutions for the family; he still feels that loyalty.

Don’t believe everything you read

We have two Press & Journal articles; one written by MacGregor’s fellow former Youth Council member who is active in Labour. The article makes no mention of this political affiliation and the clear conflict between Conservative and Labour inherent in Watt’s approach.

But then again, the P&J doesn’t see fit to explain the cosy relationship between its editor Damian Bates and his wife’s role at Trump International Golf Links Scotland: there are no stories about the problems on the estate, no stories on Trump’s beleaguered empire, and nothing but praise (6 out of 6) for the club’s restaurant.

The Watt article quotes several Tories as to what MacGregor’s role is, making it seem as if the party cannot even get that right. The website Watt refers to makes all quite clear; the website address was not part of the story, making it a bit difficult for people to easily get to the heart of the matter.

In the Cassidy article, the author claims in the paragraphs previously quoted that:

“Chad MacGregor, who claimed to be the party’s campaign manager in the city”

MacGregor made no such claim. If journalist Cassidy could not understand the difference between the website Chad worked on and the Conservative party, it is worrying.

Cassidy also claims that Chad removed his twitter profile. It is still there for all to see, complete with some choice words from some of the celebrities. For that matter, if Chad chooses to see these people as ‘Z list’, as a private person who is also a political activist, who is to deny him that right?

Chad and I are very different, but it has been an interesting meeting. I don’t agree with his politics nor he with mine – but this very odd, skewed P&J reporting has us both wondering. Precisely what the P&J is attempting to do in this case is a good question.  Perhaps they will explain once this piece is published.

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Jul 122013

By Bob Smith.

The Donald wis on Panorama
Spikkin tae BBC’s John Sweeney
Aboot aa the gyaans  on
At his placie ower at Menie
The Sweeney hints tae Mr Trump
6000 jobs hinna cum tae fruition
The Trumpie lot war fair pit oot
An treated aa iss wi derision
Donald roared – Git rid o aat hoose
Tae the “P&J” editor’s wife
Says she it micht cause a stir
An reap ye lots o strife
Faa cares the mannie gabbit
A sure can dee fit a wint
It’s on ma lan quoth Donald
Tae the puir dementit bint
The hoose belangs tae David Milne
A chiel Trump disna much like
Bit David stuck twa fingers up
An said Trumpie tak a hike
A billie fae the Royal Toon Plannin
Thocht Trumpie’s case it wis unique
In aa his ‘ears in the plannin game
He’d seen nithing tae cause sic pique
Oor First Minister an The Donald
War eence on spikkin terms
They’ve hid a bit o a faa oot
Ower the plans aboot winfairms
Trump wis qizzed aboot his dealins
Wi a mannie fae the Mafia mob
Syne he up’s an leaves the interview
Hintin The Sweeney didna ken his job
Noo in the pages o “P&J” we read
Business pallies tae his rescue hiv rode
Eence mair tryin tae kid us aa
In the Nor’east the mannie is loed.
Birds o a feather flock tigither
A mynd aboot iss  auld sayin
Bit maist o us chiels ken they’re aa feels
Faa dunce tae the tune Trumpie’s playin

Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2013
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Jan 242013

After many years in the music industry as a lead guitarist and side man, acclaimed UK rock musician Nigel Bennett released his debut solo album, Truth Or Consequences, on October 23, 2012 (Zip Records) in North America. The CD will be released in Europe in January 2013. Suzanne Kelly gets talking to Nigel about his new CD, touring, talent shows – and Donald Trump.

Bennett, lead guitarist for the British punk band The Vibrators, is taking centre stage as he flexes his musical virtuosity as a solo performer and front man. Truth Or Consequences features 13 tracks that highlight Bennett’s appreciation for styles ranging from country-tinged melodies to hard rock instrumentals to reggae.

Pat Collier produced the album (Primal Scream, Robyn Hitchcock, The Vibrators). During Bennett’s reputable musical career, he has performed with and written a hit single for The Members (“Radio”) and toured with Julian Lennon.

In the heady days of the late 1970s, punk bands formed, changed personnel, and split up with ferocious frequency. Nigel Bennett started in the Punk scene as guitarist for the Members; more recently he toured with The Vibrators (on guitar in place of Knox, who has semi-retired).

We start by discussing his first solo album. Nigel tells me the album title ‘Truth or Consequences’ comes from one of the many long US tours he’s been on.  Passing through the mid-West, the band drives past a sign for a town called ‘Truth or Consequences’ – he is intrigued. Apparently, the entire town voted to change its name to reflect the title of a popular television game show.  Only in America.

The album has many influences, but there is a small touch of punk throughout most of it, whether in rockabilly/western/punk track Rubidoux, or in the lyrics of ‘Another Day’ – a break up song which is sad, but still lyrically a touch sarcastic and humorous, too. ‘The Edge’ is very much an American western instrumental; it is followed by ‘Breezy,’ a track which puts me in mind of classic American bands; it makes me think of acts from The Eagles to The Grateful Dead. Nigel tells me he likes all forms of music – anything that is performed well.

We talk about punk past and present. Nigel tells me:-

“For me Punk came from a time when there were very angry young people.  (He mentions the strikes and the political problems).  There are punks that reunite at ‘Rebellion’ [an annual music festival], but I don’t even know what a punk is any more…  Does it mean you have a particular haircut and a pin in your nose?  I think it’s an attitude.  In The Members everyone was welcome whatever they wore.  Punk was not a uniform.”

We discuss how the music was made in no small part by the turbulent times, and we talk about music today. Simon Cowell and today’s pop inevitably come to the surface. We wonder whether the proliferation of television talent shows hasn’t made people more interested in fame than in honing their musical skills.

“The thing is, people like virtuosity – human beings love to see another human doing something extraordinarily well, whether in music or like in the gymnastics in the last Olympics. To see someone playing brilliantly – I can’t get enough of that. There doesn’t seem to be as much of that now as there was in the past. 

“Muse is good. One of the things I liked about the Who was those big, fat power chords they had – I remember sitting back as a kid and thinking ‘oh my god’ and then these chords were used by punk bands. Punk was terribly anti-establishment.  I’d love to be rich any day, but to be famous – I don’t envy anyone who is famous.” 

He asks me what’s going on in Aberdeen and in Scotland. An hour later, after I’ve told him the basics, he tells me of his paternal Scottish roots which are important to him (but he has no desire to open any golf courses). And what does he make of Donald Trump?

“He is as ridiculous as that toupee of his, and it’s a shame he’s been allowed to just take over.  I love Scotland; there are such friendly people, even if it’s always freezing cold when I’m there. ”

Nigel’s new album may well displease punk purists; it can be difficult for some artists to move between genres.

We discuss the example of the violent reaction Jello Biafra received (he was seriously assaulted in a bar and called a ‘sell-out’, allegedly due to his straying from what purists wanted from him), while David Bowie at age 66 is releasing a new single, and reinventing himself once again.

Nigel says:-

“When you’re known for one thing, people tend to want to go to your shows for that thing. [Biafra] changed styles for his own creativity. Bowie on the other hand… it’s very clever the way he’s always reinvented himself; he’s not let anyone put him into a narrow band.” 

“The whole thing about the album is that it’s showing another side of me. Punk is only one limited part of music. I had all these various ideas sort of lying around for a year or two or three unfinished, then the opportunity presented itself to do an album, so I started to write them down. 

“I’m purely into all of this from the heart. I approached two record companies in America and they both offered me a deal so I took the best one. I always had America in mind for this album. Americans love guitar – country, rock – they appreciate it. Guitar rules America.”

We discuss the track ‘In my Dreams,’ which has a reggae feel to it.

“When I joined the Members, it was at a time when I went to all the auditions. You had to be very diverse. I went to an Iron Maiden audition; we politely mutually realised that it wasn’t a fit. But they’ve kept it going; they’ve made millions – and they’ve made millions of people happy with it.  So – the ad I was responding to was for rock/reggae; some of the Members were very into Jamaican reggae, and I learnt about the off beat. It’s very much a summer song. It’s about a boy feeling very shy, and I can remember that as a teenager.

“Then I wrote ‘Another Day’. It’s not about any particular girlfriend; it’s about people breaking up and the memories that go with them. 

“Singing is new to me, and I’ll write more songs for the next album with vocals. I need to learn to be a better singer.  I’ve played lead for 30 years, but I’ve never fronted my own band.

“I know I’m in my mid 50s, but it’s never too late and there are no rules in music.”

Best of luck to Nigel Bennett in this and future projects.

PS – The album ‘Truth Or Consequences’ is available from Zip Records, and from good record stores – if they haven’t all had to close down. Goodbye One Up; Aberdeen will miss you.

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Feb 172012

Last Saturday, 58 members of The Aberdeen Chorus of Sweet Adelines headed south to Edinburgh to take part in their second audition for this year’s version of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’. With thanks to Linda Allan.

Having had very positive feedback from some of the programme’s producers in the first audition in the autumn,  the ladies were ready to brave the “fearsome 4” judges as well as a live audience in the magnificent Festival Hall.

The Chorus added some more polish to the ballad “At Last” and donned their “Black and Sparkle”  ( some of the visitors to the Kinross Service Station car park will never be the same again!).

The day passed in the Festival Hall with photo and video shoots, interviews, warm ups, run-throughs, wee glimpses into the Hall at some of the other acts, lots of chat, and endless trips to the facilities to check apparel and make-up – all of this punctuated regularly by the most awful foghorn sound of the dreaded buzzer bursting through from the stage.

As the day wore on and the programme schedule slipped further and further behind, it became quite clear that this Chorus was not going to see the Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen again till well into the “wee sma’ oors” – about 3:30am for some of the ladies!!  Never mind – more time to eat another snack, have another photo shoot on the staircase – and watch some performing dogs being interviewed and getting their costumes put on for their act.

There was time too to serenade the (very enthusiastic) public at audience change-over times with some Chorus songs.  It has to be said that the BGT crew members and Festival Hall staff were extremely pleasant, helpful, positive and encouraging, despite what must have been an extremely stressful day for them too.

A visit from the very pleasant and charming Ant and Dec added to the excitement

Then – at last – the intrepid songsters were escorted down endless flights of stairs, along miles of corridors, past mounds of cables and whole forests of cameras and microphones till arriving behind the curtain of the big stage where acts, comments from the judges and the scary buzzer could clearly be heard.

There they stood in excitement for – ages – along with a flea circus, 4 lycra-clad Scottish pipers in rather dubious pink, blue, and green all-in-one skin tight costumes, a very nervous singer experimenting rather gingerly with a microphone, and some curiously clad individuals with strange accents and weird instruments.

A visit from the very pleasant and charming Ant and Dec added to the excitement, as in between various stages of their duties, they ran the gauntlet of the rows of waiting ladies “high-fiving” as they went!  There was also to be more chat and filming with the duo just before going on stage, and later on some of the ladies of the chorus were able to pose with them for photos and autographs at the stage door.

So then – at last (again)- the culmination of the day – an entry on stage to a packed auditorium and the ‘fearsome 4’. There was some further filming, with some questions from the judges to the Director of the Chorus Gwen Topp and the Chorus President Debbie Pern, and then the ballad “At Last”.All judges acknowledged the technical expertise of the Chorus, and the polish and quality of the singing

So how did it go?  The Chorus sang extremely well. One judge liked the Chorus, 2 judges liked the song “At Last”. One judge commented on the lovely involved faces.  All judges acknowledged the technical expertise of the Chorus, and the polish and quality of the singing. In the end two voted for the Chorus to go through, and two voted against.

  As with everything the Chorus undertakes there are valuable opportunities for learning.

Because the judge who had the casting vote in a tie-breaking situation had voted against the Chorus and had in fact used the buzzer, the Chorus will not be going through to the next stage. The genre of music, in which the Chorus excels, was unfortunately simply not to their liking. They simply did not get it!

How does the Chorus feel?  As with everything the Chorus undertakes there are valuable opportunities for learning.  The experience gained from the preparation for the event, the process of being involved in performing at such a big event and dealing with uncertain procedures and ever-changing timelines is very valuable for any performer, and plays an important part in developing performing skills.  Listen, learn, and move on!

What now??  The Chorus will continue to work for the next important events in its calendar, including visits from international coaches and preparation for the annual competition in May in Birmingham.

Tribute must be paid to GwenTopp, Chorus Director and Debbie, Chorus President, for their work both in preparation for the event and also for their magnificent handling of interview questions at the various sections of the day.

Both succeeded in giving heart-felt, eloquent responses which went a long way to promoting not only the Aberdeen Chorus and The World Wide Organisation of Sweet Adelines, but also the value of singing in a group as great fun, a wonderful hobby, a promoter of well-being and a source of support and friendship to those who take part. This message has the potential of reaching many thousands of people, should the clips be televised.

Aug 142011

The inaugural Friends of Duthie Park open day was eagerly anticipated by the Aberdeen public.  Of particular interest was the return of ‘Spike’ the talking cactus’. After an absence of 10 years, the return of Aberdeen’s legendary talking cactus was a ‘must see’ for Voice’s Fred Wilkinson.

The purpose of the day was to showcase Duthie Park and highlight the major restoration work  to be undertaken shortly within the park and to that end, they certainly achieved their objective with a substantial number of new ‘Friends’ recruited.
Over 2000 visited throughout the afternoon in spite of the heavy shower that interrupted proceedings just before 2 pm![1]

Duthie Park Friend David Macdermid told Aberdeen Voice:

“While the queues to speak to Spike the Cactus began long before things  got underway, other attractions were also extremely popular including the horse  and cart rides, the Grampian Fire & Rescue appliance and, of course, the  fun rides for the youngsters.”

I must admit I was nervous at the prospect of interviewing a  cactus, particularly such a celebrated succulent. I had not anticipated his initial prickly responses however – particularly to my request for a short  interview.

“It better be quick” he responded,  ” Ah’m affa busy ye ken”

I assure Spike I am similarly “affa busy” and therefore the interview will surely be a quick one… I certainly do not want to get off on the wrong foot, so having queued up behind several adoring children to grab this opportunity, I hurry forth my next question:

“How does it feel to be back in the public eye?”

“Are you haein a go at me  for haein jist the one eye?” ( cue suppressed laughter from a nearby woman  and child )

Oh dear, I am not doing well at all. OK, Rephrase:

“How does it feel to be back in the limelight?”

“The limelight? Aye, It’s fine tae be back”

“Good to see you back Spike, and you seem very relaxed”

“Well, Ah’m at hame, if ye canna relax at  hame far can ye relax?”

Good point Spike, but the question needs to be asked:

“What have you been up to the past 10 years?”

“Ah’ve been awa on ma holidays. Ah’ve been daein a’ kinds o’ things”

Including raising funds for Comic Relief it would seem. Good show Spike, but:

“Have you been to any exciting places?” I asked.

“Aye, Ah’ve been a’ ower the place. Ah wis awa tae Australia”

At this point I am impressed that for all his lengthy period of absence and all his travels, Spike’s homely, broad Doric accent has survived 100% intact and unaffected. I am also aware that he seems to have become a little less suspicious of my motives so I move on to what might be an awkward subject.

“I understand you have had some lifesaving surgery recently Spike”

“Fa, you hiv?”

“No, not me, yourself.  I hear you’ve been very ill”

“Aye, but Ah’m fine now …. thanks tae the folk at Richard Irvin[2]

I could sense that Spike was reluctant to expand, and that perhaps the experience was a little painful to recount – particularly on such a day of fun and celebration so I decide not pursue the issue.

After all, I am on a roll, and some young, and not so young children are now coveting my position of privilege directly in front of the revered celebrity.

There remained time only for the question which readers would not have forgiven me for not asking:

“Are you going to be around for a while Spike?”

“Ah hope so” he replies …. somewhat unsure ” They’ve nae telt me yet like”

“So, your contract is in the post?”

“No, Ah’ve got the contract….  Ah’ve jist nae signed it yet” ( laughter )

“Good for you Spike, you make sure you get a good deal”

“Are you gan tae come and see me like?”

I surely will Spike. Great to see you back in action. A generation has missed you and a further generation don’t know what they have missed.

The Friends of Duthie Park would like to thank everyone who played their part in making the day a great success and, in light of how well it went, the possibility of further events will be considered by the committee.[1]

Joining the ‘Friends’ is free and application forms are available on


[1]-  Thanks to Dave Macdermid for the supplementary information and input.

[2] – Spike has been in a condition of considerable disrepair for many years and was, thankfully, restored by staff at Richard Irvin Services Group in time for the ‘Friends’ Open Day.

Thanks also to ‘Aberdeen’ community page on Facebook  for images. 


Unfortunately, the voice recorder on my mobile phone proved to be a rather unreliable facility. Therefore the above interview was, for the most part, written from memory. Thanks for the memory Spike.