Sometimes when I go swimming in Edinburgh there's a man I've dubbed 'the singing guy':
That's him, crooning his verruca socks off in the communal showers. Early-doors swimming is packed with these jolly characters, and in most cases I can't stand them. The Dunfermline pool still had open changing areas while I was at college; let me tell you there's nothing I like more at 6am than being surrounded by old naked men sawing their cracks with beach towels while they interrogate me about girls.
There are many types of swimmers who can dampen (sorry) my spirits. There are the groups who insist on swimming four-or-more-in-a-row even when it's crowded, kettling everyone else through a six-foot gap. There are the people who I just know are having a wee right in front of me. There's the guy I got trapped behind the other day who was swimming backwards in a sort of reclined-in-an-armchair position and staring at me the entire time with a toothy little sneer, as if he was luring me towards his underwater sex cave.
Yet these are hardships I must bear. At some point in my teens I discovered haggis-and-cheese toasties, and I sensed at once that I had unleashed a powerful and delicious evil. As the One Ring destroyed Gollum, so the toasties would inevitably destroy me unless I took action. Swimming was the only form of exercise that didn't make me crave the sweet release of death after five minutes.
In fact, loonies aside, I love swimming and I always have. For a start, it suits clumsy people. My body is a chaotic mess on land, but in water everything happens in slo-mo and there are fewer objects to bump into. I love how peaceful it is two metres down, no matter how busy it gets on the surface. I love the rare days when I'm in gear and moving through the water feels like flying.
When I was a boy I wanted to be a mermaid (well, on Saturday mornings anyway; other times I wanted to be an astronaut, or a tank engine, or Treguard the Dungeon Master; it depended on what I was watching). The Cowdenbeath Leisure pool is about the size of a standard bath, but it was ocean enough for a seven-year-old. Once I got bored of being a human wave machine or trying to surf on the foam floats, I would devote the rest of the morning to deep sea exploration. Grime from the pool floor would billow up like silt, while floating Elastoplasts became adorable red-breasted seahorses, and the grown-ups doing their boring lengths overhead were whales that chittered irritably and sprayed water from their blowholes if I got too close.
Now I guess I'm in the 'grumpy whale' phase of my evolution. In 30 years you'll see me drifting up and down the pool on an inflatable raft, serenading the other swimmers with the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I'll be first in the queue in the morning and last to leave at night. I'll wear armbands ironically. The staff will all know me by name and endure my chat with empty customer service smiles.
Whatever happens I know I'll never be able to give the swimming up, not when there are so many things that go well with melted cheese. Someday I'll buy my own pool, an epic underground lake where I can get back in touch with my inner mermaid and keep all the other fish out. Until then I'll just have to make the best of things at the local baths: pay the toll, suffer the regulars and try not to swallow the water.
In July of 2011, six young farm workers disappeared from a field in Aberdeenshire.Eight months later their footage was found.
I found this old photo of the two of us together and it got me thinking about you. Sorry it’s been so long. I would have got in touch ages ago, things have just been a bit hectic the last ten years. I hope you’re ok and that you aren’t finding it too dusty down there.
This probably wasn’t the future you had planned, rotting away in my parents’ basement. To be fair I did keep you in my room for as long as I could; in the end there just wasn’t space for a BBC Micro AND a PC. We'd grown up together and you meant a lot to me, but the PC had Duke Nukem and the internet. I tried to make you as comfortable as I could.
I’m glad we had a chance to hang out again that spring before I went to uni – turns out I’m still crap at most of your games! I rule at Chuckie Egg though. It was good to get a print-out of all those old stories David and I used to write. Remember that epic novel, Quest, the one I started when I was eight that took three years to finish? I read it again the other week and it’s basically a rip-off of The Neverending Story with the dragon from The Hobbit thrown in. I also found some of those old programs I wrote, like the one which makes you play the 60s Batman theme while the words ‘POW!’ ‘ZOK!’ and ‘OOOOF!’ come up on the screen in strobing colours like in the show’s title sequence (I was such a nerdy child). I don’t think I was ever destined to be a software engineer but BBC BASIC was so easy to use that for a while I really did feel like one.
It was probably coincidence that I gave up on the writing soon after you were packed away. All the same, now that I’ve taken it up again I’ve realised that I miss having you to type on. Modern computers can do amazing things but they’re a bit hyperactive and full of themselves. You were so chilled-out. If I wanted to write a story you’d just sit quietly and let me get on with it – no update installations, no pop-ups, no Facebook, just a black screen with white letters.
Please don’t think that I’ve forgotten how much I owe you. You got me through my early years of maths and spelling with all those educational games; you taught me to type, back in the days when having a 60 wpm typing speed could actually impress people; you were an essential prop in my first home video movies (how else was the time machine meant to activate without you to beep and flash up ‘TIME SEQUENCE INITIATED’ in big red letters?) and you kept me and my friends entertained for years. I remember when Dad installed your speech chip and how weird it was hearing you talk for the first time. Sorry about some of the things we made you say.
Anyway I know you won’t be able to read this, not unless you’ve somehow become Microsoft Word-compatible, but I promise I’ll come and visit you soon. I have to clear out some stuff from the basement in the next few weeks so if you’re up for it maybe I’ll see you then.
The following articles are reprinted from the BBC News website:
("Missing Roguer's Journal Found In Field" ; "IN DEPTH: Rogue Diary - What The Journal Says")
MISSING ROGUER'S JOURNAL FOUND IN FIELD (21/07/11)
A journal belonging to one of the six missing Scottish potato roguers has been discovered in a field near Stonehaven.
Aberdeenshire police have confirmed the journal as belonging to Ally Nicholl, 29, one of a squad of farm employees who disappeared over a week ago from the potato field they had been working in. The group are currently believed to be living a feral existence somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.
It is hoped the journal will provide some clue as to what triggered their bizarre actions, as well as aiding police efforts to track them down. Since their unexplained disappearance ten days ago there have been numerous sightings of squad members, most recently near Braemar by a backpacking couple who were accosted by “two wild-eyed men and a blonde woman in muddy rags” reportedly begging for Jaffa Cakes. Police are appealing for anyone with information to come forward.
The contents of the journal are likely to be made public in the next few days.
* * * * *
IN DEPTH: Rogue Diary - What The Journal Says (25/07/11)
After days of media speculation about what Ally Nicholl’s journal could contain, the actual content has proved to be somewhat baffling. Written in a style more reminiscent of a Hollywood war film than the diary of an ex-office worker doing a spot of farm labour, there are few conclusive answers to be found in the rambling prose. Nevertheless the journal does provide a glimpse into what many believe was already an unhinged mind.
Friday 3 June
Call came through from Grams during my lunch break. He's putting a team together, wants to know if I'd consider resuming my post. Told him I'd have to think about it.
'09 was supposed to be my last assignment. I swore I'd never rogue again, I was done with that s**t. But I guess a lot can change in two years. Work enough time as a call centre phone-jockey and... well, right now you could offer me a job scraping out whorehouse viewing booths and I'd sure give it some serious thought.
Wednesday 15 June
We perch on hard wooden benches in the back of the van, me and the other members of the squad. Grams, Cheryl and Lazer I know, they've seen action before - guess I'm not the only one who needed the paycheque. The other two are rookies, just out of potato college. Young, fresh-faced, enthusiastic. I give them two weeks tops.
Munro, our driver, is a veteran; been a field operative longer than I've been alive. He chats away, small-talking this and that, trying to keep our minds off what's coming.
The squad were responsible for roguing potatoes, a process which involves identifying and removing unwanted plants from a field, either because they are diseased or of a different variety to the rest of the crop. Rogues can often be difficult to spot as different potato plants look almost identical to the untrained eye. The members of the team were highly trained and most, including Ally, had already worked several seasons in the fields.
Friday 17 June
It smells like slow death in there. You never forget that smell: an unholy blend of rotting fish, cheese and over-boiled cabbage. Blackleg, they call it. The scourge of the potato. Seeps into them through the dirt and turns their guts to mush. We rip out their slimy black stems, dump the corpses in a sack and move on.
No sign of rogues yet.
Tuesday 21 June
Stationed at Ecclesgreig, 2km inland.
It seemed like the field was clean. We were ready to move on when Cheryl shouted "Holy s**t guys, the f**kers are everywhere!"
They'd been hiding in plain sight among the Pentland Dell. The colour was almost the same, but there was a rust-coloured flush to the leaf axils and the lower leaves were more pointed and narrow. Russet Burbank rogues. We stared at them and they stared back. Arrogant f**kers.
We slaughtered them all. And damn but it felt good.
Wednesday 29 June
We move from field to field, patrolling, fighting bugs and the goddamned weather. Hell of a place. You can get sunstroke, pneumonia and trench foot all in the same afternoon, if you don’t get struck by lightning first.
Day by day, I struggle to maintain not only my strength, but my sanity. It’s all a blur. The morale of the squad is low. Rogues come in ever greater numbers. I bought a flask that promised to insulate drinks for twelve hours but my tea is always cold by midday. It's all lies.
One thing the journal does reveal is a growing resentment towards the manager in charge, with several references to holidays being cancelled or hours being extended. Some analysts believe that the combination of long hours, isolation and stress may have caused a kind of ‘cabin fever’ among the squad.
Thursday 30 June
Leave cancelled again.
And every day from above the reports come through: "Running behind. Should be done by now, why's it taking so long? Not good enough." Bulls**t. That pen-pusher doesn't have a clue, he can't begin to understand what we're up against. Everything looks better from an air-conditioned jeep.
In the week leading up to the squad’s disappearance there is a shift in tone. These final entries, mostly abstract musings on the morality of potato roguing, are indicative of Ally’s increasing detachment from reality.
Tuesday 5 July
You! With the darker leaves and the feathery backward-pointing leaflets! You don't belong! Give yourself up or we'll take you by force.
Round 'em up boys, knock 'em on the head, stick 'em in a sack.
Increasingly I find myself asking why. Why do we so readily accept this puritanical butchery? Why does one variety of potato deserve life more than another? Our society preaches the value of all vegetables, and yet we must kill them. We must obliterate them. Spud after spud. Drill after drill. Field after field. Year after year. One potato, two potato, three potato, four. Not a clean tattie. Icha bacha, soda cracker, icha bacha boo. Icha bacha, soda cracker, out goes YOU!
Saturday 9 July
In my dream I saw a snail crawling over a pink potato. A huge fork came down and speared the potato with the snail on top, and I heard them cry out together. The potato had a deep baritone voice, and the snail was effeminate and squeaky as one would expect.
Sometimes the plants dance before me when I close my eyes. Other times they march past in military formation and I salute them all. It is not the done thing to wear marigolds at such an event but they keep my hands clean.
Sunday 10 July
Potato. Po tay to. Tayto. Taytoo. Too tay. Tooty. Pooty. Pooty too. Poo tattoo.
The other day I came across an old sheet of guidelines from a call centre job I did years ago. I’m not sure why I kept it but it’s brought back some hideous memories which I’d like to share with you. I know many of you will have worked in call centres before so I apologise in advance if the following ramble is covering familiar ground.
When I moved to Glasgow about five years ago I took a job with the first company that would hire me (I probably shouldn’t use its real name; for the purposes of this blog I’ll just call it DespairCorp). I wasn’t thrilled that it was a call centre but it would pay the bills until I figured out what to do with my life.
I signed up for three thirteen-hour shifts a week which initially seemed like an appealing option, but I soon found that I was spending half my days off recovering from the last shift and the other half dreading the next one.
It was a grim place. The calls were constant, the pay was poor, breaks were the minimum they could legally get away with and there was a constant atmosphere of nervous tension. It was a no-frills workplace: no hot drinks or personal items allowed at desks, no time for chat, no artwork, no pot plants and – until they finally moved offices – no windows.
But worse than any of this was a four-page pile of corporate dog-plops known as the CAREs guidelines. When answering calls at DespairCorp it was not enough to give accurate advice in a polite and professional manner. This would not be “maximising the customer experience”. Therefore they had laid out a list of forty (forty!) guidelines for us to follow on our calls that would “position employees as the customer, [allowing them] to step into the customer's mindset and to experience what the customer will experience.” (DespairCorp spokesman, 2007 press release).
These guidelines were based on the four CAREs principles:
get Connected (how well did I Connect with the customer?)
show Appreciation (how well did I demonstrate an Appreciation of the caller’s issue?)
take Responsibility (did I take full Responsibility for resolving the customer’s issue?)
be Enthusiastic (oh, just shoot me in the face.)
Once a week I had a coaching session with my team leader where I’d be forced to listen to a random selection of my calls and discuss how I felt about them. We would then go through all forty CAREs questions and I’d be scored on each one. For example:
You may not have realised it at the time, but when you called us you weren’t simply being given advice or information, you were having your mindset actively managed.
My shifts were thirteen hours long and there were no gaps between calls, so if you called me at 9pm you would be about the 110th customer I’d spoken to that day. By that point I’m afraid all my ENERGY would be focused on not weeping into the mouthpiece.
Callers usually started off unhappy, and more often than not their problems were a direct result of their inability to pay bills. We advised them there was nothing we could do until they paid, they slammed their phones down without taking the time to provide specific and genuine gratitude or compliments and we had ten points deducted from our coaching scores.
Although we were ostensibly a customer service line, every week there would be a team meeting where we were informed of some insidious new thing we’d have to do on each of our calls – usually some form of selling. Over the course of three months and twelve team briefs, we would go from ‘mention this item if you can on each call’ to ‘sell four of these items a day or you’ll be on a disciplinary’.
(DPA = Data Protection Act, ID&V = Identification and Verification)
Well we couldn’t just ask for your name and address – that would make you, the customer, feel like you were being processed, like you were nothing to us, like you were merely a source of revenue to be dealt with and dispatched as quickly as possible. Therefore we had to slip the requests for your details subtly into the conversation so you wouldn’t even notice us doing it and would be left feeling like the important and valued individual you were.
I wish I could give you an example of how this was meant to be done, but to this day I have no idea. I was RUBBISH at it. In desperation to find something to say I would usually end up making inane comments about their personal details (“Geraldine, that’s a good name, my mum has a friend called Geraldine”; “ah, you’re an Alasdair too! From one Alasdair to another!” ; “Oh you’re from York, that’s great, I’ve still got my keyring from when I visited York” and so on.)
My overall impression every time was that I’d rather scrape my teeth down a car bonnet than listen to myself trying to “connect” with a customer.
Maybe I’m in the minority in finding all this stuff soulless and horrible. Maybe other people love being asked “did you find everything you were looking for today?” when they’re in shops, or having their customer experience maximised by banter that has been carefully tailored by head office. But it’s not for me.
Anyway, part of the reason I’m bringing this up now is that last week I quit my job at another call centre, and much to my surprise I was a bit sad to leave. This job was focused more on helping people than encouraging them to spend money. Its call guidelines were simple: use the caller’s name where appropriate, ask at the end if any further assistance is required, don’t use sexual swearwords. Moreover it was a warm and friendly place to work, full of people who genuinely liked their jobs. It didn’t treat its staff like infants who couldn’t be trusted to have drinks near their computer or talk to the public without a script, and most importantly of all it never used phrases like “actively-managed mindset” or “world-beating customer service”.
For all of that I’m eternally grateful.
I’ve put off starting a blog for years. Not because I don’t like them - I love reading other peoples’ blogs - but until now whenever I’ve contemplated doing one I’ve thought of my archive of old diaries and dismissed the idea.
I buy a diary every year in a futile burst of optimism. This same optimism sees me through the first five entries - action-packed descriptions of how grey January looks and how I’m dreading the return to work and if I see another box of Quality Street etc. etc. - but every page from week two onwards ends up blank save for birthday reminders (terribly useful when the diary is stuffed at the back of a drawer). Why would a blog be any different? But now I have a website, named after me and everything, and I need to put SOMETHING on it.
And I suppose now’s as good a time as any to begin, surrounded by gorgeous Northumberland countryside in the middle of a family holiday. I’ll spare you the paragraph about frolicking lambs and rolling fields (though there are plenty of both and it really is lovely). I hope I won’t always have to go on a country retreat in order to get any writing done but it’s a great place to kick-start and with any luck I’ll soon be sending my first blog entry AND my first batch of short stories out into the world.
So what can you expect from this exciting new blog? Well, as this is the first entry I thought I’d look ahead to the coming months and give you some idea of what’s in store.
In June I leave my current temp job for some summer work in the Aberdeenshire potato fields, so during this time the blog will become your number one source of frontline potato news. There will be lengthy discussions on all aspects of potatoes and potato usage as well as interviews with farm hands and crisp manufacturers. The season should end in mid-July and after that I can only speculate.
Towards the end of July I should get my first story accepted for publication, so August’s blog will become a tour diary as I travel the UK doing signings, reading excerpts in sold-out conference centre gigs and so on. I’ll no doubt have further work published during this time which will keep momentum up, and by October I’ll be attending so many gala events and film premieres that I’ll probably run a competition on the website to win my Cineworld Unlimited card.
The international market will be trickier to break into and it’ll be at least December before my American tour kicks off. I’m bound to be busy this month, especially if my plans for a charity Christmas single go ahead, but I’ll always do my best to keep the blog updated. Next year is harder to predict, but I suspect it will be a flurry of negotiations for movie rights and merchandising so watch this space for the latest news direct from L.A.
Or maybe not. Whatever happens I hope you enjoy my blog and website, and I will try to keep it freshly stocked. I’ve got that ‘new diary’ optimism again – hopefully this time it’ll last longer than a week.
Until next time take care of yourselves. And each other.