One of the biggest problems with the downsizing of newspapers, magazines and journals is the thinning out of great journalists and columnists. You may think that it is more democratic that we are constantly asked ‘What do you think?’ to fill pages in papers and online, but that sort of often uninformed opinion becomes white noise to me. The best columnists don’t tell us what we want to hear, or what we already think, they tell us what we need to know.
Those who have informed my life regularly include Andrew Rawnsley, George Monbiot, Clive James, Chris Roberts, Caitlin Moran, Mark Steel, Deborah Orr and Jon Ronson to name just a few. I might not always agree with what they say, but at least I trust that they mean it. In Scotland, at the moment, there are the two Ia(i)ns from the Heralds, (Bell and Macwhirter), Kevin McKenna in The Observer, and Peter Ross in Scotland on Sunday. If you haven’t caught the latter’s columns then fear not as the best of them are now available in one place in the form of Daunderlust: Dispatches From Unreported Scotland.
That title is informative as Ross takes you behind the scenes of people and places which you may have noted as you go about your day to day lives, but have never had the time or inclination to find out more about. On a personal level, I’ve always wondered about Luigi Corvi, who sings over suppers at the Val D’Oro chippy at the bottom of my road; about the fishermen, who I used to run past daily when training in the summer months, who reside under the Dalmarnock Bridge in Glasgow, and the fruit farms I drive past in Perthshire when I go to visit my brother in Braemar. Ross has done that so I don’t have to.
Other memorable encounters in the book include tracking down the Castlemilk Lads, who were captured by photographer Oscar Marzaroli, and who adorned the cover of Deacon Blue’s Chocolate Girl single, time spent with the ‘Extreme Cleaners’ (imagine Kim and Aggy in CSI Glasgow), the close and dysfunctional family who live in Barlinnie, the travelling folk responsible for Scotland’s ‘shows’, and the New Town gunslingers of the Grand Ole Opry.
As you would expect, drink, or at least bar life, is a running theme through the book and we meet the karaoke belters at Glasgow’s Horseshoe Bar, those who frequent The Waterloo Bar, and just where they stand, both literally and in the pecking order of regulars. We are introduced to ‘Val At The Crown and Anchor’ in Aberdeen, the well oiled ex-pat attendees of ‘The Royal Caledonian Ball’ in London, and the various booze fuelled sporting events which take place regularly in towns from the Border to the Islands.
I realise I have mainly mentioned Glasgow tales so far, but this is stravaigin on a national level as Ross goes behind the scenes of the Forth Rail Bridge, ‘Ladies Day at Musselburgh’, the arrival of the starlings in Gretna, and working on the peat fields of the Hebrides. His daunders have taken him all over the country in search of characters, and he is not disappointed, but this is not an exercise in voyeurism, pointing a finger at the strange and unfamiliar. Ross not only goes behind the scenes of ‘unreported Scotland’, he empathises with those he meets there, and even if he doesn’t always entirely understand them, he tries to, refusing to remain outside and getting in and amongst it.
He has a fabulous knack of getting people to tell their tales, finding the individual stories which explain why they do what they do, but also why they are who they are. There is comedy and tragedy as all of human life is here, and even though you may not be familiar with these lifestyles, they are as valid and important as any other. Put together in a collection like this, a picture of a country emerges which is off the beaten track, but which remains recognisably Scottish. As I said at the top of the page, interesting and entertaining columnists are a dying breed and that’s a great shame, so treasure them while you can. I mentioned Jon Ronson earlier, and I can’t help but feel that if he lived and worked in Scotland, this is the sort of book he would write, and Ross shares Ronson’s incisive eye, lightness of touch and a turn of phrase to die for. After finishing Daunderlust I knew far more about my country then I had previously, and that is a great thing for a writer to achieve.