PETER Ross has worked as a journalist in Scotland since 1997. He is a six-time winner at the Scottish Press Awards and a fellow of the Orwell journalism prize.
He is also the author of two collections of journalism. The first, Daunderlust, came out in 2014.
His new book, The Passion Of Harry Bingo: Further Dispatches From Unreported Scotland is being published today – by Sandstone Press.
When did working in the media become an ambition?
I screwed up my last couple of years of school because I was more interested in music and alcohol – in that order, I think – than in studying for exams.
I failed to get into university and had to go to Falkirk College for a year in order to try to get the qualifications I needed to reapply.
There, I did a module in journalism, as part of which I wrote a review of The Cure at Barrowlands.
Suddenly, a revelation: my deep interest in music and alcohol could form the foundation of a professional career as a rock writer.
The dream, of course, was to work for the NME, but that seemed impossible. I started writing little bits for a fanzine, and then, when I did make it to uni, became a regular on the student paper. I remember returning to my flat in Dennistoun after the first editorial meeting, clutching a promotional cassette of Julian Cope’s Jehovahkill, an album with the Callanish standing stones on the cover, and agonising over my 200-word assessment.
Seeing my byline was so exciting, and quickly became addictive, and I still feel some faint echo of that old thrill even now I’m older than Julian Cope – and indeed Callanish – was then.
What was your first media job?
Working for The List. This was the stuff of opium reveries. The first time I ever went into the office, the great Damien Love was on the phone to David Cronenberg. I couldn’t believe it.
My job was less glamorous. I was hired on the misunderstanding that I knew about this newfangled internet thingmy.
By the time I started work, I did, having taught myself (quite badly) to build web pages (very badly) for which I was, to my delight, paid (not so badly).
I was asked, though, to interview Travis, around the time of their first album, and that was my first professional profile of a reasonably successful band. Fran Healy was good copy, but I was soon to learn that most musicians, being articulate in their music, are devout monosyllabicists.
Any particular big break along the way?
One day at The List, I took a phone call: “Charles McGhee wants to speak to you about writing for this new paper. Make an appointment to see him.”
This new paper was the Sunday Herald, as yet unnamed. I went in, but there had been a mistake. He was looking for a sub, not a writer, and certainly not some wee freak babbling on about David Cronenberg and Travis.
What to do with such a person? Suddenly he had an idea. I could read it in his eyes: “Send him to Pat Kane! He’s just Pat’s type.” And so I found myself talking to Pat, and began to write for the Sunday Herald based on the singer of Hue & Cry’s misunderstanding that I knew about these newfangled video game thingmies.
I have loved Pat ever since, and have no truck with those who have a go at the wonderful way in which he speaks. “I may be speculating into a vacuum here,” he said, the first time we met, as his way of saying he was taking a wild guess.
I can’t remember what the wild guess was about. It couldn’t have been that I wanted a job on the paper. That must have been obvious. The Sunday Herald, in those days, was more Girl On A Motorcycle than His Girl Friday: full of louche, bohemian types talking about fonts.
I remember a colleague turned up one day in sandals, his toenails painted blue.
I remember we commissioned Edwin Morgan to review The Phantom Menace. Anything seemed possible, failure most of all. Every week there seemed to be another meeting at which graphs were wheeled out to suggest that we were probably doomed, but might not be.
Eventually, things settled down. Our shiny iMacs grew dusty, our nail polish chipped. I stayed too long, eight years, before leaving for Scotland On Sunday, where I think I grew up a bit. The chat was different there: we might not be doomed, but probably were.
So who would you like to thank the most?
Kathleen Morgan and Robin Hodge for giving me that first job at The List. Andrew Jaspan and Charlotte Ross for taking me on at the Sunday Herald. Likewise, Les Snowdon and Kenny Farquharson at SoS.
Plus umpteen colleagues – writers and photographers – for their comradeship and for caring deeply about the work. Journalism gets a bad name, but there are some extraordinarily intelligent, witty and hard-working folk in the trade. I love that they love it.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
The depressing answer is that I wish I had known that the industry, especially in Scotland, would crash in the way it has. I would have done something else if I had known that, and I hate myself for saying so, but it’s true.
Having said that, if someone had told me about all the amazing stories I’d get to cover, and the characters I’d write about, I might have said, “Ach, what the hell,” and signed up for journalism despite all the angst that was to come.
I suppose I’m about halfway through my working life now, and I do sometimes think about doing something else. What though? Journalists are weirdos, wide-os, and very often winos.
Bonnie company for one of that sort.