We’ve all had spam and wondered what to do with it (the electronic type, not the compressed pork). Neil Forsyth managed to make a career out of it, with the help of a fictitious Broughty Ferry man, Bob Servant. By Lee Randall
WITH HIS flat cap, his fantasies, and his fleecy coat, 64-year-old Bob Servant makes an unlikely celebrity, but the self-styled Hero of Dundee (and survivor of the Broughty Ferry cheeseburger wars) has attained national treasure status – and all because he answers those spam e-mails the rest of us send straight to our junk mail folders.
Catching up with Servant’s creator, Neil Forsyth, I find a young man who wears success lightly, partly because things very nearly went the other way for his comic creation. When Delete This At Your Peril first appeared in 2007, it sank without a trace. “Aurum Press were nice people, but London-based, and they didn’t really do humour books, so a Dundonian-based humour book – it was a bit of an awkward fit. It came and went and that was that. I went on to write my novel, Let Them Come Through, then moved to New York.”
But when Esquire magazine pressed celebrities to name the funniest book they’d ever read, Irvine Welsh chose Delete. From there, the book – and Bob Servant – achieved lift-off. “Irvine tipping it kicked things off a bit and within a week BBC Scotland got in touch asking if I’d be interested in adapting the character for radio,” says Forsyth.
Not only that, during a chance encounter in a Manhattan bar, Forsyth mentioned that, when it came to bringing Bob to life, his dream actor would be Brian Cox. As fate would have it, Forsyth’s drinking companion knew Cox, and was able to send him a copy. In no time at all Forsyth was in a recording studio watching Cox scamper about the floor on all fours, imitating Bob imitating a dog.
Realising he’d best get the book back into print, Forsyth found a new home with Edinburgh publishers Birlinn, who reissued Delete. He fleshed out the character by writing Bob Servant, Hero of Dundee, an autobiography. And next week a third book, Why Me? The Very Important Emails of Bob Servant, comes out. There’s also talk of a TV show in the not too distant future.
Broughty Ferry is a place that Forsyth knows inside and out. Though born in Glasgow in 1978, his family relocated when he was 18 months old, so he considers himself a Dundonian. Which means what, exactly? Can he identify a Dundonian sensibility?
“I’m not sure exactly but I think there’s a kind of surreal, almost absurdist nature to a lot of Dundonian humour. In general East Coasters are a bit more reserved than Glaswegians and I think that gives a dryness to the humour, but there also seems to be a slight absurdist touch. A lot of stories older relatives would tell were slightly surreal and a great celebration of the unusual.”
He remembers reading the local paper when a kid and thinking, “This is ridiculous.” But when I ask him to choose his favourite bonkers journalism, he chooses something recent. “It was a fantastic story about an attractive Dundee woman who was agoraphobic and had this parrot called Phoenix and the parrot went missing. She was in the paper giving her tale of woe: ‘I can’t leave my house, I can’t have a relationship, and I’ve now lost my parrot!’ So a few days later there’s a story saying ‘Love Blooms from Phoenix’s Ashes.’
“Some guy in Dundee had phoned up and said, ‘I can see the parrot, it’s in my garden.’ So she braved the outside world to go round and when she got there he said, ‘Ah, it’s just flown away, but do you want a cup of tea?’ This is very dryly reported: what a wonderful twist of fate, and now they’re in love. I was going, ‘He never saw the parrot. It was never in his garden. This boy’s just trying it on.’ But it was presented as this wonderful love story.”
Forsyth’s father, a paediatrician, worked at Ninewells, and they lived just a few hundred yards from Neil’s grandfather and Uncle Bill, both of whom kept the boy transfixed with a steady stream of jokes and stories. “I remember walking down Broughty Ferry high street with my great uncle Bill, who was an aficionado at the local bowling club. Brook Street is maybe 200 yards long, and it took about an hour for him to walk down it. Stories for everyone! That kind of figure slowly morphed into Bob.”
In the first collection of e-mails, Servant replied to a Nigerian prince’s plea for money by asking if he’d send some lions to Scotland. He took his postie hostage over a private disagreement, and flirted with a Russian beauty who he drove so insane with tales of ostrich husbandry that her final e-mail to him read: “F*** you! To me has bothered to read your delirium.”
Don’t kid a kidder is a familiar motto and, in Bob Servant, the spammers of this world have met their match. He’s as prone to overstatement as they are, and I discover that, in order to achieve these comic effects, Forsyth has had to do a little light conning himself.
He says: “Bob’s a scam artist, a fantasist not only when talking to spammers but very much in his own life. Bob doesn’t get angry with these people or think of them as the lowest of the low.
He thinks of them as gentle crooks. I tried to keep it all very positive from his end, joyous comedy. All their e-mails are absolutely real. Sometimes I’ve thought I would clean up the exchange a bit, but the spammers talk in such an idiosyncratic way. You can’t fake it. Essentially there are two end products they want. One is to get your bank details, the other is to get you to send them money. It’s how they get there that’s interesting. You’d be surprised how many routes they have. In the new book I wanted interesting and unusual ones, so I worked harder and found them.”
Found them? Does he elicit spam? He nods. “There are consumer websites with databases containing e-mail addresses of spammers as warnings. I cut and paste them and e-mail, using blind copy, saying: ‘Sounds interesting, tell me more. And can you reattach your original proposal?’”
He whittles out those that seem the most promising and the fun begins. One of my favourites is Rose, claiming to be writing from a refugee camp where the conditions are harsh. She pleads for Bob’s help accessing $9.3 million of her late father’s funds. He tells her straight off that he’s publishing a book of e-mail exchanges, and marvels that she has access to a computer and broadband too. It ends rancorously, but a few months later she sends Bob the identical begging e-mail, prompting him to suggest that, if she’s really starving, she might flog the laptop to pay for food.
He says: “The premise in the first book was that Bob had won his computer in a raffle so was very naive. He thought the spammers were his friends. In the new book it’s very obvious he knows they’re spamming, so I thought I might move the humour on a bit. My greatest enjoyment is when the spammer gets angry. When they have full meltdowns that’s a dream and I’m bouncing around the flat.”
As others have noticed before me, Forsyth is magnetically attracted to fraud and fraudsters. His first book, Other People’s Money, told the story of Scotland’s own Nick Leeson, Elliot Castro, who was such a successful fraudster – until he got caught and sent to jail – that he now lectures banks about security. Forsyth’s first novel, Let Them Come Through, is set in the world of fraudulent mediums.
His upcoming novel – due out next spring – is a thriller set in Ibiza, whose central character is part of the witness protection scheme. Even the story he told me at the start of our interview – about Phoenix the parrot – concerns a gentle fraud. What’s the appeal, then?
“I think I find that kind of duality interesting. Obviously it all started with Elliot. And throughout university, and when I spent a year working in advertising, superficially that’s how I was spending my time but really I had no connection with it and was interested in other pursuits. I guess that duality of existence I find quite interesting. With Elliot it was the fact he existed at two different levels. He drifted through life on a sea of lies while projecting an outward reality that didn’t exist. It was a very contemporary story.
“When I saw the medium’s show [that inspired my novel] I thought, ‘That’s Elliot,’ about the way he was talking to the audience. I found out that mediums are incredibly talented people, it’s just bollocks what they say they do. Spammers, that’s different – no talent and it’s bollocks.”
Does he feel frustrated that, despite his more serious output, he’s famous for sending cheeky e-mails? Forsyth shakes his head. “I am not precious about writing. I’m just happy to be able to write these books and have people publish them.
“Moving between genres makes me more productive. I can finish a novel and go straight to Bob, and it feels like a break. I love the character so much that I have no qualms if my legacy is pretending to be a window cleaner from Broughty Ferry.”
• Why Me? The Very Important Emails of Bob Servant, is out 10 November from Birlinn, £6.99 in paperback, and also as an ebook. Visit www.birlinn.co.uk or www.bobservant.com. San Carlos will be published by Jonathan Cape next June.