Book review: Alternatives to Valium, by Alastair McKay

In his new memoir, former Scotsman journalist Alastair McKay revisits some of his encounters with pop culture icons and wonders: do interviews tell us more about the person answering the questions or the person asking them? Review by Roger Cox

Alastair McKay

Before I begin this review, I should declare an interest: I worked with Alastair McKay at The Scotsman from 2000-2004, although I use the term "worked with" in the loosest sense. During this time McKay was an assistant editor, responsible for writing the biggest of the big name interviews and helping to shape the overall direction of the paper's arts and features coverage. My official title was junior arts reporter, but in reality I spent at least half my time opening the mail. It was thanks to McKay, however, that I was put in charge of commissioning live reviews, and when he left in 2004 – although the reasons for his departure were only fully understood by people way above my pay grade – I was still very much aware that something important had been lost; some significant yet intangible part of the paper's DNA. I still have one of the carefully curated CDs he handed out at his leaving do at the Doric Tavern. The first track? Ivor Cutler reading his poem Creamy Pumpkins. "The world needs its dreamers," intones Cutler, "heads like creamy pumpkins." Perhaps newspapers do too.

Anyway, fans of McKay's wry, thoughtful, precision-tooled writing, which since he left The Scotsman has graced the pages of all the London papers worth gracing, are in for a treat, because almost 300 pages of it are now available in one place, sandwiched between acid green and pink covers.

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Alternatives to Valium – How Punk Rock Saved a Shy Boy's Life is a book of two halves. The first takes the form of a relatively conventional memoir, if you can describe the story of a bright but painfully shy kid falling in love with punk in 1970s North Berwick as conventional. The second half is also memoir, but memoir once removed. In this latter portion of the book, McKay revisits old recordings of interviews, mostly with rock ‘n’ roll royalty, conducted during the golden years when the cassette recorder was the journalist's weapon of choice. These aren't simply reprints of the interviews as he wrote them up back in the day, but accounts of those interviews composed with the benefit of several decades of hindsight. As he puts it at the start of the book, "Interviews are a dance of suspicion and performance. They are also a form of autobiography... What is it that the interviewer hopes to find out? Why do you ask?"

Alternatives to Valium, by Alastair McKay

The early years are a blast, from McKay's views on his first teacher ("Does she even like children? If she does, it's a secret") to his memories of his first fanzine, Blow Your Nose on This ("a montage of crap") to his first on-stage outing as lead singer of school band The Instant Whips ("I couldn't sing, so I wore a hat.") The transgressive allure of punk, as experienced on the sedate streets of North Berwick, is perhaps best summed up by the way in which the owner of the local record shop displayed the latest LPs in the shop window up-side down, their covers hidden from those who might take offence, but still available to those in the know.

The interviews, meanwhile – or rather, the memories of the interviews – are wonderful, peek-behind-the-curtain deconstructions of the creaky edifice of celebrity. McKay is forced to share Willie Nelson with a Finnish journalist who has turned up with an inordinately large tape recorder and an arsenal of staggeringly inane questions; he does his best to interview Rod Stewart in Glasgow while the singer is on a rowdy pre-Scottish Cup Final bender with his mates; and in Aberdeen, on a set visit for the BBC mini-series Your Cheatin' Heart, he gets bored of waiting around for an interview with John Gordon Sinclair and ends up going shopping for dungarees with Tilda Swinton instead. It’s all killer, no filler – and it is all, as McKay himself might say, very punk.

Alternatives to Valium – How Punk Rock Saved a Shy Boy’s Life, by Alastair McKay, Polygon, 292pp, £12.99

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