In April 2001 most things were going well. I was back living in Edinburgh, some of my best friends lived there too, I was happy to be married, and although I was still working as a temp, I was working at the Scottish Parliament. I was only with the Parliament for about a year, but I was involved in some major political issues, and I gained a new respect for the politicians and the staff who worked there.
For my first 12 months back in Edinburgh, I had drifted through various temporary positions with a publishing house, an investment firm, a bank, and a newspaper, but after some digging around, I had found the name of the employment agency that supplied staff to the newly reformed Scottish Parliament. After I joined the agency, it took a while to get security clearance, and for an opening to arise, but a few days before my long-planned stag week in Austin, I got a call to tell me that I had been recruited for a short-term opportunity with the Parliament.
So the day after I arrived back from my week long bachelor party in Texas, I started work with the Rural Affairs Committee of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. My first assignment was to read and summarize all of the responses that had been received to a proposal to ban fox-hunting in Scotland.
There were about a thousand letters or submissions and 95% of them were from individuals opposed to the ban because it would have a detrimental effect on their livelihood. I thought it was very interesting that very few people had bothered to write in to support the ban.
I was pretty tired at the end of my first day, but I knew immediately that compared to the temp jobs I’d been doing or to working as a waiter or paralegal, this was easily the most interesting job I’d ever had. I decided that I wanted to stick around longer and that I needed to make myself invaluable.
When I started in October 2000, The Scottish Parliament had only been operational for about a year. Initially the Parliament did not have its own dedicated building and so for the time I worked there, the Parliament was housed in some borrowed offices on the Royal Mile.
That was perfect for me because Kristy and I lived in an old flat at the bottom of Victoria Street, which was a 90 second walk from the committee chambers where I was to work. It’s still the best commute I’ve ever had. It meant that I could go home for lunch every day for an hour and that most days I would be home at 5.02pm. Kristy worked in a health food shop in the New Town and wouldn’t get home until about 6.30pm, so all of a sudden I had a few extra hours to myself every day.
So I bought a cheap guitar and learned how to play it. Typically I’d go home at lunchtime, stick something in the toastie machine, learn how to play an Oasis song, watch a bit of Neighbours, and then be back at work at 2pm on the dot.
I was still doing volunteer mediating a lot too, usually at least two nights a week. And then once a week, I’d get together with some of my best mates – Nelly, Jambo, Craigy, and Doctor Dave – to go and play pool at Marco’s Pool Hall on Grove Street. It must have been the least fashionable bar in Edinburgh’s city centre. It was not even a real bar. It was a dimly lit, old fashioned pool hall, full of blokes smoking and drinking. But it was never busy and they had a few decent CDs in the jukebox. Everyone else we knew hated it, especially our female companions, but we loved it.
We’d play pool, have a laugh, and drink Guinness all night. Sometimes we’d go back to Doc’s gaff to play poker, otherwise Nelly would drag us round the corner to Cuba Norte and try to convince us to join him clubbing. But he’d only ever convince Jambo.
Kristy and I had been together for about two years and we were doing ok. She was still finding the adjustment from Austin to Edinburgh difficult, and would often pine for her friends and her past. When that happened, it felt to me like she would just disconnect from our present. That was really hard for me because I wanted her to be as happy as I was. I tried everything to make her love Scotland, but I couldn’t do it. In fact, the more I pushed the worse it got. In April 2001, I wrote down these thoughts in my journal. I’ve never shared this with anyone until now:
“Kristy is a bit flat again since the weekend. Nothing I can do. The more frequent and more lengthy these unemotional spurts become, the harder it gets. The good far outweighs the bad right now, but the fact that I’m even looking at the scales is a concern.”
I suppose the cracks were starting to appear. At the time I just knew that Kristy was extremely homesick, and other than arrange a vacation in the US, I was running out of ideas for a cure.
Anyway, so my first day with the Scottish Parliament was Monday October 9th, 2000. I was still on a high from the bachelor party in Austin, which deserves its own chapter, and I was more than ready for this new opportunity. I remember that there were posters all over town promoting U2’s new single that said ‘Beautiful Day – October 9th, 2000’, and Radiohead had just released ‘Kid A’ with the first song entitled ‘Everything in Its Right Place’. I remember thinking that yeah, I feel the same way.
So my first day was a bit rough because of lingering jet lag, but then things got even stranger. On my second day at the Parliament, Donald Dewar, the First Minister of Scotland, tripped and fell outside his official residence and was pronounced dead later that evening.
The guy was universally respected across the political spectrum, and everyone who worked at the Parliament, from the security guards to the kitchen staff, had their own fond memories of him. Parliamentary business effectively stopped for a week, and although I was new and a temp worker, that experience probably helped me to bond a bit with the permanent staff.
So initially I was only to work with the Rural Affairs committee for a couple of weeks. For those unfamiliar with the Scottish political system, there are various committees made up of MSPs within the Parliament that propose new legislation and scrutinize the work of the government. Each committee has a specific remit and is usually staffed by a dedicated team of clerks. My initial role was as an Assistant Clerk, I assisted to the Senior Assistant Clerk and the boss was the Committee Clerk.
The Rural Affairs office was next door in a much bigger room that was shared by the Education, Culture and Sport Committee clerks and the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning clerks. I made it a point to get to know those folks and when the Rural Affairs Committee ran out of work for me, it just so happened that those two committees needed some extra help and I was invited to move next door.
Before I started at the Parliament, I had thought that it would be full of Sir Humphrey Applebys, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was a really broad mix of people and backgrounds, from both the public and private sector, all of whom were incredibly intelligent and dedicated to their jobs.
The Clerk of the Education committee was Martin Verity. He was easily one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. Martin is an absolute gentleman, he wouldn’t accept short cuts, and he never had a bad word to say about anyone. He took me under his wing and he is still a role model for me in terms of professionalism.
Initially the Education committee needed assistance with their inquiry into the SQA high school exam snafu where thousands of pupils had received incomplete or inaccurate exam results, and some schools hadn’t received any results. It was a total mess and the Education Committee had postponed their scheduled work to conduct a public inquiry into the problem.
So I started worked on their investigation and it was fascinating. They interrogated some of the smartest people in Scotland about this fuck-up and every word was reported in the national news. I enjoyed the work but I was always aware that I was on a week-to-week contract and as soon as the inquiry was over, I might be out of a job.
The Education committee also had a remit for culture and sport and two of the other big projects they had put on hold at the time were an inquiry into the redevelopment of Hampden Park and a proposal for a Children’s Rights Commissioner.
Martin also had great judgment, and he decided to give me a prominent role in both of those matters. The Hampden inquiry lasted almost a year and half and the Committee was asked to report on the £8 million funding gap that had arisen during the reconstruction of Scotland’s national football stadium. When the exams inquiry was concluded, Martin asked me to write the first draft of the report for the Committee.
At the time, this was the most interesting thing I’d ever worked on. I am, and have always been, a massive Scotland football fan. And here I was, sitting in on meetings with the SFA and Queens Park Football Club, talking about football and the National Stadium. I even got the train through to Glasgow one morning with the MSPs to go and tour Hampden. I even got to walk on the pitch. When all the hearings had finished, I sat in on a long private meeting with the Committee MSPs as they discussed their findings and gave me the direction of the report. I loved it.
There were some very good Scottish politicians on the Education and Enterprise committees during that time too. Future leaders of their parties, Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont were both members. I got on very well with Ken Macintosh and Frank McAveety. And Michael Russell is still probably the smartest person with whom I’ve ever worked. He has a brain like a super computer that can process and analyze information in seconds.
I remember sitting in on these weekly meetings and being very impressed, but not overawed, with the level of the intellectual debate. It was inspiring. Politicians seem to be generally disliked by a lot of people, but I genuinely felt that most of them got into it because they wanted to make the country a better place. Now I don’t doubt that over time, some politicians may lose sight of their original ambitions, but at that time, with the Parliament only a couple of years old, I felt that they were all still doing it for the right reasons.
For a long time, I considered a career path that might lead me to be an MSP. Maybe there is still time. Although the fact that I’m putting my whole life story online, warts and all, is probably not going to help me in that endeavor. Who would vote for an honest politician?
As well as working on the Hampden report, the Committee was putting together the initial proposals for a Children and Young Person’s Commissioner to protect and promote the rights of young people in Scotland. The Convener of the Committee, Karen Gillon, wanted to consult with children about this and she had an idea to organize a big conference in Edinburgh, and to invite hundreds of young people from across Scotland to participate.
That’s a really nice idea in principle. And I remember telling that to Martin when he approached me and asked me to organize it. But I also told him that the logistics of pulling that together would be a nightmare.
I had an idea. I suggested to Martin that a better solution would be for the Parliament to go to the children.
So I put together a proposed budget to make a short film. I suggested that I could get in the Scottish Parliament van with the Scottish Parliament film crew every Friday for 2 months, (because the film guys were free on Fridays). We could drive all over Scotland interviewing children and young people and then show the film to the Parliament. My budget for the whole thing was £1,430 and that was mostly fuel costs.
I said that it would be symbolic of the adults going out of their way to listen to the young people. Martin seemed to like the idea and more importantly the Committee Convener did too.
I got approved for the funding and that was that. My plan was just to be the producer. I was going to let the film guys set up the shots and I found an editor and a young lady to do the interviews who had experience working with children on film. But then in the first interview with some Gypsey and Traveller children she inserted herself into the conversation. I didn’t want there to be any adult voices in the film at all so I didn’t ask her back and I ended up doing all the interviews myself.
It was great. Every Friday morning I’d meet up with the Parliament media and film guys and head off across Scotland to interview kids. I think they were happy to get out and about too after filming politicians talking all week. I also wanted to try and find the children that would not normally be asked about their rights. I didn’t want to interview the usual school captains and the debate team champions. So went to children’s care homes in Dundee and Dingwall. I met with young people with disabilities and gypsey children. We went to the Borders, to Dumbartonshire, to Fife and all the way up to Stornoway.
I don’t think most of the young people had ever been asked their opinion on anything by an adult before. I can’t remember being asked mine when I was at school.
But that’s what I did. I’d usually just ask one question and then shut up. Eventually the silences would be filled. I didn’t care if they swore or got angry. I just let them talk and somehow it worked.
So in April 2001, I was busy. I was working on early drafts of the Hampden Report and then going on a road trip every Friday to make a short film. Again, I was always aware that my position was still temporary, so I was constantly looking elsewhere for opportunities. My dream job at the time was to be paid to be a mediator.
In late April, I was finally offered a permanent position as an Assistant Clerk with the Social Justice Committee, which I accepted. And then a few days later, I was offered a job as a full time mediator in the area of special educational needs. I didn’t know what to do. The Parliament job had been amazing and my head told me that this could be a secure job for life. But my heart told me I should be a mediator, and that maybe I could have a more direct impact on people’s lives.
I don’t remember how I decided what to do, but I chose the mediation job. I only worked with Social Justice for a few weeks, and most of that time was spent finishing my projects with the Education Committee.
We finished most of the editing of the children’s film about a week before we were scheduled to show it in front of the whole Parliament. It’s a bit cheesy but I called it ‘Youth Central’. Then the guy who was editing it asked me if I had any instrumental music that he could use as a bed for the interviews and over the final credits. I had not budgeted for that but I told him that I had been playing guitar myself for about 6 months. So I went home and recorded myself playing a few chords onto a dictaphone. Like most of the first songs ever written by new guitar players it was totally shite, but it went on the final edit of the film.
We had a showing of the film to Martin and the Convener of the committee on the Thursday before the premiere and fortunately they loved it. At the last minute, I’d also got permission from UNICEF to use some animations they’d made about children’s rights, so it actually looked quite good.
My last week at the Parliament was in June 2001. On the Monday, we had arranged to show the film to the full chamber on the Monday morning. Committee clerks were generally seen and not heard, but the Convener asked me to introduce the film. So I stood up in front of the Scottish Parliament full of MSPs, representatives of children’s groups from across the country, and my Mum. In my speech I thanked Martin “for trusting me with the whole project” and I thanked Kristy “for reminding me why I was doing it.” One of the film guys captured this screen grab for me as a going-away gift.
It was a good day and may have been the first and only time that the words “fucking shite”, as said by one of the young people in Dundee to describe his life, were ever heard in the main chamber of the Parliament. But I was very proud of the film and when the office of the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland was established in 2003, I felt like I had contributed in a small way.
The very next day, the Hampden Report was published. It made national news headlines and again it is up there with one of the best things I’ve ever done.
The day after that was my last day at the Parliament, and the next morning Kristy and I went on a two week trip to Chicago and Kansas City.
At that moment I was really content about the work I’d done with the Parliament and I was ridiculously optimistic about starting my dream job as a mediator. I was ready to build a new career and a new, happier life for us in Edinburgh. I had no idea that just eight months later, Kristy and I would be packing up and moving our lives to Austin.