In June 2015, I was invited to take part in the launch event of Scotland’s leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth. I hadn’t realised quite how much swearing was in Boyle’s Law until I prepared to read a chapter of it in public for the first time. There was so much cursing and it ran so fluently that I couldn’t edit it out, and so I decided to go for it big time and deliver. I rehearsed the hell out of that reading and my reward was a room full of people shaking the rafters with laughter.
The next day, I was nursing an almighty red wine hangover when a woman approached me in the street to tell me how much she’d enjoyed my reading the night before. I remembered her because she arrived too late for a seat and had to perch on a window sill. Also, she had red hair and wore a Breton top and I’m a sucker for both. That woman turned out to be the very lovely Jan Patience. One day I’ll draw a Venn Diagram of all the people I’ve met through XpoNorth. In the meantime, please do enjoy this fab interview with Jan.
How did you get started in your career as a journalist?
I left Aberdeen University in 1986 and applied for post-grad journalism courses in Preston, Cardiff and London. I didn’t get into any of them even though I had worked on – and edited – the university newspaper. My problem was that I froze in the interviews and came across like a gibbering wreck.
Unable to think of anything else, I kept applying for jobs in journalism. In these days that meant scouring media situations vacant in The Guardian on a Monday and pouring over small ads in The Glasgow Herald. After a few months I was offered a job working for a husband and wife who ran a magazine for the lingerie trade from their home office in the west end of Glasgow (I know what you’re thinking. It sounds well dodgy… but it was legit. I think!) I quit my job as a waitress in The Cue Ball nightclub in Aberdeen and moved home to rural Ayrshire to live with my parents for the first time in four years.
The job lasted less than two weeks. Half was spent at a lingerie trade fair in Harrogate, talking to women wandering around a draughty exhibition hall in bra and pants while I teetered in black patent stilettos and black and white dog-tooth Margaret Thatcher-style power suit from M&S which my mum, bless ‘er, had bought me. It was the 1980s, what can I say? Mum was always horrified at my sloppy garb and insisted that was how people dressed for “proper” work. I went to work on the Monday after returning from Harrogate and my boss asked me to go and research the history of hosiery in Hillhead Library. The next day I was told they couldn’t afford to keep me on.
My first proper job in journalism, was with a magazine called Business Scotland published by a small Glasgow-based company called Peebles Publishing. I wasn’t the only young would-be journalist searching for a job. The first two weeks was spent working alongside another recent graduate. We were told by the boss, an ex-sports reporter who had worked on the Glasgow Evening Citizen, that he would choose between us after a two week trial. I got the job. To celebrate, he took me up to a pub in Byres Road for a drink. It wouldn’t happen today.
How did your expectations of the job match up to the reality?
Well, it wasn’t the stuff of Lou Grant, the US television set in busy newsroom, which I watched as a teenager. In my head I was Mary Tyler Moore. At Business Scotland, I was a newsroom of one and I had to fill an entire magazine using native guile every month.
Business Scotland, which was mailed out free to subscribers, relied completely on advertising. It was a mix of advertorial (paid-for content before it was called ‘content’) and interviews with businessmen. I say businessmen because it was actually mostly men I interviewed.
The company also produced a bunch of other publications; The Johnny Walker News, The Rangers News and the Celtic View, Packaging Scotland and the Licensed Trade Guardian. All the reporters were around my age and we sat together in a damp, cramped basement room. To keep ourselves amused, we used to phone companies we knew had funny-sounding receptionists answering the phone and put them on speaker-phone. The packaging giant, Metal Box, had a particularly hilarious receptionist, I recall. We also produced a weekly spoof newspaper called The Peebles News which was hidden from the bosses’ prying eyes. We laughed till our bellies ached every time we added a story, each more anarchic than the last. I used to do impressions of all the bosses and once, the production editor, a lovely woman who was from London and a wee bit Sloaney, walked in when I was in the middle of impersonating her. I still feel bad about that. One of my proudest moments in the three years I worked there was making sure a woman won the Businessman of the Year Award which we set up. Her name was Christine Latta and she ran an engineering company in Glasgow. She taught me a lot about what women could achieve against the odds.
I knew nothing about business but it taught me a lot about the gentle art of asking open questions with a smile. In other words bluffing like mad. One day I’d be writing 2000 words about scrap metal, the next interviewing the chief executive of The Royal Bank of Scotland.
After a year (because there was no-one else to do the job), I became the youngest editor in Scotland, aged 23. At the time I thought I hated the job because it was so boring and so poorly paid but looking back, it was fun.
You are a well-known arts journalist, how did that come about?
Like most things in my life I fell into writing about art. After spells on the staff of The Daily Record and a daily business newspaper (which went to the wall after a couple of years), I went freelance after I had my son in 2001. My daughter followed in 2003 so I juggled writing with being a mum and carer to my ailing parents. It was the tail-end of the days when newspapers had money to commission freelances to work on reasonable-sized projects and around 2006 I was asked to co-write a magazine spread on 50 Scottish artists to invest in. I threw myself into it and it re-ignited my interest in art which had always been there, but had somehow been placed on a back-burner.
Following on from the 50 artists feature, which caused a stir in the art world (of which I knew very little), I was asked to contribute to a regular art column in The Herald, writing about artists and exhibitions which were happening around Scotland. It was like a crash course in learning about the Scottish art scene. I never described myself as an art critic but it’s a label people are familiar with so it seems to stick. I always say I write stories about art and artists. Occasionally, I get into an almost meditative state when I am describing art and it pours out with the greatest of ease. I have become quite the expert at picking my way through the thickets of art speak, which art schools seem to put high up on the agenda. If you can’t say a thing simply, I say, don’t bother.
What were you like at school?
A mixed bag; funny, self-conscious and a wee bit geeky. I used to wear a badge on my duffel coat which said, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” It was a tough school and our year was HUGE. You had to fight your corner. Either that, or make people laugh. I chose the latter path! My dad was a minister, which put me into the ‘snobby’ category among certain peers so I started talking like Mary Doll in Rab C Nesbitt for a while, which didn’t go down well with mum.
I loved art and English and I was also in every choir the music department ran. And they ran loads! I was even in a wee girls’ choir which did Burns’ Suppers all round Ayrshire. We had quite the reputation but it did mean listening to lots of sexist jokes in Toasts to the Lassies’ speeches. I was into drama and loved being part of a drama group run by my English teacher, Mr Stott. I usually played the “character” who was old and eccentric. My first taste of journalism happened when I was in sixth year and part of the school magazine and I loved being part of it.
I was once told that every journalist harbours a secret desire to be a novelist. The person who told me this was a newsman-turned-novelist. How much truth do you think is in that statement?
Show me the journalist who doesn’t want to write a novel and I will show you a big fat fibber. We are natural storytellers and embellishers. I get secretly irritated when I see yet another ex-colleague produce a novel. My husband always says: “Where’s your novel then?” which he knows will annoy me even more.
Have you ever written any kind of fiction?
I have an unfinished novel three chapters in sitting in my laptop and I’ve also written short stories. When I moved back from London to Scotland in the late 1990s I attended a week-long course in novel writing at Moniak Mhor, near Beauly. The tutors were Janice Galloway and Geoff Dyer. I went straight to the course from an interview with the owner of a randy dog who was terrorising the town of Tain for Take A Break magazine. Most of the participants were women and fans of Janice Galloway. The protagonist of her novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, struggles with mental illness and some of the would-be novelists were obviously drawn to that side of Janice’s work. I’d say several were teetering on the edge. By the end of the week, everyone seemed to be menstruating at the same time. Even the men.
I am a bit of a poetry nerd and in 2012 I wrote a haiku a day for a whole year. I used to walk about counting out 5-7-5 syllables out on my fingers when I was out walking with the dog or driving the car. The kids used to know when I was composing a haiku because I’d drum out syllables on the steering wheel.
How did the George Wyllie book come about?
I met George’s daughter, Louise Wyllie, in 2011 through a mutual friend, a journalist called Fiona Black. At the time George was living in a care home in Greenock and suffering from dementia. Louise was trying to stimulate him and to make him feel like his life’s work as an artist hadn’t been in vain. I think he thought everyone had forgotten him. I vividly recalled seeing his big ambitious “social sculptures”, the Straw Locomotive and the Paper Boat in Glasgow in the late 1980s and I couldn’t believe that he thought he had been forgotten. There was something playful and serious about his work which I loved. It wasn’t rarified art. It was art which connected with ordinary people at a deep level.
I got friendly with Louise and she roped me into helping on a committee called The Friends of George Wyllie. We ended up organising a year-long festival called The Whysman Festival in 2012. Just as the announcement was made that it was going to be happening, George died, which added a poignancy to the proceedings.
Louise is an inspiring person, even though she would laugh at me saying that. Like her dad, she is a naturally creative organiser who thinks big and the Whysman Festival was a resounding success. We even won a Creative Scotland Award.
As part of the festival, we staged a huge retrospective exhibition in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library and produced a book of George’s poetry, which I edited. There was also an education initiative which saw his work reaching out to a whole new generation of young people.
Louise jokes that she simply tipped out her dad’s house into the Mitchell Library space but it was astonishing to me that an artist who started working as a serious artist late in life had produced so much. It was clear looking around that exhibition that from the moment George Ralston Wyllie made his entrance into the world on Hogmanay 1921, he was a creative force to be reckoned with.
I said to Louise we should write a book about him and to cut a very long story short, that is how Arrivals and Sailings: The Making of George Wyllie came about.
What have been your worst moments as a journalist?
Where to start? There’s been a lot of highs but probably my worst moments came when I worked on tabloids. I often found myself in situations in which I asked myself, “how did I get here?” On housing estates being chased by angry relatives after asking for a picture of a recently-deceased loved one (the dreaded death-knock) or standing crying in an en-suite bathroom belonging to an AIDS victim in a hospice in Edinburgh after having prised his sad story out of him.
And your best?
My best moments were also on tabloids. The crazy camaraderie of day-to-day life on a tabloid at the fag end of the glory days of newspapers can’t be downplayed. It was a case of one for all and all for one. When I worked as a reporter at The Sunday Mail in the early 1990s, I was known to my mostly male, older colleagues as “the wean”. I learned a lot from these world-weary hacks. They worked hard and played hard and were incredibly generous with their time and their expertise. Once, I was struggling with writing a news story and a favourite colleague, Alex Scotland, read through my efforts. He pushed his specs up his nose and said: “Jan, get angry! You’re not angry enough… !” I became the Sunday Mail’s “Culture correspondent” in 1990 during Glasgow’s reign as European City of Culture and I broke a few big news stories which made the coveted front page. I had a knack of coming up with good shorthand handles for tabloid stories. One, The Casanova Conman, even found his way into criminal history.
Have you ever felt intimidated by anyone you have interviewed?
I interviewed a few criminals during my time at the Sunday Mail. Pre-internet, there wasn’t many outlets for jailbirds and along with other female reporters I regularly received heavily censored letters from prisoners. Presumably, they saw our bylines and had a lot of time on their hands.
I visited the famous Barlinnie Special Unit with my friend, the paper’s resident astrologer, Darling (Rita Madhok). That was an experience and a half. We went on a boiling hot day in summer and we all sat on the exercise yard watching the pet rabbits run amok. It was like a metaphor for confinement. One of the prisoners constantly canoodled with his posh young girlfriend during our visit and it turned out he was planning to marry her. Fast-forward six months and I am sitting waiting outside the gates of Barlinnie looking out for famous visitors such as ex-Special Unit inmate, Jimmy Boyle, sweep past in his Jag. I met Boyle a few months later outside Saughton Prison when he was campaigning for the release of one the inmates there and he was charm personified. “Don’t get dazzled,” my friend Alex advised… always remember what these guys did to get in the jail in the first place.”
On that note, probably the most intimidating one-to-one interview I did was with a man called James Nelson. He was a convicted murderer who killed his mother and on his release, became a minister of the Church of Scotland. My dad was a minister and he was a delegate at the General Assembly in 1984 when the Kirk debated whether or not Nelson should be allowed to be ordained. I recall the case clearly as it prompted much debate in our home. I interviewed him in the mid-1990s in Rogano in Glasgow for a woman’s magazine. He clearly enjoyed my discomfort in his presence and I was unusually tongue-tied. Intimidated, even.
What advice would you give to the young Jan Patience?
Don’t be such a feartie and trust your gut instinct. Also, you know a lot more than you think you know. Don’t give up. There’s always a way – you just need to find it.
Who inspires you?
People who keep on being creative despite all the barriers which spring up along the way. George Wyllie continues to be an inspiration. He became a full-time artist aged 58. That keeps me going! I have an artist friend called Annette Edgar and she is in her 70s and has faced a lot of ill-health and problems but she has an unquenchable thirst for creating art and a poetic spirit.
What are you working on just now?
I’d like to say I am writing my novel and cracking on with that factual book which everyone I talk to about it says is A Good Idea. But mostly, I footer about on Facebook, Twitter et al. That needs to change.
If you could spend a day hanging out with any one person, past or present, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
You ask some hard questions, Lorraine!! I’d like to have just one day and night with my late mum and dad. My brother and I would take them to The Coffee Club in Kilmarnock and dad would have lemon meringue pie and we’d all tease him about it. We’d probably bicker but that’s fine.
Who would play Jan Patience in the film of your life?
I’d like to think Nicole Kidman but in reality it would be someone far less glamorous. Janette Krankie maybe?
A few short questions to finish. Favourite book
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I’ve re-read it several times but with all the Muriel Spark at 100 celebrations in the news (she was born on 1 February 1918), I’ve been thinking that I’ll re-read all 22 of her novels. She is so tart and spare in her storytelling and with her language.
Champagne – but not too much as I get very silly with it.
A really well-made risotto.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
I am known for my love of moaney women singer songwriters with the queen of all moany women singer songwriters being Joni Mitchell in my eyes. I also love Carole King, Nanci Griffiths, KD Laing and Björk. I’d like It’s Oh So Quiet by Björk to be played at my funeral. I like to think it sums me up. Seemingly quiet but then… Zing boom!
I’ve also recently joined the Glasgow School of Art Choir, which is the nearest I’ve ever got to going to art school. It’s led by the charismatic, energetic and oh-so-young Jamie Sansbury. We’re going to be singing a Sir James MacMillan composition inside the GSofA’s Mack Building, closed since the fire in 2014 when is reopens. I love singing in a choir again.
What are you reading right now?
Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer by Alan Rowan. Alan is a former colleague from The Daily Record. His first book is a well-written meander through his long-running obsession with running up mountains in the dead of night after he’d put in a long shift on Record sports desk.
Thanks, Jan. Great interview.
Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.