NEIL Cooper is theatre critic for The Herald, and a freelance writer.
When did working in the media first start becoming an ambition?
From a very early age, I guess, but I had absolutely no idea how you went about it. I was a print junkie, first with Marvel comics and science fiction fanzines, then later with the music papers, which were at their post-punk peak when I was a teenager. The NME was my 'bible', and I started picking up music fanzines from Probe, which was the hip record shop in Liverpool.
My favourite was one from Manchester, called City Fun, which was a deeply pretentious scene gossip-sheet with live reviews and record reviews. It was extremely opinionated and dripped sarcasm from every page. At the time, I didn't realise it was probably produced by a bunch of pseudy students. But I still didn't have a clue about seizing the means of production for oneself.
I was also influenced by Tony Wilson on Granada Reports. One minute he'd be reading the news, the next he'd be introducing Joy Division or Blondie, and this was while you were having your tea. He had people like John Cooper Clarke and a poet and puppeteer called Ted Milton, who plays in a band called Blurt, doing all this crazy stuff.
I always had secret plans to become a performance poet and publish radical collage-based 'zines full of cut-up type gubbins in very serious black and white. But the only photocopier I knew of was in a shop down the road, and charged 10p a sheet.
So I accidentally joined the civil service, instead.
What was your first ‘media job’?
Oh, that'll be the paper round I did for Ted Houghton's paper shop in Anfield, delivering the Liverpool Echo.
On Saturday afternoons, while we were waiting for the Pink post-match edition to come in, if there'd been a Liverpool game on down the road, the TV sports commentator, Gerald Sinstadt, used to sometimes come in and buy a cigar. So I suppose that was exposure to the media world in a sort of star-struck, 'you're famous' kind of way.
I'd always written in some form, and still have screeds of the stuff. The first thing I ever remember writing that might be said to aspire to 'journalism' was after a kid's film programme called Clapperboard, which had a Christmas special on comic book characters which had been adapted for film, like the 1960s Batman movie.
I was still obsessed with all that stuff at the time, and must've been about 11. We had to rush for a train straight after the programme, and I spent the entire train journey writing in a school exercise book what I suppose was my first 'review' of Clapperboard.
Then when I was old enough to go to gigs, I would come home afterwards and stay up all night writing reviews of them in long-hand.
I eventually started sending stuff off to 'zines, and had a few reviews published. There was one called Breakout, and another called All That Thinks and Moves. Then, in 1984, a guy called Dom Phillips and I got together to produce a 'zine which he called The Subterranean, after the Kerouac novel, but which I tried to model on City Fun. As well putting music stuff in and some terrible poetry, Dom wrote something about living in a squat in Camden (he was 19, and had lived a bit more than me!), and I wrote up an interview with a model I met on a train (!) that had broke down.
I was working as a clerical assistant in the Print Unit of the Health and Safety Executive in Bootle, and had 'access' to fancy paper and photocopiers. The boss had chopped his fingers off in an accident with one of the machines and was off work, so an entire industry of business cards, gig posters and The Subterranean was put into motion when nobody was looking.
We printed a couple of hundred, and sold them at gigs. We only did one issue, which was pretty rubbish, to be honest, but then the boss came back to work and we didn't have any money to do another one, which I've still got the proofs of, all laid out with Letraset and Spraymount. We didn't have a clue, but Dom went on to edit Mixmag and I ended up doing what I'm doing now, so we must've been doing something right.
When I moved to Scotland, I started sending gig reviews to a free magazine called Rocket 88. Again, I wrote them free-hand, and sent them off, and then I'd get a copy of the mag in the post a few weeks later. I had no idea about the commissioning process or arranging guest lists, and completely missed out on what I now know was this big 1980's 'bunfight' full of indulgence and excess.
I'd also become interested in theatre, and started doing reviews for the Tollcross Times, which was a community paper based at Tollcross Community Centre. That wasn't paid, but suddenly I was getting into places and in print. That was fun, but I started studying drama full-time, and left all that stuff behind.
It was only much later, when I'd finished college and was on the dole that I thought about doing it again.
There was an ad in The List magazine for a deputy theatre editor, which my then flat-mate suggested I apply for. I sent off a sample review, and waited for what seemed like weeks, until eventually Robin Hodge, the publisher, invited me up on a Saturday morning.
The first thing he said was that there wasn't actually a job, but that they were just seeing who was out there, partly because Mark Fisher, who was then theatre editor, was about to become The Herald's theatre critic, which is weird, because that's the job I do now.
I ended up picking up everybody's review scraps for the 1994 Edinburgh Festival, and did everything I was offered. Eddie Gibb, who I was on nodding terms with at college, where he'd done the communications course, was a deputy editor, and I got most of my work off him and Mark.
They kept on using me afterwards, and I'd get a couple of reviews and previews an issue. After a decade or so of arsing about, I'd finally got my first paid gig in the media since my paper round.
Describe, briefly, how your career unfolded between your first media job and where you are now.
I was lucky right from the start of doing this professionally. I started late, but 'new doors' seemed to open every day in a way that they don't now. I started at The List at the time a lot of London-based papers were starting to get interested in Scotland in the way they're not now. After a year of doing stuff for The List, while still signing on, I was shocked one day when I got a phone call from the features editor of the Scottish Daily Mail. They were wanting to start running theatre reviews from Scotland, and would I be interested?
Politically, it wasn't exactly 'a marriage made in heaven', to put it mildly, but I went through to meet the editor and features editor. It was explained to me that they needed 450 words by 11pm, straight after each show, which terrified me, but then they said how much they'd pay and I said yes, immediately.
I remember my first review for them was Trainspotting at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and I remember going to The Scotia bar, down the road afterwards, writing the review freehand, and reading it down the line to copy-takers on the pub pay-phone. And I don't think I've sweated as much before or since.
I got used to that, though the next year was a real learning curve, just learning to write in a sort of Daily Mail style. I finally came off the dole, and it was fine for a while. But then things ended abruptly with a phone call from the features editor, who somewhat sheepishly intimated that the editor didn't want theatre reviews anymore.
As it turned out, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I'd got to know a few people by then. I was still doing The List, but I also started doing second string stuff for The Herald. Then The Independent got in touch as their Scottish theatre reviewer had moved on. Then, Aaron Hicklin at Scotland on Sunday got in touch, and I started doing stuff for them. He was followed by Benedict Nightingale at The Times and Colin Somerville at the Edinburgh Evening News.
I'd also started writing bits of music stuff by then, which I'd avoided, even though that's what I'd started doing first as a kid. I'd been nervous of doing it, as I didn't think I could anymore, and was out of touch with what was going on. I'd like to think I've made up for it since, though I'm still pretty niche about what I do.
When the Sunday Herald started, I went on contract with them for a year, doing theatre stuff. I'd started doing features as well as reviews - for The Herald, SoS and sometimes The Times - so was learning how to do that as well. Looking back at stuff from then, I clearly didn't have a clue what I was doing, and how some of it was published I don't know.
I was contacted by Keith Bruce, arts editor at The Herald, who was looking for a new theatre critic, as Mark Fisher was about to become new editor of The List. That meant quitting The Times, but I wanted to do more features, and the contract offered some small salve of financial security.
I've been doing that ever since, and that's my 'bread and butter', although it's more than that. I work alongside a wonderful team of arts writers who it's a privilege to be part of, and I genuinely believe that, despite budget cuts left, right and centre, The Herald has the best arts page in the country. That's down to Keith, who captains 'the ship' somewhat heroically.
Over the last few years, I've started writing for art mags like MAP and Line, as well as music mags like Plan B.
I also do the odd piece for online music mag, The Quietus, which is a bit like a fanzine and a bit like the NME, so you can do longer-form stuff than a broadsheet can take, and be a bit more 'left field'.
So, in a way, things have come full circle, and that kid staying up all night scribbling lengthy reviews has finally broken through.
Any particularly big breaks along the way?
Being dropped by the Scottish Daily Mail.
Who would you like to thank more than most?
All of the above, but Mark Fisher and Robin Hodge for giving me my first break. All editors at wherever I've worked and currently Keith Bruce, who's put up with some of my funny ways for years now, and frankly has the patience of a saint.
What do you know now that you wished you had known when you started?
I wish I'd understood the industry more, and realised earlier that it wasn't just other people who could earn a living out of this daft thing we do, but that I could do it too. If I'd realised that, I might have started earlier, and enjoyed all that 1980s excess I keep hearing about. Of course, I might not have been here, as a result, to tell the tale. Live slow, die old.
All Media Scotland, March 2013