My 2nd Year at Edinburgh University started in August 1994 and finished 10 months later. I lived with some of my best friends, I watched as British indie music became ‘Britpop’, and my brother and I started to become friends. But really I was just drifting along aimlessly until one day in 1995, when I saw a piece of paper on my law school noticeboard advertising a scholarship to a university in Austin, Texas.
The 2nd Year of my 4-year law degree started early because I had failed two classes in 1st Year and I had to be back in Edinburgh for the summer resits. After spending my 1st Year in the partially supervised surroundings of Pollok Halls of Residence, my 2nd Year was to be spent in a flat with three mates – Phil, Hammy, and Stef.
As I was going to be in Edinburgh before anyone else, I took it upon myself to find us a flat. The apartment I found was ok, but it wasn’t great. It was on Lord Russell Place, near The Meadows, across from Fat Franco’s Fish and Chip Shop.
Inside the flat there were 2 medium sized bedrooms, one large bedroom and a tiny broom cupboard that was supposed to be the fourth bedroom. There was one small bathroom for the four of us, and a living room furnished from the 1970s. It was cheap and it was pretty basic, but I didn’t mind because as far as I was concerned, I was sharing it with the three coolest guys I’d met in 1st Year.
Stef was from Nottingham. He was the original manager of Forest Pump in 1st Year and he deserves a lot of credit for that. I forget that detail because when I think about Stef, I think that he has probably made me laugh more than anyone else I’ve met. He has a personality that you will either love or want to punch in the face. The year we lived together, I occasionally felt like the latter, but since then it has only been love. Stef is just a natural entertainer and his energy is infectious. When I go to London, Stef is usually the first person I see. We’ve traveled together across the World, we’ve lived together several times and I try and see him at least once a year. Stef is an actor now, so I’m pleased that the rest of the world is starting to get a glimpse of his awesomeness.
Phil was from Ballymena in Northern Ireland. Everyone called him Fonzy. He is perhaps the most brutally honest person I’ve ever met. Fonzy didn’t play football but he was a big part of the Pump gang. In 1st Year, he was the main man in our Halls of Residence, partly because he was the only guy with a TV and a Sega Megadrive in his room. But he was The Fonz. I think he and I are alike in many ways, but he didn’t think twice about telling me to fuck off and why. And with good reason. It was my first time living in a shared space outside of my family, and I know I wasn’t the easiest to live with.
Hammy was also from Ballymena. It doesn’t matter where he is in the World, Hammy will always be the nicest guy in the room. He has a chilled out, surfer vibe about him that everyone is drawn to. He is a big lad with a big smile, but is sensitive with it. Hammy is solid. He was also the midfield general for the Pump and we were a much weaker team without him. Whenever I think of Hammy I smile. We spent many mornings sitting together, hungover, watching daytime TV in our dressing gowns. I just have to think of him laughing his big laugh at something I’ve said, and it makes me happy.
We had our ups and down in that 2nd Year flat, but I still consider Stef, Hammy and Phil as being three of my best friends. Hammy and Fonzy both went back to live in Northern Ireland soon after graduating so I haven’t seen them as much as the Pump boys who went to London. But I made a point to see them in 2015 when I was traveling through Ireland. Stef came over from London too. We all stayed together in a tiny apartment for one Friday night in Dublin. It was as if nothing had changed.
In Dublin, Fonzy said something to me that didn’t really sink in at the time. Something that had happened 20 years earlier and that I have never really thought about, but that must have bothered him. Anyway, before we’d even had our first beer, he just came right out and apologized to me. That’s typical of him. Brutally, fucking, honest. It was weeks later that I realized how powerful his apology actually meant to me. And it only made my affection and respect for him greater.
Anyway, for a while in the summer of 1994 I was in the new flat by myself. I passed the resits in early September, and term didn’t start until October. I decided I was sick of being permanently skint, so I found a job in a new Irish bar that was opening up on Victoria Street called Finnegan’s Wake. I’d never worked behind a bar before but I enjoyed it.
It was one of the first Irish themed bars in Edinburgh at the time, and it was packed every night. I never understood why. They had shite bands playing shite Irish folk music during the week. Then at the weekends they just played old tapes of shitty Irish bands. There are only so many times you can listen to ‘The Best of The Dubliners’. And 4 times a night is too many. To preserve my sanity I convinced the manager to put me in charge of the music. So I made a bunch of mix tapes loosely based around Celtic rock, with the occasional Britpop song thrown in. And that made working there quite fun.
Once everyone arrived back at University in October 1994, Stef and Hammy took the medium sized bedrooms and Fonzy and arranged it so that I would take the big bedroom for the first half of the year and then I’d switch with him and be in the cupboard for the second half.
That first half of the year was great. I’d work two or three nights a week in the pub, and then go out with the lads the other nights. We watched and played a lot of footy, went to parties, hosted parties, went to lectures, missed lectures. We ate a lot of fish and chips from across the road and life was pretty simple.
By February 1995, it was time to switch bedrooms. The tiny cupboard was big enough for a single bed and a chair and that was it. I wasn’t going out as much then, so I remember spending at least a couple of nights a week in that tiny room just lying on the bed listening to the radio on my headphones. There was a show on Monday through Thursday on Radio 1 from 10pm to Midnight, hosted by two guys called Mark and Lard. It was the best radio show I’d ever heard.
Music had become a big part of my personality, and new music in particular. Mark and Lard regularly had sessions from up and coming British indie bands, and I became obsessed with knowing all of them. I started going to gigs regularly, and we would often listened to Definitely Maybe or Parklife as we were getting ready to go out. At that time, indie music in the UK was still just known as ‘indie music’, but it was about to be known universally as ‘Britpop’.
One day in April 1995, I remember coming to the realization that my whole flat was going away to study abroad for 3rd Year. Fonzy was going to Canada, Hammy was off to Sweden, and Stef would be studying in Germany. Then I found out that half of the Pump had organized the same thing. That meant that I wouldn’t have any flatmates or a football team for a year. So I decided I should probably study abroad too. I didn’t really care where it was.
The next day I went in to the Law School to see if they had any study abroad options. They told me the only one they had was to Utrecht in The Netherlands, and the deadline to apply had expired months earlier. Then they mentioned that Edinburgh was trying to set up an exchange program with the University of Texas, but it hadn’t been finalized yet.
“Texas?” I remember thinking. What did I know about Texas? Well, 2 things – there was a TV show in the 80’s called Dallas, and then there was an American Football team called the Dallas Cowboys. That was it. I certainly knew nothing about Austin. The opportunity could have been in Lubbock, or College Station, or Nebraska, or Oklahoma, and I would have been none the wiser.
Then in April 1995, I remember walking past the main office in the Law School and I saw a plain piece of paper on their noticeboard that said “Opportunity to Study at the University of Texas School of Law”. I went in and they referred me to Professor G. who was setting up the scholarships. She told me that I had to get my application in immediately, and that there were only three spots available. She also said that only Honours students would be considered, and if there were multiple applications, she told me that the scholarships would be awarded based on academic merit.
I’d messed around too much in 1st Year, and so I didn’t have the best academic record. In order to scrape into the Honours Program I basically needed to ace all of my 2nd Year exams. But even if I did that, I knew that I would be behind most everyone else that wanted to go. And I decided that I really wanted to go. So I went back to the notice board and ‘borrowed’ the notice off the wall.
I’m sure there were lots of other notices posted around the Law School about the University of Texas opportunity, but when I went back to see Professor G. at the beginning of May, she told me that my application was the only one she had received.
At the time I had about six more weeks of study ahead of me before the exams. I now had a goal, a target. If I could score well on these exams, I would be spending the next year in Austin, Texas. Wherever that was.
So I went for it. I quit working at the pub and I studied every waking hour. Edinburgh in May can be beautiful. And when the sun is out in Edinburgh, it’s the most amazing place in the world. But I spent every day in the library. Occasionally I’d drift off into thoughts about Texas. I’d dream about hosting a segment on American Football from Austin, or driving across America in a convertible like Ferris Bueller. But then I’d get right back to work.
Eventually the exams came and I was ready. I remember finishing the last exam and feeling good about it. There are not many feelings like the post-exam high when it’s gone well. I remember one balmy June evening after the exams, we all went out and sat in The Meadows. ‘Common People’ by Pulp was at number 2 in the UK pop charts. We were drinking wine in the warm evening sunshine, and we had nothing to do except drink and laugh. I remember feeling that life was pretty much perfect at that moment.
When I got my exam results in mid July 1995, I’d done enough. I had made it into the Honours Program, and assuming I could sort the visas and find money for a flight, I would be off to Austin Texas four weeks later.
So the summer of ‘95 was a short one for me. I stayed in Edinburgh until the end of June, milking every last moment of that post-exam high. Eventually there was just me and Hammy left, and then when he said goodbye, I was alone in the flat again. Bored and skint, I went home to my parents’ house in Barrhead.
Finnegan’s Wake had just opened up a pub in Glasgow and they asked me to work there for the summer to get it going. I’d bleached my hair blonde for some reason during the exams. I can’t remember why. Then on my first day working in the pub in Glasgow, Rangers signed Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne, and he showed up in Govan with bleached blond hair.
Immediately thousands of Rangers fans in Glasgow got the same haircut, including old men and kids. I’ve never cared about the religious affiliations of the Glasgow football teams, but it was made clear to me, that I couldn’t work in an Irish themed bar in Glasgow with the same hairstyle as a Rangers player. So I had to shave it all off.
My brother Andy was living at home too that summer. He was 18 at that time, and had just finished his final year at Glasgow Academy. He’d done well in his Highers, and he had been accepted to study Medicine at Edinburgh University in October. He was going to be a doctor.
I remember thinking that when I saw him that summer he was not a wee boy any more. He was a young man. His voice had broken and he was almost as tall as I was. He was really into the Stone Temple Pilots and he was trying to grow a Scott Weiland style beard.
For as long as I’d known Andy, our dynamic had always been very much older brother versus younger brother. But that summer we started, or at least I started, to see him more as an equal. I took him out to a few gigs too. We went to see Belly together at the old Plaza, and then I took him to see Thrum and Whiteout at the Garage. For the first time, I welcomed the fact that he wanted to hang out with me.
A few days before I was due to leave for Texas I arranged a Pub Golf night out as a farewell party. This was the third annual Pub Golf and I met up with about 10 mates from school for a night of ridiculously heavy drinking in Glasgow. I even had a trophy made. And I invited Andy along too. It was the first time I’d ever invited him out with my friends.
I had always been stupidly protective of my world. I know that Andy looked up to me, but rather than be flattered that he liked something that I also liked, I used to get angry with him because I thought he was copying me. So if I liked a TV show or a band then he couldn’t like them. That’s probably why he got into Stone Temple Pilots – because I really liked Pearl Jam.
Anyway, it wasn’t until that summer of 1995 that I finally started to allow him into my world. I stopped seeing him as competition, and I started seeing him as a companion. I thought that maybe we might actually become friends.
That night of Pub Golf though, we went to 9 pubs in Glasgow. We were downing pints and double vodkas and it was messy. I suppose we all had two years of University drinking experience behind us, but Andy couldn’t keep up. I took a whole roll of photos that night, but he’s barely in any of them. I probably ordered him to take all the photos.
At one point someone must have stole the camera off me as there is a sequence of photos of each of the lads posing with the trophy, including one of Andy.
There is another where he is sticking his tongue out at the camera behind me as I’m talking to a girl. He don’t think he would have done that 12 months earlier because he would have known I would have been pissed off with him. But I love that he now felt confident enough to do it.
I didn’t get the photos developed until after I got to Texas. In fact, the first time I saw the photographs, Andy had already died. Even though they are the last photos I have of him, they still make me smile.
When I got on the plane to Austin on August 18, 1995, I had no idea what to expect. I knew very little about Texas, and I barely knew anyone in Austin. I didn’t know where I would be living, and I didn’t know when I would return to Scotland. And I was ok with that. I thought I was ready for a new adventure. But I wasn’t ready for what happened next.