Gerry Farrell: Shining light in our dark world

Willy Barr, manager of The Citadel in Leith. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Willy Barr, manager of The Citadel in Leith. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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AS I write, there’s a deafening silence from David Cameron on the latest horror show from Saudi Arabia – the heads of 47 “terrorists” chopped off at one sitting.

How do you become a “terrorist”? Well, all atheists in Saudi are “terrorists” apparently. As is anyone who openly disagrees with the Saudi regime. In Turkey, president Recyp Erdogan has just praised the “efficiency” of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government. In Israel, a man with mental health issues who couldn’t get any medical care on the Palestinian side of the wall took to the sea to swim round it and into “Israeli territory”. He was shot to death by Israeli sharpshooters. In America, a buffoon with a bouffant is leading the polls in the race to be Republican candidate. And in Damascus, Bashad Al-Assar is sitting cocooned behind blast-proof walls directing bombing missions on to the heads of his own civilians. Babies are dying. Refugees are drowning. Am I depressing you?

If you only paid attention to BBC News 24 you could quite easily sink into a swamp of gloom. But I bet you could pick any snapshot of human history from any century and very quickly come up with a catalogue of man’s inhumanity to man. And let’s not mince words here – it does tend to be men. Ivan The Terrible, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Isis.

But look a little closer to home and there are plenty of little candles being lit to ward off the world’s darkness. For every homeless person sitting on a cold Edinburgh street there’s somebody working to get them off that street. For every casual act of racism, there’s a reaction against it from ordinary people. You rarely hear racist abuse at Easter Road or Tynecastle any more – if anyone is stupid enough to try it, the crowd round about will turn on them. That wasn’t the case in the 1970s.

So some things are getting better. But that takes leadership. It takes people who are prepared to open their mouths and get off their bums and do something to “be the change you want to see in the world”.

I’m no fan of the New Year’s Honours List. Most of the recipients are shortlisted by politicians who have a contemptible habit of rewarding their friends and supporters for “services rendered”. But I do think it’s a good thing to single out individuals who dedicate their lives to making the world around them a better place.

One of the most deserving of those individuals is Willy Barr, manager of the Citadel in Leith. Willy is one of life’s eternal optimists. Not the rose-tinted kind. The kind, instead, who recognises how big our social

problems are and use that realism as fuel to get them fixed.

The Citadel is a safe place for young people in Leith. Whatever’s going on in their lives at home or in school, they can escape from it or get help with it at the Citadel. For 50p a session they can cook in the cafe, play sports in the games hall or do creative stuff in the art room. Willy and his staff help young mums to cope. They support Leith families with problems. They teach girls self-defence. And they mentor school-leavers into employment.

This year, Willy will be launching Friends of the Citadel, a fundraising scheme to keep the Citadel’s doors open. I hope our council will match-fund him for every pound he raises. The world needs all the Willy Barrs it can get.

Connor’s face is in fashion now after powerful performance

In 2014, I was the creative director on a TV shoot for the Scottish Government’s No Knives, Better Lives campaign. This was the next stage in a five-year campaign to stop young Scottish men carrying knives by reminding them of the unforeseen consequences of picking one up. One of the things I’m proudest of in a long advertising career is that over the course of this campaign, knife-carrying in Scotland has gone down by a third.

This particular ad was a challenge to make from start to finish. We didn’t want it to look like an ad so we scripted a three-minute short film instead. We needed somebody to direct it who didn’t make ads for a living. We found Martin Smith, a multi-award-winning, Leith-based director who will one day be the next Ken Loach – and that’s not hype. Mark prefers to make films with non-actors. He works without a set script so his cast can help improvise the story. And he scours the country to find kids who radiate authenticity in the way they move and speak, actively avoiding the polished performers manufactured in stage schools.

The idea was powerful: a young man is enticed into a playpark confrontation on Facebook. He turns up with a knife and stabs his adversary. Immediately we see that he has a bleeding stab wound, too, then his dad, mum and baby sister. It’s a graphic piece of work and the message spelt out at the end is “Pick up a knife and who knows how many lives you’ll ruin”.

The biggest bone of contention was the guy we picked to play the lead, Connor Newall, 15, from Drumoyne near Glasgow. He had charisma even though he’d never acted before in his life. But he had an unusual face and ears that stuck out so our client was resistant.

Eventually she agreed that his audition was magnetic and we confirmed him in the role. Connor’s cousin was stabbed to death when Connor was 13 so there was a harrowing back story. The final film was so gut-wrenchingly powerful that a few individuals in the Scottish Government initially hesitated to give it the green light.

Luckily for Connor, they relented. Because this film was the beginning of his career as a male fashion model. Since it ran he has become one of the most photographed young faces in the world, with spreads in Italian Vogue, GQ China and Vogue Homme. 2016 is going to be his year.

My Black’n’Tan is sweetest thing

When I started drinking, there were no craft beers. Just kegs of nasty fizz. I supped my first pint, a dimpled glass tankard brimming with warm Tartan Special, in the Buckstone Inn aged 14, standing next to Rangers legend John Greig, hoping I wouldn’t throw it up on his lovely blazer.

To avoid recurrences, I began to mix my drinks. You could buy a bottle of fortified beer called Fowler’s Wee Heavy, which you would add to your usual to give it a kick. But my favourite was a Sweet Black ‘n’ Tan – a bottle of Sweetheart Stout to top up a pint of heavy and eliminate the awful taste.

The pin-up on the label must be in her 80s now but she still tastes as sweet to me as she always did.