It’s hard work being a costume drama queen

Just some of the stunning creations produced by QMU Costume Design students
Just some of the stunning creations produced by QMU Costume Design students
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What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life? I don’t mean “Begbie’”hard (count me out on that front; I can barely punch into work some days). No, by hard, I mean difficult – a truly brutal slog for mind, body and soul. Something so fiendishly challenging that it makes swearing your way through the Capital’s tortured traffic network of a morning feel like sauntering through a summer meadow barefoot – maybe minus your bombproofs too. We’re talking grade A, teeth-grindingly, arse-achingly, brain-meltingly impossible. For me, it was doing a degree at Edinburgh University.

I can almost hear the eyes rolling around now. Uni. Aye right! What’s hard about sitting in your boxers ogling Rachel Riley of an afternoon?

The 'strong and stable' mantra being parroted by Theresa May is starting to wear thin. Picture: AFP

The 'strong and stable' mantra being parroted by Theresa May is starting to wear thin. Picture: AFP

Well you’re wrong. No, actually, you are wrong in that I’m Vorderman vintage – ah Carol, two from the bottom or top would have done me nicely back in the day. But sordid mathematical meanderings aside, the reality was that, back in 1990, if ever I thought doing an arts degree was going to be a convenient excuse to pick my feet for a few years, I was very quickly disabused of the notion. And the longer it went on, the tougher it got too.

By the end, I was broken but successful. Then the reality of actually applying all that learning in the world of work kicked in . . . but that’s another story.

Fast forward nearly 30 years (how I shudder to type that) and I find myself in a situation that reminds me once again of just how unfairly stereotyped the life of the average student can be.

Not a rerun, rather a refresher course in the realities facing today’s students courtesy of my partner Polly, a lecturer in Costume Design and Construction at Queen Margaret University College – if you’ve misplaced your A-Z of Auld Reekie’s Academic Institutions, it’s located out Musselburgh way. What an education this was to be too . . .

The “reawakening” started with an innocent misunderstanding: I confused “costume” with “fashion”. Bad move in Polly’s company. It’s like shouting “Come on you Maroons!” in Tamson’s on derby day.

Not that she has anything against your Lagerfelds and aw that (loving your £150 tartan breeks Karl, tres bonny), but as I discovered, Costume Design is a world away from pouting, preening lovelies fawned over by flappy celebs. This is hard graft from day one, culminating in an end-of-degree Catwalk Show that’s no cakewalk. These students knock their pan in – albeit artistically.

OK, I’m biased. Running the course is my partner’s day job, so I don’t want my belongings in a burning bin bag outside the flat tomorrow. Yet, the truth is, this is a university rooted in the real world, where students test their talents on “live” theatre productions, throughout their course – something of a rarity in Scotland. Plus it’s pretty much the only Scottish course of its type where the students effectively run the entire show, from initial design to buying materials to constructing the costume and, ultimately, staging the end of year production. (Nicely constructed) hats off to that.

Added to which there are the increased pressures on your average student these days. Sure, a lot of us are feeling the bite of austerity but, unlike in my day, there are no grants being doled out, leaving most graduates groaning under a fair old whack of debt by the time they end their studies – even with taking on term-time jobs.

So a case of mistaken identity then when it comes to idle quips about workshy students? I think so. For the Queen Margaret lot, it’s less ivory tower and more coal-face.

But don’t take my word for it; take a gander at the work by this year’s Costume graduates from Queen Margaret University. Their 2017 Costume Showcase is on at Edinburgh’s Summerhall venue on Friday, at 3pm and 7pm (tickets £13 on the door or in advance at

Appropriately enough, this year is all about challenging stereotypes through our image, whether that’s re: gender, sexual orientation or even class. In other words, things ain’t always what they seem. Degree or not, that feels like a pretty important life lesson for all of us.

What we need is strong and stable slogans

From good Queen Margaret to robotic Queen Theresa (May). More specifically, her now much maligned mantra of “strong and stable”.

Before I launch into this, a quick declaration to fend off accusations of rank hypocrisy from those who know me: I’m an adman to trade, so I have no issues with a pithy slogan per se (I’m just about old enough to remember the classics like “For Mash Get Smash”, a time when what the industry calls “straplines” ruled the roost).

Even Saatchi’s “Labour isn’t working” line had to be admired – no matter what your politics – as a snappy summary of Britain’s 70s economic malaise.

But for me, there’s a world of difference between that and just parroting some adjectives incessantly – not to mention the embarrassing spectacle of government drones shoe-horning the words into any given interview. I like my fox-hunting/breakfast/hats/whatever, strong and stable etc etc.

Why? Well, for starters, it’s an assertion not a fact; a cursory glance at the current economic picture for the UK, allied to relentless missteps and U-turns by Madame May makes it a pretty hollow claim.

Second, even if you do root for the blues and believe all this stuff, surely you’d agree that the electorate deserves better? Maybe even a cogent argument or two?

That said, not everyone is a political junkie. For a lot of people, you could replace the words “strong” and “stable” with “cheese” and “crisps” and they wouldn’t notice the difference.

That’s not snobbery, that’s reality – voters are increasingly cynical. Sadly, maybe that cynicism breeds cynicism. The result being lazy sloganeering that does democracy – and all of us – a great disservice.

The trouble with being Gerry

Some of you may be wondering where Gerry Farrell is this week? I’m not telling. And until you stump up some electronic cash, you’re saddled with me forever. Yes, I’ve hacked into a reputable national newspaper and you’re now suffering the consequences.

Breathe easy – I’m a professional Luddite and couldn’t hack my way into a bunker at Braid Hills, let alone a computer.

But the recent Ransomware virus afflicting computers around the globe is pretty worrying. Especially when you see how it’s affected some of our essential services like the NHS.

Turns out my mum’s constant refrain that “It’s all computers these days!” was actually a cleverly constructed critique of our increasing dependency on the digital world.

Fortunately for you, normal service will be resumed with Gerry’s return next week (bet you can’t wait). And me? Well, I’ll get back to my slate and chisel and keep on chipping away. Cheers.