That’s not the Pizza Express way

I saw the news that Pizza Express is in trouble and at risk of folding. People have used the occasion to deal in some clunky humour, display their class credentials, or just relive memories.

My memories are of work. I was part of the inaugural staff at Pizza Express in St Andrews, Scotland, where my wife took her Master’s the first year that we were married. I had myself just graduated with a degree in journalism from Canada’s best programme, and I had over a year of work experience to boot as a reporter and chase producer for the national broadcaster, so I was pretty sure I could get some good work while she studied. Turns out the local rag for that corner of Fife was published out of Dundee, so I took the bus across the Silvery Tay and met with an editor. Tail between my legs, I returned with the knowledge that D.C. Thompson was something of a family firm and they weren’t really hiring.

How, then, to support ourselves when the Canadian dollar was two-fifty to the pound? Well, Pizza Express was opening a new resto, and they were hiring. Not only that, though they had plenty of applicants who were also students and therefore up for part-time work, there was a need for more stable full-time staff to keep the keel even. I had some waiting experience, so they took me. Sent me, of all places, to Dundee to train while the shop was getting finished.

J&G Innes Stationers, Church Street, St Andrews

Just across the street from Church Square and my employers, Pizza Express, was the stationers (my wife’s employers), which seems once upon a time to have been a possible media hub. Too bad. Photo by SwaloPhoto, found on flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Dundee and St Andrews Pizza Expresses were a study in contrasts. The company had lobbied hard and long to get a location in the Home of Golf: the town council was generally quite shy about chain shops coming in, but they’d finally cracked, and the firm had a good location on Church Square. Perfect for mums and dads taking their little Beauregards and Penelopes off to uni (though maybe a touch wrong for the celebratory graduation meal three years later… but I never got the chance to find out). The floor staff’s uniform was the typical polo shirt but black, with the logo embroidered in gold.

Dundee, however, was a real maverick. The manager had to twist the company’s arm to get permission to put in a fryer: if people couldn’t have a burger and chips, Dundee would not come, he said. They relented, but it was an odd fit. The manager had also, somehow, negotiated for bespoke music to play through the speakers rather than the PE-issued playlists. I enjoyed working with the people there, coming home tired on the last 99 bus with a pizza under my arm to share with my slumbering studying bride. I heard the resto closed a few years after we’d left; I wasn’t surprised. Continue reading

(Dis)United Kingdom

Daffodil by Dave Morris

Daffodil, (CC BY 2.0) Dave Morris, found on

So Happy Saint David’s Day, or as they say here in Wales, Hapus Dydd Dewi Sant, though I’ve also seen a Gwyl in there, and I may have the order wrong. I’m mostly relying on Twitter for these things; my children, who are being educated in the English system but are of course learning Welsh as a subject, are not really better placed to correct me yet.

We’re figuring it out.

The move from Scotland, which as I’m fond of saying is distinct because of its institutions, to Wales, which is instead distinct due primarily to its language, is full of opportunities to learn. In fact, Wales has always been about learning for me: I remember doing a class project in Grade 3 about Wales, drawing the flag (ineptly), making a map full of mountains and castles, and drawing Sir Percival in his red-gold armour. In truth, I’m all about Wales.

Our first St David’s Day in Cardiff was grey, windy, and wet. Really, it felt like we hadn’t left Edinburgh at all. These things should unite us, but every St David’s Day, I can’t help but remember an object lesson of disunity.

In 2013, I was in Glasgow, doing field work for my PhD, and I had to get from one site to another rather quickly, so I took a taxi. We pull up outside Location #2 on a gloriously sunny March day (yes, in Glasgow), and I ask the driver for a receipt.

“What’s the day?” he says to himself as he fills it out. “First of March.”

“Yeah,” I say (in my Boy Scouty Canadian accent). “Happy St David’s Day!”

He snorts. “If you’re Welsh.”

If You Want to

Referendum day in Scotland. It’s been murky of weather and murkier of heart for me and my family today. I have been attentive to the arguments for and against the independence of Scotland since the referendum was announced two years ago, one year after we moved to Edinburgh for me to start my PhD.

We did the math. Unless my studies went freakishly fast or I got a sweet job moments after submitting the thesis (to which I remain, in these unsteady post-submission days, totally unaverse), we would be here to vote. My wife is a dual citizen; I am a Commonwealth citizen. The franchise was ours. So – we could vote.

Yet I felt reticent about marking a ballot on this one. I have voted in Scottish, local, and national elections, and I voted in 2011 on a referendum for electoral reform at Westminster. I felt aware enough to take part, but this was something different. The future of a country I was not born to and am not a citizen of… So – should I vote? Continue reading

Future of UK and Scotland blog: Muslims Debate the IndyRef

I don’t know if this counts as journalism or as “impact-oriented” academic writing (read: popular, or as it’s known in the UK, “completely un-REFable”), but at any rate, I contributed a blog post to an indyref site run by colleagues here at the University of Edinburgh. This is loosely out of the political science department, but it’s big-tent and it comes with support from the ESRC. They’re doing as comprehensive a job as they can of covering discussions leading up to the big referendum on 18 September.

The centre I’m with got wind of a debate targeting Muslim students in Scotland, and we thought this was fascinating enough for our own work but might also plug nicely into theirs. So they’ve posted my reflections, and you can find them here.

More may follow: I was back in Glasgow two days after the discussion in question for a BBC-sponsored discussion of identity and the referendum, and if there’s more to be said on it, I will let you know.

The independence debate began with a recitation from the Qur’an and ended with the chair exhorting the audience to “think of the umma” when deciding how they would vote on 18 September. In almost every other respect, the debate at Strathclyde University on Sunday 9 March was just like any other around Scotland.

Read more here…

Make mine a short one

The author at the Chandos, Trafalgar Square, with a junior

Pubs: good for beer, craic, arranging wooden farm animals, and playing Go Fish with your children

Don’t quite know how I missed this news–okay, I do know: I am living a third of the world away from BC right now–but the BC provincial government has endorsed recommendations to liberalise its liquor laws, including new freedoms for children to enter pubs. About time, says I. The law seemed incredibly fussy and highly inconvenient for me personally on more than one occasion.

I’m no legal historian, but I can imagine the laws were set up to protect the morality of kids–keep them out of the path of alcohol that leads to sin and dissolution. Away from the example of sad alcoholics tottering over their pint glasses, falling off their stools, shouting embarrassing things. So what–keep them in restaurants, where you can’t see that sort of thing? Except your Boston Pizza can serve the kids a cartful of pizza and Mum and Dad are welcome to order a beer alongside. If limits are to be enforced, your server can and should tell you you’ve had enough regardless of where you are. Continue reading

A Lively Engagement – Life and Work 09.12.13

Scotland Cemetery - vgm8383

Canongate kirkyard in Edinburgh – photo courtesy of vgm8383 (cc)

In continuing archiving of journalism, here’s a recent piece I did for Life and Work, the monthly magazine of the Church of Scotland. The event was early in December; the article appeared online the following week but has this month appeared in the hard copy of the magazine.

“The panel convened at Edinburgh’s Scottish Storytelling Centre, beneath John Knox’s historic house, and history was on Reid’s mind: he disapproved of the institutional churches’ absence from the current debate on independence. Whereas in the past, the Church of Scotland had demonstrated some of its greatest strengths in speaking to matters of the state, it was not ‘feart’, perhaps, but puzzlingly unwilling to declare itself.”

Hands Off My Irn-Bru

Irn Bru ad - snog

Watch out, Canadian Food Inspection Agency!

This story hit my inbox at the right time: lunchtime on a Friday. So I could devote unnecessary amounts of time to it. A colleague who had lived in Montreal for a time passed me the BBC report that Tony Badger of Brit Foods in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan had been told to remove an assortment of British food products from his shelves, including Scots soda Irn-Bru.

I took to Twitter, and I am not the only one. Continue reading