I was living as a lodger at the time in one of Edinburgh’s less discriminating quarters, trying to make something happen in my career and my love life. I had a strategy and I was trying to stick to it. And I have to say things were going reasonably well. Somehow I had managed to find a position at a reputable firm of Edinburgh lawyers – a commitment I fulfilled a couple of days a week – and to make ends meet I picked up a couple of shifts in a trendy bar near the station at the weekend. There was a barmaid there that I had a crush on and I pursued her amorous attentions chiefly through the medium of instant text messaging.
I used to send her jokes in the evenings. Tuesday, Tommy Cooper:
- Said to my gym instructor: “can you teach me the splits?” He said: “how flexible are you?” I said: “I can’t do Tuesdays.”
- You’re a loser
- Want to go to the cinema?
- Maybe, probably not though
Progress. Minor, yes, but definitely progress. Wednesday, Woody Allen:
- Went to the zoo today. There was only one dog there: it was a Shitzu.
- Sounds ruff
- Yeah it’s the kind of thing that really TICKS me off
- Just beagle-ad it’s over
The heart flutters; a pun in my world is just short of an aphrodisiac. I fell asleep sometime after that feeling energised, content, unswerving. My strategy was working.
A few hours later I awoke in darkness, a constriction in my throat, my legs damp with sweat, my back arched towards the ceiling, my entire body gripped by a freak paralysis. Materialising somewhere in the corner of the room was a soft voice, disembodied, yet terrifyingly there – at the door? in the closet? in my mind? – it was difficult to know. It fired questions at me, made terrible claims:
“Who is she?”
I couldn’t reply, I had never felt such fear.
“Tell me who she is?”
I gasped, make it stop I said.
The voice left on a plaintive note.
“She can’t have you.”
Mercifully the paralysis subsided a few minutes later and the strange voice fell silent. What dark force was out to sabotage my budding oath with the barmaid I could not fathom. But it had not been a dream, no no. I had been wide awake – that I was convinced of.
I am quite a rational man – perhaps it’s the lawyer in me – and it is not often I find myself stumped. Shivering under the covers, I went through all the possible explanations I could think of for this horrifying visitation. Was I simply going mad? Perhaps – although I had no prior history of depression or anxiety. Had I been drinking too much? Certainly I had put a few back in pursuit of the barmaid, propping up the bar whilst she served in that charming way of hers. But not enough to prompt this unannounced horror.
I had read once of a phenomenon called lucid dreaming. In lucid dreams the dreamer perceives the dream image in uncommonly vivid detail, almost as if they were actually awake. This I thought to be the most convincing explanation for what had occurred, although the realisation did nothing to calm my nerves. The only other thought was that something of the occult had taken place. But as I say I am a rational man.
Sleep proved difficult that evening as you can imagine. At one point I sat right up in my bed and finished off the glass of water I had laid out for the following morning. As I licked my lips I noticed there was lipstick around the rim of the glass. Not mine I assure you – my landlady’s, Mildred.
Mildred would leave red stains like this all over the home, like calling cards. On occasion I would open my papers at the office to find lipstick in the margins. Did she do this to her previous tenants? Did she torment them the way she tormented me? It was a very small flat, one couldn’t fail to notice these things.
She often complained that I didn’t take any notice of her, but as you can clearly see from this example, I did. Indeed, as I pen this account it strikes me that just as I had devised a strategy to court the barmaid so she had devised one of her own to court me: the lipstick stain. Her smear campaign.
Look, right – I work, I work on collating my jokes, I go to meet the barmaid – it’s difficult for me to make time for anybody, let alone my landlady. Two people sleeping in the same house is that not enough? You know, a bit of company?
Not for Mildred.
Losing my train of thought for a moment, I noticed Mildred was still awake, sitting in the living room listening to music of a choral nature. I threw on my dressing gown and emerged from my chambers.
I knocked on the living room door. ‘Are you alright Mildred? It’s 3am.’
Her reply was … unbalanced. It sounded as if she was speaking in Latin.
I entered the room. ‘What are all these candles for Mildred? Christ, there’s hundreds of them.’
Mildred said nothing. She was sitting in the lotus position, her back towards me.
‘Is there something you’re not telling me Mildred?’
Finally she spoke, her voice deep and gravelly like Darth Vader’s.
‘This is the fourth moon of Garniroth, it is prophesised in the Book of Memneer that a sacrifice must be made,’ she said. As she spoke, her body levitated above the candles. She rotated and fixed her gaze on me. The choral music – which I had at first thought quite charming – became shrill and demonic.
I turned to go and put the kettle on but my feet were rooted to the ground.
‘Mildred I can’t move.’
Mildred’s eyes were glowing with unnatural brightness.
‘Mildred help me I can’t move.’
She levitated over towards me and attached large chains to each of my limbs. It was then I realised that Mildred and myself were not batting for the same side. It is of course clear to me now that Mildred was a foot soldier of Satan. While I had gone about the town boasting that she was trying to seduce me she had in fact been lining me up for a starring role in some sort of depraved ceremony. As well as the standard feelings one has to deal with in such situations – I’m too young to die/ Mum! etc – I felt quite sheepish. I had thought she was just a bit randy.
‘The great Zoldan, wraith of the fourth quadrant demands your liver. To Xerxag, Doge of Asteroth, go your teeth. Your remaining organs will feed the dead armies of the night and I, Mildred, will wear your rancid skin as a cape for a thousand years.’
The mystery of the visitation had finally become clear. By some twist of demonology Mildred had managed to speak to me directly without actually being present. That much was clear to me now. And she had wanted me all to herself not because she was jealous – how foolish of me to think the disembodied voice had concealed a lonely heart – she had merely wanted my human flesh for sacrifice. But I had little time to evaluate this delicate situation.
Mildred had wafted through to the kitchen and was rootling around in the drawers for sharp utensils. She returned with a kebab skewer, a cheese grater and a tupperwear box.
‘Mildred,’ I said, as she prepared to insert the skewer into my nostril, ‘sincerely I am ready to bend to your will. But I have one final request. I want to hold you in my arms and kiss you, for old times’ sake. Grant me that much. ’
She looked at me quizzically. ‘So be it.’
As soon as the chains dropped from me I bolted for the door, in the race I took a skewer to the neck and chest.
Staggering into the stairwell and out onto the street I fell to the ground clutching my mobile phone. I didn’t have much time; I was bleeding to death. My movements had to be strategic or else, surely, I would perish. Going out guns blazing I texted the barmaid. My hands trembled over the buttons:
- Help, please, oh god, I need to get to a hospital!
- what is it?
- It’s a big building with lots of doctors, but that’s not important now!
There is something to suit everyone’s taste,
nothing goes to waste, prices exclude VAT,
dim sum chicken feet, rat-a-tat-tat,
ding-a-ling-a-ling, hoi sin, Szechuan –
prawns, duck, pork, squid, twenty quid.
Battering the Fiat’s soft grey shell
under the streetlight’s mango glare,
he soaks up the city’s spicy heat.
That’s what he’s here to do – for you.
He gets £6.50 an hour & tips, and sweet chilli chips.
The hallways have their own distinct aromas,
a hum of shoes, the lemon breeze of cleaning.
In one he visits twice each week the ancient
smog of cat hangs dense as glue
and stinking gusts of sloth are deep and sudden.
The place is a nightmare to get to,
slipped round a bend on a wooded road,
turned in on itself,
the windows black,
the lights in the vestibule motorway orange.
The man is a crone, his face a troubled oyster.
He can hardly walk,
his delivery is essential.
He asks each night for his fortune biscuit,
a colossal freight compressed in his ogle.
You’ll know him for his stories
Some are eerie, some just gory
And that poem of his ‘The Raven’, well I’m sure that’s one you’ll know,
He’s the source of my frustration,
And my fucking dissertation:
‘On the textual orientation of the works of Edgar Poe.’
I know just what you’re thinking,
You’re thinking: ‘what’s he drinking?
Who on earth would write a paper on the works of that old loon?’
Good point, but I’m in shit,
I need to fucking finish it
Before the English Lit department shuts this afternoon.
Well the word count isn’t great,
And I feel compelled to masturbate,
And organise my socks in rows of black and rows of white.
Perhaps I’ll write to Granny…
Clean my room from nook to cranny…
It is really quite uncanny that the hoover looks so …right.
Jesus Christ this essay’s bad,
Two thirds wanky, one third mad;
I didn’t think it possible to reach this kind of low.
Quoth the Raven: Nevermore.
Quoth the student: I am bored
And I don’t think I can stand much more of old Lenore and Poe.
My degree mark will diminish,
If I do not get this finished;
Just a few more hundred words and that is that, what’s done is done;
I’ll get my cherished third
Never write another word
And forget I ever heard of Poe, get drunk and have some fun.
And the student still is sitting,
Never flitting, still is sitting,
In a bedroom full of open books and folders on the floor,
And his eyes have all the seeming
Of an idler who is dreaming
Of a doctor deeming him unfit to write it anymore.
Follow this link if you fancy reading the dissertation.
A Wednesday in March. What to do? Lunch on a park bench? Lank loom in a book shop? I decided to slurp down a quick coffee. But where to go? The choice: a cosmopolitan Starbucks, frazzled businesspeople, young mums – or slum it with the herbal freaks and bean-addled student crusties in one of the city’s independent coffee houses; slouched buildings with names like Café Caffeine, Bean-Cradle, Milk Lumps. For various reasons I chose the latter.
I meandered into an arty little place called Cafka.
At the door there were three sexless individuals who smelled of cumin. They were discussing an art installation being erected in the window of Cafka. One of them was smoking a roll-up, the other two were rolling roll-ups. Their clothes seemed to be made from curtains and their voices had the spaced, jobless drawl of those who smoke weed before lunchtime.
‘Yeah, that’s it man. It’s an … it’s an enigma.’
I glanced at the installation. It was about as enigmatic as a pube.
‘ A … presence.’
‘For sure, for sure.’
You’ll no doubt be amazed to hear that the piece was entitled ‘Enigma; Presence.’ It was a television with an ashtray on top of it. In the ashtray were three stubbed cigarette butts, each a different colour. On the screen there was a woman in a white dress walking three cats along a beach. The colour of each cat corresponded to the colour of one of the butts.
‘Yeah, it’s like… like…’
This was creative production at its lowest ebb (or so I believed at the time, having not yet seen the initial drawings for a giant fresco of Alex Salmond in Falkirk should Scotland go independent) it had the unexpected effect of making me feel better about my life. I had to commend these people: with their banal and deeply absurd exhibitions, they were inadvertently providing much needed comic relief to Edinburgh’s creative sector.
Inside I ordered a coffee (a coriander macchiato, the best on offer) and sat down on a rug-splattered chair that felt alive, alarmingly. The décor in Cafka is smothering; every inch of wall pasted with past installations and leaflets for obscure music events; D.J Gadge and the Reindeer Egg; Derek’s Accordion Apocalypse; Cod Sounds. I sipped my drink and put it down, not intending to pick it up again. Sat opposite me was a bearded man wearing lensless glasses. He was flicking through Cafka’s bi-monthly newsletter: The Scene. I picked up a bedraggled copy.
It was trash.
The main article was a florid piece about ‘modes of expression’ which profiled a day in the life of the artist who had spawned ‘Enigma: Presence.’ There was a small picture of her standing alongside an older piece: ‘Presence: Enigma’. I squinted my eyes at the black and white image; were they?… yes … they were. The artist was definitely sporting a pair of lensless glasses. I looked up. It couldn’t be, could it? It was. I was sitting face to face with the artist. His name was Michelle X. He let out a high pitched cough through his beard. I noticed he had breasts.
I left Cafka in high spirits.
This review was commissioned by The Ancient, Honorable and Fragrant Order of the Pink Goats. If you would also like me to review a fictional venue, do not hesitate to get in touch.
Do you know the story behind the name of the street you live on? Streetnames, or odonyms, can present all sorts of interesting historical portraits and anecdotes. Here are the stories behind five Edinburgh streets:
1. The Royal Mile – It is in fact 12% longer than a regular mile
The name ‘The Royal Mile’ was first used in W M Gilbert’s Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century in 1901, and was further popularised as the title of a guidebook, published in 1920.
2. Princes Street – Sticklers for Grammar Think it Should Have an Apostrophe
Soon to be the sight of tram journeys and no doubt a few political rallies, Princes Street was originally to have been called St Giles Street after the patron saint of Edinburgh. Plans changed however when King George III discovered St Giles was also the patron saint of lepers. The street was named after King George’s two eldest sons, Prince George, Duke of Rothesay (later King George IV) and Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.
3. Ravelston Dykes – Famously Genteel
Ravelston Dykes, formerly known as Ravelston Dykes Road was named after Ravelston House. The house was built in 1790 for Alexander Keith, Knight-Marischal of Scotland, and is now A-listed. Sir Walter Scott was a regular visitor. The building is now part of Mary Erskine School.
4. Alan Breck Gardens – An Interesting Literary Connection
This distinctive name came out of a South Clermiston scheme where all streetnames were selected from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Kidnapped”. The appropriate Committee felt this theme was suitable because of Stevenson’s connection with Edinburgh and in his novel it was Clermiston Hill that David Balfour crossed before looking down on old Ebenezer’s house.
5. Breadalbane Street – Home to Blair Cadell Solicitors
Breadalbane Street is named after a region of the southern/central Scottish Highlands in Atholl. The district is bounded on the north by Lochaber, on the south by Strathearn and Monteith and on the west by Lorn and Lochaber. The area gives a title to the Marquis of Breadalbane. At the time Breadalbane Street was named the Earldom was held by Gavin Campbell, 7th Earl and 1st Marquis of Breadalbane, a liberal politician.
If you would like to find out more about the street you live on, take a look at this website, which documents the history behind dozens of Edinburgh streets.
(This piece was taken from another blog I write at Blair Cadell, a leading firm of Edinburgh solicitors. You can find other pieces I have written for Blair Cadell by clicking this link. Subjects range from Edinburgh property to the impact of the trams on local business, Scottish independence and beyond. Take a look!)
I met Eric Ford on a drizzly afternoon in Edinburgh in a bar in the city’s west end. I had been referred to him by a friend who said that Eric might know something about preserving one’s anonymity online. Eric, I was assured, had purchased class A’s on the internet.
‘Don’t tell him I’m a journalist,’ I said.
‘I’ll tell him you’re a client.’ Suddenly I had visions of Al Pacino in Scarface.
But it was all a joke. Eric wasn’t a drug lord. Not even a drug mule. In fact Eric was just your run-of-the-mill university student and casual weed toter.
Of course the first thing I did when I met Eric was tell him about me being a journalist. He agreed to talk to me and let me write about him as long as I changed his name, didn’t publish his address etc etc. Was I allowed to say we were in Edinburgh? He supposed so. After we had established that it wasn’t mere legal highs Eric was purchasing but real ‘soviet-grade’ marijuana – we moved on to the good stuff. Or at least the stuff I’m interested in: The Deep Web, The Tor Network and The Hidden Wiki.
Like many others Eric had stumbled across discussion boards that mentioned an elusive website called the Silk Road. This e-bay style site allows its users to purchase illicit substances with complete anonymity. The reason I say that it is elusive is because you can’t just go looking for it on Google; to get to the Silk Road you have to enter the Deep Web, the part of the internet that isn’t indexed by conventional search engines. The process is relatively esoteric and complex. ‘It took a bit of perseverance,’ said Eric. ‘But in reality it’s not all that hard to get it all set up. I did some research on TOR and then downloaded the browser the next day.’
Originally sponsored by the US Naval Research Laboratory, the Tor Network is widely used around the world for protecting anonymity online. Controversially though it is also used by people who want to remain invisible when making illegal transactions in the Deep Web. Visiting a website through Tor re-routes your connection through a random path of other Tor users’ computers before reaching the target web server, masking your originating location from that server. Thus your unique IP address is hidden and the authorities shouldn’t come knocking at your door. I should stress that this isn’t meant to be a how-to guide – and I don’t condone the use of drugs having taken ill after a calpol overdose at the age of seven. Mother calls it my Woodstock.
Unlike normal websites, Deep Web pages do not have catchy titles and user-friendly URLs. What you get are a series of random numbers and characters followed by, somewhat mercurially, “.onion”. This is the ‘O’ in TOR, which stands for The Onion Router. Like someone peeling an onion, each onion router removes a layer of encryption to uncover routing instructions, and sends a message to the next router where this is repeated. Easy as that.
Enter the Deep Web and one of the first pages you will likely be confronted with is the infamous “Hidden Wiki”. This is a bit like a map of the TOR network. It provides listings of various sites that range from the disturbing to the utterly insane. Listed below are some of the most notorious:
Banker & Co.- Professional Money Laundering Service.
Buttery Bootlegging: This person will go shop lifting for you.
Paypal4free – Hacked Paypal accounts for cheap, with balances.
Atlantic Carding – Credit Card information sold at a discount rate.
All Purpose Identities – US and Canadian Drivers Licenses, passports and much more.
Rent-a-Hacker – Professional hacker for hire.
White Wolves Contract Killer – speaks for itself.
The Human Experiment – where allegedly one can view medical experiments carried out on human subjects. Nice.
Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at security firm F-Secure believes that although TOR has many laudable uses, others are content to abuse it. “It reminds me of the web in 1995. In those early days, once people got the hang of it, anything goes as there seemed to be no law, no police and no regulation. People trust they will never be found when they are on Tor.’
Some of these websites are probably hoaxes, aimed at perpetuating the myth of the Deep Web as a murky place to hang out. Yet there is certainly a great deal of harrowing material to be found, or avoided. I asked Eric whether he had come across anything that he found uncomfortable.
‘Personally I have only encountered one or two things that you could call dark or sensitive. I think like the regular internet it’s just a matter of avoiding that stuff. If you don’t want to find it you probably won’t. Obviously never click things like CP.’[CP stands for Child Pornography].
I asked Eric to tell me a bit more about the process of buying cannabis on The Silk Road. Was it easy? Did you worry about your bank details being stolen?
‘Apart from setting up the TOR browser on your computer you also have to make a bitcoin account. [Bitcoins are a way of paying for the purchase anonymously]. Sellers on the site are rated on their reliability so you kind of know who’s going to pull through. When you’ve made your purchase your bitcoins are held by a middleman until your purchase is completed. Then you get an envelope in the post.’
While obviously purchasers have to give over an address at some point, no names are exchanged. This means that were the police to intercept a package the purchaser has a degree of what you might call ‘plausible deniability.’
The attraction in the system insists Eric is that he doesn’t have to put himself at physical risk by purchasing street drugs. He insisted that the cannabis he was buying was also better and safer than what he could get in Edinburgh. ‘You are buying direct from the grower – which means the quality is more consistent.’
The time and effort required by police to track nefarious Tor users (even when possible) would be almost laughable if it weren’t such a serious issue.
Police have little to go on other than powerful servers known as TOR ‘end nodes’. These are servers which, in effect, connect the TOR network to the wider world. Yet it is a risky business managing one of these nodes as, unlike those on the TOR network proper, your IP address isn’t hidden. The owners of computers acting as end nodes for Tor traffic are usually volunteers – often with an interest in facilitating free speech for the oppressed. Donating your computer to be used as an ‘end node’ is in many ways a noble act. These volunteers have no idea what criminal traffic is passing through their machines however it is common for them to be harassed by police. Here is the account of one such end node operator posted on Spyblog.uk:
I totally believe in Tor. I think it is a magnificent force for the circumvention of internet censorship but there is a problem.
I was visited by the police in November because my IP address had turned up in the server logs of a site offering, or perhaps trading in (I was not told the details of the offence) indecent images of children. The date of the offence was about one month after I started the server so it looks as though the site in question had been under surveillance for more than a year.
It was what is known as a ‘dawn raid’ and, amazingly enough, my children were still asleep when it occurred. Thank God.
I explained to the officers, who we had heard threatening to break the door down before we let them in, about Tor but they had never heard of it. My wife says she thinks they were about to arrest me before that. I was not arrested. I was told not to touch the computer and it was placed, considerately, in a black plastic bag and taken away for forensic examination.
This man – who didn’t want to be named – was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing. At present TOR has around 4000 end nodes which allow the network to handle roughly two or three million daily users [at the time of writing]. But to sustain millions more users and keep traffic from slowing down it would take around 10,000 nodes. Tor is currently developing hardware that volunteers will be able to buy and plug into home computers to automatically become nodes. For those uncomfortable about running the nodes with all that illegal activity on the network, Tor offers a program to sponsor a larger one that is operated by experienced developers and serves as the final risky node in the chain. The incident above reveals just how eager the authorities are to infiltrate the TOR network but also a lack of understanding in just how the system works.
Underneath the nose of these authorities the operators of the Silk Road are making a tidy profit. The website receives around 60,000 hits a day from users all over the world and according to research by the Carnegie Melon institute the site was generating around $1.2 million dollars per month in the early part of 2012. Since then, Forbes magazine have estimated that the site was due to bring in around $30-$45 million dollars in 2013. For every transaction the site takes a 10% commission fee.
The founder of the site is the notoriously secretive Dread Pirate Roberts (a nom de plume taken from William Golding’s novel The Princess Bride) who is sought by governments across the world. Roberts does not permit the sale of child pornography, stolen goods or guns on the Silk Road. We know this because he is an active presence on the site’s discussion forums where he often shares his views on the US government and the Austrian school of economics; a school that bases its analyses on the purposeful actions of individuals.
“We can’t stay silent forever,’ he wrote recently, ‘We have an important message, and the time is ripe for the world to hear it. What we’re doing isn’t about scoring drugs or ‘sticking it to the man.’ It’s about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we’ve done no wrong. Silk Road is a vehicle for that message. All else is secondary.”
He insists that The Silk Road is part of a larger project to grant power back to the individual and take it away from big government. However we probably won’t be seeing him on the ballot box any time soon.
The important question in all this is whether software like TOR encourages criminal activity. It certainly enables it; a point which it its supporters concede. They also like to stress that traditional police techniques are still effective against Tor. Police can still investigate means and motive, analyse writing styles, conduct technical analysis of the content and various other types of physical investigation. The developers of the Tor Project also insist they work with governments and the police to train them how to use the Tor software to safely conduct investigations and anonymised activities online.
I asked Eric if I could see his set-up but he didn’t feel comfortable taking me to where he lived. After our conversation it didn’t really surprise me that he might be man with a few privacy issues. As we wondered to the exit we shared a joke about the TOR network possibly being a mythical pathway to the cosmos. He admitted that he had done a bit of fruitless alien hunting on the Deep Web. Well Eric, I was tempted to say, that’s what happens when you smoke to much dope brother.