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Saturday, 19 July 2014

Laugh? I thought I'd never start

There was a time when the news that three naked ladies were headed to my house would have given me a thrill. But those days are gone and it's an inanimate garden ornament anyway, not living flesh, that I've been told is winging its way to me

Although that is an improvement, I have to say, on some females from my past, since a statue can't hide its heart of stone.

But all the same I do not want naked lady statues. I really don't. What would the neighbours think? Already I'm the suspiciously single guy at No 3. If some of their kids wandered into my garden, saw large naked ladies and went home and told their parents, I would become a pariah. They would put barbed wire around my house.

I would be ostracised - a word I've always assumed came from the same root as ostrich. Because they bury their heads in the sand or something. I hadn't really thought it through. So I looked it up and guess what? It's not ostriches. It's oysters

Now I can just hear what you're thinking. "I'm not a shellfish expert, pal, but I know oysters don't have a well-developed social system. So they can't ostracise each other. And even if they did, how upset is one oyster going to be if the other oysters stop talking to it?"

And of course you are right. As always.

So let me explain. The word 'oyster' comes from the Ancient Greek word for shell, which was ostrakon. And so does 'ostracise'. Why? Because the Athenians used to write the name of the person they wanted ostracised - which in those days meant banished from the city - on a piece of broken pottery, the word for which was also ostrakon because it often looked like a shell.

Incidentally, while we're on word origins, some folk mistakenly think the word 'vegetarian' is closely related to the word 'vegetable', which they imagine we eat all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. The last time I ate a vegetable was 40 years ago, when I mistook a Maris Piper potato for a deep-fried Mars bar and nearly choked to death.

This kind of verbal confusion is common in the language of a country like England, which was invaded many times during the Dark Ages, as well as the Slightly Lighter Ages that followed, by various foreign-speaking foes, including the Saxons, the Angles, the Triangles, the Jutes, the Hessians and the Woolly Jumpers, a savage Nordic race that rode on the backs of giant, genetically modified sheep.


The different meanings of the word "file" for instance - a grinding tool and a folder of information - came about because two different words, one German, the other Latin, became absorbed into the English language.  (This is true.)

In the same way the word vegetable comes from a Greek word meaning "repulsive inedible object", while vegetarian is derived from a Chinese pictogram meaning "irresistible sex god". (This is disputed.)

So it turns out the naked ladies are a practical joke and my friend hasn't really ordered them for me at all. What a jolly wheeze. I've always felt practical jokers should be lined up in front of a firing squad that pulls their triggers and little flags saying "Bang!" unfurl from their guns, and I go "Who's laughing now, pal?"

But the incident does get me thinking about how I can improve the appearance of my garden, and I decide that a water feature would make my pond more appealing. So I head off to the garden centre in search of a statue that is small, tasteful and extremely well clothed. 

Ernest Shackleton, kitted out for the Antarctic, with six string vests and a parka jacket, would be just the job. 

But how successful is my quest, Dear Reader, you will have to wait till next week to find out. 

Time and space have beaten us again.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Handsome head

Rachel is a big fan of shite. I don't mean metaphorical shite, like Noel Edmonds and the England football team. I'm talking about the genuine article that half our class smelled of when I went to school in Ayrshire, where every pupil was a farmer's son or a miner's daughter.

"It's packed with the nutrients plants need," she tells me, when I've been shovelling the stuff into holes around her vines for several hours in the Hampshire sun, and wishing someone would give me a word of encouragement, like they did with galley slaves in classical times, such as "Don't worry son, the first 99 years are the hardest."

Instead of which I get a dissertation on shite science, which I have to tell you is the last thing I need right now.

"The main nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, of course," she says.

"Why 'of course'?" I say, standing up, stretching my back and rubbing sweat from my brow, which is a mistake because my hands have been delving in the depths of manure, so I must look like Worzel Gummidge now.

"Because everybody knows that," she says, wrinkling her nose and stepping back a pace.

"I didn't," I say.

"You don't have a garden?" she says.

"I think I do," I tell her. "I can see it out the window when I'm writing. It has thick grass, tall trees, swoopy birds, jumpy frogs and a pond."

"If you went out there, you'd know about soil nutrients," she says. "Gardeners and farmers are always talking about them. It's like the four essential food groups for humans."

"My son says the four essential food groups are crunchy, greasy, salty and chocolate," I say.

"Your son talks bollocks," she says.

"It's why I like him," I say, scratching my ear. This is also a mistake, as a lump falls into it and the pristine clarity of Rachel's words gets muffled for a few minutes by manure. 

"Only one alien kicked the flaming pile of biscuits," she says. 

I nod and smile vacantly and she leans over and smacks my head, causing the offending lump to fly out my ear.

"Can you hear me now?" she says. 

"Unfortunately," I say. "Are you still talking shite?"

"Most of a plant's weight is carbon, hydrogen and oxygen," she says. "They get those from air and water. But they need other elements from the soil in smaller quantities.

"There's nitrogen to make proteins, phosphorus for photosynthesis and potassium for releasing energy, making starch and controlling water loss. They're called macronutrients, because plants need a fair amount of them. As they take them out of the soil, they have to be replaced. That's what farmers are doing when they spread fertiliser on their fields."

"So why am I up to my knees in cowshit instead of clean, odour-free, scientific fertiliser?" I say.

"Because plants need smaller quantities of ten other nutrients," she says. "Will I tell you what they are?"

"No," I say.

"Calcium, magnesium, sulphur, boron, copper, iron, chlorine, manganese, molybdenum and zinc," she says and draws a breath. "I thought that secretly you wanted to know, so I told you."

"Thanks, Butch," I say. "So manure has all those?"

"So has compost," she says. "But manure's easier to get your hands on."

"And get on your hands," I say, stretching my shoulders and holding my arms out wide, which causes a crow flying towards us to squawk loudly, do one of those cartoon air brakes and veer off to the next field. Rachel goes quiet and I can see the wheels turning.

"No," I tell her. "Forget it.

"Just till sundown," she says. "I'll get nets up tomorrow but the birds could do a lot of damage today." 

"I'm not standing in a field to frighten birds away," I say. "I'm a physicist not a scarecrow."

"Not from where I'm standing," she says. "I'll pay you in beer."

"How much beer?" I say, weakening.

"As much as you want," she says. "Plus dinner in the pub."

"It's a deal," I say, offering my right hand, which she studies like it's a small boy with a melting ice-cream, wandering around a nudist beach

"Shake on it," I say.

"I don't think so," she says and heads off down the hill. "I'll be back."

"I'll be here," I say, stretching my arms out wide and feeling, for the first time ever, that I've found my niche in life. 

"Come on crows," I taunt them. "Make my day."


More science

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Bouncing around

You know when you're trying hard not to mention something and it gets stuck in your head, and you're sure it's going to pop out of your mouth sooner or later and land you in big trouble? 

I mean like in Bridget Jones, where she's introducing her colleague Mr Fitzherbert at the book launch, and her inner voice keeps insisting it's "Mr Titspervert".

Well the first few minutes of lunch with my son and his girlfriend are similar, except the phrase I'm trying not to mention, as I told you yesterday, is "the postmodern philosophers Deleuze and Guattari". 

Now I know you're thinking that doesn't trip off the tongue, so how hard can it be not to say? But that's where you're wrong pal and displaying, if you don't mind my saying so, some ignorance of the workings of the human brain.

Because science has shown that consciousness lags well behind what we say and do. So a conversation moves too fast for conscious brains to edit and filter. We're on autopilot and the sensation of control is an illusion to make us feel we're not being bounced around the surface of reality, like a ball on a tame dolphin's nose. 

So what comes out of my mouth often ambushes me and lunch in the Alba Café is a struggle at first, which I survive only by shoving dry bread in my mouth, while the words "the postmodern philosophers Deleuze and Guattari" echo around my head like a loud shout of "bum" in a cave. (You must have done.)

But eventually it settles down and I start to enjoy myself. The move to Scotland has gone smoothly for Linda, and the two of them seem to be getting on well, working as a team and making things happen around the flat. Which is cool, I think, for an artist and a musician.

My son has always danced to an individual drumbeat, but he seems to have formed a great combo with a young woman who has her own unique rhythms. Sources of friction seem few, but once we've ordered plentiful portions of toasties, egg rolls, tea and coffee, Linda does mention one.

"For a beginner he is annoyingly good with a bow," she tells me. "Everyone thinks fingering is the hard part with cello and violin, because there are no frets. But that's just muscle memory. Ninety percent of what makes the music is in the bowing. 

"Normally it takes people ages to master. They're all rigid and they make an awful noise. But after I explained it, Dug got it right away."

"Why was that annoying," I ask.

She laughs. "Because I spent years being shouted at, desperately trying to get it right, then he just picks up the bow and has a better grip than me."

"Isn't it interesting that you've decided to move your arm before you're aware of it?" Dug says. "You can't affect the now with your conscious mind. But I think you can build it up, moment by moment, like turning a supertanker. So you do have free will."

"Not according to Gilles Deleuze," Linda says and my heart sinks. "He sees society as an organism in which we're all just components, with no free will or even identity."

I feel a bunch of words headed for the vocal cords and realise it's time for drastic action. "Don't you agree that rhythm is the heart of all music?" I ask her. "And the drummer the most important member of any band?"

"No," she says and without missing a beat makes one of the most patronising remarks I've ever heard, then laughs in surprise. 

"Without melody, my dear, there is no music."

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Walking a fine line

I once made the mistake of getting friendly with a keen gardener, who emailed me one day to say a large statue of naked ladies was on its way to me. 

I panicked when I converted its dimensions from millimetres to units I could visualise - what an old engineering pal called "white man's units", in a mocking way that would probably get him into trouble nowadays, though I don't think it should because he wasn't a racist. 

Just like I am not a sexist. Yet a quoted piece of word-play - "A woman's place is in the stove" - recently got me into hot water. Naively I'd assumed that my feminist convictions - I don't just want equality; I'd like females to run things - would have allowed me to quote something like that and have it recognised as humour and irony.

But I guess the problem is that real racists and sexists often play the irony card to get themselves off the hook. So the safe course is never to say the opposite of what you believe because somebody, somewhere will take it at face value and get the hump.

So let's back to the naked ladies. Except I do have another problem with irony and in particular postmodernism. My son's girlfriend, a very smart musician and cultural student, was talking about her thesis the other day, and it turns out the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari feature prominently.

When she told me this a rare event occurred - I didn't say the first thing that came into my head. Why? Because I had come across these guys before and believed their thinking to be as woolly as their pullovers.

You see in 1996 a physicist called Alan Sokal submitted to an academic journal of postmodern studies an article that was accepted and published despite being gibberish from beginning to end. 

It was an experiment, Sokal explained, to test the intellectual rigour of postmodernists by seeing if "a pastiche of fawning references, grandiose quotations and outright nonsense", clothed in pseudo-scientific language, would be accepted by them.

A few years later, in a book called Intellectual Impostures, Sokal dissected the work of prominent postmodernists, including Deleuze and Guattari, and showed much of it to be as devoid of meaning as his own hoax paper. 

All of which means I now have to walk a fine line between intellectual rigour and attacking someone's academic interests. It's a balancing act that comes hard to me. If my brain was Charles Blondin, the high-wire walker, it would long since have plummeted into the icy waters of the Niagara Gorge.

Rather than chewing the fat in a rational way I tend to beat people about the head with the bone. I really don't want to do that to my son's girlfriend and my first problem is I'm headed off right now to meet the two of them for lunch.

My second problem is I've run out of time and space, without getting to the story of the statues. 

So here's my suggestion. You wish my brain luck with its lunchtime balancing act. I give you the story of the naked ladies tomorrow. 

Have we got a deal?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The world was different then

The grumpiest character I ever interviewed was Nicholas Parsons, the genial host of Just a Minute. Try talking to that guy when you're not a celebrity panellist or an adoring audience member and see how genial he is. 

It took me an hour to pull the teeth that resulted in these 700 words, but it was fascinating stuff and maybe an 87-year-old - he is 90 now - should be permitted some tetchiness with strangers. 

Sent away by his father from his London home to an engineering apprenticeship on Clydeside, ("The world was different then. We didn't do as we wanted - we did as we were told."), Parsons managed to stick it out and serve his timeFor a 16-year-old with a stutter and a posh English accent, that's impressive. I'd have said impossible.

He attributes his survival in that tough environment to his ability to make people laugh - which surprised me, because he's better known as a straight man, first to comedian Arthur Haynes back in the 50s, and now to quick-witted panellists like Paul Merton. 

"You're not listening," Al interrupts my train of thought and pulls me back to a more pleasant present - a chat with my always amiable pal, a Harviestoun real ale and a macaroni cheese lunch in the Burnbrae Hotel.

"Sorry, I was thinking about Nicholas Parsons," I say. "But I heard every word you said. You discovered dry-rot in your big Bearsden bungalow and got fed up waiting for builders who never showed. So you tackled it yourself and now you've a large hole where your bedroom used to be - which you fell into it the other day when you incautiously stood on a joist and it broke into three pieces."

"I'm impressed," he says, guiding a large forkful of macaroni to his mouth and taking a swig of his lager. 

"Brain like a well-oiled filing cabinet, full of indexed folders," I say.

"Or an ancient attic, stuffed with cobwebbed garbage," he says.

"That too," I say. "But despite your total lack of building expertise you have no worries about finishing the job because, and I quote, 'It's engineering and I'm an engineer.'"

"Time-served with Rolls-Royce," he says. "Which means more to me than my degree. I could still strip a gas turbine, repair it and put it back together again."

"Beautiful machines," I say. "I never worked on one, but I got up close during a tour of their Sinfin site, when I was at Raynesway designing nuclear reactors. I was ten years with Rolls-Royce."

"I was five," he says. "Finished my time in 1971, when the economy was in a mess and there were no vacancies. I was so disappointed. Why Nicholas Parsons?"

"He's a time-served Clydeside engineer too," I say. "Just shows you. Engineering prepares you for anything."

"Precisely my point," he says. 

"When did you decide to become an engineer?" I say.

"When I realised I didn't have the charisma to be an undertaker," he says. "How can you tell if an engineer is an extrovert?" 

"He looks at your shoes instead of his, when he's talking to you," I say, standing up and reaching for my jacket. "Excellent lunch, pal. See you next week."

Friday, 4 July 2014

Hasta la vista, baby

One of the benefits of leaving the first flush of youth behind is that you can talk effortlessly to anyone about anything. It wasn't always so. 

I remember as a teenager trying to ask a pretty shop assistant for orange juice, forgetting the word for the glass object they sold it in - it was a bottle - then hearing my voice ascend from manly to falsetto halfway through an already stumbling sentence. Adolescent hormones do bad things to boys' bodies.

But these days I can talk to anybody, anywhere. So when a hospital consultant starts chatting suavely about his holidays, I have no problem in responding equally urbanely about mine. 

It's just that I'd rather not. Why? Because this consultant has that instrument up my arse at the time.

See he's one of these medics that believe in distraction. They get it from old films where the grumpy but lovable doc chats to the soldier who's been shot to pieces about his mum back in Kansas on the farm, then suddenly goes "Hold him down lads!" and saws his leg off.

I can't be doing with docs like that. If something's going to hurt I want to be braced not distracted. That way there's a small chance I won't squeal like a girl. And in case you haven't guessed, this is the prostate biopsy piece I've been threatening to write for weeks.

So the way it works is the consultant wields that instrument, the way Arnie comes at you with an Uzi 9 millimetre, and I'm half expecting him to go “Hasta la vista, baby," but instead he says "Drop your pants, lie on the bed and bring your knees up to your chest."

Then he rams it up. And I don't mean inserts it smoothly the way nurse Bridget inserted her finger. I mean shoves it up the way we used to shove our Christmas letters to Santa right up the chimney. We made sure there was no chance of them falling back down and us getting a woolly jumper instead of a train set, and so does this guy.

No doubt some transrectal ultrasound probe handlers are soft and gentle, but this one isn't. He's hard and rough, and it turns out this is the most painful part of the procedure - which might surprise you when you hear what comes next. He starts shooting a succession of hollow needles out of it, one at a time, through the rectal wall and into the prostate, where each retrieves a core of living tissue one and a half centimetres long.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First the entire area has to be inspected for invaderswhich in this guy's hands means much lateral motion of the probe. Now you and I can see at a glance that this instrument is designed for longitudinal rather than lateral motions, but he can't it seems. So he goes sideways, forcefully.

You'll have heard the expression "bent out of shape", no doubt, well that's what's happening to my bum. By the time this is finished I'll have one cheek between my shoulder blades, I'm thinking, and the other round my knees. I'm just picturing how good that'll look in a swimsuit when he starts chuntering about his holidays. 

"Have you anything planned?" he says. "We're going to California."

"Just a couple of days in Argyll," I tell him. "But California is where I'd love ..."

There's a loud crack and a sharp pain inside me. "Ow!" I yell. "What was that?"

"The first needle going into your prostate gland," he says. 

"How many more?" I say.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," he says. "I've been to San Francisco and Los Angeles, of course, but this time we're booked into a tour of the vineyards. I'm really looking forward to it." 

Now at this point what I should have said is, "I don't give a flying fuck about your holidays, pal. Tell me when the next needle's coming." 

Instead I burble on about wine and holidays and California, and so does he, and every half minute or so his trained shark takes a bite out of my internal organs and I pretend not to notice. 

See this is what being civilised is all about and my point is - because this is a story with a moral - it makes no sense. The teenage me couldn't control his brain, his vocal cords and several other parts of his anatomy, especially in trigonometry lessons for some reason I could never fathom, and it's why cosines can make me blush to this day. Where was I? Oh yeah. 

But being a straightforward, working-class sort of guy he wouldn't have taken this crap. He'd have insisted on an answer. Not now though. Oh no. Years of mixing with the middle-classes have made him as big a phoney as they are.

Which is why the bankers and politicians have got away with swinging a wrecking ball through the economy and blaming it on the poor and disabled. Any sane set of citizens would long since have strung these scum from the nearest lamp-post. But that would be terribly ill-mannered, wouldn't it? So instead we discuss and debate and converse and endlessly beg to differ, while they steal our money, ravish our women and rend the fabric of society for their own psychopathic greed.

So here is the moral, guys, and it's the most important thing you'll read all day, so write it down, commit it to memory and repeat it three times a day. 

When somebody tries to stick it up you, don't make polite conversation.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Dutch courage

Like all basically honest people, Susan is hopeless at keeping stuff to herself. She has what we poker players call tells, little bodily movements that indicate she's uncomfortably aware of not giving you the whole truth. 

So my suspicions are aroused when she sets down two clinking glasses that sparkle in the low rays from the first sun we've seen in three days at Portavadie, and says. "They asked if I wanted Hendricks. But it's expensive. I said their own brand was fine."


Then she blinks twice and looks away.

"Good thinking," I tell her, lifting the cool drink to my lips and savouring the tang of citrus, juniper and quinine that bursts fresh from the most popular drink in the galaxy. "Our holiday kitty is getting low and all gin tastes the same anyway."

"You don't half talk bollocks at times," she says, gazing at the bars of pink cloud above the wind-rippled waters of Loch Fyne.

"Not at all," I tell her. "Malt whisky is by far the most complex distilled spirit. Everybody knows that. A good malt has hundreds of subtle aromas, with their origins in the water, the air, the cask, the peat and the intricate chemistry of ageing. 

"Vodka and gin are just raw alcohol for people with soft brains who want to get pissed by following fashion and knocking back kiddy drinks called cruiser, breezer, bruiser, greaser, soft screw, kiss mix and mudshake."

I take another sip and deliver the clincher. "Vodka is just distilled potato juice."

She refuses to be clinched. "Forget vodka," she says. "There is more to gin than you realise, pal. Your problem is you don't listen. You just go off on one. So you'll never learn any more than you know now."

"But that's loads," I tell her. "If I put more in it'll shove important stuff out, like how to drink beer and put my socks on. When I was young my brain was like a Dyson, sucking up great swathes of science and philosophy."

"But it blew a fuse long ago," she says. "Because it hoovered up too much half-chewed gum and balls of fluff. You need to get those out and more good stuff in."

"Go on then," I sigh. "Tell me about gin." 

She takes a long sip through the black, bendy straw favoured by big girls and poseurs, brushes a bumblebee away with the back of her hand and says, "Gin is a fairly modern drink. 

"But it comes from jenever, a traditional Dutch tipple flavoured with juniper berries and botanicals - a secret mix of herbs and spices. British soldiers are supposed to have drunk jenever for its calming effect before battle, which is where the term Dutch courage comes from."

"That's actually quite interesting," I tell her.

"Shut up and listen, Stephen," she tells me.

"Hendricks is a modern gin made in Scotland in a traditional way," she says. "They use two old stills bought at auction, which produce very different styles of spirit that they blend together. Besides the botanicals and aromatic juniper, they also use essence of cucumber and rose petal. The result is the 'best gin in the world', according to the Wall Street Journal."

"Well if I believed all that, I might have been tempted to get myself one and just say I'd bought the cheap stuff," I tell her.

She blinks twice and looks away. 

"You sneaky rat," I say and she smiles, sips her Hendricks and studies the sunset.

"I like holidays," she tells me.