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Sunday, 14 September 2014

Better together

Casual callers are not encouraged at Blane Mansions, so when a knock comes to my door last week, and I rise to answer it, I'm expecting the postman or someone trying to sell me something. Because that's all I usually get.

Come to think of it that's not quite true. The police occasionally call, which always gives me a nasty moment. Last time they wanted to know if I had seen anything suspicious when a neighbour's house was burgled, as the perp seemed to have gained access through my garden. 

"It wisnae me," was the first thought that came into the wee Scots boy part of my brain, one of the surprises of advancing years being how large that part remains, even as your body shrinks, wrinkles and grows ever more grizzled with each passing year.

Anyone under 50 goes into an old folks' home, they think they're looking at a bunch of old people. But they're wrong. What they're looking at is a gang of kids, astonished by the age and infirmity of the bodies they're trapped in.

Where was I? Oh yeah. I had to tell the surprisingly small policewoman - when I was a boy the polis were ten feet tall - I hadn't seen a thing, although I was uncomfortably aware that I probably wouldn't have, even if the burglar had walked past my window with a crowbar and a big bag that said 'Swag' on the side.

I used to tell people I was a trained observer, and I believed it because I'm a scientist. But I've gradually realised that other people notice far more than I do. I have a theory about this. I reckon it's because I'm always pondering deep questions about the nature of physical reality. 

Questions like what is this place, how did I get here and where am I going with this small aardvark on a lead?

Friends and relatives have another theory. They reckon I'm gormless, this being an old Scots word that means either you've lost your gorm or you never had one in the first place.

I remember my sister coming to the door unexpectedly once - this is true - and I opened it and stared at her for several seconds. Her face was familiar but I couldn't quite put a name to it. Then it came to me in a rush. 

Now I know what you're thinking but are too embarrassed to say. Despite the illusion of having a wee boy's brain, my mental faculties are starting to abandon me. But you're wrong because this happened 25 years ago and I've recognised my sister nearly every time since.

So anyway, I get up and answer the door and there's a well-dressed elderly gent stood on my step.

"Good evening, Mr Blane," he says. "I'm from Better Together and I was wondering if you were planning to vote in the Referendum and whether we can count on your support?"

He seems a pleasant, civil sort of person, so I break it to him gently.

"Yes and I'm afraid no," I tell him.

He stares at me blankly. "Pardon," he says.

"Yes, I will be voting," I say, taking it slow and watching to see if he's got it this time. "But no I'm afraid you can't count on my support."

His wee face lights up as understanding starts to dawn, then looks suddenly crestfallen as he gets the full meaning. "You'll be voting 'Yes'?" he says.

"Yes," I say.

"Thank you," he says and turns on his heel and walks away, leaving me feeling guilty for a while, like I've stolen his sweeties or something. But I cheer up when I figure out the implications of what just happened.

If Better Together are sending people with even less gorm than me to knock on people's doors, I don't fancy their chances come polling day.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Race to the bottom

You've probably never met Harris, but take it from me he is maybe the most annoying person in the world.

"That's the dumbest thing I ever heard," he tells me, as we share a bottle of Isle of Jura in his mum's conservatory, and he tries to catch up on the news he missed while sunning himself on sandy beaches

"It's so stupid it can't possibly be true," he adds.

"Like we live in a world where facts can't be stupid," I tell him. "Listen, pal. When you were away in Thailand, riding around on elephants, UKIP won the biggest share of the vote in the European elections. They'll soon have a shitload of MPs and will form the next Westminster government with the Tories. Just believe me, why don't you?" 

"Because it's rubbish," he says and I wonder how certainty can sprout so easily from ignorance, like a rose bush rooted in stone. 

It's a character trait that makes Harris a hard guy to handle. His mum loves him but that proves nothing. My mum loved me. His ex-wife called him "a pedantic, narrow-minded bigot". But ex-wives are no better witnesses for the prosecution than mums for the defence. 

If I told you what my ex-wife - the Creature from the Black Lagoon - calls me, your ears would catch fire. 

Harris is not a bigot. But he is, according to one of his many sisters, an "arrogant pain in the arse" and maybe that's what his problem is. 

"You know what your problem is?" I say.

"I'm always right," he says.

"You have too many sisters," I tell him. "Growing up dominated by all those women has distorted your personality. You've over-compensated and become dogmatic and way too assertive. If you could keep just one sister, which would it be?"

"That's the stupidest question I ever heard," he says. "Like I'm going to pick one from three and risk the wrath of the rest."

"You're a fictional character and so are they," I say. "They can't possibly hurt you."

"They might be fictional but they're bloody dangerous," he says. "You've met them."

We share a manly glance and sip our whisky companionably. Then something he said starts to rankle. "That's twice you've called me stupid," I say. "It's your turn. Tell me what happened to your legs."

I look down at them and wince. The right leg looks fine but the left, disturbingly revealed in its entirety by his Big White Hunter shorts, is twice the size it should be, with a large black patch that looks like Australia.

"God that's horrible," I tell him.

"It's not so bad," he says. "I got a deep vein thrombosis in this one, before I flew out. Then a swarm of insects attacked me just before I flew back, and the infection I got gave me this," he says, tapping the swollen limb, which makes a noise like a small rack tom. 

"Lemme get this right," I say leaning forward and placing my glass carefully on the coffee table. "You flew half across the world with a deep vein thrombosis, then all the way back with a leg that looks like it floated off a fortnight-old corpse fished from the Clyde?"

"Not exactly," he says. "It was so heavy they wouldn't let it in the cabin with me. I had to put it in the hold with the rest of the luggage."

I shake my head and reach for my glass. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life," I tell him.

"So I win," he says, grinning widely.

"You win a who's-the-stupidest competition with me," I say. "No intelligent person would want to do that."

"So I win twice," he says and his smug grin gets even wider. 

"You lose," I tell him. "You don't have a leg to stand on."

But it's feeble and I know it.  Like I said, maybe the most annoying person in the world.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Answers on a postcard

It's really worrying when you get through almost your whole life, only to discover that you have an antisocial habit no one's told you about all this time. 

But that's what happened to me last week, when I went south for meetings in London and stayed at Adam and Rachel's flat in Southampton. 

Why had no one mentioned it before, I asked myself. How many people have I upset without realising it, I wondered. Are there other bad habits I still don't know about? Is this why women declare their undying love for me, then move out the next month?

Dunno, hundreds, several and yes, I'm guessing. But what can you do? As Robert Burns said in To a Louse, "O, wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us." 

No matter how in touch with your feminine side - and I'm so close we're practically sisters - regardless of your level of enlightenment - and the Buddha had nothing on me - you just can't know everything about yourself.

I've come across an interesting story, incidentally, about the incident that inspired Burns's better known poem, To a Mouse. When he worked Mossgiel Farm near Mauchline, the young poet employed a ploughman, a distant relative on his mother's side, who turned over a mouse's nest one day, as they were ploughing the fields together. 

He was about to kill her and her young family when Burns stayed his hand. As the ploughman told the story later, the poet then went into a daze, standing silently for several minutes, as the idea for the poem and several of its lines came together in his head.

When I read this in old parish records in the town, barely seven miles from Mauchline, where I grew up and my sister still lives, I went to see her and told her the story. "And you know the best part?" I said. "The ploughman's name."

"Which was?" she said.

"Blane," I tell her. "John Blane. He must have been one of our ancestors."

But just as Burns did in the field that day, my sis goes silent and pensive. "I don't think so," she says.

"Why not?" I say.

"How many mice have you killed in your life?" she says.

"None," I say.

"How many anything have you killed?" she says. "Bugs, slugs, fleas, bees, midges, mosquitoes, crocodiles?"

"None," I say. 

"Me neither," she says. "So how could a mouse-murderer be our ancestor? Will I tell you what really happened?"

"Please do."

"It's obvious. You and I have the same feeling for animals that Burns did. He was a well-known womaniser. So John Blane's wife secretly fell for his charms and conceived a child." 

"And our ancestor isn't John," I say. "It's Robert. That's brilliant! It also explains why you're such a good poet and I'm irresistible to women."

"Two out of three's not bad," she says.

So there you have it for another week, guys. What's that? I forgot to tell you about the anti-social habit? So I did. Next week, I promise. 

In the meantime, inspired by my ancestor, I've been working on a wee verse for 19 September. Maybe you can help me. It begins like this, to the tune of The Red Flag, but for the life of me I can't find an ending:

Three hundred years and seven, men
The wait is done, we're free again
You fat cats and Westminster class
Can shove the union ...

Answers on a postcard please.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Strange city

My son's girlfriend has completed her degree course and moved to Glasgow, and has found the transition tougher than expected, she tells me, as we're wandering down Hill Street towards the Oxford Café. 

"The people are nice, but they're very Scottish," she says.

"I'm not sure what that means," I say and for such an articulate young woman she seems to struggle. 

"I dunno," she says. "I was expecting it to be much like Newcastle, I guess, which I always thought was half Scottish culturally. Everyone's talking about the referendum here. I suppose the biggest difference is that all my friends are down there and I don't know many people yet."

It's a statement of fact not a request for sympathy, so although my heart goes out to her, I don't do anything stupid like put my arm round her shoulder or pat her on the head. You have to be careful at my age not to treat young people like kids. 

"So listen if you and my boy come to Susan's house tomorrow, she's throwing a birthday party and it'll give you a chance to meet lots of new people, all nice and friendly."

"It's your birthday?" she says

"Will be on Tuesday," I say.

"So it's an old fossil's party," she says.

"I can see why you don't have many friends," I say. "Where has your young man got to?"

We stop, look up the hill and fail to spot him at first. "There he is," Linda says. "Rootling around in that skip. He loves them. He's always coming back to the flat with stuff he's found in skips." 

"Is that where he got you?" I say and she laughs. 

I turn to the café door and she goes, "Hey Douglas."

"What?"

"Thanks for the wee hand chatting through my dissertation. You're a genius."

"I get called that a lot."

"Genius?" 

"Douglas."

My son catches up, we get seated and the friendly but bumbling waitress, who's standing in for her daughter, she says, takes our orders. Egg and chips all round. 

"We're going to visit his mum, the day after tomorrow," Linda says. "Your ex-wife."

"I know who his mum is," I say. "Give her a big kiss from me."

"I will," she says and her expression sends a surge of panic to my tummy.

"I was kidding," I say.

"I wasn't," she says.

"Bugger," I say. 

My son's napkin and cutlery have become the raw materials in what seems to be a scale model of the Eiffel Tower he's putting together, oblivious to our chat. I lower my voice to be sure he can't hear.   

"So are you regretting moving to Glasgow?" I say.

She shakes her head. "No, I'm not," she says, studying his sculpture. "I really love him." 

This time I'm not fast enough to stop the impulse. My arm goes around her shoulder and I give her a squeeze.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

You've no idea how hard it is

Growing up with an English mum, a Scots dad and a gran who spoke with a Shropshire accent but attended the United Free Church, I was bound to be confused as a boy. It's surprising how normal an adult I've turned out to be.

One lasting effect was that the certainties of the Catholic church have always appealed, though they seem to demand great faith combined with suspension of disbelief. 

A bit like quantum mechanics but with better songs.*

So when Susan starts explaining over a beer what it's like to be a Catholic, I prick up my ears. "We used to have to go to confession," she says. "I was a good girl so I'd make stuff up. 

"I'd go 'Bless me Father for I have sinned it has been one week since my last confession.' And he'd go 'Yes my child carry on.' And I'd go 'I've been cheeky to my Mum three times'. And he'd give me two Hail Marys and an Our Father and I'd come out and say my prayers and that was it, done and dusted."

The autumn light slanting through the window sheds little sunbursts from the rim of my glass. So I shift in my seat to see her eyes more clearly. You can learn lots from people's eyes. "Suppose you'd done worse stuff than cheek," I say. "Would you just get more prayers - is that how it worked?"

"Yes, but it was a bit random," she says. "One time the monks came and took confession and I told Father Martin the usual stuff and he gave me a whole Rosary." 

Her widening eyes tell me how shocking this is. "That is so shocking," I say, sipping my beer. "What's a Rosary?"

"I forgot you're an ignorant proddy," she says. 

"Buddhist please," I say. "Ignorant Buddhist."

"Whatever," she says. "The Rosary has dozens of prayers and takes half an hour to get through. The worst part of being a Catholic, though, was the poor souls in Purgatory. You'd to pray to get them into Heaven. I used to lie awake at night wondering if I'd stopped too soon and left one dangling half in and half out."

I start to laugh then see she's serious. "That worried you?" I say.

"It still worries me!" she says. "Forty years later."

I pat her shoulder. "They'll be in by now," I say. "Someone will have given them a hand up, or a ladder. Relax."

The tension at the corners of her eyes eases. "So anyway, Mary has a novena she's been saying every night for people with problems," she says. "It's a set of prayers in a wee book. She has this favourite she bought years ago and when she got it home found the pages were all out of order. So she calls it her Twisted Novena."

I smile at the thought of Mary and her efforts to make things better for the people she loves, as well as those she doesn't. No question where she's headed when she leaves this world.

"You're included since you got your diagnosis," Susan says, which gives me a wee warm glow. "But she's now got so many people to say prayers for, she can hardly get to bed at night. She talked to the priest and he told her to leave it to the Holy Spirit to figure out who to help first."

I open my mouth and she puts her finger up. "No smart-arsed remarks about the Holy Spirit please," she says.

"I was only going to ask how He decides," I say. "Probably tosses a coin. That's what I'd do."

She shakes her head sadly. "You're going to the Big Bad Fire, son."

"I know," I say. "The Wee Free minister told me that, many years ago, when he caught me smoking behind his church. Harsh, I'm sure you'll agree, but it taught me a valuable lesson."

"You stopped smoking?" 

"I stopped going to church."



*Wee scientific pleasantry there, so apologies to my non-physicist readers. You have no idea how hard this is, when half your followers are intellectuals, while the other half just want knob jokes. 

Nick Clegg has more or less the same problem.

Friday, 29 August 2014

That's what I call a superpower

The ability to tell if someone is gay is one of those senses - like sixth and common - that I would like to possess but never have. 

Although come to think of it, that's not quite true. When I was young I used to reckon I could tell the orientation of any woman I was chatting to. If she didn't fancy me she was a lesbian, for sure. That kind of thinking teaches you a valuable lesson, as you get older and more sensible. There's loads more lesbians than you thought.

So when the particle physicist Brian and I, just back from CERN, get chatting at the airport taxi rank, and sharing a little personal info for a change, his look of incredulity, when I ask about his wife and kids, puzzles me at the time. Only later, when a colleague tells me he's gay and living with a guy, do I understand it.

But how was I to know? He's not camp, which in any case is quite weakly associated these days with being gay, and he has never chatted to me about his partner.

So a bit of gaydar would be useful, I think. If only to reduce the number of times a day I make a twat of myself. But if someone were to offer me a power I don't possess, there's another I'd choose first.

It's none of the usual stuff like telepathy or super-strength, because there are too many stories where the hero gets one of those and it goes horribly wrong. Take The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, a film I went to see with my boyhood pal Ronnie, and I'm sure you can guess what two 14-year-old lads were hoping for from a title like that. 

Well we were disappointed, I can tell you. As a budding scientist I should have known X-rays pass through skin as well as clothes. Skeletons all around the hero was bad enough, but at the climax of the film he sees an evil eye watching us all from the centre of the universe, reckons it's the devil and blinds himself to stop the visions. It wasn't a load of laughs.

The only good thing about the evening was that Ronnie and I saw nothing to encourage us to do stuff that would make us go blind ourselves.

So none of that for me, thanks. No, the superpower I'd really like is the ability to hear, five minutes ahead, what someone's going to say. That would be great in lots of ways. You could Google a new topic and gain a reputation for being super-smart. Better still you could use it to think up good come-backs for situations like this that happened yesterday.

I'm stopped at the lights and the car at the head of the line gets impatient and goes through on red. The next three follow him like sheep but I wait. So the guy behind me sits on his horn. I see him going demented in the mirror, waving his arms around, turning puce and shouting rude words at me, but I refuse to budge.

Eventually we get the green light and I go. Next set of lights the apoplectic one, close to a major vascular episode, rolls down his window and screams, "It's not green! It's not green! What colour is your handbag, pussy?"

Five minutes later a reply pops into my head, "Same as your wife's pyjamas this morning, dog-breath." 

A third benefit of five-minute-warning ears, and the clincher for me, is that they'd stop me saying the first thing that comes into my head. This gets me into trouble every day and it's getting worse.  

I'm pretty sure if I don't get this new superpower, then one day soon I'll be rubbing a lamp and a genie will pop out and tell me I have three wishes. 

And I'll go "Bugger me".

Monday, 25 August 2014

Love drugs

The Square, Glasgow University
So despite provoking the cosmic joker by her insistence that she can plan her life to the last detail, Joanne survived another week and we met again in the College Club on Friday morning.

“Falling in love is a form of drug addiction," she says, getting right into her pet theory, as we sip coffee and stare across The Square to the house where Kelvin lived. 

"I told you about dopamine and the connection with heroin and cocaine last week," she says. "Well listen to this. Another drug made in our bodies creates warm feelings and helps keep people with one partner. It's called oxytocin.”

"I've heard of it," I say. "It's claimed that people with autism don't produce enough, so they're giving them oxytocin nasal sprays. My pal Yarrum reckons that's just trying to get everyone to conform and follow the herd." 

"He could be right," Joanne says. “My objection is a bit different. I don't want what I do and feel decided by chemicals, even if it's my body making them."

"Why not?” I say. “Surely they're Nature’s way of forcing you to do the right thing, even when you don’t know what that is? The small part of Joanne’s brain that’s conscious can't be better at making decisions than the rest of her brain, body and emotions, honed by millions of years of evolution.”

“Yes it can,” she says.

“That’s not science. It’s arrogance.”

“Who do you think those drugs, instincts and emotions, honed by evolution, are for?” she says.

“You."

“Wrong,” she says.

“Who else is there?”

“My kids."

“You don’t have kids," I remind her.

“Correct,” she says.

“So you’re talking bollocks," I say.

“I'm not,” she says.

"So what are you saying?" 

“That I'm descended from a long line of ancestors that goes back to the first living things on earth – a bunch of single cells drifting aimlessly around the ocean.”

“Like scientists at a party?” I say.

“I don’t know much about those ancestors," she says. "Except that every one did something really well. You know what?”

“Skateboarding. Taking penalties. Doing impressions of Mao-Tse-Tung. Gimme a clue.”

“Having kids that survived long enough to have kids, who survived long enough to have kids, who survived long enough ….”

“If you were an old Jukebox I’d kick you," I say.

“That is evolution," she says, waving her coffee for emphasis and spilling some on my leg. 

It's not too hot but the wetness is uncomfortable, so I dab at it ineffectually with a napkin. "Sorry," she says. "But pay attention, will you?"

"Watch what you're doing then," I tell her.

"Everything about us got they way it is by small steps," she says. "Little changes from mum and dad to the kids. Each step did one of three things. Helped them survive long enough to have kids. Helped them find a mate. Or helped their kids to survive and have kids, who survived long enough to have kids, who … You get the idea?”

“Some time ago," I say. "What I don’t get is the point.”

“It's obvious," she says. "I’m happy with the drugs in my body helping me survive. But I don't like the other two.”

“What’s wrong with helping you find a mate and having kids that do well?”

"Sounds fine, doesn't it?" she says. "But it's all about finding the kind of mate that means the kids do well, so that the genes get carried into the future. There’s nothing about making me happy. Or the kids. It’s all about shooting genes into the future.”

“I see what you’re getting at," I say.

“You should," she says. "What if my genes and drug-fuelled emotions team me up with Gorgeous George, who gives me smart, sexy, long-lived kids, then runs off with Sonia, the Swedish masseuse and makes me miserable, the bastard?”

“Would they do that?” I say.

“They sure would," she says. "If my mate makes me happy that’s incidental to evolution. It only wants the kids to do well. And the genes they’re carrying. My happiness is incidental to them. But it’s not incidental to me. It's very important to me.

She dabs her lips with her napkin and jumps to her feet. “So you know what?" she says, lifting her folder and turning to go. "Evolution can just sod off. I’m interested in my future. Not the future of a bunch of big daft molecules.”


"What are you going to do then?" I ask her back. 

"Tell you next week," she throws over her shoulder and she's gone.

"Good god man, she's energetic," says Alexander, the lecherous, long-haired philosophy lecturer, leaning over from the next couch.

"It's in her genes," I say.

"I noticed," he says.