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Sunday, 23 June 2013

It's all in good working order

"See here's the problem," I tell Susan, as we're sat in front of the television watching Run Fatboy Run, with our dinners on trays on our laps. "I've been eating too slow and watching too well. My macaroni cheese has gone cold."

"Stick it in the microwave," she says, without looking at me.

"Normally that would work," I tell her. "Though chips don't come out as tasty as they went in. But I've also got salad on my plate, entangled with the pasta and chips. When you microwave lettuce it goes limp, warm and slimy, like a politician's handshake."

She lifts the remote and presses the pause button, then turns slowly to stare at me. "Do you want to watch this film?" she asks. "Or talk drivel about salad?"

"I was planning to do both," I say. "But I can see now that's not going to work. Press play."

She does and we see the novice runner Dennis getting his giant blister pricked by his mate Gordon. It's such a well-acted scene that it makes me laugh every time, as the tension builds to the pus-in-the face climax. I still have my pasta problem but a solution has come to me.

Five minutes later I'm back from the kitchen. "Did your need for hot pasta overcome your dislike of limp lettuce?" Susan says.

"No, it's too horrible," I say. "So I picked out all the bits of salad with my fork and ate them, then I microwaved the chips and macaroni, then I added more salad from the bowl. Quite clever actually."

"Yeah, you're a mastermind," she says. "Took you ten minutes to outwit lettuce."

She presses the pause button again and I stare at the frozen figures, unwilling to turn and look at her, as I can sense what's coming next. "So are you going to wear a kilt at Mairi's wedding then?" she says.

"How many times are you going to ask me?" I say.

"As many as it takes you to get the answer right," she says.

"I'm not going to wear a kilt," I say. "I've never worn a kilt and I'm not starting now. It's fake Scots culture that projects a quaint, kitsch caricature of us to the world. It also has martial overtones which I hate."

"Men in kilts make women go weak at the knees," she says.

"What would I do with a wobbly-kneed woman," I say.

"You used to know," she says.

"Listen," I say. "The last thing I need is to enhance my allure. I have to work hard to tone it down or women I've never met sexually harass me in the street."

She shakes her head. "It's a strange planet you live on, Douglas. The entire wedding party is wearing kilts. You'll look out of place in a suit."

"I'm not part of the wedding party," I remind her. "The groom's mother has vetoed it. So I'm to be banished to the boondocks, perched on a bar-stool at the back of the hall with a small telescope to see what's happening."

"You're at the table right next to us," she says. "Brian's wearing a kilt."

"He is not," I say.

"He is. Told us yesterday. So that's the full set. Except you."

It's my turn to shake my head. "Brian? Well, that's disappointing. I had him down for a man with a backbone like mine, impervious to pressure from strong women."

"He is," she says. "He just knows when to relent to make people happy. Doesn't make him less of a man. More, if you ask me."

She pauses then plays her trump card. "Marie says you'll look lovely in a kilt and would you please wear one for her."

Marie is the bride. Girly, gorgeous, funny and feminine. I've had a soft spot for her since we met.

"Oh for heaven's sake, all right," I say. "I'll wear a bloody kilt. But don't expect me to enjoy myself. It'll feel like I've betrayed my principles. I'll be hot and uncomfortable. I won't know how to sit down, dance with decency or take a leak. And I'll get groped by all the gays."

"You'll love it," she says. "There's just one more thing."

I turn to look at her and my mind goes numb with sudden dread.

"Marie has found these gorgeous pink sporrans in a wedding catalogue ... "

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Maxwell's house

Forty years in the navy have given Duncan Ferguson a salty sense of humour and a bluff way with fools.

"Is it a Scots Pine?" I ask, as he leads the large party of visitors on his Glenlair estate to a towering evergreen, by the side of the track near the old stables.

"Good heavens no," he barks. "It's a Wellingtonia*. They were planted in large estates up and down the country, in memory of the Duke of Wellington."

"So that tree was alive when James was a boy then?" I say, not having the sense to shut up and fade into the background.

"What's that?" he says, the hint of a smile on his face, his left hand cupped behind his ear. "You were a boy then?"

I shake my head and struggle on. "When James Clerk Maxwell was a boy, that tree would have been growing there," I say. "He would have played around it?"

"Of course he would," he tells me, marching off towards the stables, followed by his fascinated entourage.

For Captain Ferguson is a man on a mission

The estate he grew up on, and still occupies, was once home to one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) played on the same grass and paddled in the same streams as young Duncan did when he was a boy, seventy summers ago. 

It's a name known to every physicist and engineer - and almost nobody else. "The whole of modern technology is based on the discoveries of James Clerk Maxwell," the Captain had explained at the start of our tour, outside the blackened stone of the old house, gutted by fire in 1929.

"But what do you think of when you hear about Maxwell's house?"

"Coffee," says a brave soul from the crowd.

"Coffee!" agrees the Captain, with a look of disgust. "It's a disgrace. We Scots can be very ignorant." 

Not wishing to appear any more so, and having already seen the stables, I peel off and head in the opposite direction, towards the Lair burn that runs below and behind the old buildings. 

The inspiration Maxwell gainedalong this little stream, from waves on water and light on leaves has been captured lovingly by Howie Firth.

But the man himself had put pen to paper long before, and recorded a few of the feelings the stream inspired in him

"Where the mavis builds her nest,
And finds both work and rest,
In the bush she loves the best,
On our ain burnside."

As I wander the banks of the Lair, lush at this time of year, my mind drifts back to the most memorable lecture of my student days. Doc Adam, a crusty, tobacco-stained physicist, whose gruff ways concealed kindness, had been weeks carefully placing little pieces of scaffolding to help us ascend the edifice of Maxwell's equations. 

Then at two o'clock on a wet Wednesday, without any preliminaries, he walked briskly into the lecture-theatre and wrote the differential form of Maxwell's equations on the board. A few minutes of manipulation and he had derived the wave equations for the electric and magnetic fields in free space, and shown that they travelled at the speed of light.

It was a moment of breathtaking beauty, when the structure of the physical world seemed set to reveal itself to those of us who had taken the time to learn its laws and language. 

It didn't. That was the peak of clarity for me. The following term I encountered quantum mechanics and my future wife, a combination that soon dispelled any sense of certainty or reason. Insights nowadays are far outnumbered by foggy confusions. 

But as my eyes focus on unfamiliar surroundings and I discover I'm lost in the woods again, I realise something, at least, with certainty. I am still grateful to James Clerk Maxwell for the glimpse of profound understanding he gave me, so long ago.

* The giant redwood, Sequoiadendron giganteum, is the largest tree by volume in the world. It can grow to 95 metres tall and live for 3000 years. On its introduction to Britain in 1853, the species was briefly named Wellingtonia gigantea, after the recently deceased Duke of Wellington - until it was pointed out that the name was invalid. Wellingtonia had already been used for another plant. The name persists, however, particularly in England.