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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Pinot Noir and the Philistines

"Wine isn't as complex as whisky or enjoyable as ale," I tell Rachel, as we're sat in the Drake Bar, drinking a Williams Brothers beer.

"Oh it is," she assures me. "You're wrong."

"Wouldn't surprise me," I say. "Happens all the time these days. I'm certain about something, argue it adamantly, then suddenly realise I've got it round my neck."

I take a swig of the Birds and Bees, a floral, hoppy little number I particularly enjoy in summertime. "It's making me feel stupid," I say.

"No, no," she says. "You have to be intelligent to realise you're wrong. Plenty of people hold daft ideas forever."

"I never used to be wrong all the time," I say.

"You probably were but didn't notice," she says. "You're getting smarter."

"Being always wrong means I'm getting smarter?" I say. "Only you could think up an argument like that. Or would want to."

The Drake calls itself a gastro bar, so they serve omelettes in little frying-pans and the beer is £4 a bottle. It's a likeable place though, with quirky, friendly staff that welcome young and old, kids, dogs and families.

"So why am I wrong about wine?" I ask, wondering how to attack the omelette.

"Because you drink mass-produced stuff from hot countries," she says.

"It slips down nicely," I say.

"But that's like drinking blended whisky and pontificating about malt," she says.

"So enlighten me," I say. "But spare me the bollocks about wet dogs, sweaty saddles and caramel-coated autumn leaves."

"Would you prefer ethyl 2-methylbutanoate and t-anethole?" she says.

"Yes," I say.

"No you wouldn't," she says. "And even if you did, most people would rather hear about hints of plum and aniseed. The vocabulary of taste and smell is a lot more limited than sight and sound. Art and music critics have it easy."

"That's true," I say.

"When you talk about wine you have a choice," she says. "Use science vocabulary and no one understands you, or make up metaphors and Philistines like you take the piss."

"Funny you should mention them," I say. "The Philistines were into booze in a big way. They had breweries, vineyards and shops that sold strong drink."

"You'd have been right at home then," she says. "Science has pretty much confirmed that the flavours wine-tasters bang on about come from chemical compounds. They're real. They don't make them up."

"Oh yeah?" I say. "What about the faint aroma of flat-footed gecko, basking on a rock on the shores of Lake Como?"

"I've tasted that one," she says. "Mock all you like, pal. It's science. It's chemistry. Big wine companies understand and control that. So you get to slurp sun-drenched Shiraz at £5 a bottle. It's drinkable and you know it won't taste like weasel. But it's short on subtlety, complexity and the element of surprise."

"I don't want to be surprised," I tell her.

"From what you were just telling me, your life is full of surprises."

"Most of them unpleasant," I say. "So if I took a chance what would you recommend?"

"You could do worse than a red Burgundy," she tells me. "Pay at least £20 and see what Pinot Noir can do."

"What can I expect?" I ask, scraping the last pieces of omelette from the frying-pan and decanting them into my mouth. 

Her eyes search the middle distance for inspiration. "Drinking a mass-produced red is like being wrapped in a duvet filled with the soft down of a Canadian snow goose," she says.

"I've often thought so," I say.

Her eyes are closed now, her brain mulling metaphors. "But a sip of Pinot Noir is like a light touch on the nape of your neck, from the lips of a young Pacific porpoise, newly weaned from its mother's milk."

I shake my head in admiration. "Very fine bollocks," I tell her.

"Thank you," she says, opening her eyes. "Now get me a beer."

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Sally and the seagulls

The first walk with a new baby is a big event for a grandmother, so Susan's face is radiant as she pushes the pram with little Sally in it through Howard Park and across Kilmarnock Water.

"Take my photo, take my photo," she says.

"Make your smile a little smaller," I tell her, as I sight through the viewfinder to compose the shot. "It's filling the field of view."

Lunch in the Longhouse is the plan and it should have been an uneventful walk to get there. But we figured without the seagulls. They like it around here, but Chuck does not like them.

"They swoop down and attack me," he explains.

"Why?" I wonder.

"How should I know?" he says. "Maybe if you're a seagull I look like a fish."

Susan opens her mouth to say something smart and closes it again without doing so. I'm impressed. "Being a granny suits you," I say. "You're becoming sensible, mature and restrained."

"That'll be the day," she says.

Up ahead a squawking flock of herring gulls is delving yellow beaks into food scraps someone has dumped, down by the river. We make a wide detour.

"Laridaphobia," I say and wait for someone to ask me. No one does.

"An intense and irrational fear of seagulls," I say. "Laridophobia."

"There's nothing irrational about it," Chuck says. "They attack people."

"Only if you look like food or threaten their young," I say. "I read about one woman who kept getting dive-bombed by a herring gull in her garden that had made a nest on her roof."

"There you are then," he says.

"She started wearing a colander on her head for protection," I tell him.

"Now that would suit you," Susan says.

On the outside, the oldest pub in Kilmarnock remains rather rustic. Inside it's bright lights, blue metal and burnished wood. We settle down, place our orders and ask Marie what it's like being a mum.

"We're still not getting much sleep," she says. "Every three or four hours she wakes, wanting to be fed. And sometimes she cries and cries and I don't know why."

Lines of stress furrow her forehead for a moment, then her left hand reaches out to the pram and touches the bundle lightly, and her face starts to soften.

"I didn't think I was all that maternal," she says, stroking little Sally. "But she is lovely, isn't she?"

"She is gorgeous," her gran says. "The most beautiful baby in the world."

"See that's my point," I say. "A granny gull would feel the same. You got to expect grown-ups to protect the young in the family, whatever the species.

"Next time a gull attacks you, young Chuck, just picture it as Susan, sweeping down from the sky."

The colour drains from the young lad's face. "Bloody hell," he says. "Now I am scared."

Friday, 9 August 2013

Windows in the West

"Well that's certainly ruined my day," I tell my son as we stand in Saltoun Street, looking up at the block of flats that inspired the celebrated Glasgow painting, Windows in the West.

We've just finished a pleasant pavement lunch at Crolla's Gelateria on Byres Road, although he's pulled a muscle in his back and is quieter than usual. Until that is I offer to show him the original of artist Avril Paton's best-known work.

"You don't need to," he says. "I know it well."

"There it is," I say, as we turn left into a narrow road, flanked by parked cars and solid sandstone flats, their roofs forming, from our perspective, a large V in the sky, the vanishing point blocked by the paler stone of 60 Saltoun Street, right at the end.

"No it isn't," he says.

"Yes it is," I tell him. "I lived there on the top floor when I was a student 40 years ago, with my oldest friend, Ian Dalziel. You know Avril Paton has these little figures in some of her windows?"

"I really like those," my sister says. "It's a wee glimpse into people's lives. It's intriguing. You'd like to know what they're doing. You want to learn more about them."

"Well now you have," I tell her. "One of them was me."

"It couldn't have been you," my son says. "Because a) she didn't do the painting until long after you'd left. And b) that's not the block of flats she painted. Follow me and I'll show you the right one."

So here we are looking up at the sky-etched symmetry of number 35, with its round bow windows at either end and square-cut bay windows running up the centre. There's no doubt it's easier on the eye than number 60, but I cling to my illusions a little longer.

"That's not it," I say,

"It is," he insists. "She painted it from a flat above where we're standing now. Do you want to hear what she says about it?"

"No," I say.

"Yes," Sis says.

"It was something like this," he says, screwing his eyes half-shut to help him remember. "'On January 11th 1993 there came a sudden heavy blizzard. In ten minutes it was over and the view from the attic window at Athole Gardens overlooking Saltoun Street was transformed. The lilac pink sky, the lit windows, the clarity of whiteness where there had been darkness - it was magic.'"

"That's beautiful," Helen says, the poet in her moved by evocative words.

"It's annoying," I say, the codger in me moved by being wrong again. "I've been telling people for years I used to live in Windows in the West. Well that's certainly ruined my day."

"Surely it's best to know the truth," Sis says, trying as always to console me.

"I don't think so," I say. "Illusions are better. When we lived in this street, Ian and I had a friend called Charlie Dundas - a lovely guy with big brown eyes and an articulate, literary sense of humour."

"Fascinating as I find your reminiscences," my son says, turning back towards Byres Road, "I'm wondering if there's a point to this one."

"There is," I say. "Charlie was short-sighted but he would never wear specs. He loved the element of surprise, he said, that their absence brought to his life. 

"He would look at mysterious shapes in the middle distance and they might be giants. They could be unicorns. People walking towards him were Marilyn Monroe or J.D. Salinger, until they got in close. 

"Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind."

"What was that?" Helen asks.

"'Life is better when it's blurry at the edges.'"

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Sex and chocolate biscuits

The tables on the pavement, as we drive past, tempt us to stop and try Montgomery's in Radnor street. But the menu offers little hope of solid Scottish sustenance.

"We got bagels, waffles, croissants, muffins, panini, pastries and gateaux," I read aloud from the menu. "With an 'x'. Clearly a cultured cafe. But I see no sign of eggs."

"You want to ask?" my son says. "I like it out here in the sun so I'm prepared to be flexible."

"For a change," I smile, getting up and heading for the counter at the far end of the high-ceilinged interior.

"Ask if they've any gluten-free food too," my sister calls after me.

"No," the well-aproned guy behind the counter replies to both questions, in an accent that tells me croissants were not prominent at breakfast, when he was a boy.

Cheese panini, assorted coffees and chocolate crispy biscuits keep everyone happy and we settle down to chat in the sunshine.

"You spoke to anyone yet about your feedback art ideas?" I ask my son.

"Nah," he says. "Still trying to work them out."

"I guess someone might steal them if you talk about them too soon," Sis says.

"That's not how it works," he tells her. "You share. You throw out ideas and people pick up on them. It's a great atmosphere at Art School."

"Sounds like my attitude to food," I say, reaching over, breaking off a piece of his panini and popping it in my mouth. "Food's communal. So is art, you're telling me."

"So is anything creative," he says. "It's a very human trait. Watch what someone's doing, copy and adapt it. Music's the same. 'I like that wee riff so I'll pick it up.' All this copyright just lines lawyers' pockets."

"Don't musicians need copyright to make money?" I say.

"Maybe the really rich ones," he says. "But I've a lot of pals who are musicians. They all share stuff."

"Do they earn much?" I ask.

"Not sure any musicians do. I guess the Stones get by. But Stu Kidd is a really good musician - plays with several Glasgow outfits. He makes a living teaching music. Dave Towers is a great saxophonist. He sells insurance."

"Some creative people make it pay," I say. "I've been earning a living from writing for 15 years."

"Yeah, but that's journalism. It's hard to make ends meet doing the pure thing. You sold your novel yet?"

"No," I say.

"There you are then," he says

"What sells books, I think, is coming to the end of a chapter and there's a puzzle," Sis says. "Dan Brown is good at that. Even if you don't like the story it keeps you reading."

"I was thinking of churning out a sex novel bestseller," I say. "To fund the writing I want to do."

My son chokes on his coffee. "What do you know about sex?" he says.

"I knew enough to make you."

"Anyone can do that. Look around - kids everywhere. Just because you can procreate doesn't mean you can write a bestselling sex novel."

"Listen laddie, I was young in the 1960s. We invented sex."

"Yeah but in those days it was five minutes, boys on top, roll over for a cigarette. People won't read that now. You got to stretch them. Tell them stuff they'd never think of themselves."

"We discovered the clitoris."

"That's like saying you discovered Auchinleck. It's on the main road. You can't miss it. What about the G-spot?"

"I've heard of it," I say.

"Not good enough," he says. "You got to be able to find it in the dark with handcuffs on. You have to play tunes on it with your fingertips. Can you perform an F sharp chord progression on a woman's body?"

"You're making that up," I say.

"I'm not," he says. "Have you taken part in a mozzarella sandwich? Can you do the chocolate chip muffin?"

"You're reading that off the bloody menu," I say.

"I am," he says. "But I'll guarantee people are doing them to each other right now, somewhere nearby. Face it chief, you can't write a modern sex novel. Not unless you get someone else to do the research and write up what they tell you."

I raise my cappuccino to my lips and study him in silence.

"Not a chance," he says.

I start to turn towards my sister. "Don't even think about it," she says.

"Oh bugger," I say. "You're right, of course. It's going to have to be the crime novel then. Does either of you know any bank robbers?"