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Saturday, 28 September 2013

Barely controlled chaos

Having successfully completed the portfolio preparation course, and been offered a coveted undergraduate place at Glasgow School of Art, my dyslexic son, whose reward for 12 years of schooling was three Standard Grades, a swimming certificate and a bad attitude to adults, has been asked to deliver a presentation to the new intake of fresh-faced, aspiring artists.

It's a massive leap beyond anything he's ever done. But he seems cool with it. "I know what I'm going to say," he tells me, in the kitchen of his Garnethill flat, as he rustles us up some pasta and quick-fried sprouting seeds.

"In the morning you make a list of things to get done during the day. You mostly ignore it. But it's there to stop you floating off and writing wee poems on banana skins."

"What kind of idiot would do that?" I say, having a fair idea of the answer.

"I was completely lost one day," he says. "Hadn't a clue what to do next. So when I'd written on the bananas I got yellow tape and stuck it all over my face. Then I went home."

He looks out the window at the steep banking, overgrown with grass, that passes for a garden in these parts. "I've had better days," he says.

"Worse too, I'd imagine," I say.

"Oh yeah," he says. "It's ups and downs as an artist. You have to like the rollercoaster."

Grabbing the frying pan, he decants a heap of still-sizzling seeds onto my small pile of penne pasta. "This is a great way to get good food fast," he says. "Bit of olive oil, dash of soy sauce, salt and pepper, fry for a few minutes. Fantastic."

"So what else are you going to tell the new intake?" I ask. "You want my help, by the way? I've been doing presentations forever."

"Nah, I've got it covered," he says. "If you're doing art, I'm going to tell them, you get lost all the time. How you deal with it is the thing.

"Some students in our class kept asking what they should do next. But that's not what the tutors are there for. Their job is to create an atmosphere of barely controlled chaos. And give you paint."

As I masticate his mung beans and pasta, and savour the surprisingly satisfying mélange of curly, crunchy, soft and squishy, I ponder this core message he's planning to convey. I'm not sure "barely controlled chaos" will go down well with the Art School staff.

But my experience is engineering, so I know about people, politics, deadlines and delivering. I know nothing about the art worldHe does. Or seems to now. 

"Will they be happy with you saying that?" I ask.

"Yeah," he says. "They told me I'd got it, when I was doing the course. They said I was one of the key students, a benchmark."

He tosses this off casually. But to someone who got plenty of pain at school and very little pleasure, that has to feel good.

As I listen to him speak with some authority, I realise it also feels good to a dad who attended untold meetings of teachers, psychologists and school management, none of whom had a good word to say about the lad for 12 long years.

"Nice that, intit?" he says, nodding to my emptying plate.

"Lovely," I say. "Must try making it myself. So you were a benchmark?"

"Yeah," he says. "The tutors would quite often say, 'Take a look at what Dougie is doing'. Or rather 'Duggie', because they're English and can't say 'Dougie'."

"Did that annoy you?" I ask.

"Nah," he says. "I answer to anything - Doug, Doog, Duggie, Dougie, Dingly, Dongly. It creates confusion. I like confusion."

"Me too," I say. "A benchmark? Well, well. That sounds great. Is it something to do with you being a long, flat piece of wood?"

He laughs. "That'll be it," he says, picking up my empty plate and dumping it in the sink.

"Just call me 'Duggie the plank.'"

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Good Life

Al has never been what you'd call conventional. He figures things out for himself and this takes him to places, sometimes, that can seem peculiar to travellers on tramlines.

So the potatoes stacked high in his kitchen window don't bother me any, as I wander around the back of his house, hunting for some sign of his whereabouts. We're supposed to be having a meal together, but he is never easy to find in the sprawling old Bearsden bungalow he has occupied for years. 

A woman once shared the house with him, but she is long gone. She was a police officer, not a profession noted for original thinking, and the disparity grew too great in the end. So they drifted amicably apart. Al does everything amicably. Yet I've seen him drive people insane.

Once he has figured something out he will not budge. He has anticipated your arguments and refuted them in his head. "Doing the sums," he calls it. But not being combative or fast on his feet, this can come across as stubborn and pig-headed. 

At his work, as a marine engineer, his creative thinking saved lives and millions of dollars. Now in his retirement it makes him grow big fat vegetables, worry about climate change and exercise his sideways sense of humour on unsuspecting strangers.

"I hardly ever drive these days," he tells me, when I find him behind the broccoli in his garden, and ask why the car in his drive is laced with spider-webs. "I've done the sums. I don't need to. Five minutes walk away is an Asda's, two Indian carry-outs, a fish and chip shop and a brand new Alzheimer centre."

"That's handy," I say, taking the huge heads of broccoli he hands me and accompanying him to his kitchen.

"Very," he says. "First time I saw it, on the way to the supermarket, I went in and had a look at their leaflets. Got talking to them. I asked what they did and how long they'd been there. Said I hadn't noticed them before.

"On the way back from Asda's I called in again, had a look at their leaflets and got talking to them. I asked what they did and how long they'd been there. Said I hadn't noticed them before."

"I had an aunt who got Alzheimer's," I say, stepping over buckets and basins bulging with big red potatoes, and finding a small space to stand. "I phoned the Society and they tried to be helpful. But there's not much anyone can do. You think you'll catch it?"

"Probably," he says. "You know why I was a good engineer?"

"You'd a brain bigger than ten of these potatoes," I say.

"Certainly," he says, taking the heads of broccoli from me and piling them in the sink. "But also I'm aware of something other people keep forgetting."

"Which is?" I say.

"The world is not organised for our benefit. Things go wrong. It's the first principle of engineering. Shit happens."

"Doesn't make you a cheery companion though," I say, trying to catch sight of him beyond the stacked pyramids of potatoes.

"But it means I prepare for every possibility," he says. "I do the sums. When I retired I put my money into National Savings. Everyone said I was stupid and should invest in shares. What happened?"

"They lost their money in the crash and you've still got yours," I say.

"Correct," he says. 

"But what's the use of sackfuls of cash you don't spend and have no one to leave to?" I say.

He goes silent. "I have someone to leave it to," he says, not meeting my eye.

"The policeperson?" I say. "Have you two got back together?"

"Don't be daft," he says. "Getting back with your ex is like breaking into Alcatraz."

Again the silence, stretching. "I'll tell you sometime," he says. "Maybe."

"Fair enough," I say. "Now about these root vegetables. What's the plan? You already have enough to feed a medium-sized medieval village."

"Well, I never turn the heating on in here," he says. "So these potatoes will feed me for five years. I've done the sums. Whatever happens - power failure, premature senility, the end of civilisation - I will survive."

"In here with your potato mountain?"

"In here with my potato mountain."

"All you need is Felicity Kendall," I say. 

"Only if she doesn't eat," he says. "I didn't include her in my sums."

Sunday, 15 September 2013


See all that stuff about a problem shared being a problem halved? Not in my experience, it isn't. More like a problem shared is a good laugh for your mates.

"So you don't have mice now but you do have slugs?" Rachel says, over a pizza in Gambrino's.

"Maybe just one," I say. "Found it on the kitchen floor a coupla times when I came down in the night for a glass of water. I think it lives under the sink. Leopard slug. Quite pretty when you look close."

"If it's only one that's not so bad," she says. "But if you've an infestation you should get rid of them. Your visitors won't think they're pretty."

"I know how to tell if there's more than one," my son says, lifting a floppy wedge of pizza and lowering it into his mouth."

I give him a moment to chew then ask him how. "Write a name on its shell one night," he says. "Like 'Bob'."

"Slugs don't have shells," I say. "You're thinking of snails."

"Use post-it notes then," he says. "Point is if it says 'Alice' the next night, you've more than one slug. Then you can start to worry."

"I'd be more worried about the psycho who lives under your sink and writes "Alice" on slugs," Rachel says. "I take it you're not going to kill them?"

"I am not," I say. "Why would I?"

"Some people think they're disgusting," she says. 

"I think some people are disgusting," I say.

"What are you going to do with them?" my son says.

"Same as I did with the mice and the fruit flies," I say. "Satyagraha."

"Passive resistance?" Rachel says. "Sounds wimpy and pathetic."

"That's not satyagraha," says my son, ever the expert on Eastern philosophy.

"No?" Rachel says.

"No," he says. "Passive resistance is a weapon of the weak, Gandhi said. It could be violent and didn't always stick with truth. Satyagraha is only for the strong. It insists on truth and never uses violence. Big difference."

"What did Gandhi say about slugs in your kitchen?" Rachel asks him. But his mouth is full of chilli-topped pizza, so he gestures at me and they both wait for my words of wisdom.

"Not much, obviously," I say. "But we're talking principles here. If you understand those you can apply satyagraha to anything. It's about truth, firmness and non-violence."

"So you're going to take the slugs outside, like you did with the mice?" my son says. "And as soon as you turn round they'll be back in the house again."

"And I'll put them out again," I say. "And again. In the end I'll win, because I understand the principles of satyagraha. So I'm strong. I'm persistent."

"Remind me how long it took to get the mice to stay outside," he says.

"Five years," I say. "But in the end they got the message."

The two of them nibble their thin pizzas thoughtfully and sip their coffees, and I begin to think I might have convinced them. "There's a fatal flaw in your plan," Rachel finally says, and my stomach sinks. 

"I was afraid there might be," I say.

"It works only if the slugs don't understand satyagraha too," she says. "If they do they'll be as persistent as you are. It'll be a standoff. You'll never get rid of them."

My son is nodding. "She's right," he says. "Which means it's more important than ever to check their name-tags. If one of your slugs is called Mahatma, you're screwed."

Saturday, 14 September 2013

White room

"So I'm superfluous?" I say to my son as he's giving me coffee and a custard slice in the front room of his flat, overlooking Great Western Road.

"I was going to go for 'obsolete'," he tells me.

"Even worse," I say. "Either way you don't need my help?"

"Why would I?" he asks.

"I'm better at filling in forms than you."

"Not by much," he says, which is true. But you get used to trying to help your kids. The knowledge that they're as capable as you, maybe more so, takes ten years to penetrate, in my experience.

"Not to change the subject, but about this room," I say.

"What about it?" he says.

"'Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes,'" I say.

"I know," he says. "Except the sun shines here all the time. This is my studio. So I want it white and I want it minimalist. Lots of light, no distractions."

"Well that's what you got. But spend much time in here, you'll go snow-blind. Also you need chairs. My bum hurts already from sitting on the floorboards."

"You're too skinny," he says. "The human arse is supposed to be fleshy. It wants padding. You ain't got none. Eat more cakes and you'll be comfier."

"Trouble with that is you can't tell the calories where to collect," I say. "Suppose I stuff myself with custard slices for a month and the fat goes to the wrong place, like my head."

"Nobody would notice," he says. "There is something you can help me with, come to think of it."

"Yeah?" I say.

"Yeah," he says. "Personal statement for Art College. It's about who I am, what I've done, why I'm doing what I'm doing, and what I want to do in future."
"You any thoughts?" I say.

"Millions," he says. "But not sure how to write them so they make any sense."

"You talk, I write, you edit," I suggest.

"Fair enough," he says. "Well, I've always done art stuff. But if I was painting I used to try to make paintings."

"Pfff," I say. "How dumb was that?"

"It was," he says. "I'd get pissed off because they'd never turn out right."

 "So what's the alternative?" I say.

"Process," he says. "It's the big thing I've learnedArt is about the process not the product." 

"Sounds vague and meaningless to me," I say.

"It's not," he says. "It's perfectly clear. It's about having ideas, developing them, generating ideas from those ideas, linking back to other people's stuff. That's the process." 

"But surely you got to produce something or what's the point?" I say. 

You do," he says. "Lots of stuff. You just don't make that your main aim. You don't force it to happen."

He sips his coffee and looks out the window, towards Chinatown beyond the red flats. "I was talking to Stu Kidd about this," he says. "He's a musician so he got it right away. Said some of the tunes on his latest album with The Wellgreen had been dicking about his head for years."

"An album is a product," I say. 

"Course it is," he says. "But if he'd produced it when he first got the ideas, it wouldn't have been as good. I guess it's about stocking your brain with stuff and letting it percolate and form connections, then come out in its own good time."

"My point exactly," I say. "There's stuff in my head been percolating for decades. You should use it more."

"I was going to go for centuries, chief. It's too long. You're a bit like these custard slices," he says, picking one up and waggling it at me.

"Squishy and strangely comforting?" I say.

"Well past their sell-by date," he says.