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Saturday, 25 January 2014

To be or not to be - who cares?

My sister is a big Shakespeare fan. Me, not so much.

"Hamlet is a long evening of nothing happening, at the end of which everybody dies," I tell her, as we're sat in the living room of her house, during a long evening of nothing happening, at the end of which nobody dies.

"I'd rather be stuck in a lift for the weekend with Noel Edmonds than sit through four hours of Hamlet's self-obsessed chuntering," I say.

"No you wouldn't," she says.

"No, I wouldn't," I say. "But it's close." 

"Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet - these are wonderful plays," she says. "A Midsummer Night's Dream is packed with poetry."

"I'll give you that," I say. "'I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows...' Lovely stuff." 

"'Quite over-canopied with lush woodbine, With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine...,'" she says. "The first time the teacher read that to us, it sent shivers up my spine."

"But you need more than evocative words and clever rhymes," I say.

"Like what?" she says. 

"Like plot," I say. "Humour. How about a happy ending once in a while? I'm with John Cleese. You can be serious without being solemn."

"I think when you're young you're drawn to that dark side," she says. "I know I was. I read a lot of other serious writers like Graham Greene. All that tragedy to other people is comforting when you're struggling with adolescence. 

"And there is humour in Shakespeare," she says. "For a long time after his death he wasn't taken seriously by critics, because he mixed humour with tragedy. But humour doesn't last. You think people will laugh at Peter Kay's jokes in five hundred years?"

"Dunno why they laugh at them now," I say. "But it's not just the depressing endings and black-hearted behaviour. It's how Shakespeare says the same thing in forty different ways. There's a preening quality to that. He reminds me of Paul Jones."

"Who?" she says.  

"Blues singer. You thought he was lovely when you were 14."

"So I did," she says. "He was."

"Well he's still performing and my pal Iain tells me he's one of the best harmonica players in the world. But he's got a narcissistic personality that comes through somehow in his music. Don't ask me how.

"I get the same feeling with Buddy Rich on drums and Shakespeare with words. It's like 'Look at me; I'm wonderful.' It damages the art by drawing attention to the artist."

"But Shakespeare is so inventive," she says. "I love that about him. Half the clichés in the English language weren't clichés then. He made them up. Language and literature would be hugely impoverished if Shakespeare had never written a thing."

"I'm not so sure," I say. "Dickens is just as fluent, inventive and articulate. But what he's got is humour in his phrasing and rhythms. And he says something once and moves on. He's absorbed in the story, same as you are. He's like Steve Gadd on drums or Dylan on the harmonica."

"I can't take all the dirt and squalor in Dickens," she says. "It's repulsive."

"I see," I say. "Murder, suicide, rape and incest are fine in Shakespeare. But you can't take dirty fingernails in Dickens?"
"No I can't," she says. "The one thing I agree with you about is Hamlet. It's not a great plot and the hero does go on a bit, I'll give you that. The best criticism of Hamlet I ever read was in a school essay by your son David."

"Now he is clever," I say.

"Funny too," she says. "His essay had just one sentence in it. His teacher wasn't impressed, but I thought it was great."

"Yeah, what did he say?" 

"'Hamlet is a big girl's blouse."

Friday, 24 January 2014

Swimming in a fish bowl

Things went downhill frighteningly fast last week, after I wrote a piece confessing to being slightly estranged from reality.  

Me and reality came to the end of the road. We parted and it wasn't amicable. There is no chance of reconciliation. We're through.

You don't want the details. You'll need to wait for the film, if you do. Suffice it to say that a paperwork cock-up left me, on the way to an important meeting, standing at the roadside among the former contents of my car, namely two computers, a travel bag, three shirts, a paperback copy of Middlemarch and my shattered dreams of ever being a grown-up.

Standing beside me, looking as shell-shocked as I feel, Rachel shakes her head, opens her mouth a couple of times, like a goldfish at feeding time, and utters a few broken words.  

"Only an idiot ... ," she says. "Why on earth didn't you...." She punches my arm gently. "Words fail me," she says. 

"That's good," I tell her. "I'd hate to see your usual chatty, cheery self at a time like this. It would be insensitive."

"Can I hit you harder?" she says.

"You should," I say. But she doesn't. Never hit anyone in her life, the soft southern nancy.

Later that day, having been rescued and sent on our way by a sympathetic Susan, I get chatting to my son inside his flat, among the creative ferment of a sculptor at work. 

It is somehow soothing. Chaos inside and out. The last thing I need, with my brain in turmoil, is neat and tidy surroundings. 

"Don't worry about it," he tells me. "It's genetic. Your dad was smart but dopey. I'm the same. Get over it."

"I'm worse than either of you," I say.

"You're not," he says. "What's the dopiest thing you ever did?"

"Where do I start?" I say, trawling the memory banks. "I went to Paris once. Took a woman but not the address of the hotel we were booked into. Or its name. Beat that."

"Easy," he says. "My mind wandered in chemistry class once and my body set itself on fire."

"Jeez," I say, in sudden alarm. It's 15 years since he was at school and he's clearly fine, but a dad's instincts don't die. "What happened?"

"We were using these wee meths burners," he says. "I spilled some on my hands and it caught fire. Funny stuff, meths. It flows easily and burns kinda cool at first. 

"So I wave my hands around, not too bothered. But that doesn't help. So then I try to smother the flames."

"Does that help?" I say.

"Sets my armpits on fire." 

"Bloody hell."

"It's getting toasty by this time. And I'm not sure what to do next. So I scratch my head and guess what?"

"You set your head on fire?"

"Correct," he says. "My lab partner Cathy Small is running around now, screaming like a banshee. So the chemistry teacher, a big bugger we called Moby - can't remember his real name now - he strolls over with a basin of water, hurls it at me, which puts the flames out, then sends me to the nurse. 

"She rubs cool stuff on my hands and head and says I'm fine. I go back to class and the guys give me a big cheer. Moby, the bastard, gives me detention."

He scratches his chin and grins. "The day I set my head on fire. I think I win," he says.

"I think you do," I tell him.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

I hope I didn't brain my damage

My dad had a great saying, the exact wording of which I can't remember now. Something like full-blown insanity being rare but stupidity being all around us.

Frank Zappa reckoned there was more stupidity in the universe than hydrogen. Einstein said only the universe and human stupidity were infinite. "And I'm not sure about the former."

You've maybe guessed by now that I'm playing for time with this preamble, because today's topic is one I'm reluctant to delve deeply into. Stupidity. Specifically mine.

As the first graduate in our family I used to be told I was clever but lacked sense, an allegation I dismissed at the time as sour grapes. The suspicion has grown since that the grapes were fine. 

And yet it's not sense that's been lacking all these years. It's the close connection with ambient events that ordinary folk take smugly for granted. I walked in front of a swing when I was three, into a lampost when I was ten and through a plate-glass window when I was 25, in all cases sustaining cuts, bruises and contusions but lasting damage only to that aura of sophistication I aim at all times to project.

"Of course I don't think you're stupid," Rachel tells me in Waverley Station, as we're headed home from a morning meeting we have travelled to Edinburgh to attend, only to discover that the day was accurate but the week was only approximate.

"You are fairly smart most of the time,"  she tells me. "But every now and then you become - what's the word? - challenging. You don't seem to know what's going on around you. You're annoyingly dopey."

My mind wanders back to a lovely, dark-haired woman called Rosemary, who often called me that. "It's loveable," she said. No one since has found it so, assigning my dopeyness instead to various places along the annoying spectrum, from 'challenging' all the way to 'infuriating'. 

"You are doing that stupid act again," my wife used to say. "It drives me insane."

Little did she know how hard I found it, all those centuries we were together, to seem nearly normal sometimes. The relief when we split was immense, like taking a tight-fitting bra off at the end of the day.

"Watch where you're going grandpa!" a young punk shouts, as I bump into him in the information centre, stepping on his foot and dislodging one of his essential earpieces.

"See what I mean," Rachel says, taking my arm and leading me towards the cash machine in the corner. "Stand there," she says. "I won't be a moment. Then I'll show you where the platform is for the train back to Glasgow."

Suddenly I'm the one who's annoyed. "You're talking to me as if I'm a ten-year-old," I say. "I've been all over the world without you. I've interviewed astronauts in Houston and eaten fruits of the forest from tall, slim glasses in Helsinki boardrooms. I don't need you leading me by the hand and showing me the right bloody platform in Edinburgh, thanks very much."

She steps aside and I push my card into the slot, punch the code and press the option to withdraw £50 in cash. When the card reappears I shove it in my back pocket, turn on my heel and flounce off towards Platform 7. 

"Hey!" Rachel shouts at my departing back.

"What?" I turn, still annoyed with her.

"Don't you want this money then?" she asks, waving the five ten pound notes I've left in the jaws of the cash machine.

It's all about ambience

"I never thought I'd hear you say that," I tell my son as we're catching up in his white room, before heading off to lunch. "Run it past me again."

"It's an idea that comes from a French, Marxist, neo-Dada art group," he says, listening to his own words then grinning. "Yeah, I see what you mean. That stuff's starting to trip off my tongue, isn't it?"

"Didn't mean to make you self-conscious," I say. "You got to learn the jargon. Just took me by surprise. Seems only yesterday you were babbling baby talk and pulling Weetabix out your hair. All of a sudden you're Brian Sewell."

"I like him," he says. "Sounds posh but he's a good laugh."

"So what's it about?" I say.

"Psychogeography," he says.

"I had a psycho geography teacher," my sister says. 

"Mad bastard, was he?" says my son, always happy to stroll down conversational side roads. "What did he do?"

"Nothing useful," she says. "Spent all his time talking to the domestic science teachers. So I learned by heart everything he taught us but failed the exam."

"You look like it's still annoying you," he says. 

"It is," she says and seethes quietly for a while.

"So what's it all about?" I ask. "This psychogeography."

"The sudden change of ambience in a street," my son says. "The path of least resistance you take in aimless strolls." 

He scratches his nose. "Kinda how the different parts of a city impose a flow on you, as you wander aimlessly around it." 

"Sounds a bit vague," I say. 

"It's totally vague," he says. "Guy Debord was one of the French Marxists that started it and he got pissed a lot. So maybe it's just drunken rambling. But it's been picked up by more interesting guys, like Will Self and Alan Moore - who wrote Watchmen and V for Vendetta."

"I'm still not getting what you have to do," I say.

"Site, place and content around the Queen's Cross area of Glasgow," he says. "Psychogeography. It's our first art project of the new term. So we've been wandering around, absorbing the ambience like nobody's business."

"We did that sometimes with the kids," my sis says. "We'd take them out and look at the lights and statues and buildings. We called them street furniture."

"Funnily enough we found a couple of old sofas, when we started psycho wandering," he says. "Carried them back to the studio. I fell asleep on one and they painted a moustache on me." 

"Is it sofa, couch or settee?" sis says. "I got laughed at the other day for calling it a settee. That was old-fashioned, they said, and I should call it a couch."

"See that just gets on my tits," my son says. "You can call things anything you want. I'm going to call this project "Ambience: sofa so good.

"Is there a point to it all?" I say.

"You know better than that," he says. "Is there a point to particle physics? Is there a point to people? Alan Moore says magic is art and art is magic, and both come down to "the science of manipulating symbols, words or images to achieve changes in consciousness."

"Do you think we should magic ourselves off to lunch?" my sister says.  

"I do," he says. "I'm going to absorb all the ambience I can get from two fried eggs and a tattie scone."

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Always an artist

Welcome to the January 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: The More Things Stay the Same
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have talked about the continuity and constancy in their lives. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

Louise Bourgeois is best known for her spiders, particularly the monstrous but strangely comforting Maman, whose bronze, high-stepping legs I walked under several years ago, in the turbine hall at Tate Modern. 

But it's not her spiders that have been inspiring my son. "I was at an exhibition of her work in Edinburgh," he tells my sister and me, in the sculpture department at Glasgow School of Art. "She had some spirally drawings I liked. So I came back and did all these," he says, strewing sketches all over the table and the floor. 

"I was listening to Moby Dick when I did this," he says, picking one out with a pointing finger.

"Doesn't look like a whale to me," I say, and he glances at me with some scorn.

"It's not supposed to," he says. "You're not getting this. It's all part of my artistic process."

"What do I know about artistic process?" I say. "I drew a robin once and my teacher said it looked like a dead wasp. I never tried to express myself in art class again, resorting instead to sullen non-cooperation."

"I did that in every subject in school," my son says, looking stressed for a moment.

"The point is you're not trying to make something good right away," he says. "You're exploring the material. You throw these off fast, then lay them out and go, 'I like the way that's working' or 'I love how this curls around here'. Then you turn it into a sculpture."

"Is that one connected with this?" my sis says, holding up two similar-looking sketches.  

"They're all connected," he tells her. "Everything's connected."

"Why does everybody sounds like a hippy these days," I say. "Do you always start with painting and drawing then?"

"It varies," he says. "I started splitting planks of wood with a knife recently and a week later I was still at it. It's amazing how much you can learn about a material by doing the same thing to it, over and over.

"Eventually the sense of that substance gets into your brain. So you don't just see an image when you think of it. You also get its touch and texture. You feel the flow of the grain and the force it exerts on your fingers."

My sister smiles across at me as my son talks fluently and articulately about aspects of art we know nothing about. As he leads the way from the workshop, half an hour later, she and I lag a little behind. 

"That was great," she says quietly. "He's so enthusiastic and interesting. You know who'd have loved that if she was still alive?"

"Yes I do," I say. 

"She was always talking about what he was like as a wee lad. So happy and outgoing, she'd say. So creative, artistic and full of fun." 

"Then he went to school and struggled badly," I say. "It took us ages to get him diagnosed as dyslexic. By that time the damage had been done. He was a bad boy, the teachers said, surly and uncooperative. The constant criticism squelched his personality for years."

"But he is back, isn't he?" my sister says. "Twenty years later. Mum would have been glowing. Her grandson is an artist now."

My son hears the last part and calls up to us from a dozen steps below, "I'm an art student not an artist yet," he says.

"You are an artist," my sister says. "You always have been."

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
  • Always an Artist — Some kids take longer than others to come into themselves, so you have to stick with them, as a parent, long after everyone else has given up, writes Douglas at Friendly Encounters.
  • Not Losing Yourself as a First Time Mom — Katie at All Natural Katie continues to stay true to herself after becoming a new mom.
  • Using Continuity to Help Change {Carnival of Natural Parenting} — Meegs from A New Day talks about how she is using continuity in certain areas of her life to help promote change and growth in others.
  • Staying the Same : Security — Life changes all the time with growing children but Mother Goutte realised that there are other ways to 'stay the same' and feel secure, maybe a bit too much so!
  • Harmony is What I'm AfterTribal Mama gushes about how constant change is really staying the same and staying the same brings powerful change.
  • A Primal Need For Order and Predictability – And How I Let That Go — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama shares how she overcame her primal need for order and predictability once her awareness shifted, opening her eyes to the impact this had on her young daughter. Take a short journey with Jennifer and she bares her soul, exposes her weaknesses and celebrates her new outlook and approach to living life, even in the face of total chaos.
  • Breastfeeding Before and After — Breastfeeding has come and gone, but Issa Waters at LoveLiveGrow finds that her relationship with her son is still just the same and just as good.
  • A Real Job — Back in high school That Mama Gretchen had a simple, but worthwhile career aspiration and today she is living her dream … is it what you think?
  • Comfortingsustainablemum never thought she would want things always being the same, but she explains why it is exactly what her family wants and needs.
  • 'The Other Mums' and The Great IllusionMarija Smits reflects on the 'great big magic show of life' and wonders if it will continue to remain a constant in our lives.
  • Unschooling: Learning doesn't change when a child turns four — Charlotte at Winegums & Watermelons talks about the pressure of home education when everyone else's children are starting school.
  • Finding Priorities in Changing Environments — Moving from Maine to a rural Alaskan island for her husband's military service, Amy at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work found that keeping consistent with her priorities in changing environments can take some work, but is vital to continuous health and happiness.
  • Keeping it "Normal" — Kellie at Our Mindful Life has moved several times in the last two years, while doing her best to keep things stable for her kids.
  • The Evolution Of Our Homeschool Journey — Angela at Earth Mama's World reflects on her homeschooling journey. Homeschooling is a constant in the life of her family but the way in which they learn has been an evolution.
  • Sneaking in Snuggles: Using Nurturing Touch with Older Children — When Dionna at Code Name: Mama's son was a toddler and preschooler, he was the most loving, affectionate kiddo ever. But during the course of his 5th year, he drastically reduced how often he showed affection. Dionna shares how she is mindfully nurturing moments of affection with her son.
  • Steady State — Zoie at TouchstoneZ writes a letter to her partner about his constancy through the rough sailing of parenting.
  • A Love You Can Depend On — Over at True Confessions of a Real Mommy, Jennifer has a sweet little poem reminding us where unconditional love really lies, so it can remain a constant for us and our children.
  • Same S#!*, Different Day — Struggling against the medical current can certainly get exhausting, especially as the hunt for answers drags on like it has for Jorje of Momma Jorje.
  • New Year, Still Me — Mommy Bee at Little Green Giraffe writes about how a year of change helped her rediscover something inside herself that had been the same all along.
  • One Little Word for 2014 — Christy at Eco Journey In The Burbs has decided to focus on making things this year, which is what she is loves, as long as she doesn't kill herself in the process.
  • The Beauty of Using Montessori Principles of Freedom and Consistency — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares the continuity of her teaching, parenting, and grandparenting philosophy using a combination of freedom and consistency.
  • My Husband's MiniCrunchy Con Mom shares which of her sons looks more like her husband's baby pictures — and the answer might surprise you!
  • Growth Happens When You Aren't Looking — Lori at TEACH through Love is treasuring these fleeting moments of her daughter's early adolescence by embracing the NOW.
  • A New Reality Now - Poem — As Luschka from Diary of a First Child struggles to come to terms with the loss of her mother, she shares a simple poem, at a loss for more words to say.
  • Making a family bedroom — Lauren at Hobo Mama has decided to be intentional about her family's default cosleeping arrangements and find a way to keep everyone comfortable.
  • New Year, Same Constants — Ana at Panda & Ananaso takes a look at some of the things that will stay the same this year as a myriad of other changes come.
  • I Support You: Breastfeeding and Society — Despite how many strides we've taken to promote "breast is best," Amy at Natural Parents Network talks about how far we still have to go to normalize breastfeeding in our society.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Who needs normal anyway?

Photo by Dug Blane
My son has always sung from a different hymn sheet. He was special in the modern sense of the word that in less enlightened times would have been labelled backward or delinquent. 

He was none of those. He was dyslexic and he was thrawn, which is one of those old Scots words that has no exact translation into English. Stubborn, obstinate, determined to do things his own way. All that and more. A battle of wills between a mum and a one-year-old should end in mum's will prevailing, the child-rearing manuals tell us. Aye right. 

From an early age he was always breaking things. If he didn't break them he bent them out of shape. We gave him a Rubik's cube once and within an hour it was a bunch of brightly coloured bits, aesthetically arranged on the kitchen floor. A trike became a dismantled wheel and pedal mobile, suspended from the ceiling.  

His mum said he was a vandal but I figured him for a young engineer, taking things apart to see how they worked. The same idea occurred to him, so he studied car mechanics at college for a while. He was good at it but it wasn't really him. 

"I see being an artist hasn't made you less annoying," I tell him in the St Louis café bar at the far end of Dumbarton Road, as he shoogles our table and keeps on shoogling it, long after anyone else would have folded a menu and shoved it under the short leg.

"Just the opposite, as it goes," he says. "Thing is I've been hearing that from people all my life: "'What's that you're doing?' 'Stop it now!' 'Don't be so bloody annoying.'"

"Did you ever consider not being so bloody annoying?" I say. 

"I did, but it's like that writer's mum who said, 'Why be happy when you could be normal?'"

"That's a coincidence," I say. "I was talking about that with Carol the other day. Are you telling me you tried to be normal?"

"I wouldn't go that far," he says. "But if everyone tells you to stop doing stuff for years and years and years it has an effect. You do that stuff less. Which was all wrong for me."

He angles his head back so he can see under the table, then tries shoogling it from side to side, instead of back and forth. "Is it going to take years and years for you to stop doing that?" I say, as my coffee sloshes over and spreads across the surface.

"Sorry," he says. "The thing is, this is part of my artistic process."
Photo by Dug Blane

"That's becoming your answer to everything," I say. "'I'm sorry I burned down Westminster, your honour, with all the MPs inside it. It was part of my artistic process.'"

"Cracking idea," he says. "But listen. I'm only just getting this myselif. I've discovered there's different stages to fiddling with things - which I've done all my life without knowing why.

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then you annoy them, then they try to make you stop."

"Then you win?" I say. 

"Then you get art," he says. "Not always but often enough to make it worth sticking at it. That's what I've discovered. It validates all that fiddling I used to do, without knowing why I was doing it."

"Now that is really annoying, " I say. 

"What is?" he says. 

"As a dad who wants his son to succeed, I can't tell you to stop shoogling the table now, can I?"

"You can't," he says, giving it an extra shove that tips my cappuccino into my lap. 

"Performance art?" he says, looking pleased with himself.

"Behavioural science?" I say, smacking him gently round the head.


"They're your nail-varnished hands in the photo, aren't they?"

"They are."

"I don't want to sound stupid but what were you holding the camera with?"

"My other hand. I took two shots then photoshopped them together. If you look carefully you can see the join. A bit like the back of your ..... "

"Don't push your luck, son."

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Soul wings and roundabouts

Photo by Dug Blane
"I'm worried," I confide in Carol, as I'm driving her home after her work. 

"What about?" she says.

"I think I've made a wee mistake and condemned my soul to everlasting torment."

"Normal people mislay their car keys," she says. "How did you manage to lose your soul?"

"Susan was going to church this morning and wanted my company," I say. "Everyone there has been praying for wee Sally. She had a lot on her mind and didn't tell me what to do."

"And you received communion?" she says.

"I did," I say.

"But you're not a Catholic," she says. "You shouldn't have."

"I know that now. I've looked it up. But it seemed rude to stay seated. I did it with respect and good intentions. So I'll be all right, won't I?"

She says nothing, as I slow down to let a posse of tiny tots in triple pushchairs, shoved by green-smocked nursery workers, get safely across the road. 

"Won't I?" I ask again, and my peripheral vision tells me she's staring at me. 

"I don't think so," she says at last. "I think you're screwed."

"Define 'screwed'," I say.

"Eternity in the big bad fire, tormented by demons."

"That's screwed," I tell her. "Can I get a second opinion?" 

"You should," she says. "Talk to the priest. Explain what happened. The trouble is you weren't in a state of grace when you received communion."

"Because I'm not a Catholic?" I say.

"Because your soul is stained with unrepented mortal sin," she says.

"I don't think so," I say. "I'm a good guy."

"You'd be surprised," she says. "It's a long list."

"Such as?" I say.

"Such as homosexual acts, idolatry, incest, lying and masturbation," she says. "You're in the frame for at least one of those, I'm thinking."

"I am," I say. "I don't want to talk about it. It's embarrassing."

"We've all done it," she says. 

"Worn an amulet of the Buddha and rubbed it at times of stress?" I say. 

"Oh, right," she says. "Idolatry. No, I've not done that."

The nursery worker at the tail end of the expedition smiles in our direction, and a ginger-haired squirt in the buggy she's shoving waves at us. I wave back at him, slip the car into gear and pull gently away.

"You are down for one on that list though," I say. 

"I am," she says. "I can't go to church now because of it."

"I thought God allowed gay feelings," I say. "As long as you don't act on them. Tell Him you haven't done it in a while."

"I'm hoping that'll change," she says. "I want a long-term relationship. If I promise God stuff I can't stick to, it'll make things worse."

"Worse than eternal damnation?" I say.

"Satan's inventive," she says.

"It's a high price to pay for being yourself," I say. "Reminds me of Jeanette Winterson's mum: 'Why be happy when you could be normal?'"

"Like you have a choice," Carol says. "And occasionally it is easier being a lesbian."

"Yeah, when?" I say.

"When I was stopped by the police a few months back. I got confused at a roundabout, with them in a car behind me. They pulled me over and gave me a hard time and endless questions. Then I mentioned my girlfriend and they're like 'Whoa', and let me go right away."

"Scared of being done for discrimination?" I say.

"Right," she says. "It's called 'playing the gay card'."

"Any idea what card I should play when I talk to the priest?" I say. 

She studies me in silence some more. "Perplexed Protestant," she says.

"I'm not a Protestant," I say. 

"Brainless Buddhist," she says.

"I can do that," I say.

"I know you can," she says.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

It's possible to be too attractive

The firm conviction that no animal is ever going to hurt me would, if I lived in some parts of the world, be a fatal error.

I don't believe for instance the stories about hippos being deadly killers. They live on leaves, bark and vegetation, for heaven's sake, which is pretty much what I eat every day. Vegetarians aren't dangerous.

I like spiders and snakes, having had a tarantula walk on my hands and an African rock python wrapped around my neck. 

The snake smelled my forearm with a darting tongue before nuzzling the back of my hand with its head, as a cat would, while the spider touched my palm softly with her foot, feeling for danger and finding none, before planting her surprisingly heavy body and raising another tentative leg for the next stepIn both cases I got a strong feeling of shared sentience. 

All this, I'm guessing, has its origins in a childhood spent in Scotland, a country devoid of dangerous animals, except for the female Homo sapiens, which will attack when provoked and has been known to bite the head off the male after mating. 

So when the biggest pig I've ever seen comes lumbering out of the New Forest at me, I stand my ground, certain I won't get hurt, despite the huge disparity in our weights and probably intelligence

Sure enough the quarter-tonne sow stops short of trampling me into the dust and contents herself with nuzzling my groin with a wet and substantial snout. 

The civilities satisfied, she hangs out with me for a while on the grass verge before, like an oil tanker at sea, turning majestically into the wind and setting off into the woods again, on a mission that Rachel explains to me, as we stroll back to the car. 

"It's called pannage," she says.  

"What is?" I say, furtively wiping my trousers and hoping sow slobber doesn't leave stains.

"What you've just seen," she says. "The owners release their pigs in the autumn to wander around the forest, eating the acorns that could otherwise poison horses and cattle. It's a practice that goes back centuries. It's even mentioned in the Domesday Book."

"Fascinating," I say. "My Mum thought pigs were great. Her grandparents had smallholdings in Shropshire, and she'd often spend holidays there as a child. They kept pigs, hens and ducks, she told us, and she loved them all. The pigs, she said, were especially affectionate."

"They are sociable animals," Rachel says. "And at least as smart as a three-year-old child. They're very clean too, contrary to their image. Newborn piglets leave the nest to go to the toilet within a few hours of being born."

"Impressive," I tell her. "It took me years."

"What's more, pigs don't eat like pigs," she says. "They take it slow and savour their food. I'm with your Mum. Pigs are gorgeous. According to one biologist, no other animal is as curious and willing to explore new experiences. "Pigs are incurable optimists," he says, "and get a big kick out of just being."

"Are they ever dangerous?" I ask.

"Only if you threaten their young," she says. "Or look like competition to a dominant male for the affections of a female."

"What?" I say in sudden alarm, ending the fruitless trouser-wiping and looking up to see another pig, even bigger than the first, emerge from the trees, sniff the air and fix an undeniably irate eye on the two of us.

"Tell me something," I say, lengthening my stride and trying to estimate our chances of reaching the car before this big boar gets to us. "How attractive, on a scale of one to ten, would you say that sow just found me?"

"Ten," she says.

"Run!" I tell her.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Who's the woman in this relationship?

Insults in Scotland are a form of bonding, a cultural device that doesn't travel well I discovered when I first went to England to work, and tossed a bit of friendly banter at a guy called Granville, who took mortal offence and never spoke to me again.

"Big girl's blouse," I thought, until I grew some cultural antennae and noticed the attention to courtesy, even among good friends, that prevails among our southern neighbours. 

Then on a writing trip to Helsinki a couple of years ago, I found Finns using gentle insults in the Scots fashion, and came up with the theory that it's about resisting pressure to conform from a powerful senior partner - both Sweden and Russia having laid claim to Finland throughout much of its history.

I still believe there's some truth in this. What I know for sure is that creative insults, done with humour in the right company, can generate shared pleasure at being on the same wavelength. 

But there is a line. And Susan just crossed it. 

"No I wouldn't," I tell her in Mary's house, where we've gathered on January 1st, to get the New Year off to the traditional sociable start, with whisky, chat and Belgian chocolate.

"You wouldn't what?" Carol says, coming through from the kitchen. "And why are you sitting so far from Big John on the couch?" 

"They were closer a moment ago," Susan says. "Much closer," she adds archly. "They separated when I asked if they were exploring their gay side."

"And I said I didn't have a gay side," John says. "But if I did, I'd be the man.

"I agreed," Susan says, nodding at me. "And he'd be the woman."

Carol takes a cursory glance at the two of us and sits down in the middle of the sofa. "He would," she announces. "Anybody can see that."

"No they can't," I say, feeling beleaguered. "I don't want to be the woman. I got nothing against women. I like women. I just don't want to be one."

"All we mean is that you have a soft side," Carol says, patting me on the thigh. "You're sensitive," she says, stroking my arm. "It's a good thing."

"That's right," Susan says, keeping her face straight with a struggle. "Lots of guys would envy you."

"Do you envy me?" I ask John and his laugh is loud, raucous and, to my sensitive ear, bloody tactless. 

"He doesn't envy me," I say. "Listen, I got in touch with my feminine side once. She didn't like me."

"Build a bridge," John says, in his gruff, manly way. "Get over it. It's all hypothetical anyway. We're not gay. You and I are not going to have a relationship."

"That's true," I say and start to chill. "This is excellent whisky, Mary," I tell her and she flashes her lovely smile across the room.

"Because if we were gay you wouldn't be my type," John adds.

"What?" I say, the tension back in an instant.

"You heard," he says. 

"This gets worse," I say. "I'm not just a woman. I'm a woman no one could fancy." 

"I fancy you," Susan whispers. "I'll show you when we get home."

I give her a smile and relax - too soon again.

"After you've washed the dishes and made the beds," she tells me.