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Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mother's Day with whistles

"Did you see a woman caught TB from her kitten?" my sister says, as she bustles around the kitchen, rustling up breakfast, the day after she'd flown back from Tenerife.

"How did her kitten get it?" I say.

"A badger bit him," she says.

"Ha!" I say and her cat shoots up from my feet and hurtles through to the living-room. I keep forgetting what a nervous nelly he is and I shouldn't, because I've been looking after him for a week while sis has been sunning herself, way down south. 

"You're only back five minutes and you've been at the Daily Mail already," I say.

"There's a lot of good reading in the Daily Mail," she says. 

"There's a lot of good fertiliser in horseshit," I say. "But you don't want it in the house with you."

"You wouldn't be talking like that if Mum was here. What would she say?"

"Oh, Douuglas," I imitate the lengthy first syllable and falling intonation she always used to convey her disappointment that all that good training she'd given me as a boy had failed to stick, and I was talking uncouth rubbish again.

"Exactly," sis tells me, with a smile. "And this is still her kitchen, so less of it please."

"Point is you should be asking questions, not just parroting stuff people tell you," I say. "Stories often have an agenda and that one's obvious."

"I wasn't parroting stuff," she says, with the tone that's told me to back off since we were kids together. "Where would you like this?" she adds, hovering over me with a heaped frying-pan of eggs, mushrooms and veggie sausages. 

"On the plate?" I suggest and she slaps it there with two quick scoops of a fish slice, then sits down opposite. 

"I'll let you off because you've been looking after my old cat all week," she says, stroking the little bugger, who has padded cautiously back, given me a body swerve and climbed up on her knee. "He seems fine."

"He wasn't eating much the first few days," I tell her. "Seemed listless so I was worried. He perked up after I set the kitchen on fire."

"You didn't?" she says, looking round in alarm.

"Not the whole of it," I say. "Just the grill when I was toasting sugary French bread. Smoke and flames erupted and he came diving through to tell me. Been perky ever since. The adrenalin I guess."

She tickles him behind the ear, while studying the little bunch of daffodils on the window-sill that burst into bloom yesterday, and I know what she's thinking. 

"This was Mum's favourite time of year," she says. "She loved spring flowers. Like a patch of sunshine in the house, she'd say."

"She loved the cat too," I tell her. "Used to sit stroking him on her knee, like you're doing now. Then you'd come into the room and he'd jump down to greet you and a wee shadow would cross her face. She liked to think he was her cat."

"He was her cat," sis says and looks away. "We're going to have to scatter her ashes this year, you know. Hers and Dad's. In that field up the Skares road where he lived as a boy."

"We will," I say. "It's what they both wanted, so we'll force ourselves. What was the most interesting thing you did on your holiday?"

"We took a boat trip to an island called La Gomera, which has deep ravines and no roads until the 1950s," she says. "So the natives invented a way of communicating based on whistling, which carries across country for miles. They gave us a demonstration and it was amazing. 

"Let me show you," she says, pressing a button on her mobile that starts a recording.

"That's fantastic," I say, having listened to several seconds of animated whistles. "But it only proves you can't believe everything people tell you, like I've been saying. This is clearly a story made up for gullible tourists and I'll tell you why. That was not the whistling natives of La Gomera. That's bollocks.

"It was Tiny Clanger talking to the Soup Dragon. Which I keep on my mobile because it makes me laugh. Let me show you," I say, pressing a button that starts a recording.

She listens, looks at me sadly, then shakes her head.

"Oh, Douuglas," she says.

The truth about the whistling language of La Gomera.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Cool science

"Have you noticed how women always comment on the temperature when they enter a room?" I ask Rachel, as we're sat in the physics library at Glasgow University, trying to make progress on our educational project, while ventilator fans in the wall blast out cool air. 

"No," she says.

"That's because unlike me you are not a trained observer," I tell her.

"You've got your jumper on inside out and are wearing odd socks," she says. "I have a PhD in nuclear physics. Which makes me the trained observer, I believe. We don't just make stuff up."

"Quarks, gluons, colour, strangeness and charm?" I say. "Course you make it up and I'll tell you how I know. You can't buy any of that stuff on eBay. So it doesn't exist."

"For once there's a tiny particle of sense in your wittering," she says.

"There is?" I say.

"You're like a machine-gunner on a firing-range having an epileptic fit while standing on a turntable," she says. "One bullet in a million hits the target. Women do feel temperature differently."

"Is that because they're robots planted on Earth by aliens running experiments on pain and suffering?" I say.

"No it's because they have extra insulation," she says. "So their core temperature stays high at the expense of their extremities. They are also smaller on average so they lose heat faster. Pygmy shrews have the same problem."

"But don't complain about it nearly as much."

"They have to eat every four hours or die of cold," she says. "Elephants have the opposite problem. They struggle to keep cool. It's why they have big ears."

"I thought that was because Noddy wouldn't pay the ransom," I say, and she ignores me again. 

"Small objects have more surface area for their size than large ones," she says. "It's why you shouldn't eat the tasty little chips at the bottom of the bag. More surface means more grease for the same potato." 

"I heard frogs freeze solid in winter," I say, keen to keep her distracted from my progress on the forty actions she gave me last week, only three of which I've done. "Is that true?"

"The North American wood frog does," she says. "Completely solid. Then when the thaw comes, its little heart starts beating again and it gives itself a shake."

"And wanders off to look for female frogs," I say. "Who go 'It's bloody cold around here. Why can't you do something about it - call yourself a frog?'"

"I have no knowledge of the conversational habits of amphibians," she says, turning to look through the tall bay window behind us. 

"See that building up the grassy slope?" she says. "A man called William Thompson laid the foundations of the science of heat and energy when he lived there. He was the first scientist to be given a peerage for his work - Lord Kelvin."

"I remember studying heat and energy when I was young," I tell her. "We had a Three Laws of Thermodynamics for dummies that went like this:

1. You can't win. You can only break even.
2. You can break even only at absolute zero.
3. You can't reach absolute zero."

She nods. "Basically you can never make a perpetual motion machine," she says. "But things work better the colder they get."

"Except women," I say.

"Except women," she says, standing up and reaching for her jacket. "It's bloody freezing in here. Let's go get a coffee."

More science:

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Third year they go nuts

"I don't want you writing about my girlfriend," my son tells me, as we're sat in the bay window of his old friend Matt's spacious, south-facing flat, overlooking the bowling club.

"I haven't," I tell him. "I mentioned she lives in Carlisle, she's called Linda and she's a musician. That's it. I know nothing about your girlfriend. I imagine she's smart, decent, creative and good-looking, because you're all of those. But I have no idea. I've never seen her."

"Well I've had complaints," he tells me. "Personally I wouldn't know what you write because I don't read it."

"Well I do," Matt says "I'm his biggest fan and what he's saying is true."

"You want to know why I never read it?" my son says.

"No," I tell him.

"You quote me out of context."

"People always say that about journalists," I tell him. "But the context is invariably a long, rambling, tedious pile of horseshit that no one would read. We select the most interesting parts and make people sound intelligent. You should be thanking us. But you're missing a more important point. You want to know what that is?"

"No," he tells me.

"What I do these days is not journalism. It's imaginative writing. It's art. I make stuff up, same as you. My medium is words where yours is paint, clay and planks of fungus-infested wood. I expected other people to confuse art and reality, but I figured you for smarter than that. 

"The son in the blog is not you. The son's girlfriend is not your girlfriend. Susan is not my girlfriend. The narrator is not me. He's an idiot for heaven's sake. How could that be me?"

The two of them study their tea with surprising interest, so I push the point. "He's the kind of guy that would stick a list of instructions to himself on the bathroom mirror, starting "Get up. Brush teeth. Go downstairs."

"My mother says you did that when we lived in Derby," he says.

"Bad example," I say. "He's the kind of guy that uses a satnav to get to the village shop and back."

"I've seen you do that," he says.

"Bad example again," I say. "He's the kind of guy ... Look just take it from me the narrator is an idiot. I write him that way so no one could confuse him with me, or anyone in the blog with real people. Reality is reality. Art is art."

"Speaking of art," Matt says, passing me his mobile phone, showing an image of a blonde female. "What do you think of her?"

"Pretty," I say.

"Then there's her and her," he says, touching the screen to display an attractive brunette then another blonde.

"You know these women?" I ask. 

"Met them online," he says. "It's this mobile site called Tinder that hooks you up with women in the neighborhood. Been out with five in the past week."

"Listen, I don't want to sound like an old fogey," I say. 

"Stop talking then," my son says.

"But at your age shouldn't you have a more mature attitude to women? You've been doing casual and uninvolved all your life."

"You got me wrong, chief," Matt says. "I want a serious relationship. But the longest I've managed is three years. There's a pattern. First year great. Second year the arguments start. Third year they go nuts and start fighting about everything and I tell them to beat it. I've a theory about women."

"We've all got one of those," I say. "Mine is that they're robots planted on Earth by aliens running experiments on pain and suffering." 

"Mine is that they're all mental," Matt says. "They can hide it for a while, some even a year or two. But sooner or later out it comes."

"Reminds me of a PG Wodehouse line," I say. "'It's no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.'"

"Yeah, that's it exactly," Matt says. "Sooner or later, out pops the meat cleaver and the throbbing veins in the head."

"You been quiet a while," I say to my son, who's cradling his mug in his hands and staring out the window at white-shirted bowlers on the sunlit lawn below. "What's your theory about women? Aliens, parallel evolution, incurably insane?"

"Well," he says, lowering his mug to the table. "Obviously I don't have as much experience as you two masterminds. But it seems to me that ...."

"What?" Matt says. "Spit it out."

"Women are people," my son says, and Matt and I stare at each other blankly for a moment.  

"Yeah, good one!" Matt laughs and slaps him on the back. "You going to write all this up for your blog, chief?" he says, standing up and starting to clear the table.

"Course not," I tell him. "Wouldn't be fiction if I did."

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Koalas, kangaroos and sheep

So I'm sat in my sister's house late at night, sipping Isle of Jura, and wondering how everyone is getting on. 

She has flown off to Teneriffe with her old college friend, leaving me to look after her aged and possibly ailing cat for a week. My son's in England with his girlfriend. Rachel has gone back to Southampton. I've not seen Al in ages. And Susan is as as far away from Scotland as you can get, without leaving the planet. 

So I take another sip and my mind wanders back to my first contacts with Australians, many years ago. I can remember a pervert, a garrulous and tiresome cook who couldn't stand Scottish weather, and a female rugby player who stole my heart and my socks. 

Then I read about funnel web spiders, which are so ferocious they jump up and bite you in the neck, even if you climb on the table to escape them. I've since learned that might not be true, but it scared me, I can tell you.

So for a while I wasn't keen on Australians or Australia. Then along came Guantanamera and my feelings softened. 

The name means "woman from Guantánamo" and it's the title of a traditional Cuban song, with different lyrics down the years, the most successful of which were recorded by an easy listening group called the Sandpipers, based on an arrangement by Pete Seeger.

Now the thing about easy listening is it's damn hard to listen to. Seeger was a folk singer with his heart in the right place but too much twee in his music, and the Sandpipers' song was stuffed with saccharine. 

"Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crecen las palmas," they sang soulfully, then spoke the translation to the accompaniment of soft guitars. "I am a truthful man from the land of the palm trees. And before dying, I want to share these poems of my soul. My poems are soft green. My poems are flaming crimson. My poems are like a wounded fawn seeking refuge in the forest."

Yeah I know. Me too. This was the year the Beatles released Revolver, the Stones came out with Aftermath and Dylan made Blonde on Blonde. So I tried to mask the sound of the Sandpipers with real music, but their soppy song was everywhere. 

Fast forward 20 years and Scotland is playing Australia for a place in the World Cup finals. I was there at Hampden with my eldest son David, who was eight at the time and got to see Kenny Dalglish in one of his last Scotland appearances. He was a big fan in those days, and so was I.

It was an emotional night. Right after we'd scored the goal in Wales that got us to this play-off, Scotland manager Jock Stein had died suddenly. Stein was the best club manager Scotland ever possessed. Never before or since could our small country boast the top football team in the world, which Celtic were in the second half of the 60s. 

So the place was packed and the Hampden roar louder than I'd ever heard it. Australia got the ball and the crowd burst into tuneful song. The tune was Guantanamera and the chorus should have gone like this:

"Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera
Guantanamera, guajira Guantanamera"

But those were not the words issuing from 65,000 lusty throats that night. Oh no. What the young Australians heard every time they touched the ball was: 

"Sheep-shagging bastards, you're only sheep-shagging bastards.
Sheep-shagging baa-stards, you're only sheep-shagging baa-stards."

The words fit the music and the rhythm of the song to perfection. It shook the Aussies up, they lost 2-0 and I've had a soft spot for Australia ever since.

My mobile phone rings suddenly, dragging me back to the present, and Susan's smiling face appears on screen. "Watcha, mate," she says. "Are you missing me?"

"Nah," I tell her. "I'm too busy."

"You would love it here," she says. "I've not seen any of those funnel webs you warned me about. I think you made that up. But we have seen koalas, kangaroos and sheep. There are loads of sheep here."

"But not many wounded fawns in the forest or good football players," I say.

"What?" she says. "You're gibbering again."

"Sorry," I say. "Must be the jet-lag."

"You don't have jet-lag," she says, speaking slowly. "I have jet-lag. I'm the one who flew to Australia. You've been sat in Scotland, working you tell me. But drinking whisky since I left, by the sound of it."

"According to relativity there are no preferred reference frames," I tell her. "So there is a valid viewpoint in which you stayed still, Australia came to you and I got the jet-lag."

"I would give you a slap if I could reach you," she says. "Do you want to hear about our day out along the Great Ocean Road or don't you?"

"I do," I say, pouring myself a large one and slinging my leg over the arm of the chair. "Tell me all about it, cobber."

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Down under II

Your body is a little factory, full of moving parts you know nothing about. So is mine. 

We all have a fair grasp of what's happening on the outside - heads, hands, genitals, feet and so on, although even they do strange things sometimes. I have no idea why my right leg keeps trying to do the elastico, when it knows I trip over the ball every time.

But our insides are pretty much unknown territory. So when the doc tells you the plunger of your hypothalamus has stopped reciprocating so take these tablets and come back in a month, we say thanks and go away.

But as time passes, I have to tell you, certain parts of your insides draw themselves to your attention. Down in the nether regions, guys, between your scrotum and anus is a featureless stretch that you never see or think about, as a carefree youth. So when you start getting pains there, as I did when I was 40, you have no idea why and you visit the doc.

"It's your prostate," he says and you go "So that's where it lives." 

You have heard of it, because prostate cancer killed Frank Zappa, and you knew it was something to do with the reproductive system. Now suddenly you've a good reason to find out more.

The prostate's job, it seems, is to make a milky fluid, mix it with sperm and insert the resulting semen into the urethra, bound for parts unknown, during ejaculation. 

A healthy human prostate is slightly larger than a walnut and occupies a space just below the bladder and wrapped around the urethra - the tube that carries urine to a toilet bowl or beer can, depending where you are when nature calls.

Which brings us to the first sign that something's not right with the walnut. Nature calls more often. As the years advance the little guy grows to the size of a tomato, an apple, even a grapefruit, and starts squishing your bladder and reducing its capacity. It's called benign prostatic hyperplasia and it's a nuisance. But it's not dangerous.

Prostate cancer is, and the symptoms can be similar. To get some idea which one you've got, the doc feels your prostate with his finger, and at this point viewers of a nervous disposition might want to look away.

Because there are two ways in to the walnut, as you can see from the image up above (that's not me, by the way). One is through the anus, the other up the urethra, and here's where nature for once gives us a break, guys. 

Because I'll guarantee if the urethra was wide enough to take it, that's where your doc would be sticking his vaseline-lubricated wiggly little finger. Think about that.  

But it's not wide enough, thank god, so he goes up the anus instead. Which is intrusive and a bit disturbing, but not in the least painfulOnce he's in there and feeling for hard bumpy bits on the outside of your prostate, it's fine. I recommend thinking about the football scores and avoiding eye contact till it's over.

When I was forty what I had, it turned out, was prostatitis, which is one of those medical terms that means nothing. It's not cancer and it's not hyperplasia. It could be inflammation or infection. Basically the prostate is irritated, for some reason, and is telling you about it. So the doc gives you antibiotics and either they fix it or time does, and you forget about it for another 20 years. 

Then a few months ago mine gets irritated again and I leave it for a while then phone to make an appointment. "The only doctor available this week is new in the practice - Dr Davidson," the receptionist says. "That's fine," I say and toddle up to the surgery the next day at the appointed hour. 

It feels different this time, so I'm a wee bit worried as I sit in the waiting-room, reading Country Life and sincerely hoping the guy on the cover, carrying a gun and two dead pheasants, has a prostate the size of his brainless head. 

"Mr Blane," the receptionist calls and I head along the corridor, knock, enter and do a double-take. Dr Davidson is a slim, short-haired blonde woman, who looks about 15 but is probably 25. 

"Have a seat," she says. "What can I do for you?" 

Normally slow and steady, rather than lightning-fast, my brain zips ahead to the next five minutes and acts decisively for once. 

"I've come for my flu injection," I tell her.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Down under

"You ever been to Australia then?" Susan asks, as we're sat in the Sports Bar at Glasgow Airport, waiting for the plane that will take her to the other side of the world to visit her long-lost son, the Melbourne chef.

"Closest I got was watching I'm a Celebrity for longer than I like to admit," I tell her. "There's something compulsive about seeing celebs starved and humiliated by two chirpy twats in a jungle. Like Christians in the Coliseum but with less lions and more bras in the shower."

"I'm excited," she says, clenching her fists and shaking, the way little kids do.

"Me too," I say. "Three weeks of ironing my own shirts and sleeping alone. I can hardly wait."

"You do that now," she says.

"Yeah but if you're in the same country there's always a chance you might ... iron one of my shirts."

"No there isn't," she says.

"In that case you can bugger off and I won't miss you," I tell her.

"Yes you will," she says.

"Yes I will," I say, stirring my cappuccino with the little wooden sticks you get in airport bars these days, in case you steal their spoons. Only reason I get cappuccino is I like spooning the spicy froth into my mouth. You can't do that with little wooden sticks, I think, feeling sorry for myself and resting my head on my hand.

"I'm going to miss little Sally," Susan says, her eyes misty for the first time. "I've never gone three weeks without seeing her. Tell her not to start walking till I get back. I want to be there.

"Hey, cheer up," she adds, leaning over and knocking my elbow away, so my head drops suddenly, the way she did on our first date. (I'm not kidding. She only got a second by being irresistible.) "Three weeks will fly past. Tell me what you know about Australians."

"Well, let's see," I say. "They invented the boomerang, the didgeridoo and the Great Barrier Reef, which is a form of contraception made of coral. Famous Australians include Ned Kelly, who wore a dustbin on his head because he looked like Mick Jagger, and Germaine Greer who invented the female orgasm."

"Why can't you scientists invent something useful like that?" she says.

"Greer is also to blame for the modern female," I say. "Before they read her poisonous propaganda, women looked lovely, wore lipstick and aprons and said 'Have the men had their tea yet? Afterwards they dressed like plumbers and said 'God made men because vibrators can't cut the grass.'"

"I like that," Susan says.

"It's sexist and offensive," I tell her.

"That's what I like about it," she says, standing up. "It's time to go."

"It can't be," I say. "We only just got here."

"That's because you got lost, then drove round the airport three times looking for the short stay car park."

"It's hard to find."

"I know," she says, patting me on the arm. "They put it under huge signs saying 'Short Stay Car Park' just to confuse you."

I lift my coffee, take a sip and study her over the rim of the mug. The prospect of flying across deep oceans to a strange land, all on her own and carrying needles and necessary medicines that need to be kept at the right temperature, and could easily be confiscated by a hundred jobsworths she'll meet in the next 11,000 miles, seems to be fazing her not in the slightest.

It's one of the things I admire about Susan. If something seems scary she's more likely to do it, not less. She's not an adrenalin junky though. Just brave.

"Will you be all right?" I say.

"Yeah," she says. "Will you?"

"Yeah," I tell her.

"You fancy a nice present from Australia?" she says.

"I do."

"Name it."

"Come back safe," I say and hold her close. "Don't get eaten by crocodiles."

"They wouldn't dare," she says, marching briskly off across the marbled floor.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Decline and fall

The nice thing about writing a blog rather than the history of the Roman Empire, is the social media feedback you get. Edward Gibbon would have been a lot more readable if he'd had a poke once in a while.

So at first I was delighted with Marion's comment on yesterday's post, when she reminded me that some women are more tolerant than others of drums in the houseTwo of her sons are drummers and their kit, she said, would often oust her "artfully arranged cushions". 

"It's a small price to pay for fostering your kids' musical ability," I tell her over a cappuccino in the iCafe on Woodlands Road. "Cushions serve no useful purpose, either inside a house or out."

"Just like men then," she says, getting our chat off on the wrong foot right away. "Cushions are art, which is just as fundamental to human culture as music and maybe more so."

"Cushions are not art," I say, spooning the sweet cinnamon froth from my drink. "They are soft, girly, fluffy, pointless, intrusive, often excessive and always annoying. They take up space that would be far better occupied by almost anything else you can imagine."

"Such as what?" she says.

"Books, people, spanners, a small cocktail bar, a Lithuanian lifejacket, a plastic model of Cliff Richard playing strip poker in his socks." 

"Don't be ridiculous," she says, daintily sipping her toffee caramel latte. "What's so difficult about drumming anyway that you guys have to practise endlessly? You're just whacking a skin with a stick. It's not hard and it's barely music."

I look at her in horror. This is the mother of two dedicated drummers, for god's sake. "You have to get the sticking into your muscle memory," I tell her. "It takes time. With the drums in my living-room I've been practising 10 minutes an hour for three months. Do the sums that's a total of ..." 

I start multiplying in my head and realise my arithmetic's too slow. "Forty gazillion billion drumbeats," I say, reckoning there's no way an artist will question a physicist about figures.

"There is no such number," she tells me scornfully. 

"What do you know about numbers?" I say.

"Plenty," she says. "I have a doctorate in education."

"Really?" I say.

"I did an empirical study of learning and teaching in Scotland's colleges using phenomenology," she says.

"Is that supposed to impress me?" I say. 

"It should," she says. "You couldn't spell phenomenology. I'd be surprised if you could even say it."

"Of course I can say it," I tell her. 

"Go on then," she says.

Phenomenonol ...," I say then stop and try again. "Phenomenomenology."

"Ha!" she says. "I rest my case. What you need pal is more practice with the muscle memory of your brain."

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Dancing cheek to cheek

One of the advantages of living 60 miles from a woman is that you can do things in your own house they wouldn't dream of letting you, if they were closer. 

I don't mean 60 miles from any woman of course. That would be impossible. Scientists have shown that there are woman all over the surface of the Earth and you are never more than six feet away from one. No hang on a minute, I think that's brown rats. 

Sorry guys, I read so much science these days I get confused. Where was I? That's right, doing things she wouldn't let me. Now I'm not talking about deviant stuff with bras and pants and high heels and fishnet tights and ... Ahem. 

I don't do that stuff. I'm talking about drumming. Show me any woman who would let you set your drum kit up in the living room and I'll give you a fiver. I don't believe there is one, anywhere in the world. But as my son says, there's always somebody somewhere complaining about something

"Did I hear you playing the bongos in there," the postman says, as he hands me the usual bundle of bills and tempting offers to join the mega-rich by working two days a month selling yellow snow to eskimos.

"Certainly not," I say. "I was working."  

"No you weren't," he says, shaking his head and wagging his finger at me. "I heard you."

Now this postman looks like Pat but his real name's Jim. He does share many of that affable character's qualities though. He's a friendly guy with a cat, a ready smile and a well developed community spirit. He cuts old people's lawns. So he's a nice man. But - and here's the problem - Postman Jim will talk bollocks on your doorstep all day long, if you let him. 

"It wasn't the bongos," I say. "Only guys with snake hips and small lecherous moustaches play the bongos. I was playing a drum kit. 

"In your living-room?"

"In my living-room."

"Don't the neighbours complain?"

"No they don't. Years of practising my grumpy bastard at No 3 persona has trained them to ignore me. Besides I've got double glazing and I use light sticks, so they can't hear me."

"I could hear you."

"You have bats' ears and were on my doorstep."

"No need to get personal," he says. "Listen, I love drums. Can I come in and listen?"

"No you can't," I say. "Don't you have letters to deliver and a cat to feed?"

"What kind of music are you into?" he says "Rock, jazz, blues?

"Rock now but I want to play everything," I say. "Even Beethoven's 9th Symphony."

"I like rock best," he says. "Used to listen to bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd."

"Good stuff," I say, starting to shut the door. "See ya."

"Lemme tell you a story about the time I saw the Sensational Alex Harvey Band play live at Cameron Park," he says, shoving his foot in the door and giving me no option.

"Make it quick," I say. "I got work to do."

"So they're playing Dancing Cheek to Cheek and they've got these three gorgeous backing singers, and Alex keeps going behind them and bending down, putting his head close, as he's singing. Geddit?"

"Hilarious," I say.

"That wasn't the best bit," he says. "He gets to the end of the song and these women turn round and there's no back to their skirts. It blew me away. I've never really got over it. 

"I was headed for university till I went to that concert. Now I can hardly navigate around the village. Sometimes I put people's letters in their dogs' mouths instead of their letter-box. It's a tragedy. I should have been a nuclear physicist." 

"There's still time," I say reaching to my bookshelf beside the door and handing him Feynman's Lectures Volume III. "Go read that and we'll talk again in a month." 

"Thanks," he says. "Hey, I'm a drummer too. I'm going to beat it now. Ha ha."   

"Ha ha," I say and close the door.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

That's not funny

My son's first academic essay met with mixed success, he tells me as we're headed to Glasgow University Library to find the books he needs to help him write his second.

"I passed," he says. "But the tutor didn't like my 'regrettable attempts at humour'. That's worrying. I didn't know there were any. Must have sneaked in when I wasn't looking."

"Humour does that," I say. "I used to get 'You are childish and unfunny' from my English teacher at school. And my former wife, come to think of it. Usually followed by 'Put your clothes on.'"

"Your teacher?" 

"My wife. Now I get told my writing is 'useless drivel'. I once got a rejection letter from some snot-nosed punk straight out of journalism school, who told me he aimed to discourage 'tired jokes and hoary old clichés'.

"The column of a colleague, which I always enjoyed, was dismissed by one reader as 'worthless and uninteresting small talk'."

"Pompous people are scared of humour," he tells me, stepping unhindered through the turnstile and continuing talking as he fades in the distance, while the metal bar catches me in the fleshy parts, setting off a siren and causing armed guards to erupt from the door behind the desk.

"On the ground!" the first one barks out the side of his mouth, flexing a bicep like the dome of St Paul's. "Show your ID!"

"Oh bugger," I think to myself. I was supposed to get a new staff card ages ago, so the electronics in mine must still be using valves instead of transistors. Also the photo of my face has faded so it's just a dim, grey, shapeless blob.

"Good likeness," the guard says, studying the card. "You may enter."

"What was that about?" my son says, when I catch up with him in the short loan section.

"Dodgy admin again," I say. "I need a secretary."

"Me too," he says. "What books are you looking for?"

"Got an article to write on the science of pain," I tell him. "Actually not just the science. They've had me talking to scientists, engineers and philosophers around the Uni, all researching aspects of pain."

"I like philosophers," he says. "The Art School is big on Michel Foucault. One of his critics called him 'an intellectually dishonest, empirically unreliable, crypto-normativist seducer of Postmodernism.' So I guess you and I got off lightly."

"I studied philosophy for a while," I tell him. "We had this lecturer who'd go 'What do we mean by pain?' Then he'd stop and scratch his big, bushy beard. Then he'd go 'What do we mean by mean.'"

"See that's the trouble with philosophy," my son says. "You can easily disappear up your own Aristotle."

"Regrettable attempt. What's the brief for your essay?"

"'Discuss with examples how maps reflect power over space, materials and people," he says, glancing at his notes and grimacing. "What is that about?"

"I wonder if we could combine our research and find maps of pain," I say.

"Like those sensory homunculi you get in science centres," he says. "You ever notice their hands and lips are huge, but other parts that seem sensitive aren't shown that way. Is that censorship or is it true?"

"These are deep waters, Watson," I tell him. "You'd need to ask Rachel. She's set up science centres around the world. So how are you going to keep humour out of this essay, when you come to write it, especially if you don't know you're doing it?" 

"I've been reading this article on how to stop yourself laughing at inappropriate times," he says. "It's packed with great suggestions. So when I start writing I plan to bite my lip and sit with my feet in a basin of icy water. That'll keep me serious." 

"I doubt it," I say. "What do you get from sitting on the ice too long, taking photographs?"

 "Polaroids," he says. "What's an ig?"

"A snow-house without a loo," I tell him, shaking my head. "Regrettable. Deeply regrettable."

Saturday, 1 March 2014

This is a man's country

I've seen better breakfasts than the one staring up at me in a Highland hotel in which Susan and I are spending a couple of nights, as a wee break before she jets off to Australia, to visit her son and get attacked by crocodiles and ravished by rugby players, though she denies of course that any of that will happen.

Scanning across the plate I got half a tomato, one burnt vegetarian sausage and a greasy egg laid by a discontented bantam, fed on french fries. That's all and the message couldn't be clearer.

"Look around you, pal. See these antlers and stags' heads? This is a man's country. Come up here with your poncy city ways and order vegetarian breakfast and that's what you get.

"Don't just sit there like a wimp," Susan tells me. "Get up and complain."

"Nah, nah, I've worked in hotel kitchens," I say. "I know what they do with complaints. They got a special kitchen porter to handle them."

"They don't," she tells me. "It's the manager." 

"Outside it's the manager," I say. "Inside it's a sweaty Neanderthal called Shug, who lurks in a dark corner of the kitchen, humming death metal songs and pulling dead flies out his navel. Anybody says their food's too small and greasy, they fry you two more eggs then wipe them dry on Shug's armpits."

"That's disgusting," she says.

"I'm only telling you what I've seen," I say. "I don't make this stuff up."

"Go and complain now," she says, with that look in her eye, and I get up and take the long walk across the carpet, pondering the changing attitudes to vegetarians over the years. 

When I stopped eating meat in the '70s there were only five vegetarians in the world. So there was nothing for us to eat. My first Christmas dinner I sat at a huge table, groaning with dead animals and surrounded by carnivore cousins who thought I was mad, and wondered what to do with the three tepid tomatoes stuffed with brown rice my mum had arranged aesthetically on the plate, to compensate for the total absence of gustatory appeal.

"I'm sorry," she said, genuinely concerned. "I couldn't find any nice recipes for you."

"It's all right, mum," I said, tucking in. "They're lovely."

About that time I made the mistake of going into another Highland hotel and asking for a meat-free meal. "What kind of vegetarian are you?" the manager said.

"The normal kind," I said.

"You don't get many of those," he roared, slapping his thigh and raising loud guffaws from the six sheep-shagging buffoons at the bar. 

Then in the eighties, the right-on comedians appeared, and pointed out that this was all very offensive to gays, vegetarians and black people. They were determined not to offend anybody and had a brilliant idea. They would never say anything funny again.

It caught on fast and soon all comedians were ruthlessly cutting everything that might remotely amuse anyone. But audiences were laughing louder than ever because they wanted to prove how inoffensive they were as well. 

One benefit of all this was that for a brief time people were nice to vegetarians and you could eat out with pleasure. Stout yeoman fare, like vegetarian pie, chips and beans appeared on menus. It was a halcyon age. But it didn't last. 

Nowadays it's almost as bad as it used to be. Basically you can have one of two hot meals, when you go out. There's vegetarian lasagne, made from alternating layers of barely edible plastic and a brown fungus scraped from the soles of postmen's feet. 

Then there's risotto, a tasteless sludge made from rice, eaten by poor people in Italy and used by the better-off to fill their cracks. If you'll pardon the expression.

"What is it?" the manager asks, when I reach the end of the room.

"I'm not happy," I say. 

"Me neither," he says. "What do you want me to do about it?"

"Give me a bigger breakfast that's not so greasy," I say.

He turns his head and shouts through to the kitchen. "Hey Shug, get your shirt off."

"Forget it," I tell him and turn and walk away.