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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Dutch courage

Like all basically honest people, Susan is hopeless at keeping stuff to herself. She has what we poker players call tells, little bodily movements that indicate she's uncomfortably aware of not giving you the whole truth. 

So my suspicions are aroused when she sets down two clinking glasses that sparkle in the low rays from the first sun we've seen in three days at Portavadie, and says. "They asked if I wanted Hendricks. But it's expensive. I said their own brand was fine."

Then she blinks twice and looks away.

"Good thinking," I tell her, lifting the cool drink to my lips and savouring the tang of citrus, juniper and quinine that bursts fresh from the most popular drink in the galaxy. "Our holiday kitty is getting low and all gin tastes the same anyway."

"You don't half talk bollocks at times," she says, gazing at the bars of pink cloud above the wind-rippled waters of Loch Fyne.

"Not at all," I tell her. "Malt whisky is by far the most complex distilled spirit. Everybody knows that. A good malt has hundreds of subtle aromas, with their origins in the water, the air, the cask, the peat and the intricate chemistry of ageing. 

"Vodka and gin are just raw alcohol for people with soft brains who want to get pissed by following fashion and knocking back kiddy drinks called cruiser, breezer, bruiser, greaser, soft screw, kiss mix and mudshake."

I take another sip and deliver the clincher. "Vodka is just distilled potato juice."

She refuses to be clinched. "Forget vodka," she says. "There is more to gin than you realise, pal. Your problem is you don't listen. You just go off on one. So you'll never learn any more than you know now."

"But that's loads," I tell her. "If I put more in it'll shove important stuff out, like how to drink beer and put my socks on. When I was young my brain was like a Dyson, sucking up great swathes of science and philosophy."

"But it blew a fuse long ago," she says. "Because it hoovered up too much half-chewed gum and balls of fluff. You need to get those out and more good stuff in."

"Go on then," I sigh. "Tell me about gin." 

She takes a long sip through the black, bendy straw favoured by big girls and poseurs, brushes a bumblebee away with the back of her hand and says, "Gin is a fairly modern drink. 

"But it comes from jenever, a traditional Dutch tipple flavoured with juniper berries and botanicals - a secret mix of herbs and spices. British soldiers are supposed to have drunk jenever for its calming effect before battle, which is where the term Dutch courage comes from."

"That's actually quite interesting," I tell her.

"Shut up and listen, Stephen," she tells me.

"Hendricks is a modern gin made in Scotland in a traditional way," she says. "They use two old stills bought at auction, which produce very different styles of spirit that they blend together. Besides the botanicals and aromatic juniper, they also use essence of cucumber and rose petal. The result is the 'best gin in the world', according to the Wall Street Journal."

"Well if I believed all that, I might have been tempted to get myself one and just say I'd bought the cheap stuff," I tell her.

She blinks twice and looks away. 

"You sneaky rat," I say and she smiles, sips her Hendricks and studies the sunset.

"I like holidays," she tells me.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Who's your favourite drummer?

The Wellgreen. Stu Kidd and Marco Rea. 
Years ago, on a writing job in Vienna, I found myself chatting in a dimly-lit bar with the classical music correspondent of The Herald, Michael Tumelty, a man whose writing I'd always admired for its fluency and erudition. 

In person, Tumelty turned out to be an old-school newspaper man, with cast-iron confidence and some scorn for upstarts who had sneaked in the back door, without serving their time on the news desk. So when I asked how long he took to write 1000 words for publication, his answer was intended less to inform than to illustrate the gulf between us. 

"Ten minutes," he told me, knocking back his tenth schnapps of the evening. "Give or take a minute or two."

I pondered this later and decided that even allowing for male bravado, a factor of thirty slower than Tumelty - I was delivering 200 words an hour at the time - needed attention. One improvement I found was to let particularly interesting people speak for themselves, rather than trying to interpret their words. 

So I started using emails and audio recorders to capture what they told me. Which is why I can assure you that this week's post is accurate reporting, rather than being embellished slightly for humorous effect, which is what you get here most weekends.

So I wandered down recently to Kelvingrove Park from Glasgow University, as I'd heard The Wellgreen were playing there and I'd never seen them live, despite their drummer Stu Kidd having come up several times in chats with my son, the artist and amateur philosopher. 

I get to the spot just in time for the start of their gig, sit on slightly damp grass and am immediately entranced by sixties-style songs, sweet three-part harmonies and Stu's effortlessly inventive drumming. He comes over to chat to me afterwards and I take the chance to learn from an expert again. 

"I think I heard Beatles, Bacharach and Wings in there, plus a wholly original Killearn creativity," I say. "Who's your favourite drummer Stu, and why?"

"I think you get two kinds of drummer - two kinds of musician," he says. "Those who serve themselves and those who serve the song. I love Keith Moon. Energetic and full of expression, he's a guy who seemed to hit everything in a ten yard radius but never dropped a beat. He never grooved but he didn't need to."

I'm struck immediately by the difference between Stu's response to questions on his craft and the reporter's 20 years earlier. Same air of assurance but this time accompanied by warmth and a willingness to share. Maybe it's the difference between a musician and a critic. Or maybe it's just that my son is a really good guy and so are his friends. 

"There is nothing more satisfying than letting your limbs and heart run free around a set of drums," Stu continues. "Slowly. It's harder than it looks. Each drummer is unique in terms of feel and expression. At the height of Beatlemania, Ringo's job was to hold down the four and don't bother with the toms, as you can't hear them through a sixties PA system in an 80,000 capacity stadium. He nailed it every time. 

"On records he opened up his hats and gave such a swing to some of their great songs, like All My Lovin' and A Hard Day's Night. Those hats. They're going straight, accompanying a straight song, but he swings it slightly. Side to side. Just a wee bit."

Stu smiles widely in the summer sunshine. "When someone asks me who my favourite drummer is, Ringo will always be the answer," he says. 

"Nobody grooves like Ringo."

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Aardvarks and antibiotics

A question you always get asked in hospitals is whether you're allergic to any medications. I've always said "No", but I'm starting to suspect I've been wrong all this time.

See I don't turn blue or gasp for breath, so I've never considered it an allergic reaction. But I'm beginning to believe it might be.

What happens is I seem to lose the executive functions of my brain, this being a term I heard for the first time this week, when one of the doctors said "You seem to have lost the executive functions of your brain."

Then he asked if someone could come and take me off his hands and seemed upset when I told him no. "Well you can't hang around here all day," he said. "Beat it."

I looked the term up later and found that executive functions are high-level brain activities that allow us to form plans, process information, regulate behaviour, make choices, solve problems and generally adjust to the changing demands of a complex and complicated world.

And if that last phrase strikes you as tautology it is not. A complex system is much more challenging than one that is only complicated. A good example of each, as this nice blog post illustrates, is raising a child and sending a rocket to the moon

Virtually all economists and politicians imagine complex systems are merely complicated, which is why we're all doomed. The folk with their fingers on the levers of power haven't a clue how the machine works.

Sorry guys. Seem to have lapsed into seriousness for a second. So anyway, if you lose all those executive functions, you can still walk and talk, though not at the same time. You can drive, though maybe you shouldn't. You can mow the lawn and feed the birds. 

What you can't do is decide which of those options, or a hundred others, you should be doing at any given moment. You can't make sensible choices. You can barely make any. Life becomes a kaleidoscope of choices, a multicoloured quantum superposition of possibilities.

What also happens to me is that my sensible speech filter stops working and my mouth goes into burbling mode. ("Nonsense boy," as my old Latin teacher used to say, when I made another ham-fisted attempt to translate Cicero. "Drivel, rubbish, tosh, poppycock, claptrap and other similar expressions.")

If you go shopping while under the influence, as I often do, it takes you three days to get out of the store. You float and glide and waft and wander. It's a weird feeling and I'm sure you're wondering by now what causes it. Well I'm glad you asked.

Antibiotics and anaesthetics. They're the worst. Then there's antihistamines and a fair number of analgesics. Basically anything that starts with the letter "a". 

So if I ate an aardvark I'd be in big trouble. Not that I ever would eat an aardvark, because a) I'm a vegetarian and b) you can't buy one down the Spar shop. At this point my Latin teacher, if he were here, would tell me to stop talking drivel again. But I can't. Why? 

Because I'm on a course of antibiotics and am trying to write about the effect antibiotics have on my brain while antibiotics are having that effect on my brain. Like Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn, I have become that most frustrating of all literary devices, the unreliable narrator. 

What's that? You don't believe a word I'm saying? It is all true. Honest it is.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Ice age advice

When you write a blog like mine you get a lot of fan mail. 

"I want to have your babies." "Please take these frilly knickers as a token of my affection." "My wife thinx your hot so I'm coming after your nadjers with a pair of rusty sissors, pal." Stuff like that.

Now and again a letter lands on the doormat that stimulates my thinking. This morning I got one addressed to "Mr F. Encounters, c/o Postman Jim, Devil's Gate". (I think the Post Office is wonderful, by the way.) Here is what it said.

"Dear Mr Encounters, My wife says there's no use asking you, because you're a bigger moron than me. But I figure someone who's been in serious scrapes all his life but isn't dead yet must have good problem-solving skills, as they say down the jobcentre. I got a fridge-freezer that is iced up so bad we can't get into our kitchen any more, and I'm worried about the polar bears. What should I do? Yours sincerely Nik Moss." 

Here's my reply.

Dear Nik, You have certainly come to the right place son, as I have had this problem several times myself. Other people will tell you to unplug the freezer and wait for the ice to melt. But these are sensible guys who defrost regularly. They are not you or I. It took the last Ice Age 5000 years to defrost. Nobody can wait that long for a cold beer.

Basically you got two choices, pal - a claw hammer or a blowtorch. Both are risky. Use too much force with the hammer and you start an avalanche and have to be rescued from the snow by sniffer dogs. Turn the blowtorch around to see if the flame is lit and you set your head on fire every time. Trust me on this.

Once deep into the ice, with torch or hammer, you will start finding objects that scare you. Most are sausages. The yeti or abominable snowman is a terrifying beast. But it lives in the Himalayas and is mythical, so you won't see any. Polar bears are dangerous but they rarely come to Scotland, as they don't like the rain. Who does?

That just leaves the woolly mammoth. If you dig too deep you are certain to find one. A thawed mammoth is a huge problem. There is no way you can get planning permission for tethering it to the side of your house. So it will have to live round the back. 

Mammoths fart much more than you want them to, like all vegetarians. This is both socially unacceptable and a major source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. That means your freezer has to work harder and will ice up even faster. This is what scientists call a vicious cycle.

Then there's trampolines. I don't know about your street but down ours every back garden has one. A mammoth's great strength means as soon as it hears your neighbours' kids playing, it will barge the fence down and start bouncing like crazy, five hundred feet in the air. Mammoths on trampolines are a major cause of small aircraft accidents in several mid-western states, where the laws on keeping pets are very lax.

Well that is about all I have to tell you Nik, and I'm sure you'll agree that defrosting a freezer is not as daunting as it sounds. Just take it steady and don't go as deep as the pleistocene. Good luck, keep in touch and please tell your wife to stop sending me frilly underwear. I got more than I can ever wear already.

Yours sincerely,
F. Encounters esq.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Cat chat

I don't want to get too mystical about this, because there are some hard-nosed, intellectual heavyweights among my readers, whose good opinion I would lose if I went all hippy on them. But something happens when you spend a whole week in a cat's company because your sister has buggered off on a Mediterranean cruise, leaving you to feed, clothe and care for her pet, while she sips cool daiquiris, soaks up the sun and chats up bronzed waiters in tight-fitting trousers.

Call it empathy, telepathy or just plain guesswork, if you like. But as we're staring at each other late last night, the cat on the carpet and I in the armchair - which has several clawmarks, I just noticed, that weren't there at the start of the week, damn it - I feel we are on the same wavelength. I know what he's thinking and he knows what I'm thinking. 

Cat: "See when I walk up and down, making that meeow sound, that means 'feed me'. You're not much of a pack leader, are you?"

Me: "You're not much of a pet, are you? You just look after yourself and make demands. Where have you hidden the remote this time?"

Cat: "I never touched the remote, pillock. It's down the cushion of your chair, where it always is."

You see what I'm talking about? Mystical communion across the species. So I get to wondering how common this is and my first thought is to ask my science pal, Rachel. But she's a dog person and is out of the country anyway. So I look around the Internet and it turns out the world is full of people who can talk cat.

They just can't talk English.  

"Luff oo, ickle wickle pussy wussy."

"Fluffy wuffy catkins want a bikky-wikky?"

And so on. I can imagine what the cats are saying to each other about all this.

Marmalade: "I'm a fearless hunter but they talk to me like a dribbling infant. It's melting my brain. I can't take any more baby talk."

Felix: "Don't crack, buddy. Stay strong. Come the apocalypse, we'll have them. They'll all be kitty chunks."

But in the interests of science I decide to give this pidgin feline a go with my sister's cat, and here's what happens.

"Iddle widdle poody tat want a cuddle, dusums?" I say to him, as he's sat in my lap, looking up at me adoringly.

"Iddle widdle human want his nuts ripped off?" he says to me.

"C'mon play nice, ickle pussy," I say, chuckling him under the chin. 

"You're on a last warning, pal," he says, jumping down, flicking his tail menacingly and arching his back.

"Fair enough," I tell him. "Won't happen again. Listen, I don't know why you're staring out the window at those birds. You couldn't get near them in a camouflage suit."

"I like birds," he says. "They're crunchy and full of protein."

"You like them until they chirp too loud," I say. "Then you scurry back inside. You act tough but you're the original scaredy cat."

"And you're the original couch potato with a remote," he says. "Except you can never find the remote. Or indeed the couch, after a few beers." 

"Cats!" I say. "I could find a better pet in a stagnant pond."

"Humans!" he says. "I could pull a smarter species out my arse." 

Mystical and telepathic, like I said. Two minds with but a single thought. You want to learn to talk cat? 

Gimme a call.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Existence precedes essence

So the time has come to tell you about the dreaded prostate biopsy, which I've been avoiding for a while and getting told it's not a suitable subject for humour, but all the time it’s been in my head, damming up the flow like an old mattress in a mountain stream, and while I'm giving it a body swerve, by writing about anything else I can think of, I fear I'm in danger of acting in bad faith and failing the existentialist test of authenticity.

Although where a short, smug git, who speaks French in public and lies to women to get sex, has the gall to attack anyone's bad faith, I have no idea.

See the trouble with existentialists is that they're all French. Apart from when they're being German. Or Danish. 

You don't get the English wittering on about dread, boredom, angst, alienation and nothingness. They're too busy being sensible, drinking tea and conquering inferior races, is what the cultural commentators will tell you.

But I wonder. I think I've found an unsuspected existentialist thread in English literature, from Austen through Wodehouse and down to Douglas Adams - a thread that gave those cheerless continentals, like Heidegger, Kierkegard, Nietsche, Sartre and Camus, the idea in the first place.

See I recently came across an unpublished 18th century manuscript with the opening line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must squander it in a futile search for the pathetic meaning of his miserable existence."

Was this written by a young Jane Austen, while frequenting Paris cafes in a black beret and dark sunglasses? I think so.

Then there’s PG Wodehouse. Open any of his comic novels and you'll find a conversation like this:

'"What ho, young Bingo! Your gills are distinctly green this morning. Been sinking a few beakers of the blushful Hippocrene?"

My old chum cast a jaundiced eye in my direction. “Stop burbling, Bertie,” he told me. “My life has no meaning, existence is bleak and futile and for two pins I would leap in front of a hansom cab and end it all.”'

If that isn't existential angst I don't know what is. There's even a hint of philosophical rivalry when Jeeves says, “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

Closer to the present, you've got the obviously existentialist robot Marvin, whose aphorisms include "I ache, therefore I am", "Life! Don't talk to me about life" and "My capacity for happiness you could fit into a matchbox without taking out the matches."

So there you have it, guys. Existentialism began in England but those nasty foreigners, with their garlic breath, onion strings and stripy tops, have been taking credit for it all along. So vote UKIP.

And wouldn't you know it, I've run out of space without telling you about the prostate biopsy again. Just the kind of thing Sartre was banging on about. I will get to it, I promise. On the plus side you've now gained enough philosophical knowledge to get a degree in the subject from several universities. 

To prove it why not take this wee test?

Match the quote to the philosopher who said it

a) "I would only believe in a god who could dance."
b) "I have a million ideas. They all point to certain death."
c) "Panic is your enemy. You are strong. Through your strength, you shall overcome."
d) "..."
e) "If I became a philosopher ... it's all been to seduce women basically."

  1. Jean Paul Sartre 
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche
  3. Marvin the Paranoid Android
  4. Spongebob Squarepants
  5. Harpo Marx

Correct answers (no peeking)
a) ǝɥɔszʇǝᴉN
b) uᴉʌɹɐW
c) qoqǝƃuodS
d) odɹɐH
e) ǝɹʇɹɐS 

You scored: 
0-2 You have a pathetic, miserable existence.
3-4 "Any fool can know. The point is to understand." (uᴉǝʇsuᴉƎ)
   5 You are now qualified to smoke a pipe and seduce women.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Singing the blues

Manfred Mann in 1964
Sometimes you just have to admit you're wrong, I tell myself through gritted teeth, as I watch The Blues Band perform in the Victoria Theatre, Halifax. 

It's a gig I've been resisting going to for years, because the lead singer is Paul Jones and I've never liked him. He was a smug git when we were young but my sister thought he was gorgeous. Still does I expect, despite the fact that he is now 72 years old.

Jones was the lead singer with a group called Manfred Mann, who topped the UK singles charts in 1964 with a song, whose complete lyrics I'll spare you. Suffice it to say that the last verse went like this:

"Whoa-oh-oh-oh, oh yeah 
Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do"

There followed a peak of poetic expression to rival Shakespeare's and take the song to the hearts of a million girls like my sis.

"Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do, oh yeah, oh, oh yeah 
Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do."

There is only one word that does justice to these songs Paul Jones was singing in the sixties. They were shite. 

So I'd always pour scorn on my old pal Iain, whose taste in music often matches mine, when he assured me, every time we met, that The Blues Band were phenomenal and Jones the best harmonica player in the solar system.

Nothing about Jones appealed to me. His real name is Paul Pond, for heaven's sake, and he was born in Portsmouth. How could Paul Pond from Portsmouth be a blues musician?

Great blues men have names like Big Bill Broonzy, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. And they weren't born in a posh port in the namby-pamby south of England. They were dragged from their mother's womb and set to work in the Mississippi cotton fields.

Then there's the fact that Brian Jones and Keith Richards invited Paul Jones to front their new band and he turned them down. He could have been lead singer with the Stones but chose instead to be a twat in tartan trews. 

Take a look at that photo up above and tell me your hand is not twitching to smack those guys round the head.

So anyway Iain took matters into his own hands, after years of failed persuasion, and bought the tickets, at which point I had no choice but to drive all the way to Halifax and sit beside him and his lovely daughter Cathy, anticipating two hours of torture.

But right from the start the show was great and the band was really tight. Even the bass player, a last minute stand-in who didn't know a few of the songs, had a real feel for the music and got relaxed enough to start bouncing around like Flea. 

Jones talked to the audience between numbers, telling a story about the next song, complaining about the empty seats or touting the CDs they were selling at the interval. It was all done in great good humour and the time flew past.

Highlights for me were Dave Kelly's guitar and voice, which has a real earthy, blues feel and the drumming of former Family man Rob Townsend, who says if he comes home from tours exhausted and gets a call to play at the local pub, he can't resist. "When I'm not playing I go to drum shops," he says. "I just love it."

And what about Paul Jones, Iain asks me, back at his Bingley house, over a glass of Glenfiddich 15 year old Solera.

"He was pretty ... adequate," I tell him.

"Adequate?" he says. "Come on. He was great. Say it."

"He was grrrgh..." I go, and my face contorts as Kryten's does when Lister is teaching him to lie, and he can't get the words out.

"Take a drink and a deep breath, and have another go," Iain says, topping up my glass. "I know you can do it."

Now I've always been a whisky sipper rather than a guzzler, but the need has never been greater. So I knock back a large one, disengage my brain and take a run at the words.

"He was great," I say. 

"Well done!" Iain tells me. "It takes a real man to admit he was totally and completely wrong."

He reaches down for a newspaper by the side of his armchair. "Now let's look at Engelbert Humperdinck dates together."

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Intelligent design

So it turns out that crawling round and round a coffee table on your hands and knees, because it makes the baby giggle, is a bad idea, since three days later a sharp pain in the small of your back will lay you out on the living-room floor, where you will stay for a very long time, because the slightest movement brings searing agony.

But it's not all bad. As you lie there staring up at the stars you get time to ponder. You think "where the hell is my ceiling?"

You think "evolution is as good at bodies as I was at basket-weaving at school." N
o matter how carefully I crafted, fatal flaws would afflict my baskets, rendering them unfit for use or ornament. My mum said they were lovely but she never put any apples in them. 

You see I just went ahead and wove, hoping it would all turn out right. But it never did. Evolution is like that. Some of its creations look like they were planned and designed, and it can even come up with wonderful objects like Chrissie Hynde, who sounds great, looks fantastic and is kind to animals.  

But at heart evolution is a bodger. It makes terrible mistakes, like the appendix, the optic nerve, the duck-billed platypus and Justin Bieber. If evolution hung the wallpaper in your living-room, there would be a patch in the corner where the patterns didn't match. 

So one day evolution got it into its head to make an ape walk upright, using a skeleton built for quadrupeds. And that's why you and I now exist on the edge of pain, awaiting only an incautious sneeze to become glued to the floor. 

While I'm down here, I get to wondering why humans move around so much anyway. I mean a barnacle stays in one place all its life, but seems quite happy. I guess having a penis ten times as long as its body, so it can reach out to equally sedentary females, takes the pressure off. 

If you scaled that up, it would give me sixty feet. But if you imagine I'm pursuing that line of thought in a family-friendly blog, think again pal. 

"Yeah, what is it?" Rachel says, when I call her up from my new home on the living-room floor. "I'm watching Dr Who. The whole of space and time is in danger."

"I won't keep you," I say. "I was just wondering why evolution gave us arms and legs, but not wheels." 

"Were you?" she says. "
Tell me why in less than two seconds."

"Well, cycling is the most efficient form of transport, you keep telling me, and backbones aren't designed for upright postures. So why don't we have little wheels on the ends of our arms and legs?"

"I'll give you the short version," she says. "There is no way to get there by evolution. A wheel would have to rotate freely in relation to the rest of the body. How would you get food and oxygen across the gap? You can design a wheeled system. But you can't evolve one by small steps."

"That makes sense," I say.

"It does," she says. "The fact that there are no wheels in nature is a good argument against intelligent design, if you need one."

"I don't," I tell her. "What I need right now is a way of moving around that doesn't involve walking or crawling."

"Have you tried slithering, oozing or drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweed?" she says.

"I haven't," I say. 

"Start now," she says and hangs up on me.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Hands and knees

"So where could I buy kneepads?" I ask Al, as we emerge from the gym, after a tough session on his part and a half-hour of iron-pumping that's more than enough for me, since I've been out through injury, but he dismisses as barely breaking sweat, you big wimp.

"Homebase, across the road," he says. "Why do you want kneepads?"

"Well I'll tell you, little Sally's coming on great. She's really clever. Sits up and turns her head and rolls over and smiles and babbles."

"You do all that," he says. "Nothing clever about it."

"What she doesn't do yet is crawl," I say. "So I'm going to show her."

"Once you work out how to do it yourself," he says.

"You can mock," I say, as we cross the car park, head into the store, and try to figure out what a kneepad aisle might look like. "But it isn't easy. I did it last week for her, all around the coffee table. Sally thought it was hilarious. It cracked her up. She couldn't stop laughing."

"You always had that effect on females," Al says. 

"More often than not these days," I tell him. "It was fine at the time but the next day my knees were bruised. So when I tried to do it again for her, it hurt. Hence the need for kneepads."

"Well it looks like we got two kinds," Al tells me, holding them up in each hand. "This one is large, grey and made of plastic. This one is smaller, green and made of minigel."

"So that would be a different kind of plastic," I say. "We'll have those. Let's go. This will be great."

But later that day, Carol, the physiotherapist, who is always worth listening to, casts scorn on my kneepad plans.  

"Babies don't learn to crawl by imitation," she tells me, lying face down on the floor. "Come here, sit between my legs and put your hands on my hips.

"Little Sally is pushing herself up with her arms already," she says. "So what you need to do, when she's in that position, is tilt her hips with your hands, so that her leg bends and her knee comes up. Do it to me, so you see what I mean."

The other thing I need to do, she tells me, is to put something Sally really likes just in front of her, but out of reach. "That motivates her to move forward," she says.

It's a great lesson and I resolve to try it all. But maybe not today, the thought occurs to me, as Carol leaves. "Has she definitely gone?" I ask Susan.

"Yes, why?"

"I don't want her telling me off," I say, reaching for the kneepads, strapping them on and getting down on the floor. "Everything she said made so much sense and I will have a go later, I promise.

"But right now I just want to make Sally giggle some more."