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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sofa so good

"Douglas called me an arty-farty jessie, a couple of years ago," I overhear Fraser telling a group of young teachers, at a drink and nibbles educational event, so I'm forced to butt in and set the record straight.

"I did no such thing," I tell them. "Fraser referred to himself as an arty-farty jessie* a couple of years ago. But he's been blaming me for it ever since."

A Spock-like eyebrow from the man conveys his scepticism more fluently than words, so I babble on, attempting a little levity. "Just because he writes poetry, can't play football and wears women's underwear doesn't make him a jessie," I say.

"Not true," he tells his adoring audience. "I'm an excellent football player."

They laugh and he dismisses them, then shakes his head at me. "You will never learn, laddy," he says. "Denial raises doubt. It makes more people think that what you're denying might be true."

"I  was countering what you said," I tell him.

"But you did it so loudly that half the room heard," he says. "So forty people now suspect both that I'm an arty-farty jessie and that you go around telling everyone I am." 

"So what do you suggest?" I say, as he plucks a vol-au-vent without looking from a passing tray and pops it in his mouth. He's a suave bugger and no mistake. Writes prose and poetry, does ingenious things with technology, looks great in a kilt. Kind of guy you can imagine rolling a cigarette with one hand while sat on a bucking bronco.

"Let's look at the facts," he says, taking me lightly by the arm and leading me to a plush sofa in the corner, below a painting of impossibly sharp mountains rising from a rocky river. "Although facts are a lot less effective than you might imagine. That is the point."

I'm trying to listen to him. I really am. I know he's going to tell me something interesting. But suddenly I'm not at a posh reception. I'm in a Carry On film. Because the bloody sofa has me in its clutches and is sucking me in. It's like being engulfed by a giant marshmallow. I panic and start to flail, but that's the worst thing you can do with man-eating marshmallows. It makes them mad. I force down the fear and stay still, finally stopping sinking when my head is two feet lower than Fraser's. 

"Comfy?" he says.

"Have you sat here before?" I say, turning my head sideways and up, to see him.

"Several times," he says.  "Fun, isn't it?"

"Stop messing about," I say. "Tell me the story. You want to set the record straight but can't use facts. What can you use? Fiction, blank verse, elegant epigraphs on the back of a napkin? Gimme a clue."

"That's a longer conversation than I've time for now," he says, glancing at his Rolex. "But let me briefly outline the problem for you, then we can look at possible solutions another time. Phone my secretary and she'll give you an appointment."

Birds can be happy, I'm sure, with their heads turned ninety degrees left and forty five up. Humans can't. Perched precariously on my knee, what's more, I've got a bone china cup and saucer, which strained-muscle vibrations have started tinkling tunefully together. Keeping this short is fine by me.

"Two mechanisms mean facts can have the opposite effect to what you intend," Fraser tells me. "First, most people feel psychological pressure to move towards the norm."

"The norm of what?" I say.

"Any kind of behaviour," Fraser tells me. "Suppose you're mounting a public health campaign aimed at obesity. On learning lots of other folk are overweight, plenty of people put on a few pounds. Which is not what you wanted. It's called the boomerang effect." 

"A study carried out at California State showed what was happening. It also suggested what you could do about it. Then there's another backfire effect, which is even worse. If you give people hard facts that contradict their strongly-held beliefs - that climate change is caused by the sun, for instance - it can make them cling more tightly to them. It's called motivated reasoning."

He glances at his watch again and rises from the sofa, causing me to sink more deeply into it.

"Don't go," I say.

"Fascinating, isn't it?" he says.

"Yes, but that's not it," I say. "I need a hand out of here." 

"I'm sorry," he says. "That's not a job for an arty-farty jessie."

"I didn't call you that," I say.

"I don't believe you," he says and is gone, leaving me with grave doubts that I'll ever see my arse again.

definition: an effeminate, weak or cowardly man. 
usage: "What are ye greetin for, ya big jessie?"

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Over the Dawson trail

"It's bloody freezing in here," I tell farmer Adam, as we're sat in his third-floor flat, overlooking the Itchen, with its soaring seagulls and white boats bobbing on wind-blown waves.

"You're soft for a Scotchman," he says, not looking up from the laptop on which he's studying the weather forecast and planning his day. "You know what I wear all day long, working my fields?"

"Pink bra and a thong?" I say.

"Shorts and a T-shirt," he says. 

"What if it's snowing?" I say.

"I pull on wellies and do 100 bench presses to get my metabolism moving," he says.

"Hampshire is the last place I'd have looked for a macho moron," I tell him. "You learn something new every day."
"I'm sure you do," he says.

"So can I have the central heating on?" I say. "I'm perishing."

"Get used to it," he says. "Bit of cold is good for you."

"What about this wonderful southern hospitality you're noted for?"

"Wrong country, mate. What we're noted for is stiff upper lips and doing hilarious Scotch accents when we meet one of you in the pub."

"I noticed that," I say. "See, the problem is I caught the flu in 1968. It hit suddenly and put you in bed for a week of shivering misery. You felt like Sam McGee in the Yukon: "'It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.' I've not been warm since."

He shuts his laptop and stands, ready to leave for the farm. "How did your consultations go yesterday?" he says.

"Went fine," I tell him. "Got loads of advice for before and after the op."

"Such as?" he says, coming a little closer, as I'm sat between him and the door. Bit too close, actually, for a man in shorts

"Eat plenty of prunes," I say.

He laughs. "They tell that to everyone, then when you leave they go, 'Sucker.' 

"Prunes would be good if they didn't have stones and were a different colour," I say.

"Or a different fruit altogether," he says. "Like grapes."

"You any idea why people take grapes to hospital patients?" I say.

"I sure do," he says. "You don't feel like food or drink after surgery. Grapes slip down easily, give you a bit of both."

"Makes sense," I say, averting my gaze from his muscular legs. "Then I have to practise the Kegel exercises five times a day. Oh and I've not to ride my horse for three months after the op."

"I didn't know you had a horse," he says.

"I don't," I say.

"So how can you not ride it?" he says.

"I can't," I say. "But Harley Street's a different planet. This woman sends her kids to private school and has a city financier husband. Assumes everyone has a horse, a yacht and a house in the country."

"Right, I'm off," he says. "Got to get moving. It's only 5 degrees out this morning."

"It's 15 degrees back home in Killearn," I say, glancing at the temperature app on my laptop.

"That's because you left the heating on," he says, giving a little shimmy with his shorts and shutting the door behind him.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

What about the rhymes, Willie?

Lincoln delivers the Getty's bird a dress
I think I've mentioned before that people like Gregor Steele and my sister have a talent I can only admire from a distance, much though I'd love to be like them. 

They can write poetry.

I can't because "No, I'm staying home to write an ode to aesthetic rapture" was the wrong answer, as a lad in a coalmining community, to the question, "Do you fancy a game of football?"

But I think there's more to it than that. Despite Malcolm Gladwell's claim that you can master anything in 10,000 hours - and I wish he'd mentioned it before, because it means I'll be getting a telegram from the queen before I've begun to master this drum-kit in my living-room - I don't think I could be a poet, no matter how hard I tried.

It's the same with puns, another literary talent of Gregor's that I don't have and often don't get. Subtle humour is one of the many ways the world puts me in the slow readers' group. So I don't like subtle humour, as I've said before

Puns aren't always subtle. The best hit you with a fresh feeling that life is fun, like this one I saw yesterday:  

"Strange beer to the left of me, cheap biscuits to the right. Here I am, stuck in the Lidl with you."

Or this old one that I still like: "Woman walks into a pub and asks the barman for a double entendre. So he gives her one."

Then there's Samuel Johnson's wonderful word-play, on being challenged with "The King", when boasting to his buddies that he could make a pun instantly on any subject.

"The King, sir, is not a subject."  

But even when they're not subtle, plenty of puns get right past me, reinforcing this feeling I've had since primary school that I'm a lumbering lorry in the crawler lane of life. 

I did once write a short piece for the Guardian about the winner of the most lavish public toilets in the world. It was bursting with puns. But that was a flash in the pan.

I haven't made a pun, or indeed understood one until I'm beaten about the head with it, since I wrote that piece in 2004. Let me show you what I mean. The following exchange between two friends, both of them writers, took place on Facebook not long ago. 

Have a read and when you see what they're doing put your hand up at the back and shout "Gotcha!"

I'd made a throwaway comment about how hard it is to keep all your readers happy "when half of them are intellectuals and the other half just want knob jokes". 

Friend A: "I have the same problem with my column."

Friend B: "Douglas says he likes your column."

Friend A: "Until recently I hadn't had a real column since 1992. When it came back everyone was surprised by how short it was."

Got it right away, didn't you? Well I made it to the third last word before the penny dropped. Then I had to go back and read it all again to realise what the naughty little commenters had been up to. 

I once got accused of being a smart guy pretending to be dumb for humorous effect. If only that were true. 

What I actually am is an idiot making out he's a smart guy pretending to be dumb for humorous effect. That's a lot harder, I can tell you.

Get more of Gregor Steele's thoughts and writing here.

Irritated reader: What has the title of this facetious fluff got to do with its drivelling contents?

Me: That's a bit strong, son. But not much, I'm afraid. Sometimes I don't know where I'm going till I get there. It's a line from a great piece on poetry by my favourite humorous writer PG Wodehouse.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

So he cheered up. And it got worse.

"So that's it over," Susan says, the morning after the Scottish Referendum, as she's sat in her armchair looking as if she'll never smile again.

"It's like you needed an A pass in your exam to get to university and you only got a B. So you did secretarial studies and got a shite job all your life. And then you died."

"You sound like Marvin," I say in a flat monotone. "Life, don't talk to me about life."

"That's how I feel," she says. "We had a chance. We could have done something about all those people stuck in poverty to keep the fat cats happy. Now we're back to food banks and taking benefits from the disabled, while slick shits in suits spend more money on a meal than the families I work with see in a year. It's criminal."

"I bet I can make you smile again," I say. 

"No chance," she says. 

"Let's go for a walk," I say.

"Why?" she says.

"We could see Sally, the wee sunshine cure for all the blues," I say.

"Why?" she says.

This is serious. "Have you heard of electile dysfunction?" I say.

"No," she says. 

"Means you can't get aroused by either side," I say. "Ha ha."

"Shut up," she says. 

"Remember what Ben Franklin said about democracy?" I say. "It's two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Ha ha."

"Shut up," she says.

"I'm sending you a link to a photo of baby hedgehogs and a video of a sperm whale being born,"  I say. Take a look. They'll cheer you up."

She goes quiet and I watch from the table by the window, where I'm sat at my computer, as the dark clouds clinging to her head lighten a little. But still no smile. Not a flicker.  

"What really worries me is they've let big Gordon out," I say. "
They'll never get him back in his box now. He'll lumber around the landscape for years, smashing into bridges, eating whole cows and creating a hazard for low-flying aircraft. Ha ha."

A shaft of sunlight spears the little rainbow-maker on her back window and sets it turning, sending spectra spinning around the room. She takes a deep breath and sighs. 

"Shut up," she says.

"I give in," I say. "The one bright spot in all this is what someone said to me on Twitter this morning. Will I tell you about it?"

"No," she says.

"I asked if the over-60s - 'whose future is all behind them' - should even have a vote," I tell her. "Because their need for security cost us the referendum, while the youth voted yes. 

"So this top education consultant, who's in his 60s, asks for the evidence that his generation is more self-interested than mine. "Arguably we are more idealistic than the middle-aged,' he tells me."

"I don't understand," Susan says.

"Me neither," I say. "Then the penny drops and I tweet back, 'You got me wrong, pal. I'm older than you. It's my generation whose votes I'd devalue.'"
"He thought you were ..."

"... much younger than him. That's right."

She smiles at last. "What did he say when you told him you weren't?"

"He said, 'Jeez! You are wearing well!'"

"He didn't."

"He did."

"You are wearing well?" she says. "That's what he said?"

"Sure as I'm sat here," I tell her, and she laughs like a drain.

"Ha ha," she goes. "Ha ha ha."

"Shut up," I tell her.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Better together

Casual callers are not encouraged at Blane Mansions, so when a knock comes to my door last week, and I rise to answer it, I'm expecting the postman or someone trying to sell me something. Because that's all I usually get.

Come to think of it that's not quite true. The police occasionally call, which always gives me a nasty moment. Last time they wanted to know if I had seen anything suspicious when a neighbour's house was burgled, as the perp seemed to have gained access through my garden. 

"It wisnae me," was the first thought that came into the wee Scots boy part of my brain, one of the surprises of advancing years being how large that part remains, even as your body shrinks, wrinkles and grows ever more grizzled with each passing year.

Anyone under 50 goes into an old folks' home, they think they're looking at a bunch of old people. But they're wrong. What they're looking at is a gang of kids, astonished by the age and infirmity of the bodies they're trapped in.

Where was I? Oh yeah. I had to tell the surprisingly small policewoman - when I was a boy the polis were ten feet tall - I hadn't seen a thing, although I was uncomfortably aware that I probably wouldn't have, even if the burglar had walked past my window with a crowbar and a big bag that said 'Swag' on the side.

I used to tell people I was a trained observer, and I believed it because I'm a scientist. But I've gradually realised that other people notice far more than I do. I have a theory about this. I reckon it's because I'm always pondering deep questions about the nature of physical reality. 

Questions like what is this place, how did I get here and where am I going with this small aardvark on a leash?

Friends and relatives have another theory. They reckon I'm gormless, this being an old Scots word that means either you've lost your gorm or you never had one in the first place.

I remember my sister coming to the door unexpectedly once - this is true - and I opened it and stared at her for several seconds. Her face was familiar but I couldn't quite put a name to it. Then it came to me in a rush. 

Now I know what you're thinking but are too embarrassed to say. Despite the illusion of having a wee boy's brain, my mental faculties are starting to desert me. But you're wrong because this happened 25 years ago and I've recognised my sister practically every time I've seen her since.

So anyway, I get up and answer the door and there's a well-dressed elderly gent stood on my step.

"Good evening, Mr Blane," he says. "I'm from Better Together and I was wondering if you were planning to vote in the Referendum and whether we can count on your support?"

He seems a pleasant, civil sort of person, so I break it to him gently.

"Yes and I'm afraid no," I tell him.

He stares at me blankly. "Pardon," he says.

"Yes, I will be voting," I say, taking it slow and watching to see if he's got it this time. "But no I'm afraid you can't count on my support."

His wee face lights up as understanding starts to dawn, then looks suddenly crestfallen as he gets the full meaning. "You'll be voting 'Yes'?" he says.

"Yes," I say.

"Thank you," he says and turns on his heel and walks away, leaving me feeling guilty for a while, like I've stolen his sweeties or something. But I cheer up when I figure out the implications of what just happened.

If Better Together are sending people with even less gorm than me to knock on people's doors, I don't fancy their chances come polling day.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Race to the bottom

You've probably never met Harris, but take it from me he is maybe the most annoying person in the world.

"That's the dumbest thing I ever heard," he tells me, as we share a bottle of Isle of Jura in his mum's conservatory, and he tries to catch up on the news he missed while sunning himself on sandy beaches

"It's so stupid it can't possibly be true," he adds.

"Like we live in a world where facts can't be stupid," I tell him. "Listen, pal. When you were away in Thailand, riding around on elephants, UKIP won the biggest share of the vote in the European elections. They'll soon have a shitload of MPs and will form the next Westminster government with the Tories. Just believe me, why don't you?" 

"Because it's rubbish," he says and I wonder how certainty can sprout so easily from ignorance, like a rose bush rooted in stone. 

It's a character trait that makes Harris a hard guy to handle. His mum loves him but that proves nothing. My mum loved me. His ex-wife called him "a pedantic, narrow-minded bigot". But ex-wives are no better witnesses for the prosecution than mums for the defence. 

If I told you what my ex-wife - the Creature from the Black Lagoon - calls me, your ears would catch fire. 

Harris is not a bigot. But he is, according to one of his many sisters, an "arrogant pain in the arse" and maybe that's what his problem is. 

"You know what your problem is?" I say.

"I'm always right," he says.

"You have too many sisters," I tell him. "Growing up dominated by all those women has distorted your personality. You've over-compensated and become dogmatic and way too assertive. If you could keep just one sister, which would it be?"

"That's the stupidest question I ever heard," he says. "Like I'm going to pick one from three and risk the wrath of the rest."

"You're a fictional character and so are they," I say. "They can't possibly hurt you."

"They might be fictional but they're bloody dangerous," he says. "You've met them."

We share a manly glance and sip our whisky companionably. Then something he said starts to rankle. "That's twice you've called me stupid," I say. "It's your turn. Tell me what happened to your legs."

I look down at them and wince. The right leg looks fine but the left, disturbingly revealed by his Big White Hunter shorts, is twice the size it should be, with a large black patch that looks like Australia.

"God that's horrible," I tell him.

"It's not so bad," he says. "I got a deep vein thrombosis in this one, before I flew out. Then a swarm of insects attacked me just before I flew back, and the infection I got gave me this," he says, tapping the swollen limb, which makes a noise like a small rack tom. 

"Lemme get this right," I say leaning forward and placing my glass carefully on the coffee table. "You flew half across the world with a deep vein thrombosis, then all the way back with a leg that looks like it floated off a fortnight-old corpse fished from the Clyde?"

"Not exactly," he says. "It was so heavy they wouldn't let it in the cabin with me. I had to put it in the hold with the rest of the luggage."

I shake my head and reach for my glass. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life," I tell him.

"Then I win," he says, grinning widely.

"You win a who's-the-stupidest competition with me," I say. "No intelligent person would want to do that."

"So I win twice," he says and his smug grin gets even wider. 

"You lose," I tell him. "You don't have a leg to stand on."

But it's feeble and I know it.  Like I said, maybe the most annoying person in the world.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Answers on a postcard

It's really worrying when you get through almost your whole life, only to discover that you have an antisocial habit no one's told you about all this time. 

But that's what happened to me last week, when I went south for meetings in London and stayed at Adam and Rachel's flat in Southampton. 

Why had no one mentioned it before, I asked myself. How many people have I upset without realising it, I wondered. Are there other bad habits I still don't know about? Is this why women declare their undying love for me, then move out the next month?

Dunno, hundreds, several and yes, I'm guessing. But what can you do? As Robert Burns said in To a Louse, "O, wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us." 

No matter how in touch with your feminine side - and I'm so close we're practically sisters - regardless of your level of enlightenment - and the Buddha had nothing on me - you just can't know everything about yourself.

I've come across an interesting story, incidentally, about the incident that inspired Burns's better known poem, To a Mouse. When he worked Mossgiel Farm near Mauchline, the young poet employed a ploughman, a distant relative on his mother's side, who turned over a mouse's nest one day, as they were ploughing the fields together. 

He was about to kill her and her young family when Burns stayed his hand. As the ploughman told the story later, the poet then went into a daze, standing silently for several minutes, as the idea for the poem and several of its lines came together in his head.

When I read this in old parish records in the town, barely seven miles from Mauchline, where I grew up and my sister still lives, I went to see her and told her the story. "And you know the best part?" I said. "The ploughman's name."

"Which was?" she said.

"Blane," I tell her. "John Blane. He must have been one of our ancestors."

But just as Burns did in the field that day, my sis goes silent and pensive. "I don't think so," she says.

"Why not?" I say.

"How many mice have you killed in your life?" she says.

"None," I say.

"How many anything have you killed?" she says. "Bugs, slugs, fleas, bees, midges, mosquitoes, crocodiles?"

"None," I say. 

"Me neither," she says. "So how could a mouse-murderer be our ancestor? Will I tell you what really happened?"

"Please do."

"It's obvious. You and I have the same feeling for animals that Burns did. He was a well-known womaniser. So John Blane's wife secretly fell for his charms and conceived a child." 

"And our ancestor isn't John," I say. "It's Robert. That's brilliant! It also explains why you're such a good poet and I'm irresistible to women."

"Two out of three's not bad," she says.

So there you have it for another week, guys. What's that? I forgot to tell you about the anti-social habit? So I did. Next week, I promise. 

In the meantime, inspired by my ancestor, I've been working on a wee verse for 19 September. Maybe you can help me. It begins like this, to the tune of The Red Flag, but for the life of me I can't find an ending:

Three hundred years and seven, men
The wait is done, we're free again
You fat cats and Westminster class
Can shove the union ...

Answers on a postcard please.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Strange city

My son's girlfriend has completed her degree course and moved to Glasgow, and has found the transition tougher than expected, she tells me, as we're wandering down Hill Street towards the Oxford Café. 

"The people are nice, but they're very Scottish," she says.

"I'm not sure what that means," I say and for such an articulate young woman she seems to struggle. 

"I dunno," she says. "I was expecting it to be much like Newcastle, I guess, which I always thought was half Scottish culturally. Everyone's talking about the referendum here. I suppose the biggest difference is that all my friends are down there and I don't know many people yet."

It's a statement of fact not a request for sympathy, so although my heart goes out to her, I don't do anything stupid like put my arm round her shoulder or pat her on the head. You have to be careful at my age not to treat young people like kids. 

"So listen if you and my boy come to Susan's house tomorrow, she's throwing a birthday party and it'll give you a chance to meet lots of new people, all nice and friendly."

"It's your birthday?" she says

"Will be on Tuesday," I say.

"So it's an old fossil's party," she says.

"I can see why you don't have many friends," I say. "Where has your young man got to?"

We stop, look up the hill and fail to spot him at first. "There he is," Linda says. "Rootling around in that skip. He loves them. He's always coming back to the flat with stuff he's found in skips." 

"Is that where he got you?" I say and she laughs. 

I turn to the café door and she goes, "Hey Douglas."


"Thanks for the wee hand chatting through my dissertation. You're a genius."

"I get called that a lot."



My son catches up, we get seated and the friendly but bumbling waitress, who's standing in for her daughter, she says, takes our orders. Egg and chips all round. 

"We're going to visit his mum, the day after tomorrow," Linda says. "Your ex-wife."

"I know who his mum is," I say. "Give her a big kiss from me."

"I will," she says and her expression sends a surge of panic to my tummy.

"I was kidding," I say.

"I wasn't," she says.

"Bugger," I say. 

My son's napkin and cutlery have become the raw materials in what seems to be a scale model of the Eiffel Tower he's putting together, oblivious to our chat. I lower my voice to be sure he can't hear.   

"So are you regretting moving to Glasgow?" I say.

She shakes her head. "No, I'm not," she says, studying his sculpture. "I really love him." 

This time I'm not fast enough to stop the impulse. My arm goes around her shoulder and I give her a squeeze.