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Saturday, 15 November 2014

Annoyance art

George Wyllie and his Robins
One reason I like learning about art from my student son, rather than the experts, is that I can understand what he says. Mostly. 

Art critics seem to favour a style that packs the least meaning into the most words. You get the same thing with French intellectuals, as I've mentioned before.  

It's called obfuscation. It's not big and it's not clever. It just sounds that way if you're easily impressed, as some of them even admit themselves.

So when the lad starts talking about relational aesthetics, which I've never heard of, I try to concentrate, but it's not easy with my sis fussing around and offering us heaped dishes of the food she's spent the past week preparing for our first dinner at her place with Dug and Linda.

"Relational aesthetics is the idea that art has to engage with people," Dug says. "It was supposed to be a move away from elitism. Goes back to a guy called Bourriaud in the 1990s, who saw artists as facilitators and art as information exchanged between artist and viewers."

"Do you want some of this," my sis asks, offering him a huge dish of golden meringue. 

"Yes please," he says and she drops a lorry-load on to his plate. 

"So I'm like, I don't think so," he says. "Why can't art be about annoying people?"

I laugh and he says, "No, seriously."

"You mean making people think?" my sis says.

"No I mean making them annoyed," he says.

"Oh, right," she says, dubiously. 

"Winding them up," he says. "I think a lot of good artists are slightly piss-takers, you know? Kinda wind-up merchants."

"Would you like toffee ice-cream with that?" my sis says. "Or chocolate sauce?"

"Both please," he says, and the same it's nice-to-be-appreciated smile appears on her face that I used to see on my mum's, when I scoffed everything she put on my plate and went back for more.

"People like George Wyllie and Ian Hamilton Findlay," he says. "They've all got that gleam in their eye."

"George Wyllie?" I say. "Surely not. I used to see his stuff in schools. He was child-friendly. Started out as an engineer and only got into sculpture in his 50s. Teachers liked him."

"The Arts Council hated him," he tells me. "He didn't conform to their ideas about art."

"Ice cream or chocolate sauce?" my sis says, hovering over my plate.

"I'm trying to cut down," I say. "I've put on weight since the operation."

"That's neither, then?" She starts to walk away.

"Both please," I say and she looks smug.

"Could you two put each other down for five minutes?" I tell the young couple, since they're holding hands again and looking into each other's eyes. 

"You mean when the old people are around?" Linda says. "Don't be so Victorian, Douglas!"

"Nothing wrong with the Victorians," I tell her. "They had standards. People knew their place in those days. Women did what they were told and weren't allowed to express opinions when the men were eating."

Silence falls. A dog barks in the distance. The wind moans in the old chimney, left over from the days of coal. Linda stares at me through narrowed eyes and I sense my sis standing behind me holding something heavy. 

"See that's exactly what I'm talking about," my son says, breaking the tension, and I make a mental note to buy him a beer at the first opportunity. "You took a little grain of truth, combined it with a load of bollocks and managed to get on everybody's tits. 

"We'll make an artist of you yet." 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

We have ways of making you wince

J├╝rgen Goertz sculpture at Berlin Hauptbahnhof 
When Al catches sight of me in the mirror that lines one wall of the gym, so you can admire your own gorgeous body as you pump iron, he grins, turns quickly, extends his right hand to shake mine and grasps my shoulder firmly with his left.

"Good to see you, man," he says. "You don't look bad for someone who's had all his internal organs removed."

"They left a couple," I say, reaching for my shirt buttons. "Heart, lungs, giant brain. Can I show you my war wounds?"

"Put them away," he says. "C'mon, I'll buy you a beer."

"How did you get on with the Germans then?" he says, when we're comfortably seated at the little table by the fire in the Burnbrae Hotel. 

"I liked them," I say. "Only spoke to 50 or so, mind you, out of 80 million. So it's maybe a daft thing to say."

"You never been there before?" he says. 

"Walked across the Rhine in Strasbourg once," I say. "But my only other experience of Germans en masse is groups of research physicists over the years - who are pretty much physicists, wherever they come from. So I went there speaking not a word of German and had to start every conversation with, 'Do you speak English?'"

"That's just rude in someone else's country," Al says, ordering the macaroni cheese from the white-smocked waiter, while I go for a light, do-it-yourself lunch of chips and green veg, and instantly regret it when the aroma of roasted cheese wafts towards me from the next table.

"Wouldn't have done it if I'd had more time to prepare," I say. "But virtually everyone I spoke to was smiley and helpful." 

"And efficient?" he says.

"Not so much," I say. "Went for two trains when I was there. One never appeared and the other was 15 minutes late." 

"So are you back to work now?" he says.

"Doing a bit but I get tired. So I'm pottering around the house, fixing things. Got a man coming to put blinds on my big front window. Those vertical, fabric jobs. Thought they might help keep the heat in, but the ones he showed me were kinda thin and flimsy."

His macaroni arrives, all brown and sizzling, and my mouth starts to water. "I'm sure you can get thermal blinds," he says. "Made of the same material they use for thermal underwear." 

He shoves a large forkful into his mouth and goes "Mmmm" with obvious pleasure while I study my stringy beans with far less. "Or," he says, waggling his empty fork at me. "You could just staple several sets of long johns to the outside of your curtains. That would be cosy in the winter.

"I did tell you about my own wee problem in the groinal region?" he adds. 

"The expanding testicles?"

"Testicle," he says. "Just the one. It would have been less frightening, the first time, if it was both. Well it's back."

"You don't seem bothered," I say. 

"Fear comes from ignorance," he says. "I know what it is now. Fluid retention - hydrocele. It's harmless."

"You not getting any treatment then?" I say.

"I could but I'm in no hurry. They use a big needle and a syringe to suck the fluid out." 

I wince. "Exactly," he says. "So I figure I'll leave it alone until it starts to get in the way."

"In the way of what?" I say.

"Traffic," he says.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The sounds of the city sifting through trees

Started thinking last week about people I haven't seen for a while and would like to, and Bob came top of the list, and wouldn't you know it the very next day I got an email from the man. 

You could have knocked me down with a feather, as my old granny used to say, although most of the time I knew my granny she was younger than I am now, which isn't all that old but seemed ancient to me then. Perspectives eh? 

Where was I? 

Yeah, I lost touch with Bob after the two of us and Iain went to a Dylan concert at Stirling Castle about ten years ago. I hadn't seen him for ages before that though, which was puzzling, because at university we were close. Suffered the stresses of a final year of theoretical physics in a flat together. Played poker, talked about life, music, women, football.  

Like me Bob was a big Scotland fan, scarred for life by some of their dreadful performances, like the 1975 game against England, when the teams were evenly matched outfield, but every England shot went past our gormless goalkeeper Stewart Kennedy for a 5-1 thrashing. 

Bob was one of those guys you imagine you'll be friends for life with, but life kinda gets in the way. His decision to set up home in the same street as my ex-wife, and well within the blast damage radius, restricted my access to him. Inverallan Drive is one of those places, like Kabul and Baghdad, that I'd need an Iron Man suit and a large life insurance policy to enter these days.  

Bob was a tall, good-looking guy, with a serious style of speaking that held your attention, punctuated by flashes of humour that were all the funnier for their origins in a brain that thought deeply about life, people and quantum mechanics.

In our final year at university Bob and I were sent away for a week of nuclear physics at the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre, where we shared a room with another classmate called John, a nice enough guy but more middle-class than we were. His chat was peppered with strange concepts like money, flushing toilets, three meals a day and babysitters.

Not only had John been looked after by a string of these as a teenager, he told us, as we sat on our beds in the cramped accommodation, rather too close for working-class comfort to this long-haired, well-manicured, slightly-scented guy. But he had seduced every babysitter but one. She was only resistant to his manly charms, he reckoned, because she was a nervous, highly-strung sort of person. 

"If I unzipped my jeans she would run a mile," he told us, and I had no idea how to respond. Bob did. 

"So would we," he said.

I am really looking forward to meeting up with young Bob again, particularly as he seems to have retained his sense of humour in the face of life's tendency to toss large lumps of shite at good guys.

"What stage are you at in your recuperation?" he asks in his email. "Are you fully oot and aboot? How's the wayward leg? I broke my ankle two years ago, having sprained it painfully earlier in the day and tried the drinking-lots-of-whisky pain relief therapy.

"I then got up in the middle of the night for a piss and took a header down the stairs. Still managed the piss, only I was inverted at the time. Took two ambulance crews to dislodge me and get me on to a stretcher. Not my finest hour, I can tell you."

Nice one, Bob. I'll see you soon, I hope.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Accentuate the positive

I can never quite place Joanne's accent. It has a nomadic feel to it and a slight sense of strain, like a hat a half size too small for her. Nothing as obvious as the public school politician's glottal stop. Just a sense of something external and artificial. 

It makes me slightly uncomfortable around her. Your speech is such a huge part of your identity that discarding it seems like putting others' opinions ahead of your sense of self, like changing your name when you get married, which I wouldn't do either, so don't ask me to.

"Where are you from?" I say, over a cappuccino and rocky road in the College Club at the Uni. "Originally, I mean."

She hesitates as if unsure herself at this stage in her life. "Cornwall," she says. "I 'ated school. My love as a girl were 'orses."

"That explains it, I guess," I say. 

"What?" she says. 

"The feeling I get sometimes that you're not quite the genuine article."

It sounds harsher than I meant and her face tells me she thinks so too. "Listen, Mister Authentic," she snaps. "We're all actors, even you."

"I worked in England for years," I say, dragged into a disagreement I didn't intend, but forced to defend my corner. "I never lost my accent. Moderated it slightly, I guess. But that was so they could understand me. Not so they'd accept me as one of their own."

"That's fine with your accent," she says. "To English ears Scots sounds classless and attractive. I bet when you were down there you got daft women in pubs going, 'Oo, I just love your Scottish accent.' Didn't you?'"

"No, what I got was, 'I have no idea what you just said to me and take your hand off my leg, you pervert.'"

"Well if you can't get women in England with a Scots accent you must be an idiot," she says.

"Never mind me," I say. "We're not talking about me. We're talking about you disowning your background and becoming a big phoney, just so people will accept you."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," she says. "Grow up. If you want to get taken seriously there are some accents, even nowadays, that you can't speak with. West Country is one of them. We sound like yokels even to ourselves."

I spoon cinnamon froth from my coffee into my mouth, lean back in the armchair and wait for the tension to ease. Joanne is quick to get annoyed with me, but she comes down just as fast. She doesn't hold a grudge. Which is unusual in women, I find. Most love nursing their wrath to keep it warm. 

I try a smile and there's a flicker of response, so I relax. "How's the decision-theory manhunting going?" I say. 

"I'll have tell you next time," she says, placing her empty cup soundlessly in the saucer and brushing a crumb from the side of her lips. "I've got a lecture to give now."

She stands up and I wait for the parting shot. "Why would you want folk to pigeonhole you, as soon as you open your mouth anyway?" she says. "If you say two words to a stranger in Scotland they've got you down as working-class Ayrshire, with middle-class aspirations." 

She bends down fast and swoops up the last piece of chocolate biscuit that I was really looking forward to. 

"Which failed," she says, and disappears through the door for another week.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Double act

"It's called The Butterfly and the Pig," my son says, when he returns to the table in the Bath Street basement restaurant we've wandered into out of the rain.

"What is?" I say.

"This place," he says. "The toilet has fancy green tiles of a pig nosing a butterfly, to remind you." 

I can make no sense of this so ignore it for the moment. "So how are you doing?" I say. "I've not seen you since you started back at Art School."

"Awright, thanks" he says. "I'm kinda re-motivated. There's more happening this year and they've got good guys in, to tutor us. Real artists." 

"Like who?" I say and the question presses the little button in his head marked 'gibberish generator', which used to drive me nuts when he was a boy and I was trying to figure out what his problem was, so I could help him. Too many questions would always push that button. It's one reason he was never a huge favourite with teachers. That and the fact that he used to accidentally set his head on fire.

"We're getting all these projects from guys from you know the sort of last crowd that were do you remember Glasgow artists that were doing good?" he says.

"Who were they?" I say, hanging on to his train of thought by my fingertips.

"Various people," he says.

"What were they called?" I say.

"Different things," he says.

"Did their group have a name?" I say.

"You mean like Young British Artists down in London?" he says.

"Yes," I say.

"No," he says, and I take a deep breath. 

About this point is where people with less self-control than me would chew a leg off the table and start hitting him with it. Not me. I remain cool, laid-back, imperturbable.

"What the **** are you talking about then?" I shout, grabbing him by his jacket lapels and trying to shake him until he rattles, while the maddening little smile I've known since he was three plays around his lips. 

Pointless of course, as he has bigger muscles than me and much more mass. See, he is a sculpture student at Glasgow Art School, an excellent photographer and a competent drawer and painter. But the art he really excels at, the one for which he would easily win the Turner Prize, if there were one, is getting on your tits. 

I have never seen anyone in remotely the same class at turning civilised intelligent people into screaming, slavering, homicidally quivering lumps of apoplectically inarticulate jelly. 

He does it deliberately. He thinks it's funny. It all began when he was a dyslexic, sensitive wee guy, bullied by a cruel teacher called Mrs Gary. But all his teachers since, as well as several of his parents, have been paid back in spades. He has elevated extreme annoyingness to an artform.

"You got me wrong this time," he says, pulling my hands off and placing me gently back in my chair. "I am trying to remember but it's not coming to me."

"Fair enough," I say, not entirely convinced, but wanting to get back to friendly relations. "Do you know why this place is called the Butterfly and the Pig?"

"That I do remember," he says. "The waiter told me last time I was here. Guy that owns the place has a son who had a girlfriend who treated him badly. She was the butterfly, flitting and fluttering around, and he was the pig, lumbering after her."

"That's unflattering," I say. "How would you like it if I named a restaurant after you and Linda?"

"What did you have in mind?" he says suspiciously. "Dumb and Dumber?"

"No, no," I say. "Something that reflects your respective talents, as constructor and musician. How about The Dam-Building Beaver and the Malabar Thrush?"

"Cool," he says. "I'll start making the tiles for the bathroom when I get back to art school."

Saturday, 25 October 2014

I have nothing against your left leg

"Well done - you're mobile already," Susan says, entering my room in the University Hospital, Leipzig on the second day after surgery, and admiring my moving legs briefly, before frowning.

"Why are you walking like that?" she says.

"You noticed?" I say, coming to a halt with a slight wobble and a list to the left, which I'm coming to think of already as my good side.

"Couldn't help it," she says. "Sticks out a mile. Almost literally. Why's your right leg flying out to the side like that?"

"Dunno," I say. "Seems to have a mind of its own since the op. Other one's fine though - look." I take a perfectly straight step with my left leg.

"Now do the right," she says. "Bloody hell! That was almost backwards."

"I know. I think it's all coming from the foot. Seems to get its signals scrambled, pick up a random direction, anywhere from straight back to full ahead, then does that flying out thing and the leg has to follow."

Her frown grows deeper. "You know I said I'd stick by you, no matter what?" she says. "Incontinence, impotence, turning into a vegetable?"

"I do. And it's fantastic that you took time off work to come here with me. It would have been a long hard week without you."

"There is a get-out clause," she says and my heart sinks.


"It doesn't include us walking up the street, back home, with you looking like the Ministry of Silly Walks. It's too embarrassing. Folk will go 'What's a good-looking chick like her doing with a man with a daft leg? She could have done so much better."

"You'd dump me because I have a bad leg?" 

"It's not a bad leg," she says. "It's a mad leg."

"Couldn't you ignore it?" I say.

"No," she says. "What about the flight back? You'll be walking up the aisle and your foot will fly off and put somebody's eye out. Can't you fix it? You're the engineer."

"How?" I say.

"I dunno," she says. "Tie your knees together with a piece of string?"

"Could work," I say, scratching my chin. "Large elastic band would be even better. I'll get onto it."

"How do you think it happened?" she says.

"I'm guessing the surgeon nicked one of the big nerves with his knife when he was rootling around my prostate. It'll take time to settle."

"Just so it's not too long a time," she says.

"Good thing is I think this right foot is going to be famous one day," I say, and she starts shaking her head.

"Go on," she says.

"It's already a leg-end in its own knife time," I say and she rolls her eyes.

"You have to stop talking to Gregor Steele," she says. "He's a bad influence. What can I bring you from the shops today?"

"Salt," I say. "You can't get it in here."

"That's because it's bad for you," she says. 

"Nonsense, boy, as my old Latin teacher used to say, every time I spoke. 'Nonsense, drivel, rubbish and other similar expressions.' We evolved from the sea. Every single cell in our bodies needs salt. Our bloodstream is a wee salty sea we carry around from ancient times, when we were fish."

"I wonder if that's what's wrong with your foot," she says. 


"You're not getting enough salt. So you've started to de-evolve. Your foot is turning into a flipper and searching for the sea."

I waggle it and watch how it moves. "You know I think you're right," I say. 

"I'll be back soon, gimme a cuddle," she says and I try. I really do. But the flipper shoots off backwards and forces me to follow it towards the window. 

"See you later," she says and I give her a cheery wave over my shoulder, study the student cyclists on Stephanstrasse and wonder if it is a long way from here to the ocean.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Prostate postmortem

University Hospital Leipzig
So that's it done. Prostate out and on my feet again. Wait and see what happens next and whether the cancer cells have been banished or simply set sail for pastures new.

For once I'll keep this post fairly serious because some of you will face the same choices I have and maybe find it just as difficult to get the information you need. Without steady pushing for the past few months I'd have had the wrong kind of surgery.

If the tumour is confined to the prostate, as mine was, there are a bunch of treatment options, including surgery, radiation therapy and cryogenics. I was offered the first two and recommended surgery - "the gold standard", they said - because of two factors, my Gleason score and my PSA level.

Gleason score is a measure of how aggressive the cancer cells are, when examined after biopsy. Mine were 4+3 which is intermediate but tending towards get-it-out-sharpish before it spreads beyond the prostate, at which point surgery is no longer an option. My PSA level was 12.8, which is fairly high and a further trigger for action.

Once surgery is selected there are three options - open, laparoscopic or robot-assisted laparoscopic. Finding out which is best took me a while, because I was referred initially to a surgeon who, while highly regarded, practises only open surgery and had his own reasons for not briefing me fully. He was in the process of trying to persuade the Scottish Government to buy him a robot. At one point, when I was questioning him, he said he felt like Alex Salmond during the first televised debate.

At my request, he did refer me to a robot practitioner in England, Professor Prokar Dasgupta, but insisted that if I went robotic I would have to fund it fully myself. The inaccuracy of this statement only emerged after much more digging. He also referred me to just one, rather than the choice of several consultants that I'd asked for.

The Harley Street consultations went well and involved meetings with the surgeon, the anaesthetist, a continence nurse and a sexual function specialist, all of which cost me £750 before a scalpel was lifted. Total cost of this option would be around £27000, they told me, only £9500 of which went to the surgical team, the remainder being the cost of private hospital care for three days and nights in the world's most expensive city centre.

The specialist consultations were very helpful because two inevitable side-effects of prostatectomy are incontinence and impotence, either or both of which might not be temporary. During surgery, part of the sphincter muscle that controls the flow from the bladder is excised along with the prostate, so what remains needs to be retrained to do the job. This can take months and might not fully happen.

Impotence arises when two sets of nerves passing through the prostate to the penis are removed. So nowadays nerve-sparing may be attempted, provided the stage of the cancer allows and the surgeon has the necessary skills. This is where the robot comes into its own. A surgeon-operated robot is more precise than a surgeon alone, provides better vision of the site, more degrees of freedom than a human hand and no tremor.

A further improvement in recent years is "frozen sections" or intraoperative consultations. This means that excised tissue is sent to the lab for analysis during surgery to see if the cancer has been fully removed or more tissue needs to be cut. Without this technique the surgeon must err on the side of caution, which means less chance of nerve-sparing.

Hard scientific evidence for the superiority of the robot-assisted prostatectomy over laparoscopy is scarce, as large-scale randomised control trials have not, and will not now, be done - both for ethical reasons and because isolating the one variable of the robot is impossible. Softer evidence is mounting however and the surgeons who use the robots are convinced that they provide better outcomes in the trifecta of cancer removal, continence and potency. The superiority over open surgery, in the hands of an experienced surgeon, is well established.

But here is the problem for viewers in Scotland. Not only can you not get robot-assisted prostatectomy in our country but you can't get frozen sections anywhere in the UK. So after lots of research and talking to doctors, and with my robot-assisted, friends-and-family-funded surgery in Harley Street just five days away, I was offered two further options - laparoscopy in Edinburgh or robot-assisted laparoscopy with frozen sections, and the best chance of nerve-sparing by Professor Jens-Uwe Stolzenburg, in the University Hospital, Leipzig.

This option had been briefly mentioned very early by Forth Valley Health Service, but had sounded too far out to me, so I dismissed it. But in that final week two experienced NHS prostate surgeons, Alan McNeill in Edinburgh, on my request for an NHS second opinion, and Hasan Qasi in Glasgow, on his own initiative, having studied my notes and priorities, persuaded me independently that this was my best option.

I had less than a week to prepare for ten days away from home, work and internet, to organise travel and accommodation and to buy a German phrase-book. Which I left behind.

On the morning after our arrival in Leipzig I got a phone call from the director of Forth Valley Health Service asking how I wanted to be reimbursed for the £10,000 cost of the surgery and hospital care under Article 56, the EU directive on cross-border healthcare. On the day after the operation the surgeon told me he had spared both nerves. 

So far so good is the most you can say with any cancer. But at the moment I can say that. My Killearn GPs were fantastic as was Forth Valley Health Board. The surgery and aftercare at Leipzig were outstanding. My experiences of Gartnavel Hospital, to which I was initially referred, ranged from unhelpful through obstructive to incompetent.

This is the short version. There is more. If you'd like to ask me anything, please email, replacing at with @ in the usual way.

And for regular readers whom prostates fail to fascinate, a few observations on hospital stays, in Leipzig or elsewhere. 

Rules of survival
1.  The only sane answer to Have your bowels moved today? is Yes. See 2.

2. You may be tempted to flirt with the most attractive nurse, but she is invariably the one that wields the enema. She will not see your best side.

3. Just because the mad bastard who bangs on the wall and sings Deutschland Uber Alles in the middle of the night is ill doesn't mean he's not a homicidal maniac. Do not complain. 

4. The sound that resembles a body being dragged along the corridor at three in the morning could well be. Go back to sleep.

5. When your hand accidentally brushes the ample bottom of the big nurse bent over shaving your belly, don't let it linger there. She has a sharp blade one inch from your genitals. Do the math.