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Sunday, 20 April 2014

The message of Easter

So I'm sitting with Susan in Torres Tapas Restaurant, enjoying their tortilla and patatas bravas, washed down with sangria, and we're talking about Easter.

"It's the most important event in the Christian calendar," she tells me. 

"I thought that was Christmas," I say. 

"That's just the most celebrated," she says. "Easter is more important because of its message."

"Chocolate tastes nicer as an egg?" I say.

"Death is not the end," she says.

"Better," I say. "Have you noticed how you get Christmas films but not Easter films?"

"You've forgotten Yogi the Easter Bear?" she says. "And what about Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill! There's loads of Easter films."

"But they're not classics," I say. "It's a Wonderful Life is the feel-good Christmas film of all time. Used to be on every year. My mum and dad loved it. My dad looked like James Stewart."

"The director's story is inspiring too," she says. "Frank Capra. He came to America from an Italian ghetto as a boy and became a huge influence in the film industry. His name means 'goat'. The word 'capricious' come from the same root."

"You're very well-informed," I say. 

"Always," she says. "After a hellish, two-week voyage down in steerage, they reached New York at night. His dad pointed to the Statue of Liberty holding the torch and said, 'Cicco, look! That's the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem."

At this point the conversation gets harder because good beats start to play. I like Latin because it has strong rhythms but I don't know much about it, so I couldn't tell you if it's samba, rumba, salsa, meringue, flamenco or something else that we're listening to.

All I know is that my body has started moving in ways that would get me arrested in several Scottish communities, where singing and dancing, and the fornication they lead to, send souls straight to hell.

It's a long time since the lower half of my body did anything that could get me into trouble. Usually it's my hands that incur displeasure these days. They play involuntary paradiddles and double stroke rolls on tables, chairs, floors, walls and sometimes even people. Which is annoying of course but what can you do?

So I ask the smiley waitress what we're listening to, and at this point my memory and Susan's diverge, as I discover when we get back to her house and I go on Google.

"That was never Charlie Watts' band," I say.

"Pardon?" she says.

"The waiter said it was the Rhythm Kings."

"No he didn't," she says. "He said the Gipsy Kings."

"That makes more sense," I say, as seven swarthy, southern faces smile out from my screen. "They play a style of music called rumba flamenca, it says here. But these guys are all on guitar. Where's the drums?"

"You get lots of percussion with Spanish guitars," she says.

"But I'm sure I heard more than that," I say. "Here we go. Guy called Rodolfo Pacheco. Plays the cajón. Great sound. Quite similar to percussive guitar."

"Never heard of it," she says. "Is the plural cojones? Because you don't get a great sound when you hit them. Just a dull thud followed by a scream."

I shake my head. "I'm not going to ask how you know that. I think it would be cajones. Subtle difference. Here, have a listen," I say turning my laptop towards her.

"That's just a guy in a beanie hat sitting on a box and smacking it with his hands," she says. "The kind of nuisance who'd do the same on your coffee table."

"You're not impressed?"

"Are you?"

"I think it's fantastic. I want one."

"Oh god," she says.  "When are you going to get this drumming malarkey out of your system?"

"I don't think you can," I say. "It's in the blood."  

"I blame the Rev Bazil Meade," she says. "When you got me that fantastic session with the London Community Gospel Choir. He said you had black man's rhythm."

"He did. I believed him. I just wish I'd realised it when I was young."

"Yeah, great," she says. "By this time you could be playing gigs to crowds of 50 people in town halls across the country, and living out of a van."

"Exactly," I say. "What's the point of discovering you're a drummer when you're 93 years old? One lifetime is not enough."

"The message of Easter is you can have eternity," she says.

"If you want a message try Western Union," I say.

"Frank Capra?" she says.

"Correct," I tell her.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Scent of a man

I think I've mentioned that writing a blog is a great way to learn stuff. 

People read your stories then tell you lots of things you never knew. I don't remember most of them, of course, but I'm sure you would. So if you want to know more, write a blog.

Which reminds me of a young primary pupil's written comment on a reading assignment. "This book told me much more about penguins than I wanted to know."

Marion for instance told me much more about phenomenology and cushions than I wanted to know, and just the other day I learned from Rachel that dogs can tell if you've got cancer. 

I'm not making this up and it came at an opportune time for me, because it turns out my quick-thinking at the doc's had only delayed the inevitable. Instead of getting an internal examination from a female GP, I'm now getting an internal examination this Tuesday from an equally female nurse consultant called Bridget McSweeney.

I have a clear picture of Bridget. Six feet tall, bulging biceps, tanned legs, small moustache. Personality like Nurse Mildred Ratched, who used "subtle humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments and a mind-numbing daily routine" to subdue the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

I mean ask yourself. What kind of woman specialises in examining guys' prostates by - and there's no delicate way to put this girls - shoving a rubber-gloved finger up your arse?

So I make an appointment with the oldest GP in the practice, and ask what's going to happen at this prostate assessment clinic, and he confirms that yes Bridget will do that, but the alternative is worse. "If she's not happy with how it feels she'll take biopsies," he tells me.

This is medical speak, it turns out, for pulling her finger out and shoving a huge needle in. Which reminds me of an election to the student body at Glasgow University, way back in the 60's, a time when political correctness meant spelling "Tory count" right. 

The candidate was Harry Nobbs and his election slogan, ultimately unsuccessful but entertaining enough to win my vote, was "Fingers out, Nobbs in."

So anyway the biopsy procedure uses a dozen of these big needles in turn to take samples and it's painful, Doc Elms tells me. Now I've never heard a doctor use that word before, standard medical euphemism for anything from a blood sample to getting your leg sawed off being "You might feel some discomfort."

So if my doc says it's painful, it's excruciating. Way worse than routine stuff like childbirth and right up there with a fast-bowled cricket ball in the nadgers. So I'm in the mood to listen to anything that resembles an alternative.

"I went to the Vet School open day last weekend," Rachel tells me on the phone. "I got lots of nice stories about dogs and other animals that I'm going to write up for Three Minute Learning. But I wanted to tell you about one in particular, because I was reading your blog about prostates."

"What have dogs to do with prostates?" I ask. "Apart from having them, which I assume they do."

"All mammals have prostates," Rachel says. "Male mammals, anyway. So I was talking to this nice couple, who work for a charity called Medical Detection Dogs, and one of the things they do, they told me, is train dogs to detect prostate cancer by smell."

"Listen, I'm not sure a German shepherd's snout down there is any better than Bridget's digit."

"Don't be stupid," she says. "That's not how they do it. They take urine samples. They can line up half a dozen from different people and the trained dogs will detect the one with cancer, just by scent, in seconds."

"Well that's fantastic," I say. "But I'm guessing it's not standard medical procedure. Not unless Nurse Bridget McSweeney is one of those posh pedigree names and she's really called Lassie."

"Not likely," Rachel says. "But it might be worth talking to these dog people instead of getting the big, scary needles."

"They don't scare me," I tell her.

"Maybe they should," she says. "Especially if you write this up for your blog and Nurse Bridget reads it. I know you say you have to be able to write about anything and have artistic freedom and all that nonsense. But even you wouldn't be that stupid.

"Of course you wouldn't," she says.

"Of course I wouldn't," I tell her.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

My boomerang won't come back

"You got your fingers in the wrong place again," Susan tells me, as she's giving me a lesson out in the open air, now that Spring has come.

"I haven't done this before," I say. "It's not easy."

"Do exactly what I say and you'll be fine," she says. "Curl your fingers around and hold it at an angle to the vertical. That's it. Now throw."

The two of us watch the little boomerang soar over the grass then plummet into a cowpat. "This isn't easy," I say, as we set off to retrieve it. "Are you sure they ever come back? Maybe it's one of those urban myths for wee boys."

"The big boys on Bondi Beach had no trouble with their boomerangs," she says. 

"That's just tacky," I tell her. "And tactless. Just because I have skinny legs and don't know how to hold a boomerang. It's not a survival skill in the West of Scotland. I can dance, dribble a ball and solve differential equations. What more do you want?"

She raises her eyebrows in a manner that says way more than words. "It is a beautiful object," I say, studying the images of Australian animals, painted on the polished wood. "But it's very annoying. My hunter's instincts, honed by millennia of male evolution, should make this easy for me."

"Your hunter's instincts?" she says.

"The ones that make me good at throwing a javelin and parking a car," I tell her. "While you can cook, sew and find things in cupboards. That's your gatherer's instincts."

"Shut up and throw the boomerang," she says.

"I'll try one more time," I say. "Then I'm going to the pub. Why couldn't you get me a present from Australia that wouldn't make me look an idiot?"

"I was only there three weeks," she says.

"Very good," I say, grabbing the shit-covered shaft. "Read the instructions again, will you please?"

"Stand at an angle to the wind," she says. "Hold the boomerang with one of its aerodynamic arms pointing away from you. Throw overhand and snap your wrist to make it spin. Once it's in flight do not look away. If you lose sight of it, adopt the 'mystery boomerang position'." 

"I love that bit," I tell her.

"Turn your back, cover your head with your arms and crouch down," she reads. "If the boomerang hits you in the back it was a good throw."

"Last chance for one of those," I say, throwing hard, snapping my wrist and watching with pleasure as the little flying-machine soars through the air and starts banking left. The ground comes up and smacks it some distance away from us, but it's the first sign that I'm getting the hang of this.

"Always stop on a high when learning a new skill," I tell Susan in the pub later. "Makes you keen to try again. What was the best part of your holiday in Australia then?"

"My boy took me out for dinner on the last night, to the Melbourne restaurant where he's chef. I got him all to myself for the first time in years and we chatted for hours. It was a lovely evening."

She studies the bubbles in her beer. "He will come home," I tell her. "In a year or two."

"I'm not so sure," she says. "They've a great life out there. I think it'll be a long time before I see him again." 

"Family's too important to him," I say. "He'll return, same as you. You went all the way there and flew home again. You're a bit of a boomerang, yourself."

"Elegantly curved and aesthetically pleasing?" she says. 

"Comes back covered in sh...," I start to say, when my hunter's instincts sense her intention, I swiftly adopt the mystery boomerang position, and her raised hand passes harmlessly over my head.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Potted guide to particle physics

CERN terrasse
Just as my son and I are headed our separate ways from the Òran Mór, I get a phone call from the University to say the profs I'm meeting are half an hour behind, so we head back inside and order a couple of orange and sodas. 

"You've been to CERN," he says. "Give me the potted guide to particle physics. But none of your jargon. Keep it simple."

"Well let's see," I say. "There are twelve elementary particles. First you got quarks, squarks, protons and squotons. Then there's electrons, neutrons, matrons, cisterns, grains of sand, steel girders, dark matter and belly button fluff. Everything in the universe is made out of those."

"What holds them together?" he says. "What gives them shape and structure?"

"Good question," I say. "The four fundamental forces do that - gravity, electromagnetism, rock music and sex."

"I'm wondering how they know all this," he says. "Experiments I guess. They couldn't just make it up." 
Source of protons for LHC
"Course they couldn't," I say. "At CERN they mostly use protons from a little red bottle on the wall. But they can't just shoot them straight into the Large Hadron Collider, because they'd get trampled to death by the big guys already in there. So they do it in stages.

"First they give them a wee boost in the Booster, then a physicist on a Harley Davidson picks them up and does the wall of death around two circular machines, called the Proton Synchrotron and the Super Proton Synchrotron, before tossing them at high speed into the Large Hadron Collider. 
CERN accelerator complex

"Sometimes this is too much for one of the protons, which gets over-excited and tries to exceed the speed of light. But that means it could travel back in time and stop itself coming out the bottle. Nature won't permit a paradox, so it surrounds the proton with a little bubble universe that floats away over the Jura Mountains. It's how our own universe began, 13.8 squillion years ago."

"What's a squillion?" he says.

"Part of the numbering system used in physics," I say. "You got thousands, millions, billions, squillions, gazillions and infinity."

"How am I supposed to remember that?" he says.

"There's a mnemonic," I say. "Three Mad Badgers Sail the Galaxy Inaspaceship."

"That took a lot of thought," he says. 

"It's what physicists are good at," I say.  

"Carry on," he says. "This is exactly what I wanted."

"Well some scientists think the bubble universe stays attached to ours by a piece of string. Others say there's no evidence for string, and the stuff gardeners tie up straggly plants with is a figment of imaginations clouded by too much contact with fresh air and creepy crawlies."

"I thought a figment was the smallest dried fruit in a packet," he says.

"It is," I say. "Some are so small they're imaginary."

"Right, carry on."

"Well the objections to string are strong," I say. "Calculations show you can make 10520 different universes out of string. That's a lot more than you can create out of quarks, squarks and girders. It's bigger than any known number, including infinity. So they've made a mistake somewhere."

"I bet they multiplied instead of dividing," he says. "I did that all the time at school."

"Me too," I say. "I'll check their sums and get back to you. Will that do for now?"

"That's great, thanks," he says. 

"Next time will you do the potted history of art for me?" I say.

"No worries," he says. "Do you want me to go right back to Mammoths in a Cave? Art historians often start later, with the Smug Bastard in a Mustache school. That's popular. So is the Big Naked Women Eating Fruit period."

"Whatever you think," I say. "You're the expert."

"Depends how much time we have," he says. "We need to leave plenty for Nailing Shopping Trolleys to a Wall. That's the prevailing school nowadays so it's the most important." 

"I look forward to that," I tell him. "See ya."

"See ya," he says and buggers off out of my life for another week.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The eyes have it

My niece Cathy is a fine photographer, with a nice eye for composition, and since you learn that by starting young, I'm going to claim some credit for her proficiency. Because I bought her her first camera when she was eight. 

It wasn't a great camera but that's not the point. No doubt her mum and dad bought her better ones as she got older. But I was the one who got her started. 

But here's the thing. I've noticed a certain expression on the faces of the guys in her photos. Puzzled, perplexed, bewildered. Take a look at Brian holding the little dog in pyjamas. 

Believe me, that's a very smart guy you're looking at. And Brian has brains too. But you wouldn't think it, would you? So what's going on?

Well I've seen that expression in the mirror and on the faces of a hundred strangers on the street, and I have a theory. Modern life is too complicated for the average male brain. 

"I mean look what it evolved to deal with," I tell my son, as we're having a beer in Òran Mór, the former church that's now a licensed arts venue with its own ale. "Grass, trees, shite and zebras.

"And what does it have to contend with now? Mobile phones, tax returns, speed cameras and coalition government. Is it any wonder we look perpetually perplexed?" 

"What worries me is the guys that don't," he says. "You see them striding around in their dark suits and camel-hair coats, looking manly and purposeful. Where do they get that air of certainty from?"

"Two possibilities," I tell him, taking a sip of the hoppy, refreshing ale. "One, it's an act and soon as they're out of sight their expressions revert to bemused, like ours."

"And two?" he says

"They're a different species."

"Not that old conspiracy theory," he says. "Aliens running the world. Tony Blair is a lizard from Alpha Draconis."

"He might be but that's not what I mean. I'm talking human but different. Convergent evolution. Happens all the time in nature. The beaked sea-snake, the white marlin and the roundscale spearfish, David Cameron and Oswald Cobblepot."

Always willing to give ideas an airing, my son starts nodding. "You could be right," he says, looking around the high-ceilinged room. "It would explain all those young couples who check out fine but can't have kids together."

"That's right," I say. "Different species can look similar but they can't breed." 

"There might be ten different species of human in this room right now," he says.

"There might," I say. "You and I could be different species."

"How does that work when you're my dad?" he says.

"Good point," I say. "Well spotted. We must be the same species. But we might be the only ones in this room."

"So is there some test, other than trying to have kids with people?" he says. "Which isn't always convenient."

"Family are the same," I say. "Me, you, your brother, my mum, my sister."

"Cathy and Brian?" he says.

"Same species, definitely," I say.

"What about strangers?" he says. "How can you tell?"

"Switch your brain off," I tell him. "Trust your instinct. Try it around the room," I say nodding in the direction of the next table. "Guy in jeans."

"Same," he says.

"Woman next to him."

"Different. You do get a feel for it, don't you? Have a go yourself," he says, pointing. "Her."

"Same," I say.

"Him," he says. 

"That's a dog," I say. "That's a different species, obviously."

"Well is it, though," he says. "Is it obvious? If things that look the same can be different species, why can't things that look different be the same species?"

I stroke my beard and ponder. "You're right, of course," I tell him. "This puts a whole new slant on things. Makes the world even more confusing than I thought. How can we be sure of anything now?" 

"It's got to be expression, hasn't it?" he says. "Never mind all that DNA bollocks. Anything that looks puzzled and perplexed is the same species, I'm thinking."  

"That's good thinking, son," I say, as he and I rise to leave, headed respectively for an art school lecture and a meeting on molecular biology at the University.

"So was this science or were you making shit up again?" he says.

"What do you think?" I say.

"Sounded like science to me."

"There you go, then. Trust your instinct."

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Guys on bikes

"Most cyclists aren't cyclists," my son tells me, as I'm driving him to his Tai Chi session, near Byres Road. "They're just guys on bikes."

Focused on a couple of kids on the pavement, who look like they could dive into the road, my brain is fuzzy about what he's just told me, while feeling it's the kind of remark he has always enjoyed - a blend of paradox and his own sideways slant on the world.

"Have you any idea what you're talking about?" I ask, but instead of answering he starts pointing people out and classifying them as cyclists or guys on bikes. 

"It's just whether they're wearing a helmet?" I venture, after studying a few. 

"Nah, there's more to it than that," he says. "It's a culture thing. It's how seriously they're into it all."

"Have you noticed how selfish cyclists are?" I say. "The worst are those clowns that pelt along pavements to avoid traffic and don't give a toss about the pedestrians they mow down."

"I've never seen that," he says. "And I walk everywhere."

"I get it all the time."

"How many?"

"Three - once just yesterday."

"In sixty years?" he says. "They are at it all the time, then."

"They are. And every Sunday they're out on the winding, country roads down our way, driving six abreast at ten miles an hour with a queue of forty cars behind them. Selfish bastards. I'd melt down their bikes and make them buy cars." 

"You're starting to sound like a Daily Mail reader," he says. "How do you feel about immigrants, homosexual marriage and hoodie scum?"

"I love them," I say. "It's just cyclists I can't stand. Good thing is Nature has a way of punishing those who flout her Laws."

"Turn here into Creswell Street," he tells me. "Nature's Laws? Now you sound like a hippy."

"This is science," I tell him. "The human body isn't designed to be load-bearing at the crotch. There are sensitive parts down there that you press on at your peril. Male cyclists get all kinds of problems with their equipment."

"Like punctures and slipped gears?"

"Like low sperm counts and erectile dysfunction."

"Bugger," he says. 

"Not to mention nodules, furuncles and other 'extratesticular disorders'."

"I wish you hadn't," he says, squirming in his seat. "What causes these extraterrestrial disorders then?"

"Pressure and shock, according to a paper in the Lancet, which found 96% of mountain bikers had scrotal abnormalities." 

"You don't want those," he says.

"Normality of the scrotum is what we aim for," I say. "See this is why your average cyclist hates motorists. He can turn women on with his tight, lycra-encased arse, but that's all he can do. His wife is perennially unsatisfied so she's having passionate affairs with guys who keep their scrotums healthy by sitting on soft, comfy seats in cars. All that makes him a borderline psycho." 

"And this is all in that Lancet paper, is it?" he says

"I'm reading between the lines now."

"I thought you scientists chappies were supposed to stick to evidence and not make shit up," he says.

"Yeah but I'm a writer too. We have to make shit up."

"That's us here," he says. "Pull up outside the church. Hey, look at that one - cyclist or guy on a bike?"

"He's got a pointy helmet," I say. "So I'm guessing cyclist." 

"But he's wearing fancy shoes and carrying a newspaper and he just smiled at those kids," he says. All that makes him a borderline cyclist."

"Very good," I say. "You do know puns are the lowest form of wit?"

"Sorry I spoke," he says. "Don't get cranky. Gimme a bell next time you're in town.

"On yer bike," I tell him.

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.


More
The truth about the whistling language of La Gomera.