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Thursday, 22 January 2015

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Here I am once again heading north: this time to Newcastle to visit my aunt in hospital. I’m looking forward to it, which may sound strange given her situation: a husband and half a leg less.

I’ll be meeting up with my cousin who, not having seen for donkey’s years, will have had the pleasure of my company twice in less than a month. There’ll also be another cousin, the daughter of my aunt. She’s an academic at Leeds University and today will be lecturing in Newcastle; so can pop in to see her mum.

I’m surprised with myself and my willingness to travel the length of England to visit my aunt. On reflection the explanation is quite simple. I like being, and being in touch, with my family. It gives me a sense of place and belonging, listening to their stories and exchanging jokes and word games. I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that the Coidan’s are a serious free zone. So I look forward to seeing my aunt: seriously it may be my last chance to see her this side of the Pearly Gates, but I anticipate much laughter and joshing meeting up with my cousins.

So where does the sense of humour and frivolity originate? My grandma was a dour Scot with a head for business, my grandfather was a member of the Greek aristocracy fallen on hard times. My father’s siblings were extremely bright: professionals, businessmen or linguists all. My cousin, who spent a considerable time with my father, reckons he was the brightest of them all: if not the most successful.

Dad spoke seven languages, my cousin is an Arabist, and her children are linguists and historians. I think this facility for languages leads to a love of language, words and meaning and the fun that can be had playing around with them. A quick mind helps, which why another cousin, a theoretical chemist, is a one-man comedy act.

However, I have other cousins: lecturers, linguists and scientists for whom humour appears to be an unknown territory. So what else is required? Parents who laugh, who love playing with words, who have an ear for the absurd or the unexpected?

Or it is just the disposition you’re born with?

Isn’t Newcastle stunning? There’s Earl Gray lording it over the town from his column and quite rightly so. His vision has created a magnificant city. The railway station is out of this world.

I saw my aunt: minus half her right leg. She’s not great, but what would you expect. I think she was glad to see me and she was moderately coherent. She had difficulty speaking to the missus on the phone but I have that problem as well.

The next step is her recuperation and re-habilitation. It was hoped she’d be moved to Leeds, where her daughter lives but my aunt wants to go back to Carlisle: which makes a real pain for the family. Carlisle is lovely: don’t get me wrong but it’s an arse to get to. Anyway we’ll have to see.

My cousin, the professor, was lecturing at Newcastle University, which as it happens is just across the road from the hospital, Royal Victoria Infirmary. She “invited” me to attend: not telling me what it was about. Although as she’s pretty savvy linguistically and Middle Eastern –wise, I fancied it had to do with Arabic.

I wasn’t wrong. She was giving a talk to a load of postgraduate linguists about why in the 6th century some Arab laid down rules for the pronouncing of words in the Quran. It was all to ensure that the Quranic message was not corrupted by being spoken in different dialects and languages. That’s all I understood. There was a huge amount of detailed stuff around the various pre –Arabic languages in the Southern Saudi peninsula and what they said about the genesis of these rules.

Great fun! They invited me to stay for a meal after the lecture. I’d have loved to, but my return journey was booked and I couldn’t miss it. Reluctantly I had to say farewell to my cousin and her admiring audience.

I expect I’ll be “up north” again in the near future.

Talking about them past the Wash, isn’t Corrie gripping? They’re having an Emmerdale moment. Poor Steve. Mind you with a mother like his what can you expect.


Sunday, 18 January 2015

Brain Robbers from Outer Space


A recent tweet about "Head and Shoulders" shampoo - they didn't know why it was called by that name - got me reminiscing about dandruff.

As a teenager, dandruff came a close second to zits and blackheads as my nemesis "tottywise". Many hours were spent washing my hair and checking it meticulously for those telltale flakes of dead skin. I didn't know it at the time but I was suffering from psoriasis and as a result I had  an extremely itchy scalp. So bad was the itch that I must have tried a whole chemist's store of shampoos: without any success. In desperation I poured half a bottle of undiluted Dettol onto my scalp. I still remember the pain, and the extreme redness of my scalp and face as a result of that desperate measure.

A kid at school - he was a prefect - had what I thought was the worse dandruff problem in the world. He already had thinning hair and what remained was held in place by a mesh of scalp skin.You didn't want to be around when he combed his hair.

Then there was my university interviewer at the University College London's Observatory at Mill Hill. I had applied to do a degree in Astronomy: that and dinosaurs were my passion at the time but as far I knew there were no degrees in DinoScience.

He started asking me difficult questions such as "If the universe is infinite, that means there are an infinite number of stars and anywhere you look you will see a star. So why is the night sky dark?" As I recall I suggested there was lots of obscuring dust which cut out much of the star light. Unfairly he pointed out that after a time the obscuring dust would heat up and glow with the same intensity as the stars. Which meant the sky would be bright (in fact infinitely bright).

 Did I hit on the right answer: the universe wasn't infinite or it was expanding and there was a limited light horizon. I don't remember but what I do remember is when he shock his head it snowed: dandruff.

Dandruff seems to be a thing of the past. It might be better diet, better, less caustic shampoos: or I'm just not noticing. Dandruff is a fabulous word; it's like running your hand through a cat's coat. Soft, yielding and it purrs. It's a bit of a mystery word. The first part "dan" can't be traced etymologically and the second part is Norse or Germanic - linked to leprosy. Which is a shame given how cuddly it sounds.

I didn't do a degree in Astronomy. The reason was extremely simple but sad. I didn't think they'd accept my A level grades so instead I signed up for Maths and Physics at King's College, London. Subsequently I found out that so desperate was the "infinitely bright" interviewer that they'd have had me with my grades.

Which is a real shame. Instead of Carl Sagan, Prof Brian Cox or even Colin Pilliger it could have been me on "The Sky at Night", dandruff free and explaining why the sky is dark.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Best Years of Our Lives

Latest news about my aunt is not that good.

She was transferred from the Carlisle Infirmary to Newcastle's hospital for an operation they couldn't perform in Carlisle. I understand she's had an operation but it appears that there are serious complications. So serious that she will have to have her leg amputated above the knee. I don't know the details but this is dreadful news.

She's in her mid 80's, just buried her husband who died suddenly while she was in hospital and now this. She is a hugely positive person: for her life's glass is always half full but how is she going to cope?

She's had half her life ripped away from her with her husband of 56 years taken, and now she's to lose a leg. How will she cope?

But people do: all the time. People all over the world have their lives mashed up and mangled yet most survive. The families in Paris - of the slain and the slayers. The relatives in Nigeria, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan..etc...the list is endless. Death is all around us and if we're not careful it can suck the life out of us.

We must not be in awe of death. It has its hour, but until that hour arrives we have life and have it in abundance.  

I am fearful of my aunt's future, but until that future arrives I will celebrate her living, her 56 years of companionship, her four children and her grandchildren. She is alive and that is to be treasured.

The alternative, as has been so often pointed out, is rather less attractive.