Monday, 25 November 2013


I've been thinking a lot about biscuits recently. Partly this is the result of some idle meanderings for another book I'm writing about my childhood growing up in Yorkshire. But when you think about it, the link is obvious. It's the Garibaldi. You remember -- dead fly biscuits? I can still remember my little sister's look of lip curling disgust as I invited her to entertain the possibility that I might just have crushed a real fly on the biscuit she had just eaten with her milk. She stood up suddenly and, fearing retribution of the kind only a sister can mete out, I made a dash for the door.

She made a dash to the bathroom.

Even my nonchalant whistling as I passed my mother on the landing could not mask the sound of retching from the bathroom.

"What's wrong with your sister?"

"Something she ate?" I ventured.

It can have been no more than two minutes before I heard my mother bellow "Jonathan" down the stairs.

That was the problem with the Garibaldi -- not a trustworthy biscuit. Well, in the wrong hands anyway.

But I digress. My childhood is the subject of another book and now, nearly 50 years on, I wouldn't dream of adding flies to biscuits. I have matured, moved on if you will, in my biscuit appreciation. No longer do I see the biscuit as little more than a vehicle for sibling discomfort. In any case, my sister has never eaten a Garibaldi since.

Nowadays I wouldn't even contemplate such a biscuit -- and why should I, faced with the cornucopia of different biscuit experiences available to me now. Having what doctors euphemistically call a life limiting condition, I don't plan to spend it looking balefully at rich tea fingers or the humble digestive. Even my mother called them 'suggestive' biscuits to make them seem more interesting. She never tired of the joke, chuckling anew each time. Her ability to find laughter in such barren ground only confirms once more to me that there was nothing on television throughout the entire 1960s. Entire sitcoms were based on little more.

Suggestive or otherwise, they're not a biscuit that really comes above the radar. Not even when chocolate coated. And that's saying something since it has been my long considered opinion that pieces of linoleum tile, if dipped in chocolate, would make a perfectly serviceable between-meals snack. But even chocolate, the great Redeemer, cannot breathe life into the digestive biscuit. A biscuit for the mentally congestive.

The rich tea finger is little better. Even the name suggests stolid worthiness. It's a biscuit that makes you think of high tea in the chilly front parlour with nothing but Aunt Primrose, the living prune, and the slow tick of the mantelpiece clock for company. A biscuit that spoke of a wartime of deprivation and grim self-denial. An apology for a biscuit. Even now I can remember Aunt Primrose's look of arched irritation when I asked her if she had any other biscuits.

No, these were good enough for her father and his father before him. I held myself back from enquiring whether these were the actual biscuits so popular with her ancestors. In any case, it was clear enough that, to want any other biscuits was tantamount to putting on airs and graces, a character flaw comparable in 1960s Yorkshire to being a homosexual. Or a Tory.

I made some feeble excuse and it was never mentioned again.

When the glorious Revolution comes and I shall have chance to settle old scores, the rich tea biscuit will be the first to face the firing squad. Quickly followed by the suggestive digestive.

But the Yorkshire of my childhood was a drab monochrome place and the monochrome Aunt Primrose was no more than an embodiment of that. It is against that grey, colliery-scarred landscape that I remember my first jammy dodger. And if ever there was a biscuit to excite a 10-year-old boy, this was it. Firstly, it was red. Or at least the middle was. Unnaturally red. The kind of red achieved as a by product of the petrochemical industry rather than lush fields of ripening summer strawberries. It was brash and bold. A biscuit that spoke of youth and exuberance. If the rich tea biscuit was an Austin 1100, the jammy dodger was a Cadillac Eldorado. Here was a biscuit that spoke of horizons beyond Cantley or Armthorpe. Here was a biscuit that whispered Worksop or Rotherham.

It was the kind of biscuit you would even kiss your sister for.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Battered shark

You sometimes get the feeling that everything has a price. Every little joy in life has to be balanced with a comparable disappointment. And vice versa. You acquire Parkinson's for instance but are compensated for this by the amazing new friends you meet. You pass your GCSEs with stellar grades only to get home and find the dog has died. You miss your train home only to meet a childhood sweetheart in the taxi queue. That sort of thing. Checks and balances. It's as though the Almighty won't let you be miserable without some compensation. And nor will He want you to get too uppity.

Take today as a case in point.

Evidently Anton has offended the motoring gods. His first real outing in The Shark, to see Manchester United play Arsenal at Old Trafford has been, at best, only a qualified success but nonetheless fits this pattern. The central part of the day, the game itself, has pretty much gone as well as could have been hoped from a Mancunian perspective. One nil to United with the goal scored by Arsenal old boy Robin Van Persie. The words 'salt' and 'wounds' spring to mind.

Taken in isolation, the game and the result would normally equate to a fine day trip bracketed by a 200 mile snarl in The Shark. One can almost hear Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' playing in the soundtrack of life. Unfortunately, as already explained, that's not how life works. A famous victory calls for redress of similar magnitude. You can almost imagine God reaching for his pocket calculator. "Let me see ..... good seats at Old Trafford .... Man United victory .... goal by Robin Van Persie .... perfect weather". He sucks the air through his teeth "Oooh, that's going to cost".

Inevitably therefore, according to my hypothesis, the hours running up to the game are rather less Lou Reed and rather more Elvis Costello. Specifically his 1979 single 'Accidents Will Happen' as The Shark finds itself part of a pile up, rear-ended on the motorway. Anton and his son Tom are thankfully fine but The Shark is not. Although the least damaged of the cars involved, the back of the car is still going to take more than a smear of T cut and a few minutes polishing. The boot has visible dents and one of the exhausts is bent back on itself. It's lucky the fuel tank was not punctured. A hat-trick by Rooney and who knows!

To me, a car crash would be sufficient cue to forget the match, head home and curl up in a bundle on the sofa with comfort food and a glass of whisky. And if Anton ever at any stage entertains this notion, it is swiftly scotched by Tom, whose determination to see the match is undiminished by something so trivial as a mere motorway car crash. After all, what's a little whiplash between friends? Anton correctly demonstrates that, unlike his football crazed son, he is still in possession of his faculties and insists on at least subjecting the car to the scrutiny of the AA. Tom meanwhile, frothing at the mouth with every minute lost, spends his time productively updating Facebook with the latest roadside bulletin.

I stumble upon this situation inadvertently. As my wife shops in Marks & Spencer, I check my Facebook, in half expectation of a briefing document from a US colleague. No sign of any spreadsheet but plenty of pictures of mangled metal and car parts on the hard shoulder. Only when I see the number plate do I realise that this is Anton's car. Despite initial panic, I soon realise that he and Tom must be unhurt. Even Tom would presumably not update Facebook if his father was in mortal danger. Well, maybe discreetly.

Nevertheless, as the principal proponent of the successful 'Jag for Anton' campaign, I feel it my duty to try and instil a little common sense in the dynamic due. I leave largely unheeded messages on Facebook until the phone rings. It is Freia, maker of the best biscotti north of Turin and in all respects a great friend apart from her abject failure to understand the male need for Jaguar ownership. She is surprisingly calm. Apparently the AA man has bent the exhaust back into approximately the right shape with a length of metal piping before giving The Shark a clean bill of health -- well, clean enough to get to Manchester and back.

They arrive in time for the game. Anton finds a parking place a short walk from the ground and off they troop. Two hours later, the Reds have beaten the yellow peril (Arsenal are playing in their away strip) and all seems much better with the world. But inevitably the triumph of red over yellow calls for a price.

As they approach the car, Anton notices something yellow in a plastic envelope on the windscreen. He peels it off. In the distance he can hear the maniacal laugh of a traffic warden.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The gene genie (Part 2)

Where were we? Oh yes, I remember. I was about to get my genetic results.

Of course the first thing you notice when you log on is -- well -- very little. There are no glaring warnings, no headlines, nothing on the screen to suggest that they know you're there. Not that I was expecting a reception committee -- "Ah Mr Bond, we've been expecting you".

My first piece of genetic information, to whet the appetite so to speak, is a polite suggestion that I should avoid eating raw oysters -- I am particularly susceptible to the most common form of Norovirus -- you know, the diarrhoea and vomiting bug. Nice.

But it's not long before you get into the swing of things. There is a lot of genetic information here, mostly of little importance. A sort of genetic amuse bouche before the opening salvoes -- a list of 52 conditions of known genetic inheritance. And for me, of no genetic interests either since my genome is unpolluted by these little malefactors. Of 52 conditions with known inheritance, I have none. No phenylketonuria. No Gaucher's disease, no Pendred syndrome nor familial Mediterranean fever. And those are just the ones I can pronounce. I'm also in the clear on Medium-Chain Acyl-CoA Dehydrogenase (MCAD) Deficiency and certainly out of the woods on Rhizomelic Chondrodysplasia Punctata Type 1 (RCDP1) . Just imagine my relief.

In fact I don't have around 45 conditions that, until now, I didn't know it was possible to have. And how can you be afraid of something that you didn't even know existed. Unless you're Donald Rumsfeld.

But surely I hear you ask them must be more for your $99 than an all clear on the unpronounceable diseases and gentle advice to avoid oysters which, bearing in mind that they have the taste and consistency of snot, will not take much further inducement.

Not surprisingly then there is a whole lot more information available from my loquacious little genome. In the debit column, I have a slightly elevated risk of psoriasis. Okay, mildly irritating perhaps but, when I discover that it's counterbalanced by a dramatic reduction in my likelihood of contracting Alzheimer's, it's a trade I'm more than prepared to make. And I couldn't help but raise a wry smile on discovering that my genetic predisposition to Parkinson's is actually some 20% lower than the general population based on my expression of different alleles in that smorgasbord of genes associated with Parkinson's.

All of this genetic shenanigans proves that I have a common or garden genome. In fact you would struggle to find a less interesting genome than mine. Even geneticists, trying to find excitement where there is none, must have absentmindedly picked their fingernails when challenged to say something interesting about my genetic composition. Ordinary. Very ordinary. Jon 'Ordinary' Stamford.

It's rather like reading my school report -- 'Try as he may, Stamford has a very ordinary genome. It is unlikely his genome will amount to anything. He has performed adequately in all subjects, but without distinction in any. As goalie, he kept a clean sheet in the Nature v Nurture house cup. His performance as third bystander in the school play went largely unnoticed. The careers master suggests he tries his hand at something mundane and unimaginative. Accountancy perhaps. Or politics.

Just as I'm about to write my genome off, I stumble across the 'Traits' section of the website. Here, stashed away like some cabinet of Victorian curiosities, are all the things that won't harm you or help you. Or do anything really. They're just part of you.

And here I discover that I am unlikely to get male pattern baldness. True enough -- I have a full head of hair. Grey hair certainly but at my age you just happy to be able to hold your head high when buying a comb in Boots. No need for any awkward moments there. Moreover, my hair is apparently slightly curlier than average. Right again. Only slightly mind you -- we're not talking Afro here. And my eyes are likely to be blue. In actual fact they are a sort of pale blue -- more a steel grey I think. They match my hair.

And when it comes to muscle performance the report tells me I'll be an unlikely sprinter due to a lack of fast twitch muscle fibres. Going back to school again, it should be said that my track and field performances were legendary. I achieved a 100m time that was considered slow for the 200m and remain to this day the only person at the school ever to injure himself on his own javelin. They wouldn't even let me pick up the discus.

It also transpires that I have two different alleles that make you brighter if you are breastfed (which I was). According to the genome's prediction, and I'm happy to go along with it, I should be around 12 IQ points higher than average. Actually (trying hard not to look smug) I think that figure is nearer 30 or so. And I'm a dunce compared to the kids.

But all of this genetic information pales into insignificance when stacked against what, for me, is unequivocally the most memorable finding. I possess the CC form of the ABCC11 gene which means that I am condemned to a life of wet ear wax. Even 23andme's scholarship comes up short on this one and they have to confess, rather limply, that they know of no evolutionary advantage to having wet rather than dry earwax.

Don't laugh -- scientists get paid to do this stuff.