June, 2018. I've just been visited in Blairgowrie by my long-term friend, John Wilson, and his charming wife, Genevieve.

We had a good time; we ate fresh oysters in the back garden. We ate a meal in the fish church over the bridge. We had a laugh.

But at the end of it all, I feel the need to say this. Again.



THE BOOK OF JOHN



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This is John’s new house in Leicester. John, Cathy and Joanna are asleep in first floor bedrooms round the back of the house. Indeed, I get the impression that I am the only person rampaging around on the entire estate. Hardly surprising, it is early Sunday morning and respectable people must be tired out after so much toil – a week’s work and a day’s play. February 20, 1994.

For a better view of John’s car I make my way to the spare bedroom at the front of the house.

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Yesterday, John told Joanna and me that the car had been broken into recently. The mobile phone was stolen and so was the CD player. John decided not to replace the phone – it was more hassle than it was worth – but he did get a new CD player. John likes to listen to Madonna as he glides from one business meeting to the next.

Wondering why John’s and Cathy’s cars have been left out overnight I make my way out of the house and into the garage. The floor is carpeted from brick wall to brick wall and I can only suppose that John doesn’t want tyre marks or oil spills on his pristine carpet. The only item on the garage floor is the slim instrument panel of John’s car’s new CD player.

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Detached, this leaves an unbreakable metal box in the car. John can sleep in his bed at night knowing that, whatever else happens, the next time he gets in his car he can listen to Madonna. Like a Virgin.

John has a CD player in the lounge as well. On Saturday night, after an evening of food and drink and talk, in deference to my own taste, perhaps, John played this David Bowie album.

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We listened respectfully to ‘Space Oddity’. The second track prompted Cathy to suggest that we all go into the conservatory and dance. I thought this was a good idea but we sat on. Suddenly, I for one couldn’t remain seated.

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Cathy danced well. Joanna didn’t dance, remaining in the lounge where the music must have been too loud for her though she said not. John danced in a corner of the conservatory as though determined to keep warm. I danced in my usual fashion – I don’t know what it looks like but it feels like I’m walking, sometimes hopping, on the Moon, conscious that I’m operating with a limited supply of oxygen. We danced, rested, and danced again for ‘Rebel Rebel’.

Rebel, Rebel, how could they know?
HOT TRAMP, I love you so!


After the Bowie CD had played all the way through, I asked to see John’s van Gogh. That’s the picture, Young Man with a Cornflower, that in 1989 I’d copied from a reproduction of the original (whereabouts unknown) and given to my friend because it reminded me of how John looked when we first knew each other at university, circa 1976. Not only has John not displayed the picture on a wall of his new house, he has to extract it from a pile of junk on a table in a spare bedroom.

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I reckon there’s a sort of Dorian Gray thing going on in reverse. The more John refuses to live a full adult life, the younger the portrait gets. I took the van Gogh picture to the conservatory and the four of us danced round it to a second helping of Bowie.

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But all that was last night. This morning it is quiet, really peaceful in the conservatory, and whatever dust that was kicked up by dancing feet has settled back into the pile of the carpet. I notice that the carpet in the lounge is more or less the same as the carpet in here which is similar to the carpet in the garage. Beige, beige and thrice beige.

There is one difference between the outhouse carpets though. The garage does not have anything like the same amount of light entering it, and so the garage floor doesn’t get that combination of light and shadow that is a feature of the conservatory carpet on a bright day such as this. The carpet must truly sing on a blue summer’s day!

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From the conservatory other houses in the estate can be glimpsed.

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John told me that the owner of one of the neighbouring houses had committed suicide recently. John had had a single conversation with the man who’d referred to problems he was having with a local down-and-out. Apparently the tramp would sneak into the man’s conservatory late at night and play the bagpipes. ‘Bagpipes?’ John had asked, needing to be convinced. ‘Bloody bagpipes.’ the man had insisted, pale and shaking.

Perhaps that is the house in question, with its burglar alarm, satellite dish and conservatory.

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Anyway, the man was found dead in the conservatory in circumstances which reminded John of the recent tragedy involving a Conservative politician. But whereas suspenders, an orange and a nylon cord were found with the MP, John’s neighbour was found with a kilt, a haggis and a jockstrap on or about his person. “Had the bloke been done in by the tramp, then?” I asked. “No, it was suicide,” said John. “The police are not looking for anyone else.”

I take a key out of my pocket, unlock the conservatory door, and step into the back garden.

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You see, I know these outhouses of old – there is a ‘one key fits all’ policy. That’s to say, one key fits all garages, conservatories and garden sheds. I look around for a garden shed to explore.

There is no shed but I inspect a huge old beech tree before turning round to photograph the rear of John’s house.

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Things are beginning to stir. Joanna is up; rather she is down in the conservatory. And John is up; I see him at the frosted window of his
ensuite bathroom. He pushes open the top part of the window.
“Shall I expose myself to you, Duncan?” he asks.

I’m not sure what to reply. Perhaps John thinks I haven’t heard him because he shouts:

“SHALL I EXPOSE MASEL’ TAE YE, DUNCAN?”

I decide to go back indoors and set up a meeting room in the conservatory.

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By the time I am happy with the position of the first of John’s new chairs, Joanna has moved into the lounge to drink coffee. John bought the chairs yesterday, announcing his intention to do so when he met us at the station at one o’clock. We would go for a drive and a walk in the country and still be able to pick up the chairs at our leisure, long before the shop closed at 6.30pm. Fine.

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A high speed drive through town got us to Habitat at 6.31pm. John screeched to a halt outside the main doors, dived into the entrance which was locked by a security guard seconds after John’s intrusion, and came out a few minutes later looking pleased with himself and the two boxes which he shoved into the boot. As soon as we got to the house John assembled the chairs and, when he saw that they weren’t the comfy, padded armchairs that he had envisaged, completely lost interest in them. I decide that this chair is my chair.

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But I position the other one as well, and, who knows, I might change my mind. This second chair is a little wobbly, slightly skew-whiff, a fraction less balanced, and I reckon I am right – this chair is John’s chair, the other is mine. Good.

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I go into the lounge to await John and the chat I want to stage with him. John is reading the
Sunday Times culture supplement. Cathy’s eyes must be better today – she had conjunctivitis yesterday – as she is reading the small print in the appointments section of the paper. I really shouldn’t have bought the Sport as well as the Times; it is a sordid rag, truly tawdry, and I feel ashamed to have brought it into this respectable house.

John appears and devours the Sport before he lets me steer him towards the conservatory. “What are these?” asks John, not recognising the chairs. “Whose are they? How did they get here?” he adds, almost hysterically.

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I remind him that these are his own directors chairs and inform him that I have transferred them from the lounge to the conservatory for the purpose of photo-opportunity. “Oh, that’s all right then,” says John, sinking into my chair.

I am much too polite to tell John that he can’t sit there, so I stand where I am. I consider going and sitting in John’s chair but I am not so sure that that would be such a good idea. Not that it would do me any harm: after all the two chairs are fairly similar, almost identical even. Nevertheless, I decline John’s invitation to sit.

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I stare at the back of John’s well-groomed head. Has his hair colour changed since those halcyon days we spent together at Downing College, Cambridge?

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John was the Sebastian Flyte of our year, and he had rooms high on J staircase from where he used to host the wildest of parties.

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His hair colour has darkened and dulled, as, perhaps, has his personality. I wonder if entrepreneur John had to pay extra for a house that is exactly the same colour as his hair. I expect it will be a few years yet before John’s brick-red locks gets a vein of grey in them if he continues to take such good care of himself. Fine executive, fine dinner party host, fine property owner. Fine, fine and thrice fine.

But perhaps I’m seeing a walking cliché where there is none. I stare at John’s neatly shod feet.

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I’ve known these shoes as carpet slippers (as now), as pedal pushers (when racing to Habitat), and as light fantastics (when dancing to ‘Jean Genie’), so I’m not unaware of both their merits and their wearer’s idiosyncrasies. So just exactly who is John Wilson?

I sit down when I realise that John is telling me an interesting story. He explains that he was taken aback by the sight of the chairs in the conservatory because he suspects that a down-and-out is using the conservatory by day during the week, and for one dreadful moment John thought that the occupation had been extended to the weekend.

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Wanting to hear more but not wishing to remain in John’s seat any longer, I move over to the window sill in the corner of the room. “How does he get in?” I ask, comfortably perched. John can’t be sure but reckons that he gets in by a sort of tramp-flap in the fence, then simply uses a key to enter the conservatory.

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John explains that there is a ‘one key fits all’ policy in effect regarding conservatories and I indicate with a nod that I know all about that.

John glances nervously towards the tramp-flap occasionally.

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I ask him how he knows that his space is being invaded. John indicates the book in his hand. The first he knew about it was its presence in the conservatory one evening when he came home from a hard day’s work. “What’s the book called?” I ask.
Under a Thin Moon, John tells me.“It's about four working calls girls living on the edge of a Manchester council estate during Thatcherism.” Actually, I have read that book and I give John my opinion of it – a deeply felt and well-organised novel.

“What else does the tramp do in here, besides reading?” I ask. John expresses exasperation at the sheer cheek of the invasion of his property, and then tells me that the swine drinks beer.

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The malty aroma and the damp patches of approximately a foot in diameter that John finds in here on a daily basis indicate that the intruder prefers cans of draught-style bitter to the more traditional canned beers. John tells me that such cans need to be kept in a fridge for hours if they are not to froth up and spill out upon opening. And as the tramp never sets foot in the house proper he has no access to refrigeration and has to put up with the frothing and the spillage which he no doubt tries to keep to a minimum for reasons of his own. I admire John’s deduction but John interrupts me to make it clear that he knows that the bastard drinks beer and the kind he drinks because the first thing that John does when he gets home in the evening is to pick up four empty tins off the conservatory floor.

“What else does the tramp-in-residence do?”
For days John reckoned that the intruder was scattering isinglass about the conservatory. One day there would be isinglass on the inside of the window, dribbling down the sill. Another day there would be isinglass on the carpet, gouts of the stuff. Having said that, John twists round in his seat. I don't recall ever seeing him on edge in this way.

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“John, what is isinglass?”

Isinglass is a glutinous, whitish substance, prepared from the swimming bladder of various species of fish, especially the sturgeon. But, isinglass is a red herring, because John eventually discovered that what was being deposited in his conservatory with monotonous regularity was human sperm. “The bastard was tossing himself off, leaving me to mop up with a fast-dwindling stock of silk handkerchiefs.”

“Who uses silk handkerchiefs these days?”

“Is that all you can say?”

I think for a minute. “It probably isn’t one of the Manchester women.”



“Anything else?” I ask, a little tentatively.

John looks me straight in the eye and tells me that the only other thing he knows about is the begging letters, which John finds between the pages of
Under A Thin Moon.


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“Do you have an example?”

John opens the book, apparently at random, and reads aloud:

“TO THE HOUSEHOLDER
A futon
Would come in handy
When I feel a bit tired.
And would like to lie down for a whiley.”


“Is that fairly typical?”
John turns a page and reads again:

“TO THE HOUSEHOLDER
It is cauld today
It was never cauld in chemistry class when I was a laddie.
So what about a few Bunsen burners in here?
Eh?

John has left the room looking somewhat overwrought. I can sympathise with his predicament, how would I like it if… But I can’t think of an equivalent situation concerning my bedsit. Instead of dwelling on this I get up and take a photo of John’s seat, or rather my own.

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John comes back into the room, in a much better mood, wearing a chunky-knit pullover, and with a question for me: “Guess where I’ve been?” he asks. I can’t. So he gives me a clue, holding up the instrument panel of his car’s CD.

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“Driving around listening to Madonna?” I hazard. That is exactly what he’s been doing, he admits, though he’d rather have listened to something else for a change. But the only other CD he keeps in the car is a compilation of Scottish accordion music. John cannot for the life of him work out why a record company would produce such an item. Nor why he’d come to regard it as a ‘must have’ for his collection.

I can’t help noticing that my English friend is talking in a Scottish accent now.

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Not the well-to-do Morningside accent he sometimes employs in an ironic way, but a much more down-to-earth, gruffer, Scottish accent. He tells me that there is a particular incident that took place here recently that he wants me ‘tae ken aboot’. I am listening, translating and interpreting, all at the same time.

It was late at night and John was showering in his MacTavish tartan kilt. Why the kilt? Well, there had been complaints from the neighbours who apparently could see everything that happened in his ensuite so light was the frosting on the window. So John had taken to having cold, kilted showers in order to present a less masculine profile.

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“John!” said Cathy, as John was showering.

“Whit is it? I’m soapin’ ma bonny big baws, fur Christ’s sake.”

“”John! John!” said Cathy, “Listen.”

“Aw, Christopher Columbus!” said John. But he let go the end of his kilt, switched off the shower and listened…

…John made out the skirl of the pipes. It was obvious to him that the piper was standing at the foot of his beech tree playing ‘Amazing Grace’ in clear contravention of the ‘No Bagpipes’ order that existed in respect of that mature tree.

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“Wheesht, mon!” shouted John. The pipes continued to play.

“Stand yer fuckin’ pipes doon, mon!” shouted John.

On went the skirl.

“Shut off that awfy blowjobby music, mon!” shouted John. But to no avail.

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“Ye ken wha that is don’t ye?” asked John of Cathy, who had no idea what John was saying. “It’s the bastard that uses ma Conserve-a-Tory as his own wee private wanking shed.”

Bewildered, Cathy could only shake her head.

“STAND YER FUCKIN’ PIPES DOON, MON!” roared John. Cathy wondered what their Leicestershire neighbours were making of this night’s shower.

The pipes continued to play in a skittish fashion as John got out of the shower, discarded his MacTavish kilt and dried himself with his MacKendrick tartan kilt. When he was convinced that each of his hairy balls was as dry as one another, and both dry, he discarded his towel tartan and wrapped round himself his dressing kilt – McFarland tartan. On top of which he fastened his biggest, bonniest, ballsiest sporran.

A traditional lament was now sounding out through the night.

“I’ll no see a man playin’ on his own. Lassie, BRING ME MA PIPES AND MA CHANTER.”

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Cathy was getting worried about John and said so.

“Och you bloody lassies are a’ the same – a waste o‘ kilt space. I’ll just have to fetch the bloody things ma-sel.”

Soon John stood with a sheep’s bladder under his oxter and a wooden tube in his mouth, ‘giving it lalldy’. In perfect time with his playing partner, he got through one tune after another. A jig, a reel, a strathspey, a bit of an abortion and a complete pig’s ear. After which the sun rose in the east revealing the beech tree and its immediate vicinity to be empty of lone pipers.

‘Ground control to Major Tom’, I am thinking.

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‘Ground control to Major Tom, take your protein pills and put your helmet on’.

John is now singing ‘Flower of Scotland’ as they do at rugby internationals, tears streaming down his face.

OH, FLOWER OF SCOTLAND
WHEN WILL WE SEE YER LIKES AGAIN
WHO FOUGHT AND DIED FOR
YER WEE BIT HILL AND GLEN
…”

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‘Ground control to Major Tom’, I’m thinking. ‘Your circuit’s dead there’s something wrong’.

John’s accent is now so thick that I miss a few lines.

“…AND SENT THEM HOMEWARDS,
TAE THINK AGAIN.”

‘Is that it?’ I wonder.

“OH, FLOWER OF SCOTLAND…”

The phrase brings
Young Man with Cornflower to mind. Indeed, I wonder how the van Gogh picture is bearing up to this treatment. The young man has probably been reduced to a five-year-old boy. The picture lies in a corner of the conservatory, let me check it out. Hmm, no change it seems...

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OH, FLOWER OF SCOTLAND...”

I daren’t look at John again, not while he’s singing the national anthem, the change from the innocent lad I once knew is too disquieting. Instead, I turn around to see what’s happening back on planet Earth. Joanna is perusing a magazine and Cathy is finishing off an orange. ‘The Book of Barry’ is open on the floor in a ring binder, so that’s good. I hope they realise the trouble I went to in order to get laser copies of all the images. It’s just a shame that I couldn’t afford to do it in colour. ‘The Book of Barry’ is
sans red carpet. Oh well, one can only function within the limitations of contemporary technology.

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Meanwhile John has calmed down a bit, or at least he’s cheered up and is singing a different song now. I listen to it. I recognise it. I can’t remain seated… I remain seated.

And I’ll gang to my lodgings,
Afore that it grows dark.
Just when the guidman’s sitting doon,
And new hame frae his work.

Tae the beggin’ I will go, will go.
Tae the beggin’ I will go.


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And maybe the guidman will say
“Guidman ye’ll hae yer meal.
Yer welcome tae yer brose the nicht,
Likewise yer breid an’ kail.”

Tae the beggin’ I will go, will go.
Tae the beggin’ I will go.”

John stops singing and solemnly considers his situation aloud. He is host not guest on this occasion. He tells me “Guidman, ye’ll hae yer meal. Yer welcome tae yer brose the nicht, likewise yer malty beer.”

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Unfortunately I have to decline John’s kind offer – Joanna and I must return to London and our lives which are chock-full of contemporary art. But it has been a good weekend I assure him. A golden one in retrospect.


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Liu Yue of the Zhou (c.1066-771BC) dwelt on the Mountain of the Southern Peak where he was visited by a green-coated gentleman with a scarlet belt who recommended that he drink four draughts from the jade cup (to achieve immortality).

Yes, well, as Liu Yue inevitably found, there is no stopping time. Except perhaps there is a way. But to show this I need to invoke a poem by Edward Lear, and a single photo that Genevieve took during John and Gen's 2018 stay in Blairgowrie.

Oh, it's risky, adding a brand new ending to an already nicely rounded off piece! But here goes:

"King and Queen of the Pelicans we;
No other Birds so grand we see!
None but we have feet like fins!
With lovely leathery throats and chins!
Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!
We think no Birds so happy as we!
Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill!
We think so then, and we thought so still!"


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"We live on the Tay. The Tay we love.
By night we sleep on the cliffs above;
By day we fish, and at eve we stand
On long bare islands of yellow sand.
And when the sun sinks slowly down
And the great rock walls grow dark and brown,
Where the purple river rolls fast and dim
And the Ivory Ibis starlike skim,
Wing to wing we dance around,--
Stamping our feet with a flumpy sound,--
Opening our mouths as Pelicans ought,
And this is the song we nighly snort;--
Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelican jee!
We think no Birds so happy as we!
Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill!
We think so then, and we thought so still!"


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