Well, hello again. I've been away for a while due to illness. Nothing serious – the blasted mumps – only it could have been. I was whipped into the Queen Elizabeth for a week to a room with barrier nursing, which was employed to protect medical and nursing staff from a highly contagious viral infection. Complications of mumps can include meningitis, sterility, pancreatic problems and hearing loss.
Two observations struck me: first, mumps was nearly eliminated in the developed world largely due to the MMR vaccine, but the disease is making a comeback, particularly in young adults. Interestingly, after my initial roiling commentary about the irresponsibility of parents believing the nonsense about a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, it turns out to be more complicated than that, as vaccinated children have contracted mumps too. Epidemiologists are considering two possibilities: either today's mumps strains have evolved to elude the immune response triggered by the vaccine, or protection from the vaccine simply wanes over time, in which case it is important for young adults to ensure they receive the booster shot.
My second observation was the state of the poor 'old' Queen Elizabeth itself. As someone who has spent way too much time in there, it's decline over four short years is marked. When it first opened, I thought it was magnificent despite its vast atrium resembling an airport terminal. Many staff transferred to the spanking new building weren't as impressed. One senior clinician told me that the building was a triumph of line, space and contemporary aesthetic over patient care and safety, despite attempts by clinical and nursing experts to be heard in the early stages of design. I feel sorry for the staff on the ground, as they mostly bear the brunt of recent criticism. Managers and 'chiefs' can be felt in every area of the hospital, but of course, never seen.
Tinker, Tailor, 'Uncle' Boris
Normally I can't read books in hospital. My brain seizes up in sympathy with my diseased body. But not this time. Ben Macintyre's unputdownable 'The Spy and the Traitor', describes in astonishing detail the most extraordinary episode in the history of espionage. The book had me obsessing again with the KGB: an interest which was sparked after spending a month in the USSR in 1971 with my family, as guests of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.
I grew very attached to a wonderful man I was told to call 'Uncle' Boris which was easy as this large avuncular, joyful character was adorable. He spoke perfect English with an American accent. I did notice at the time that the other Russians in the delegation deferred to his authority. When we left Moscow to return home in July of 1971, I was upset at the thought of never seeing him again. But I did.
I next saw 'Uncle' Boris in September of that year – on the news – deported as one of 90 KGB spies living in London. In a state of shock, I asked dad if 'Uncle' Boris was in the KGB. Dad stared grim-faced at the TV and said later 'he's not your uncle, darling'. We never talked about him again. But I've always wondered about this mysterious man who seemed as far removed from being part of that terrible organisation as it's possible to imagine. Watching, for example, the intense and violent TV series 'The Americans' about the KGB-planted illegals in the US, and the hilarious yet horrifying movie 'Death of Stalin', I thought of him.
Reading Macintyre's gripping book, I searched for any character or resemblance to 'Uncle' Boris. Nothing. Even Google has yielded not a jot from relentless searching of articles about, and photographs of, KGB spies. Mind you, I didn't know his surname, so searching 'Boris KGB' is like searching 'John MI6'. So, what do I know about 'Uncle' Boris? He was in the KGB, he was deported from this country, he was not my uncle. In fact, I don't even know if his name was 'Boris'.
Steely Dan, Lola in Slacks
While incubating mumps, I saw Steely Dan at the Hydro. It was a show for the jazz-rock connoisseur, and was a great success, despite the fact they didn't play my favourites. Clearly my Dan is not the received Dan of the concert tour. I mean, they didn't play 'Do it Again!'. But that niggle aside, the show brought home to me just how cool the older generation of musicians are, and just how cool we older Glaswegians can be. I haven't seen so many bald and greying heads at such a compelling set since the Stones last year. Who was it that said: 'I hope I die before I get old'? For sure, no one at this event.
A couple of weeks later, I missed a band I was looking forward to seeing live, another group of experienced musicians: Glasgow's very own Lola in Slacks. I was reliably informed by family and friends, young and older, who went to the launch of their single, Postscript in Blue
, that 'they were brilliant'. Lou Reid, the husky lead singer who reminds me of a younger Catherine Deneuve, delivers sophisticated and perfectly judged material, supported by a band that knows exactly what the songs require, and what they don't. Poised musical performance, control, and aesthetic sensibility comes with experience. Don't get me wrong: the very greenness of a musician is often the essence of their appeal. But as thrilling as the promise of potential can be, there is something particularly satisfying about hearing developed, musical expertise.
Brian McFie, the guitarist, a superb artist in his day job and one of the funniest characters I have ever met, doesn't waste a note, and has become a bit of a legend among the younger generation of Glaswegian musicians. His anecdotes about his life as the guitarist for The Big Dish, a band from Airdrie in the 1980s, and his time as guitarist with Marianne Faithfull, are as hilarious as they are instructive, for the musical ingenues. Look out for the next Lola in Slacks show. They are very good indeed.