Carlo Revelli (2015) Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segree.


First Lesson. The Most Beautiful of Theories.

I just nipped out at lunchtime to get a bigger brain, but they were all out, the only thing left –on special offer- was a Simon Cowell brain. I said to the lassie behind the counter, ‘Do I look that fuckin’ stupid?’

‘Or a two-for-one, David Cameron and… a black hole,’ she offered.

I didn’t hang about, I’ve got better things to do with my time. Of course I don’t need a bigger brain. After all, quite simply, The Most Beautiful of Theories is Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Kudos, a kind of mental judo, by owning this book, it makes me instantly brainer. It’s a general thing, some of you might not understand. Albert, like me, didn’t do that well at school. In second year of St Andrew’s school I sat my first exam in Physics. Question 2 had me going. Twenty-seven years later I was still sitting in the old gym hall, pondering.  Rovelli tells the reader Einstein ‘spent a year loafing aimlessly’ and he reminds us, ‘You don’t get anywhere by not wasting time’. I was off to a flier. Einstein didn’t sit any exams and neither did I – you can see where this is going?

I’m now going to explain gravity. And if it sounds like I’ve just made it up, it’s Einstein’s fault. Think back to Isaac Newton and the apple failing. That’s gravity at work, the force that draws all things together and keeps them apart, but on its day off it plays by different rules.  Newton imagined space to be ‘a great big empty container’. Farraday and Maxwell had filled the box with the pulses of an electromagnetic field and a gravitational field. Einstein’s genius was in seeing that the gravitational field is not diffused through space, something added, like a prosthetic nose. The gravitational field is space (and time and motion), the dancer and the dance, the singer and the notes of a song.

‘How can we describe the curvature of space?’ such as planets circling around the sun, asks Rovelli. I stuck my hand up here and shouted, ‘as a curve, sir?’ always a smart alec, although my name wasn’t alec. And, you know, I wasn’t far wrong. Bernhard Riemann had produced a doctoral thesis that was ‘completely useless’ and made no sense. Just the thing for the job. Riemann’s curvature (R) is equivalent to the energy of matter. I’ll not write out the full equation here because I’ve only got one lifetime to understand it, but I guess, you get the drift. Light stops moving in straight lines, space bends around a star and Mars bars become increasingly smaller the closer you come to buying one.

The whole of space can expand and contract, like the exhalation and inhalation of breath. Einstein’s equation predicted ‘The Big Bang’, or at least helped explain it in Homer Simpson bites as a young god slaving over an extremely small and extremely hot universe. Oops. Butter fingers.  Cosmic radiation flowing like waves from that small, fixed point in time and space were a glimpse of Einstein’s reality. I’m going to read a bit more of Riemann’s mathematics before I say more, but next up, Lesson 2, tomorrow, I’ll explain with the help of my old buddy Carlo Ravelli’s primer: Quanta.  Wow that should be big.

Molde 3 – Celtic 1.


I’ve got to admit I wasn’t actually in Norway’s Aker Stadium, where it costs £10 or thereabouts a pint, I was in the Mountblow Bar, where it costs around £3 a pint. You see I’m not that daft. But I did think Celtic would get a draw here tonight. I was thinking 1-1, same again, 1-1 in the next game against Molde at Parkhead, and 1-1 in the home game against Ajax. Then, when we need a result away in Turkey, glorious defeat, because that’s the Scottish way. But I’ve changed my mind. We’re not going to draw 1-1 in the Aker Stadium. I hadn’t pencilled in the obvious, which was shown by the first goal.

Boyatta makes a dreadful pass, gifts the ball to his a Molde player, Ambrose is the wrong side of the attacker, Izzy is on the dark side of the moon, Craig Gordon, well, just not good enough. Ole Kamarra scores.  It’s simple. WE CAN’T DEFEND.  Ambrose is likely to gift a goal every game. Boyata is of the same ilk. Izzy could never defend but used to be good going forward. Not any more. Lustig used to be fit. Well, no he didn’t, but we got away with it. Let me put this quite simply, Walter Smith used to manage a team whose tactics were the same week in week out. He could pick a team of pygmies and they would’t have to do anything special, just sit in and wait. Forren’s second goal for Molde, Izzy should have defended, could have defended but, hey, we’re Celtic, an attacking team.

Commons shows composure. He scores and we make it 1-2. I’m thinking we can do this.   Elyounoussi scores about a minute later. A familiar pattern. He doesn’t really have to do much. Just hang about the back post. It’s like waiting for a bus. The Celtic defence allows coach, driver and pygmy passengers through every time.

The big talking point is Commons being taken off and sounding off in the dugout. Luckily, I can lip read? He said, ‘why in the fuck is it always me? You kiddin’? You need a goal and you take off your most creative player and a guy that’s likely to score goals and you leave on Stefan Johansen? Is that your son? ’

John Collins looked the other way. He’s good at that.  Ronnie can talk all he likes about closing down and getting fit. The reality is of the four defenders that started tonight in the Aker Stadium, none of them (baring perhaps the every-injured Lustig) can cut it, and are Celtic class. You don’t need a priest to say, Mass clear out. Same old.Same old. Same old Ronnie. Year down the line. Champions League gone. In a second-tier competition playing a team comparable with Motherwell, with a tenth of the budget of Celtic, it just isn’t good enough. It pains me,

I watched Roy Keane last night on ITV, who was supposedly in the for the Celtic job, saying as a pundit for ITV, reiterating, what he’s said before, Arsenal were soft. They beat Bayern.

Chris Sutton as pundit also tells it like it is. Ambrose always lets you down. That’s the most consistent part of his game. Boyata isn’t good enough. Izzy can’t defend.  What the fuck are Celtic? Where are they going? When will we get there? Soft? I wish we were that hard to beat.

John Steinbeck (1939) The Grapes of Wrath.

prophecy and poetry
prophecy and poetry

I’m called, drawn back to re-reading The Grapes of Wrath by something, I’m not sure what, perhaps it’s the refugee crisis, the image of a child’s body on the beach, and the masses of people moving between borders, and the contempt and hatred we’ve shown them. I’m not looking for answers, but I am looking for answers. Perhaps the answer is in the dithyrambic prose of Steinbeck written in one inspired, barely legible, draft, a calling down of a Joad family and a reverend that has given up religion, Jim Casey, who becomes part of the Joad family, although he’s not part of the Joad family; in the same way that the Wilsons, Sarah and Ivy become that great exodus of common people, or working people, become part of the Joad family, with nothing and no one but themselves, who are on the road together, travelling Route 66, that 2000 odd miles that separate Oklahoma from California because they have to as they’ve nowhere else to go; and they’ve all seen the printed handbill, promising riches ‘Pea Pickers Wanted in California. Good Wages. All Seasons.’ It’s something the Joads of the world nursing their jalopies and their dreams along need to believe in. Granda Joad imagines a white picket house and reaching up and picking oranges and letting the juice run down his chin, but he’s on the road and his grave is unmarked beside the road, because they can’t afford to the fee to bury him properly and instead Tom Joad writes a note in his best handwriting, puts it in a jar beside the family’s fallen patriarch, and they wrap him in Sarah’s quilt because that’s the way it is. The law no longer straight, like a road, Pa Joad concludes, and sometime you got to skit round about it. And the Joads won’t be beholden because that’s not their way, but at every corner and stretch of road there’s someone waiting and wanting to take a cut of them, a little bit more is the price, and the price hundreds of thousands of other tenant farmers like them, chased from the land, by the banks and bankers that were holding their notes, moving them on for their own good. You’d go screwy thinking about it, like Muley, obstinate, crazy, determined to stay, no matter the cost. ‘Where will we go? Where will we go?’ asked the women, waiting to see if the man would break.  No one to blame. God knows, the ground wasn’t good for nothing, and the people on the land and their lifetime belongings worth less, but if they moved on in California, there was work, plenty of work, for those that wanted to work. Only, of course, there wasn’t. There were camps were they were safe and camps were they weren’t safe and there were men with guns, some of them in uniform turning they away, asking for their documents and ripping them up in their face, and telling them to go back to where they’d come from, for there was nothing there for them, couldn’t they see that. Turn back. Go home.  The Grapes of Wrath is a religion without a God and it might have something to say about wrath. But that was then and this is now. Poor Rose of Sharon feeding a starving man with new-born breast milk. Surely we couldn’t come to that. Foodbanks that can no longer cope. But surely we couldn’t come to that. Surely we couldn’t come to that?  The Grapes of Wrath is an old book but a new book and a true book. Read the poetry of prophecy anew.

Abi Morgan, River BBC 1, 9pm


Rivers, the name of the psychiatrist in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy so the name has some resonance for book lovers. It starts flowing here with seventies rock goddess, Tina Charles, I love to love and finished with Tina Charles. There’s a few scares in between but not of the hide behind the couch variety. Abi Morgan can do what she likes on BBC. She even tried to make Maggie Thatcher human in The Iron Lady. Something I couldn’t watch for obvious reasons that it wouldn’t be believable, unless you were an American. Nice touch though, with all those Scandinavian dramas dominating prime time telly to have Stellan Starsgard as lead. He’s perfect, with a face like a Basset hound. Nicola Walker, as the not long dead partner is good too.  Morgan’s the go-to writer for an update on white suit and Randal and Hopkirk deceased. The old ‘watch out Jeff, he’s got a gun and is hiding behind the door,’ has been replaced by up-to-date ghosts like Walker that like their grub and are continually munching on snacks. There’s a second tier story in this episode about a boy that admits to killing his girlfriend, but there’s no body. But the dead girlfriend keeps popping up and chatting to good old River. He even carries her bag down so that she can take her place at some unnamed university. I got a bit confused here, initially, I thought this was River’s daughter, but then I got it. He sees ghosts. Even story-book ghosts. Eddie Marsden, the multiple Bafta winning man, appears as a long dead killer. River fights with him in an empty police cell. Rivers is also allowed to run unchallenged through a prison. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the lead. He’s still to finger the guy that killed his police partner. That will come. Five other episodes. Scandinavian drama. Beck is my favourite. This isn’t a good, nor is it up there with Sunday night Ann-Marie Duff and From Darkness, but worth a look.  He’s behind the door Jeff. Have a sandwich Jeff.

Poetry Week on BBC

in their own words

Helen Ivory and George Szirtes (eds) (2012) In Their Own Words Contemporary Poets on Their Poetry.

It’s poetry week on BBC 4. Last night I watched a drama that uses Simon Armitage’s poetry to dramatize the life and death of Sophie Lancaster in 2007. She and her lanky boyfriend were attacked in a park by a group of feral boys. Their attackers shoe prints and the pattern of their laces were left embedded in Sophie’s head. Black roses were the imprints of the bruising on her body. She died in hospital; her boyfriend survived. Their crime was to be different. To be Goths was their putative death sentence.

There’s a vast ocean of words, nouns, adjectives, prepositions and alliteration, pushing and pulling with powerful undertows, but very little of it washes up on BBC, or is generally read. The days of carrying poetry in our head is long gone. School syllabus shepherds survivors to A level and sometimes beyond, but rarer still does the bond survive, a C grade, or less, it sinks, it stinks and who is to blame for making poetry so flint hard and insufferable its only eggheads that gain immortal fame. I must admit here I am to blame.

I can’t tell the difference between carrots or poetry. But these contemporary poets can. They offer words of wisdom. Every prose writer should read this book. Open it at random (even though there’s no such thing):

            [Helen Mort]I’d been reading Rilke earlier in the day and had set off running with an idea, or rather with a set of questions in my mind – what would beauty look like personified? Would it be a terrifying thing?  The poem’s first line (or form) came to me about a mile into the run, and from then on narrative began to present itself, led by the rhymes (which were insistent early on).

[Rilke] Beauty…is nothing but the beginning of terror.

[Helen Mort] When beauty stumbled down my road, tapped on my door

I saw her from the lounge and hid – her eyes were raw

from smoke, her cheeks like risen dough from where she’d wept

and worse I didn’t like the company she kept:

a red-faced drunk who towed a dachshund on a string.

I like this. I appreciate what Helen Mort is saying, but like many others I’m no initiate or intimate with the language of poetry. My response is often what’s it got to do with me? Or indeed the likes of me. T.S. Eliot that great pillar of the poetry establishment life may have been measured in teaspoons and church candles, but I don’t understand the man or his work. And to me it is work, reading poetry. The contemporary poets in this collection do make sense to me. Perfect sense.  But here’s the rub, there commentaries of how and why make sense, but when it comes to poems on the page, there’s no aha moment, no heavy water that blows me away. There’s sometimes lines stringed together that was quite nice. Bravo old boy or girl. Sometimes I think I’ve opened a Chinese cracker and I’m reading it upside down and the answer will come to me. Poetry like prose washes through and sometimes over you. Poetry should change the world, but it doesn’t. That’s a familiar pattern. Something we should recognise, but don’t. I guess God or Old Possum knows. I’ll need to begin reading this good book again. Maybe one day, I pray, I’ll understand poetry.

Virgil van shite, not quite.


I’ve missed the football since Scotland have been playing. It’s back to business next week with a must win at Motherwell. I see Virgil van Dijk played for Holland in another must win in Kazakhstan. He must have stepped up his game for Southampton who play as we know in the best league in the world, but they are not expected to win every week, but it would be kinda nice if they do, but he’s learned so much in five games that he’s picked for Holland. What he hasn’t learned is, for example, the humility of Victor Wanyama who was linked to a bigger club, where it also doesn’t really matter, but it would be nice if we won, in a proposed £30 million deal. Sure van Dilk was far and away the best Celtic half since Paul Elliott went to Chelsea. What he’s left behind is Celtic’s soft centre, roll up, pick any two from three, and wait and see who makes the biggest ball’s up. I’m hoping we’ve bought good in Jozo Simunovic. He got beaten in the air a lot in his only game against Ajax, in a way the van Dijk wouldn’t have, and Bobo, well, it just wouldn’t have been countenanced, but Jozo may come good. With a ball at his feet I’m hoping he plays like van Dijk and not the flipper feet of Bobo, or worse the square passes and lapses in concentration that take us backwards to Boyata (also in the Belguim squad, listen, he wouldn’t even get in the Scotland squad) or dare I say it, and I’m sure he’s a really nice guy and says his prayers every day – no I’m not going to tell you who. But we do pray for him too. That leaves to me and you and Charlie Mulgrew. He’s a Scottish international where he plays centre half and as a holding midfielder. I’m not sure that’s a recommendation or a curse. It seems to work for Scott Brown, but at least he’d one or two goodish games recently. We were good for Virgil (and Wanyama) and they were good for us. Van Dijk breezed Scottish football. We all know that. Often you’d see him so far up the park he was playing centre forwards. Izzy, as usual, was the only one further forward. Scottish teams sit in against Celtic and you need to be able to attack more than you need to defend, as Izzy shows, week in week out. But in the European arena van Dilk often got found out. Malmo and Inter Milan were the most obvious examples. Virgil van Dijk didn’t come here to play in Scottish football indefinitely. He’d have been told, do well and you’ll go to the best league in the world. You’ll become a millionaire. That’s not a dream, but a business plan. The problem now is we’ve no longer got any players worth the tens of millions Southampton keep giving us for our players. Playing against Hamilton in the last meaningful, must win, game, Boyata got turned and we lost a dreadful goal. Watching the game was ex-Hamilton manager and lifelong Hun supporter Alex Neil. He may have had a chuckle at the defending. But with the diddy teams, such as Norwich, in the best  league in the world, guaranteed £120 million from TV rights, Alex could have been looking to buy a few of the minnows from the Celtic team. None of them is worth ten million. Few of them would be worth two million. And there are some we would pay for them to go. Must win at Motherwell.

Pat Black (2011) Suckerpunch

Suckerpunch is a collection of 36 short stories and a Post Script. All for two quid to download, the kind of loose change that makes a five-year old wain scowl at you and poke their lip out when you hand it to them. It’s a great deal. Not all of them are of equal quality. I’m thinking, for example, a bit of ‘Tongue’ action here. I also think as we get nearer to the end of his collection, well, you know, there’s a bit of extra padding being added. But in saying that I’m still glad I’ve read them.

Let me put that into context. Janice Galloway’s short story collection isn’t as good, can’t put a glove on Pat Black’s.  And he mentions an online writing tutor we both shared, Elizabeth Reeder. And she was, a great Reeder and brilliant at critique, but really, you wouldn’t want to read her debut novel. I’m half way through The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (£9.99). The Times is quoted on the orange cover: ‘Rich, deeply involving, extraordinary, remarkable.’ Daily Telegraph in typography below: ‘Brilliant, exciting, thrilling, extremely funny.’ I must be living on the moon. ‘Funny?’ Sure she can parse a sentence to death. And like Gertrude Stein there are no mixed metaphors and no slippage into verbiage. If you find the writing of an overly neurotic white woman funny then Pat Black isn’t the writer for you. Stick to the rip snorting antics of Stein and Davis. I can take or leave them and in 99.9% of the time it is the latter. That’s funny, eh?

Pat Black is funny. He dives into the Glasgow dialect and creates some great characters who talk the talk, and walk the walk, that I recognise. Fuck sake Pat Black, although he seems to have some fishy thing going with Jaws, and crustaceans in general, sounds like the folk I know. In ‘Your Number’s Up, Let’s Go Crazy,’ for example, the narrator is in a dead-end office job he hates and he’s been in that long that he’s used to being miserable. He’s got a thing going with one of the female staff that kinda makes him less miserable, but apart from that his life is shite. Even worse he’s made a mess of some big account and the boss has shouted him into the office to give him what for. He flicks onto his emails and finds out he’s won £27 million on the lottery. He lets rip with all his frustrations telling those in the office what he really thinks of them. The boring beardy guy, the kind we all know, that’s always droning on about adventure holidays is told he’s got a bushy face like a fanny. It’s funny. And I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the narrator hasn’t really won the lottery. It’s a hoax from fanny face.

If you want to seem smart and with it stick to Getrude Stein. If like me you like reading about fanny faces and guys that get lost going to the toilet read this book. I guarantee you’ll like it.

p.s. sorry Ms Reeder, but you always did say try and give an honest critique. You stick with Stein.