Sunday 4 September 2016

The skitters

Years ago, I secured a job teaching at a British University. It was in a rather old fashioned Genetics Department and I was the token evolution and population genetics guy to ensure that this aspect of a general genetics curriculum was 'covered'. None of my colleagues, with one possible exception, gave the least hoot about evolution or knew anything about population genetics. After one year teaching what I thought students should know about pop.gen, I spent the Summer developing a course about the aspects of evolution that really fired me up: it was pretty intense some times. I got so engaged in a story about a bear that survived for years after losing its lower jaw (shooting 'accident') - and so demonstrated that mammals are not hard-wired in their behaviour - that I had to stop and take a deep breath lest I start weeping.

We ran very small classes back in those days and lectures were optional: we trusted the students to get what they could by way of an education and respected them enough to allow them preferences. My classes were smaller than most because many students, taking their cue from my colleagues, asked themselves what all this evolution schtuff had to do with genetics. Everything that matters (stupid), was my unspoken answer. Nevertheless, every year, one (occasionally two) student got the message and I could see their eyes shining as the evidence for evolution washed over them. I talked about genetics, it's true, but also about geology and the fossil record; biogeography, the origin of life itself, the weather, embryology and development, co-evolution of plants and their pollinators, the peculiar survival and reproductive strategies of mammals (hence the jawless bear), wrapping up with a whistle-stop tour of human evolution. It wasn't only about Darwin, but he featured heavily.

One year, the acolyte was a tall symmetrical chap whose father was an airline pilot. The boy wanted to follow his father into the air but really really wanted to be a helicopter pilot. There was no way, even with Daddy's help, that he could afford the training and so he applied to the Royal Air Force for a post as a graduate officer trainee. He'd sign over his life for a number of years and a pale blue uniform and they'd train him to fly. He made the short-list and was invited to spend a long weekend at RAF Cranwell to see if there was a good match. On the first couple of days, things seemed to be going his way. Having a pilot in the family made the language and The Right Stuff ethos completely familiar and he clearly loved planes. On the Saturday night all the aspirants were invited to a formal dinner at the Officers Mess, to see if they were Gentlemen as Mrs Windsor has every right to expect her officers to be. This was also familiar territory to Our Hero, in a comfortably middle-class family there had been many dinners and weddings and he knew which kind of knife to apply on the brown windsor soup. A formal dinner in an officer's mess can nevertheless be a bit intimidating - there is a lot of silver and cut glass and probably a dazzling white damask table-cloth.

Things started off well: he chatted away with the adults on his left and right as he downed the prawn cocktail; he didn't cut his bread-roll with a knife but broke it with his fingers; he didn't drink from the finger bowl. But the glitter on the dining table can mask rather marginal ability in the kitchen. If you were a really good cook, would you be working behind the scenes in the RAF? There can be a tendency towards quite traditional meals cooked in an institutional manner. The main course was roast beef, roast potatoes, two veg and gravy and the beef was tough. Continuing the conversation about biplanes and parachutes, Our Hero sawed away at the meat and potatoes. Suddenly his over-pressured fork slipped, a big wet chunk of beef skittered off his plate and landed six inches away on the damask table-cloth. "That's when my dreams came crashing back to earth", he confessed later. And he was correct insofar as he wasn't given the option of enrolling in Cranwell for training that September.

Last month, this all came welling up from the depths because we were invited to a not too casual garden-party. The guests were Casual in a rather studied, conventional, way: no jackets and ties or hats for the ladies, but no dungarees either. The food was delicious, of course, but required some care in the choosing because you have to be able to eat it with a fork while standing up while doing something with a wine glass at the same time . . . and keep up the chatter, of course. All was going well until I tackled a piece of part-cooked broccoli that was just too big to fit in my gob. Pressing down on this lump of vegetable matter with the edge of my fork seemed to have no effect until it suddenly gave. Following Newton's Third Law of Motion, the plate reacted to the fork-strike by bouncing up in the air and shucking half its contents onto the floor. As I was in mid-sentence and had both hands full, I ignored the mess at my feet for the moment. One of the other guests who had common courtesy and his hands free, kindly bent down to pick up the larger pieces of my discards and pop them in a bin. Not being 20 anymore, I didn't feel the least embarrassed.
Moral: avoid the broccoli if under-cooked;
never eat beef in public.

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