The Y Chromosome

The Y Chromosome

The other day I mistook the dog medicine for my cough medicine. I realised my error after the second teaspoon.

Panicked, I barked at my wife, ‘What’s the dog medicine for?’

‘The dog.’

‘Yeah, I know that, but why does the dog need it? I’ve just had two teaspoonfuls of it.’

‘Why did you do that? If you knew it was for the dog.’

‘Why the fuck do you think I did it? To be more dog? It was a mistake. I’m a man; men make mistakes. You know that.’

Other than taking off down the street a couple of hours later in pursuit of a tortoiseshell cat and then cocking my leg at a street lamp, there were no immediately noticeable side effects.

The bigger concern is the possibility that this incident could be further evidence of natural selection at work. What with the declining sperm count in men and the continual atrophy of the Y chromosome, there has been some speculation that within 5,000 generations the male of the human species will become extinct.

I think it could happen a little sooner than that.

Men are disappearing. My company has gone from being 100% male when it started ten years ago to 50:50 at the end of last year. Three months and six female hires later, the women have taken over, and our corporate testosterone count is down to 43%. It’s the same story at home where the equilibrium between the sexes was lost when my son decamped to Durham, leaving me in an uncomfortable minority of one.

I’m surrounded by women.

Even the dog is a bitch.

The only two places where men outnumber women seem to be the Conservative front bench and the bicycle lanes of London. This is probably Darwinism at work. Men are ending up in those places where any reasonably intelligent person would know not to venture.

My wife certainly plays on my deficient male cognitive ability.

A few years ago, I announced that I was considering shaving all my remaining hair off to become completely bald. ‘You can’t do that’, I was told, ‘You have a funny shaped head’. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by this but accepted it anyway. It was a conversation that has repeated itself several occasions since.

Only recently, when sitting in the barber’s chair having my regular ‘number one’ all over, did I have a rare opportunity to examine my head in the mirror. I realised I have so little hair, and cut the little I have so short, that the contours of my head are clear for anyone to see, whether I shave the last few remaining follicles off or not. I had been duped by my wife, who took advantage of my little brain. When I challenged her on it she said, ‘I like you better with longer hair’.

‘Well, so do I’, I thought. I like me better with longer hair, but sadly it’s not an option. She might as well have said, ‘I like you better when you are a virile twentysomething that is not hard of hearing and can read menus in dimly lit restaurants.’ That version of me is long gone.

Decline and fall. Me, the brotherhood and the Y chromosome are on our way out.

I wonder if the Dodo entertained similar thoughts before that final fateful leap into the unknown.

March 2014

Ride Of My Life

Ride Of My Life

When I was young, much younger than today, I drank Baileys by the pint.

I also once ate thirty-six Weetabix in a single sitting.

And I went barefoot for most of my first year at university.

In a recent TED talk – ‘The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain’ – cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jane Blakemore explained that the part of the brain responsible for insight, judgment, impulse control and empathy is somewhat lacking in teenagers.

In other words, their operating system is deficient.

Together with Trevor, my schoolboy partner in crime, I converted the loft in our boarding house into an illicit smoking den, re-wiring the electrics to provide a sophisticated lighting system and power the record player. That this might have been a major fire hazard didn’t occur to our under-developed minds.

But from these moments of madness come the strongest memories. My recall of those adolescent years is much more vivid than anything before or since.

One such memory, the teenage achievement of which I am most proud, came on my bicycle.

I used to live in a village called Bassingbourn on the Cambridgeshire Hertfordshire border. My girlfriend, my football team and The Eagle Public House were all fourteen miles away in Cambridge.

Sometimes, after an evening at The Eagle or with my girlfriend, or both, I would take the train and then cycle three miles back from Royston station. Many times, though, after the last train had long since departed, I would cycle all the way back home in the dead of night.

(It was after one such ride, and a severe case of the munchies, that I polished off thirty-six Weetabix.)

My proudest achievement was that I once cycled all the way home hands-free. I didn’t touch the handlebars at all in during the fifty-five minutes it took to complete the fourteen-mile journey.

Thanks largely to the Romans, Cambridgeshire is geared up for hands-free cycling. It is flat and straight. The fourteen miles contain one roundabout, two junctions, ten bends and one hill. It presents only three significant challenges for the hands-free cyclist.

The first being the solitary hill between Cambridge and Bassingbourn. Only two hundred and seventy-six feet high, to a native of East Anglia like myself it was a mountain. In the Doomsday Book, the neighbouring village is called Ord Wella, which means ‘spring by a pointed hill’.

It’s not easy cycling up a hill, even a relatively small one, without hands. You need to keep your speed up; otherwise the balance goes. The thing about cycling up a hill is that gravity takes a firmer grip and starts to pull you back down. I had anticipated this (even as a teenager I tended to think ahead) and so had steadily built up speed for the preceding half a mile. I don’t know how fast I was travelling when I hit the incline, but it was fast enough to get me to the top without even the slightest wobble.

I fair flew up that mountain and was still moving at a fair lick by the summit.

This presented a new challenge. Something that I had failed to anticipate. Something I hadn’t properly thought through. Something that came into sharp focus the moment I flashed over the top of that pointed hill.

As I began to pick up even more speed, I remembered that gravity works the other way round when going down.

A downside of hands-free cycling is the lack of access to brakes.

It is remarkable how much speed one can pick up when descending a two hundred and seventy-six-foot pointed hill.

The village of Wimpole passed in a flash.

Thankfully, the village of Wimple was fast asleep when I exploded through it like a meteorite entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Thankfully, the village of Wimpole didn’t have speed cameras in those days.

Thankfully, neither did it have speed bumps.

It was just over two miles from the hill to my next challenge, one that I was approaching somewhat faster than I would have liked despite not having used my pedals since the summit.

The next challenge was the junction that connected the A603 with the main road from Royston to Huntington. Executing a sharp left turn from one major road on to another requires a not inconsiderable amount of skill and a dollop of luck. Luck that no other cars are passing at the same time.

To a fully-formed adult brain, the consequences of a being hit by a car travelling at 50mph would constitute a risk not worth taking. In fact, no-one in their right mind would contemplate bursting on to a major road in the gamble that it might be empty. Even in the early hours of the morning. But as Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore has already established, I wasn’t in my right mind. My teenage brain, with its under-developed pre-frontal cortex, lubricated by a couple of pints of Greene King, and stimulated by the challenge of a record-breaking hands-free ride simply didn’t have the capacity for assessing reasonable risk.

As it was, no cars were passing that junction on the A1198 at the very moment a high-speed hands-free merchant joined it with what nowadays would be recognised as a sweeping snowboard-like manoeuvre. Had there been, you wouldn’t be reading this blog now.

At no point did it occur to me that my life might have been in danger. I was a teenager. I was immortal. I was giddy with the success of having first held my nerve while travelling at high velocity down a pointy hill without the assistance of brakes and then, secondly, having completed a sharp left-hand turn on to a major road without having fallen over.

The last four miles were a breeze. The remaining challenge was relatively easy. It involved a sharp right turn, but this time from a major road on to a minor road, and with no oncoming traffic.

Nothing could stop me from the triumphant completion of the ride of my life.

January 2015

The Loneliness of the Short-Distance Cyclist

The Loneliness of the Short-Distance Cyclist

‘Cyclists. Do not pass on this side.’

‘Or I’ll kill you.’

While the new warning sign that is springing up on the back of trucks doesn’t actually spell it out, the threat is nonetheless clearly there in the subtext.

Cycling in London can be a perilous undertaking. Making my unsteady way through the building site that is the Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station development, alongside a continuous stream of heavy goods vehicles – none of whom presumably have the slightest inkling they are sharing their road space with something as insignificant as a bicycle – feels about as safe as life as a gay activist in the Crimea.

I’ve been knocked off my bike three times. Once by a very slow-moving limousine on Parliament Square, so slow that it hardly counted. Probably a Tory grandee just going about his everyday business of unknowingly, uncaringly and regularly running over the proletariat. Once by a van at Clapham Junction, where I incurred some bruising and scratching. A ponce on a racing bike, red rag to a bull for white van man. And most dramatically by a woman in Chicago who opened her parked car door just in time for me to slam into and end up sprawled across the road. She had no way of knowing I was a Limey, but I have to believe that at some level she must have known.

‘You cycle to work?’ I love this question. It fills me with expectation. I imagine that I am about to be cast as a modern-day urban superhero. A giant amongst commuters. A manly man.

‘In London?’ Yes, London, where I leave cyclists half my age trailing in my urban dust, where I race with milk floats, where I dance over potholes, and yet where I stop at red lights because despite my testosterone-fuelled manliness I am also a well-adjusted and socially responsible citizen of the world.

‘You’re so brave,’ they swoon, ‘there is no way I could do that.’ Sadly their eyes betray the truth. They don’t think I’m brave; they think I’m crazy. They see me as unhinged. It doesn’t take long before they excuse themselves.

No-one likes cyclists. Not unless they are Bradley Wiggins or resemble a Smurf. Regular cyclists are not popular. Motorists hate cyclists because they get in the way. Truck drivers hate cyclists because they fear being blamed for running them over. Pedestrians hate cyclists because they get hit by them. Couch potatoes hate cyclists because they make them feel guilty about exercise. Dogs hate cyclists because they can never run quite fast enough to bite that great big provocative wheel. Other cyclists hate cyclists, because, as everyone knows, cyclists are wankers. Air travellers hate cyclists because they own the moral high ground on climate change, and everyone hates someone who owns the moral high ground.

As a cyclist who flies a lot, I’m a wanker with unacceptably large carbon footprint.

Last week, while doing my bit to finish off the ozone layer, I found myself in an uncomfortable position. I had downloaded ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ on my iPad. This is a fine film. An everyday explicit lesbian love story. Very explicit. Not long into the movie, I had to stop watching when I found myself in the midst of an intense, intimate, and it has to be said truly mind-blowing scene. Although I had the relative privacy of a flatbed seat, the risk of the air hostess glimpsing what was on my iPad was too great. I imagined my 26-year-old work colleague being forcibly taken away from me for her own safety. We were, at the time, in the airspace of the United Arab Emirates where they execute adulterers. Not being entirely sure where they stand on hardcore teenage lesbian porn, I threw my iPad out the window. Or at least I would have done had I not been in a sealed cabin at thirty thousand feet.

A wanker with an unacceptably large carbon footprint who secretly watches hardcore adolescent lesbian porn, it would be fair to say that I may have some self-esteem problems. This could be why I cycle. I’m no psychiatrist, but it makes sense that a cyclist, particularly a London cyclist, is driven by an unconscious death-wish.

It can be the only possible explanation of why certain cyclists have decided that red lights don’t apply to them. Without doubt, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of a lemming throwing itself off a cliff. I may be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. It might, though, explain why I find myself treating those warning signs on the back of trucks less as a warning not to pass, but a challenge to try and do so.

April 2014