The Brilliant Dotage Of E.L. Doctorow

WITH Bellow, Vonnegut, Mailer, and Updike all recently departed, Philip Roth is now supposed to be the last living giant of American literature. Roth’s late productivity has become an ongoing wonder of the publishing world, his sustained priapic raging a rebuke to every author and pensioner who has ever gone quietly into decline. At 76, he continues to cast the indignities of old age into one livid fiction after another, as if writing could dispel them, although some have noted that each of these senescent novels has been slighter and weaker than the one before.

They Believe In Angels

IT IS the second and final day of the Body & Soul fair at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, and the main event is sold out. Three hundred people, the vast majority of them women, have paid £15 each for a seat in the exhibition hall, where therapist, healer and author Diana Cooper will conduct a workshop under the same title as her latest book: Angel Answers. If Cooper and her readers are correct in their view of the universe, then the auditorium must be twice as full as it appears to be. They will gently insist that belief is not a such a simple matter of right or wrong, but everyone here is agreed that all human beings have their own guardian angels. So we must be, this afternoon and always, in the midst of an invisible multitude.

Elegy For A Dog Named Roo

FOR all the tricks and habits that humans teach them, there may be something we can learn from dogs. We consider ourselves their owners and masters, but there is no way to know what they think, and we are only guessing when we say they dream of rabbits. On occasion, between frequent, inscrutable relapses into primaeval wolfishness, tongue-lolling lunacy, and dung-eating degeneracy, they act as if they might possess the secret of happiness. Harry Horse’s dog Roo was no different, except that she could actually tell him about these things.

The Last Hangman

LEAVING law and morality aside, the best argument against bringing back hanging is that the hangmen themselves are all dead. A final Home Office list of official executioners was printed up in February 1964, and made obsolete when capital punishment was suspended the following year. Those six whose names appeared on it have long since gone to their own graves. There is nobody left in this country with the relevant training or experience to operate a gallows, which was in the end a more complex piece of equipment than it looked.

The No Ticket Blues

IT is the night of the Led Zeppelin reunion, and the whole rocking world is divided between those with tickets and those without. Nowhere is this separation more awful than at the high-tech turnstiles of London’s O2 Arena, formerly the Millenium Dome.

Fear Of Flying

I AM afraid. Merely admitting this does not make me feel any better about flying, and yet I often say it aloud to the person sitting next to me on a plane during take-off or turbulence, those two fixtures of aviation which always make my face and palms ice over with doom-sweat.

Scotland’s Armaggedon

LONG before Scotland was Scotland, when the population consisted only of green algae and the Highlands were as dry as Death Valley, a large natural object fell out of space and struck the Earth near where the village of Stoer now stands, in Wester Ross. This incident occured 1.2 billion years ago, but it has only been confirmed in the last few months. “If the same thing happened today,” says planetary geologist Scott Thackrey, “all the trees in Aberdeen would be felled. The trees in Inverness would actually ignite. Most man-made structures would collapse. Everything made of paper would burn. You wouldn’t be safe in Glasgow. But sitting here, we would be vapourised.”

Anatomy Of A Pub Quiz

ONE thing never questioned in a pub quiz is the pub quiz itself. Where did it come from? Who held the first one, and when? How has it become such a defining characteristic of British pub culture? Why do UK drinkers in particular seem to accept and enjoy challenges to their capacity for factual recall? What is the point?

Who Wants To Live Forever?

THE oldest living thing on the planet is King’s Holly, a bush that has been growing in a Tasmanian river gully for more than 40,000 years. There are bivalve molluscs in Iceland that reach ages over 370. Bowhead whales have been discovered roaming the cold oceans with antique ivory spear points still stuck in their hides, which means these creatures have survived for at least two centuries longer than the pre-industrial sailors who tried to harpoon them.

On The Evolution Of Religion

CONSIDER the brain of Albert Einstein, which wasn’t noticeably bigger than anyone else’s. It was, if anything, slightly smaller than average, weighing in at a comparatively light 1.23 kilograms when removed from Einstein’s skull after his death in 1955. Fellow scientists have since been cutting into neural tissue samples from that brain, looking for the physical roots of genius and finding nothing conclusive. They cannot, as yet, explain why this particular complex of cells generated one of the greatest minds in human history. They haven’t precisely located the source of the “peculiar religious feeling” that Einstein spoke of when contemplating “the mystery of life, and the marvellous harmony manifest in the structure of reality”. But they’re working on it.