Friday, March 29, 2019

All in the genes.

I imagine a life as a writer as  rather languid and wistful, strolling through fields of daffodils in the sunshine, with my fountain pen and a lovely hand pressed notebook, the next Sunday times best seller appearing by magic on the screen when I get home. At some point in this, there will be a dog of some kind, frolicking.

And last Saturday was exactly like that. Not.

 I had always known it was going to be, what is known in writing circles as a cluster..k. So I wasn’t surprised.
We started off with work. Buttocks, needles, sore backs, painful arms. They started digging the pavement up outside my window halfway through the morning with the pneumatic drill right at the door.   Most of my patients were lying with the pillow over their heads, hands up round their ears.

I had got up very early to pack the car with three changes of clothes and the pantomine horse as the Scottish Association of Writers  were holding their annual conference that weekend and had asked us ( the gang ) to perform ‘sleuthing’ as their after dinner entertainment. That was to be about 10 pm, and we would get home about 1 am.

 After work and before the show, I was chairing an event that had me more than a  little concerned. Mostly because the organiser had said, ‘I think we should be a little concerned about this’ at a previous event.  I have been known to take a hint.
You might be wondering why the Scottish association of writers was holding its conference while Aye Write was on. It’s a bit like holding the Scottish cycling distance road racing championships while the tour de France is on but some folk make life tough for themselves.

We left work on time, and dashed up to Glasgow to the Mitchell theatre.  I felt I was as well prepared as I could be. The event was called ‘Inside the DNA of a crime writer’, and Mark Billingham had agreed to have his DNA tested and we were going to talk through the results with Professor Robert Plomin, the Chicago born psychologist who was going to analyse them.  I was a little concerned about the matter of confidentiality,  I knew Robert would be totally on the ball on this,  but there was still that nagging doubt in the back of my mind about a rogue question from the audience. And then, there was the small matter  that I  ‘sort of’ understood the book. Bob has studied many twins that has been separated at birth ( studied the previous studies of them ) and adopted kids and their birth parents (to remove the notion that nurture matters - it does, but not as much as the nature. Your DNA rules the way you are. And that is the bottom line!)

I go into the green room,  do my thing. Mark bounces in. We chat. He hasn't seen the analysis of his DNA as Bob has that. (We thought).  The only thing he knew was that he had the genetic ability to smell coriander.

Then Bob the Professor walked in and asked Mark if he had seen the DNA analysis. He asked it in a way that said ‘Because I haven’t’.

 I got a sinking feeling.

Nobody had the DNA. It was supposed to have been passed from A to B but that had gone a bit tits up. We needed a lap top quick, there wasn’t one in the green room.

 I went out to find one. One of the runners was outside, quietly panicking that her author had gone to the loo and not come back ( it’s a very long way in the Mitchell library, an old building of tunnels and marbled floors and  old creaking doors, musty corridors that go nowhere.)  I offered to go and find her lost writer if she went off to find me a laptop.

Ten minutes later we have a DNA preliminary result on the screen. But due to the laws about such things, there is a 48 hour time delay to make sure that you are not doing this when you are drunk. Do you wish to see your ancestry? If so, click the prompt you will be given in 24 hours time. Then again, do you want to see your medical susceptibility? You need to click on the prompt you will see in 48 hours. You can see why, some forms of dementia have a high genetic carrier. You might want to prepare yourself.

So all we had was five facts. Mark is all northern European, which surprised nobody except Robert a little as all Americans are a mixture. Few northern Europeans of Mark’s age are.  Robert did say that a very high percentage of white Americans have ‘black’ DNA in them, relating back from the days of slavery.  We knew that Mark was 4% Neanderthal, could smell coriander and asparagus.  And that he had a propensity for obesity, and a slight carrier for macular degeneration.

Serious stuff, but the professor took his audience through it all, slowly and steadily with an expertise one would expect from world renowned researcher.

We started off by talking about the film triplets.

And the horror story behind that.

It was a very thought provoking event, esp. when the question was asked about the DNA of a serial killer. Is that there in the genes? In that pin prick of blood taken at a day old? And if we know that, what, as a society do we do about it. What we do with that child?   

After an hour of that, it was book signing, goodbyes and thank yous,   then away in the car to the hotel where I was painting on my hairy wart and telling rude jokes to a very drunk audience.

I didn’t get much sleep that night.


It’s an interesting life.

Caro Ramsay  29 03 2019


  1. In addressing nature vs. nurture I believe that either way, it's your parents' fault.

    1. Or is it like madness, and you get it from your kids!