Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Finding Doggerland

For my 40th birthday, my fella got me an unusual present - DNA testing kits for both of us from the private company 23andme. We both had to spit into a testtube, which was then collected by courier and whisked off to a lab in America, where it was then analysed to reveal information about our ancestory, traits and health.

We were emailed that our results were in, this morning, so logged on to the website to find some interesting information, and in 20 minutes everything and nothing changed.

I first looked at my ancestory. My maternal lineage is Haplogroup H1a1 (a haplogroup is a combination of DNA sequences which are passed down from parents). People from H1a1 are mainly from Scandinavia, although they're also found in Western Europe, especially Spain (we always thought my mother's mother had Spanish heritage). My paternal lineage is R1b1b2a1a1*. This tends to be focussed more around the North Sea, especially England, Germany and the Netherlands. Apparently some of both my maternal and paternal ancestors lived in Doggerland (named after Dogger Bank), a land mass that joined England to Europe and eventually vanished when the sea rose about 9000 years ago - it's like a real-life Atlantis. Weapons and bones are regularly found in the North Sea, dating back to when Doggerland existed. Here's a map that someone speculatively created of what it could have looked like

So I'm from a country that until this morning I didn't even know existed, and it doesn't even exist any more. That's pretty mind-blowing. It's not like I can go back there on an ancestral pilgrimage.

The analysis also tells you what percentage of your DNA is neanderthal or caveman. Apparently the average Northern European has 2.6% caveman DNA. Mine is 2.8% which is in the 80th percentile - so I'm more caveman than most people around me. Maybe that explains my heavy eyebrow ridge and big nose (apparently for it's for protection from cold air).

I then moved on to look at health. Your DNA is examined to see if you are a carrier of dozens of different hereditary illnesses and other traits that may or may not end up being expressed as actual diseases. The bad news is that I'm twice as likely as the average person to develop Alzheimer's Disease - the average risk is 7.2% - mine is 14.2%. I also have an increased risk of a range of other nasties, including high blood pressure, stomach cancer, throat cancer, aneurysm and osteoarthritis, although the risks of these things are actually very very low anyway - so even though my risk of stomach cancer is double the average - it's still only 0.4%. I can live with that (probably). And I have a decreased risk of lots of other things including diabetes, melanoma, rheunmatoid arthritis, gout and migraines. I'm quite a bit less likely to have heart disease or Parkinsons. So, you win some, you lose some.

In terms of traits rather than diseases, I discovered that I should never try heroin or cigarettes (I'm likely to get very addicted to both). I also have a genetic marker for low tolerance of pain (which reminded me of yelling out when pulling off a plaster yesterday - at least I can blame my genes for being a softy). The analysis correctly predicted my hair and eye colour, and that my wee would smell funny if I had asparagus. Apparently, I don't metabolise caffeine very well, I'm likely to sneeze in bright sunlight and I don't have a gene that gives me enhanced athletic performance, although I do respond normally to exercise and diet by losing weight (so I have no-one to blame if I get fat but myself - in fact there were a couple of other genes which said I shouldn't really be fat at all - so I'll really be to blame if I get fat). I was also relieved to see that I have substantially decreased odds of going bald - which kind of fits with what I'd suspected. And I have one of the markers for HIV resistance - apparently 1% of people have two markers and are very unlikely to become HIV+, whereas 10-14% of Europeans have one of the markers, which means that if they are infected, there's a good chance that the disease will take a long time to show up. Weirdly, my fella has that same marker as well.

It's fascinating stuff, but as I said, it changes everything and nothing. I'm not too bothered about my increased potential to develop Alzheimer's, though I think I will start having more decaff drinks. Of all the information, what really affected me was the Doggerland stuff, though I suspect most Europeans could probably trace ancestors back there. Still, as birthday presents go, this beats a pair of socks!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Guilty pleasure

My parents went on "honeymoon" (a year after they married) on a package holiday to Spain, in 1973 and hated it. They won't talk about it, but it was enough to put them off "abroad" until I was all grown up and forced them to come with me to Rome, many many years later. My father, who is 65 at the end of the month, announced on Saturday that he never intends to go on holiday again as he can't bear "waiting around for trains and planes" and they're quite happy staying at home.

I would never go on a package holiday to Spain either - though it is more due to middle-class snobbishness rather than a general dislike of travel and "foreign things". But I have recently discovered the ITV series Benidorm, which, while revelling in the awfulness of such holidays and the people who go on them, ends up making you like them.

Benidorm feels like a natural inheritor of the British Carry-on films and seaside postcards. It has a regular cast consisting of British stereotypes and eccentrics, lots of rude jokes, class-based humour, bizarre visual jokes and a faintly moralising sentimental ethos. The establishing shots show Benidorm as hideously built-up with miles of brutal-looking tower-blocks dominating the skyline, while the opening credits show Britons at their worst. The series is set in the Solana Hotel, an "all-inclusive" resort which resembles a hospital built in the 1990s, where guests have to wear a yellow-arm-band to get the free food and drinks, and the specially laid-on entertainment largely consists of karaoke in a large hall (self-entertainment in other words). Many of the holiday-makers bring no money with them and never bother to venture out of the hotel grounds, instead preferring to fester by the pool, getting drunk, being unpleasant to one another and eating.

The central "common" family, the Garveys, is headed by leathery-skinned gnome-matriarch Madge, who is never without a cigarette and sits resplendent on her disabled mobility scooter - the punchline being that she can walk perfectly well - but she's on holiday and doesn't see why she should have to use her legs. Madge has never been troubled by a kind thought in her life, and her many daughters have mostly disowned her, except for affable Janice - who is played by Siobhan Finneran who also plays evil O'Brien in Downton Abbey (as well as Rita from cult 80s film Rita, Sue and Bob too!). Janice is married to lazy Mick (League of Gentleman's Steve Pemberton), a typical benefit scrounger so beloved of the tabloids. Like an infestation, the family keep returning back to the Solana year after year, encountering other holiday-recidivists like Donald and Jacqueline (dim swingers), Kate and Martin (disgruntled middle-class couple there by mistake and Kafka-doomed to keep coming back despite their efforts to escape) and delusional overweight quiz champion Geoff and his slow-witted mother/PA Noreen. As the years progress, newer, ever more flamboyant characters emerge.

There is a lot of flabby, aged, wrinkly or otherwise oddly-shaped flesh on display, and while we are encouraged to laugh at the gluttony, petty criminality, idleness and poor taste of the working-classes, nobody comes off well in Benidorm - the "posh" characters are exposed as inauthentic (like Martin's mother played by Una Stubbs), stuck-up (like Kate) or deluded and weak (Martin). The message is that the working-classes may be vulgar, but at least they know how to enjoy themselves with simple pleasures like a burger, a lie-down by a pool or a good singalong.

Similarly, sexuality of any sort is made fun of. There is a stereotypical gay couple called Troy and Gavin (one is fat and camp who uses a black fan with a flourish as a prop, the other is tall and thin and slightly less camp). They are accepted by the other holiday-makers, as are the swingers - who are always genuinely sorry when they inevitably mistake someone as being from their sauna back home or misread an innocent suggestion as a sexual come-on. A gruff transvestite played by Tim Healy, while the butt of visual jokes is reasonably sympathetically treated, and "normal" heterosexual desire is punished - Martin's lust for a con-woman results in him losing his passport and money, while Janice's brief dalliance with a much younger man brings her no happiness (and he ends up locked in the boot of a car).

While there are brief glimpses of Spanish culture and countryside, the series hasn't managed to tempt me to venture onto an EasyJet flight. I'm happy to enjoy Benidorm at a distance.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


My fella and me have a year's sabbatical starting in August, which means we can live anywhere we like. This has been the subject of much discussion and planning over the past couple of years, and the original plan was to rent out our house and spend three months in each of the following locations: New York, London, Sydney and Brighton. However, the practicalities of such a globe-trotting year quickly meant that we had to reduce our plans quite a bit. We have an elderly, high-maintenance cat who, on the one occasion when I left him with a live-in cat-sitter for a month, went into a deep depression and took to sitting in a corner of the living room with his back to the wall. Taking the cat abroad would also be unfeasible due to quarantine restrictions. So instead, we are spending a fortnight in August travelling across from Chicago to San Francisco by train, followed by a week in Brighton.

The other issue which brought us back down to earth is cost - I thought flats in London were quite reasonable initially, but then I realised I was looking at the price per week rather than per month. So the capital city was out (and anway, it's so unfriendly and competitive). Eventually it came down to a competition between Brighton, Bristol or Newcastle-upon Tyne. I like all three places, but ultimately it was the bonus of having friends and family in Newcastle which was the deciding factor. My fella, very kindly let me make the final decision, although he stipulated he wanted to be in "walking distance of a Waitrose".

So we've found a nice apartment (near a Waitrose), overlooking a park, in a fancy Georgian terrace. And this weekend, we moved in half our furniture. My fella bravely drove a van across. I caught a cold earlier in the week, so it wasn't the best timing - and our efforts to move the bulky sofa were worthy of a Laurel and Hardy film. Lots of comedy accidents. And we have to do it all again in July when we move the rest of the stuff.

We thought the boiler was broken, but just as we were phoning British gas we realised that the strange box in the kitchen cupboard with a credit card sticking out of it was a pay as you go meter - put in because the previous tenant didn't seem to like paying any of his bills. We hadn't seen one before so I'd just kind of ignored it as irrelevant. So we had to get the card "topped up" at a newsagents. There were lots of "final demand" letters for the last tenant, including some from bailiffs and an £800 phone bill. He sounds charming. There were all sorts of weird little things we had to resolve over the weekend - I had to buy a new toilet seat because the one they had didn't stay up (why? how?) At least it gave us an excuse to go to John Lewis a lot.

Oddly enough I don't think we'll use that Waitrose much. There's a huge Marks and Spencer next door to it - the food hall is about 8 times bigger than the one in Lancaster - and it has things we've never seen before like Luxury Garlic Bread - Lancaster only has the regular sort. I feel so cheated - like one of those Russian diplomat's wives who went insane on first seeing a British supermarket in the 1980s.

So between now and August we'll be living in two places, echoing that period in 2006-7 when I lived in Bristol and commuted back to Lancaster. I have strong and fond memories of Newcastle - I used to go shopping there in my childhood, although the enduring memory is of never having any money and doing a lot of enviously staring in shop windows wishing I could buy stuff. I recall going to an all-night showing of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead films at one of the cinemas, and when I was a student, I visited my friend Kathryn (who still lives there), and we used to spend a lot of time going around the charity shops (it was the early 1990s - grunge was just coming in), and watching foreign films at the Tyneside Cinema (we thought we were so sophisticated). During the summer of 1992 I discovered Newcastle's gay scene - in those days there were a lot of men wearing check shirts with moustaches, and I had a brief relationship with a chap who was high up in the civil service and wanted to take me to Egypt.

Geordies only seem to have two vowels ("a" and "oo"), so I'm sure in a year's time I will be incomprehensible all over again.