The social hierarchy of dolphins

Life comes at you pretty fast sometimes.  One night you are reading from your notebook in front of 110 people as the support act for a well-known Scottish comedian, and less than 24 hours later you are being soundly beaten by your six-year-old niece at ten pin bowling.   I tried putting a brave face on the defeat.  After all, it was my niece’s birthday and bowling was the activity she had chosen to help celebrate it.  Besides, it’s not like I was the only one who was losing; she swept four of us aside as though we were hapless pins.  Yet I couldn’t keep myself from feeling hard done by each time my ball was drawn into the right-hand gutter.  I blamed everything, from the perceived slope in the hardwood floor which seemed to only have it in for me, to the fact that we were allowed to play wearing our own shoes and I hadn’t chosen my footwear that morning with bowling in mind.  It maybe goes to show that you should always dress for all occasions.

In the hours before the charity comedy night, I was at my kitchen counter reading about the social hierarchy of dolphins.  It wasn’t how I was expecting to be spending my time in the lead up to the most exciting thing I had ever been asked to do.  I thought that I might be going through a last-minute rehearsal, drinking myself blind on Tennent’s Lager, or throwing up in the bathroom at the venue like I have done most of the other times when I have read in public.  But the previous night I received a set of 11 questions that the high school students who I would be meeting the following Thursday in the Argyll Wellbeing Hub wanted to ask me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about one question in particular.  What is your opinion on dolphins’ social hierarchy?

I had never considered that as being something I should have an opinion on; not like the rising cost of energy, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the continued wearing of face masks, or which type of sauce goes best on a bacon roll. I didn’t know the first thing about the social structure of dolphins, let alone know what I thought about it, but I was going to have to find out quick. People talk about reliving their youth all the time, and here I was just like back in high school, doing everything I could to ensure I wasn’t left looking foolish in front of a group of fifteen-year-olds.

My Google search history was transformed as I read article after article about the way dolphins interact among their species.  Much of what I learned didn’t come as any surprise considering what is commonly known about the mammal, but there were some interesting tidbits I picked up, such as the free spirit nature of dolphins as they swim from pod to pod without ever being permanently bound to one group.  I read about the way that smaller groups of dolphins often have the objective of cooperating to ensure the mating of the others with a specific female, which made me think of a Friday night in Aulay’s – at least for the Plant Doctor and my brother, anyway.  Bottlenose dolphins, meanwhile, are prone to establishing their dominance through aggression towards other species, often biting, striking and ganging up on others.  Studies have shown that dolphins can have a preference for meeting with particular individuals and that they are remembered and recognised even after long periods of separation.  I found it fascinating how similar their habits are to humans.

All of this information was swimming around in my head when I turned up at The View just before doors opened for the comedy night.  People were already lining up to get in, and I walked right past them to the bar with all the poise of a dolphin –  or so I imagined – where I met the headline comedian Gary Little and the organisers from the Argyll Wellbeing Hub.  We were taken through the back to the green room, which was really the bar’s staff room but with a bucket of ice and a bottle of wine.  It was here where I realised that the thing that was making me most anxious about the entire evening was being left alone in a room with professional standup comedians.  I’m terrible when it comes to meeting new people under ordinary circumstances, never mind being put into an unfamiliar place – and, really, this was an environment where I had no business being.  After all, I am not a comedian, and it was difficult to shake the feeling of being a fish out of water.  I tried telling Gary Little about my own routine, which ordinarily consists of me sitting in a chair with a glass of Jameson whilst reading excerpts from my diary.  He seemed distracted as I spoke, before eventually asking, “would you mind if I take a look at your watch?”

Initially, it sounded like the most passive-aggressive way possible of telling someone that their conversation is not the most scintillating, but when I pulled the sleeve of my shirt up over my wrist, it became clear that his interest was genuine.  “I collect vintage watches,” the comedian explained as he examined the face of my timekeeping device.  I nodded and thought about how this was not at all the way I had imagined the green room backstage at a comedy night being.  “Just don’t look if you’re wanting to know what time it is,” I warned.  “The battery has been dead for three months.”  He immediately stepped back with a look on his face as if I had told him that the watch is liable to self-destruct at any moment.  It would be impossible for him to know it, of course, but he was right to be affronted by my lack of care for my watch since I live next door to an electrics shop.  My chances of breaking the ice were shattered.

When the main support act Iain Hume arrived, I had visions of standing back while two comedians effortlessly traded hilarious one-liners back and forth.  Instead, the men were talking about walking their dogs on the beach and where they had parked their campervans.  Iain said that his wife was in a bad mood when he left her in the van to come to the gig because they couldn’t get a signal on the television set.  It was surreal, and not at all in keeping with the glamourous impression of comedy I’ve had from watching Billy Connelly or Jerry Seinfeld.  Eventually, my mind started drifting to where it was that the bar staff in The View were having to go to take their breaks.

I had spent so much of my time in the 24 hours before the gig researching the social habits of dolphins that I had barely even thought to feel nervous about it.  All that had changed by the time of the watch remark, however, and when the night finally got underway my legs were trembling like a thermometer in March.  I took a seat at the back of the room as the MC for the evening, David Duncan, warmed up the sold-out audience.  He was funny, and people seemed to be really enjoying his brutal takedown of the Information Oban Facebook group.  Things were off to a good start, right up until he introduced Iain Hume as the first act of the evening and, as he left the stage, leaned forward to say something to the group of guys who were sitting in the front row and had been talking through the entire thing.  All of a sudden things kicked off, and four or five guys followed David out of the room like a gang of bottlenose dolphins.

Necks were craning, struggling to get a look through the window while Iain tried to get some laughs with his material. I could scarcely believe what was happening. If this is what occurred following the opening remarks, I dreaded to think how people were going to react when I tried my joke about debating whether to ask the shop assistant in Waterstones for assistance to find the section carrying self-help books. Fortunately, the situation didn’t amount to anything beyond some verbal threats, with it transpiring that the group was part of a stag party from Newton Mearns. Ordinarily, violence only ever breaks out in that part of Glasgow when the prosecco hasn’t been chilled to the optimum temperature, so in reality, there wasn’t much chance that a punch would be thrown. By the time I stepped up to the stage things had settled down, and my 17-minute set went better than I could ever have dreamt.

I was still on a high when I turned up at my niece’s Harry Potter-themed birthday party the following morning.  When I walked into my sister’s home, the place was a riot of shredded wrapping paper, popcorn, wizards, and delirious six-year-olds.  Looking at the scene was more or less an insight into how I was feeling deep down inside, and in truth, losing at bowling wasn’t the humiliation I liked to make it seem.  I had just experienced the greatest triumph I’ll probably ever have – for once I didn’t need a win at bowling to help soothe my bruised ego, while for my niece, beating her drunk uncles is only the start of what she can go on to achieve.  At least, that’s the way I was starting to see it by the time we had reached the Holytree for some dinner on our way home from Fort William.  In Oban, we stopped off outside Aulay’s for a novelty photograph after a birthday ice cream cone had been demolished as though it was a rack of pins.  My sister took the picture of me, my brother and our niece standing on the steps in front of the pub as we imagined the same night twelve years in the future when our niece would walk in on her 18th birthday to find her two uncles slumped over the bar the way a jumper lies in the laundry basket.  The same old songs would still be playing on the same jukebox, and we would probably be remonstrating about how it wasn’t fair because “she had the bumpers up.”

By the middle of the week, life was beginning to return to its usual mundanity.  After the early spring sunshine and 16°C temperature, there were flurries of snow, while the mercury plunged below zero.  As I was walking along the Esplanade on Wednesday evening, I observed a young boy clambering up the concrete steps from the shore onto the pavement.  He was probably around 10 or 11-years-old, I guess, and on his back, he was carrying a large, presumably heavy, yellow plastic case.  When he emerged, after first stumbling and almost falling back down the steps, I could see that there was a hole in the centre of the back of the case, and from it, a small puppy peered out.  The boy climbed onto a bicycle and rode off into the distance, the dog’s fluffy black ears flapping in the breeze.  

It got me to thinking about when I was this kid’s age and my parents would set me certain tasks around the house to earn my pocket money – things like emptying the dishwasher or hanging the washing on the line.  All very dull and easy jobs, although now I am 38 and I don’t have a dishwasher or really even a washing line and I look back on those days as the high point in my household upkeep.  No matter how simple they look now, they were the worst thing in the world back then, and I would do anything to get out of doing them.  I couldn’t help but think that this young lad was of the same mind.  I imagined that he had been set the chore of walking the family dog in order to be given his weekly pocket money, and the bicycle and carry case was his way of making the task easier.

I told this story the next afternoon to the high school students who attend the Argyll Wellbeing Hub in response to one of their questions, which was what are the things I like to look for on my walks.   It’s difficult to know if commentary on the seemingly unusual behaviour of passing pedestrians is what the youngsters were expecting when I turned up.  For reasons I would learn during the course of my visit, the group of 15-year-olds have a degree of admiration for me, which I was struggling to understand since nobody knew who I was when I was in high school, and yet here I am, seemingly a popular figure amongst at least a handful of school kids.  There was an audible gasp when I walked into the room, although I couldn’t be sure that that wasn’t because I almost tripped over the step at the entrance.

The entire purpose of my going to the Hub was to read the material from my notebook that I had performed at the comedy night the week before, since age restrictions meant that most of the youngsters couldn’t attend – although one of them did perform a five-minute piece which practically stole the show.  However, we got so deeply involved in conversations about our favourite bands, books, and the social hierarchy of dolphins that after more than an hour we hadn’t gotten round to it.  The group was engaging, intelligent and funny, and as giddy as I felt after reading in front of 110 people, this was much more rewarding.  Some of them even thought that U2 are cool.  When it came to answering the dolphin question, it was probably the most relieved I have ever been to discover that the opinion I had only recently formed was the one that the students were hoping to hear.  We all agreed that dolphins can behave like real bastards, just like any human, but their social dynamic is fascinating, and their fluid, free-spirited nature is admirable.   In the end, not only was the afternoon more enjoyable than performing at the comedy gig, but it was even better than winning at bowling.

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