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How would Rabbie Burns vote in the referendum? I'll need to phone a friend on that one, Mr Tarrant …

TO Berwick-upon-Tweed, through which I have often passed but in which I have rarely lingered.

Try saying that several times fast! It was so cold that whenever I spoke my words appeared in ice in front of my face like subtitles.

I sought refuge in a café where I had tomato and basil soup. It also contained a mysterious ingredient which may have been vinegar. What it was doing in there I know not. These days, however, it is difficult to find soup without spice or to which something inappropriate has not been added. Recently, I had carrot and honey flavour, which was more like a cake than a soup. How one longs for traditional varieties such as lentil, and pea and ham, or a guid Scotch broth on which fat from the mutton stock glistens like granite.

But back to Berwick where I was joined in the café by a family of five from Newcastle. I know this because the father told the waitress, "We're from Newcastle", as if he were bawling out bingo numbers. The waitress digested this information without comment.

While his offspring attempted to dismantle the table around which they were seated, the father studied the menu. "Don't you do meals?" he asked rather aggressively. The waitress gave him the kind of look which I imagine fortune tellers give to clients when they are about to impart bad news. "It depends what you call a meal," she said.

The father thought about this for several minutes. One could sense him flitting mentally through a dictionary for a definition of "meal". Finally, he spoke. "What have you got," he said, "that comes with chips?"

AT the Scottish Arts Club, my fellow panellists - Mandy Rhodes, editor of Holyrood magazine, Paul McNamee, supremo of the Big Issue, Iain Macwhirter of this parish - and I were asked to consider how Rabbie B would vote in the independence referendum were he alive now.

This is not one of those questions which keeps one awake in the wee sma' hours. Who cares how he would have voted? Would you vote Yeah or Neigh if you knew which option he'd preferred? But at least Rabbie was a real person. In recent weeks I have been asked how Miss Jean Brodie would have voted. Easy: she'd have thrown her lot in with Ukip's Nigel Outrageous.

Then there is Rebus, who would vote for whoever might rescind the smoking ban. Most intriguing of all, however, is which way the crew of The Vital Spark - Captain Para Handy, Dougie, The Tar and Macphail, "the enchineer" - would have swung. Every which way, one imagines.

ANENT - onward Christian sojers! - fictional characters, I thought when I saw my old friend Michael Gove on the box immediately of Widmerpool, who has a starring role in Anthony Powell's great roman fleuve, A Dance To The Music Of Time.

Older readers may recall that at school Widmerpool was much mocked, not least because of his odd appearance. But as time passed, Widmerpool, by dint of his work ethic, ambition and imperviousness to criticism, succeeds where others fail to thrive, rising first through the ranks of the army before becoming a formidable - and somewhat sinister - figure in the corridors of power. Eventually, of course, he comes a cropper, going doolally after joining a New Age cult.

As things presently stand, Mr Gove - despite his critics - is in the ascendant but who is to say that in future he may not misplace his marbles entirely and be found cavorting in the great outdoors with fellow fruitcakes?

LIKE all discerning movie buffs, I was saddened to learn of the early demise of Philip Seymour Hoffman. His name among the credits was always welcome and his performances never disappointed.

He was that special talent, an actor who could make even an awful movie - as most of them are - worth watching.

His obituarists had a surfeit of highlights to choose from, but most overlooked A Late Quartet, which came out in 2012 to rave reviews. In it, Mr Hoffman literally played second fiddle in a classical quartet. It is never easy for actors to impersonate musicians, but he and his fellow members of the ensemble - Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir - convinced me. You may say that's not much and you would be right. Nevertheless, do watch it, with plenty of Kleenex to hand.

MICHAEL Owen, formerly a soccer player, will not spend a penny unnecessarily. "Don't care how much I'm bursting," he tweets, "I refuse to pay 20p to have a wee at a train station."

One applauds his thriftiness while simultaneously wondering what he does in the circumstances to relieve himself. One also wonders when he found himself in this frightful situation. When last I needed to micturate on railway premises, the going rate was an inflation-busting, wallet-hammering 30p.

SO faretheeweel Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. I confess that I thought it had long since gone the way of all flesh. In the final programme, celebrities won just £1000, ensuring that it ended more with a whimper than a bang. At its peak, Millionaire had 19 million viewers, which just goes to show what? That we are a nation of catatonics?

I once watched an episode of the Italian version, which took an eternity to unfold, as a contestant attempted to make up her mind between Plato and Socrates, one being a philosopher, the other a footballer.

In its 15 years on screen, just five people won a million quid, one of whom was my dear friend David Edwards. Not only did he win Millionaire, he also won Mastermind, the only person ever to hold both titles. For the latter, his reward was a hunk of Caithness glass. Need you guess which prize he preferred? After winning Millionaire he said: "I wanted to win a lot of money, ideally enough to retire on." And so he did. I see him once at year when we compete on Round Britain Quiz. He represents Wales, against whom I'm always happy not to be drawn.

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