Sunday, 15 July 2018

Toxic air

Jenny and I live very close to three schools, which means that twice a day during term time the local streets are jammed with cars as parents drop off and pick up their little darlings.

Now I read that thousands of schools across Britain are taking measures to end the parental school run because of the serious air pollution it causes. It harms children's lungs and drives up hospital admissions and GP visits. A nine year old London girl died recently of asthma after a spike in air pollution around her home.

Schools are banning school runs, encouraging walking, cycling and scooting, and asking parents to park a few minutes' walk from the school.

We've been living here for nine years and haven't yet had any personal health problems related to air pollution, but who knows what hidden damage might be going on? Unfortunately air pollution isn't usually visible so it's easily ignored.

As far as I know, not a single school in Northern Ireland is taking any measures to limit school runs and air pollution. So I intend to write to the nearby schools and ask them if they have any plans to reduce school runs.

It has to be said that the general attitude to air pollution in Northern Ireland is pretty lax. People are accustomed to driving long distances for work or to visit relatives, and they turn a blind eye to the resulting pollution. That really needs to change.

How will the schools respond to my letters, I wonder? Watch this space.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Weighing it up

I've sat on a jury several times, but I'm not convinced a jury is any more reliable than a judge when it comes to the verdict being the right one. Both judges and juries are fallible and both can get it horribly wrong.

I'm glad I never landed a really serious case like gang rape, serial killing or sexual trafficking. The responsibility to reach the correct verdict, and to deal with some thoroughly nasty characters, possibly with the whole world watching, would have been nerve-racking. As it was, my cases were relatively minor ones - affray, physical assault, obstructing the police.

Who knows if our verdicts were the true ones? Only the defendants and victims could ever be certain. In one case, a single juror persuaded the rest of us the defendant was guilty rather than innocent. Was she right or were we all taken in by her smooth talking? I have no idea.

I'm also glad I never got a case that went on for months, as some do. I was almost picked for the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979, which lasted six weeks, but the person just before me in the queue was approved as juror number twelve.

Jurors are still banned from discussing completed cases. They can't say how they assessed the evidence and how they arrived at the verdict. Regrettable in a way, since we'd all love to know how  an especially controversial verdict was reached. But probably also sensible, since our faith in juries would be rapidly undermined if we discovered that blatant prejudice or the desire to get home again were the main considerations.

But after some serious thinking about my jury experience, I concluded that in the end the crucial factor isn't whether it's a judge or jury that decides, it's the quality of the evidence. Whichever side has the strongest and most compelling evidence will prevail, whoever is weighing it up.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Up for grabs

One very noticeable aspect of growing older is that I no longer take so much for granted. I'm much more aware of the imperman-ence of everything, that however solid something seems, it could collapse at any moment.

As a child, I took most things for granted - my parents' relationship, my home, my school, my physical and emotional well-being, having enough money, living in a peaceful country and a dozen other things. It never occurred to me that some unfortunate twist of fate could end them all tomorrow.

As I grew older I became aware of the fragility of all these supposedly rock-solid circumstances. Relationships could end, my home could be repossessed, I could develop some crippling illness, my country could go to war. Whether one's life was going well or going badly depended on personal effort and also on luck.

My parents didn't just magically stay together. They had to work at the relationship, at dealing with their differences. My home was only there as long as the mortgage was paid. My well-being relied on my parents' love and affection. And so on. I gradually realised that all these apparent "givens" were not given but painstakingly arrived at.

And I took things for granted not just in the sense of assuming an inherent permanence but in the sense of not fully appreciating them for what they were. I didn't realise how lucky I was to have a supportive and settled home life when thousands of people are orphans or refugees or live on the streets. I wasn't aware of how privileged I was.

No longer taking things for granted is both scary and exciting. Scary because I realise just how easily my life could implode, exciting because everything's up for grabs and everything's negotiable.

My life could change utterly in the twinkling of an eye.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Doctor gorgeous

Every day I hear of another extraord-inary misuse of social media, of some new trend that's utterly repugnant and anti-social.

The latest fad is to post photos and videos of female doctors online and ask people to rate their attractiveness. Which one's hottest, Doctor Deborah or Doctor Alison?

Apparently it's okay for patients to video their consultations, for instance to record baby scans or their child's first GP appointment or help them remember what was discussed or what treatment was recommended.

But some patients are making videos, sometimes without express permission, and then staging online beauty contests. Doctors revealed their alarm at the British Medical Association's annual meeting.

What sort of people think this is acceptable? A doctor's life is hard enough without their being subject to a sleazy online parlour game - a game they may not even realise is happening unless someone tips them off.

Those idiots who think it's all very amusing fully deserve to be struck off their GP's list. Or perhaps to have their own attractiveness, or lack of it, rated by a bunch of uninhibited women.

It's never even occurred to me to video my consultations. They can be quite detailed, but I do my best to remember everything that comes up and make a note immediately afterwards of what the doctor said. That seems to work very well - my note always includes the most important points.

I assume a doctor can contact Twitter or Facebook or whatever and ask for the offending images to be removed, but maybe that's not the case.

My own doctor (that's Dr Joanne) is very competent and very thorough. What she looks like is of no significance.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Urban delights

I'm a 100 per cent urban person. I thrive on cities and all the amenities and attractions they offer. I can't imagine myself living in some remote rural location lacking all the urban advantages I'm used to.

It would drive me mad having to travel miles to get the simple things like shampoo or a pillow case, or to see a dentist or solicitor or hairdresser. It would be a perpetual worry that if I fell seriously ill, the nearest hospital might be so far away I might die in transit.

I would be hopeless on a farm. I have no natural abilities for what's involved. I've tried milking a cow, moving goats and pigs, and shearing sheep, and I'm useless at all of them. I would soon be defeated by the sheer flat-out hard work and early starts.

I'm currently reading about someone who feels totally at home in the Orkney Islands, with the often terrible weather and physical isolation, and I wonder what's the big attraction of that kind of life. She couldn't be more different from me.

I've always lived in a city - first London and then Belfast. I'm so accustomed to the benefits of urban living that doing without them is unthinkable. I'm so used to nipping to the local shops for a coffee, a pizza, a haircut or a kettle. I'm so used to frequent buses to the city centre for anything else. I'm so used to the nearby health centre and the nearby hospital. I'm so used to the abundant art and culture. How could I say goodbye to all that?

I'm sure it very much depends on your upbringing. If you were raised in a city, you're likely to stay in a city. If you were raised on a farm, you're likely to become  a farmer. If you were raised in the Scottish Highlands, you're likely to live somewhere similar.

Me, I'm an unrepentant city dweller. I would never swap skyscrapers and ring roads for barns and haystacks.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Phone moan

Once again teachers (and parents) are calling for mobile phones to be banned on school premises, for numerous reasons including not disrupting lessons, reducing bullying, preventing exam cheating, and limiting access to harmful websites.

That seems sensible to me. Whatever you see as the function of schools - passing exams, acquiring knowledge, learning to think, learning to be creative, picking up life skills - mobile phones have no part to play, and may actually be detrimental. So why are they permitted?

At the risk of sounding like grandad, I have to say that I never had a mobile phone when I was at school, and I don't feel I was deprived. I don't think I would have gained anything by having a Facebook page or checking my emails or looking at another twenty cat pictures.

But some people seem to think that banning mobile phones would be some sort of draconian act, denying personal freedom, telling people what to do etc. Which just seems like a crazy over-reaction to a common-sense suggestion. Schools aren't about personal freedom anyway, they're about acquiring skills.

It's also argued that parents and children need to be in touch with one another in case of an emergency like an attempted sexual assault, a sudden illness or a death in the family. Well, I don't recall any such emergency when I was at school, or if there was one, a teacher would have phoned my mum or vice versa.

I guess a mobile phone might have been handy when my teachers were droning on about something hopelessly boring like quadratic equations or tidewater glaciers. I could have furtively checked out which pop star had been busted for drugs or fallen off the stage or split their pants or set fire to their guitar.

But then again, I probably wouldn't have learnt very much.

PS: Algeria is disabling its entire national internet during the high school exam period from June 20 to June 25 to prevent phone cheating, which was widespread in previous years. In addition, all devices with internet access are banned from exam halls. Iraq has a similar policy.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Dodgy authors

The regular controversy over whether famous books should be withdrawn or boycotted because of the author's question-able behaviour is once more in the news because publishers are increasingly putting morality clauses into their contracts.

Which makes me ask myself if I should be taking the same censorious attitude and weeding from my bookshelves all those authors whose personal lives are or were reprehensible.

Should I throw out anyone guilty of sexual misconduct or violence? Anyone using pornography or prostitutes? Anyone who has made racist or homophobic remarks? Anyone who supports extreme right-wing groups?

It's a difficult question. I wouldn't want famous books with a huge literary reputation to disappear forever simply because the author's personal behaviour is outrageous. I don't see what's wrong with praising the book while at the same time condemning the way they behave.

But then again, isn't that tantamount to saying the author's personal life doesn't really matter because they're a literary genius and their appalling behaviour can be swept under the carpet? That brilliant turns of phrase are more important than a battered wife?

There's a difference of course between living authors who we're judging by current norms and long-dead authors whose behaviour seems dreadful now but was probably less contentious at the time. Why should they be judged against today's more rigorous standards? It would be absurd to banish Dickens or Shakespeare or Tolstoy.

I don't intend to remove books from my bookshelves, books that I greatly enjoyed and may have re-read several times, because of the author's squalid behaviour. How many authors are beyond reproach in their personal lives? Not many, I suspect.

I'm very torn between strict censorship and a more pragmatic approach. Especially as censorship can all too easily escalate.

Pic: Lionel Shriver, who has been criticised for her views on diversity (Shriver herself says she has been "maliciously misinterpreted")
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Was in Cambridge yesterday (Tuesday) for my mum's cremation. Very simple, no service or tributes, just the coffin being dispatched, as my mum wanted. My niece and I were both crying copiously, the first time I've cried for a very long time. The coffin really brings it home that this is the end.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Crows' feet and wrinkles

An American beauty magazine has decided to stop using the term "anti-ageing" as it suggests ageing is "a condition we need to battle" rather than a natural and normal process.

Well, I wish them luck with that. However much you change the language referring to it, physical ageing is still going to be something people dislike and fret about and try to reverse. Thousands of us will still peer in the mirror every morning and look askance at the wrinkles, crows' feet or double chin. Not many of us will dismiss what we see with a casual "che sera sera".

Though I tend to say "che sera sera" most of the time - well, I was never a glamorous male heart-throb in the first place - there are still times when I look at my battered, ancient appearance and think it would be quite nice to go back a few years.

It's hard not to dwell on the ageing process when the media focuses so obsessively on youth, on looking young and on "not showing your age". And when so many people are resorting to cosmetic surgeons to hold back the advancing years.

Of course I never thought about ageing when I was young. Old age seemed like something way into the future that would probably never happen. It never occurred to me that I might end up looking like those wrinkly old codgers on the bus. Then suddenly (or so it seemed - I barely noticed the gradual changes) I looked like an old codger myself and I thought, how did that happen?

Secretly I rather like the fact that my face looks lived-in, the outcome of a lifetime of hard knocks and challenges, a thousand swirling emotions, so many extraordinary and astonishing events. The face that knows a thing or two.

Anti-ageing cream? Thanks but no thanks.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Goodbye mum

So my mum died on Sunday at the age of 96. She seemed healthy enough when I visited her a couple of weeks ago, but an unexpected chain of events led to her going into hospital and dying four days later. There are questions over her death, which followed a fall at her care home, and a post-mortem is to be held. The doctors think she suffered either cardiac arrest or a stroke.

My mum and I were very much chalk and cheese, and we had very different views on all sorts of things, but we always kept in touch. Even when my father banned me from their house for several years, we met in a local pub, where we would sip some slightly alcoholic drinks and swap news. After he died I was able to visit her at home again.

It was sad to see her gradual decline from someone energetic, sharp-witted and curious to someone losing all interest in the outside world and often confused and uncomprehending. Not so long ago she was a keen member of the Ramblers Association and went on long hikes with other members. She went on regular seaside holidays and even a couple of cruises. She kept in touch with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

But growing physical weakness meant she had to abandon the Ramblers Association. She hadn't been on holiday for a while, no longer bothered to keep up with old friends, and complained increasingly of loneliness.

Since she'd never had any serious illness, and had never had any surgery apart from a tonsillectomy as a child, me and the rest of the family assumed she would reach 100 at least, but it wasn't to be. Fate intervened in disastrous fashion.

Goodbye mum. We knew each other for 71 years and that's quite something.

Pic: St Ives, Cambridgeshire, where my mum was living

PS: The post mortem concluded that she died of a UTI. Extraordinary. I imagine the UTI had been developing for a few days but the care home hadn't realised, and it was only after she was taken to hospital after the fall that the advanced UTI was diagnosed and by that time complications had set in. But we'll be asking some searching questions to find out exactly what happened.

Friday, 1 June 2018

An uphill struggle

It's surprisingly hard to change one's dietary habits. We're used to eating certain foods in certain quantities at certain times and altering that in any way can be an uphill struggle.

I'm fairly thin, but I can put on the pounds very easily. If I didn't keep a constant watch on my weight I could put on a stone or so quite quickly. But adjusting my diet to lose a few pounds is not that easy.

It seems simple enough to eat smaller portions or avoid fattening foods or skip a meal, but the reality is less simple. I might aim at a small portion but if there's more on offer it's too tempting. I love chocolate and ice cream and I'm not giving them up in a hurry. I'm attuned to three meals a day and giving one up is usually beyond me.

If you're used to having tiny portions, or not eating chocolate, or not having a midday meal, then you can just carry on. But if you're firmly in the grip of bad habits, breaking them can be tough.

Social events are treacherous, as there are always piles of unhealthy food - cakes, pastries, muffins, chocolates. It's only polite to nibble a few of them. Refusing everything on offer just prompts awkward questions.

I have at least broken the pack of biscuits habit. I used to eat an entire pack of biscuits at one go. Two or three weren't enough, I just had to keep eating until the pack was finished. Now I have one biscuit and that's it.

For most things, I have plenty of will power. But when it comes to serious dietary changes, will power deserts me. I need a ruthless Aunt Lydia to keep me in line.

*Aunt Lydia: the enforcer in The Handmaid's Tale
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Thanks for all your kind thoughts about my mum. She died at 5.15 am this morning (Sunday)

Monday, 28 May 2018

In the know

Why do so many people fancy themselves as amateur psycho-analysts, convinced they know others better than they know themselves, and never hesitating to voice their half-baked opinions as if they're gospel truth?

I only half understand my own self after 71 years, and what goes on in my mind is a source of constant bewilderment. Yet people who barely know me are sure they've discovered exactly what makes me tick and can explain it to me.

I've been confidently identified as smug, self-righteous, obtuse, taking things too literally, lacking empathy, self-obsessed, spineless, cruel and many other things quite unrelated to reality. Such accusations are painful while I'm still taking them seriously and haven't yet dismissed them as nonsense.

I'm not the only target of course. Everyone's at it these days, psychoanalysing all and sundry from casual acquaintances to friends, relatives and celebrities. Just give them the opportunity and they're off, ruthlessly pulling someone's personality to pieces. Scurrilous motives and selfish intentions are routinely detected in the most saintly and generous individuals.

I can only suggest that before they point out the mote in their neighbour's eye, they look at the enormous beam in their own.

But aren't I as bad? Don't I tear people to bits just as easily? Actually no I don't. I try to focus on what's good about them and not what's bad. I don't randomly paint them as nasty and venal (Aha, how smug and self-righteous! How brazenly self-deceiving! What obvious virtue-signalling!)

No, seriously, what dazzling insight other people possess. Fancy knowing exactly what makes me tick and why I do what I do. If only I was so splendidly self-informed. If only I could pin down this slippery, mercurial personality so deftly.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

All tarted up

After ten months of deliberation, the British government has produced some utterly feeble guidance on what employers can and cannot require women to wear in the workplace. Guidance so feeble most firms will probably ignore it.

They'll continue to require their female employees to wear make-up, low-cut blouses, short skirts and high heels, and women will be too nervous to refuse because they're hazy about the law and they doubt they'll get any support.

Why am I so concerned, you might ask, about how women have to dress in the workplace? I'm a man, it doesn't affect me, I can wear loose, comfortable clothing and that's fine. I won't be sent home for forgetting my stilettos.

No matter how ugly I am, I won't have to wear make-up. No matter how short I am, I won't have to wear heels. I won't be expected to flash my freshly-shaved legs. I won't be asked to expose plenty of chest hair.

But I've worked in and visited numerous workplaces where women are obliged to wear impractical and uncomfortable clothing for all sorts of dubious reasons - because "it's more professional" or "it creates the right image" or "it shows you're taking the job seriously". Why should women have to be tarted up to the nines to be trustworthy when men only need a suit and tie?

It's grossly unfair and discriminatory, and that's why I object to the government's pathetic advice which fails to say loud and clear that expecting women to wear something totally different to men is almost certainly illegal in every case.

I look forward to the day when women and men can wear similar clothing at work and nobody will think anything of it. When women aren't eye candy for the male employees. When how they do the job is all that matters.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Carry on dozing

So last week I went to St Ives in Cambridge-shire to visit my 96 year old mum, who's now in a care home. She's well looked after and seems to be happier than when she was still in her own flat and increasingly unable to keep it in order.

She's now in a sort of twilight state between normal consciousness and complete mental detachment. Sometimes she absorbs what I'm saying and makes relevant responses. At other times she takes nothing in and I have to keep repeating myself and explaining what ought to be the obvious.

She asked me what I had had for lunch and I said a mozzarella, tomato and basil panino from Costa. She asked me what mozzarella was, although she's been to Italy numerous times and should know very well what it is. Then ten minutes later she asked me again what I had had for lunch and I went through the same rigmarole.

She increasingly lacks any curiosity about the outside world. The TV was on but she took no notice, despite some interesting items about attempts to lift an overturned lorry full of milk and the possible value of some unusual antiques.

She has no interest in my life, or Jenny's life, or anyone else's life. If I pass on any family news, she nods politely and that's it. She doesn't bother to keep in touch with any of her old friends. Political events pass her by, however dramatic or intriguing. She did however intend to watch the royal wedding.

She spends most of her time dozing and eating, happily oblivious to anything going on outside the four walls of the care home.  It seems to me a rather empty existence but it appears to be all she wants. I daresay if I reach the grand old age of 96 that'll be enough for me too. Why bother any more about the outside world?

Just carry on dozing, mum. Wishing you sweet dreams.

Pic: Not my mum but she looks very similar

Saturday, 12 May 2018

All in the stars

I don't believe in astrology. I don't believe my personality is what it is because of the planets' where-abouts the moment I was born. Nor do I believe my future is determined by where the planets might be at any given date and time. It's about as credible as the Lost City of Atlantis.

I have a friend who is very serious about astrology, who once drew up my birth chart and made various predictions about my life. Needless to say, none of the predictions came true. She must have accidentally got Jupiter in the wrong place. Or confused Saturn with Pluto. Or done the birth chart while she was drunk.

I think most people are sceptical about astrology, but that doesn't stop them checking their astrological horoscope every day or telling you they're a typical Gemini or Virgo. Hell, I even see my own personality as typical Pisces - facing both ways, fond of water, romantic, imaginative, compassionate, gentle etc.

It's quite tempting also to believe the old astrological dictum that anyone on the cusp of two star signs is always a bit unhinged. A worrying thought when like me you're straddling Pisces and Aries, and the signs of unhingedness are there for all to see.

But it's a good way of getting to know someone you've just met. You can ask them what star sign they are and whether they live up to it or not. If they scowl at you and say it's all total bollocks, it could be the start of a wonderful friendship.

I was told once by a journalist that newspaper horoscopes are usually written by someone who knows nothing about astrology and simply makes it up as they go along. I can well believe it. How hard can it be to predict that "good things are coming your way" or "you'll overcome a temporary setback"?

I could do that. Gissa job, mister.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Good riddance

According to a survey, six out of ten people feel more affection for their childhood home than their present one. They associate their childhood home with their happiest memories, so much so that some would buy it if they could. Some go as far as recreating the same decor and furnishings in their current home.

Well, I'm not one of the sixty per cent. I have no affection whatever for my two childhood homes. Not only are some of my childhood memories far from happy, but I actively disliked the houses themselves.

The first one was poky and dingy and the four of us (including my sister) were constantly tripping over each other. All the woodwork was being eaten by woodworm and one day the chimney collapsed, almost killing me. A busy railway line at the bottom of the garden provided a constant background noise, which we were used to but was still intrusive.

The second house was much bigger but never felt cosy or comfortable. Everything in the house was heavy and noisy and the carpets and curtains did little to absorb the noise. I always felt I had to be as quiet as possible and not add to the racket. And there was the same busy railway line at the end of the garden.

I much prefer the house I'm in now. It's roomy and light, full of lovely paintings, posters and ornaments, and surrounded by lots of beautiful trees. It's not noisy and it's woodworm-free. And there's no railway line anywhere near it. I have no wish to buy either of my childhood homes or have anything more to do with them. Nor do I want to recreate the ghastly decor and furnishings my parents were so fond of.

Whoever is now living in those childhood homes - they're welcome to them.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Cannot connect


"Men fail us, Sally thinks, because they mostly won't or can't communi-cate. It's their greatest failing as a sex. Of course Pete would help anyone who asked, but taking an interest in people's lives, being sympathetic to their problems, talking things over, putting people in touch or doing a good turn, and above all really saying what they feel - this is what she craves.

"Pete won't talk to anyone he doesn't already know, and on the rare occasions when he does have a chat, he will come away without having discovered a single interesting thing about them, such as the state of their health, the number and ages of their children, whether their business is going well or badly this year, and what they think about Strictly and basically how they're feeling about life in general. Sally is forever astonished and exasperated by this.

"Among men it's as if incuriosity is a badge of honour, with the result that they all going stumbling blindly around in a fog of unknowing, and proud of it too. How did men discover anything ever when they won't ask?" - from Amanda Craig, The Lie of the Land

So very true. Why are so many men so bad at communicating? I've tried many times to befriend a man, only to find that he's okay talking about impersonal subjects such as cars or sport or politics or beer, but as soon as I try to get to know him properly, to get under his skin, a barrier goes up and I can't get any further.

It's a kind of fear of being personal, as if revealing their inner selves will result in some terrible calamity or humiliation or degradation. They're afraid they'll be laughed at or despised or crushed. Astonishing and exasperating indeed.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Retirement beckons

On Monday I'm retiring after 53 years of paid work, broken only by two lengthy periods of unemploy-ment after being made redundant. I've done all sorts of jobs, including local newspaper reporter, sub-editor, bookseller, typist, admin worker and press office assistant.

I've got no qualifications of any significance, so I've just charmed and bamboozled my way into one job after another. I did once obtain a journalism proficiency certificate, but as it was based on typing and shorthand skills and was well before the age of computing and word processing, it's now valueless.

I've had all the usual reactions, such as asking me what I'll do once I'm retired, asking if I feel sad to be leaving my job, expressing envy that they can't retire themselves, and even asking me if I'll be moving back to England (no way - I love living in Belfast).

Then there's the comment that my retirement will be "well-earned", which can be interpreted in several different ways. It could mean that I've put in many years of hard physical labour (which I haven't), or that the length of my working life is impressive (not really), or that I've been very successful in my chosen occupation (mainly bookselling, where the only visible success was finding the book a customer was looking for).

Probably the best definition of "well-earned" is having survived many years of emotional ups and downs caused by crappy working conditions, rude bosses, aggravating work colleagues, awkward customers, quirky computers, miserable wages, lengthy commutes, and so many utterly tedious tasks.

I shall relish the fact that I don't have to put up with any of these ordeals any longer and can do exactly what I want. It's someone else's turn to maintain their sanity despite whatever is thrown at them.

Unlimited leisure will take some getting used to. Or maybe not. I might just take to it like a duck to water.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Pampering required

I do like my comfort as I get older. Gone are the days when I would put up with spartan, rough-and-ready conditions, telling myself it was much more fun and much more "real" than pampered luxury.

It's a very long time since I went to rock festivals in fields swimming in mud and litter, shivering in a leaky tent and joining endless queues for food, drink and toilets. Nowadays I'll only go to a gig in a warm indoor venue with proper seating and toilets that don't mean a wait of 20 minutes. Or alternatively I'll stay at home in even greater comfort and listen to a few CDs.

Likewise I've never been camping since a disastrous experience at the age of 13 when I went to a two-week Boy Scout camp in Yorkshire and it rained solidly for the whole fortnight. I was soaked and miserable from start to finish and couldn't wait to return home. Any suggestion of camping since then has filled me with horror and met with a prompt and unshakable refusal.

For several years I lived in a damp, dismal, under-heated bedsit lacking any mod cons and so dispiriting I hesitated to invite anyone round. I spent as much time as I could in more appealing places like museums and art galleries. What a relief it is now to be in a warm, cosy house where visitors are welcome.

I used to cycle everywhere as a teenager, but I'm no longer prepared to be freezing cold, deluged with rain, splashed by passing cars or insulted by angry motorists. Not to mention the time it takes to get anywhere. I prefer to be in a car with a roof over my head, cocooned in warmth and moving at a steady clip.

I'll leave others with greater resilience to enjoy rugged lifestyles. A bit of pampering is more to my taste.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Bottle opening

It's still a hot topic - who is more knowledgeable, youngsters or oldies? There are young people who regard older people as ignorant and behind the times, and oldies who regard the young as clueless and wet behind the ears.

Personally I believe it's a mixture. Both oldies and youngsters are clued-up on some things and baffled by others. No age group has a monopoly on knowledge. Just because you've lived for 60 or 70 years doesn't mean you've acquired more knowledge than a teenager. You may just have accumulated more wrong ideas and pointless skills.

A recent survey reveals 40 things oldies are more likely to know than youngsters. Like how to sew on a button, multiply without a calculator, wire a plug, spell correctly, play chess, iron a shirt, polish shoes, name different birds, make marmalade or give first aid. I'm pleased to say I can do most of them, so how clever am I?

But youngsters could no doubt name 40 things they know that oldies probably don't know - especially things involving technology or passing exams or the damage we're doing to the planet or academic bullshit. And of course they'll ask why anyone needs to know how to sew on a button or make marmalade.

I certainly don't feel I'm more wised-up than the young. For all the things I'm familiar with, there are dozens of other things I know nothing about. Furthermore I'm now much more conscious of my enormous ignorance than when I was young. Back then I was confident I understood all the world's problems and how to solve them. The tangled complexities of life totally escaped me.

Still, some knowledge is important, some isn't. As long as I have the essential skills like opening a wine bottle, unwrapping a chocolate bar, swearing at politicians and dodging Bible bashers, everything's just fine and dandy.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

A torrent of bugs

One familiar media standby is poor hygiene and how this or that everyday object is crawling with nasty bugs that could finish us off. In fact it's nothing short of a miracle that we're still alive, given the horrendous torrent of germs we're constantly exposed to.

Surveys keep telling us that the level of contamination on our smartphones, computer keyboards, dishcloths, kitchen worktops or toilet seats is staggeringly high because of our filthy habits.

The latest hygiene scare comes from a professor at the University of Arizona, who tells us our shoes are teeming with dangerous bugs. He says a new pair of shoes worn for two weeks could pick up 440,000 units of bacteria. Although he concludes the risk of catching anything really nasty is low, he suggests regularly cleaning your shoes with detergent.

Is he serious? How many people are going to keep scrubbing their shoes with detergent on the off-chance that if they don't, they're not long for this world? I would hazard a guess the number isn't far off zero.

Personally I take no special hygiene precautions other than washing my hands now and then, not wearing outdoor shoes in the house, and occasionally sweeping the kitchen floor. Am I constantly ill? Not at all. I'm actually remarkably healthy.

But I'm aware that a surprising number of people are hygiene-crazy and probably horrified enough by these scare stories to scurry around cleaning everything in sight and worrying they'll miss that one lethal bug that could do them in. The daily stream of lurid health warnings is the last thing they need.

The reality is that we're probably far more likely to die from jaywalking than from a vicious germ on the worktop. I'll say it loud and proud - I'm not afraid of my dishcloth.