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The regular controversy over whether famous books should be withdrawn or boycotted because of the author's question-able behaviour is once more in the news because publishers are increasingly putting morality clauses into their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

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

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.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Namby pamby

One thing I thank my parents for is that they never expected me to conform to a gender role but just let me be what came naturally. They never expected me to like or do certain things because I was a boy rather than a girl.

They never expected me to like sport, or stamp collecting, or climbing trees, or films with tough male heroes. I did have a model railway and a Bayko building set (sort of like Lego), but that was my preference and nothing to do with them. I used to play keeping house with my sister and I used to play with her dolls and her cuddly toys.

Likewise my parents didn't expect me to be muscle-bound or physically tough. They didn't expect me to be impassive or unemotional. And they didn't expect me to hide my vulnerability or insecurity. They were very non-coercive in that respect.

Boarding school however was a different matter. There was a strongly masculine atmosphere. You shouldn't be emotional, you shouldn't show your vulnerability, you had to be competitive and forceful and loud, you had to be a sports-lover, and if you were bullied or pushed around, you just had to suck it up. Any hint of anything feminine or "namby-pamby" was firmly squashed.

Fortunately not much of this macho outlook rubbed off, partly because it just wasn't me, partly because of the more easy-going attitude at home, partly because it struck me as immature and repressive. How I endured it for so long (five years) without rebelling or running away, I don't know. I must have been a very stoical child.

Some people say boarding schools have changed and they're much more enlightened nowadays. Somehow I doubt it. In a boys-only community without any girls to challenge them, a masculine ethos must inevitably take over and permeate everything.

They sure as hell won't be admiring each other's new frocks.

Pic: Schoolboys who weren't allowed to wear shorts came to school in skirts.

Friday, 30 March 2018


There's a Facebook meme on the go, in which every day for (say) 28 days you voice your gratitude for something in your life. As I'm probably not grateful enough for all the blessings that have fallen on me, I thought I'd borrow the meme right here.

So, some of the things I'm grateful for:
  • Being fit and healthy at the age of 71 (apart from slight hypertension and a trace of prostate cancer)
  • Having visited some beautiful cities and countries (Australia, the USA, Canada, Germany, Italy - with New Zealand coming up in January)
  • Having lived with a smart, amusing, supportive and independent-minded partner for the last 35 years
  • A windfall from my mum which helped us buy our present house
  • Having met so many interesting, quirky, unusual and surprising people
  • Having had so many enjoyable, challenging and worthwhile jobs
  • Living in a country that's relatively peaceful, democratic and prosperous (apart from the Troubles, that is)
  • The natural world, with all its astonishing plants, rivers, beaches, landscapes and wildlife
  • Everyone who has helped me out in a crisis and got me back on track
  • All the public services, from the NHS to education, welfare benefits, pensions and national parks
  • Always having enough money and never being on the breadline
  • Always having a home and never being homeless
  • The internet and all the wonderful people I've met through Facebook and blogging
  • Everyone who has opened my mind to new ideas and new viewpoints
  • Never having to worry about sharks, crocodiles or poisonous snakes
  • Rock music, books, films and art
  • Never being caught in an earthquake, a bushfire or a flood
  • Being able to read and write
  • The freedom not to follow a religion
  • Not being an angry, self-righteous bully like my (late) father
No doubt there are things I've missed out, things so obvious I take them for granted. But I like the idea of a regular roll-call of gratitude. It reminds me that the world isn't as horrible as I sometimes paint it.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Fleeting glimpses

  • I won't leave any great achievements behind me when I die. I shall simply vanish into the ether. I have no problem with that.
  • I'm used to doing things on my own. If other people are hovering, I get flustered (if they're hoovering, I get even more flustered).
  • Most cats find me frightening. They rush off at top speed when they see me. But some cats are extra friendly and want lots of stroking.
  • I know I shouldn't judge by appearances but I do. I like to think I can suss someone out. Usually my assumptions are quite wrong.
  • Sometimes I have no patience whatever and get instantly exasperated. At other times I have all the patience in the world. There's no logic to it.
  • I'm not easily duped or scammed. I have a pretty acute shit-detector that alerts me fast. In fact I'm a bit too sceptical for my own good.
  • How handy it would be if toenails and fingernails stopped growing once they reached their full size. Why do they need to keep growing??
  • Flying doesn't scare me. Planes are incredibly well maintained and very safe. After all, the pilots and crew want to stay alive.
  • I may be six foot, but I don't think of myself as tall unless I see myself in the mirror. I tend to think I'm a similar height to other people.
  • I'm compulsively polite. I hate having arguments with people, so I always try to smooth things over with a few bland comments.
  • It's strange that I've never seen myself walking down the street.
  • I wouldn't be seen dead with a pair of Calvin Klein underpants. Or a pair of budgie-smugglers. Or a pair of budgies. Or even a single budgie. Even if it was very lonely and desperate for company.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Dainty nibbles

We don't like to call other people greedy, do we? Firstly, it's obviously insulting. Who wants to be thought of as greedy? And secondly, it's a matter of opinion. What one person sees as greed, another sees as a natural and understandable desire for something they don't have.

I guess we'd all agree the fabulously wealthy are greedy. I mean, who needs to accumulate millions or billions of pounds? You can only spend so much on having a comfortable lifestyle, and beyond that it's just money in the bank, money the less fortunate could desperately do with.

But when it comes to ordinary folk, what makes them greedy? Are they greedy for wanting a bigger car or a bigger house or more holidays or more clothes? Or are they just after the good things in life, the things seen as part of a normal, run-of-the-mill lifestyle?

I wouldn't call myself greedy. As I see it, I have just enough of everything I need and enough to make me happy. I have a spacious house and garden, sufficient money, plenty of good food and wine, some beautiful paintings, hundreds of books, regular holidays. What more could I want?

Of course greed also encompasses those little everyday things, like asking for an extra slice of cake, or another cup of tea, or more potatoes. If everyone else has finished eating, will they think I'm greedy asking for more or will they just think I have a healthy appetite?

When it comes to alcohol though, you can drink like a fish and nobody accuses you of greed. If you stop at a glass or two, you're seen as a hair-shirted killjoy. Suddenly greed is just fine.

And greed is always more acceptable in a man. A man can happily stuff his face, while a woman should stick at dainty nibbles. Nothing too un-ladylike....

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The blockade

When he heard Donald Trump had become US President, Erik Hagerman was so shocked and dismayed he decided he'd had enough of the news and from then on was going to ignore it. He would live his life news-free and be a lot happier for it.

Well, so far he seems to have kept his promise and not one news item has spoilt his day. He's fully occupied breeding pigs and making sculptures. Or so he says. It's hard to believe he's indifferent to the President's latest crazy decision or the latest mass shooting, but apparently it all passes him by.

I couldn't cut myself off from the world to that extent. I know so much of the news nowadays is depressing and horrifying, I know it's probably not good for my blood pressure or my emotional well-being, but I couldn't just shut it all out.

Apart from feeling I should be fully informed about what goes on in the world and how people live their lives - including those lives that are violent, nasty and depraved - there are also news items that are encouraging and instructive and I would be missing out on them.

In any case such a boycott (what he calls the blockade) would be almost impossible to maintain without an iron will and all sorts of rigid restrictions. I doubt if I would keep it up for more than a week or two without cracking. I would see a group of people having a heated debate about something and I would be itching to know what they were discussing.

And I have to admit I'm also hooked on those quirky little stories that provide a bit of light relief. Like the controversy among National Trust members as to what you should spread on your scones first - the jam or the cream. I love how people can get so frenzied over such utter trivia.

Pic: Erik Hagerman

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Frightfully vulgar

It's rare these days to hear someone being called "vulgar". But it was a frequent comment when I was young, and I remember my parents finding any number of odd things "vulgar". Glaring vulgarity had to be avoided at all costs.

Nowadays nobody seems to care very much if their behaviour could be labelled "vulgar". They carry on doing their own thing regardless, and if anyone disapproves, too bad. Seeing something as vulgar has itself become vulgar.

But my parents had a long list of things they deemed vulgar - not wearing smart enough clothes, not mowing the lawn often enough, not using a tablecloth, not washing up straight after a meal, to name a few - and they policed this code of vulgarity strictly.

Of course what "vulgar" really meant was lower-class or under-educated. It meant what they did on council estates or in factories. It meant the behaviour of people with no sense of decorum or etiquette. It meant those too dim to have any sophistication or good taste.

But that's all changed. Now the very suggestion that someone is being vulgar is seen as pretentious, snobbish, superior. It's seen as a mean attempt to spoil someone else's pleasure. It's seen as blinkered, old-fashioned prejudice.

I suppose my parents' strictures had some positive effect, however absurd some of them were. I may have lived my whole adult life without using a tablecloth, but nevertheless I've picked up a sense of "doing things properly" rather than doing them any-old-how, which is probably an advantage.

I guess the idea of vulgarity still lives on in other guises. Today, instead of saying something is vulgar, you say it's embarrassing or cringey. Or you say the person is attention-seeking. Or you complain that everything is being dumbed down.

And dumbing things down is surely the height of vulgarity.