Friday, 3 July 2020

Raised eyebrows

I have a large streak of scepticism. Probably why some people don't take to me - they get the sense I'll never quite believe what they say, even if it's true. And whatever they're enthusiastic about, I might rubbish it.

Well, I'm not quite as bad as that, but I do weigh up what people say very carefully and raise my eyebrows at anything that sounds implausible or far-fetched, or plain ridiculous*. Some of the things I'm sceptical about:
  • Any variety of "alternative remedies"
  • Politicians' promises
  • Gurus who've achieved perpetual bliss and enlightenment
  • Adverts offering me an improved memory, boundless self-confidence, increased energy and vitality etc
  • Estate agents' descriptions of houses
  • Estimates by tradespeople
  • So-called sex changes
  • Phone calls claiming my internet connection is faulty
  • Stories told in celebrity memoirs
  • Businesses that claim to be protecting the environment
  • People who say DIY is easy
  • Lucrative investment opportunities
  • Conspiracy theories
I haven't always been such a sceptic. I was absurdly gullible as a youngster, instantly believing what people said to me and then being taken aback to find they were talking nonsense - or plain lying. Years of painful exposure to smooth talkers and devious rogues forced me to be a bit more questioning.

It seems to me that lying is now seen as quite normal, and people in all walks of life lie about virtually everything, assuming nobody will check the facts and uncover the reality. Celebrities in particular spin their personal back stories every which way, and I take all their dramatic confessions with a bucketful of salt.

But being sceptical doesn't stop me enjoying life. It doesn't mean I'm a nihilist or a spoilsport or a curmudgeon. I savour my chocolate truffles and ice cream and pinot grigio and juicy novels and rousing music like anyone else. I'm just no longer such an innocent abroad.

* Despite my habitual scepticism, there are some things I always believe. Like claims of rape, misogyny and domestic violence.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Family of strangers

Sometimes I wonder what it's like to have a "normal" family. Or at least how I picture a normal family, if such a thing exists. The sort of family that's endlessly paraded in the media and TV adverts.

You know, the kind of family where they all get on with each other (more or less), where there's lots of physical affection, where they have frequent gatherings to celebrate things like Christmas and birthdays, where they defend each other to the hilt.

My family isn't remotely like that. The polar opposite in fact. It would be hard to find a family more dysfunctional, more like a bunch of strangers forced to mingle with each other than a family.

My father and I were estranged for a good twenty years. It seems I was too unconventional for his tastes, so he broke off communication. My sister and I have been estranged for even longer. I suspect she dislikes my political views but there must be more to it than that.

My brother in law and niece are equally non-communicative. We were in close touch for a few months while my mum's probate was sorted out, but then everything went quiet again.

My mum always kept in touch, but we were never that close because like my father she never understood my aberrant personality. Even my vegetarianism defeated her. To her dying day, she was sure I was really a meat-eater.

So I imagine that strange phenomenon, a normal family. A tightly-knit group of buddies rooting for each other and enjoying everyone's odd tastes and opinions.

My mental template of a normal family is the time I visited a Jewish family in Bournemouth. The interaction between them was extraordinary. They were all speaking at once, arguing passionately, sparking each other off. They plainly got on like a house on fire.

A far cry from my own peculiar family.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Bigger and better

I don't have a competitive bone in my body. Truthfully, I don't. I have no interest in proving I'm superior to someone else, or proving them wrong, or proving I'm more popular than they are. I tread my own path in life, and I really don't care if that makes me better or worse than other people.

My natural tendency is to withdraw from competitive situations and let other people (usually male) slug it out to the bitter end. I just watch the manoeuvrings with a detached amusement, with no desire whatever to join in.

When I was working, I never competed with my workmates to get promotion or a higher salary or some prestigious assignment, simply to trounce someone else. I wasn't looking for grand job titles, impressive offices or company cars. I just did my job and enjoyed it.

In just about every political meeting I've been to, there have been a bunch of males yakking away, out to prove they're right and the rest of us are sadly mistaken. I never take part. I'm happy to have opinions without them having to be publicly applauded.

I've never sought the grandest house, the flashiest car, the fattest salary, the most glamorous wife, or any of those clichéd status symbols that other people run after, just to dazzle their friends and neighbours. I was quite happy with my 16 year old Clio, which got me reliably from A to B.

I remember one day at boarding school when I was competing in a long distance running race. About half way through I was trailing badly behind the leaders. I could have either forced myself into a winning spurt, or admitted defeat and dropped out. I dropped out, and never regretted it.

Apart from anything else, competing endlessly with other people must be exhausting. I prefer a more leisurely existence. I've no need to drink someone else under the table, just to prove something or other.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Downsides

One thing I've learnt at my advanced age is that there's always a downside to everything. Always. No matter how wonderful something seems to be, sooner or later the shine will wear off. Assuming that from the start will save a lot of bitter disappointment, or at least keep you prepared for it.

When you're young, you dream of the perfect house, the perfect neighbourhood, the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect life. None of them exist but you're quite sure you can achieve them if you just go about it the right way.

It's only after many decades of experience, many decades of being constantly tripped up by reality, that you realise perfection is unobtainable. If you can achieve about 75 per cent of your ambitions, you're doing well.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mean you should be a grim-faced pessimist always putting a dampener on everything. The trick is to be aware of the potential downside, and be ready for it, while enjoying the upside to the full while you're lucky enough to have been given it. Be as optimistic as you like, but without kidding yourself about the realities of life.

At my age I know a thing or two. However happy a marriage, there are always violent rows and disagreements from time to time. However splendid a house, it still has a leaking roof and dodgy plumbing. However satisfying a job, you still have to work with idlers and bunglers. However desirable a neighbourhood, there are still derelict houses and rowdy teenagers.

So I no longer see life through the rose-tinted spectacles I often wore as a child, but that means I'm also less prone to the constant cycle of high hopes and tearful disappointments I used to experience. I see life as it is, not as I imagine it to be. Or so I kid myself.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Heroes

I wish people wouldn't use the word hero so casually, not just for those who've done something genuinely heroic and life-threatening but for anyone who's done something a little bit daring.

Firefighters rescuing someone from a burning building, or a person fighting back against an armed mugger, yes, that's genuinely heroic, but someone who brings down a cat stuck up a tree - no, that's not heroic, that's just helpful.

Patrick Hutchinson, a black man who carried another man to safety at a far-right protest rally in London on Saturday, has been described by the media as a hero. Well no, not really, because he was shielded by his friends as he did his "heroic" act.

Likewise all those health workers who've been hailed as "heroic" for months. Most of them dislike the word and say they're just doing their job, treating illness and saving lives just as they did before the virus outbreak.

Likewise people delivering food to the housebound are described as heroes, when all they're doing is looking after the vulnerable and making sure people don't starve. That's not heroism, simply altruism and kindness.

The word heroism is always applied to something physical, but to my mind it can also mean something mental or emotional.

Someone who overcomes crippling fear and self-doubt to make a big change in their life they've always shied away from - that's heroic. Or someone who overcomes the memory of a horrific sexual assault to start dating again. Or those who're always true to themselves despite others trying to push them along a different path.

Like Professor Gail Dines, the American anti-porn campaigner, who has been heavily criticised by other academics but carries on regardless.

And then of course there's refusing a second slice of chocolate cake or a second helping of ice cream - how heroic is that?

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Mitchel must go

Good to see that along with the protests over George Floyd's death, there's a rising focus on slavery and demands that statues of famous slave traders should be removed.

As well as the recently toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, the statue of Robert Milligan has been removed in London's docklands. Now I discover there are calls for removal of a statue of slave trader John Mitchel in Newry in Northern Ireland. He lived in Newry for most of his life.

Queens University student Patrick Hughes and the former head of Anti-Slavery International, Aidan McQuade, are demanding the removal of the statue. They also want John Mitchel Place to be renamed.

John Mitchel (1815-1875) was a contradictory character. Although he was an Irish revolutionary famous for his paper The United Irishman, he was also fiercely racist. He supported enforced slavery and white supremacy and wanted to resume the transatlantic slave trade that was abolished in 1807.

Aidan McQuade first wrote to the local council about the statue in 2007. The council still refuses to remove it on the grounds that "19th century figures can't be held to 21st century views".

But he points out that there were radical abolitionists in the mid 19th century who found Mitchel's views repulsive at the time.

He thinks a more informative plaque isn't enough. The statue should be moved to a museum and set in an explanatory anti-slavery context.

The council has now decided that an Equality and Good Relations Forum later in June will discuss the matter.

I know there's an ongoing debate about whether such statues should be disposed of or left as relics of an earlier time, maybe with updated plaques. Personally I think statues of public figures are totally unnecessary and I'm happy to see controversial ones pulled down. Why should a statue that offends hundreds of local people stay put?

Pic: Patrick Hughes and the statue

PS: The University of Liverpool is to rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone due to his support of slavery

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Not grumpy

I've always been determined not to become a grumpy old man. There are far too many of them already, moaning non-stop about one disappoint-ing aspect of modern life after another. I'm determined to be optimistic and cheerful and enjoying whatever life offers me. A few years ago I made these promises to myself:

Not to moan and groan.
Not to become an old miseryguts.
Not to let the world's problems get me down.
Not to make mountains out of molehills.
Not to turn petty irritations into cause célèbres.
Not to complain about my bodily deficiencies.
Not to denigrate other people's lives.
Not to tell other people what to do.*
Not to rant and rave.
Not to demonise young people.
Not to be cynical.
Not to be paranoid.
Not to see the worst in people.
Not to be nostalgic.
Not to think everything was better in the old days.
Not to think I know best.
Not to think life's conspiring against me.
Not to be offended by bad manners.
Not to be offended.
Not to over-react.

I think I've kept to them pretty well (though some of you lot may think differently). I'm constantly amazed at the way other people turn minor upsets into huge grievances, and how they manage to find a negative slant on just about everything. The lunatics are running the asylum, the world's going to hell in a handcart, people only care about themselves and so on.

I wouldn't want to be remembered as the grumpy old codger everyone's glad to see the last of because he was utterly depressing. I want to be remembered as that sweet old guy who always had a friendly greeting and lifted other people's spirits. And only needed a chorus of birdsong to feel as happy as Larry.

*except for politicians and bankers, obviously.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Not guilty

I never feel guilty. It's one of those "normal" emotions we're all supposed to feel from time to time, cringing in embarrass-ment because of something we did or didn't do. But I don't even know what it feels like. Are there others like me or am I some sort of weirdo?

When I was growing up, other people were always saying they felt guilty about this or that. So I assumed guilt was something I would mature into, something that would suddenly sprout one day. Except that it didn't.

I'm glad I don't feel guilty about anything, because it's a very destructive emotion. It means you brood and fixate over something rather than just recognising your mistake and putting it right. It eats away at your self-confidence and buoyancy.

It must be dreadful if you're someone who feels guilty about every five minutes. Like Devorah Baum:

"I feel guilty about everything. Already today I've felt guilty about having said the wrong thing to a friend. Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I said. Plus, I haven't called my mother yet today: guilty. And I really should have organised something special for my husband's birthday: guilty. I gave the wrong kind of food to my child: guilty. I've been cutting corners at work lately: guilty. I skipped breakfast: guilty. I snacked instead: double guilty. I'm taking up all this space in a world with not enough space in it: guilty, guilty, guilty."

How could you get through the day without collapsing in a paralytic heap?

I don't need to feel guilty (so I don't feel guilty about not feeling guilty). I'm sensitive enough and aware enough to know if I've screwed up, if I've been rude to someone, or said something I shouldn't. I don't need guilt to tell me I should do whatever is needed to smooth things over.

The guilt gene clearly passed me by.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Getting it in the neck

The UK news coverage is still overwhelm-ingly virus updates, with little "ordinary" news emerging. Even floods, droughts, famines and earthquakes are barely mentioned. Other countries exist only as examples of how well or badly they're controlling the virus.

But one event that's getting massive coverage is the apparent murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck. Chauvin has since been sacked and charged with murder and manslaughter.

The death has led to four nights of clashes between police and protesters, buildings being burnt, including Minneapolis police station, deployment of the National Guard, four Californian freeways shut down, and violent protests in numerous cities.

As we all know, such brutal police tactics, especially against black people, are nothing new. But the authorities are incapable of stopping the brutality, which goes on year after year. And it's not the first time Chauvin has been in trouble; he has had 17 complaints against him during his 19-year service.

One reason I'm interested in this story is that I've seen some heavy-handed police behaviour myself. Over the years I've been to dozens of rallies and protests and some of them got pretty nasty. I especially remember a rally against the far-right National Front, where there were some very ugly battles between police and demonstrators, and I fled, frightened for my own safety.

Another reason is that usually the police and the authorities concoct some fictitious version of what happened, and make out the victim was committing a crime, provoking the police, appeared to have a weapon, or was resisting arrest. In this case he allegedly offered a fake $20 note at a convenience store. However the shop's owner said "most of the times when patrons give us a counterfeit bill they don't even know it's fake."

It's certainly a riveting diversion from virus this and virus that. But it's an utter tragedy it centres on a totally pointless death.

PS: I wrote "apparent murder" before the two autopsies that concluded it was homicide.

Pic: George Floyd

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Cool cookie?

Am I a cold fish or a cool cookie? I ask myself this a lot and usually decide I'm a cool cookie. The reason I ask this question is because I'm aware that while other people are constantly overcome with rage or jealousy or hostility or 101 other reactions, I seldom get as emotional and I wonder why they're so worked up.

I do get emotional, just not so frequently or so intensely. I can feel sad, or annoyed, or disappointed, or rejected, like anyone else. But I don't get in a boiling rage because the bus is five minutes late. I don't burn with hatred against someone who jumped the queue. I don't burst into tears because I broke my favourite mug.

There are lots of things I enjoy, but I don't jump up and down with excitement or hug everyone in sight or scream with delight.

But I wonder if such low-key emotion means I'm a cold fish - that I'm somehow a bit cut off from what's going on around me and don't have the normal responses other people have.

Or does it just mean I'm more philosophical, more phlegmatic, more able to take things in my stride and not get too thrown by everyday setbacks and accidents?

Naturally I go for the latter. Who wants to be known as a cold fish?

A real cold fish is surely very different - someone who shows no visible distress or horror or fragility even after something devastating like their house burning down or a terrible car crash or a dreadful medical diagnosis.

But I wonder if the more emotional types are living their lives more fully than I am, experiencing things more deeply and more vividly. Are they living at full throttle while I'm stuck in low gear?

It's a dilemma that no doubt I'll carry to my grave.

Friday, 22 May 2020

In the shadows

A funny thing, popularity. Why are some people apparently effortlessly popular, always the centre of attention with everyone gravitating towards them, while others are left on the sidelines and largely overlooked?

I've never been popular. I haven't ever been the centre of attention and never wanted to be. I'm perfectly happy lurking in the shadows. I may be likable, considerate, amusing, pleasant to be with etc etc, but that's never made me one of those sought-after individuals. In school football games, I was invariably the last one to be chosen for a team. I would be invited to parties to make up numbers rather than for my glittering personality.

Sometimes it's obvious why someone is popular. They're handsome, or pretty, or super-smart, or adventurous, or cheeky, or sporting champions. Sometimes it's a bit of a mystery. They just have some sort of charisma or flair that attracts others. Or they're simply larger than life, bursting with energy and vigour.

Some of the most popular people are also total scoundrels, but they're popular because there's often sneaking admiration for scoundrels. And some impeccably-behaved people aren't popular at all, being seen as colourless goody-goodies.

But I'm baffled as to why certain politicians, for instance, are hugely popular even though they're clearly spivs and crooks of the first order. They emanate some quality that wins people over, despite their vices.

I've never attempted to be more popular, even in my schooldays when being popular was seen as something highly desirable. I knew it was a trait you either had or didn't have. It couldn't be faked or simulated. I did't fret about what I might be lacking, I just got on with my life.

Quietly lurking in the shadows.

Thanks to Ramana for the idea.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Absolute essentials

My parents weren't much good at teaching me how to think, how to have my own opinions, how to be sociable, or how to express my emotions. But they did teach me some of the absolute essentials:
  • To wear clean knickers in case I'm in a car crash and have to go to hospital
  • To check there are no bits of spinach stuck in my teeth
  • Not to talk with my mouth full
  • Not to put my elbows on the table when I'm eating
  • Not to gulp down my food but chew it thoroughly
  • Not to leave anything on my plate ("Some people are starving")
  • To say "I beg your pardon" rather than "What?"
  • To say "Thank you" rather than "Ta" (or the more recent "Cheers")
  • Not to talk to strange men with a funny look in their eyes
  • Not to write silly comments inside books
  • Not to cheek my elders and betters (well, it was the 1950s)
  • Not to swear but moderate my language
  • Not to make weird facial expressions ("You'll get stuck like that")
  • To look left, right and left again before crossing the road
  • Not to leave my shoelaces undone or I might trip over them
Needless to say, most of those went by the board as soon as I left home and escaped the clutches of my fastidious parents (though to be fair most other parents probably had similar strictures). Not all of them however. I don't talk to strange men with a funny look in their eyes (especially if they're politicians). But I still make weird facial expressions (especially if I'm listening to politicians). I still gulp down my food as if I haven't eaten for a month. And I still talk with my mouth full - I'm afraid that by the time my mouth is empty I'll have forgotten what I was going to say.

And I can't guarantee to be wearing clean knickers at all times.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Past and gone

Some people seem to be in love with the past. They look back nostalgically at some supposed "golden age", they wish they could be twenty again, they dwell on blissful memories from fifty years ago, they keep countless momentos of their childhood.

I'm not like that at all. I'm more than happy to leave the past behind and move on into the future. Not because the past was terrible or embarrassing or difficult (though it was just that often enough), but simply because it's all over and done with whereas the future is full of novel and exciting possibilities.

I don't believe in any "golden age". All golden ages had plenty of horrors and calamities along with the delights. I don't want to be twenty again. Life was tough at that age, full of disappointments born of inexperience and naivety. And I suspect most of my blissful memories are by now wild exaggerations that bear little resemblance to the long-gone reality.

No, I much prefer to relish the present and wait expectantly for whatever surprises the future has in store. Even the virus lockdown, frustrating as it is, in a way is exciting precisely because we have little idea of what's going to happen next. The past is all settled, frozen in aspic, while the future is still evolving and mutating.

I possess very few reminders of the past, at least prior to Jenny's appearance. I have only one photo of me and my sister at a tender age, and one or two photos of my parents and grandparents. I haven't kept anything from my schooldays - uniforms or reports or prizes. I don't have any old letters or diaries or notes to the milkman. I have far more memories than tangible momentos.

For me the past is all water under the bridge. But I'm always eager to know what tomorrow will bring.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Always a journo

Kylie reckons I'm "ever in journalist mode". Which is surely an awful thing to be, but she might be right. After all, I spent six years as a journalist, so some of the journalist culture must have rubbed off on me, like it or not.

Jenny thinks there's still a bit of the journalist in me. I like inventing spoof tabloid headlines ("Refund joy for tearful Belfast couple"), and I do tend to over-react to a dramatic piece of news.

But despite the residual journalistic quirks, I'm still very critical of journalism and the way it distorts, trivialises and sensationalises important issues. I've never regretted leaving journalism for bookselling, even though many people thought I was crazy.

Apart from anything else, journalism nowadays is hard work. Long hours, low salaries, unpaid internships, constant redundancies. It's a far cry from the well-paid, leisurely, drunken activity it was in the sixties.

But I've never properly explained why I left journalism. Just a few of the reasons:
  • So often it never gets to the heart of an issue. It trots out a few basic facts and seldom digs deeper or asks awkward questions.
  • It spreads rumours and gossip about celebrities and public figures, much of it malicious and untrue.
  • It encourages prejudice of all kinds - racism, sexism, xenophobia, hatred of welfare "scroungers" etc.
  • It turns minor incidents into huge controversies (famous actress has wardrobe malfunction)
  • It's hypocritical. For example, it laments climate breakdown, but welcomes consumerism and long-distance travel.
  • It runs with every fad and fashion, however absurd or irresponsible or pointless.
In the end I just felt uncomfortable as a journalist. There were so many dubious practices I simply couldn't buy into. Bookselling by comparison suited me down to the ground. All I had to do was sell interesting books to interesting people. Nothing uncomfortable there. It kept me happy for 23 highly enjoyable years.

But I still admire a clever tabloid headline.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Skill shortage

Goodness, life is full of surprises. Two commenters who read my post on pretensions suggested I feel superior to other people. Well, I'm always open to such observ-ations and I always mull them over, but this one has me baffled.

If anything I feel inferior to other people. There are so many people with the edge over me in one way or another, I often feel inadequate and incompetent by comparison. Other people have all sorts of skills that leave me standing. For example:
  • They're more intelligent. They understand things quicker, they respond faster, they can follow complicated novels and TV plots.
  • They're more practical. They can do basic plumbing or electrical repairs, they can insulate the loft, even build their own house.
  • They're better informed. While I skim all those articles about neoliberalism or climate breakdown, they read them studiously and absorb all the details.
  • They have better memories. I can barely recall a conversation from yesterday, never mind what I was doing twenty years ago.
  • They're more emotionally literate. They can read other people's feelings and unspoken reactions, while I often miss them.
  • They have better social skills. They find it easier to organise social gatherings, talk to other people, and smooth over awkward moments.
  • They're more adventurous. They backpack around the world, start businesses, move to remote islands, run mega-marathons.
  • They can play musical instruments. Often several instruments. And they've spent many arduous years learning to play them.
  • They appreciate opera and classical music. I've tried hard to share their enthusiasm but I'm just not on the same wavelength.
  • They can write novels. Often very long novels. I tried to write a novel once but got writer's block after 100 pages. And it was a crappy novel.
I've probably left out many other things, but that's plenty. Far from feeling superior, I feel like a very ordinary, very untalented, not especially bright human being. There's not much to feel superior about.

Friday, 1 May 2020

A delicious merlot

Being a fairly straight-forward person (I hope), I can sniff out pretentious-ness in a split second, as can (and could) the rest of my family. So I'm fond of describing other people as pretentious.

But what exactly does pretentious mean? I would say any or all of the following:
  • Name dropping ("As Ian McEwan once said to Zadie Smith....")
  • Claiming to know all about some obscure topic ("Of course marine biology has a lot to say about coral reefs")
  • Claiming to have met lots of famous people ("As I was saying to Greta Thunberg....")
  • Posing as a connoisseur of wine ("A delicious merlot. Strong alpine notes with overtones of pampas grass")
  • Claiming to have read every significant book ("I absolutely adore Ulysses. Molly Bloom is quite unforgettable")
  • Purporting to be generally better educated, more discerning, more sophisticated ("Anyone with half a brain can see the economy is about to collapse")
  • Slavishly following the latest fashions ("My dear, bootleg jeans are so last year")
  • Maintaining that difficult, laborious novels are superior to ones that are readable and uncomplicated ("The reader should have to do a bit of work")
  • Concocting ridiculous explanations of art works ("James is interested in the interface between spatial awareness and partial enclosure")
  • Liking restaurants that offer tiny meals with strange ingredients rather than a good plateful of something with chips ("This chef is so wonderfully experimental")
  • Peppering your conversation with foreign phrases ("It was a coup de theatre, a performance sans pareil")
I think you'll have the general idea by now. So au revoir, mes amis, wishing you oodles of joie de vivre and esprit de corps. Á chacun son goût, as Pablo Picasso once said.

PS: Jean thinks I'm being pretentious myself by acting superior to people who're pretentious. Could she be right?

Monday, 27 April 2020

Leap in the dark

Living with Jenny now seems like the most natural thing in the world, but it wasn't always like that. It took me a long time to decide that yes, we could probably live together without driving each other nuts.

Falling in love was easy enough. We took a shine to each other the moment we met and that has never faded. But for me living together was a major commitment that might or might not have worked out.

I had had affairs with several other women and the first question that always came to mind was, could we live together harmoniously or would we wind up clawing each other to pieces? I rather suspected it would be the second.

So although Jenny was keen to live with me very early on, it took a fair bit of persuading for me to agree to give it a try. I had to swallow the possibility that we might be driven crazy by each other's infuriating habits and tastes and end up calling it a day.

After all, I had lived on my own for 6½ years and got used to my own company. How would I adjust to suddenly living with someone else, someone I still knew very little about and might be the totally impossible flatmate from hell? It was a big leap in the dark, but one I took because in the end it felt like the right thing to do.

Needless to say, in the early days of cohabiting we had plenty of squabbles and bones of contention, but we discovered our relationship was solid enough to survive them without falling apart. And 39 years later, we still have squabbles and bones of contention and we still settle them amicably.

Far from driving each other nuts, we've nourished each other in a thousand different ways.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

University of life

How true that formal education only goes so far and most of our education is from the university of life. Anyone who imagines they will leave school fully equipped for adulthood will be rapidly disabused.

When I look back at my schooldays, it's laughable how many essential adult skills they never taught me and how naive and ignorant I was until I enlarged my education by other means.

I may have absorbed plenty of French, Latin, Mathematics and Chemistry, but my awareness of anything other than academic was abysmal.

One glaring omission was any knowledge of women. I went to two single-sex schools and saw little of the other sex before I started work. It took me a while to adjust to these strange beings with their very different view of life.

I never learnt any practical skills apart from woodwork (Why woodwork? You may well ask). I'm still an ignorant bungler when it comes to cookery, clothing repairs and alterations, painting, electrics, plumbing, or car mechanics. I wasn't taught anything about money matters like banking, mortgages, insurance, wills or tax returns. All those things I had to find out for myself over the years.

And what of all those social skills I only picked up after leaving school - dating, sexual relationships, holding down a job, dealing with difficult people, being true to myself, being discreet, and how to behave at things like leaving dos, marriages, births and funerals. About the only social skills I acquired at school were dodging bullies and routinely exposing my naked body.

Probably the most useful skill the university of life has taught me is critical thinking. When I was young I was remarkably gullible and would happily soak up other people's ideas. Gradually I learnt to look at those ideas more carefully and see if they actually made sense or not. An awful lot of them didn't.

A skill that's been much more useful than chemistry.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Final regrets

I was remem-bering the five major regrets people have on their deathbed, as recorded by an Australian woman who spent many years looking after dying patients.
  • "I wish I'd been true to myself, not to what others expected of me"
  • "I wish I hadn't worked so hard"
  • "I wish I'd stayed in touch with my friends"
  • "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings"
  • "I wish I'd let myself be happier"
If I was on my own deathbed, I wouldn't quote the first three. I've always been pretty much true to myself and resisted people's attempts to turn me into someone else.

I've never worked especially hard, and I never took a job requiring long hours and constant pressure. As for friends, I never had many to start with, but I've kept in touch with those that remain, and with my family.

But I do think I don't express my feelings enough, I suppress them and assume nobody wants to know about them. And I wish I could be more relaxed and easy-going and let myself be happier and less anxious.

There must be other regrets people mention - like not travelling more while they were fit enough to do so, not having a healthy enough lifestyle, not being very good parents, or pursuing the wrong career.

I'm not generally prone to regret. Disappointment is as far as I go. I remain disappointed for example that I didn't have a closer relationship with my mum in the years before she died. As hard as I tried to get through to her, she always kept me at a distance and never revealed very much of herself.

I'm disappointed that I have several friends in Australia who I hardly ever see because of the distance between us. Yes, we keep in touch through our blogs or Facebook pages or email, but that's never the same as face-to-face meetings. Why can't Australia be a bit nearer?

Damn geography.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Under siege

This constant threat posed by the coronavirus is causing the most dramatic sense of being "under siege" I've ever experienced in my lifetime. Nothing else comes near to it. I didn't live through the Second World War, I didn't live through the Troubles, I've never faced repeated flooding or being caught in turf wars by drug dealers. For me this is something very new and very strange.

I'm reminded of under-siege situations I've been through in the past, but they're utterly trivial by comparison. They were hugely stressful at the time but compared to what we're living through now, they pale into insignificance. I wasn't facing the possibility of an agonising death. I wasn't liable to be infected by absolutely anyone I came too close to. I wasn't at serious risk whenever I went out to the shops. They were just difficult situations that came and went.

Several times I've been "under siege" by neighbours. People who were endlessly noisy, people with drink problems, people who had all-night parties, people clattering across wooden floors in high heels.

Now I think, well, I may have had annoying neighbours, but at least I could still go into the outside world without the threat of deadly germs everywhere I went. At least I could continue my everyday life without every step restricted by the two-metre rule.

At least Jenny and I are under siege together. We can discuss how it feels, how it's affecting our daily life, how long it might last, and how well the government is handling the situation (answer - not very well at all). It must be worse for people living on their own, maybe with nobody to talk to or vent their feelings with. I feel a bit like a small child again, only allowed to leave the house if I promise to be VERY VERY careful and not do anything silly.