Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Health emergency

The NHS in Northern Ireland is in dire straits. More than 288,000 patients* were waiting for their first outpatient appoint-ment at the end of March. It's now routine for people to wait over a year to see a consultant or receive medical treatment, unless it's a life-or-death emergency.

Felicity McKee, who ironically is a nurse, has moved from Northern Ireland to Wales to get proper healthcare, after getting the brush-off from one health worker after another in her home country. In Wales a patient is nearly 50 times less likely to be waiting over a year for care than in Northern Ireland.

The main reason for the crisis in the NHS is the 2½ years shutdown of the Stormont government because of a row between the two big political parties. There has been no Minister of Health to take the necessary decisions, and the civil servants have had to keep things going as best they can.

The reason I tell you all this is because I dread the possibilities if my trace of prostate cancer turned into something much bigger, or if I developed some other major illness. How long would I have to wait before I got the necessary treatment? Would my health have got a lot worse by then?

Of course there's always the option of going private, but our savings are limited and if I needed major treatment on a regular basis, we simply couldn't afford it. If I arranged a private session with a consultant, the NHS wouldn't accept the consultant's findings and I would still have to wait to see an NHS consultant before I could get any treatment.

In any case I'm strongly opposed to going private (a) because I'm fiercely loyal to the NHS and (b) because if large numbers of people go private and vanish from NHS waiting lists, then the situation in the NHS doesn't look quite so bad.

There are rumours once more of a return to direct rule from Westminster, in which case the situation might improve. But at the moment things look pretty bleak.

*Out of a population of 1.7 million. That's 17 per cent.

Pic: Health workers at Ulster Hospital.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Goodbye to innocence

Are children today having a more fraught and difficult childhood than the children of previous decades? Is childhood innocence becoming a thing of the past, with today's children exposed earlier and earlier to adult realities?

Yes, says the charity Action For Children. They spoke to 5,000 children, parents and grandchildren and found a wide consensus that modern childhoods were getting worse amid increasing social pressures.

Youngsters were under pressure to achieve at school, fit in with their peers and cope with wider anxieties such as Brexit, poverty and the climate crisis.

Two-thirds of parents and grandparents felt childhood was getting worse, and a third of children agreed. All said bullying - both online and offline - was the main problem, followed by pressure to fit in socially, now more intense because of social media.

A very sad state of affairs. My own childhood seems like unalloyed bliss compared to what children face today.

Yes, I had a bad-tempered father and I was bullied at school, but now that all seems quite trivial when set beside present-day anxieties.

I glided through my school years with little awareness of the outside world and its problems. I wasn't too worried about passing exams, as I wasn't planning to go to university. I went on wonderful family holidays. I felt very little pressure to fit in with anyone else. At home we all enjoyed the popular radio sitcoms and comedy shows of the time. I spent hours whizzing round the neighbourhood on my scooter. I played in the street with no fear of child-molesters or knife-carriers or drug-dealers.

I truly was in a sealed childhood bubble that was seldom disturbed by the grim reality of things like the Suez Crisis, the cold war or nuclear threats, or by mental health issues like eating disorders, self-harm or body loathing. My cosy little world of pleasure and novelty was rarely punctured.

Childhood today seems more like a battleground.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Don't post me

Is it okay to post photos of your kids on social media without their permission? Londoner Cecily Hardy thinks not. She's banned her mother Leah from posting images of her without asking her first.

I agree with her. Children may not want images of themselves posted for all sorts of very good reasons - they don't like the photo, it can be misused, they feel exposed and vulnerable, it may lead to abusive comments, it's an invasion of privacy, or their parents are being presumptious.

It seems obvious to me that children should actively consent to images on social media, and their agreement shouldn't be taken for granted. And if they're too young to give meaningful consent - then don't post.

I think the same applies to anything you write about them, especially whatever might embarrass them.

It's all very well saying, but people want to know how my children are getting on, and posting photos is a way of letting them know. If my children object, aren't they just being over-sensitive and awkward?

No, they aren't. They can probably imagine all sorts of negative consequences that the doting parent simply hasn't thought about.

Image theft is very common. People can steal a child's image and then claim the child as their own. They can use the image for child pornography. They can use it in all sorts of inappropriate ways.

Little details on a post can identify the child, where they live and what school they go to, and complete strangers can locate them and prey on them.

In this age of widespread social media abuse, I'm surprised parents still casually post photos and stories of their kids as if it's a charming and harmless thing to do. They ignore the risks at their peril.

Pic: Leah Hardy (without her children!)

Friday, 5 July 2019

Bathroom habits

Okay, let's talk bathrooms. Some interesting new stats that say we spend an average of 416 days of our life in the bathroom - showering, bathing, moisturising, shaving, applying make-up, cleaning our teeth and even checking our emails and reading our favourite books. Some of us just go there for a bit of peace and quiet.

Seven out of ten of us find sharing a bathroom frustrating, in particular when someone else is hogging the room, the toilet roll hasn't been replaced or there are hairs in the wash basin.

Jenny and I are lucky enough to have three bathrooms - a regular bathroom, an en suite and a downstairs cloakroom. So hogging the bathroom isn't an issue any more, though it often was in the past.

We know exactly what annoys each other - yes indeed, the non-replaced toilet roll or hairs in the basin, but also towels and shampoo bottles left lying around, a dirty mirror, used plasters, toothpaste tubes without caps - and we're good at avoiding the annoyances. We're very considerate of each other's feelings!

We don't like sharing the bathroom and we close the door for privacy. This seems rather unusual as other people happily do their thing with an audience, but that's how we are. We like undisturbed seclusion....

I've used the bath only twice since we moved in ten years ago. I prefer the speed of the shower. A lot of people enjoy wallowing in a hot bath with a glass of wine, especially when it's cold, but not me. I prefer wallowing in a good book.

I certainly don't linger in front of the mirror, inspecting all the wrinkles and crinkles and assorted age-related ravages. A quick glance to make sure I haven't gone bald or lost a tooth and that's it. Luckily, being a man, nobody cares what I look like as long as I have all the expected body parts and I'm not naked or wearing a dress.

And no, I didn't write this in the bathroom.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Roughing it

So the Glastonbury Festival is as popular as ever, despite the vagaries of the English weather and the spartan conditions. The Somerset countryside is once again under siege from thousands of rock fans flocking to see their favourite bands.

I've never been to the festival, and it's certainly not on my bucket list. I steer well clear of it for all sorts of reasons:

1) I don't enjoy camping
2) I keep away from drugs
3) I don't like staying up late
4) I get nervous in large crowds
5) It's no fun wading through mud
6) I don't want to be rained on
7) I dislike long queues for awful food and squalid toilets
8) I'm likely to be so far from the stage I can barely hear the music
9) I don't like being surrounded by litter
10) I prefer to listen to CDs in the comfort of my own home

I've only been to an outdoor rock festival once, and that was the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, which featured Bob Dylan, the Who and 29 other bands, most of them now long-forgotten.

I can remember very little of the music, partly as I say because of the distance from the stage, partly because I spent so long queuing for food, partly because I was exhausted and sleeping. So even without taking drugs I managed to miss most of it. Rather a waste of the admission charge, which no doubt was astronomical.

As I've explained before, I haven't been camping since I was 13, when I went to a Scout camp and was solidly rained on for a fortnight. Everything was swimming in mud, the tents were leaking, my clothes were permanently damp, and I couldn't wait to get home again.

Some people may enjoy roughing it for a few days, but I think I'll stick to my domestic comforts and all mod cons.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Honeymoon period

It's intriguing that honeymoons are now considered an essential follow-up to marriage, though they only became commonplace at the end of the nineteenth century. And that despite initial disapproval from doctors who thought they were bad for women's health!

Not many couples forgo a honeymoon, and when they do it's usually for a good reason - one of them is starting at college or starting a new job, they're short of cash, they're moving house, they're running a business, they've already cohabited for several years, or the bride-to-be is about to give birth!

Jenny and I didn't have a honeymoon as such, partly because we had cohabited for fourteen years, partly because we didn't see the point, and partly because we married mainly for financial reasons - Jenny's local government pension could only be passed on to a spouse. But we did go on holiday after the (register office) wedding. Nowhere very exotic or romantic, just a tour of northern England including Stoke on Trent potteries, Whitby, Scarborough, and to see friends in Chester and York.

We could have gone somewhere more spectacular, but we were counting the pennies a little because we had a huge mortgage to pay for.

It didn't cost very much because we travelled around by car and stayed in very unassuming hotels and guest houses. We kept expecting to feel subtly different now we were married, but of course we didn't - we were the same as before, but with an official document to wave about.

I imagine many couples don't actually do very much on their honeymoons. Organising an elaborate wedding is so stressful probably all they want to do is lie on a beach for two weeks and get their sanity back.

As long as they take care what they eat and drink. Honeymoon food poisoning is remarkably common.

Friday, 21 June 2019

The guilty cyclist

I was astonished by a recent court case about a woman who stepped into the road while looking at her phone and was knocked down by a cyclist. The judge ruled that the cyclist was as blameworthy as the pedestrian, as "cyclists must be prepared at all times for people to behave in unexpected ways."

Well, of course they should, but if someone suddenly steps into the road totally oblivious to what's coming towards them, how is a cyclist meant to prepare for that?

Should he (or she) swerve into the middle of the road in case a pedestrian does something stupid? Should he scrutinise all pedestrians for possible reckless intentions? Should he ring his bell at two-second intervals to warn the local birdbrains?

That would be ridiculous. A cyclist has to assume pedestrians will stay on the pavement unless it's safe to cross the road. If they're not even looking at the road, how is the cyclist to blame?

I was involved in a similar accident in the early nineties. I was approaching a zebra crossing, didn't see anyone about to cross, but then as I drove over the crossing I knocked a woman down. I couldn't understand how she suddenly came to be on the zebra crossing.

Naturally I stopped, apologised profusely and asked if she was hurt. She was unable to answer and I could only assume she was too shocked to speak or was under the influence of alcohol or medication, and therefore too befuddled to notice the oncoming car. In any case there was no visible injury.

I didn't think I was in any way to blame, as I looked carefully at the zebra crossing while approaching it, and didn't see anyone about to cross. But this particular judge might have thought otherwise as "motorists must be prepared at all times for people to behave in unexpected ways."

Do you think the judge was right? Or wrong?

PS (later on Friday) The cyclist has been ordered to pay around £100,000 in compensation and costs, which he says will leave him bankrupt. The woman has been awarded £4,161.79 in damages. So in financial terms the cyclist is seen as around 25 times more guilty than the woman.

PPS (Saturday) A friend of the cyclist has set up a GoFundMe page to help him pay the legal bill. She has so far raised over £50,000. He may need less than first thought, as the £100,000 was the sum asked for by the pedestrian, while the judge indicated that £10,000 would be more appropriate (the exact sum will be decided at a final hearing later).

Monday, 17 June 2019

Fancy a chat?

The growing problem of loneliness has prompted a new initiative you might call "opportun-ities to chat". Coffee shops have introduced "chat areas" and train companies are experimenting with "chat carriages".

The idea is that people who want some social contact can head for these chat areas and strike up conversation with others in the same boat.

Alexandra Hoskyn was 33 when she started the Chatty Café Scheme three years ago. Her son, Henry, was four months old and she felt isolated and deprived of adult company. So she encouraged coffee shops to set up chat areas where lonely people could meet and talk.

Now more than 1,000 cafés, hospitals, council offices, supermarkets and other venues have set up chat tables and the trend is catching on.

It seems like a great idea to me. You can chat to someone knowing they also want to chat, instead of risking a brush-off or just keeping yourself to yourself.

I don't know of any such "chat areas" in Northern Ireland, although Costa Coffee and Sainsbury's have introduced them elsewhere. Mind you, the Northern Irish are naturally chatty and will natter away to anyone anywhere. Sit next to someone on the bus and you could very well hear their entire life story by the end of the journey.

Loneliness has been linked to many medical conditions such as dementia, obesity, high blood pressure and mental disorders, so it seems a no-brainer that anything that makes it easier to link up with other people can only be a good thing.

I'd like to give it a try. Just as long as I'm not landed with some gung-ho political nerd who wants to discuss the finer details of Brexit for at least half an hour....

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Older and wiser?

I expect most younger people dread getting old. As far as they can see, it means only getting more decrepit, getting confused by anything new or complicated, and hankering after "the good old days". But that's a rather jaundiced picture. Getting old also brings plenty of benefits. Such as:

1) You no longer want to drive so fast or so recklessly.
2) It's okay to talk to yourself.
3) You have much clearer priorities.
4) You don't care as much what others think.
5) You can nap whenever you feel like it.
6) You can enjoy rereading old books - or watching TV shows or movies - because you've forgotten the ending and most of the plot.
7) It's easier to manage your emotions.
8) Your secrets are safe because your friends' memories are no better than your own.
9) Almost all the major, difficult decisions in life are behind you.
10) You have a higher sense of self-worth.
11) Much less stress - no more jobs, children now independent.
12) You seldom need to wear formal, uncomfortable clothing.
13) You find it easier to ask for help.

I'm not entirely sure about number four. I still care a lot about what others think - what they think about me, or about other people, or about themselves, or about politics, or about life in general. I certainly don't want to offend or upset people, so I think before I speak. Or stay silent.

But hey, yes, getting old isn't the awful armageddon younger people sometimes think it is. A lot of things get much easier - and much more fun.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Just say it

One of the big changes in my lifetime has been the loosening of the old taboos about what can be openly discussed and what can't. There are now so many things that are talked about quite freely which in my younger days weren't talked about at all, or only in private behind closed doors, and even then with huge embarrassment and trepidation.

The list of now permissible subjects is pretty long and getting longer - mental health problems, suicide and death, sexual preferences and difficulties, disabilities, domestic violence, sexual harassment, intimate parts of the body, grisly medical treatments and many others.

When I was young all these topics were considered barely mentionable for one reason or another - too morbid, too personal, too squeamish, too upsetting, too graphic, too horrifying - and lips were sealed for fear of causing visible consternation.

The result was that many people grew up totally ignorant of things that could cause serious problems in their life, and had no idea what to do about them. They would think they were the only person in the world with such problems, and would get more and more upset about them.

Now people grow up much better informed, able to air all manner of personal traumas to other people, blurting out whatever's on their mind without feeling like a freak, and with much greater self-awareness.

We can tell the world about our prostate operations or depressive episodes or erectile dysfunction or bulimia and nobody bats an eyelid. The raised eyebrows, warning looks and frosty responses are in general long gone.

Some people of course have never adapted to the new era of uninhibited frankness and are stuck in the old taboos. I think one reason I found it so hard to talk to my mum in her later years was because there were still so many things she couldn't bring herself to talk about.

Tell it like it is - why not?

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Was my face red

I often ask myself, what was my biggest ever embarrass-ment? I can't think of any really appalling embarrass-ment, the type where you want to fall through the floor and never be seen again. But of course there are myriads of minor embarrass-ments, the sort where I feel a bit of an idiot for a few minutes and then it rapidly becomes a fading memory. To name a few:

1) Driving the wrong way round a roundabout. Yes, I actually did that, though it was only a very small roundabout so no harm done.
2) Driving the wrong way down a one-way street. I've done that several times, to a cacophony of horn-sounding from other drivers.
3) Confidently getting someone's name totally wrong. Happily calling them Rebecca when their actual name is Natalie.
4) Confidently asking after someone's children when they don't in fact have any.
5) Discovering a large and conspicuous stain on my pants after I've returned home from a very smart social event.
6) Daydreaming briefly while someone is talking to me, then finding I've lost the thread and have no idea what they're talking about.
7) Tucking into a meal at someone else's house, then noticing everyone is waiting for the host to start their meal first.
8) At someone else's house, casually opening what I think is the toilet door and finding it's a bedroom with a strange couple in mid-snog.
9) Returning home from a restaurant where the food and service were superb and realising we didn't leave a tip.
10) On my way out of an airport, discovering that in an absent-minded moment I left that brilliant book I was reading on the plane.

At least my embarrassments are usually in front of a fairly small audience and are quickly forgotten. Pity those celebs and public figures who embarrass themselves in front of an audience of thousands or even millions and never live it down because the videos will be circulating on the internet till the end of human existence.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Holy writ

It seems to be a growing trend that those who challenge popular opinions with a radically different view are hounded and insulted and told to shut up. Their refusal to toe the conventional line is seen as abnormal, perverse, unacceptable.

Historian Hallie Rubenhold, who has exposed the miserable lives of Jack the Ripper's victims, has been the target of "offensive", "stupid" and "almost laughable" attacks from Ripper fanatics with fixed views on the five women who died.

She has challenged the prevailing belief that the murdered women were all prostitutes, saying that three of the women weren't prostitutes, simply "sick, starving, brutally treated women" who just happened to cross their killer's path.

"There are people out there who feel they have ownership of these women's stories and there is an orthodoxy. If you question those 'facts', then God have mercy on you. The response I've had to this is unbelievable."

You would think people with an interest in a particular subject would welcome different views that added to their understanding of it. You would think their only concern would be to discover the truth, whatever that may be. But no, their views turn into holy writ, and anyone who questions them is seen as a heretic, a blasphemer.

I tend to keep quiet about some of my own views that run counter to the fashionable wisdom, for fear of a hostile reaction. There's no point in confronting people who are most unlikely to change their existing opinions.

I'm increasingly glad I'm not a prominent public figure with markedly unconventional views. The predictable vicious trolling would be hard to cope with. The old British tradition of open-minded consideration of opposing views seems to be crumbling rapidly.

All that matters nowadays is being right.

Pic: Hallie Rubenhold

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Sweeping statements

Oh dear, the sweeping generali-sations people make, conveni-ently brushing all our individual differences under the carpet. In this latest case, the question of who is happier? The married or the unmarried? Those with children or without?

Professor Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics tells us that women are generally happier if they're single and childless, while the opposite applies to men.

Well, that may be true in general, but of course it all depends on the individuals and how they behave and what they expect.

Someone married to a kind, gentle, thoughtful, considerate spouse will obviously be happier than someone whose spouse is violent, domineering, arrogant and selfish.

Likewise someone who's single but poor, jobless, unhealthy and badly housed will be less happy than a single person in luckier circumstances.

Personally, I'm very happily married, but if I was married to someone who criticised me non-stop and always demanded the impossible, it would be another story.

Not to mention that Professor Dolan's conclusions are based entirely on self reporting, and people aren't necessarily truthful. He noted for example that when their spouse was present, women usually said they were happy being married, but if their husband wasn't around, they often confessed they were miserable.

I could tell Professor Dolan that I hated being married and my wife was a pain in the arse, and how would he know I was lying?

Also, whether you're happily married depends on whether you chose "the right person" in the first place and you're compatible over the long term. Obviously if you made the wrong choice and everything turns sour, then you're going to feel rotten.

So here's my sweeping generalisation - controversial research findings should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

What lies ahead

Some people like the "what if" game that involves changing the past. What if I had done this instead of that? What if I'd been more adventur-ous? But I prefer the other "what if" game that involves changing the future.

I dislike the constant uncertainty about the future and what it might bring. I dislike not knowing if my decisions will be successful or disastrous. I dislike constantly having to "wait and see".

Just think how helpful it would be if I could see into the future and adjust my plans accordingly. Nagging apprehension would be replaced by confident looking-forward. Badly-informed guesswork would be replaced by tangible facts. Life would be a lot easier. For example:

If I knew when I was going to die, I could make sure my affairs were in order, that Jenny knew all my passwords, had full access to our bank accounts, knew where to find important documents and so forth.

If I knew the country was going to be taken over by an oppressive political regime, we could up sticks and move to a more enlightened country.

If someone planning to start a business knew it would collapse with huge debts in five years' time, they could scrap their plans and do something different.

If someone knew their marriage would end in failure, they could call off the marriage and start looking for a new partner.

Of course some people would hate to know the future. They enjoy the uncertainty and surprise and the challenge of facing something totally unexpected that forces them to make big changes and reassess their life.

They relish all the speculation and prediction. They love imagining the umpteen possibilities and how likely and unlikely they may be. They're happy to accept good luck and bad luck, ups and downs, whatever life sends them.

Not me. The more certainty the better.

PS: It occurs to me that knowing what the future will bring could mean I worry more rather than less. If I knew for instance there would be a nuclear war in ten years' time, I would be worrying about how to prepare for it, how to survive it etc, whereas if I didn't know, there would be nothing to worry about.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Barca Nostra

Much controversy over an exhibit at the Venice Biennale - the hull of a ship in which between 700 and 1,100 Libyan refugees died in 2015. The critics are saying it's not a work of art, just an insensitive exploitation of a terrible human tragedy.

They say it makes no reference to the people who died or what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. It's merely something to be gawped at by the curious as they wonder if it's time for lunch.

Visitors oblivious to what happened on the boat were taking selfies in front of it and tweeting pictures of the adjacent café.

The artist, Christoph Büchel, argues that Barca Nostra (Our Boat) is "a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration". He says the vessel has become a symbolic object, representing the victims of global turmoil and also the policies that create such wrecks.

That's as may be, but I don't think a "symbolic object" amounts to a work of art. To my mind, art has to trigger some emotional or intellectual reaction in the viewer. An empty boat stripped of any context isn't art but a mere object to be casually glanced at.

If an empty boat is a work of art, then so is my garden shed. Perhaps I could have submitted it to the Biennale as a "symbolic object" representing sweating gardeners and hard-working shed-builders. I can see it now, drawing the rapt attention of fascinated art critics.

Seriously though, if Christoph Büchel was really horrified by such a massive loss of human life, he could have found a better way of turning it into art. Like Picasso's Guernica. Or Lichenstein's Whaam! Or Käthe Kollwitz's War. They have an immediate and powerful emotional impact.

A lot more impact than an empty boat.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Not for me

Well, as you know, I'm not interested in fashion. Of any kind. I just go my own way and I really don't care what's trending. Except ice cream and chocolate of course. Fashionable things (or people) I have zero interest in:

Ripped jeans - rain gets in the holes
Beards - they just make me laugh
Fitbits - no need, I get enough exercise
Nigel Farage - a power-hungry rabble-rouser
Quinoa - looks weird and tastes of nothing
Twitter - infested with bullying and abuse
Poetry - I prefer a good novel
Energy drinks - I have plenty of energy already
Cruises - too many people, too much pollution
Botox - I don't mind the wrinkles
Porn - degrades both women and men
Marathons - too strenuous and competitive
Award ceremonies - too pompous and contentious
The Royal Family - an out-of-date waste of money
Harry Potter - wizards leave me cold
Fun drugs* - I'm having plenty of fun without them
Electric toothbrushes - no better than manual
Work-outs - I'm fit enough for my age
Video games - do nothing for me
Frappuccinos - I prefer my coffees hot

Mind you, if I was stranded on a desert island with nothing to read except the collected adventures of Harry Potter, I guess I would get stuck in. I could enjoy Hermione Granger's razor-sharp brain as I wait to be rescued.

*aka recreational drugs

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Just make it up

There's a big fuss over a company that's promoting men's make-up with a video of a heavily tattooed and muscular man. The company, War Paint, has had over 2,500 Twitter comments, many critical.

Firstly, they ask, why do men need make-up anyway? Secondly, why do men and women need different make-up? And thirdly, why the tired old stereotype of a super-masculine, physically intimidating male?

Well, indeed, why do men need make-up at all? It's all part of the ongoing trend to get men as heavily addicted to beauty products as women, plastering on moisturisers, make-up, concealers, body lotions, skin cleansers and the rest.

I find all this rather baffling, and not only as an oldie who grew up in an age when men accepted the rugged natural look and saw no reason to try and change it. I've never had any problem with the way I look, and I certainly don't want to spend half an hour every morning hiding imaginary blemishes or creating some supposedly ideal, celebrity-inspired face. I've got better things to do.

Nor do I see the need for so many women to slather on make-up every day. Women minus make-up usually look just fine, yet there's this constant pressure to conceal their normal face as if it must be hideously ugly. So everywhere you go there are hundreds of artificial, heavily-disguised faces drifting past.

Of course make-up is useful to hide birthmarks, scars or bruises you would prefer not to be seen, but if all you're trying to do is hide pimples, freckles or wrinkles, why on earth bother? Not to mention the astronomical price of a tube of moisturiser or a pot of body lotion, whose ingredients probably cost about 20p.

At my age anyway the wrinkles and blemishes are so thick on the ground a lorry-load of make-up wouldn't provide much camouflage.

In any case, if I looked 20 years younger, my bus pass might arouse too much suspicion.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Rush to judgment

I'm a lot less judgmental as I get older (or I like to think so at any rate). I was horribly judgmental when I was young, only too ready to condemn other people's behaviour and tell them where they were going wrong. Everything seemed so simple, so cut-and-dried, I never doubted those instant judgments I flung at everybody.

Why were people depressed? There was no need to be, they just lacked a more positive attitude. Why were people so hard-up? Surely they could manage their finances a bit better and be nicely solvent? Why were people addicted to fags or alcohol? Couldn't they just control their cravings instead of giving in to them?

Nowadays of course remembering such sweeping opinions makes me cringe with embarrassment at my bottomless ignorance. My total unawareness of how other people think and feel and cope with life was breathtaking. Clearly I'd spent too much time with my parents' favourite reading matter, the Daily Mail.

Luckily decades of exposure to the realities of people's behaviour have demolished all those glib pronouncements and made me much more reluctant to pass comment on someone else's situation.

I can finally recognise the infinite complexities of other people's personalities, the tangled morass of needs, obligations and commitments their daily existence confronts them with, and all the myriad twists and turns of their life so far, and I realise I have barely a clue why they're the way they are or why they do what they do.

Now I just want to listen to people, to hear their own explanations of why they went downhill, why their lives went wrong, why they're struggling to cope. No sweeping judgments, no self-righteous homilies, just a sympathetic ear and the desire to understand the roots of their predicament.

You never know, I might even learn something.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Like it or lump it

It strikes me yet again that one of the big differences between well-off people like myself and people who are permanently hard-up is whether you have to put up with things you dislike or not.

If there are things I'm not comfortable with, things I object to, as a general rule I don't have to put up with them. I have the resources to reject them and find a better alternative. A better job, a better place to live, a better holiday, better food, and so forth.

Those at the bottom of the heap don't usually have that option. They have to put up with things - often totally degrading and soul-destroying things - because they don't have the means to find something more acceptable.

I was reminded of this difference while reading James Bloodworth's book, "Hired", in which he takes on various low-paid, menial, oppressive jobs and talks to the people who do them. So many of them are simply stuck in those jobs because they have little choice.

They don't have the skills or determination or money to find something more dignified. They have to do anything that will pay the rent or the mortgage and feed their families. They have to put up with ruthless employers and impossible working conditions and take whatever is thrown at them.

I've been privileged enough to avoid such misery. I had the money to be out of work for months without worrying about paying the bills. So if I didn't like a job, I could just walk out. I had the skills to talk myself into decent jobs with decent salaries. And I had several unexpected windfalls from my mum. It's easy to take all these personal advantages for granted and forget the less fortunate.

I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I've certainly had my share of good luck.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

To stay or to go?

It's conven-tional wisdom that divorce has a very bad effect on children, that it can seriously traumatise them and damage their self-confidence and sense of security. But can a failing marriage be just as damaging?

Keeping a crumbling marriage going "for the sake of the children" isn't necessarily the right thing to do. Ending the marital tension and bitterness and making a new start might actually be the better choice.

I wonder about all this because staying together "for the sake of the children" is probably what my parents did, except that they never said much about their relationship so it was never made explicit.

However, I do vividly remember that at one point my mother was planning to move out and took me and my sister to see several flats she might have moved into. As it turned out, things were patched up, the marriage continued, and the divorce never happened.

But there was always tension and bitterness in the marriage, which didn't do my emotional health any good. My father was bad-tempered and prone to verbally abusing my mother, as well as demanding she be the traditional housewife, cooking his meals and doing the cleaning.

Would it have been better if they had divorced, put an end to the constant tension and abrasiveness, and provided my sister and I with a calmer and happier household? I suspect the answer is yes and we kids would have benefited. But who can say? It's one of those nebulous what-if scenarios.

I've certainly seen what look like very fraught marriages and very emotionally troubled children, but who knows what the children need? And for that matter, what the parents need? Feeling more and more ground-down by a frustrating marriage is itself emotionally destructive.

Whatever the decision, it's a tough one.