Saturday, 23 March 2019

No fisticuffs

I've never been in favour of violence, be it political, personal or otherwise. It may occasionally bring results, but nine times out of ten it's simply harmful and unpro-ductive.  And violence generally breeds more violence.

I've known plenty of people who believe political violence is necessary, that non-violent protests get nowhere and are usually ignored by the powers that be. They're always ready for a dust-up, ready to throw bricks at the police, smash shop windows or set fire to cars. All they do is alienate the public and discredit those of us who prefer peaceful, law-abiding protest.

I was on a march once in central London (I think it was the Anti Nazi League) when we were suddenly confronted by a very nasty-looking mob of National Front supporters. Some people were obviously prepared for a fight with them but not me. I had no wish to get involved and left the march in a hurry.

I know political violence does sometimes work - the poll tax was abandoned soon after serious rioting - but mostly it just means protesters being injured and maybe less inclined to join other protests in the future.

I've never indulged in personal violence either. I've never kicked anyone, punched anyone, threatened anyone. If it looks like a conversation is getting aggressive, I simply walk away from it. Luckily alcohol makes me soporific and easy-going rather than belligerent.

Luckily also I'm not an angry person. I can't imagine being so enraged by someone's opinions that I'm tempted to punch them in the face or knock them down. Even if someone's been blatantly rude to me (which doesn't happen very often) I wouldn't respond with violence, I would just be rude back. Or assume they were having a bad day and felt like taking it out on the nearest person.

Brickbats are safer than bricks.

I'll leave the fisticuffs to others.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Asking for trouble

It's a truism that you can never understand other people's relation-ships. If you offer any well-meaning advice, you're asking for trouble. Chances are you'll be told to shut up and mind your own business.

But the number of times I've asked myself questions like:

"All they do is argue. What on earth keeps them together?"
"I'm told they never have sex. What on earth....?"
"She's totally sweet, he's a loud-mouthed alcoholic bully. What on earth....?"
"He never lifts a finger, he just sits around watching TV. What on earth....?"
"He has one affair after another. What on earth....?"
"All she does is whinge and moan. What on earth....?"

I guess there's some underlying motive or dynamic that keeps such couples together despite the baffling outward behaviour. It's all about money, or security, or property, or loyalty, or habit. Something strong enough to override the arguments and affairs and alcoholism. Something only they can appreciate.

A relationship you're sure is going to collapse at any minute lasts for 50 years. One that seems like the perfect match ends in divorce a few months later. There's no accounting for it.

Relationships are so intricate, trying to analyse one is a bit like being a novice at quadratic equations. Or the rules of chess. You're bound to make a fool of yourself because of your total ignorance of the complexities. Best to keep your thoughts to yourself.

Of course if someone actually confesses to a marital crisis and asks for your advice, that's another matter. And the crisis they reveal will probably be very different from anything you might have  imagined.

As for my own relationship, Jenny and I have been an item now for almost 38 years. How extraordinary is that? So what keeps us together? Buggered if I know. Some mysterious connection that's impossible to comprehend. And even more impossible to put into words.

Friday, 15 March 2019

A twinge of envy

There are plenty of things I envy in other people - certain skills and abilities, certain personality traits, certain physical features. Things I would quite like to have myself, instead of what I was actually blessed with. Things that had been mysteriously overlooked when I came into the world. For example:

Intelligence: I'm constantly impressed by those who are smarter, more quick-witted, can think on their feet, get straight to the point of something, and always have a witty comeback to an unexpected criticism.

Memory: I admire those with a better memory, who can recall all those little details that rapidly escape me. In particular I envy the sort of photographic memory my sister has.

Writing: I'm in awe of those who can produce novel after novel, who have the ability to keep a complex plot and umpteen characters in their mind as they twist and turn over hundreds of pages.

Height: I would quite like to be a bit shorter, so I don't have to stoop a dozen times a day and it's easier to find clothes that actually fit me.

Sight: It would be nice to have perfect sight rather than a hazy blur and not need the glasses I've worn since I was 17.

Happiness: Some people seem to be perpetually happy, despite all the challenges and mishaps of daily life that so often upset the rest of us. How do they do that?

Tolerance: I admire those with infinite patience over things that annoy the hell out of everyone else. Like boisterous children and unhelpful call centres.

Don't get me wrong. These aren't things that eat me up with jealousy, or things I brood over into the small hours. They're just things I'd quite like to have in an ideal world. Which of course doesn't exist and never will.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Crisis, what crisis?

The media and popular culture would have us believe that men go through four major crises in their lives, which they may or may not weather smoothly. We can't escape them, they're a simple fact of life. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint all the pundits, but there's been no sign of these dramatic crises in my own life. I've mysteriously avoided them.

First there's the teenage crisis. Supposedly an uncontrollable surge in testosterone turns teenage boys into acne-ridden sex maniacs, trying to take advantage of every girl in sight, and so distracted from their studies they're liable to fail all their exams. Well, I have to confess I never went through any such phase. My schooldays were entirely humdrum and sex-free.

Sometime in middle-age (the exact age is always rather nebulous) men are prone to a mid-life crisis - concluding that life is passing them by, they've wasted their energies on all the wrong things, and they're generally missing out. They ditch their wives for younger women, buy flashy sports cars, go for a brand-new career, and take up some odd hobby like paragliding. Er, no, not me either.

Then there's the later years crisis, when men want to deny their age and re-enact their youth, chatting up young women in supermarkets, starting strenuous domestic projects involving rickety ladders, driving like lunatics as if their reflexes are still razor-sharp, and slurping down litres of alcohol as if hangovers were obsolete. No, that one has passed me by too.

The retirement crisis also looms large. Men who retire after working non-stop for decades are supposed to feel bereft, having identified so strongly with their job that without it they have no idea what to do with themselves and feel empty and depressed. Not me, guv, I love being retired, doing what I want and no longer at someone else's beck and call.

So much for the pundits.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Taking advantage

I don't usually comment on outside controversies, but I'm so aghast at this particular trend that I have to say something about it. It seems that political fashion has banished common sense, but few people are prepared to say so.

I refer to the growing tendency for sportswomen to be defeated by men who have declared themselves to be women, entered women's sporting events and triumphed easily because of their superior physical strength and stamina.

Sports authorities have allowed them into women's events on the grounds that regular use of female hormones and testosterone-suppressing hormones has made their bodies sufficiently "female" for them to compete on an equal basis with natural women.

As I understand it, this is nonsense, because however many hormones a man takes, this will never negate the superior physique he developed as a growing man, and he will always be stronger than a woman who didn't develop in that way.

Quite a number of sportswomen, such as Martina Navratilova, Sharron Davies, Paula Radcliffe, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Sally Gunnell, Kelly Holmes and Nicola Adams, have now protested against this unfairness, which they regard simply as cheating and trickery.

If I were a sportswoman who had trained for years to reach a certain level of performance and expected to compete with like-bodied members of my own sex, I would be enraged at this blatant injustice and at the well-meaning idiots who declared that with a little pharmaceutical help trans women could qualify as real women.

Of course the trans women lucky enough to benefit from this fashionable attitude fiercely justify it. Cyclist Dr Rachel McKinnon, who recently won a world title at a California track event, claims there is no evidence trans women have a competitive advantage and calls the criticism "transphobic hate speech".

So how come trans women keep winning time and time again?

Pic: (L to R) Carolien Van Herrickhuyzen, Rachel McKinnon and Jen Wagner-Assali, who called McKinnon's victory unfair.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Out in the open

It's the era of openness, of transparency, of people telling it like it is, of all those little personal quirks and oddities being broadcast to the world. People coming out as gay, as anorexic, as self-harming, as having mental health issues.

All those things people used to keep to themselves out of embarrassment, shame, fear of being abnormal, fear of being misunderstood, all those things a tangle of inhibitions stopped us revealing, are now being voiced more freely.

You can't open a newspaper or turn on the TV without someone being astonishingly frank about some psychological weirdness they've been struggling with for years, and all the ways in which it's drastically affected their life.

I think it's a very healthy trend. There were many things I kept quiet about as a child because I was afraid of other people's reactions. But now I try to be as open as I can and less in thrall to those unnecessary inhibitions.

On the whole I'm happy to discuss my numerous neuroses - my anxieties, my fears, my lack of confidence, my doubts about my intelligence, my social shyness, my inarticulacy, my odd sleep patterns, my peculiar dreams. There are only one or two things I'm silent about, so as not to embarrass other people.

It's an unusual trait in my family. My mum was always obsessively secretive, confining herself to small talk and steering away from anything too personal or revealing. My brother in law and sister are much the same. Happily my niece is a lot more open, probably because she's 36 and part of a generally more communicative generation.

As a kid I was taught that men should "keep a stiff upper lip", not show anyone we were upset or afraid or couldn't cope. We were supposed to bottle up our emotions and put on "a brave front". Thank goodness that absurd attitude is gradually fading away.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Cringeworthy

When a movie or TV sitcom depicts someone as a bit hopeless - awkward, dim-witted, socially inept, accident-prone etc - I might cringe a bit, I might want to stop looking, but mainly I just find it amusing. Yet a lot of people find such scenes so embarrassing they can't bear it and have to stop watching.

They empathise with the person so much that it's actually painful to go on watching. Even if it's pure fiction, and not real life, they can't endure it. I gather it's called second-hand embarrassment.

I think it rather depends how far the ineptness goes. If it's just a few seconds of awkwardness, it's endearing. But if the person is persistently seen as Harriet Hopeless, and everything she does goes wrong, then it gets embarrassing and cringeworthy and I'd rather not watch it.

But I've never been so deeply affected that watching becomes painful. That suggests an amazing degree of empathy and identifying.

Which leads to the question, does popular entertainment rely too much on ridiculing people, wheeling on the classic bumbling halfwit, the resident figure of fun?

I don't think so. After all, we're talking about fictional characters, people we can laugh at with impunity. When we meet such characters in everyday life, of course we treat them with the appropriate tact and tolerance. Or should do.

The fact is hopeless characters are funny. There's something about them stumbling around in confusion that's amusing, for all sorts of reasons. They reflect our own insecurities about screwing things up. They're vulnerable. They're endearing. We want to help them out. And they're more interesting than people who get everything right.

It's no accident that the most popular person in Fawlty Towers has always been Manuel, the clueless Spanish waiter who never knows if he's coming or going and can't understand anything Basil says to him.

I certainly have my own streak of awkwardness and social ineptness. But that's another story.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Muddling through

My mum was always fiercely independent, right till her death at 96. She dreaded being a burden on others, and in a difficult situation would "make do" or "muddle through" rather than depend on other people. However overwhelmed she got, she was loathe to ask for help.

Even in her eighties and nineties, she moved to new homes on her own. She looked after her finances on her own. She went on holidays on her own. She did her domestic chores on her own, apart from having a regular cleaner. If I knew something rather big and demanding was on the way, I would offer to help, but she always refused.

It gradually became apparent to my sister, brother in law, niece and myself that despite her making out everything was fine, in reality she wasn't coping very well. She wasn't doing much housework, she wasn't eating properly, she was losing interest in the outside world, she would sit for hours doing nothing, there were piles of junk everywhere and so on. But she still resisted any outside help.

It was only very slowly we became aware that she'd gone beyond not-coping-very-well and was now just letting everything slide. Her flat was getting filthier, bills weren't being paid, she was missing meals, she wasn't keeping up with old friends, she wasn't sending birthday or Christmas cards, she could barely maintain a conversation. We reluctantly concluded that she needed to go into a care home and be properly looked after, and that's what we arranged. And that's where she died nine months later.

But what strikes me is that she never asked for help. She always pretended she was on top of everything and shrugged off the very suggestion she wasn't coping. If only she had been able to ask for help, her last few years could have been quite different.

I suspect a lot of elderly people are the same. Just the thought of being a burden on others really upsets them. They would do anything rather than admit their frailty.

Pic: not my mum!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

City dweller

I've always been a city dweller. I lived at various London addresses until 2000 when Jenny and I moved to Belfast. I've never lived outside a city and never anywhere seriously remote. I'm an urbanite through and through.

No doubt a rural dweller could list numerous drawbacks about city dwelling, like nosy passers-by, traffic noise, litter, dog shit, raucous young men, hideous apartment blocks, annoying neighbours and air pollution, but they are all things I'm totally used to and seem quite trivial compared to the benefits - such as good public transport, masses of cultural events, all the shops I need, and plenty of bank branches.

I can't imagine what it's like living somewhere totally secluded and isolated. I'm both bemused and admiring. Bemused because I wonder how people handle everyday emergencies when they're so far from shops, tradespeople, doctors or hospitals. But admiring because I'm impressed by their ingenuity, resilience, determination and adaptability. I'm sure if I found myself living in some such isolated spot, I would be in a constant panic about whether I could cope and what on earth I would do if the roof suddenly collapsed or I was snowed in overnight.

I watch programmes about life on tiny islands like the Isle of Eigg in western Scotland (population around 83) and I'm amazed how cheerful and happy the residents seem to be despite their difficult lives. In fact they appear to thrive on the difficulties and their ability to overcome them.

I suppose one important factor is the close-knit community that develops, which means there's always someone ready to help if you have a problem. Very different from cities where households often keep to themselves and don't care what's happening two doors down the road.

I have to admit that as a city dweller I'm entirely dependent on the almost instant availability of anything I need, and the thought of suddenly being without them is an alarming prospect.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Bring it on

It seems people either love or hate Valentine's Day. Either you see it as a lot of commercial and sentimental hype or you seize the chance to be totally romantic and slushy and cherish your loved one.

Well, I'm firmly in the romantic and slushy camp. I enjoy being with Jenny and sharing our favourite everyday pleasures like chocolate, wine and books. It would be rather sad if one of us scoffed at the whole idea of Valentine's Day and wanted nothing to do with it.

Oddly enough, I can't recall ever getting a Valentine's card from anyone. Clearly I never prompted the sort of gooey-eyed veneration that would send a suitably gushing Valentine in my direction.

I did get a rather lovely rose once from a male admirer, but it didn't lead to anything romantic. I had to disappoint him as I'm not that way inclined. A shame, as he was rather gorgeous.

Other countries have their special Valentine's Day traditions, some of them not so popular. Japanese women are pushing back against giri choco, the tradition that they give chocolates to male colleagues on Valentine's Day. They object to this "forced giving" and abuse of power.

Apparently the Welsh don't bother with Valentine's Day but celebrate St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, on January 25th. They give each other carved wooden spoons as a token of fondness.

I don't see what's so repugnant about Valentine's Day. Better a mass outbreak of affection than the sullen frostiness most people choose as their habitual public persona. You never know, someone might even kiss me (other than Jenny, that is).

Bring on the romantic slushiness. And bring on the chocolate.
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The High Court judge has just ruled against the flat-owners who took the Tate Modern to court on the grounds that the gallery's viewing platform was an invasion of their privacy. Mr Justice Mann said there was no case to answer either on privacy or nuisance grounds. It is unclear why he made this decision (which makes no sense to me at all).

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Waste not, want not

My parents were obsessed with waste - or rather, avoiding waste. This was largely due to rationing, which started in 1940 after WW2 began and didn't end until 1954, seven years after I was born.

They were always alert for waste of any kind - electricity, food, heating, time spent on the phone, toilet rolls, paper, you name it. Wastage basically meant anything "unnecessary", i.e. anything not strictly essential for daily survival.

Woe betide us kids if we left a light burning, left some of our food, chattered too long on the phone, turned the radiators too high, or used too much toilet paper (that was after we finally replaced torn-up newspaper with toilet rolls).

Nowadays a lot of people seem to be going to the other extreme and using as much as they fancy of everything. The idea of waste seems not to occur to them. There are houses in which all the lights are blazing, radiators are red-hot, and surplus food is regularly thrown away.

Jenny and I have never moved far in that direction. Childhood habits are deeply engrained, and the idea of waste is still very much alive. We plan our meals carefully so there is seldom any surplus food. We turn off lights we aren't using. We keep radiators at a modest heat. We're still prey to the notion that we're being unduly "profligate" or "extravagant", and we watch our consumption accordingly.

Mind you, given we're now both retired and have a limited income, avoiding waste is probably a sensible goal rather than a post-war hangover.

Then again, we often drive a coach and horses through our thriftiness by splashing out on something special, like touring New Zealand, giving the garden a make-over or updating the kitchen. We've spent lavishly on holidays over the years, and that will only stop when one of us is too decrepit to travel.

Damn, I think I left a light on....

Pic courtesy of Laura Taylor on Flickr

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Pesky tourists

By visiting New Zealand, we were of course adding to the growing problem of over-tourism in the country. Tourists are flooding in by the thousand and the most popular places are struggling to cope with the influx. In Queenstown visitors outnumber the locals 34 to one, and overall tourist numbers will soon overtake the resident population of 4.8 million.

One English family caused widespread outrage recently by shoplifting, refusing to pick up their rubbish on a beach, and throwing food on a café floor. The whole family were issued with deportation notices.

The government is to introduce a tourist fee of 35 New Zealand dollars (£18.50) to fund conservation and improved infrastructure. They are also doubling fees at campsites. But the Mayor of Queenstown says much more needs to be done.

One reason for the tourist increase is of course The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Many people want to see the locations where the films were made. The number of Chinese visitors is also rising rapidly.

Personally we didn't see much evidence of over-tourism. In most of the country the traffic was pretty light and few tourist attractions were overcrowded. But no doubt the locals see things differently if they're constantly exposed to uncouth and selfish visitors.

Well, it's unlikely we'll be going to New Zealand again, given the lengthy flights. We've satisfied our curiosity and I don't think any return visits would live up to the magic and excitement of our recent tour. I think our next holiday will be closer to home. We haven't been to Edinburgh for a while....

Pic: Tourists visit boiling pools of volcanic mud and water at Wai-O-Tapu, North Island

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The guided tour

Jenny and I are just back from a 16-day guided tour of New Zealand. We wanted to visit New Zealand, as everyone kept telling us how beautiful it was, and the best way seemed to be the guided tour. We didn't fancy driving thousand of miles and we didn't want to visit only the major cities, we wanted to see as much of the country as possible.

We were a bit hesitant about signing up for a tour. Suppose we loathed all the other people on the tour? Suppose the long daily drives were hell on earth? Suppose the arrangements were chaotic, the hotels sub-standard and the coach driver a heavy drinker? We decided to take the plunge anyway and assume all our worries were groundless - which as it turned out they were.

The tour was a wonderful experience. The other people were all very interesting, the hotels were superb, the daily drives didn't seem that long at all, and everything went remarkably smoothly.

The plus points:

1) Michelle was a brilliant guide. She lives in Wellington and knows New Zealand very well. She gave us constant commentaries on the native wildlife and plants, local characters, the history of New Zealand, its volcanoes and earthquakes, its economy, Maori culture and lots more.
2) We visited all the major towns and beauty spots and saw absolutely stunning scenery in the mountainous South Island.
3) It was a great overview of New Zealand, from the big cities to sleepy villages and remote townships.
4) Hotels were all four and five star, and we had delicious food wherever we went.
5) At some places we could also pick from a range of great outings.
6) The coach seats were rotated daily, so we all had good and less good views.
7) Michelle was always helpful with any problems, like catering for vegetarians, allowing for disabled passengers, finding new camera batteries etc.
8) Everything was organised impeccably, from outings to hotel check-ins and meal times.
9) The long distances travelled went by very quickly because of Michelle's commentaries, stops for toilets and food, and stops to look at beauty spots.
10) Reece, the coach driver, always drove safely and was never reckless.

The minus points:

1) We were always on the move and didn't stay anywhere for longer than two nights. We would like to have spent more time in Christchurch.
2) The morning starts were very early - usually 7.30 or 8.00, with suitcases collected an hour earlier.
3) We were always in the company of other people, and would have liked more time on our own to explore the cities.
4) We thought some of the hotels had a lack of awareness around catering for vegetarians, which surprised us.

But the plus points so outweighed the minuses, we thought this particular company (APT Touring) did a fantastic job. If you want to see the best of an unknown country, we'd definitely recommend a guided tour.

Pic: Mount Cook, South Island

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Up in the air

The lengthy closure of Gatwick Airport last week due to drone activity made me think about the possible risks and glitches of air travel.

As other travellers do, no doubt, I ruminate on all the potential problems that might sabotage the two of us and leave our carefully-planned trips in ruins. Of course if we thought there was a serious chance of all these mishaps occurring, we wouldn't book the trips in the first place. But I remain a sunny optimist who assumes such hitches are most unlikely.

That assumption is borne out by experience. Although we've flown all over the place, including Australia, the USA and Canada, my baggage has never so far been lost. It went astray once returning to Belfast, but was found and delivered to me the next day.

I did once go down with food poisoning on a trip to Australia. A very unpleasant experience. But it wasn't due to the airline food. I just happened to be sitting next to the one other person on the plane with food poisoning, and we deduced that the culprit was an egg sandwich from Costa at Heathrow.

I've never been thrown off a plane because of technical problems. My flight has never been diverted to some far-flung airport. I've never been hijacked. I've never experienced an engine fire. I've never had a drunken pilot on board (as far as I know). I've never been caught in severe turbulence. Virtually all my flights have been remarkably uneventful and routine.

Hopefully that luck will continue. I have great confidence that my plane will stay safely 35,000 feet in the air and I can happily watch rubbishy movies or snooze without any sudden mid-air crisis to disturb me.

The fact is that planes are astonishingly safe. I'm 86 times more likely to die in a car than in a plane. So why worry?
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I won't be blogging for a while. But don't worry, I'll be back in due course! In the meantime, talk among yourselves....

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Santa's big plan

It's time for my traditional Christmas interview with that much-loved festive figure, Santa Claus. So here goes.

Nick: Well, Santa, are you looking forward to delivering all those presents on Christmas Eve?

Santa: You must be joking. It's an absolute nightmare. It's one crisis after another. The elves go on strike for better pay and conditions. Or the sleighs need urgent repairs. Or the reindeer have fallen sick. Or the wrapping paper's run out and we can't get any more for a week. I'm too old for this malarkey. I've had it up to here. Once Christmas is over, I'm retiring to my Caribbean penthouse and someone else will have to take the reins.

Nick: That's terrible. But you've done the job for quite long enough. You deserve a good long rest. Everyone takes you for granted. If they don't have the right presents on Christmas Day, they abuse you non-stop on Twitter and send you threatening letters. You could do without it.

Santa: Too true. I can't wait to put it all behind me. I can shave off this horrible scratchy beard, chuck out this ludicrous bobble hat, throw away this ridiculous red outfit (I've always hated the colour red), stop being polite to all those little brats who come to the grotto, and stop saying "ho ho ho" every two minutes.

Nick: So what are your plans for retirement? What's on your bucket list?

Santa: I'm going to get super fit. A whole new lifestyle. It's horrifying how much weight I've gained sitting on my arse in the toy factory all day. From now on it's the gym every morning, jogging, rock climbing, yoga. I'll be thin as a rake, with rock-hard muscles and the heart of a teenager. You won't recognise me if you pass me on the street.

Nick: That's terrific. I can't wait for the selfies in six months' time.

Santa: No selfies. I've had enough attention to last a lifetime. I shall just vanish.

Nick: Ho ho ho!

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Reality or innocence?

The whole subject of safeguarding children is a real hot potato. To what extent do you protect them from the horrors of the outside world and to what extent do you keep them happy and secure in a little childhood cocoon?

There are no clear answers. Every parent has their own guidelines as to how much cocooning or how much real-life exposure is appropriate or healthy. When real-life nowadays is often so squalid and monstrous, it's a serious dilemma.

Certainly in my own childhood I was very much cocooned. My parents tended to keep me away from newspapers, news reports and gruesome local happenings and encouraged me to stay immersed in my own private world of model trains, comics, glove puppets and my sister's dolls house.

When I started work as a local newspaper journalist, it came as a big shock to discover the realities of everyday life that I had been so ignorant of - poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, grim working conditions and all the rest.

But what should parents do? On the one hand, they want their kids to enjoy a carefree innocent childhood for as long as possible, and not risk their being traumatised by everyday atrocities they aren't ready to deal with.

On the other hand, they don't want their kids to grow up naive and unworldly, unaware of just how brutal and barbaric and wretched some people's lives may be, and how we all need to do our bit to create a fairer world.

These days of course it's virtually impossible to keep your child cocooned. Very early on they'll discover social media and the extremes of real life will be thrust at them in every appalling shape and form. To keep them cocooned you'd have to live on a desert island or in a mountain cave.

Parenting has never been such a complicated business.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Emotional labour

Christmas calls for a huge amount of emotional labour - manipula-ting your emotions in order to please others - and women in particular are expected to provide it.

Emotional labour was originally defined in terms of the workplace - jobs where you have to be nicer or harsher or pushier than you would naturally be, at the cost of your psychological well-being. But of course it can equally apply to occasions like Christmas.

It's seen as the woman's job to smooth over ruffled feelings, manage children's expectations, deal with tactless relatives, bottle up family feuds, and generally keep people happy for the duration. The stress involved is colossal, but men are usually excused from such emotional labour on the grounds that they're "not very good with emotions", "haven't been socialised to do it" or "would make a mess of it". How very convenient for them.

Luckily for Jenny and I, we don't have big family Christmases anymore and are normally on our own. So the only emotions we have to manage are each other's. And the only quarrel will centre on how many points you get for axalotl in our Scrabble tournament. Or whether we should watch Some Like It Hot or Casablanca.

But emotional labour was very necessary when I was working. I had to be constantly nice to bookshop customers, councillors, charity supporters, social workers and whoever else my job required me to mingle with. Suppressing anger, abuse or antagonism, however justified, was the order of the day.

As a customer, I've had to be studiously polite to bank officials, civil servants, tradespeople and call centre staff to ensure they treat me properly and don't try any funny business. Telling them exactly what you think of them would be fatal.

But sometimes I forget myself. I once told Santa he was a drunken old fool who needed to lose some weight. I haven't had a present from him since.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Koalas and kangaroos

The idea of a holiday has changed dramatic-ally since I was a kid. The simple holidays of sixty years ago are now seen as laughably spartan and primitive, the cheap and cheerful customs of the time.

Our family would spend a fortnight either with my mum's parents at Southend, Essex, or with my father's mother at Perranporth, Cornwall. My sister and I would pass the days on the beach, building sandcastles, eating ice lollies, collecting sea shells and going to the amusement arcades. We were perfectly happy because it never occurred to us in those days that holidays could be far more ambitious.

Other families did the same. It was taken for granted that you took your holidays in Britain and kept the local seaside resorts thriving.

Gradually things changed. Flying became cheaper and more routine and people started heading for sunnier and more scenic countries. Having travelled all over Europe, their wanderlust then took them to the rest of the world.

Now people think nothing of travelling across the globe not just for holidays but for weddings, birthday parties or even to see their grandchildren.

Jenny and I were no exception. After a few British holidays, we thought, why are we being so unadventurous? Why are we pottering round Cornish villages when we could be taking a train through the Rockies, walking over Sydney Harbour Bridge, saying hello to a kangaroo or a koala, standing on top of the Empire State Building or riding the L train in Chicago?

So we joined the footloose masses, signed up for all those shameful long-haul flights with their shocking levels of carbon emissions and had a look at the USA, Canada and Australia. Which I have to say, despite the environmental misconduct have been some of the most amazing experiences of my life (in my defence, I've done my bit for the environment by being a vegetarian for some 43 years).

Perranporth has well-and-truly lost its magic.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

More undesirables

I once listed ten things that seemed totally pointless, things that should never have existed and did little or nothing for anyone's quality of life. I thought I would add another ten items to the list:

1) Group photos. Of politicians, school pupils, employees etc. Either grinning inanely or looking sullen and awkward. Who needs them?
2) Posed selfies. Taken after an hour of primping and preening to achieve a phoney visual perfection that fools nobody.
3) Vegan cheese. Which despite the hype are nothing like traditional cheese. Peculiar flavours that are virtually inedible.
4) Crisps. A nice taste and a satisfying crunchy noise, but that's it. Thin slivers of a single large potato with zero nutritional value.
5) High heels. Serve no purpose except to pander to male fetishism. If they make you look "professional", why aren't men wearing them?
6) Push-up bras. More male fetishism. Even more uncomfortable and annoying than the regular ones.
7) Trigger warnings. Trying to anticipate every possible upsetting trigger in the universe is absurd. Why not just deal with what's upsetting you?
8) Bottled water. No better than tap water, and only adds to the mountain of plastic waste that's polluting the planet.
9) National anthems. Inane ditties that only encourage jingoism and nationalism. "God save the Queen" indeed.
10) Stretch limos. A bogus air of luxury travel for your special occasion, blocking the traffic wherever they go.

So now you're sure to tell me you love nothing better than prancing around in high heels and a push-up bra, scoffing vegan cheese and Pringles, while posing for a selfie and singing the national anthem. How very perverse of you.

If you're interested, the original list can be read here.

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

A big fat blank

It strikes me that I have little idea what my parents thought about the whole business of parenting. They said virtually nothing about it and I never asked them. Was it a positive experience or a negative one? Did they enjoy it or did they hate it? I honestly couldn't tell you.

I had little chance to tackle my father on the subject as we were totally estranged for the last twenty years of his life. I had plenty of opportunities to question my mum, who outlived my father by thirty years, but I never did. The subject simply never came up, maybe because we were both afraid of what dark secrets would come tumbling out. And also because my mum was just extremely secretive.

My guess is that they enjoyed bringing up my sister, who was always obedient and well-behaved and cheerfully conventional, while they found me more of a handful because  I played up and answered back and had wayward views on just about everything.

But it's all guesswork because they never confided their real feelings about parenting. For all I know, in the secrecy of their bedroom they complained non-stop about the heavy demands of child-rearing and how inadequate and ignorant they felt. They may even at the worst moments have wondered why they had children at all. Who knows? It's just one big fat blank.

Some of the questions I have:
1) Were they glad they had children, or not?
2) What were the best aspects of parenting, and the worst?
3) Were there times when they were totally at their wits' end?
4) Were there times when they just wanted to get rid of us?
5) Did they feel they weren't really up to the job?
6) Did they feel other parents were much better at it?
7) What was the biggest mistake they made?
8) What would they have done differently?

I'd love to know the answers.