Sunday, 29 November 2015

Lifestyle choice

The idea that those who don't fit in, who aren't like you and me, don't deserve any sympathy or support because their behaviour is merely "a lifestyle choice" astounds me.

Apparently to some people it's a "lifestyle choice" if you happen to be a refugee, a welfare claimant, a single mother, a homosexual, transgender, or even a rough sleeper. They've supposedly "decided" to be those things and therefore it's up to them to deal with whatever difficulties they face. The rest of us can happily ignore them.

From this weird viewpoint, a refugee isn't simply someone desperate to get away from unbearable violence and oppression. They woke up one day and decided it would be fun to live somewhere else for a change.

A welfare claimant isn't someone who's too disabled or mentally ill or frail (or just on a low wage) to pay their way. They woke up one day and decided to sting the welfare system for everything they could get.

Those fortunate enough to be able to choose what they do in life, and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, often fondly believe that other people have "chosen" a more difficult or unpleasant life and could easily make things better for themselves if they really wanted.

They don't like to admit that their privileged position is as much a matter of luck as it is of judgment, and that a different twist of fate could have thrown them into the same situations as the people they habitually scoff at.

There aren't many "lifestyle choices" if your country is being bombed month in and month out. The only choice is survival.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Shifting memories

It's curious how nostalgia often makes us glamorise experiences that at the time were actually pretty awful. I look back fondly at my childhood summer holidays, conveniently forgetting the pouring rain, the ghastly B&B meals and the lumpy, uncomfortable beds.

I look back equally fondly at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival in 1969, quietly overlooking the collapsing tents, the overwhelming crowds, the endless queues and being so far from the stage that Bob Dylan was barely visible.

But I guess that only works if the positives are as numerous as the negatives. Then it's quite easy to screen out the nasty bits. Once the negatives start to dominate, that's what sticks in my memory. Like the truly dreadful public school I attended.

Even some events that I know were a total shambles still seem glamorous later on, because after all isn't it a part of being young to stumble through everything, leaving one mess after another but having great fun in the process? Like my first sexual relationship, full of misunderstandings and disappointments but hey, it was another exciting initiation into the adult world.

Even encounters that seemed unpleasant at the time can be re-interpreted in a more favourable light. That obnoxious train passenger who insisted on telling me her life story while I was engrossed in a novel, in retrospect becomes an amusing eccentric who livened up a rather dreary journey.

In fact I have a natural urge to rewrite history in a more dramatic vein. My over-active imagination tires of the same old prosaic memories and stealthily turns them into something a bit more thrilling and surprising. Like the dull landlady who in my mind gradually becomes a neat-freak, constantly polishing the cutlery and disinfecting the worktops. It's only a matter of time before she was never dull at all, she was always the clean-freak of my fantasies.

How many of my memories are now glorious inventions?

"Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were" - Marcel Proust

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Absolutely nuts

Is it ever acceptable to use the idea of mental illness as a form of abuse, or is it always offensive - simply adding to the widespread stigma against those with mental health problems?

Ken Livingstone MP, who's usually very sensitive to any kind of discrimination, caused an outcry by suggesting his fellow MP Kevan Jones was "obviously very depressed and disturbed", "should pop off and see his GP", and "might need some psychiatric help". He claimed not to know his colleague confessed to having a major depression some years ago. He had to make a profuse public apology to the other MP.

Of course if you know very well someone has a psychological problem, you're not going to refer to it in an abusive way. But assuming that isn't the case, what harm does it actually do to suggest someone is "depressed and disturbed" or "might need psychiatric help"? It's not as if you're accusing them of being a serial killer or a paedophile. You're merely suggesting they're not mentally 100 per cent and maybe they should do something about it. And all the other person has to do is declare that they're quite all right, thanks, so shut your gob.

Does what Ken Livingstone said really add to the stigma against mental illness? Is he really going to stop people seeking help and prompt them to keep their problems secret? I can't honestly believe those rather mild phrases could have such a dramatic effect. I think there's an element of fashionable over-reaction here.

It seems even odder to me that simply describing someone as "nuts" or "crazy" is also seen as unacceptable. After all, you're not seriously saying the person is a deranged psychopath. They're just common terms for "a bit eccentric" or "not thinking straight". If someone calls me nuts, to me it's no more offensive than calling me lazy or greedy. It's just another harmless everyday insult.

The whole thing is surely a storm in a teacup. It's all a bit nuts, in fact.

Afterthought: Why is it thoroughly offensive to suggest someone needs psychiatric help, but not offensive at all to suggest they need to see a doctor?

Pic: Ken Livingstone MP

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Tit for tat

I amuse myself sometimes by imagining that the appearance of male public figures is criticised as relentlessly as women's. Just suppose men were told all the same things:

That jacket is hideous.
Those pants are too tight.
He has facial hair/ hairy legs.
He's not wearing heels.
He's not wearing make-up.
His shirt/ pants are too revealing.
He's fat/ too thin/ unattractive.
His hair is too long/ too short/ in a mess.
His clothes are too sexy/ not sexy enough.
You can see the outline of his underpants.

Not only are they spared all that ruthless criticism, they can get away with virtually anything because "that's what men are like".

They can sport massive beards, five o'clock shadow, dishevelled and badly-fitting clothing, hairy nostrils, beer bellies, over-tight suits, filthy fingernails, comb-overs, greasy and tangled hair, missing teeth, and nobody says a word - except maybe their wives and girlfriends in the privacy of their home. And the chances are they'll be ignored.

When it comes to appearance, men have it easy. While women are always ready for some catty comment, men can swan around confident that lips are tactfully sealed. A sort of diplomatic immunity.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Hate filled

So much hatred.
So many people overflowing with venom and spite and viciousness.
Hidden away in backrooms, spilling their hatred all over cyberspace. And any other space they can commandeer.
Usually anonymous. Too cowardly to identify themselves.
Hatred for anything they don't understand. Homosexuals, socialists, atheists, welfare claimants, the unemployed, immigrants, pacifists, fat people, transgender, abortions.
So many things they don't understand.
What horrible lives they must have had to get so addled with hatred.
Tyrannical fathers maybe. School bullies. Mean bosses. Nasty spouses. Greedy landlords. Inflexible officials.
Or maybe it's bred in the bone. A genetic flaw. A birth defect.
Who can say?
But so much hatred where there could be love. Compassion. Curiosity. Enjoyment.
So much hatred poisoning and souring society.
And poisoning and souring their own souls.
How can all that hatred be dissolved?
I wish I knew.
I wish I had some answers.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Me myself I

I do like my privacy. I like being able to think or emote or plan or just be totally vacant without other people intruding on me and obliging me to interact.

I want to be able to choose when I mingle with other people and when I don't. There are times when I love socialising and crave other people's company. But there are also times when I want to be on my own and the slightest hint of conversation makes me want to flee.

I would hate to live in a household so full of other people - children, grandchildren, parents, neighbours - that you never have a moment to yourself unless you actually leave the house and vanish for a while.

Luckily I've spent most of my adult life either on my own or with one other person (Jenny) who is often elsewhere and allows me plenty of privacy. I once spent a month in a shared flat that turned into a chaotic multi-person squat. That was enough communal living for a lifetime.

Some people appreciate the idea of social privacy, which is helpful.They understand that even if you're in a public place or in  a social gathering, you don't necessarily want to chat ad nauseam. If you look as if you're enjoying a moment of quiet reflection, they'll pass you by and approach someone else.

Of course the main downside of privacy is loneliness. Too much privacy can easily become chronic loneliness as thinking your own thoughts stops being a pleasure and turns into a tiresome albatross. Fortunately my thoughts are so sparky and so fertile that I seldom want to escape from them. The more the merrier in fact.

Oh, sorry if I've intruded on your privacy. I'll stop now and leave you alone....

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

First timers

My blogmate John was looking back at all the memorable "first times" in his life, so I thought I would shamelessly plagiarise him with my own list of unfor-gettable "firsties":

  • Going vegetarian. Two gay vegetarian friends persuaded me to go veggie in 1975. I've often considered going vegan but I'm just too fond of cheese.
  • Passing my driving test. I was absurdly nervous as I took my final driving lesson, but come the test I was mysteriously super-cool and passed easily.
  • Meeting Jenny. We were both working in a central London bookshop at the time, and we clicked instantly. Thirty four years later we still love each other to bits.
  • Flight in a light aircraft. A school friend's mum owned a light aircraft and took me up for a flight. It was both scary and exciting.
  • Seeing a corpse. At a mortuary when I was a local newspaper reporter. It was a young woman who had killed herself. A very strange sight.
  • Having sex. Aged 22 with a beautiful woman who loved Janis Joplin, cannabis, long floaty dresses and everything about the sixties counter-culture.
  • The debut Beatles record. "Love Me Do". The start of an incredible musical phenomenon. I was always desperate for their next release.
  • The Isle of Wight Music Festival in 1969. Waiting impatiently for Bob Dylan and queuing endlessly for everything amid the chaos of tents and rubbish.
  • My first day at work. In 1965 smoking in offices was normal and I virtually suffocated from the thick fug of tobacco smoke. Alarmingly, I soon got used to it.
  • My first pay packet. In those days you got an envelope stuffed with cash. I couldn't quite believe I was being paid for rustling up news stories.
  • Arriving in Australia. Drinking in every detail of the scenery as the taxi took us from the airport over the Tasman Bridge to our apartment in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • First visit to Venice with Jenny*. More scenery-drinking as a water taxi took us along the canals and past the amazing old palazzos and churches to our hotel.
  • Arriving in Belfast. My first holiday in Northern Ireland (Jenny was there as a child), and I loved the people and the scenery. We moved there in 2000.
* I went there as a child with my parents and sister

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Was my face red

Mistakes and mishaps always make me laugh. I know it's wrong but I just can't help myself. The mirth of the unex-pected. The mirth of human frailty.

Someone falling into a pond, denting the car, dyeing everything purple in the wash. Someone delivering the wrong speech, catching the wrong train, going to the wrong funeral. Isn't laughter a spontaneous reaction to the unforeseen?

Naturally I sympathise as well. I feel for the person who's messed up, especially if it's a friend or someone I admire. I know how I would feel in the same situation. Thoroughly embarrassed and angry with myself. I wouldn't appreciate the laughter one bit.

But I usually end up laughing at myself, once the dust has settled and the initial embarrassment has faded. A week later I'll be chuckling as I tell the story to someone else, painting a vivid picture of my idiocy or absent-mindedness.

Of course I'm not talking about blunders that lead to severe injury or death. They have to be treated with the seriousness they deserve. But a politician struggling with an over-filled bacon sandwich? Who could fail to be amused?

Mishaps are especially funny if they happen to someone who's normally the soul of rectitude -  pompous, strait-laced, sanctimonious. When they come a cropper like anyone else, it's delicious. I remember when a particularly loathsome boss had his house burgled. When the staff heard about it, they could hardly stop laughing. It was such a wonderful come-uppance.

The richly ironic gaffes are comical too. Like the gay-bashing politician caught in bed with a rent boy. Or the "happily-married" vicar whose secret mistress goes public. The ultimate futility of such strenuous pretence can only be relished.

How dull life would be without the endless joys of human error.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

You have to laugh

A tricky thing, a sense of humour. You have to be careful how you use it. It can lighten the mood and cement a friendship. Or it can so seriously offend someone they never want to speak to you again.

As you know, I have a well-developed sense of humour which I apply to the most unlikely situations. I see the funny side of everything, no matter how grim or disastrous, and I often have to restrain myself to avoid causing offence to someone in a highly sensitive state who absolutely doesn't see a shred of humour in what's happening.

Mind you, sometimes people are too over-sensitive, ready to take offence at just about anything, and then however carefully I tread I can still prompt horrified glances and stony silences.

Some subjects are a complete humorous no-no unless you know your companions very well and are confident they'll take the joke in the spirit it was intended. If not, then keep well away from religion, disability, transgender, death, abortion, terminal illness, or anything where there's the slightest hint of condemnation, callousness or sheer ignorance. Your flippant witticisms will not in any way be appreciated.

I think it's often assumed that because I'm joking about something deadly serious, I have no sympathy or concern for people who're facing hellish experiences and hardly know if they're coming or going. On the contrary, I have huge sympathy but every situation has its comical side, however macabre or grotesque, and I can't help noticing it. Gallows humour, anyone?

If someone at my own graveside suddenly saw the funny side of my departure from planet earth and couldn't help tittering uncontrollably, I wouldn't object. I'd rather that than a pall of gloom and misery.

Of course a sense of humour can sometimes be used as a defence against the shocking reality of a situation, a way of blotting things out and not letting your feelings overwhelm you. But perhaps that's okay as well if it enables you to process your emotions in your own good time.

By the way, did you hear the one about the undertaker and the gravedigger?

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Smart or smarting?

I'm pretty paranoid about seeming stupid. I dread the possibility that I'll inad-vertently say something so clueless that those listening will inwardly wince or titter at my idiocy.

All those attentive faces that were assuming I had something intelligent to say will suddenly freeze and conclude I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer and they can safely ignore me.

Which I guess is one reason I tend to be shy in company and say as little as possible. I'm not one of those people who gabble away non-stop and couldn't care less how others judge their remarks.

I'm assuming of course that people are mean enough to gloat over my inanities rather than being sympathetic to an unintended blooper they could as easily have made themselves. I assume they're privately guffawing rather than feeling a twinge of friendly recognition.

I guess the root cause of my paranoia is the sneaking belief that most people are more intelligent than I am. I suppose it goes back to my failing the 11 plus and then leaving school with disappointing exam results. Not to mention those deeply flawed IQ tests.

But at the end of the day it's just the nagging suspicion that what I think is an intelligent, perceptive remark is actually half-witted but I just haven't realised that. So I keep the remark to myself and say nothing. Better to look opinion-less than gormless.

It's rather galling though if ten seconds later someone else comes up with the exact same thought, which is greeted enthusiastically, and I kick myself for being so self-doubting.

Okay, stop tittering at the back. And stop giving me those funny looks.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Undue punishment

I'm always dismayed by those people who no longer see someone as a human being, no longer sympathise with their personal problems or emotional crises simply because they've said or done something that's deemed insulting or distasteful.

Jim Wells, a Stormont MLA, has been vilified by many people since he told a gay couple back in April that children with gay parents might be abused. He also told a lesbian couple he disagreed with their lifestyle.

His remarks were clearly homophobic and were investigated by the Public Prosecution Service, who said last week he wouldn't be charged with any offence.

But a lot of people decided that having made such insulting comments, he was beyond the pale and should become a social pariah indefinitely.

This strikes me as shockingly mean and heartless, as for some time now his private life has been hell after his wife Grace suffered two devastating strokes, can't communicate with him and is barely aware of the outside world.

He has been intensely lonely and depressed and desperately misses the close relationship he had with his wife, the one person he shared every detail of his life with. He says the past six months have been the darkest of his life.

He has been deeply hurt after people he had known for four decades - and who he considered friends - stopped contacting him after the incidents in April.

"The phone went very silent for a while" he said. "I was maybe getting just two or three calls a day from a core group of people and I don't think I would have got through everything without their support. People I thought were friends stopped contacting me even to ask about Grace, and that was very difficult to cope with."

We all sometimes make stupid and ill-judged comments. But that shouldn't mean that people stop caring about us, stop sympathising with our personal misfortunes, and treat us like some kind of evil monster.

It's an undeserved punishment.

Pic: Jim Wells

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Suitably soothing

Seeing as Ursula thought my last post was "disturbing and disturbed" (not for the first time, I'm sure), I shall make up for it by donning the straitjacket, swallowing the pills, and suggesting 25 things that are soothing, comforting or reassuring. Such as:

1. Smooth, untouched snow
2. The smell and feel of morning mist
3. Someone playing with your hair
4. A purring cat
5. A warm shower
6. The sound of pattering rain
7. Crisp, cold, clean water
8. A flickering candle
9. The scent of a loved one
10. Waking up naturally and slowly
11. Soft fabric against your skin
12. Long heart-felt hugs
13. The breeze blowing your curtains
14. The first stretch of the morning
15. A smell that recalls a fond memory
16. Walking barefoot in grass
17. Skinny-dipping
18. Laughing to yourself at a private joke
19. The sound of waves
20. The smell of your favourite food
21. The taste of chocolate
22. Unexpectedly hearing a much-loved song
23. A surprise call from an old friend
24. Rustling leaves
25. A brand-new, fluffy towel

How's that? Am I forgiven? Or do I need the straitjacket a little longer?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Crazy thoughts

Getting unwanted and peculiar thoughts is more usual than you might imagine. But most people don't like to admit to them because they don't want to appear crazy or irresponsible or dangerous.

It's very common to think about doing violence to other people - murdering them, attacking them, poisoning them, setting fire to them, or being sexually violent. Or you might be convinced you've run someone over, or unwittingly harmed them, or made them ill. Or you imagine your house is about to collapse, or you're dying of terminal cancer, or your car has a deadly fault.

Apparently the vast majority of parents have unwanted thoughts about harming their children (no doubt when little Rebecca is being especially arsey), but they wouldn't dare tell anyone else - unless the other person has confided first.

I have my fair share of bizarre thoughts I'd rather not share. After all, I want to be seen as sensible and responsible, not as some raving lunatic who wants to knife the next-door neighbour.

But when you bear in mind the sort of stresses and strains (and obstreperous people) we all have to cope with in our daily lives, it's hardly surprising our imaginations go a bit wild and start dreaming up outrageous solutions. How convenient it would be if that workmate who criticises everything you do suddenly vanished.

If you keep those odd thoughts to yourself and don't act on them, then it's no problem, it's just the normal workings of the human brain. What's alarming is those individuals who not only have odd thoughts but act on them and cause mayhem. Like the gunman who runs amok in a college, or the nurse who secretly poisons her elderly patients.

Goodness knows what that little old lady on the bus is quietly plotting....

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Losing control

I have a deep fear of losing control of my life, of everything unravelling and disorder and chaos taking over.

I fear that at any moment the precarious web of underpinnings that my life depends on could collapse and leave me floundering and helpless.

I never assume, as others do, that my life will just trundle on in much the same way for the next umpteen years with nothing to worry about but minor ups and downs.

Totally irrational of course, because in reality my life has been fairly uneventfully trundling on for several decades. There's been no major disaster to knock everything off track.

Yet here I am obsessing over keeping control of everything and worrying that just one bad decision or careless moment could send me over the precipice, like one of those cartoon characters who takes a step too far and ends up hovering in mid air.

But maybe my anxiety is a perfectly normal response to the fragility of modern life and our dependence on so many people and things that are beyond our personal control - economic crises, wars, natural disasters, incompetent governments.

Maybe it's the assumption of everything carrying on as before, of everything we rely on continuing ad infinitum, that is the irrational view. And then when something calamitous does occur, it comes as a much nastier shock than it should have done. It seems like the end of the world rather than a temporary setback.

Oh well, I'm not floundering and helpless just yet. It must be divine intervention.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Way to go

Apparently the traditional funeral is a thing of the past and there's a growing trend towards either no funeral at all - a quick cremation and that's that - or an elaborate themed funeral that's more like a fancy wedding.

A lot of people who object to the formality and rising cost of a conventional funeral are keeping it simple with a cardboard or wicker coffin and a speedy cremation. And that's it. No luxury coffins, no hearse, no besuited undertakers, no priest, no pomp and ceremony. Just a streamlined despatch.

There are still objections from some that such a down-to-earth approach doesn't show enough respect for the dead person. But to my mind, what shows respect is not a lot of funereal pomp but remembering the person fondly in the years to come and appreciating what they added to your life.

On the other hand, more and more people are going in for glitzy funerals featuring fancy dress, personal mementos, special locations, or horse-drawn carriages. The occasion is seen as a celebration of life rather than a sombre farewell, and a chance to recall the dead person's big interests and passions.

Well, that's certainly an improvement on the pervading gloom and despondency of the customary funeral, with everyone dressed in black, muttering polite condolences and all looking as if the world is about to end.

But personally I'm all in favour of the streamlined option. When I finally pop my clogs, I want the simplest possible departure - rapid cremation and no fuss and bother. Instead of spending thousands on the old-style send-off, whoever I leave behind should jet off on a luxury holiday somewhere and just think of me occasionally while they're sightseeing or enjoying the local cuisine.

Better a bit of personal indulgence than fat profits for some funeral parlour.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Don't ask

When Emily Bingham of Michigan went on to Facebook urging people not to pester women about their plans for children, she had no idea it would strike such a chord that her plea has been shared some 40,000 times.

She said that endless probing about babies-to-be, without any knowledge of the woman's personal circumstances, can be hugely upsetting and intrusive.

She wrote: "This is just a friendly PSA that people's reproductive and procreative plans and decisions are none of your business. NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. You don't know who is struggling with infertility or grieving a miscarriage or dealing with health issues. You don't know who is having relationship problems or is under a lot of stress or the timing just isn't right. You don't know who is on the fence about having kids or having more kids. You don't know who has decided it's not for them right now, or not for them ever."

But mothers in particular are often so keen to have grandchildren that they raise the subject constantly. Or a couple is told their lives are "incomplete" without a child or two. Or if they have a son or daughter they're asked when they're having a complementary daughter or son. Or they're told an only child must be lonely and needs a sibling.

As someone without children, it simply never occurs to me to ask a woman about her plans for children, or more children. I wouldn't assume she even wants any, unless she says so. As Emily Bingham says, such questions can open a massive can of worms that's best left unopened.

Surprisingly enough, I can't recall my parents ever asking me if Jenny and I were planning a family. I'm not sure if it was indifference or tact, but either way it was a relief not fielding those awkward questions.

Apart from anything else, it puts a childless couple on the defensive. They're forced to justify what others see as an abnormal situation. But why should they have to defend their personal behaviour?

Some questions are best left unspoken.

Pic: Emily Bingham

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Bedroom secrets

Okay, I know you're all dying to hear my bedroom secrets. I know your curiosity is killing you. But beware, you might be shocked to the depths of your being. You might be horrified beyond belief. You might even pass out or sob uncontrollably. Very well, if you think you can handle it, here goes:

1) I seldom sleep in, I seldom nap
2) I'm invariably asleep within ten minutes
3) I'm usually up and about by 7.30 am
4) I always have bad dreams
5) I sleep on my left side or my right side, never on my back or front
6) I find it easy to get out of bed in the morning
7) I prefer a nightshirt to pyjamas
8) I sleep naked if it's warm enough
9) I read books in bed but never newspapers
10) My bedside cabinet contains my watch, my alarm clock, my glasses and a book
11) I find it hard to sleep on planes
12) I slept for 13 hours straight after arriving in Vancouver Island, Canada
13) I never take sleeping pills - they don't work and just make me feel weird
14) There are no teddy bears in our bed
15) Our hotel room in San Francisco had the creakiest bed of all time
16) We slept on a futon for several years
17) We have single duvets, which avoids duvet-hogging
18) We have breakfast in bed every Sunday morning - toast and marmalade and a cup of tea
19) We change the bed linen often
20) I can have a completely coherent conversation while I'm asleep
21) My sex life is none of your business

Er, that's it. You can doze off now. Or just have some toast and marmalade.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Safety first

It's a strange paradox that although we all want to feel safe and secure and protected, at the same time we do things that are absurdly reckless and dangerous.

We want to feel safe. We want to know that whatever life throws at us, whatever misfortunes we run into, we'll survive the challenges and our lives won't be ruined or ripped apart.

We seek dependable partners, we accumulate money, we buy houses, we surround ourselves with friends, we live somewhere peaceful and civilised, we look for secure long-term jobs, we avoid people we find difficult or disturbing.

At the same time though, we constantly do things that threaten our safety, put our lives at risk, and jeopardise everything we hold dear. There's a part of us that chafes at the endless safety-first approach and yearns for a bit of adventure and excitement and throwing all caution to the winds.

So we find ourselves getting hopelessly drunk, driving at crazy speeds (or both), chain smoking, jaywalking, getting into fights (well, the guys anyway), climbing wobbly ladders, not to mention bungee-jumping, sky-diving, rock-climbing and snorkelling.

I freely admit to driving too fast (on occasion), to jaywalking, to climbing wobbly ladders. And a few other reckless habits. I mean, they're not really THAT dangerous. I haven't come a cropper yet, have I? So there you are then. No need to worry.

Of course the other paradox is that it's often the thrill-seekers, the ones forever putting themselves in danger, who live to tell the tale, while Cautious Clara is unlucky enough to kill herself in a freak accident involving a faulty safety harness.

We all want to be safe. Except when we don't.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

A tight fit

Is it just my impression, or are there more and more disputes over school uniforms and whether certain items of clothing are "appropriate" or not?

A rising number of schools seem to be adopting detailed dress codes that tell pupils what they can or can't wear, and what styles of clothing are banned because they're "indecent", "unacceptable" or "distracting".

This inevitably leads to pupils being told they're wearing something inappropriate and ordered to go home and change. And very often the child's parent complains that the school is being draconian and the clothing singled-out is quite inoffensive. Not only that, they say, but the school is drawing attention to something that would otherwise have gone unremarked-on.

The latest controversy occurred at a high school in Stoke on Trent, where two female pupils were sent home because their trousers were "too tight around the legs and bum". A male pupil was also ticked off for trousers that "made his private parts look indecent".

I have to wonder if anyone would even have noticed their "exceptionally tight" trousers if a member of staff hadn't commented on it. And so what anyway? Are tight trousers really preventing pupils from concentrating properly on their studies? Are they really damaging the school's reputation or encouraging other pupils to break the school rules? It all seems way over the top to me. A case of slightly puritanical staff reading something sexual into quite ordinary clothing.

Personally, I can't remember either of my schools ever admonishing me for "inappropriate" clothing. Either my clothing was always "appropriate" or the staff simply weren't so censorious or strait-laced. I do remember some boys at my secondary school wearing quite tight trousers and longish hair. But then, it was a single-sex school and maybe the staff felt clothing wasn't an issue because there were no girls around to be "distracted".

I guess as long as there are school dress codes, there's going to be endless controversy over whether certain pupils are breaking the code or not. And head teachers endlessly getting hot under the collar about "having to set minimum standards".

This one will run and run.

Pic: Harriet Dale of Trentham High School, Stoke on Trent

PS: There's a superb critique of school dress codes here

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Refugee hell

Like many others, I'm acutely aware of the growing global refugee crisis and the terrible images of desperate people being killed and injured in their attempts to reach a safe haven.

The recent picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi being washed up on a beach in Turkey - his brother and mother also died - has dramatically emphasised both the crisis and politicians' inability to get a grip on it.

The current British government, apparently oblivious to the country's proud record in absorbing thousands of refugees in previous decades, is being increasingly hostile to the present flood of refugees, seeking to batten down the hatches and turn them away.

Other countries like Germany have been far more sympathetic and welcoming and have taken in much larger numbers. They've recognised that those exhausted souls struggling through one country after another aren't spongers and scroungers but distraught human beings in dire need of help and resettlement.

But politicians aplenty trot out all the usual absurd excuses for giving them the brush-off. The country's already overcrowded. Public services can't cope. They'll be an endless burden. They're just chancers out to exploit us. They're all criminals and sex traffickers. They're a threat to the British way of life. And so on.

The aspiring Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper has suggested the UK could take at least 10,000 refugees on the basis of 10 families going to each large town.

We could surely take many more than that if we really wanted to. If there was political will and human compassion - and even the Dunkirk Spirit - rather than sour-faced hostility. Of course public services are severely stretched. They have been for decades. But they could be expanded easily enough with a bit of ingenuity and determination instead of the usual helpless shrugs.

After all, migrants not only work in the public services themselves, they pay taxes that help to finance those services. So why not take a few more?

The "I'm all right, Jack" attitude of those comfortably-off politicians who won't lift a finger to help the less fortunate is quite sickening.

Pic: Aylan Kurdi's body is taken from the sea