Monday, 6 April 2015

Wot, no tot?

Do some people decide when they're young that they don't want children, and then bitterly regret it when they're older? Not as far as I know. Certainly not in my case (or Jenny's either).

I can't recall any time at all when I've looked at someone else's baby or child and felt a longing for a child of my own. I'm very content being me and I've never had any desire for a miniature me to keep me company.

It's not an aversion to children. Other people's children can be charming and inspiring and great fun to be with. Even when they're being grumpy and stand-offish, since I have no parental responsibility for the grumpiness, I can just be amused by their bad behaviour. Well, for five or ten minutes maybe - my patience isn't infinite.

I guess I never felt that having a child would add something essential to my existence, that it would give me something I didn't have already. I've always had a rich cultural and intellectual life that's more than enough to keep me happy.

I don't think my father ever really wanted children.  He spoke of having children as a "duty" and would get in terrible rages if me or my sister disappointed him in any way. But I don't think that's a significant factor in my own disinclination to have kids.

Even now, as I get older and it's possible I might get frail and needy, I don't regret the lack of children who could help me out when it comes to it. I'll cross that bridge as and when. In any case, I wouldn't want to restrict other people's lives with my own neediness.

So no regrets. I watch all the children trundling into the primary school a few doors away and I just wonder what it feels like to be a child, as I've long since forgotten. But I've no wish to be one of the (slightly anxious looking) parents.

There will now be a short intermission. Back in a couple of weeks or so.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Candid camera

Katie Price of all people has highlighted the abuse that occurs in some nursing homes, and suggested they should all have cameras in every room so relatives can see what's going on and be sure everything's okay.

She says she knows what she's talking about because at one time she was a carer for the elderly in nursing homes. So she can tell the good homes from the bad ones.

"Sadly over the last few years we've seen too many cases of abuse in nursing homes - places that you trust to care and look after your elderly relations" she says.

Her solution is cameras - so everything is visible 24 hours a day and nothing untoward could escape the public gaze. Anyone could check on what's happening - not just relatives but social workers, doctors, or just concerned individuals.

"Some will say this is an invasion of privacy - I say it's helping protect those who can't protect themselves."

What would the residents think of having cameras everywhere, I wonder? Would they welcome such routine monitoring or would they dislike the intrusion into their daily lives?

My sister, who has MND, is in a nursing home right now because my brother in law, who usually looks after her, has just had a major operation. I'm assured she's happy there and has no complaints. But it would be especially reassuring to see everything on camera and be certain she's being well-treated.

The fact is that there have been some absolutely shocking examples of outright cruelty and neglect in nursing homes, behaviour that could have been nipped in the bud if those outside had been aware of it.

It seems to me that only those with something to hide would object.

PS: Some American states have passed laws to allow electronic monitoring in long-term care facilities. They include Texas, New Mexico, Washington, Oklahoma and Maryland. Hidden cameras have caught abuse three times in Pennsylvania - they recorded mocking, manhandling and slapping. There's an interesting article about cameras in nursing homes here

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Toxic cake

The utterly absurd row over a gay-themed cake shows no signs of abating. The Northern Ireland bakery that refused to make the cake has been taken to court by the Equality Commission while Christian groups are weighing in with support for the bakery.

It all started in November last year when Ashers bakery rejected an order for a cake with the message "Support Gay Marriage" and the name of a gay organisation, Queerspace.

The bakery said their deeply-held Christian beliefs made it impossible to provide the cake, so the customer got it made by another bakery.

Ashers Bakery is now defending itself in court against the Equality Commission's charge of unlawful discrimination.

It's ridiculous that a disagreement over a cake should have escalated into a full court hearing with both sides earmarking thousands of pounds for the legal costs. The Equality Commission has already spent £8,500 on the case while Christian groups have pledged large sums in support of the bakery.

Surely the initial disagreement could have been settled in a few minutes in some simpler way?

The bakery could have taken the attitude that the message on the cake was the customer's concern and nothing to do with the bakery or its religious convictions. They could have easily baked the cake and ignored the message, just as they ignore a thousand other "irreligious" messages they come across.

Customer Gareth Lee could have shrugged off the ludicrous objections, got the cake made somewhere else (as he did) and thought nothing more of it. He could have simply dismissed the bakery staff as intolerant diehards incapable of treating other people as human beings rather than religious hate-figures.

But Mr Lee agreed to front an Equality Commission court case which turned the whole thing into a global cause célèbre in which Christians and gays have been hurling abuse at each other for months.

We now await the court's verdict. Even if Judge Isobel Brownlie decides in Mr Lee's favour, it will be a rather hollow victory, as the bakery won't be keen to change its practices. It may simply look for ways of getting round the law.

And the case has led to the infamous "conscience clause", a proposed law about to be debated at Stormont, which would allow Christian businesses to turn away gay customers whenever they felt like it.

This one will run and run.

Pic: the sinful cake

PS: The case has now finished, but the Judge will give her decision later. "It is not a straightforward area of the law. Obviously this is a case in which I propose to reserve my judgment."

Friday, 20 March 2015

Family values

If ever there was a phrase that means precisely nothing, it's "family values". Or rather, it can mean anything you want it to mean, usually to criticise those households that are seen as weird and degenerate.

It's one of those phrases that are used to conjure up some idyllic, nostalgic paradise when everyone lived in a perfect family made up of happy, carefree individuals smothered in love and affection.

Not many families are that perfect. Most families are full of frictions and frustrations and grievances of one kind or another, and for them "family values" probably just means putting up with people who drive you nuts on a daily basis.

And if "family" implies two heterosexual parents with children, then where does that leave childless couples, or those who're on their own, or gay couples? Presumably they're a bit blemished, a bit lacking, unable to share the deep joys of family values, whatever they may be.

I'm particularly sickened when politicians pose with their spouse and children, as if that's the ideal arrangement we should all be aspiring to, and as if only politicians with these credentials can be trusted to run the country properly. As opposed to say, lesbians, who are sure to turn the country into a hopeless basket case.

Even Barack Obama feels obliged to parade his wife and kids at every opportunity, just to prove he's a regular joe who's fit to be president.

As for those politicians who regularly extol "family values" and are regularly caught with prostitutes or shagging their buxom interns, how nauseating is that?

To hell with family values. A bit more compassion, empathy and human kindness will do me fine.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Give us a clue

I don't like uncert-ainty. Or at least not the type of uncertainty that significantly affects my life. It makes me feel too vulnerable, too adrift.

Some people thrive on uncertainty. For them, the more of it the better. They love having absolutely no idea what the future will bring and what fate's going to throw at them. They find it exciting, stimulating, challenging.

I don't feel that at all. I would feel a lot more secure and confident if I knew what's in store for me. How much money I'll have, whether I'll get a serious illness, when I'm going to die, whether I'll lose my mind.

If I knew all that, at least I could plan my life a bit better, allow for disasters or triumphs, create a smoother path for myself. I wouldn't be suddenly overwhelmed by some unexpected catastrophe and be left floundering.

Small uncertainties, those that have no major effect on my life one way or the other, don't bother me. What the weather's going to do, whether I can get a vegetarian sandwich, whether my new jeans will run in the wash - those I can deal with. It's the big uncertainties, the potentially life-changing uncertainties, that freak me out.

It's curious that I'm so bothered by uncertainty this late in life, when my future is relatively short. When I was young and my future stretched ahead of me indefinitely like Route 66, the much greater uncertainty didn't phase me at all. I just sailed along blithely, unheeding of what the next day would bring.

How did this strange quirk come about, I wonder?

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Bumptious tourists

When I'm on holiday, I'm very conscious that I'm a tourist in someone else's country and I do my best to respect those I meet and not behave like an arrogant prick expecting everyone to fawn all over me.

I was amazed at the selfishness of the two American women who scrawled graffiti on the Colosseum and then took a selfie of themselves and the graffiti. Signs in both English and Italian warn against defacing the walls. Yet they took no notice*.

There are tourists who get hopelessly drunk and pester the locals, who expect everyone to speak English, who poke fun at local customs, or who demand special discounts and concessions. They must annoy the hell out of those on the receiving end, but they're oblivious to how their behaviour comes across.

Of course a lot of things are not the same as home, and I do my best to be patient and flexible. Different security procedures, for example, or opening times, or hotel routines. Why get in a lather over something a bit unexpected? Why not simply adjust to it and relax?

I remember once catching the ferry to Sirmione on Lake Garda. Ahead of us were a group of around 50 schoolkids. Could they issue a single ticket for all of them? No no, each child had to be issued with a separate ticket, which seemed to take forever. But there was no point in complaining - that's the way it was done.

I think a lot of tourists see their holidays as merely a commercial transaction, demanding their money's worth and complaining loudly if they're not getting exactly what they signed up for.

But it's so much more than a business deal. I see a holiday as an invitation to visit someone else's country, a bit like being invited to someone's home, and I try to acknowledge their generosity and indulgence by behaving with courtesy and consideration.

In particular, I'm considerate of all those hard-pressed employees of hotels, coffee shops, restaurants and tourist attractions who are often treated with disdain - if their presence is even noticed.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

*Police reported them for damaging the ancient site. They now face a court hearing.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Lost for words

People sometimes say that my shyness, my tendency to be tongue-tied with other people, is due to my being too self-conscious.

I don't know about that. What exactly is "too much" self-consciousness anyway? If anything, I think I'm probably not self-conscious enough. I'm more than capable of blurting out something stupid or insensitive without realising, or of saying the complete opposite of what I'm really thinking or feeling.

To my mind, the more self-conscious people are, the better. The more aware we are of how we're behaving, how we're affecting other people, what sort of impression we're making, the more likely we are to treat people decently rather than nastily.

Even if we're talking total self-absorption, that's not so awful either. Okay, so the person might be jabbering away about themself, but at least they're not planning a shooting spree or a mass beheading. The worst they can do is bore you to tears.

I think my shyness is due more to the assumption that other people won't accept me for what I am. If I just gabble away freely, sooner or later someone will object to something I've said and there will be an unpleasant exchange. People take offence at the strangest things, and I can't predict what they will be. So I find myself listening rather than talking so as to avoid sudden umbrage.

My shyness is probably also a reaction to wasting so many hours of my life listening to people confidently holding forth on things they know absolutely nothing about, or things that have already been dissected ad nauseam by all and sundry. I hesitate to add yet another ill-informed or superfluous opinion to the surrounding hubbub.

And at the end of the day, I'd just rather be a shrinking violet than a pompous windbag.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Endless abuse

I know this is grim reading, but I was horrified by the sheer scale of the sex abuse scandal in Oxford-shire, not to mention the generally pathetic response of police and social workers, who allowed the abuse to go on for so long.

It's reported that over 370 girls were systematically assaulted, raped and tortured over a fifteen year period, and that those who should have protected the girls and stopped the abuse either turned a blind eye, trivialised what was happening, or blamed the victims for provoking the abuse. And not one person has been subsequently disciplined or sacked.

I don't know where to begin in dissecting this whole appalling saga, which speaks volumes about the incompetence of public servants who are meant to be shielding the vulnerable but end up shielding the predators.

There was clearly a well-established network of men carrying out the abuse, but they were able to continue their atrocities for many years before finally being arrested.

The case review just published says that not only were police and social workers generally in denial, but they blamed the girls for their "precocious and difficult behaviour", accused them of putting themselves at risk, ignored underage sexual activity, and denied the girls had been groomed and violently controlled.

It's hard to know what can be done to prevent such widespread abuse happening all over again in the future. If trained professionals whose specific job it is to protect vulnerable children utterly fail to do so, will further training or new legislation make any difference? If those who are meant to keep children safe simply don't seem to understand the concept of safety, how will they ever change?

I can't see any effective remedy short of sacking all those who allowed this nightmare to go on for so long, and employing people with a genuine concern for children's well-being who will stop sexual and emotional abuse the moment they discover it.

And the whole insidious culture of blaming the victim, which is still so rampant, must be reversed once and for all and attention focused on those who allowed so many victims to pile up year after year.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Hard not to judge

How difficult it is to avoid judging someone's physical appear-ance, however much you tell yourself that their appearance doesn't matter and what's important is those personal qualities you can't actually see.

One writer who took part in "Fat Talk Free February" comments on how hard it was not just to ignore someone's looks but to resist appearance-based compliments, like saying how youthful, or thin, or pretty, or sexy, they were.

She says women are especially prone to comment on each other's appearance as a way of bonding and communicating.

But she points out the subtly damaging effect of being constantly complimented on your looks rather than your kindness, intelligence, loyalty or sense of humour. Women quickly learn that their value to the world seems to lie in how they look.

Like most people, I tend to form an opinion on other people's appearance, but that doesn't mean I'm oblivious to their personalities. I'm well aware that a quite ordinary appearance could be hiding a brilliant mind or enormous generosity or musical genius.

A woman once accused me of being a typical man who habitually objectified women. I'd never been accused of that before and I found it quite mystifying. Perhaps she was confusing body awareness with objectifying. Of course I'm aware of other people's bodies, but I'm always fully conscious they're a human being and not a thing.

I suppose one benefit of being male is that other men seldom comment on your appearance, so your looks aren't given an inflated importance. Nothing is said about the pot belly, the thickets of body hair, the sagging flesh or the wrinkles. And for that matter, nothing much is said even if you look impossibly fit and healthy with the skin of a twenty something.

Most men just don't care very much about other men's looks. They're far too busy judging the looks of every passing woman. But if anything, women probably judge each other far harder than men are even capable of.

I mean, thigh gaps, anyone? Cellulite? Asymmetrical tits? Nothing but nothing is spared.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

I'm listening

It's common nowadays for people to say they just don't care what others think of them. And they say that as if it's a very wise and mature attitude.

I really don't know where they're coming from. I don't share their attitude at all. To my mind, sensitivity to what others think, and to the effect my opinions and behaviour might have on them, is part and parcel of being a human being.

That doesn't mean I'm a slave to other people's views. It doesn't mean that if someone criticises me, I immediately backpedal and apologise and rush to satisfy them. It doesn't mean that if they come up with some totally bigoted, ignorant, intolerant diatribe, I'll bury my own views and mutter something harmlessly neutral.

But it does mean that although I like to express my views as honestly as possible, I'm considerate of how others might react and I won't be deliberately provocative or taunting or dismissive merely for the sake of it.

It also means that if someone has views diametrically opposed to my own, I won't just dismiss them out of hand as ignorant nonsense, I will at least examine them carefully to see if there's any truth in what they're saying.  Because even the most prejudiced individual can have unexpected insights into something I haven't really thought about.

And it means that if I know someone's feeling vulnerable, or hurt, or distressed, I'm not going to upset them even more by saying something they wouldn't want to hear even if they were feeling more resilient.

As Ursula said, if people don't care what others think, how come they're all ears if what others are saying is in their favour - if it's flattering?

Who are they kidding?

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Less than human

I find it extra-ordinary than men can quite casually make use of prostitutes, many of whom are in the grip of some personal problem that can only be worsened by having to perform constant sexual acts they aren't enjoying.

They are more than likely weighed down by mental health issues, emotional problems, drug addiction or the scars of childhood sexual abuse, but these burdens are of little interest to the customers whose only goal is instant pleasure.

Clearly it's seen first and foremost as a simple financial transaction much the same as buying a loaf of bread or a bottle of shampoo, and the personal well-being of the person giving the service is of scant concern.

I really don't understand how a man can have such an impersonal and functional attitude, can so easily and callously objectify another human being.

It also amazes me that men can so happily visit prostitutes but hide it from their wife or girlfriend, knowing full well how horrified she would be if she found out. They are able to lead a kind of double life of everyday respectability alongside a seedy other self.

I've never been to a prostitute in my life. In my younger days I was totally unaware of the reality of prostitution. It was something that was joked about, Carry-On style, as if it was some sort of light-hearted frolic. At that time I wouldn't have indulged simply because it seemed a bit vulgar. Nowadays of course, having had my eyes opened, I wouldn't contemplate it because of the intrinsic dehumanising that's involved.

Also I don't have that compulsive sexual urge that men who use prostitutes claim to be in thrall to. Good grief, isn't your regular partner enough for you? I'm not sure I believe in that sexual compulsion anyway. Men love to fall back on it, but it's such a convenient excuse for bad behaviour.

The oldest profession in the world? Nothing professional about it. It's just emotional and physical abuse dressed up as human need.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Love actually

I think it's about time this entry from February 2012 was reposted....

It's funny how when you start a relationship with someone, you've no idea how long it's going to last. It could be 30 days or 30 years. Or 30 minutes. Which is one reason why making out with someone new is so exciting.

When I first met Jenny at a central London bookshop and nervously fixed a date, I hadn't a clue what would happen.

We might have had a violent argument 10 minutes later and both walked off in a huff. We might have tried our best to get on with each other and decided it was a case of Mr Chalk and Ms Cheese. One of us might have had some personal passion the other totally detested.

If anyone had predicted we'd still be seriously in love over three decades later, I'd have scoffed and told them to catch themselves on*. I'd have said, how likely is that when relationships come and go like taxis. Surely sooner or later we'll get bored with each other, get itchy feet, and start looking for an upgrade.

But the months and years rolled on and in some mysterious way we found ourselves still together, still enamoured, despite all the predictable squabbles, misunderstandings, grievances and stand-offs. They were never severe enough to break the deep bond that had somehow established itself.

That we've reached the present day in such enduring harmony never ceases to amaze me. It's as if we've been on a long journey through unfamiliar territory with a thousand opportunities to get lost, get eaten by wolves, fall into a ravine or be crushed by a landslide, and by some miracle we've avoided all the dangers and reached our destination.

I can only give thanks to whatever guardian angel is looking after us and keeping this old banger** on the road.

* come down to earth. A common Northern Irish expression.

** the relationship that is. Not Jenny or me.

(I've changed the image again. Jenny and I have slipped back into anonymity. Well, you've all seen the real us now....)

Monday, 9 February 2015

Birthday bash

Singer and model Myleene Klass has caused huge controversy after suggesting children's birthday presents are getting way over the top and it's just not on to ask parents of schoolmates to donate £10 each for a present.

She says "I know I am in a privileged position compared to many, but I live in the real world and have countless friends who wouldn't be able to put that sort of donation into a schoolbag. Being a parent is expensive enough, without birthdays adding up."

Reaction from other parents was sharply divided. Some told her privately they totally agreed and were glad she spoke up. Others, including the school headmistress, were hostile and claimed she was "attacking the school's community spirit."

She points out that if the parents of all 26 children in her daughter's class gave £10 for each child's birthday, that would be an awful lot of money they could maybe ill afford. She suggests going back to the custom of simpler, cheaper presents that she remembers from her own childhood. "My family simply wouldn't have been able to afford a contribution like that for my schoolfriends' birthday presents."

She adds "If my girlfriends gave me a gift to the value of £300, I wouldn't accept it - and I'm an adult. For a child to get a present of that value is sheer madness."

She complains that kids' parties are out of control as well. If one child has a massive party, the stakes are upped and other parents feel pressure to do the same. "If we were all still giving jelly and custard
and playing pass the parcel and having bouncy castles, this sort of crazy cycle wouldn't happen."

I must say that when I was a kid, birthdays were no big deal and me and my sister were lucky to get a birthday card and some very ordinary present. My parents would never have embarrassed my classmates' families by asking them to shell out for our birthday gifts. We didn't usually have birthday parties either. A birthday cake and a few sweets were seen as more than adequate.

We didn't feel disappointed. We didn't feel our birthdays were a washout. We were quite happy with such a modest celebration.

When did birthdays become such a spree of conspicuous consumption?

Pic: Myleene Klass and her daughter Ava

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Emotional gremlins

Wouldn't we all be very different if we could free ourselves from anxiety and fear? If we could go through life with endless confidence and optimism rather than all those doubts and insecurities that get in our way?

Virtually everyone is hampered by anxiety and fear to some degree, however skilled we might be at seeming cool, calm and collected. We all have those moments when we just want to flee some situation that stirs up the emotional gremlins.

I'm no stranger to anxiety and fear, but at least they take a fairly mild form and don't interfere too much with my daily life. It's unusual to feel so overwhelmed that I simply make my excuses and run for it.

I know people whose anxiety and fear is so intense they can be totally hobbled by it. People who have panic attacks that last for days on end and stop them doing anything but lie in bed in a helpless heap. People whose chronic anxiety means everything has to be double-checked, triple-checked, quadruple-checked before they're sure they haven't done anything horribly wrong.

Luckily I've never known those extremes. But there are things I would hate to do because I'm sure the anxiety would consume me. Like giving a lecture, or acting, or chairing a public meeting, or talking to a mega-celebrity. In fact anything where I'm visibly "onstage" and being scrutinised by large numbers of people.

And wherever I go, I'm always aware of a little frisson of fear, a slight apprehension about other people, though I know perfectly well they're probably harmless. Then there are specific fears, like a fear of the dark, or hospitals, or confined spaces, or old age. How wonderful it would be if I could just breeze through life, go with the flow, take everything as it comes, all with unshakable poise.

Which is as likely as turning into a mermaid.

Friday, 30 January 2015

On a pedestal

I've been musing over the deep need to idealise people. Not just celebrities but politicians, lovers, teachers, authors, all sorts of people. They're put on a pedestal and seen as perfect, their human weaknesses stubbornly overlooked or denied.

Of course there are also those who refuse to idealise or venerate anybody, or even systematically tear everyone to bits with icy contempt.

But it's the urge to idealise that fascinates me. I was especially curious about the massive eulogising of Barack Obama when he was still the presidential candidate. It was hard to find anyone willing to criticise him.

Yet right from the start I assumed he was unlikely to be the brilliant president people were predicting. Surely everyone was aware of all the presidents (and prime ministers) who turned out to be bitterly disappointing? But no, people wanted to believe Obama would be a dazzling success, and they refused to think otherwise. Surprise surprise, many of the same people are now sadly disillusioned.

So many people are painted as saintly figures who can do no wrong, even when the grubby reality is plain to see. We seem to need someone to look up to, however much varnishing and laundering it requires. Seeing everyone as they really are is too depressing, too sobering.

I like to think I'm immune from such stupidity, but of course I'm not. I always remember how besotted I once was with Elena, in blissful denial of the humdrum reality. I worshipped her calmness, her wisdom, her sophistication, her gracefulness, unwilling to believe that inside she was probably harbouring the same neuroses, anxieties and prejudices as all the rest of us. I refused to look past the no doubt carefully crafted exterior.

We all have our rose-tinted spectacles to hand, ready to enhance some unlikely person.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Name change

It's very strange that French courts can order parents to change their child's name if they think it could cause social embarr-assment - or as the law puts it "mockery or disobliging remarks".

Surely it's up to parents (or the child) to decide if a name might be a liability and drop it in favour of something less open to teasing. Why do the courts need to be involved in what's really just a matter of common sense?

French courts recently rejected the name Nutella, foreseeing silly references to the chocolate spread of the same name. They also rejected the name Fraise (Strawberry) as there are rude expressions that use the word - like "ramène ta fraise", meaning "get over here" or "butt in".

It seems that although the courts are able to ban a name, they only get involved if someone asks them to. Apparently the registrar who recorded Nutella's birth alerted the local prosecutor who called in a family court judge.

If the courts made a habit of judging people's names, they'd be at it all day every day. I'm not familiar with dodgy French names, but I can think of plenty of English names that could in theory be problems (though oddly enough in reality they may be no problem at all). And last names can be just as awkward as first names.

But names aren't set in stone. If a child gets ribbed over an unfortunate name, then all they need do is change it. If their parents won't let them, they can at least change it when they're older. My father's first name was Edward, but he hated it and always used his second name, Colin.

Who are the courts to decide what name is acceptable and what isn't? You and I might think that the names given to Bob Geldof's kids - Peaches, Pixie and Fifi Trixibelle - would invite endless ridicule, but as far I know they never tried to change them.

Likewise all the Smellies and Ramsbottoms of the world who don't feel the need to be something more prosaic but soldier on regardless.

I'm sure those judges have better things to do than to ban names that reflect popular sandwich fillings. Like dealing with criminals.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A faltering finale

A survey of people's biggest worries found that after number one (being overweight), the next two were getting old and their financial future.

I'm not surprised by those two. They're two of my worries as well, for the simple reason that I have no idea how long I'm going to live, no idea how much it'll cost me, and no idea if I'll run out of money. The future is largely unknowable and all sorts of unforeseen events could put a spanner in the works.

My worries also stem from the fact that we live in a very ageist society where vulnerable old people are often ignored or mistreated, and not given the help, support and respect they deserve after a lifetime of work, often in vital services like the NHS. I can't be confident that if I fall on hard times other people will come to my rescue and make sure I'm okay.

And I'm one of the more fortunate ones. I've benefited from a lifetime of rising property prices, I haven't had any children to pay for, I'm still fit enough to work, and I have no money-draining addictions.

Today's young people are in a much worse position when they contemplate the future. The state pension is being steadily eroded, but they have little money to put into a private pension. They have tuition fees to repay, they're stung for massive rents and mortgages, bringing up children is more and more costly (£230,000 a child at the last count), and wages are being ruthlessly slashed through zero-hour contracts, part-time work and a skinflint minimum wage.

Many young people can barely get through the week, let alone save anything. No wonder they often look totally blank when asked about pension plans.

Old age should be a a time of carefree enjoyment, not gnawing financial worries. Old age should be a joyous finale to a strenuous life.

Pic: Beatrix Ost, New York artist and writer

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Po-faced fanatics

The Charlie Hebdo massacre has prompted a lot of soul-searching and fierce debate about whether the magazine is right or wrong to poke fun at religion. Some people defend the magazine unconditionally while others say they are being deliberately provocative for no good reason.

It seems to me that Suzanne Moore in The Guardian makes the best point about the whole thing. "Why must I have respect for religions that have little respect for me?" she asks.

In her case she's talking about the widespread religious view that women are second-class citizens and should be treated as such. But of course many religions are equally intolerant of gays, transgender people, atheists, people with "inappropriate" clothing and appearance and so on.

Suzanne Moore goes on to say "Tolerance has to be reciprocal or it is not tolerance at all." Precisely. Tolerance can't be one-sided. If a religion wants to suppress what I do or believe, then why should I respect what they do or believe?

Of course there's a difference between not respecting repressive religions, but keeping that disrespect to yourself, and on the other hand publicly mocking and criticising those religions. Is public mockery acceptable or does it merely fan the flames of religious intolerance and make the situation worse?

I think people have to make up their own mind about that but personally I'm reluctant to mock another person's deeply held beliefs merely for the sake of it or merely to exercise my freedom of expression. I'm content for people to follow whatever beliefs they wish to, without comment, just as long as they're not attacking my own beliefs. In that case, they're fair game and I have every right to attack them back.

You could argue that Charlie Hebdo magazine went too far in deliberately lampooning a major religion. But then you could also argue that those who object, and those who think such disrespect deserves a bullet in the head, are simply self-righteous, po-faced fanatics with no sense of humour or perspective.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Come flirt with me

I was never very good at flirting, and never very good at sussing that I was being flirted with. Someone would have to flirt really blatantly for me to notice it.

Mind you, at my advanced age it's not often that anyone flirts with me, and I can't even remember the last time anyone did. Probably around the time the Spice Girls were in nappies.

Of course there may have been secret admirers who were too shy to flirt with me. They may have been nursing an unrequited crush they couldn't bring themselves to divulge. Sure, and there goes a flying pig.

It was a different story in my twenties. Quite a few women flirted with me so boldly I could hardly miss it. If I didn't fancy them, it was sometimes hard to fend them off.

Personally I think flirting is good clean fun, as long as it's just that and not a serious attempt to steal someone's mate. And as long as the flirtee is enjoying it and isn't feeling uncomfortable and invaded. But some people totally refuse to flirt on the grounds that it's immoral and dangerous.

It's embarrassing though to watch seedy, unattractive middle-aged men compulsively flirting with women who probably find them repulsive. Have they any idea how ridiculous they look? Presumably not or they wouldn't be doing it.

It's also embarrassing to watch people flirting simply to prove their physical attractiveness and desirability, which they're permanently unsure of. The desperate need for reassurance is sad.

But life would be dull without flirting. It adds a bit of spice to the everyday routine. So what the hell, come flirt with me....

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Jumping the gun

What struck me about the Lincolnshire couple whose baby was born 11 weeks early in New York was the amazing generosity shown to them by so many people.

Instead of a chorus of "Why on earth fly when you're heavily pregnant?", people were falling over themselves to help the unfortunate couple - Katie Amos and Lee Johnston - who were facing a £130,000 medical bill.

The hospital said the couple's travel insurance would cover the bill. A housing charity gave them somewhere to live. A nurse at the hospital gave Katie a pile of clothes. And thousands of pounds have been donated to help them with their living expenses - as their son Dax won't be fit enough to fly back until March.

Actually quite a few things struck me about this story:

1) The potentially ruinous cost of health care in the States. People are frequently bankrupted by astronomical bills.
2) Such a basic event as having a baby doesn't qualify for free assistance but is fully chargeable.
3) In the light of (1) and (2), they were wise not to skimp on travel insurance.
4) They'll have time to get to know New York very well on their enforced 10-week stay.
5) Is their son now entitled to American citizenship, having been born in the USA?
6) They'll probably be too embarrassed to set foot in the USA ever again.
7) Alternatively they'll make lots of new friends over there and be keen to keep in touch.
8) Dax's first words are likely to be "Give me some candy, dude".

Or in the light of his expensive birth, they might even be "Buddy, can you spare a dime?"

Pic: Lee Johnston and Katie Amos