Monday, 25 May 2009

Vital organs

For many years I've carried in my bag a card that allows any part of my body to be donated to others if I die. This seems a much better idea than simply burying or burning them.

If I have perfectly healthy organs that can benefit others, and there are people out there desperate to have them, why not pass them on? Why not recycle them and keep someone else alive and well?

I really don't understand those individuals who are too squeamish or possessive or fastidious not to permit such therapeutic use of what they leave behind. It's just flesh and tissue in the end.

There's an irrational fear that if someone allows the use of their organs after death, their death will somehow be surreptiously hastened to harvest parts that are urgently needed.

I don't know of any cases where this has happened, though I know of instances where people already dead have had bits secretly removed and stored without the knowledge or permission of the relatives.

Even if I were to be the victim of such unauthorised removal, I still wouldn't object if the parts were being put to a good use such as research or training. They'd be no more use to me, after all.

And isn't the possibility of helping someone less fortunate (or even half a dozen) more important than the tiny risk of that offer being abused by someone unscrupulous? It's like refusing to give to charity because someone somewhere might waste the money on boardroom chandeliers.

One of the best-known cases of posthumous organ donation is that of Nicholas Green, a seven year old Californian boy who was killed by robbers in Italy. His organs and corneas were donated to seven different Italians waiting for transplants. Organ donations in Italy have tripled since his murder and thousands of people who would have died are still alive and healthy.

How could anyone say no to such simple, undemanding altruism?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Grumpy old men

Males of my age are commonly assumed to turn into grumpy old men. Isn't that what old men do? We're programmed by our Y chromosomes to become universally surly, cantankerous and impossible to deal with.

We're supposed to rage and curse at stupid motorists, hate teenagers and sales assistants, fume at red tape and form-filling, attack dumbing down and falling standards, and despise anything invented in the last twenty years.

Thus the popular TV programme "Grumpy Old Men" in which elderly curmudgeons vent their spleen at everything in sight, complaining that there's nothing left to enjoy and saying they'll be glad when they're six feet under and out of their misery.

Well, I keep waiting for this mysterious overnight transformation in which my habitual good humour turns into bad-tempered misanthropy, but I have to report that it hasn't yet happened. I remain a cheerful, open-minded soul ready to give anything or anyone a fair hearing.

I've nothing against teenagers or sales assistants, I'm all in favour of the internet and mobile phones, I'm very tolerant of careless motorists who're probably shagged out from a demanding job, and every day I'm delighted and fascinated by life's constantly evolving possibilities and wonders. It takes an awful lot to make me seriously grumpy.

Of course in twenty years' time when I'm a decrepit old wreck who can't hear, see or walk, I might have cause to be sullen and generally pissed off with my lot, but right now grumpiness is uncalled-for.

Perhaps grumpy old men should all be put through a sort of detoxification programme, alcoholic style, to dry them out and purge all those nasty toxins from their system. Why glamourise the foul-mouthed old sods?

Monday, 18 May 2009

A shocking truth

I expect most people have heard of the notorious experiment* in which volunteers were asked to give massive electric shocks to an innocent and protesting man. Two thirds of them did.

The experiment was repeated recently, but the volunteers weren't kinder, they were actually more ruthless. This time 75 per cent gave the maximum shock - three times.

What this extraordinary experiment shows is that when it comes to the crunch, people are more likely to be obedient and conformist than to challenge authority and help someone in distress.

However guilty and nasty they felt about being cruel, they were scared to simply refuse and walk out. They somehow justified the instructions, repressed their finer feelings and did what they were told.

Even knowing how mindlessly callous some people can be, I still find this level of submission incredible. Are so many people capable of ignoring heart-wrenching, insistent cries of pain and misery? It seems they are.

I'm totally sure I would be one of the refuseniks. Apart from my ingrained rebelliousness and suspicion of experts and authority figures, there's no way I could willingly inflict pain on an innocent person for no good reason. And a so-called scientific experiment with no clear purpose is not a good reason. I would be out of the door like a shot.

We like to pride ourselves on being questioning and independent, looking carefully at a situation and doing the right thing. But it seems that in practice this can prove to be a fragile self-delusion.

Our cherished principles can all too easily be undermined by our human weakness for less moral considerations - wanting to please, not wanting to be awkward, or just following procedures. We're not always as strong-minded as we like to think.

* the Milgram Experiment at Yale University in 1961

Friday, 15 May 2009

On the move

Hey, Jenny and I are actually moving house at long last, fifteen months after we first put our own house on the market! We can't quite believe it's really happening - for definite!

After months of not getting any offers, and houses we planned to move to falling through for one reason or another, finally all the jigsaw pieces have fallen into place and we're off - from South Belfast to East Belfast.

In a couple of weeks we're leaving the posh, leafy streets of the South (Queens University, the Queens Film Theatre, fashionable Lisburn Road, the Botanic Gardens) for the almost as posh Belmont (Stormont, Campbell College and several other swanky schools).

Once again I'll have to completely reorientate myself, in an unfamiliar neighbourhood with different shops, bus routes, amenities, landmarks. I really love exploring a new area and getting to know all the backstreets and quirky old buildings.

But what an upheaval it is, so many details to sort out with so many people - estate agents, solicitors, removal men, buyers, sellers, banks, phone companies. And of course all the friends and relatives who have to be updated. Aaargh!

I will have lived in thirteen homes altogether, including my boarding school and a slummy bedsit in the illustrious Abbey Road. One was next door to Sade's house, two were in red light districts, two adjoined railway lines, and the present one is under a flight path.

One thing I know is, homes all have their distinct personalities. Some I could never live in, they feel cold and unwelcoming the moment I step through the door, while others just vibrate with happy, exuberant lives.

I wonder if some houses enjoy being houses, while others would rather not be there at all?

Photo: a typical Belmont street

NB: Blogging and commenting may be a bit erratic over the next few weeks, what with the run-up to moving and transferring our broadband connection. Be patient!

Jenny has given me the intriguing Noblesse Oblige Award - "for his constant efforts to make sense of the world - some entertaining, some deadly serious, all expressed wonderfully clearly." Well, gee thanks! Nepotism rules, okay!

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Enough is enough

In one of the papers today, four teetotallers explain how awkward it can be when they're surrounded by drinkers all happily chucking booze down their throats.

Inevitably when they refuse any alcohol, those who enjoy it keep asking why they abstain. Wouldn't they have more fun if they had a glass or two? Is it a religious principle? Are they recovering alcoholics?

The idea that they simply don't like the taste of alcohol, or they don't like hangovers, or they enjoy themselves fine when they're sober, seems to mystify people. How can you not want to ingest as much of the stuff as possible?

I'm subject to this sort of questioning sometimes, as I drink very little and find two glasses are more than enough to blur my brain and senses in a way I find embarrassing and annoying. My tolerance for alcohol is very limited, and it does nothing at all for my sociability or my intelligence.

But there's still the general assumption that I should be drinking more, that I can't really enjoy myself without at least a bottle of wine inside me. There's even an attitude that if I don't wake up the next morning with a colossal hangover, my evening out must obviously have been a washout.

Well, sorry, but I like my alcohol in moderation, too much of it does nothing for me whatever. If others genuinely relish non-stop quantities of it, good luck to them, though when I see people lurching out of pubs, vomiting profusely and having to be taken home by others for their own safety, I do have my doubts.

Can this really be pleasure? And am I really just a miserable killjoy?

The Belgian city of Ghent now has a weekly vegetarian day, to counter the impact of livestock on the environment. Nice one!

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Labour pains

The Labour government seems bemused by its huge unpopularity. They seem to think we're all a bunch of ungrateful sods who can't appreciate their dazzling achievements.

What kind of cloud-cuckoo land are they living in? Most people could produce a list of disappointments as long as their arm, in stark contrast to the soaring hopes when Labour was first elected in 1997.

Out of the pile of rubble, I'll pick out two things that show the dreadful hypocrisy and incompetence of this motley crew.

On the one hand, there are still at least 11 million people (a sixth of the population) living in poverty*, including 3 million children and 2½ million pensioners. Labour's vow to halve child poverty by 2010 looks increasingly unbelievable.

On the other hand, MPs keep voting themselves pay rises well above inflation, as well as fiddling their expenses every which way. They claim for taxes they haven't paid, second homes they never use, inflated cleaning bills, personal TV packages, you name it.

Then they wonder why the voters have turned against them and want to kick them all out of office. They still spin every new disappointment as steady progress and wonder why they aren't getting a deafening round of applause.

Meanwhile they're obstinately spending billions to introduce ID cards, so they can be absolutely sure we're entitled to the public services they're busily running down. Passports and driving licences are apparently not convincing enough, so we're expected to shell out for further documents.

Even if we're debt-ridden parents or hard-up pensioners.

* Defined as households earning less than 60% of Britain's median income

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Alphabet soup: C

Number three in the globally celebrated series "Nick As Alphabet". T shirts and ringtones available soon....

Chocoholic: Love the stuff, it's pure luxury. But I can't eat too much without getting nauseous.

Cheese: Can't get enough of it, so many delicious types. Had to give up being vegan as I missed cheese too much. (Requested by Baino!)

Compliments: I always enjoy a compliment, and I try to praise others likewise. It costs nothing and it lifts the spirit.

Conscience: I have too many moral scruples to be one of those ruthless, go-getting types.

Conspiracies: Never been much of a conspiracy theorist. Most calamities are due to accidents or incompetence.

Cremation: Don't want to be left lying in the ground. Just burn me and scatter the ashes somewhere beautiful.

Cross-dressing: Done a bit of that in my time. I did look pretty stunning once in hot pants and pink tights.

Cruelty: I recoil from any hint of it. It does so much emotional damage, but it's still far too common.

Culchie: The Irish term for country bumpkin. So what do you call the city bumpkin, who prefers the chip shop to the deli?

Country: I enjoy the peace and scenery for short periods, but I'm a culture-vulture townie at heart.

Charisma: I have none whatever. But the humdrum exterior conceals an inner furnace of creativity and wit.

Claustrophobia: Only get it in very confined spaces. I couldn't possibly go potholing or be a miner, I'd totally panic.

Clairvoyants: Mostly frauds. None of their ludicrous predictions about my life ever came true.

Classical music: I've tried hard to appreciate it, but most of it goes over my head. I'm an incorrigible rock fan.

Cycling: Used to cycle a lot when I was young, but then went off it. Keep thinking I should take it up again.

Custard pie: It must be a wonderful feeling to throw a custard pie at someone you object to. Plenty of candidates!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


I’m often a bit inhibited when I’m talking to other people. I find it hard just to chatter away about anything and everything. There’s always a part of me that’s nervous I’m going to say something totally stupid or inappropriate or offensive.

So I tend to be hesitant, weighing my words and checking my thoughts as if I’m about to come out as a werewolf. Too many doubts and I fall silent, letting someone more confident make the running.

Alcohol doesn’t help, in fact it hinders, slowing me down so much that it’s an effort to say anything at all. And other people’s conversation stops making sense and simply washes over me.

People say to me, but you’re unlikely to say anything really awful, just relax and let whatever wants to come out come out. But asking me to relax is guaranteed to put me instantly on guard.

One thing that can melt my inhibitions though is enthusiasm. If I’m really fired up about something, my usual reticence vanishes and I start babbling away like a four year old, quite unconcerned about other people’s reactions.

Okay, I have certain thoughts and feelings I don’t want to reveal. But so do lots of people, and it doesn’t stop them gabbing away nineteen to the dozen. They manage to keep their secrets without damming up everything else.

So if it’s hard to chatter, why not stay silent? Well, that can work with someone I know well, who finds companionship enough. But with strangers, silence becomes awkward. They expect the social lubricant of a steady flow of words.

There’s an old cliché “Engage brain before opening mouth”. On the contrary. In my case, too much thinking and my mouth seizes up. What I need to know is how to switch the bloody thing off.

Isn't Gok Wan absolutely adorable? Did you know that at school he was bullied for being fat and gay? And that now he supports the anti-bullying charity Kidscape?

Friday, 1 May 2009

Poetic licence

Being paid £5760 a year and 600 bottles of sherry to write the odd poem, should you be so inclined, sounds like a rather pleasant job. And Carol Ann Duffy has just landed it.

Britain's quaint old post of Poet Laureate has been around for some 340 years. What exactly the point of it is, apart from penning a few verses for the Monarch, I'm not sure.

Apparently the holder doesn't actually have to produce anything if the muse doesn't take them. If they spend the entire ten years claiming poet's block, that's just ticketyboo.

However in practice a few memorable lines are expected on Royal occasions such as weddings or birthdays. Glamorous occasions only of course. "Lines on the Queen falling off her horse and landing in a pile of horse manure" wouldn't quite fit the bill.

But no Poet Laureate has ever been sacked except the first, John Dryden, who was given the boot after he refused to swear an oath of loyalty to William the Third. Nobody has ever been fired for producing sub-standard work, even when it causes public uproar.

The process of selecting the Poet Laureate is deeply mysterious and never divulged. "Not only is the process secret, but even the reason why it is a secret is a secret" concluded one thwarted investigator. Some sort of Masonic ritual, perhaps?

Well, all I can say is, I may be out of a job but that's not one I'll be applying for. Apart from there being quite enough awful poetry in circulation already, somehow I think being a Republican would upset the apple cart.

NB: I mean Republican in the British sense (anti-Monarchy) rather than the Irish sense (a united Ireland) or the American sense (right-wing). A confusing word these days....

Photo: Carol Ann Duffy

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