Thursday, 31 December 2015

Sex symbols

It must be weird when the world sees you as a sex symbol.
Like George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson.
They must know very well they're no sexier than anyone else.
Who knows, they may even find sex utterly boring.
But people see them as some red-hot seducer.
Quite a reputation to live up to.
I'm rather glad I was never seen as anything resembling a sex symbol.
I'm the most ordinary person to look at.
If you saw me as a sex symbol, I'd just laugh like a drain.
I'd assume you needed new glasses.
People never gave me a second glance, even when young and wrinkle-free.
Nobody was ever panting to get me between the sheets.
Thank goodness for that.
I'm happy to be known for other, more essential qualities.
Like kindness or compassion or loyalty.
I'm happy to be the amused onlooker
sipping my glass of wine
as others flaunt their wares and seduce each other
with a shameless appetite.
I'm happy that what I think
is more interesting than what I look like.
Maybe I'm a red-hot, sultry thought symbol.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Things I enjoy

It being the season of goodwill and all that, today I shall desist from any sort of moaning and whinging and celebrate the positive - like things I enjoy. So here are a few random pleasures off the top of my head.
  • Murmurations
  • Squirrels and cats
  • Sunrises and sunsets
  • Weeping willows
  • Beautiful men and women
  • Oddballs and misfits
  • Acrobats and gymnasts
  • Stilt-walkers
  • Dresses (usually on other people)
  • Modern art
  • Music/books/films
  • Chess
  • White wine
  • Vegetarian and vegan food
  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate
  • The sea
  • Mountains
  • Thunderstorms
  • Fountains
  • Waterfalls
It only remains to say: Happy Christmas. May the Force be with you. And may traffic wardens stay away from your street.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Scars

I was asked if I had any scars.
No, no physical scars.
I've never had an operation.
I've never had a serious accident.
I've never been beaten up.
So the answer is no.
But I have plenty of emotional scars.
I've had a strange life.
Things haven't always gone according to plan.
I've had my share of pain and grief
along with fun and happiness.
I've had to confront some dark corners
of my own personality.
I've found things I'd rather not have found.
I've wrestled with demons.
But I've lived to tell the tale.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Parental blues

Who'd be a parent? Wherever you go, other people are privately (or publicly) judging your parenting skills. Neighbours, relatives, teachers, total strangers. Not to mention your own nagging self-criticism. And not to mention all those contradictory parenting guides.

There can't be many parents who're blithely confident that they're doing fine, that they know what's good for their kids, and aren't always looking over their shoulder at what other parents are doing.

I'll admit to a bit of censorious tut-tutting myself. Kids who run riot in restaurants. Kids who sit next to me on the bus and are jumping up and down for the next 20 minutes. Kids who drop chocolate wrappers in my front garden. But at least I keep my petty whinges to myself and don't load the parents with yet more guilt and self-blame.

So many people think they could do a better job than the parents themselves. Surely all that's needed is a bit more discipline, a bit less lazy indifference, and a few basic behavioural guidelines. How hard can it be?

Those who're doing the parenting could tell them exactly how hard it can be. Relentlessly truculent children, relentlessly hyper-active children, relentlessly destructive children. Just put yourself in our shoes, they might say, and you'll see what a constant struggle it can be to turn wayward children into civilised human beings.

How thankful parents must be if they're blessed with polite, considerate, diligent children who're a delight to have around and not a permanent embarrassment. And how sympathetic they must be to those whose children are an endless headache.

I've never had children, but I sometimes wonder if my own children would have been little horrors or little angels. In my worst nightmares, they would have been the offspring from hell. And the censorious tut-tutting would have been a deafening clamour.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Like for like

Should a character in a play or movie with a defining trait be played by an actor with the same trait? Should a disabled person always be played by a disabled actor, or a transgender woman by a transgender woman, or a lesbian by a lesbian?

There's been a lot of controversy over this question recently. Activists objected strongly to transgender roles being taken by non-transgender actors. Flynn in "Breaking Bad", however, who has cerebral palsy, was played by Roy Frank Mitte, who himself has cerebral palsy. Yet nobody thought it strange that the two lesbians in "Carol" were portrayed by heterosexual women.

On the one hand, it's argued that the whole point of acting is to depict someone different from yourself, and it's your acting ability that makes the person convincing. The opposing view says that however good an actor you are, you can never be as convincing or as natural as the real thing - someone who is actually disabled, lesbian, or whatever.

My thinking is that you should use actors with the same trait as the character, as they do tend to be more authentic. But how far do you take it? You could apply the principle so widely it becomes not only absurd but impractical. Should you insist on a an actor who's a genuine anorexic, or alcoholic, or rapist, or hit-and-run driver? The casting process would be a nightmare. And suppose you wanted someone who was anorexic and a hit-and-run driver? The mind boggles.

On second thoughts, maybe you should just ask actors to do what they're supposed to do - act. Why spoil their fun?

Pic: transgender actor Rebecca Root

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Wild emotions

I'm not known for expressing wild emotions. The wild emotions are there all right, I'm very aware of them churning away inside me somewhere, but I keep them to myself rather than hurling them at everyone else.

Others are less restrained. They shout abuse at the TV or the neighbours. They scream at other motorists who've annoyed them. They throw crockery or books. They send vitriolic emails. They slice up their cheating spouse's clothes.

Do they feel better for such extreme behaviour or worse? I've no idea. But I definitely feel better for keeping my more fevered emotions to myself. I don't want to end up doing something I bitterly regret 24 hours later but can't undo.

I find it embarrassing and disturbing when I'm present at such outbursts, and feel much relieved when things quieten down again. It's not that I don't sympathise. I know it's a natural response to utter frustration or distress. But I still find it acutely uncomfortable to watch.

I hate seeing parents shouting and screaming at their children. I hate seeing couples having violent arguments. I hate it when people let rip at hapless sales assistants, waiters or airline staff. I'm sure there must be less frenzied, less melodramatic ways of dealing with the problem.

On the odd occasion when I'm so consumed with rage that I express it openly and volubly, people are amazed. They're so used to me as the picture of calm and reasonableness. They're so used to me as the mediator, the one whose first instinct is to settle differences and patch things up.

Oh, and I cried freely at work once over the way I'd been treated by the boss. He must have been pretty vile, as I rarely cry, even in private.

But road rage? Chucking crockery? Cutting up clothes? About as likely as a lunar eclipse.

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 every....so 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

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Seriously scary

On the whole I'm a responsible person. I take things seriously, I do what needs to be done, I bite the bullet. I don't procras-tinate or deny or disappear. I don't create messes for others to clear up. I don't blame my mistakes on other people. I don't say "That's someone else's job".

I keep things ticking over. I get the car repaired. I go to the doctor. I pay the bills. I keep the house insured. I do the food-shopping. I don't sprawl on the sofa all day, slurping beer and watching reality TV.

I'm good at all that small-scale responsibility, looking after myself and my partner, keeping the household going. What I'm not good at, what totally terrifies me, is any large-scale responsibility - anything that involves not just me but large numbers of other people. I run from that as fast as I can. I'm sure it would end in colossal disaster.

I could never have been an airline pilot, or a hospital administrator, or a train driver, or a roller-coaster operator, or the manager of a vast public stadium. The stress of knowing I was personally responsible for the safety of hundreds or thousands of ordinary folk would make me a nervous wreck in weeks.

Even being responsible for a large number of staff - a shop or office manager, say - would freak me out. Knowing they depended on me for their income and job satisfaction. Knowing I depended on them to turn up, to do their jobs properly, to not rob the till or insult the customers. I had opportunities to be a bookshop manager but I always resisted them, preferring to be a humble but contented employee.

So yes, I'm good at responsibility chez nous. Good at oiling squeaky doors and unblocking sinks. But responsibility for hundreds of trusting, vulnerable human beings - that's seriously scary.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Fizzing furiously

Do we really live life more intensely when we're young? Is it really true that as children we feel everything more passion-ately, more vividly, but as we get older we're more phlegmatic, shrugging off with a brief flicker of interest things that once got us so aroused?

Of course it isn't. Oldies feel things just as acutely. We may not go rushing off to protest rallies or dance the night away (though some of us still do), but we're just as emotional and passionate as we ever were. Things can still stab us in the heart or knock us for six.

You only have to listen to a few oldies exclaiming about some pet grievance or some cherished political opinion to realise that they're not exactly burnt-out old cynics happy to let life drift past them with an indifferent "So what?"

I constantly amaze myself with my continuing passions about life's vicissitudes. In fact it's because I've lived so long, and know how little has been done to resolve problems I've been aware of since I was a small child, that I get so angry and forthright about the need to fix them. Often angrier than when I was young and thought these injustices would soon be put right.

And it's because I've lived so long, and can recall a more enlightened time of full employment, better working conditions, generous welfare benefits and cheaper housing, that I'm utterly distressed at the way we're hurtling back to a Victorian era of struggle and deprivation, and I'm incandescent with disbelief and outrage. How could anyone of any age not be passionate about this wilful political vandalism?

No, my emotions certainly haven't dried up with advancing years. On the contrary, they're fizzing as furiously as they were in my naive, pubescent self.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Object lesson

I think couples are often objectified in the same way as women are objectified. People make judgments on the basis of what the couple looks like, with little or no knowledge of what actually goes on "inside" the relationship.

A relationship dismissed as sterile, or unbalanced, or destructive, by casual observers might actually be a very happy and fulfilling relationship, but only the couple themselves know that, while the naysayers have got it entirely wrong.

But people do love to judge other people's relationships, seemingly quite oblivious that they're almost certainly misreading them and simply making an arse of themselves.

Celebrity couples in particular seem to attract this vacuous opinionising, but couples everywhere have been subjected to it at one time or another. I'm sure we all know couples whose friends or relatives have said "That'll never work. They'll have split up in six months", and then lo and behold, ten years later they're still going strong.

Apart from anything else, how people behave in public can be very different from how they behave in private, in the seclusion of their own household, where they can be completely natural and uninhibited. In public they may change their behaviour dramatically, putting on a show of politeness or generosity or open-mindedness (or for that matter naked aggression) that's totally false.

In which case making impassioned judgments on the basis of what couples are choosing to show you is not only superficial but gullible.

Even the smartest guesses can never plumb the infinite mystery of human pairings.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Baring all

Some couples claim there's nothing they wouldn't want their partners to see, that they just let it all hang out and they don't care what their partner thinks. Such openness is part of a genuine, honest relationship and why on earth would they want to hide things? What's to be shy about?

I've met couples who seem to do exactly that and not feel at all awkward about it. They share the bathroom, show each other their wobbly bits, hoover up cake and chocolates, plough through chicklit, and don't feel any furtive need to conceal anything.

I incline that way too. I might feel a bit embarrassed at times about having an audience, but seldom do I actually hide anything - unless I'm asked to. There are very few things I'd rather keep to myself.

I was checking through a list of activities that people commonly don't want their partner to witness, and personally I wouldn't be too bothered by any of them. For example:
  • Getting dressed or undressed
  • Trying on clothes
  • Weighing yourself
  • Eating something unhealthy or bingeing
  • Enjoying a trashy novel/music/film etc
  • Boozing
  • Smoking
  • Pleasuring yourself
  • Personal grooming
  • Crying/being seriously upset
  • Buying something expensive
  • Using pornography
Not that I've ever smoked or used porn, so those two can be ruled out. But as for the others, what's the big deal? Why would I want to keep them out of sight?

It's sad that someone feels so embarrassed or ashamed by their body or their behaviour, or so scared of a judgmental and censorious partner, that they simply can't stand to be seen. But such reticence is easily learnt, and hard to shake off once it's engrained.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Boringly moderate

I'm a remarkably un-obsessive and un-addictive person. I'm boringly moderate about virtually every-thing*. I have no habits so out-of-control that they soak up money, ruin my health, burden other people, or might get me sacked.

I've never smoked. I drink very little alcohol. I don't gamble. I don't visit prostitutes. I don't use porn. I don't have affairs. I don't crave junk food. I don't go in for plastic surgery. I don't self-harm. I've taken "fun" drugs just four times. As I say, boringly moderate. Yawningly restrained.

The things that blight other people's lives either don't interest me, actively repulse me or satisfy me in modest amounts. I don't feel the urge to grab more and more of something, to binge crazily on something well past the point of initial pleasure.

Many people would say I'm just afraid of living, letting my hair down, having a good time. I'm too self-controlled, too "sensible", too inhibited. Maybe that's true. But I feel I've had a great life and I'm not conscious of missing some vital experience by being so moderate.

In some people's eyes, this natural restraint makes me smug, or self-righteous, or censorious. I hope not. I really feel for people who're in the grip of some all-consuming addiction that's wrecking them and is the despair of of their helpless loved ones. Like the richly talented but so susceptible Amy Winehouse.

I suppose I've always believed in the saying "A little of what you fancy does you good." Too much of what you fancy and the pleasure will wear off rapidly, leaving you jaded and disappointed. For other people though "You can't have too much of a good thing" rules the day.

* Well, except politics. And religion. And meat-eating.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Big smack for Jack

Huge controversy over the opening of a Jack The Ripper Museum in East London. Those for it and those against it are slugging it out, abuse is being hurled in all directions, the museum windows have been smashed, and the owner is lying low.

Supporters say it's informative and sympathetic to the victims. Opponents say it's misogynist rubbish and local residents were hoodwinked about the nature of the museum.

Needless to say, most of the protesters haven't actually been round the museum, but they feel free to criticise it and demand its closure.

The critics maintain that when the museum was first announced to the locals, the idea was to "recognise and celebrate the women of the East End", showcasing 150 years of social history including the Match Girls Union, the Suffragettes, and the Bengali women who fought racism.

Residents say they were shocked to find the original plans had been scrapped in favour of a museum about an infamous 19th-century murderer of female prostitutes.

Well, I rather think the protesters are going a bit over the top. Yes, a museum about women of the East End, especially feminist women, would have been excellent. But is a museum about a woman-hating murderer such a dreadful alternative?

The museum's owner, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, denies it's celebrating or glorifying the murderer. He says it's very much from the point-of-view of the victims.

Since almost nobody has actually checked out the museum's content, who can say what angle it takes and whether the protesters have valid arguments or whether they're going ape-shit over a contrived outrage?

Surely anyone with any sense of fair play would at least properly investigate what they're fuming at before making such a public song-and-dance about it. But such scruples seem to be a thing of the past.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Safe and sound

As a straight white man living in a sedate area of a British city, I take my physical safety for granted. The chances of my being mugged or shot or raped or otherwise attacked are so miniscule I don't need to worry about it.

Not so for many, many other people who have to think about their physical safety all the time. Women wary of any unknown man on the street. Gays wary of anti-gay thugs. Black people wary of hostile whites. Atheists living in a religion-dominated society. Families living in the midst of civil war. Sexually abused children.

No society can call itself civilised when so many of its citizens feel physically unsafe and at risk from those around them. We should all feel safe and protected and unthreatened. But the reality is very different.

Luckily all I ever have to worry about is emotional safety - that there are people who care for me and respect me and that I'm not going to be constantly judged and appraised and found wanting. That people won't laugh if I do something wrong, or push me away if I feel lonely, or patronise me if I'm distressed. And by and large, in that way too I feel safe.

I hugely admire those people who're determined to be themselves and live their lives to the full despite huge threats to their physical and emotional safety. They refuse to be intimidated or scared and just carry on regardless in the face of widespread menace. I marvel at their strength and single-mindedness. I could never be that tough.

It's a sorry state of affairs when some women still feel the need to go out with a man or another woman, simply to ward off unwanted male attention. Even when we're well into the 21st century? It's scandalous.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Moral panic

The media have ruthlessly ganged up on the hapless Lord Sewel for snorting coke and using prostitutes*, as if this is the most outrageous behaviour ever and he should obviously be hung, drawn and quartered and buried in an unmarked grave.

The stink of hypocrisy hangs over this weird vendetta. Since plenty of his fellow peers and MPs must have taken illegal drugs of some kind, or cheated on their womenfolk by visiting prostitutes or having affairs (or both), the singling out of one politician unlucky enough to be spied upon by the Sun surely deserves sympathy rather than vilification.

What's really outrageous is a newspaper secretly filming Lord Sewel in his own flat, doing things he assumed were entirely private, and then publishing what they had filmed with the quite deliberate and cynical aim of wrecking his political career.

What's equally outrageous is that his colleagues, rather than commiserating with him, condemning the sleazy tactics of journalists, and pointing out that what he does in his own flat is his own business and nobody else's, have castigated him for his "shocking", "unacceptable" and "disgraceful" behaviour and agreed with the media that his political career is over.

Why taking coke and using prostitutes (in his own home) should make him no longer fit to do his public job of overseeing the work of House of Lords committees is anyone's guess. As far as I know, nobody has ever suggested he's falling down on the job or was too strung out to grasp a piece of legislation.

The simple fact is that if the Sun hadn't intruded on his private life, he would still be happily doing the job he was asked to do, and his political competence would never have been questioned.

Don't get me wrong. I have no time for men who use prostitutes. It's an activity that does huge psychological and emotional damage to the women who're lured into it, and the pathetic creeps who keep it going should know better.

And goodness knows what his wife Jennifer makes of it all.

But the media have no right to splash Lord Sewel's private activities across front pages unless they're of genuine public concern - which in this case they blatantly aren't. It's a classic knee-jerk moral panic over something quite piffling.

* allegedly

Friday, 24 July 2015

Baseless rumours

For some years now the media have been suggesting that the supermodel Veronica Trinket and myself are an item. I keep denying this baseless rumour but they still spread it at every opportunity. Even stern legal warnings from Sue, Grabbit and Runne don't deter them.

Anyone with half a brain can see how absurd this idea is. Firstly, I'm very happily married to a red-hot spouse. Secondly, what on earth would a twenty something supermodel see in a crumbling oldie like myself? Thirdly, I suspect there's no such person as Veronica Trinket but the media haven't even bothered to check.

The willowy young blonde who frequently visits me while my partner is away from home is certainly not this Trinket person. She is simply the landscape gardener who tends to the shrubs and young trees when they need some attention. On occasion I offer her a cup of tea or a chocolate biscuit, but absolutely nothing else is offered or asked for. It's true that she bears a slight resemblance to Ms Trinket but that's obviously a mere visual coincidence.

The grainy photos of a smiling young girl, strongly implied to be the secret love-child of our clandestine relationship, are plainly faked by some enterprising newshound whose journalistic career is faltering. The missing left ear and the toeless right foot clearly suggest some rather clumsy fabrication.

As for those doddery old gits who stop me in the street and ask me what my secret is and how they can "grab a bit of the girlie action", I shoo them away with a contemptuous snort. All I'm grabbing at my age is blood pressure pills and reading glasses. They shouldn't believe everything they hear.

Pic: an alleged photo of the alleged Veronica Trinket

Friday, 17 July 2015

Shut up and kiss me

I was surprised to hear that kissing isn't nearly as universal as I thought. It's far from being the normal way of showing your affection for someone. In large swathes of the world, it's considered abnormal or even unpleasant.

A study of 168 cultures around the world shows that in only 46 per cent of them do couples kiss romantically, despite previous research that claimed kissing was habitual everywhere. Even in Europe there were several cultures where kissing was unusual.

I must say that if I lived in one of the non-kissing cultures, I would feel seriously deprived. I adore kissing and do it as often as possible. Women or men, it makes no difference, it's just as exciting. It's such a wonderfully sensual and intimate experience. There's nothing like it.

And how can people actually find it unpleasant? Is it the moistness? The mingling of oral fluids? The exchange of micro-organisms? The physical closeness? The risk of catching something?

Some people just object to public displays of affection full stop. They find them unnecessary or distasteful or narcissistic. They believe such effusive gestures should be kept private, and preferably kept in the bedroom.

Personally I enjoy seeing couples romantically entwined, freely showing their love and tenderness for each other. It's an uplifting sight in a world where many people feel alone and neglected.

Of course most British males still recoil from kissing each other, for fear of being thought effeminate or, shudder shudder, homosexual - or just plain weird. They still prefer a handshake or a playful slap on the shoulder to anything more pleasurable. The need to be "masculine" lingers on.

Come on, give us a kiss, mister. You might even like it.

"Shut up and kiss me" - a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Not so golden

I'm not a nostalgic person. I don't yearn for some long-gone period of my life that seemed more enjoyable and idyllic than the one I'm in now.

Whatever chunk of my life I look back on, I'm very aware that it had its boring, miserable and frustrating bits as well as the rewarding bits.

I certainly don't pine for the "Swinging Sixties" as some people do. Yes, it was a time of creative ferment and the loosening of stuffy conventions, but it also saw a lot of men exploiting women in the name of "sexual liberation" and a lot of people wrecking themselves with relentless drug consumption.

I don't pine for some supposed golden age of daily life before we were swamped by the trivial and venomous outpourings of social media. It wasn't much fun trudging to the public phone box in the pouring rain, or trudging to the library to check on some disputed fact. Thank heaven for mobiles and Google.

Neither do I have nostalgia for some blissful, happy-go-lucky childhood. As you all know, my childhood was a tale of bullying and emotional violence along with the magical seaside holidays and Sunday picnics. No way would I want to go through all that again.

I think the nearest I get to nostalgia is looking back fondly to the Harold Wilson era when the welfare state and public services were cherished, money and profit weren't the be-all and end-all, there was more respect for the old and vulnerable, and the young had a much easier start in life. But even that era had its downside - homophobia was still rife, sexual norms were still very straitlaced, society was still very authoritarian in many ways.

Nostalgia's not my thing. I must have left my rose-tinted spectacles on the bus.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Needy or what?

When does needy become over-needy? When does wanting emotional support become demanding and dependent?

It's easy to start relying on other people a bit too much, especially if sympathy comes naturally to them and they're reluctant to push people away when they're looking for help.

It's easy to think it's impossible to get through something on your own, that you just don't have the resources, and tempting to simply act helpless and wait for someone to give you a leg-up.

I hope I'm not over-needy myself. I do try to get through personal crises on my own without leaning too much on other people. I'm not one to rush for a shoulder to cry on or a soothing voice to tell me everything's going to be okay.

If anything, I'm probably not needy enough. I was brought up with the attitude that boys don't act fragile and vulnerable, they tough it out and fake gritty resilience even if they're secretly a barely functioning emotional wreck.

The fact is that we can't always deal with things on our own and even the strongest person may need a helping hand when everything's going pear-shaped.

But we probably all know someone who homes in on sympathy and wants more and more attention and support, until the friendly ear turns into growing impatience and wary avoidance.

Luckily I have a long-standing partner who by now is very attuned to my emotional state and knows when I need an "agony aunt" and when I need to work through something on my own. If she thinks I'm being over-needy, she won't hesitate to tell me. I'm not allowed to play the snivelling bag of nerves for too long.

Which is all to the good. I'd hate to be thought of as an emotional leech.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Spilling the beans

Therapist-cum-life-coach Tori Ufondu only works with men - because they're often reluctant to open up about themselves and it's more challenging to break down their inhibitions. She finds working with women less rewarding because "sessions with women feel more like talking to my girlfriends".

Interesting that she still finds men more tight-lipped and defensive, when there's a general impression that men are getting more open and happy to talk about what's going on inside. Personally I find the men I come across just as unforthcoming as ever and not at all good at spilling the personal stuff.

Tori finds that once she's helped a guy to open up, he reveals all sorts of hang-ups he's never been fully aware of, let alone shared with other guys (or women).

Like difficulties getting on with workmates, or being a slave to other people's expectations, or fear of failure, or sexual frustration, or not recognising his partner's changing identity. Big issues that are seriously affecting his life.

Clearly men's inability to share what's troubling them is doing harm. Seventy eight per cent of all UK suicides are male. A lot of those men must have been bottling up distressing thoughts and feelings that other people could have helped with.

I'm not brilliant at pouring out the personal stuff myself. I'm much more open than when I was young but it still doesn't come naturally. I still have to drive away those masculine inhibitions about "keeping it all to yourself" that were drummed into me as a boy.

But as my regulars know, over the years I've identified all sorts of personal quirks and phobias and anxieties and prejudices I used to be oblivious of, and my self-awareness has expanded dramatically.

I'm sure some of you will promptly tell me that my self-awareness is far from complete and remind me of numerous negative traits that annoy the hell out of you and are shamefully misanthropic. But I'm getting there.

However embarrassing or agonising it may be to spill the beans, letting it all fester and coagulate inside is asking for trouble.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The enigma of maturity

A theme I come back to over and over is maturity. What is maturity exactly? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Should we strive to be mature or not give a shit and just be ourselves?

If it means behaving responsibly, considering other people's needs, being as kind and generous as possible, not leaning on others, not picking fights or tearing people to pieces, then I'd go along with all that.

If it means constantly restraining yourself, giving things up or toning things down, not being too gushing or flamboyant, always being polite and inoffensive, doing what other people expect you to do, suppressing your natural tastes and responses, then phooey to all that, that's just crushing your real self in the name of social acceptance.

Oldies in particular are supposed to act in a mature way and not like reckless, hedonistic youngsters. We're supposed to "act our age", dress blandly and sedately, never rant or rave, never do anything alarming or unexpected, never inconvenience anybody, and generally try to fade into the background.

Well, phooey to all that as well. If I want to rant and rave, or dress in bright pink and purple, or do something that embarrasses all and sundry, I shall do so. I'm certainly not going to shut myself down because somebody or other thinks that's age-appropriate.

But I think most of us, however long we've lived, struggle to be mature in any sense at all. We act responsibly or considerately if we feel the need, and other people are demanding it, but the rest of the time it all goes pear-shaped and we're just blindly following our impulses and our engrained bad habits.

From time to time we do something quite shocking and disgraceful, and then we think "Jeez, that was childish. I really should behave like a mature adult". And 24 hours later we do something equally shocking and disgraceful.

Maturity? A concept that's as slippery as an eel.

"Maturity is a high price to pay for growing up" - Tom Stoppard

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Safe and sound

I really take for granted that as a British citizen, as a man, and as a white person, I can generally feel safe and unlikely to be attacked or discriminated against.

Apart from my childhood, which you've all heard about ad nauseam, I've been privileged compared to millions of people across the world who live in constant fear and insecurity, always about to be humiliated or victimised, about to lose their home or their job, or die in some incomprehensible war or religious crackdown.

I can go about my daily life with confidence and optimism, sure that on the whole I'll achieve what I want to achieve, that people will treat me fairly, that I'll be given respect and consideration.

I'm not going to be harassed and insulted by the opposite sex, I'm not going to be stopped for driving while black, I haven't been forced into the exhausting, badly-paid jobs that are reserved for immigrants. I won't be kicked around and exploited because my social status is zero.

When I stop to think about it, I count my blessings that I was born where I was, in the sex and skin that I was, into the family I was, into the neighbourhood I was, and not into totally different circumstances that would have doomed me to a hard, miserable, frantic existence.

I suppose what reminded me of all that is the way immigrants are being treated both in Britain and across the world. The desperation of all those wretched mobs at Calais. The asylum seekers treated with such contempt and cruelty by the Australian government. The torrent of refugees from the bedlam in the Middle East.

I can imagine only too well what they must be feeling, what they must be going through. It's a million miles from my own cushy experience.

I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I was certainly dealt a good hand of cards.

Pic: The Turkish Coast Guard stops a boatload of migrants trying to reach Greece.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Star-struck

I'm far too easily intimidated. There are so many things that instantly demolish my fragile self-confidence. Like people who're wealthy/ hyper intelligent/ posh/ famous/ naturally chatty/ beautiful.

Why oh why, you might ask. Why do all these things matter so much to you? Just be yourself and people will like you or not like you and that's it. And it won't matter a damn if they're wealthy or posh or whatever.

Easy to say but not so easy to do. And don't tell me you never feel the same way yourself. Don't tell me you're never unravelled by someone whose talents and abilities make you feel like the village idiot. Someone who makes you wish the ground would swallow you up.

I mean, most people are thrown by celebs. Someone meets their revered actor or footballer or guru and what happens? They're struck dumb. They've no idea what to say. They're paralysed by the aura that surrounds this household name. And they stand there, their mouth opening and shutting like a goldfish, and then the star moves on and they're kicking themselves for being so gormless.

If I ever came face to face with (say) Sarah Silverman, the conversation would probably go something like this:

Me: Wow, you're Sarah Silverman.
SS: That's correct. Well spotted.
Me: Wow, I just have to say, your stuff is brilliant. Totally brilliant. Really, it's so fucking brilliant. And did I say it was brilliant?
SS: Thank you so much. Now if you'll excuse me....
Me (mouth opening and shutting like a goldfish): Of course. Oh my God - Sarah Silverman. Jeez.

So don't anyone try and tell me you had this witty, scintillating, 30-minute convo with (say) Tina Fey. I won't believe you. I won't.

Admit it. You would be intimidated. You would feel like the village idiot. You would want the ground to swallow you up.

The trouble is, it never does.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Cold feet

It seems that a surprising number of those about to marry already doubt that the relationship will last. And quite a few of them consider leaving their spouse-to-be at the ceremony. But for one reason or another they go through with it - often only to confirm their original doubts and get divorced.

A survey of 1,600 divorcees found that 49 per cent were worried on their wedding day that the marriage was a big mistake, and two thirds thought about calling it off.

So why did they squash their doubts and carry on anyway? They thought their partner would change for the better. They thought "it would all work out". They were too embarrassed. They felt guilty letting their partner down. They succumbed to family pressure. Or they thought it was just "wedding nerves".

One woman who explains her numerous doubts says she only realised how empty her marriage was when a workmate got engaged and she burst into tears.

I wonder how many of the divorcees cohabited before they married. It seems to me that a period of cohabiting will make it very clear whether you're suited to each other and likely to stay together or whether it's just not going to work.

Jenny and I cohabited for 14 years before we married, and by then were confident we would stay together. Even though the marriage was basically for financial reasons (I would only inherit her occupational pension if I was a spouse), we had no doubts whatever as we did the necessary at the local register office.

But I can understand those with cold feet not having the nerve to stand up and say "No, I just can't do it". Especially if it's a mega-bucks white wedding with all the trimmings. Disappointing hundreds of people and throwing all that cash down the drain. Looking like a complete idiot for going along with huge preparations.

Who wants to be a party-pooper?

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Out of context

It's very odd when a judge excuses physical violence towards a child on the grounds that "cultural context" should be considered and many newcomers to Britain punish their children by hitting them.

There seems to be a growing trend for certain groups to insist that the law should adapt to their particular beliefs or practices, rather than the law being applied to everyone on the same basis.

There are demands for sharia law, or religious strictures about homosexuality, or FGM, or even honour killings, to be legally acceptable on the grounds of personal conscience or social tradition or whatever, as if people are entitled to modify the law to suit their own purposes.

High Court Judge Mrs Justice Pauffley (pictured), ruling on a case where a boy had been repeatedly hit by his Indian father, said allowance must be made for the family coming from another culture.

Many communities newly arrived in Britain slapped and hit their children for misbehaviour, and the "cultural context" should be considered, she said.

Needless to say, child protection experts were astonished by her remarks, saying that culture is irrelevant to child abuse and every child has the right to be safe and protected from violence.

Of course they're absolutely correct. If certain groups are allowed to be exempt from the laws the rest of us have to follow, solely on the grounds of their deeply-held beliefs, the law would soon lose all credibility and respect. It would become just something to be fiddled or finessed. And once again the lawyers would have a field day.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Give and take

What's the formula for an enduring relation-ship? How come Jenny and I have stuck together for 34 years and not 34 days? What's the glue that keeps it all going? Well, I can think of one or two things.

1) Respect the need for privacy. If the other person prefers to dress/undress in private, or use the bathroom in private, or just be on their own for a while, why not? Total sharing at all times doesn't suit everyone.

2) Accept those idiosyncracies. We all have odd obsessions and habits - hoovering every ten minutes, or scraping out the marmalade jar, or leaving dirty clothes everywhere - and there's no point in trying to change them. That's how we are.

3) Sharing the domestic chores. If one person is doing the lion's share of the chores, and feeling increasingly resentful, it's a recipe for disaster. It has to be even stevens.

4) Maintain the romance. If all the romance has gone out of the relationship, it's dead in the water. There have to be things that keep you a bit starry eyed, a bit soppy, and hopelessly enamoured.

5) Mutual self-expression. It's all a charade if one person is totally doing their thing, while the other is permanently suppressing themself and being what the other wants them to be. You both need to grow.

6) Shared perspectives. Seeing everyday issues in a similar way is important. How clean you expect the house to be, what to spend your money on, how much socialising you like to do. Total incompatibilities can be fatal.

7) Loving each other's bodies. Even as we get older, and wrinklier, and saggier, we still love what we see. We don't hanker after something younger and fresher. Whatever we look like, it's just fine.

8) Communication.* Whatever's going on inside, let the other person know. Too much secrecy and holding-back, too much image-control, will strangle the relationship.

Or to put all that in a nutshell - plenty of give and take. Oh, and plenty of sweet nothings.

* This one thanks to Dave Martin (see comments)