Thursday, 21 September 2017

Nothing personal

Well, looking at all the comments on the post about my mum, there seems to be a general call for more personal blog posts. Which leaves me a bit mystified, since just about all my blog posts have some personal element.

I've explained all my various hang-ups at length, sometimes several times over - the lack of self-confidence, the doubts about my intelligence, my dislike of darkness, my aversion to "masculinity", and all the rest. I've aired my personal attitude to any number of subjects, from prostitution to celebrity. It's hard to see how I could be any more personal than I already am.

My daily life is pretty predictable, so there's not much in the way of exciting or unusual incidents to pass on. I doubt you're desperate to know what I had for breakfast, or how many traffic jams I've been stuck in, or how I once again mislaid my umbrella, or how some dodgy-looking bloke offered to clean up my guttering. But maybe that's exactly what you want to know?

I deliberately avoid discussing impersonal subjects like politics, religion, climate breakdown or terrorism, since (a) they're already discussed ad nauseam by the media (b) I'm probably preaching to the converted (c) or I'm likely to offend someone and (d) I've usually got nothing new to say. So I tend to drift into the personal anyway as I'm more likely to have an opinion that hasn't been aired a thousand times already.

So I'll leave you with a personal thought. Is it just me, or is life getting more and more complicated? So many forms to fill in, phone menus to negotiate, passwords to remember, ID documents to supply, fancy procedures to follow. Where will it end? I'll need an official permit to catch the bus....

Pic: Forgotten umbrella nervously awaiting its destiny

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Moving day

I've just been over to St Ives in Cambridge-shire to see my 95 year old mum move into a care home. It seems like an excellent place, with staff who are genuinely committed to keeping the residents happy and maintaining a sense of independence wherever possible. She certainly looked happy enough after a few hours there meeting the staff and other residents.

Me and the rest of the family - her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter - were reluctant to see her move into a care home, as so many seem to be little more than uncaring warehouses for the elderly, and as my mum has always been fiercely independent.

But we had to admit it was time for her to move somewhere she would be constantly monitored, as she was having frequent falls and sometimes lying on the floor for hours before being found. She also wasn't eating properly or drinking enough. She was feeling increasingly isolated and unsafe.

Unfortunately she seems to have declined rapidly over the last few months, as each further fall undermined her confidence and made her afraid of going out or simply moving around the flat. Just a year ago she was still fit enough for me to take her to some local coffee shops and sit by the river. And before that she was still going on cruises and seaside breaks.

Now we've started on the Herculean task of clearing mum's old flat of all the accumulated clutter and odds and ends that have been piling up for years, since she was reluctant to throw anything away - newspaper cuttings, old bills, Christmas cards, letters, holiday brochures, never-worn clothes, you name it. I think it was all a kind of security blanket.

So we hope she'll be content in her new surroundings. We'll just have to keep our fingers crossed for a few weeks until she's really got the feel of the place. Hopefully she'll be thriving.

Pic: Not my mum, but she looks remarkably similar

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Celebrity blues

I'm fascinated by the downside of celebrity. The negative stuff you don't usually hear about when everyone's going on about the wealth, the luxury houses, the lucrative job offers, the fawning service wherever you go. The reality behind the apparent opulence and easy living is seldom so glamorous.

Gemma Collins, hugely famous star of the TV series The Only Way is Essex, has revealed some of the things that piss her off.

Complete strangers calling her a fat cunt or saying her car's being stolen. People who think she sits around all day doing nothing. Endless abuse about her weight. Fits of anxiety. Everybody wanting a bit of her. "People want all from you, absolutely everything. And everyone's got an opinion about you. I get so much criticism now."

"I don't hate my life, I'm not sitting here going I don't want to be famous. But it's come at a price, hasn't it? I just want to do my job, be entertaining and get paid like any normal person, but people think they own you. It's like bear-baiting."

She seems a remarkably resilient person who can cope with all the shit and just carry on. She's not going to let it get to her. But other less resilient souls like Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin struggled to adjust to the hot-house pressures of fame, and finally went under.

That must be the worst thing, everyone latching onto you, treating you as public property and seeing you as fair game for whatever they want to throw at you. Criticism, abuse, harassment, death threats, sexual overtures, begging letters, stalkers, you name it. If you object, they argue that if you deliberately put yourself in the limelight, then you deserve everything you get. They don't believe celebrities are entitled to a peaceful private life like the rest of us.

No way would I want to be a household name. It would be a bed of nails.

Pic: Gemma Collins

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Out of reach

I'm hopeless at remem-bering the details of people's friends and relatives. However hard I try, names simply go in one ear and straight out the other. My memory is so feeble I'm just about capable of remem-bering a spouse, a partner or a sibling. Everything else vanishes down a cerebral black hole, never to be retrieved.

Even children's names just flutter by like moths. I'm gaily introduced to little James, Rebecca and Sophie (well, I tend to move in middle-class circles), only to forget their names ten seconds later. Did she say James or Jeff? Rebecca or Robin? Sophie or Sally? I'm searching my memory desperately, hoping I won't need their names in the next few minutes, and wondering how to bluff my way through till I'm reminded. Ah, so it was Sally? Why didn't that lodge in my brain? Doesn't she look just like a Sally?

Or someone casually mentions Robert, and how rapidly he's recovering from his operation. Robert? Who the hell is Robert? And what operation was this? Is Robert anything to do with Teresa, the tall, red-haired woman? Is he the same Robert who's allergic to cats? How do I stealthily find out? Or hide my ignorance?

I can recall the closest names, but all the far-flung connections usually escape me. The in-laws, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces. It's too much to absorb. I marvel at those individuals who can identify every obscure member of someone's family, and recall instantly that Aunt Julia is the one who drinks like a fish, hates Indian food and always wears skirts. How do they do it? What's their secret?

I'm told that not remembering such things is simply down to poor concentration or not listening properly. Or even a lack of interest in other people. But I'm fascinated by other people and their personal quirks and lifestyles. I just have a memory like a sieve. A memory that thinks it's a waste bin.

Monday, 28 August 2017

The age of doubt

I think one thing that tends to happen as you age is a rise in self-doubt and a drop in self-confidence. The brash way I threw myself into things as a youngster has now given way to a more cautious approach to life.

When I was young, because I knew so little of the complexities of life, because I had so little work experience, I could dive into things with great confidence, quite sure of my skills and my ability to deal with anything that came along.

As I got older, as I discovered how tangled and complicated life actually was, as I discovered the subtle and detailed requirements of the average job, I realised I wasn't nearly as clever and competent as I had assumed. I had an awful lot to learn and there was always something awaiting me I hadn't bargained for.

So I started to doubt myself. Not necessarily in a destructive way - habitually undermining my own abilities.  But simply in the sense that I lost my earlier cockiness and arrogance and realised that whatever I was doing was more complex than I thought, maybe a bit beyond me, and I was probably going to make mistakes and annoy a few people in the process.

So now I'm a lot more careful about what I do and how I do it, and not overestimating my skills and knowledge. I may doubt what I'm doing, and I expect to ask other people's advice - frequently. I don't charge on like a bull in a china shop, wondering why crockery's smashing and why everyone looks horrified.

Every day I become more aware of how little I know and what vast expanses of knowledge I'm still ignorant of. And I become a little more humble, a little more willing-to-learn, a little less self-righteous and opinionated.

What do you know that I don't know? I'm all ears.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Risky procedures

I know more and more males are opting for cosmetic surgery, but I have no desire to join them. I'm quite happy with my body and feel no need to maul it about in the name of being marginally prettier. Plus I'm very aware of the risks and potential complications of surgery, and if it isn't necessary I'm not interested.

I had a very necessary prostate operation a few months ago, and hopefully there'll be no more surgery needed, but who knows?

Too many people are lured into cosmetic surgery by slick advertising and the knowledge that so many celebs have resorted to it. If the celebs do it, then it must be safe, right? It's just a routine way of perfecting yourself, right? The botched procedures (procedures - what a lovely euphemism!) get a lot less publicity than the happily enhanced individuals smiling for the cameras.

Many of the botch-ups are carefully hidden so nobody knows of the pain, the distress, the embarrassment, the regrets, and the damage done to a once-healthy body. Damage they may have to live with for a lifetime.

Not only have I steered clear of cosmetic surgery, I would never suggest it to anyone else. It disgusts me that some men will actually demand that a woman gets bigger breasts or a more attractive vagina. If I was the woman, I'd break up with him straightaway.

I must say I'm puzzled as to why any woman would want bigger breasts to begin with. Not only are they a big and often uncomfortable nuisance but presumably they attract a lot more unwanted male attention. A flat chest must avoid all the gawping and the man-talking-to-my-tits syndrome.

So no "corrective" surgery for me, thanks. Keep those scalpels to yourself.

PS: I'm not referring to "reconstructive" surgery after a physical injury or an operation. That's fully justified.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Trigger happy

When does sensitivity to others become over-sensitivity and censorship? The question that springs to mind after a professor of literature allegedly dropped a well-known book from her curriculum and issued a trigger warning on her other course books.

Supposedly, after consulting with students, Professor Judith Hawley removed Fanny Hill from the reading list on the grounds that it contains "pornographic material" and may "cause offence". Supposedly again, her trigger warning explained that certain texts "sometimes reflect the unpleasant prejudices of their time" (However, Professor Hawley says she never banned the book, and never issued a trigger warning, so what actually happened is unclear)

But it's an important issue. Should a lecturer have to be so defensive simply because some students might be offended by words in a book? Surely the whole point of a literature course is to appraise an entire book, with all its negative and positive points, and not to pre-judge it by banning it or issuing warnings about its content?

Many books contain "pornographic material". Many books might "cause offence" or include "unpleasant prejudices". If all books were banned or given trigger warnings for those reasons, there wouldn't be many books left that were safe to read. Literature courses would be reduced to studying children's books or romantic fiction.

Why are books being considered on the basis of whether they offend people or not, rather than their literary or cultural or creative merits? Why are complex works of art being seen only as emotional triggers?

And if students are so over-sensitive to course material they need protecting from it, maybe they should be taking a less stressful course? Maybe accountancy or bricklaying?

Personally, I would say a book that isn't disturbing is hardly worth reading. I like my cosy preconceptions to be rudely jolted.

PS: Professor Hawley has denied banning Fanny Hill, saying it was never on her reading list in the first place (The Guardian) Unfortunately at least nine media outlets have repeated the "censorship" story so most people will continue to believe Fanny Hill was censored. The Telegraph hasn't published any further story or correction. I sent them an official complaint, asking them to publish a correction or provide the sources for their story. They replied that their story was an accurate account of what Professor Hawley had said, and was not in any way incorrect. Professor Hawley has thanked me for my interest in the issue, but she makes no further comment one way or the other.

Pic: Professor Hawley

Friday, 11 August 2017

Hopeless dates

A woman from Philadelphia is suing a dating agency on the grounds that the men they offered her weren't properly screened, and were incompat-ible and unsuitable.

Darlene Daggett, a retired businesswoman, paid £115,000 to sign up with the supposedly elite dating agency, which promised ideal matches from around the globe.

One took her to Panama and then jetted off with his ex-partner the day after they returned. Another, nicknamed the "Serial Lothario", spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with her, and then abruptly left her. A third said he was waiting for his terminally ill wife to die. Yet another was a compulsive liar and stalker.

The dating agency has denied any wrongdoing, saying thousands of its clients have got married, but "it doesn't always work out".

I have no experience of dating agencies, having grown up at a time when people still relied on fortuitously meeting their future partner at the pub or the office or someone's party. We regarded dating agencies as strictly for the desperate and socially inept who just weren't getting anywhere.

Nowadays dating agencies are commonplace and nobody thinks twice about using them. But the results can be pretty hit and miss, and it's normal to get a few weirdos and arseholes along with the more appealing contenders.

So I think Darlene Daggett is being a bit absurd accusing the dating agency of offering her unsuitable men. Such is the occupational hazard of dating. Has any woman been spared the usual ration of slimeballs?

Presumably the dating agency's defence will be that however diligently they check a person out, there's always something they're hiding - maybe something pretty unsavoury. That's the risk you take going out with a total stranger.

And the agency can't be responsible for people's sordid secrets.

Pic: Darlene Daggett (right) and actress Cynthia Garrett

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Holiday fever

So tourism is out of control in many towns and cities. Then what's the answer? Journalist Simon Jenkins suggests we all stop taking holidays and stay at home. Why do we insist on all this travelling around, he asks, especially when travelling is getting so stressful - jammed roads, overcrowded trains, clogged airports.

Well, he might not want a holiday (though I suspect he sneaks off to other countries when nobody's looking), but most of us love our holidays. There's no way we'll sit at home for 52 weeks a year admiring the wheelie bins. We can't wait to set off somewhere new. And as soon as we've had one holiday, we're planning the next.

But he set me thinking - why do I love holidays so much? Why do I love exploring other countries, despite all the frustrations - flight delays, pricey hotels, unreliable weather, surly cabbies, inpenetrable languages, endless siestas. What makes it all worth it?

For a start, I like to go somewhere with a different culture, different customs, a different way of looking at things. It shakes me up a bit. It's easy to get insular and narrow-minded when you're living in the same predictable spot year in and year out.

I like seeing at first hand what a place is really like, when I've only known it as a name on a map, a photo, a media headline, the setting for someone's anecdote, or where some celeb grew up. Because the reality is often quite at odds with the mental image created from all these bits and pieces.

I want to see places that are visually stunning - Sydney Harbour, Venice, Vancouver, New York. Places with extraordinary architecture and buildings, where it's exciting just to walk down a side street and find beautiful, idiosyncratic houses. And places with breathtaking landscapes, like the Swiss Alps, the Rockies or the Scottish Highlands.

Not go on holiday? You must be joking.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Let it rip

If there's one major cause of so many problems in the world it's all those people who enjoy violence. While most of us shudder at the thought of violence and do our best to avoid it, there are plenty of people who not only see it as a normal part of life but positively enjoy it.

Needless to say, it's mainly men who find violence so attractive, though women can be drawn to it as well. For those men obsessed with being masculine, violence is the classic way to show your manliness and show how tough and ruthless you can be. Being kind and gentle is strictly for wimps.

So the world is plagued by wars, gangland murders, sexual aggression, terrorist attacks, honour killings, internet abuse and all those other things rooted in the sick thrill of violence. Of course there's always some bogus excuse for it - it's necessary to teach someone a lesson, satisfy your sexual needs, gain political control, or defend your territory.

They'll never admit it, but often it's all down to the sheer enjoyment of violence. The sheer pleasure of terrifying someone, beating them up or finishing them off. The euphoric sense of just letting rip, breaking all the rules.

Who knows what causes someone to relish violence rather than recoiling from it? Is it genetic, is it childhood conditioning, is it a mental disorder, is it a response to the way others have treated you? It's hard to say. I suspect it usually stems from a miserable childhood devoid of parental love and affection. The resulting anger and bitterness all too easily turns to violence.

But whatever the cause, it's sickening to read daily horror stories of people who laugh and gloat as they inflict appalling violence. Even when they're taken to court, they show no remorse but act lackadaisical about what they did.

I can't begin to imagine what's going on in their minds.

Pic: A protest against the molestation of a Tanzanian girl in Bangalore, India in February 2016

Friday, 28 July 2017

Growing apart

One thing that can quickly threaten a relationship is a clash of fundament-ally different beliefs. Religious and political beliefs especially, but anything the couple fiercely disagree on.

Often there's an unexpected breaking-point. With one couple it was a miscarriage. Although their views were diverging more and more, they were sticking together - until she lost her baby.

William had been fairly agnostic while his wife was intensely religious. For a while this wasn't a problem. But after the miscarriage they reacted very differently. While William became a confirmed atheist, wondering how a deity could kill an unborn child, his wife found comfort in her religious beliefs, which became even stronger.

When he finally admitted to her that he was an atheist, she had "a full-blown meltdown" and said he would go to hell. He tried to repair the damage by not talking about religion, but things got worse and she asked for a divorce.

An unfortunate turn of events, but one that's probably very common. It's hard to get along if your views differ so dramatically. Initial tolerance of each other's views can easily turn into open hostility.

Luckily both Jenny and I are atheists, socialists and feminists, so scope for disagreement is strictly limited. We won't be at each other's throats over something as basic as the pros and cons of capitalism. We're more likely to differ over the choice of carpeting or whether the bed linen needs a wash.

And neither of us have strange obsessions the other can't stomach. We're not fans of alternative medicine, or flying saucers, or psychic phenomena, or wild conspiracy theories. We're both habitual sceptics who believe in more tangible realities like ice cream and pinot grigio.

If that means we're bound for hell, so be it.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Chatterbox envy

I do envy those folk who can natter away effortlessly, without a hint of self-doubt or embarrass-ment or inhibition. They move seamlessly from topic to topic, the words bubbling up in a non-stop stream. Nothing seems to deter them, be it other people ear-wigging, loud music or scampering children.

How do they do that? I find it hard to think of the next sentence, never mind prattling on for half an hour. I get too self-conscious and too wary of my listener's reactions. Suppose I say something stupid or inappropriate or nonsensical? And will they be interested in what I'm saying or bored to tears?

Booze doesn't help. Far from loosening my tongue, a glass or two of alcohol is more likely to send me to sleep or freeze my brain completely.

It's easier if I know the other person well and I'm fairly relaxed in their company. Or if we get onto a subject I'm passionate about. If it's a stranger I've never met before, and they're just making routine small talk, I dry up rapidly.

It's not that I'm uninterested in people. On the contrary, I'm fascinated by other people's lives - their habits and problems and tastes and peculiarities. But I'm no good at that casual chattering that encourages someone to reciprocate. I can be with a person for quite a while and still know next to nothing about them.

Not saying very much seems to be a family trait. My mother, father and sister were always fairly taciturn, speaking only when they had to rather than spilling everything out. Entire meals could go by with no one saying a word other than "Could you pass the salt" or "These peas taste funny". Motor-mouths we were not.

Supposedly we get more talkative as we age, because we simply aren't bothered any more by what others think. Well, I keep hoping this magical nonchalance will make its appearance, but it never does.

I'd quite like to have the gift of the gab.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Cities under siege

Is tourism out of control in some over-popular cities? The long-suffering residents certainly think so, but still the tourists keep flooding in, pouring out of cruise ships and budget flights. They don't see why they should keep away.

Dubrovnik in Croatia is feeling especially under siege now it's a frequent filming location for Game of Thrones. On a busy day the tiny city is visited by three cruise ships disgorging up to 9,000 tourists. The locals have to fight their way around through the throngs of camera-wielding gawpers.

Florence, Barcelona, Capri and some of the Greek islands face the same daily invasions.

Venice is notoriously over-run, the dwindling population now far outnumbered by the millions of visitors. Jenny and I have been there three times, and on the last occasion the best-known areas were so jammed with people we could barely move an inch. There was no way we could properly appreciate the sights when we were elbow to elbow with other sightseers.

There's regular talk of limiting the number of visitors to the city, but nothing comes of it. The sight of mammoth cruise ships gliding down the Grand Canal and dwarfing the old buildings is obscene, but they're still allowed in. The lure of tourist money always silences the objectors.

Jenny and I tend to visit the less-frequented cities, where tourism is still manageable and not too obtrusive - like Chicago and Berlin. Not so much through concern for the harassed residents elsewhere but simply because they're cities we want to visit.

But even if there's any agreement that a city is now too overwhelmed by tourists, it's hard to see what counter-measures would be acceptable. Turnstiles? Timed admission? An entry fee? A limit on cruise ships and flights? People are used to freedom of movement, going wherever they please, whatever the difficulties.

The locals are just expected to grin and bear it.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Fuggy no more

A doctor has disputed the widespread consensus that passive smoking damages your health. She says the Professor who first proved the link between smoking and lung cancer also said that the health risks of passive smoking were negligible.

But the clampdown on passive smoking gathered pace and now smoking is banned in just about every public building. The ban has been generally accepted as necessary and beneficial.

As a lifetime non-smoker, all I can say is that the ban on passive smoking has definitely improved my quality of life. Instead of going into an office and fighting my way through a thick and smelly fug of tobacco smoke, I can relax and enjoy reasonably fresh air.

It also means that my clothes are still fairly clean at the end of the day and not reeking of smoke and needing a good wash. I remember not wanting to get too close to one heavy smoking workmate who seemed to only wash his clothes about once a week.

I recall vividly my early days in my first-ever job in a newspaper office. The tobacco smoke was so dense I felt as if I was suffocating. I seriously considered resigning because I could hardly breathe.

Fortunately after several days of near-asphyxia, I became acclimatised to the fug and it no longer bothered me. And it's interesting that although I was exposed to heavy smokers day in and day out, it hasn't affected my health, which is still pretty good. I have no lung or circulation problems.

For many years my mother was exposed to my father's cigarettes (he smoked about ten a day and died of lung cancer), yet she's still alive and kicking at the age of 95.

But am I glad we've seen the last of those foul, stinking offices.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

On the take

It seems many hotel guests are so light-fingered they nick everything they can from their hotel rooms. Only the item size and limited space in suitcases prevents wholesale asset-stripping.

Everything is seen as fair game - bed linen, towels, pillows, even batteries, light bulbs and kettles. And as hotels would never dare to search their customers' suitcases as they leave, it couldn't be easier to smuggle things out.

Some items are seen as legit. Like anything that can't be re-used. Or anything unused that might have been used and gets replaced for the next guest. So most people freely take things like shampoo, soap and shower gel.

And if there isn't enough loot in your hotel room, then there's always the unattended housekeeper's trolley ready for a surreptitious raid.

Personally I can't shake off my engrained moral stance that it's wrong to nick stuff. Even if it's going to be replaced. Even if it's only worth a few pence. Even if the room cost was exorbitant. Even if nobody will ever know.

So I never pinch anything. Not even the fancy pens and stationery with a swanky hotel logo. Or a bar of soap. Or the sachets of coffee. I'm obviously a glaring oddity among a tsunami of casual thieves.

As for light bulbs and batteries - are people really so hard up they need to grab them? It's not as if they're charming souvenirs. Why on earth bother?

I guess if the hotel is part of some vast global chain, people often think systematic hoisting doesn't matter as it's merely a tiny dent in their obscenely enormous income. That's as may be, but I still think Theft Is Wrong. Call me old-fashioned....

Or maybe it's just my secret nightmare that as I check out, my suitcase bursts open and an avalanche of hotel property tumbles out around me. The embarrassment would finish me off.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Love and peace

People still think fondly of the sixties as a time of personal liberation, progressive politics, supportive communities, the crumbling of the "old guard", and new directions in art, music, books, movies and theatre. Suddenly all the stuffy old social rules were being torn up and everyone was doing their thing.

To a degree, this was true. Homosexuality was decriminalised, abortion was legalised, there was a resurgence of feminism, the American civil rights movement was fighting racism, CND was pressing for nuclear disarmament, and so on. It was a period of enormous optimism, hope and creativity.

But this was only one side of the picture, because in other ways the sixties were very negative. I know people who found these years frustrating, damaging, hurtful.

The idea of "free love" that just meant women were treated even more blatantly as sex objects. The reckless drug-taking that led to overdoses and death. The squats that turned into disorganised, hedonistic squalor. The fashionable political causes that couldn't be challenged - the IRA, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Marxism, the Soviet Union. Men still undervaluing and belittling women. Trendy cults and therapies run by money-grubbing, womanising charlatans.

Because people loved the image of freedom, of progress, of cultural flowering, they overlooked the unsavoury aspects and pretended they weren't happening. Or they saw them as the actions of a few bad apples who were latching on to the "counter-culture" for their own selfish ends, spoiling it for everyone else.

Personally I found the sixties (and early seventies) far more positive than negative, maybe because I was too sceptical and too self-protecting to get involved in the seedier and crazier fringes. But I didn't always escape the chaotic squats, mind-bending drugs, dotty cults and political dogma. It was hard to avoid the wilder excesses entirely.

It was certainly a more optimistic time than the present, with its relentless austerity and elitism. Love and peace, man. Just do your thing, man.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Fish out of water

I'm passionate about politics. I want to see a fairer, more humane, more liberating society. I want an end to poverty, squalor, deprivation. I'm not content to shrug my shoulders and say, that's how things are, you just have to adjust and make the most of what you're given. I want changes. Big changes.

But I don't belong to a political party. I was a Labour Party member in the 1980s but since then I've kept out of organised politics. Why? Because whenever I go to a party-political gathering, I never feel comfortable. I feel like a fish out of water.

There's something about being in a political party that makes many people insufferably smug, self-righteous, pretentious, condescending and cliquey. They think their set of beliefs is the only correct one and that people with different beliefs are clearly muddle-headed and ignorant.

I feel I'm expected to be on-message at all times, and if I voice any opinion contrary to the official line, I'll have my head bitten off. Free speech might seem to be welcome, but in practice there are all sorts of unwritten taboos.

So I avoid such gatherings and give my support to specific protests, campaigns and lobbies where the focus is on a single injustice rather than party politicking. Things like marriage equality, a woman's right to choose, preserving the NHS, preserving the welfare state, ending austerity economics. I go to rallies, I sign petitions, I refuse private healthcare.

I can just be one of the crowd, one of the petition signers, or whatever, without having to subscribe to a particular ideology or doctrine, or watch what I'm saying in case I cross some invisible line and ruffle everyone's feathers.

As an ingrained introvert, I'm happy to plough my own furrow.

Pic: woman on an anti-Trump protest in the USA

Monday, 19 June 2017

Scruffy but cosy

I was reading about a woman who slowly ditched the idea that her house had to be pristine when she had visitors. Once she would have spent days deep-cleaning the house in preparation, but nowadays she doesn't care how scruffy the place is, because she knows it's the company and conversation that's important and not the state of her house.

If her visitors are put off by the scruffiness, then they're not the sort of friends she wants anyway, and they're welcome to stay away.

She refers to it as "scruffy hospitality" and says such untidiness is quite normal in other countries and other cultures. It's quite normal of course in households full of children, where keeping the house clean and tidy is virtually impossible.

I think domestic scruffiness is becoming much more routine, for several reasons. Because people are leading busier lives. Because thorough cleaning is exhausting. Because the idea of a pristine house seems increasingly artificial. And because scruffiness simply seems cosier and less inhibiting.

When Jenny and I first moved in together, we devised elaborate cleaning rotas for the flat. As the years went by, the rotas got looser and looser, and nowadays we clean on a very ad-hoc basis, either the bare minimum for visitors (a quick sweep and hoover) or a more concerted effort when the dust bunnies are multiplying.

The pristine-house habit is still common among the generation above me. I remember an aunt whose house was always immaculate, with a place for everything and everything in its place. She must have been secretly horrified when she set foot in our rather ill-kempt residence.

People used to apologise profusely for the state of their house, muttering all sorts of inventive excuses for the slightest hint of disorder. They don't bother any more. That's what their house is like, and if you object to it, that's your problem.

Do come round and look at my dust bunnies some time.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

So much loss

The massive fire at Grenfell Tower in West London is shocking and distressing in so many ways. If proper fire control measures had been added to the building, the fire would have remained localised and wouldn't have raged through the 24 storey block.

It's hard to envision what it's like to have escaped the fire but be left utterly devastated. To have lost several members of your family, probably dead in the wreckage. To have lost all your possessions apart from what you're standing up in. To have lost your home. To have lost the sense of safety and security you used to take for granted. To have lost trust in those public bodies responsible for the tragedy.

Above all, I can't imagine what it's like to lose several family members, especially if they were children and especially if you doted on them. The grief and bewilderment and sense of loss must be overwhelming.

I can't imagine losing all my possessions.  My favourite china, rugs, paintings, books, CDs, clothes. All those things I cherish and enjoy every day. All those things that are part of my personality, part of me. All those things that remind me of different stages of my life. All those things that have moved with me from home to home, some of them for 50 years.

How dreadful to lose your home, the place where you can relax and let go, where you can be yourself, where you can hide your bad habits, where you can feel insulated against the horrors and cruelties of the outside world.

And how wary you might become of those public figures who were meant to protect you against disaster. Those people safely nestled in their comfortable suburban houses while your dangerous tower-block went up in flames.

How do they deal with it? How do they cope with such trauma?

Pic: Ines Alves, who fled the inferno and then calmly took a chemistry exam

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Six of the best

Does punishment ever work? Does it teach someone a lesson, does it make them behave better, or does it just breed rage and resentment and a sense of unfairness and victimisation?

I suppose in some cases punishment does prompt someone to reconsider their actions and change their behaviour, but in many other cases it must be counter-productive, aggravating a situation rather than improving it.

When I think of the various punishments I've had imposed on me, none of them had the desired effect.

At prep school, I was twice given six of the best for forgetting the dates of English kings and queens. But I still forgot them, simply because they didn't seem important.

At my boarding school I was given extra homework after skipping an obligatory religious service. It didn't make me any keener on religion. I just felt increasingly resentful at the compulsion.

At a bookshop I worked for, I was dragged through a disciplinary hearing for being an hour late to work for no good reason. It was pointless as I was usually punctual and that one slip-up was totally untypical.

I was once fined a hefty sum for speeding in a 30 mph zone. It didn't stop me speeding, as I simply drive at a speed I think suitable for the road and traffic conditions.

If someone has done something offensive, surely the best response is to encourage them to behave more sensibly, not to impose some arbitrary, unrelated punishment.

A lot of punishments are obviously futile. Like fines imposed on prostitutes, who then turn a few extra tricks to pay the fine. Or fines given to shoplifters who're forced to steal things they can't afford, and will probably carry on doing so.

A society based on punishment isn't a happy one.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

A tragic decline

I'm fascinated by those celebrities who seem set for a glittering career and then fall into a steady decline, eaten away by addictions, self-doubt, destructive friends and spouses, and the relentless pressures of fame.

I was reading about the new documentary on Whitney Houston, and the recollections of her bodyguard, David Roberts, who thinks she could have survived if those around her had been less intent on exploiting her fame and more concerned with her personal health and well-being.

As soon as he met her new boyfriend, the rapper Bobby Brown, on her 26th birthday, he suspected Brown would be a bad influence on her. He soon discovered he was verbally and physically abusive, jealous of her success, an attention-seeker, a trouble-maker, a heavy drug-user, and a womaniser.

He couldn't understand why she always indulged him and overlooked his immature behaviour, why she crushed her own personality to make him feel comfortable, why she was besotted with someone who was obviously no good for her.

In particular, he's disgusted with all the people in her entourage who were more interested in her profitability than protecting her health and keeping her from self-destruction.

"She became a commodity, a possession, a tool for making money" he says. When he wrote to her lawyers outlining his concerns, he was sacked, and never spoke to her again.

Her story has many similarities with the life of Amy Winehouse, whose promising career was also undermined by an equally unsuitable boyfriend, Blake Fielder-Civil, a growing drugs habit, the stresses of fame, and a money-obsessed entourage.

On February 11, 2012, at the age of 48, Whitney Houston was found dead, the result of drowning, heart disease and cocaine use. "So many people could have done so much to avoid that" says David Roberts. "They didn't. They abdicated responsibility in favour of greed."

Pic: David Roberts

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Safety first

The mass-murder in Manchester has revived the old debate about security checks and procedures - whether you can stop someone who is bent on carnage, or whether a determined person will dodge every security check going.

A friend of mine (let's call him Dennis) is totally against security checks of any kind. He thinks they seldom catch a would-be terrorist, and mostly all they do is cause long queues and huge annoyance to thousands of people. And if security checks become routine in one area of life, a terrorist will simply adopt a new method.

A former friend of mine (let's call her Esther) thought the opposite. She believed the more security checks the better, that even if they didn't often catch anyone she was happy to face any number of them if they reassured people and made them feel safer. Especially on planes which many people are scared of anyway.

I guess I lean towards Esther's view. Not having any security checks is just an invitation to a terrorist to do whatever he wants because nobody will stop him (and it's usually him). Security checks will never be foolproof because they're always one step behind a terrorist's ever-changing methods, but they do act as a deterrent and they do sometimes catch someone and prevent a horrible massacre.

Security checks are irritating but they're hardly a huge burden. Airport security is tiresome and finickety but it's all over in five minutes. I don't mind having to show photo ID at airports and polling stations. I don't mind having my shoulder bag examined. I don't mind being frisked.

Surely the tedium of security checks is trivial beside much more pressing concerns like political incompetence, greedy landlords, rubbish jobs and wages, extortionate house prices, and a hundred other things. Unfortunately, in today's terrorism-prone world, they're necessary and they're here to stay.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Cool, calm and terrified

It's odd how my inner perception of myself can be so different from the outer reality and how other people see me.

People tell me I'm well-organised, always on top of things, reliable, efficient etc. And I know this is true - I get the car serviced, mow the lawns, pay the bills, keep the food cupboards well-stocked, and so on.

But I feel like I'm totally scatterbrained, barely in control of anything, scrabbling to keep my life in order, and that if I don't keep a very close eye on things, total chaos will break out at any moment.

I think I'm working on the basis that it's only good luck that keeps everything so well organised, and that a streak of bad luck could send everything haywire. The implausibility of a run of good luck lasting some five decades fails to register.

Likewise, people see me as cool, calm and collected, able to deal with any minor crisis without panicking and losing my head. But inside I'm probably doing exactly that and wondering how the hell I'm going to sort things out. I may look calm, when actually I'm just sitting tight and hoping the crisis will magically pass by.

Then again, I'm seen as polite, courteous, never flying off the handle, never pouring abuse at anyone. In private however I can be shamelessly rude and vicious about that gormless receptionist I just spoke to, or that grumpy old bigot down the road.

I don't see myself as especially polite or courteous. I often think it's touch and go whether I let rip at someone or hold my tongue and move on.

I'm good at holding my tongue. It hides my scattiness.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

It wasn't me

No, we baby boomers aren't to blame for every problem on the planet.
No, we aren't all greedy, selfish, irrespon-sible, heartless monsters.
No, we aren't deliberately kicking away the ladders we once climbed.
No, we aren't personally answerable for tuition fees, unaffordable houses, unaffordable rents, unpaid internships, static wages, awful working conditions, and all those other things the young are struggling with.

I've always wanted every new generation to be better off than the previous one.
That used to be the case right through the last century.
It greatly distresses me that things are getting worse for the young and not better.
It greatly distresses me that the young are being treated so badly.
But I'm not running the country and I'm not responsible.
Put the blame where it belongs - with politicians, estate agents, big business, landlords, and all the people who actually drove through those destructive changes and turned the clock back sixty years.
A lot of those changes weren't in manifestoes and didn't have public approval.

Personally I'd like to see an end to tuition fees, more council housing, rent controls, decent wages for all, an end to zero hours contracts, and stronger trade unions.
But there's little I can do to bring all that about.
I put crosses on ballot papers, sign petitions, attend rallies, write to my MP.
Is anyone listening? Is anyone taking any notice? Will anything change?
It doesn't seem very likely.
The politicians don't care much about the young and their problems.
The politicians are far removed from such difficulties.
Most are comfortably off, with nice houses, nice salaries, staff to look after them.
They don't know what it means to be struggling and debt-ridden.
So blame them and not the baby boomers.
Blame those who have the power to improve people's lives but prefer to make them worse.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Amorous outrage

Goodness, people do over-react to public displays of affection. You'd think they'd never seen a couple publicly kissing before. Or holding each other's hands. Or fondling each other enthus-iastically. Why all the prudish tut-tutting?

The Daily Mail reported that "Emmanuel Macron was seen kissing his glamorous wife after being inaugurated as France's youngest ever president".

This is news? The French President kissing his wife in public? (Never mind the irrelevant opinion that she's "glamorous") Is such kissing a revolutionary act? Do we need to know they're capable of kissing each other? Might we otherwise suspect they hate each other and avoid kissing at all costs? Why is the act of kissing so significant?

The media were equally obsessed when President Trump held hands with Theresa May. And when Victoria Beckham kissed her daughter Harper. And when Artem Lukyanenko was all over Ksienija Žuk at the Eurovision Song Contest.

But it's not just the media of course. Ordinary folk can get amazingly steamed up about "inappropriate intimacy" in a public place.

Unless they're so over-excited "get a room" seems the only possible response, who cares if people are showing their affection for each other? Is that such a sin? Considering the gloom and worry on so many faces nowadays, isn't it rather sweet that two people are so fond of each other and obviously enjoying life?

There are many things more disturbing than a visibly amorous couple. Like people who leave litter everywhere, or scream racist abuse, or vandalise public property, or pester passing women.

The more public affection the better. It brightens my day.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Literary gaffes

I love books. I love reading. I've always got a book on the go and a pile of unread books I'm looking forward to. If I'm not reading a book, I feel intellect-ually and emotionally under-nourished.

But there are certain literary failings that crop up over and over again (in novels, that is) and regularly annoy the hell out of me. For instance:
  • Endings that leave half a dozen plot strands unresolved. I mean, whatever happened to Wendy? Did she finally leave Tom or did they kiss and make up? And whatever happened to Sophie? Did she ever kick her heroin habit?
  • A constant parade of uninteresting minor characters who're instantly forgettable and add nothing to the plot. Why not leave them all out?
  • A plot so complicated and full of twists and turns that it's impossible to keep track if you have a poor memory and an IQ less than 250.
  • A pretentious writing style that equates obscure words and references with literary merit and equates simplicity with lack of imagination.
  • Numerous flash-forwards and flash-backs that leave me thoroughly confused and wondering which day or year or century we're currently in.
  • Stories told by several different narrators which never quite come together and leave gaping holes in the plot that nobody ever explains.
  • A book that would have been perfect at 300 pages, but the author thought it needed another 200 pages to do justice to their literary brilliance.
  • Astonishing coincidences and lucky breaks that miraculously save a character from a sticky end. The unexpected £50,000 inheritance from a long-forgotten aunt or the sudden discovery of an identical twin sister living in Sidcup.
Still, these habitual flaws are all part of the package. Something as complex as a novel is bound to go astray somewhere. A novel perfectly written, perfectly plotted, and easy to follow, has probably never existed, and never will.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Flaws and failings

Maybe it's just another media obsession, but it seems to me self-loathing is on the increase. People hating the way they look, or thinking they're worthless, or always feeling inadequate when they're with other people.

How come so many people aren't happy with themselves, aren't content just to be whatever they are but are constantly picking themselves to bits in such a masochistic way? What went wrong with their upbringing or their experience of adult life that has made them so self-critical?

After my very negative childhood, which I'm sure you're all tired of hearing about, I should have developed some serious self-loathing myself, but strangely enough I didn't. I've always been happy with myself and I've never sat around listing all my defects. I never took much notice of other people's put-downs but nonchalantly sailed on regardless.

I remember a woman I worked with once, who was steeped in self-loathing. She had an endless list of personal flaws and failings, and nobody could convince her they either didn't exist or were totally trivial. Her mother was a well-known poet so wrapped up in her work she had little time or affection for her daughter, but that can't have been the only cause of her self-loathing.

There was a woman I had a brief fling with who was also full of self-loathing. Although she had a lovely flat, plenty of money and a young son she doted on, she had a very low opinion of herself and had tried to kill herself several times. Nothing I did or said made any difference, and in the end I had to part company with her because her gloomy self-dissections just wore me down.

Once you're in the habit of self-loathing, it's very hard to shift. It seeps into every area of your life and other people's compliments and reassurances are like water off a duck's back. But what's gone wrong with our society that this trait is so widespread?

Monday, 1 May 2017

In hospital

Well, having been in the Ulster Hospital for 4½ days, I must say I was totally impressed with everything. It was the exact reverse of all those media stories about English hospitals, with their long trolley waits, staff shortages, bed shortages, cancelled operations, lack of cleanliness etc.

I was admitted at 7 am on Thursday and operated on at midday. I was then transferred to the brand-new inpatient block that opened a few weeks ago, and they kept me in for several days to ensure there were no problems. I was seen as "high risk" as I'm over 60!

The new block is absolutely state of the art. Instead of the old communal wards, there are private rooms with en-suite bathrooms throughout, giving patients as much quiet and privacy as they want, and no long queues for communal bathrooms.

Everything in sight was pristine, with cleaning staff hoovering and mopping and wiping, and bed linen changed, every morning.

The food was fine - hardly cordon bleu standard but tasty enough not to be left on the plate. There were plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options.

The TV was free so I regularly watched the news and also the final episode of Line of Duty. There was a zapper to control the light, the blinds, the TV and call for a nurse.

All the medical staff were wonderful - friendly, helpful, conscientious, well-trained. They kept a close eye on my vital signs like blood pressure, pulse and temperature, ensured I wasn't dehydrated, and kept checking if I needed any pain relief (strangely enough, despite all the nerve endings in the prostate, I had no pain whatever). They explained anything I wanted to know and kept me updated on when I might be discharged.

Before I was admitted, I was nervous that my stay might be such an unpleasant ordeal I'd be desperate to leave. As it  happened, it was so comfortable and relaxing I was almost sorry to go.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A hospital visit

Tomorrow (after being on the waiting list for 18 months) I'm having an operation to remove some of my prostate, as it's got too large, it's squashing my urethra and peeing is getting slower and slower.

It's my first ever hospital admission. Both exciting and scary.

I'll be back in a few days to tell you how it went.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The sky's the limit

When does paying a lot of attention to your personal appearance just mean healthy self-respect and when does it turn into obsessive vanity? Or is the label "vanity" simply a gratuitous insult?

Men and women are judged differently of course. What might be dismissed as sheer vanity in a man (getting a manipedi or a leg wax, say) would be seen as normal behaviour in a woman. Forever looking in a mirror might seem odd for a man, but not for a woman.

American journalist Tom Shone confesses he devotes a lot of time to his appearance. He makes sure photos get his "good side", he trims his hair every morning, he has a pile of creams and lotions, he exfoliates. He thinks he's horribly vain.

Actually he doesn't sound very vain at all. I've read of men who're far more body-conscious than he is - going to the gym every day, getting plastic surgery, removing every trace of body hair, getting hair transplants. Tom is a mere beginner in the vanity stakes.

But women have to go much farther to be accused of vanity. When I was young, women were seen as "vain" if they did anything more than be moderately attractive. Nowadays the sky's the limit and women go to such extraordinary lengths to enhance their appearance that the word "vanity" becomes meaningless. Their endless body-awareness isn't narcissism, it's merely an attempt to meet an ideal of female beauty that gets more rarified, more impossible by the day.

The typical dolled-up news presenter, in a tight-fitting dress, thick layer of make-up, three inch heels and bottle-blonde hair, isn't seen as vain but simply dressing the way she's expected to.

Personally I have barely a shred of vanity. I try to be presentable, but beyond that my body is of little interest to me. I'd hate to be bald or over-run with body hair, but that's about it.

So is the word "vanity" obsolete or does it still mean something?

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Just testing

A man whose wife was knocked down and killed by an 82 year old motorist is demanding compulsory retesting of all drivers over 70 to avoid such tragedies. Having just renewed my licence at the age of 70, I'm of two minds about that.

On the one hand, there may be many older drivers who are unfit to drive and should have stopped. They falsify their medical and eyesight declarations (no supporting GP statement is needed), they ignore any signs that they might be a danger, and if others suggest they stop driving, they take no notice.

On the other hand, most older drivers are probably fit to drive, are habitually cautious and extra-careful because of their age, fill in the renewal forms honestly, and willingly stop driving if they feel they're becoming a menace.

To retest everyone over 70 at three year intervals (the standard renewal period for over 70s) would create a huge new administrative burden, plus a heavy expense for drivers having to take refresher driving lessons.

You could argue that the death of Desreen Brooks-Dutton was largely a freak accident not caused by older-driver incompetence but a combination of speeding (he was going at 54 mph in a 20 mph zone) and momentary pedal-confusion (he pressed the accelerator and not the brake).

You could also argue that younger drivers cause far more serious accidents than older drivers, through being reckless, over-confident, inexperienced, drunk, drugged or showing off, yet they aren't retested either.

I suppose on balance I would say, yes, drivers over 70 should be retested regularly, as they may be falsifying their applications, or simply not aware of their declining driving skills. According to one informal survey, nearly 70% of older drivers failed the eyesight requirements.

But it's only fair that younger drivers, who are potentially more dangerous and generally use their cars a lot more, should also be retested.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Faux pas

Heated controversy at the University of East Anglia in Norwich over an Antony Gormley sculpture on the roof of a building that looks like someone about to commit suicide.

Apparently the sculpture has been mistaken for a real person by some students. One student asked "Is this some kind of sick joke?" and another said "It's a bit tactless to put a statue on top of a building filled with people on edge during exam season."

The University defended the sculpture, declaring that placing it at roof level is "thought provoking and offers both spectacle and surprise. All staff and students have been made aware of the new art installation on campus, and where the sculptures will be located."

But since sculptures are normally at ground level and not on rooftops, surely what seems to be a human figure on the edge of a roof can only suggest imminent suicide? There's nothing to indicate that it's only a sculpture.

Maybe I'm missing something, but surely whoever decided to put the sculpture on the roof must have realised the suicide possibility and the effect it would have on unsuspecting passers-by? Or were they so dim it simply didn't occur to them?

And surely a sculpture can only be properly appreciated if it's somewhere you can inspect it closely and examine the detail and texture and artistry? You can hardly do that if it's on a roof and barely visible.

It would be interesting to know what Sir Antony Gormley himself thinks of the sculpture's location. Did he approve, or did he think it would be elsewhere? None of the reports so far have asked for his comments.

You just can't say it often enough - location, location, location.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Being tall

I got used to the problems of being tall (I'm six foot) many years ago, so I don't think twice about all the adjustments I make for a world of much shorter people. There are advantages of being tall, but plenty of disadvantages.

All sorts of things are too low for comfort - kitchen worktops, sinks, wash basins, cashpoints, mirrors. I have to bend over to use them. Hotel beds are often too short, so my legs stick over the end (provided there's no footboard, that is). Baths are too short to stretch my legs out. Train, bus, car, plane and cinema seats seldom have enough leg room. Some doorways are so low I have to stoop (I can't tell you how many times I've bashed my head). Shirts never fit properly - my chest is an average size but my arms are very long.

Being tall can be helpful to the less tall. Jenny often asks me to get something from a shelf she can't reach. Other customers in shops do the same. It's easier for me to hang curtains and change light bulbs.

Other advantages? I can see over high walls or crowds of people. I can run faster and jump over puddles because of my long legs. People are more responsive if they find my height a bit intimidating (not that I want to intimidate, mind you).

But it's easier to be a tall man than a tall woman, I guess. Since many men are tall, it's not too hard finding clothes that fit. But if you're a six-foot woman, it's trickier. Shoes, tights, pants - they're all made for smaller women. Not to mention the dating problem - short men who feel uncomfortable with a tall woman. Or the possibility of intimidating your shorter male workmates.

I wonder what it's like to be five foot six?

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Die-hard oldies?

Another cliché about oldies is that we're all opposed to innovation, to progress, to any movement forward. We distrust all innovation as new-fangled nonsense and fiercely defend the status quo - or better still, some golden age of fifty years ago.

Well, in reality this is just another tired stereotype and actually we fall anywhere on the spectrum between "golden past" and "golden future".

Some oldies want to go hurtling back to the sixties and beyond, clamouring for a return to the death penalty, beating in schools, imperial weights and measures, pounds shillings and pence, a ban on abortion, homosexuality as a crime, and all the nostalgic features of their youth.

They rail against political correctness, the European Union, uncontrolled immigration, the internet, gender fluidity, sex-changes, feminazis, and anything they don't understand or are scared of. The world has gone mad, they insist, and they're not going to join the madness.

At the other end of the spectrum are oldies like me, dyed in the wool socialists, feminists and egalitarians who embrace any change that's going if it means less inequality, less exploitation, less unchallenged privilege, less indifference to the poor, the sick, the disabled, the mentally ill.

Oldies like us welcome the benefits of the internet, the loosening of gender restrictions, respect for marginalised groups (aka political correctness), foreigners staffing the NHS, better working conditions, and the stimulating exposure to other cultures. We've no desire to lurch backwards into a more insular and strait-laced era.

Apart from anything else, we're thinking of the young and future generations. We want change of all kinds so they have more opportunities and more exciting lives and not lives that are once again stifled and shackled by die-hards and traditionalists.

I want broader horizons, not narrower ones.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Sticks and stones

The old saying goes "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Quite untrue of course, as unkind words can pierce like daggers for months or even years afterwards.

Sticks and stones are unlikely to do any serious injury, but telling someone they're stupid or ugly or useless can be highly disturbing, especially to someone who has little self-confidence in the first place.

I can still remember my father calling me half-witted, or naive, or self-centred, and that was over 50 years ago. Even if I tell myself I'm none of those things, the words still stick in my mind like a splinter in my finger.

A blogger once called me anti-semitic, although I've never been anything of the kind. Needless to say, I stopped looking at his blog, but the insult lingers on.

I've been called smug and self-righteous, which also stings because I'm always open to differing opinions and I know very well I might be misinformed or biased.

Cruel and nasty words can do immense damage. There are regular reports of school pupils who have killed themselves after persistent name-calling by other pupils.

People who were previously happy and bubbly can become mental wrecks in a matter of months when verbal abuse is flung at them day after day.

To realise how destructive words can be, you only have to think of the way they were used in Nazi Germany to dehumanise whole groups of people.

Newspaper columnists are well aware of how much words can hurt, and often seem to take a vicious delight in using the most offensive language they can think of against someone who probably won't be allowed to answer back.

Words can hurt. They can be brutal. They can be deadly.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Temperamentally subdued

Some people are naturally sociable. They make friends easily, they're gregarious, they enjoy being with others and mope when they aren't, they love throwing dinner parties, they're born chatterboxes, and they can get on with just about anyone from any background.

I'm not like that at all, quite the reverse. I like the occasional chat with other people, I like the occasional party, but in general I love being on my own and relishing my own company. I don't make friends easily, I'm not a chatterbox, dinner parties make me nervous as hell, and there are many people I simply can't get on with.

I envy those who are naturally sociable. It makes social occasions so much easier, it means you're comfortable in a crowd of people, there's less fear and anxiety, you're not stuck for words, and you've got plenty of friends to talk to when you're in trouble.

It's hard to say why I'm more of an introvert. It may be genetic or the way I was brought up (my parents weren't that sociable and seldom invited people round), it may be my confidence-sapping years at boarding school (which was totally the wrong choice for my personality), it may be too much exposure to egotistical loudmouths at one social event after another. But whatever the cause, I'm just not a people person.

It doesn't help that the "less sociable" are still often seen as inadequate rather than different, snooty and standoffish rather than temperamentally subdued, wet blankets and party poopers rather than fans of quiet enjoyment.

But one thing I always wonder - how do the socialisers keep up the pace? Where do they find the energy? Rushing from one social event to another, chattering nineteen to the dozen, organising ten things at once, keeping all the balls in the air. If I lived that way, I'd be chronically exhausted.

Excuse me while I unplug the phone and curl up on the sofa with a big fat book....

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Demanding oldies

I get annoyed at the constant refrain that the mounting pressures on the NHS stem mainly from the soaring number of oldies and their complex medical needs.

There's a definite implication there that we oldies are just a burden, a millstone, an endless drain on the NHS, that we should feel guilty and irresponsible for living so long and needing so much care and attention. Shouldn't we just hurry up and die and stop being such a bloody nuisance?

Okay, so the growing number of oldies puts a strain on the NHS. So there's a rising demand from a particular segment of the population. So just deal with it. Provide the necessary funding and staff and other resources to meet the demand. As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, there's more than enough money available.

Just don't keep harping on about oldies and their medical needs as if we're spoilt children asking mummy for a new smartphone. Are young people with housing needs made to feel they're a burden? No. Are women who get pregnant treated as a burden? No. So why this judgmental emphasis on unhealthy oldies and their failing bodies? Can someone change the record?

The irony is that it's very much the NHS itself that's enabling people to live so long nowadays. All sorts of new drugs have helped people to stay alive by preventing heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks, diabetic comas and many other medical emergencies. And new surgical procedures are rejuvenating people's hearts and arteries.

But of course that means we're all living much longer and needing more medical attention farther down the line. Well, you can't keep us all alive on the one hand and then complain we're overwhelming the NHS on the other, The NHS is there to provide a vital public service. So stop whinging and provide it.

I'm not a burden, I'm a human being.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Suicide watch

There's a long-running argument about whether disturbing behaviour shown on TV dramas and films leads to copycat responses and whether in the public interest it should be avoided or at any rate limited. Or should scriptwriters be free to depict anything they want, however cruel or gruesome or destructive?

MPs have just urged tighter restrictions on the portrayal of suicide, saying too much detail about suicide methods can prompt people to kill themselves - especially if the method shown is quick, easy and painless. They say a scene can still be dramatic without such "unnecessary" detail.

The Samaritans agree, saying that being less explicit would mean fewer people at risk from "irresponsible content".

It's a tricky argument. How much can certain scenes and details be reined back in the name of susceptible people, without curbing artistic and creative freedom? Should anything be officially reined back, or should we just accept that some vulnerable people will always be influenced?

If we agree with reining things back, is that the thin end of a dangerous wedge? Would more and more things be restricted "in the public interest" until scriptwriters feel they're being bound hand and foot?

Then again, is it right to actively prevent people from suicide, if they're set on it? If they think their life is so hopeless or so painful they simply want to end it, who are we to force them to carry on living?

And again, if such measures are adopted, in the internet age there must be many other sources for anyone wanting practical details. So how effective would these limited precautions actually be?

I don't have any easy answers. I want vulnerable people to be protected, but I would also fiercely defend artistic freedom. I need to think some more about this.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Silent mum

What do you do with a 94 year old mother who's immensely secretive, won't discuss her problems and mishaps, doesn't want anyone to know about them, doesn't want anyone to interfere or make decisions on her behalf, and is almost impossible to contact anyway because she won't answer her landline, doesn't have a mobile phone and doesn't have email?

It's a maddening and frustrating situation. I know from third parties (usually days later) that my mum is regularly having falls and being taken to hospital for check-ups, but she won't discuss her falls or why she might be having them so it's highly likely she'll be having more.

Her memory's not too good, she may be forgetting to pay bills, walking is getting more difficult, and she has a flat full of junk and clutter that needs to be cleared out (and which she may be tripping on). But she refuses to discuss any of these things, insists she's on top of everything and says there's no need to worry.

Most of my information comes from other people - my brother in law (who lives nearby), social workers, carers, paramedics, her GP, the managers of her sheltered housing block. Trying to get anything out of my mum is like getting blood out of a stone. She's happy to tell me about her favourite TV programmes or last week's musical evening. But her personal problems - forget it.

Without knowing the cause of her falls, it seems that all we can do (my brother in law, my sister and I) is accept she's going to have more of them, and just hope they aren't serious enough to cause broken bones or some major injury.

Probably she doesn't want to worry us, but then we just worry about all the things she's not telling us.

Pic: not my mum!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Real women

The broadcaster Jenni Murray has lashed out at transgender women, saying they're not real women, they're just acting out gender stereotypes, and surgery doesn't make them female.

Not surpri-singly, she's come in for a lot of stick for totally misunderstanding what transgender is all about and adding to the widespread prejudice that transgender women already have to cope with.

What the hell is a "real woman" in any case? It's one of the very gender stereotypes she claims to object to. The requirements are so restrictive and so old-fashioned, I doubt there's a single woman on earth who could measure up.

This is what a "real woman" would have to sign up to:
  • Doesn't go out to work
  • Belongs in the kitchen
  • Enjoys shopping
  • Enjoys housework
  • Enjoys making a home
  • Looks after her man
  • Is loyal to her man
  • Doesn't argue with her man
  • Lets her man be the boss
  • Is heterosexual
  • Is married
  • Has children
  • Looks after the children
  • Is sexy and attractive at all times
  • Doesn't let herself go
  • Is ready for sex whenever her man wants it
  • Enjoys being flirted with
  • Enjoys being coerced
  • Is the power behind the throne
  • Gets her way with feminine wiles
Now name me one woman of your acquaintance who gets anywhere near falling in with that lot. Or would even want to. Does Jenni Murray fit the bill? I doubt it somehow.

Never mind transgender women. Why should any woman have to conform to such a constricting definition of womanhood? Why can't a woman simply be what she wants to be?

Women don't need to be told whether they're real or not. They're real just as they are.

PS: After what several of you have said about the growing-up-female experience being such a crucial part of female identity, I accept that a transgender woman can never be a true or complete woman in that respect. Likewise when it comes to the things only a born woman can experience - menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, post-natal depression, endometriosis etc. Never let it be said that I don't change my mind....

PPS: The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said something very similar to Jenni Murray, that growing up female is very different from growing up male with the benefit of male privilege, and that a trans woman is therefore not the same as a born woman. I think maybe trans women have to be a bit humble, and have respect for the opinions of born women, and accept that they simply aren't the same.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Dyed in the wool

One way I've wised up as I get older is my growing awareness of the enormity of prejudice and discrimi-nation. I've realised it's much deeper and much more permanent than I thought.

When I was young, and typically optimistic the world could be rapidly changed for the better if people just pushed hard enough, I fondly imagined prejudice against gays, or transgender people, or blacks, or foreigners, was a very temporary thing and would soon die away.

I was completely ignorant of how engrained these prejudices were, how reluctant people were to drop them, how much they passed from one generation to another, and how eagerly they were nurtured by politicians and the media.

I assumed other people were basically tolerant and open-minded and couldn't hold such prejudices for long without realising how damaging and inhumane they were. I assumed they were as fleeting as snow-storms or flash-floods.

Gradually it dawned on me that these prejudices were often rock-solid. You could argue against them till you were hoarse, but people still held them, utterly convinced of their soundness. The very idea of dropping them would seem like an act of madness.

I realised that although prejudice against certain groups had lessened, it had happened incredibly slowly and was still far from over. There's still strong opposition to gay marriage, to giving transgender people jobs, to promoting blacks, to treating foreigners fairly. In fact many people would like to turn the clock back and remove all the rights these groups have painfully and laboriously gained.

So nowadays, a great deal older and wiser, I assume that rather than demolishing prejudice, which seems near to impossible, the only realistic attitude is to work around it and try to chip away little bits here and there.

My optimistic younger self would be shocked at my new-found pragmatism.