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.
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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.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Posh gits

I may have a posh accent, but I'm not remotely posh in any other respect. I may seem "posh" to those who have very little, but my lifestyle is quite unremarkable beside the real thing.

I may own my house and my car, have some savings, and live in a sedate residential area, but that doesn't make me in any way posh. There are thousands of people just like that.

I think the essence of poshness is rarity value (or luxury). The truly posh have things the vast majority of us don't have. A country mansion, a yacht, a chauffeur-driven limo, a private jet. Things the average person can only dream of (that is, if we really want a draughty old mansion or a condescending chauffeur).

The other ingredient of poshness is a "fancy" way of doing things. Soup spoons, fish forks, napkins. Bow ties, cuff links, top hats. Ornate invitations and letters. Always something more than the bog-standard routine. Something that sets you apart from the common crowd.

Not necessarily sophisticated though. You can be as posh as you like in terms of lifestyle, but dumb as they come when any hard thinking is required. The term "upper-class twit" comes to mind.

Poshness often goes hand in hand with pretentiousness. People think that because they're posh they're somehow a cut above the non-posh, somehow in some rarified category of their own.

That absolutely doesn't wash in Northern Ireland. It's very refreshing that people here despise any kind of pretentiousness. Anyone who acts superior is very quickly cut down to size. As we say here, they're "losing the run of themselves".

You can talk to a chief executive as casually as the refuse collector. You could be with someone who's filthy rich but they'd show no sign of it. People aren't as obsessed with social status as they are elsewhere.

"Pomposhity" will get you nowhere.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Judge ye not

I'm shocked at how hard it still is for someone to divorce a partner they can't bear living with any longer. A judge can still refuse a divorce, saying that the grievances aren't convincing enough, or that the other person's behaviour doesn't seem unreasonable.

If a divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour (which applies in the vast majority of cases) is refused, the only alternative is living separately from the other person for five years before getting a consent-less divorce.

Some of the comments made by judges are outrageous. One woman who said her husband's unreasonable behaviour made her feel unloved, isolated and alone, was told he was simply "old school".

Another woman was told that the examples of her husband's unreasonable behaviour - like his workaholic tendencies and regular grumpiness - just weren't good enough.

Several of my blogmates and Facebook friends have had incredibly acrimonious and long-drawn-out divorces, and surely it should be easier to get a no-fault divorce without having to "prove" the marriage has broken down?

When someone is already seriously distressed by a failing marriage, to have to convince a sceptical judge you're at your wits' end just adds insult to injury.

As divorce lawyer Ayesha Vardag puts it, "The very idea that someone who desperately wants or needs to exit a marriage can be prevented at the discretion of a judge is absolutely terrifying. Forcing couples to stay married has no part in a civilised society."

The irony is that getting married is extremely easy. You sign a few bits of paper and that's it. Nobody asks you to "prove" that you're serious about marriage and want to make it work. Yet if everything goes pear-shaped, endless obstacles are put in your path.

Judge not, that ye be not judged....

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PS: Today is my 10th blogiversary. How about that?

Saturday, 18 February 2017

A horrified shudder

People have very opposite reactions when they're told they're "just like their father" or "just like their mother". If they adore their father or mother, they're flattered and pleased to be told they take after them. If they don't get on with their parents, they're horrified at the very thought there might be a resemblance.

Personally I'm in the horrified category. I'm all too aware of my parents' vices and struggle to think of their virtues. The idea that I'm like them in any way makes me shudder. I prefer to think they're totally different from me and I don't resemble them in the slightest. What a suggestion!

I'd love to be able to say I take after my father and that gives me huge satisfaction, but I absolutely can't say that. I can think of many other fathers I would be happy to resemble, but my own father isn't in the running. In fact I try my hardest to be as unlike him as I possibly can. If I catch myself displaying any of his familiar habits, I cut them short.

Of course he always wanted me to take after him, and he was very put out that I aspired to be someone quite dissimilar. He took it as a big insult that I didn't look up to him and hang on his every word. He could never understand that I was an independent person who saw the world in my own unique way.

My role models were always people outside my family - friends, teachers, rock stars, impressive public figures. Those were the people I admired and copied, the people whose qualities I hoped I could absorb. I never saw my parents as role models, only as rather harassed guardians.

Boy, did I have a crush on Marc Bolan....

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The final straw

I'm always interested in what destroys a relation-ship, what drives people apart. Especially if couples have been together for decades and then suddenly, apparently right out of the blue, they're getting divorced and it's all over.

Usually they don't reveal the exact cause of the meltdown. Or only to their closest friends. They tell people vaguely that "it simply wasn't working any more" or "he just wasn't the same person". Strange habits and personal failings are hinted at but not spelt out. You can only guess at the straw that broke the camel's back.

I'm forever astonished at how long Jenny and I have been together. In some ways we're very different, and I'm amazed there's never been some fundamental clash that proved impossible to resolve. The usual clichés about "loads of give and take" and "giving your partner plenty of space" don't go very far. The winning formula, whatever it is, is too complex to be summed up so neatly.

I think one reason we've stuck together is that somehow we've dodged all the big issues that tend to ambush other couples.

Like money. We're both sensible about spending and neither of us have expensive habits that soak up cash. We don't gamble, binge drink, buy flashy cars or go for £1,000 suits. Like affairs. We've never been tempted. Like children. We both agreed very early on that we didn't want them. Like sex. There's no nagging incompatibility. Like insecurity and jealousy. We're not threatened by the other's friendships or activities. Like bad communication. We're good at opening up and talking things through. And like mutual respect. Many couples break up because the man turns out to be an engrained misogynist, or the woman is nagging and controlling.

But that isn't the whole story either. Plenty of other things could have capsized us, could have driven a wedge between us. Somehow we've sidestepped them all. How lucky is that?

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

One thousand!

Yes, it really is post one thousand! And as the ground-breaking occasion is reached, Nick gives a rare interview to Denise Drizzle of the Guardian.

Denise: So, Nick, post number one thousand. How do you feel about this fantastic milestone?

Nick: It's okay. All in the day's work, really.

Denise: Oh come on, enough of the stuffed-shirt masculinity. Admit it, you're incredibly excited.

Nick: Not at all. It's just one foot in front of the other really. It's just an arbitrary number. I mean, who gives a fuck if it's 1000 or 973 or ten zillion?

Denise: Still the same old Nick, eh? Pretending to be laid-back, deadpan, blasé, nonchalant, while underneath you're a boiling cauldron of red-hot emotions. I bet in private you're leaping up and down, whooping for joy, punching the air.

Nick: Your imagination's overheating, Denise. Really, it's just another post. Just another bit of scribble on the back of an envelope.

Denise: Okay, I get the idea. You're not giving anything away. Just one thing though. Isn't it time you told us your last name? Is it something embarrassing?

Nick: It's Zeigler.

Denise: Really? What, like Toby Zeigler in The West Wing? That's a great name.

Nick: No, I'm fibbing. It's not Zeigler.

Denise: So what is it then? Widebottom? Smellie? Bracegirdle? Hooker?

Nick: It's Rogers. A name so nondescript it's not worth mentioning.

Denise: I won't lie. It's an incredibly boring name. My commiserations. One other thing. You're not really a fucked-up neurotic mess, are you? It's just a big pretence to lure people in, right? In reality you're 100% sane and healthy and totally relaxed about life. Correct?

Nick: I wish. I'm hang-up central, like half the population. Which isn't surprising as we live in an unhealthy, uptight, authoritarian society. And now, if you'll excuse me, I feel a panic attack coming on.

Denise: Is there anything I can do?

Nick: Yes, leave me alone in my introvert hell (sobs quietly)

Denise: What an icon! What a national treasure! What would we do without him?

Pic: Denise Drizzle

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A touch of glamour

Call me old-fashioned, but I do like a bit of glamour. That magical quality that attaches itself to certain people and places and things. I know some people scoff at the whole notion of glamour as something entirely artificial and bogus, but I enjoy it anyway. It adds a little sparkle to a sometimes depressing existence.

It's hard to define but I think we all recognise it when we see it. That exciting frisson that hangs over Sydney or Vancouver or Venice. That special something that embraces Lucky Blue Smith or Scarlett Johansson (or whoever does it for you). The dizzy thrill of a favourite scarf or painting or necklace. A quality that transcends ordinary predictable charm or prettiness.

Feminists would argue that glamour, as applied to people, is essentially a sexist concept. Women are expected to be glamorous and dazzling while men can get away with being vaguely presentable. Well, my answer to that is, rather than doing away with female glamour, why don't the men make more of an effort and glam themselves up a bit?

Of course at my grand old age, a lot of things that seemed glamorous when I was young now seem utterly ordinary - like Awards ceremonies and celebrity weddings and fashion parades. Once you're aware of the drudgery and panic and ill-temper that goes on behind the scenes, the illusion of glamour quickly vanishes.

But you can't keep a good idea down, and there's still plenty of glamour to be found. When you least expect it, you stumble on a beautiful old church or someone with effortless style or an exquisite piece of pottery. Suddenly life has been enriched and deepened and the humdrum daily routine forgotten for a while.

A life without glamour would be like a face without a smile.

Pic: Lucky Blue Smith - an American model known for his platinum blond hair

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Kids online

Opinions are sharply divided on whether parents should post pictures of their kids online, especially those depicting embarr-assing, outrageous or unruly behaviour. Are they just innocent records of childhood or are they unethical invasions of privacy that might horrify their children at some later date?

An intriguing question for those of my generation, since there was no internet when we were young, and often very few photos. My parents weren't much interested in taking photos, and there are virtually none of the childhood me.

Since my childhood was so long ago, and since my memory is crap, I would love it if there was a vast collection of photos I could trawl through to fill the gaps in my memory and see all the crazy or clever things I got up to.

Journalist Kashmira Gander is firmly against parents sharing photos of their kids online. What will those kids think years later when they see themselves smashing their face into a birthday cake, throwing a massive tantrum or being sick on the carpet? Surely they'll cringe and ask what possessed their parents not just to take the photos but to post them all online?

Personally I wouldn't be too bothered. We all know kids behave badly so why should photos of the bad behaviour be a problem? Obviously I'm now grown-up and I behave normally so why should it worry me? It would just be an amusing trip down memory lane.

In any case, if grown-up kids look at their childhood photos and they're horrified, all they have to do is ask their parents to delete them all. Or at least the especially mortifying ones.

I just wonder why parents are so intent on capturing every moment of their child's life for posterity - no matter how trivial or obvious or boring. Isn't it enough to have watched them growing up and got pleasure from it?

Not any more.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Laid-back oldies

Author Lynne Reid Banks has concluded there are many advantages to being older. She has listed a whole lot of them:
  • You don't care what people think of your opinions
  • You can get away with eccentricities the young can't
  • You can sleep in most days
  • People will happily drive you around
  • People don't expect so much of you
  • You've no qualms about complaining vigorously
  • You can get away with being lazy, self-indulgent or offensive
  • You lose your sense of shame
  • You no longer strive for self-improvement
  • You no longer worry about the state of the world
  • Your appearance doesn't matter any more
Well, I have to say I don't go along with any of them. I think she's being remarkably self-centred and arrogant. But she is 87, which is 17 years older than me, so maybe by that age she's entitled to be as self-centred as she likes.

I don't see myself the same way, though. I don't feel indifferent to other people's opinions. I don't feel I can do whatever I like because of my age. I don't feel it's okay to complain about everything. I don't feel like parading my eccentricities. I don't think people should expect less of me. And I don't see why I should give up trying to improve myself.

I don't see myself as some useless old dodderer who expects everyone else to bend over backwards to accommodate me. I have more self-respect than that. People should demand the same of me as they demand of younger people, and I should meet those expectations as far as I can. I find it acutely embarrassing when other oldies are berating some hapless shop assistant or insisting on some special treatment others wouldn't get.

It would be different if I was frail and infirm and incapable of looking after myself properly. But as I'm still fit and healthy that doesn't apply. So I don't see any reason to dump my social obligations and act like a helpless child.

I may be old but I'm not a basket case.

Pic: not Lynne Reid Banks!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

I just can't look

I've never been a prude, unlike the rest of my family. I'm not squeamish about weird sexual fetishes, colourful cursing, scantily-clad females or TV dramas full of gory surgical scenes and violent stabbings. I object to a surfeit of such stuff but not the things themselves.

My attitude is, it's all part of life's rich tapestry and I want to know everything there is to know. I don't want to miss anything, no matter how strange or gruesome, and I'm not going to behave like some delicate flower that's about to wilt.

I'm not a prude about my body either. I'm happy to display myself in the nude if the occasion requires. Why be coy about it? At boarding school, I swam naked with other boys every day and thought nothing of it. I was never embarrassed stripping off for a new girlfriend either.

There's nothing offensive or unsightly about my body, so why hide it? I couldn't care less how it shapes up compared to other bodies. It is what it is, and if people are sniffy about it, that's their problem.

I don't believe people are really as sensitive and finicky as they make out. Are they truly so fragile that a splash of blood or a juicy expletive gives them an attack of the vapours and has to be instantly banished?

I can understand it if someone who's been personally involved in some especially grisly and horrific event can't bear seeing something that triggers off memories and painful emotions. That's rather different from twitchy squeamishness.

But I'm surprised how many people flinch at the sight (or even thought) of blood. It's just a red liquid, right? I suppose for some it's the association with accidents and tragedies. Or it's the idea of yourself bleeding. Or it's just a defensive reaction.

Show me everything, warts and all. I can handle it.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

More undesirables

Way back in 2011, I listed a few things I thought the world could do without, things that are pointless, annoying or ridiculous. Well, I realised there are plenty more of those. So I thought I'd spring a few more on you. How about:

High heels. An absurd invention. They prevent women from walking or running properly. They're painful and they damage your body. And if they're so sexy, who aren't men wearing them?

Breast implants. What's wrong with natural breasts? Why do they have to be surgically altered? Why the self-hatred? They're just a nice little earner for plastic surgeons.

Aphrodisiacs. Either you're feeling sexy or you're not. I can't believe all those weird aphrodisiacs with rhino horn or cobra blood or baboon urine actually work. Love, laughter and wine usually do the trick.

Nibbles. What's with all the little bowls of nuts, olives and crisps? They just spoil your appetite for the actual meal. And leave crumbs all over the carpet and down the back of the sofa.

Stag nights. Just an excuse for binge-drinking, sexist jokes and general debauchery. And most of those present are squirming and wishing they were a hundred miles away.

Wedding cakes. Supposedly the multi-tiered cake started as a status symbol. The more tiers and the higher the cake, the more prosperous you were. A handy cash-cow for the local bakery.

Twitter. Now synonymous with hate-filled trolls who persecute anyone with unorthodox opinions. People usually too cowardly to reveal their real identities. An anti-social menace.

Miniature dogs. What's the attraction of grotesquely tiny dogs? I gather they're mostly artificial breeds prone to unpleasant ailments due to their small size. Normal-size dogs, please.

Celebrity gossip. I'm sick of the endless obsession with the minutiae of celebrity lives. I enjoy their art or music or films, but I'm indifferent to their marital spats or their diet tips.

Boxer shorts. Totally impractical garments. Not remotely sexy or enticing. Completely unsuited to the male anatomy, which requires something tighter and snugger.

Do add your own bêtes noires if you so wish.

See also the original list

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Good enough

Thankfully I'm not a perfect-ionist. Wanting everything to be brilliant, unique, or just better than it is, must be an exhausting and impossible task. Personally I'm happy for things to be "good enough" and I'll stop right there, thanks.

And by "good enough" I don't mean skimping or accepting something a bit shoddy. I just mean I aim for a certain standard, one most people would be comfortable with, and striving for some rarified excellence doesn't interest me.

I don't want a kitchen that's 100% hygienic and germ-free. I don't want bed linen that matches the wallpaper. I'm not going to mow the lawn every three days. I'm not going to replace all my nondescript shirt buttons. Life's too short for such nonsense.

But I've known people who were obsessive about housework, who couldn't bear a speck of dust or splodge of grease anywhere. Or obsessive about work, always scanning their emails, rewriting memos and double-checking every little detail. Or gardening fanatics who couldn't stop weeding and pruning and power-jetting the patio.

It must be hard to live with a relentless perfectionist. No matter how often you say everything's fine as it is, they'll insist they just have to tweak this or adjust that, and nothing will deter them. They won't be able to sleep at night if the soup spoons don't match or the plates are wrongly stacked.

Perfectionists have their place though. A world without them would be an inferior one. Without the frenzied perfectionists who invented the washing machine and the internet and the CD player, and who fought for improved legal rights and housing standards and working conditions, our lives would be much depleted.

I'm just not that driven. I want an easy life. So sue me.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Easily fooled

It's shocking that schools are so poor at teaching basic principles of analysis, research and critical thinking that many young people can't tell fake news from real news and easily mistake unsubstantiated nonsense for the truth.

I don't know about British schools, but in California a senator and assemblyman have both proposed bills to fight fake news by teaching children how to detect misleading, fabricated or inaccurate media and social media reports.

Senator Bill Dodd wants to see a "media literacy" curriculum, while Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez seeks lessons on "civic online reasoning".

It's astonishing to an oldie like me, well used to sceptical sifting through media reports and subjecting them to several tests of authenticity - Is this confirmed elsewhere? Is it credible? Is this a news source renowned for making things up? Are there obvious discrepancies and omissions? - that young people aren't taught this basic skill and happily absorb fabricated rubbish without a thought.

When even long-established reputable newspapers give space to dubious unverified stories, it only encourages the spread of fake news. I'm amazed at the constant airing of wild claims about Donald Trump's private life (I know all the details but I'm not giving them even more publicity). They may be 100 per cent true, they may be 100 per cent false, who knows? But why are they reported at all, when right now, there's no evidence whatever to support them?

People are all too willing to believe stories that fit with their particular view of the world, and reluctant to consider they might be a pack of lies.

Last year I complained to the BBC that their story about Vegemite being turned into homemade alcohol was totally untrue, and eventually they admitted it. But not before the story had spread all over the media with no attempt to check it.

The sooner young people can tell the wheat from the chaff, the better.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Awaiting wisdom

The popular cliché says that as you age you get wiser, you're more self-aware and you've left all your youthful delusions behind. You're no longer taken in by charming rogues, slick sales patter or unlikely news stories. But is it true? Am I really older and wiser?

Up to a point, yes. But I'm sure I still have all sorts of entrenched ideas and opinions that wouldn't stand serious scrutiny. They may make sense to me, while to others they're obvious nonsense. Like my belief in people's innate goodness or the power of positive thinking.

I doubt if I'm much more self-aware either. Okay, I'm familiar with all my neurotic hang-ups and quirks, I know my strengths and weaknesses, but there must be lots of subtle character traits that are plainly visible to others but less visible to myself. I just happily overlook them.

I've dumped a few youthful illusions for sure - that I would come up with a literary masterpiece, or dazzle people with casual wit, or be a reassuring shoulder to cry on, or be present at the imminent socialist revolution. Some cherished beliefs simply can't survive stark reality.

But have I just replaced the old illusions with a bunch of brand-new ones? Like the belief that everything's being dumbed down and we no longer think anything through properly? Or the idea that sensation is now more sought-after than fact?

I certainly don't feel any wiser than my twenty something self. I don't feel that I'm on top of things or better at handling a crisis or brimming with expert advice. I still feel I'm muddling through a complex life as best I can, about to collapse in helpless dismay at any moment.

The pearls of wisdom have passed me by.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Lonely hearts

There's constant talk of an epidemic of loneliness, of hordes of people feeling so lonely and isolated it's affecting their mental health and even causing premature death.

This seems to me a wild exaggeration, falsely depicting a routine emotion as something catastrophic and overwhelming. Okay, so you feel lonely, You may feel lonely quite often. But is that such a problem? If you're a resourceful person, you simply acknowledge that feeling and then find ways of enjoying your own company and not pining fruitlessly after social contact.

That probably sounds glib and self-satisfied to some. They'll say I don't understand how painful and miserable feelings of loneliness can sometimes be. I don't understand how important company is to some people and how empty they feel without it.

But if people are pining that much for company, of course they're going to end up miserable because 24/7 company simply isn't possible. Even if you have a partner and children, they won't always be around. If you've never developed enough self-reliance and self-enjoyment to disperse feelings of loneliness, you're in for a lifetime of emotional gloom.

In the end loneliness is just another feeling like sadness or helplessness or embarrassment. You find ways of dealing with it so it doesn't become a millstone, a liability. Expecting other people to come along and solve it for you is unrealistic. You have to draw on your own resources instead of thinking the answer is somewhere else.

I'm lucky in having a partner who provides me with constant company. But even before that, when I lived alone in a dismal bedsit, I don't remember feeling lonely that much. I had many ways of amusing myself and I didn't yearn for someone else to be present. I liked my own company.

"Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness" - Maya Angelou

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Fire on the Titanic

I'm fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic and what caused it - numerous human errors and cock-ups that led to the collision with the iceberg and then led to the ship sinking so fast it was impossible to save everyone.

What I didn't know was how a huge fire below decks probably speeded up the sinking, and was hushed up by the ship's owners and by the crew.

A TV documentary on Sunday* explained how the fire had raged for weeks in the coal store before the maiden voyage, the temperature so high it buckled one of the watertight bulkheads and made it brittle.

When the ship collided with the iceberg and water started pouring in, the bulkhead cracked, water poured through it and the ship sank more rapidly.

If the Titanic had stayed afloat another hour or two, all the passengers could have been saved by RMS Carpathia, which came to the rescue after getting distress signals. But because the ship sank so fast, over 1500 people died.

There were other human errors that led to the massive loss of life, like the shortage of lifeboats, life jackets not being given out, and general confusion among the passengers and crew, but the fire was a major factor.

It's no surprise to discover White Star Line instructed the crew to keep the fire secret so as not to damage the company's reputation. Even the official inquiry thought the fire was irrelevant and declared the sinking an Act of God. On the contrary, it was the result of human carelessness and misjudgments on a huge scale.

The steel used in the bulkheads, for example, was not of the highest, fire-resistant quality. The ship's owners cut costs by using lower-grade steel. The bulkheads were reduced by several feet to allow for a grander central staircase. They also used low-quality rivets.

Act of God, my arse!

* "Titanic: The New Evidence", Channel Four, January 1 2017