Monday, 11 November 2019

Attention deficit

When I was young, attention-seeking was a cardinal sin. You had to be quiet and unassuming, hiding your light under a bushel. My parents were always telling me not to draw attention to myself, not to show off, not to make a spectacle of myself.

It wasn't just my parents. This was a social norm most people adhered to. Persistent attention-seekers were seen as immature, vulgar, weird, a bit mentally lacking. It was best to ignore them, to avoid encouraging them.

Nowadays we've gone to the opposite extreme. Attention-seeking is routine, and thousands of people spend their lives seeking as much attention as possible. Their every move is broadcast on Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social media sites. We know what they had for breakfast, when they last had a pee, the embarrassing pimple on their nose, their sexual disappointments, their ingrowing toenails, their fear of hedgehogs. There's absolutely nothing they keep to themselves.

They'll do virtually anything to get attention, especially politicians. They tell lies, they make wild allegations, they smear their opponents, they pour out vitriolic abuse. So long as it stirs up heated controversies that keep them in the public eye.

I've never succumbed to this new fashion. I have no desire to be the centre of attention. If anything I have a horror of attention, a deep aversion to other people inspecting me too closely, judging me and gossiping about me. I much prefer to be on my own, enjoying my favourite activities without a flock of curious people around me.

It's not that I have anything to hide. I don't have all sorts of sordid secrets I'm desperate to keep under wraps. I'll reveal anything, even the most personal quirks and oddities, but preferably to an audience of one. I just get nervous when too many people are watching my every move.

So I don't think I'll tell you what I had for breakfast.

(PS: Blogging is just fine. I'm happy to reveal all to my cosy little band of blogging friends)

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Addiction free

I may have 101 idiotic neuroses, from dislike of darkness to social anxiety and imposter syndrome, but one thing I'm thankful for is not having an addictive personality. Something I've inherited I guess, as I can't think of any other family member who has (or had) any addictions. Well, apart from my father's 10-a-day fag habit (which he gave up instantly after having a stroke at the age of 55). And apart from my mother's persistent hoarding.

It's simple enough to get addicted to something, after all. Casual enjoyment can very quickly turn into a raging compulsion. And goodness knows, there are plenty of addictions to choose from - tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, shopping, the internet, OCD, fast food, chocolate, sugary drinks, hoarding, the list is endless.

I've always found it easy to stop doing something when it gets to the threshold of addiction. I just tell myself "Okay, that's enough" and I stop. I have two glasses of wine and that's it. I shop for the clothes I need and that's it. I eat a chocolate or two and that's it.

It's not that I'm terrified of getting addicted. It's not that I've had to deal with someone's chronic addiction. I just know when to stop before something enjoyable becomes something compulsive, an urge I can't resist. Maybe I have a strong sense of self-preservation that stops me doing something obviously self-destructive. Whatever.

I just don't understand addiction, because I've never been addicted. My mother was a relentless hoarder, and I despaired at the mountains of junk in her flat. But I hadn't a clue why she felt the need to hoard. I know lots of people who drink far too much and I don't understand that either. Though I can imagine the pain and distress of knowing you're addicted to something and desperately wanting to get it under control.

"Just say no" isn't as simple as it seems.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Playing with fire

The just-published report on the fire at Grenfell Tower makes me even more certain I couldn't live at the top of a tower block. I would always feel nervous that a sudden fire might reach my flat and I couldn't escape from it.

It may sound irrational, because fires in high-rise blocks are very rare, but the fact is that you're totally reliant on adequate fire-control measures that may or may not have been installed and may not be working when the need arises. You're also reliant on firefighters who may have no detailed, well-rehearsed plan for dealing with a high-rise fire (as was the case at Grenfell Tower).

At Grenfell the fire alarms weren't working properly, there were no sprinklers in the building, there weren't enough firebreaks to contain the fire, there was only one staircase, and of course there was highly inflammable cladding on the outside. Many high-rise blocks still have inflammable cladding that hasn't yet been replaced.

We've never had a flat above the first floor (second floor if you're American). I'd happily live on the second or third floor, which would be fairly easy to escape from, but any higher and I'd feel distinctly unsafe.

I'm not worried though about high-level hotel rooms. A huge fire in a hotel would ruin their reputation so I assume they have very strict fire-control measures, closely monitored by the authorities. In which case I'm happy to be on, say, the fifteenth floor a long way from street level. Also, I'm only in a hotel for a few days and it isn't my permanent residence.

If you live in a high-rise flat, you may have fantastic views, you may have exceptional privacy, you may be well insulated from the hurly burly of the city, but that wouldn't be enough if it might also be a death trap.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Winging it

It's weird how my inner feelings can be so at odds with my outer self, or how other people see me. Despite being a very well organised person, I always feel the exact opposite - that I'm hopelessly disorganised, never quite on top of anything, always running to catch up, haphazardly responding to things.

To other people's eyes, I'm wonderfully organised. I meet people at the right place at the right time. I keep the house clean and tidy. There's always enough food indoors for a few decent meals. I keep track of all the money going in and out. I arrange domestic repairs promptly. I keep the garden in good order. Everything's ticking over nicely, no to-do lists full of tasks left undone for months. Who could ask for more?

Yet on the inside I always feel as if I'm desperately winging it, never properly prepared for anything, doing everything at the last minute, vaguely muddling through, leaving all sorts of loose ends and neglected chores. I feel that other people are much better organised than I am and I'm barely keeping my head above water. I feel that my apparent adeptness is some kind of lucky accident, nothing to do with any deliberate action on my part.

Perhaps I just don't want to believe that I'm well organised because it makes me look like some sort of goody goody, someone lacking in the normal human failings that people find endearing and comforting. People would prefer to know that the windowsills are thick with dust, the garden is an unkempt wilderness, the bed linen hasn't been changed for months, that faulty tap is still dripping, and there's nothing in the fridge but some stale cheese and one mouldy potato.

Sorry, but the goody goody seems to have the upper hand.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Glorious botching

There hasn't been much talk of multi-tasking recently. Which is odd, because supposedly the reason why some people could juggle so many different roles was because they could do six things at once and do them all brilliantly - or at any rate competently.

Well, that was the theory. Then researchers discovered that most people can't multi-task, or at least not effectively. You might think you're doing everything splendidly but in reality you're just muddling through.

I have to say I'm probably the world's worst multi-tasker. Give me two things to do at once and I'll botch both of them - gloriously. Expect me to have an intelligent conversation while I'm driving the car and without doubt I'll drive straight into the closest shopfront.

Expect me to answer the phone while I'm picking out items at the supermarket and you can be sure I'll forget who I'm talking to while simultaneously knocking fifty tins of baked beans off the nearest shelf. Which in itself is a deft piece of multi-tasking - but not the one intended.

I'm afflicted with absolutely single-minded concentration. I can focus superbly on one particular thing -  to a degree that sometimes drives Jenny nuts. But if you ask me to spread my concentration a bit more widely, you're on to a loser. Something's got to give, and invariably it does. I catch sight of a fascinating article in the paper, settle down to read it, and instantly forget there's something in the oven.

The cliché has it that women are better at multi-tasking than men, but I'm not sure that's true. I think some people just happen to be better at it than others, whatever their sex. If such a thing really exists, that is.

Tell you what though - I can be obsequiously polite to someone while at the same time marvelling at their infinite stupidity. Does that count as multi-tasking?

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Coffee nirvana

When did coffee shops become so amazingly popular? So popular that right across the world, even in remote villages and on modest ferries you can get a first-rate cup of coffee.

Their earlier incarnation, the coffee bars of the nineteen fifties and sixties, were fashionable for a while but then lost their appeal, until eventually they were seen as a quaint relic of the past, frequented only by the likes of sad loners, tourists and cheating husbands. I can't remember ever going to one myself.

In those days of course few people had even tasted a top-notch coffee. Most of us were used to the insipid taste of instant coffee out of a jar, consisting of mysterious brown particles, and knew nothing better.

Now there's a coffee shop on virtually every street and the number escalates by the day. The quest for the perfect coffee - the freshest, tastiest, healthiest, climate-friendliest cup of joe, made from the most ethically-sourced beans on the planet - has become a relentless obsession. I'm as keen on a good cup of coffee as anyone else,  but I can't help thinking the search for coffee nirvana has gone a bit too far.

It's now quite normal to drop into a coffee shop several times a week, and pay anything up to a tenner for a coffee and a pastry. Anyone who never enters a coffee shop or doesn't like coffee is seen as a bit strange.

I have to admit Jenny and I like coffee shops. We go for a coffee and a chat every week at Caffè Nero (I know, I know, tax avoidance etc, but we love their coffee). We'll have a coffee if we're meeting friends or sitting in an airport or just killing time. But I'm not a fanatic about the taste. A decent latté will do me fine. I hope the beans weren't harvested by downtrodden peasant farmers, but I'm not going to spend the morning investigating.

I'd rather amuse myself by trying to spot the cheating husbands.

(Thanks to Kylie for the idea)

Saturday, 19 October 2019

The cutting edge

When I was young the word "trendy" was an insult. People laughed at the "mindless trendies" who were slaves to every passing fashion and couldn't bear to feel they were behind the times.

Now that's all changed and there's a total obsession with being trendy at all costs, being at the cutting edge of clothing, cookery, movie-watching, house décor, musical taste, holiday location, climate awareness, and even vocabulary - woe betide us if we use an obsolete term about other people (diabetics, transsexuals, dykes, nutters, natives etc).

The joke is that most trends are so nebulous and often simply assertions by some (fashionable) journalist, beauty editor or pundit. One person's boldly expressed trend will flatly contradict someone else's. In one place we hear that short skirts are back, in another that long dresses are now all the rage. Staying at the cutting edge is an arduous task when everyone disagrees about what the cutting edge consists of.

For years now I've never been remotely trendy and I just do and wear what I feel like doing and wearing. If my decisions happen to coincide with some fashionable dictat, it's mere coincidence. And few people actually care if I'm up-to-the-minute or not, except in the political sphere where being "off-message" can lead to instant ostracism rather than a healthy debate.

I remember trying to keep up with my fellow pupils at boarding school (when I was still young and impressionable) and failing miserably. I would attempt an Elvis-style hairdo, or adopt the required footwear of winkle pickers or chisel toes, or buy some Buddy Holly-style thick-rimmed glasses, but they all knew I was insincere and simply trying to fit in, and I'm sure they laughed at me behind my back.

It was only a year ago I bought my first backpack, after everyone else had had them since the year dot. I still haven't succumbed to a smartphone, Netflix, WhatsApp, airbnb or Uber. But I do take a very trendy set of hessian bags to the supermarket. Do I get any brownie points for that?

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Montreal

So we spent a few days in Montreal, as Jenny thought it was a wonderful city and wanted me to share her enthusiasm. I have to say though that I wasn't as taken with it as she was.

I felt slightly intimidated by the massive and impersonal high-rises and skyscrapers, some a good forty or fifty storeys (and visually pretty bland). I felt quite insignificant, like a small child on the sidewalk. And I felt a bit drained, as if the skyscrapers were sucking something out of me. They were too grandiose, too excessive.

The city had no central focus, it was just a huge sprawl of hotels, businesses and little squares, unlike Manhattan, which has Central Park, or Belfast, which has City Hall, or Sydney, which has the Harbour Bridge.

But having said all that, Montreal has its attractions. Like the Musée des Beaux Arts, which is full of fantastic artwork. We spent nearly five hours there, drinking it all in. Like the Parc du Mont-Royal, just above the city centre, where the belvedere at the summit has a panoramic view across the city. Like the Basilique Notre-Dame, sumptuously decorated and breathtaking.

We also went to the Musée d'Art Contemporain, but were surprised to find there was only one exhibition at the time, the rest of the museum being closed to install new exhibits. Which made no sense as there were dozens of blank walls which could have been hung with hundreds of artworks. Why weren't they? Lack of funding maybe? They must be disappointing an awful lot of tourists.

Accommodation-wise, we did very well. The last time Jenny was in Montreal she found a spacious hotel apartment complete with fully equipped kitchenette, and we stayed there again this time round (Le Square Phillips Hotel).

So Montreal didn't quite capture my heart, but it was worth visiting.

Pic: Le Vieux Port, Montreal, one of the better preserved districts

Friday, 11 October 2019

The Canadian Maritimes

And now all can be revealed. Jenny and I have been on a 10 day guided tour of the Canadian Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton Island). After that we spent a few days in Montreal, as Jenny wanted me to see what she thinks is a wonderful city.

One defining feature of the Maritimes is seafood - muscles, oysters, scallops and lobster in particular. Vegetarians are still unusual and Bernadette, our tour manager, worked hard to provide adequate veggie meals wherever we went.

There's pretty spectacular scenery too, especially on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Island and on the Fundy Trail in New Brunswick. The trees were sporting their amazing autumn colours - yellow, brown, red, orange.

The Maritimes are still thickly forested, with little sign of the commercial interests like mining and fracking that are threatening much of Northern Ireland's natural beauty. And there are lots of unspoilt little fishing villages.

We learnt about some of the indigenous communities that fought for their survival against invading English and French forces - such as the Acadians, the Mikmaq, the Inuits and the Glooscap. They refused to be cowed into submission.

At the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck, we discovered that Bell not only invented the first practical telephone, but invented many other things like metal detectors, the hydrofoil, the audiometer and the wheat husker.

We learnt that New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in Canada, and many of the inhabitants speak both French and English. Jenny and I soon realised that our pathetic grasp of French hardly mattered as English is spoken everywhere.

The residents of the Maritimes are keen on lighthouses, with over 160 in Nova Scotia alone. They also like model lighthouses, which pop up in people's front gardens and other unlikely spots.

Like our guided tour of New Zealand in January, this tour gave us a great overview of the area and what makes it distinctive. We more than satisfied our nagging curiosity.
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We were hoping to meet up with Wise Web Woman. But like most people, I confused St John's Newfoundland (where www actually lives) with Saint John, New Brunswick. So we never met up. Maybe some other time....

Thursday, 19 September 2019

The jealous ex

Some exes get insanely jealous of the new lover and do everything they can to wreck the budding relation-ship. Luckily that seldom happened to me, and most of the exes accepted the situation, either happily or reluctantly.

My girlfriend Trish had an ex but he didn't make any trouble. It would have been difficult as he was living in Birmingham and Trish and I were in London.

Grethe had an ex and was bringing up their son Reuben. The couple were in regular contact but he never tried to separate us.

Rosey had a boyfriend, Barry, who didn't accept our relationship at all and was actively trying to end it. He would tell her I was totally the wrong type for her and it would all end in tears. She did break up with me eventually, and I guess Barry's opinions had something to do with it.

Jenny also had an existing boyfriend but again he didn't make any trouble, probably because Jenny was obviously very keen on me and he didn't think he would get anywhere.

But I've heard plenty of people complaining not just about their ex's jealousy but about their current partner's jealousy. Constant questioning about where they're going and who they're meeting. Making out they fancy someone they just casually glanced at. Claiming a casual note to someone looks flirtatious.

My father was fiercely jealous and possessive. He always questioned my mother about people she was meeting and often implied there was a sexual element. He would even claim some lesbian affair was going on.

I've never been the jealous type myself so I didn't try any dirty tricks when a girlfriend fell for another man. However upset and bewildered I was, I would never have tried to destroy someone else's happiness.

Come to terms with it and move on, is my attitude.
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I won't be blogging for a while. Will explain all in due course! In the meantime, please talk among yourselves....

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Clothes line

Just about every week there's a new row about school uniforms. A pupil is sent home for breaking the school's code, or the school has a new code that parents object to. There seems to be a lack of flexibility and common sense all round, be it from pupils, parents or school staff.

Pupils are being ticked off for having corn rows, afros, dyed hair, the wrong length of hair, make-up, too-short skirts, the wrong colour of tights, the wrong kind of shoes, the list is endless. And school staff seem increasingly strict about minor breaches.

It was all a lot simpler when I was at school. There were uniform codes the same as now, but in general, however daft they seemed, everyone stuck to them and didn't kick up a stink over something they weren't allowed to wear. Getting an education was thought more important than arguing about the uniform.

My uniform code was short hair, trousers, jacket, shirt and tie, and smart shoes (no trainers in those days!). The girls' code was shoulder-length hair, below-the-knee skirt, opaque blouse, jacket, plain bra, plain stockings (or tights in the sixties) and smart flat shoes.

I don't remember anyone ever objecting to the uniform, or insisting on their own choice of clothes. It was just accepted that the uniform was adhered to.

But now more and more pupils demand the right to choose their own clothing and uniform codes are often seen as repressive and old-fashioned. Why shouldn't a girl have corn rows or patterned tights or scarlet lipstick? Why shouldn't a boy have long hair or jeans or sneakers?

It gets even more fraught when pupils call for gender-neutral clothing, including what's normally confined to the opposite sex. Transgender boys demand to wear skirts and dresses and make-up and take legal action when they're denied.

Well, why shouldn't kids wear whatever they feel comfortable in? As long as it doesn't interfere with their studies, what's the problem? If a boy wants to prance around in a Laura Ashley frock, so what?

Pic: Very smart pupils at Truro High School for Girls, Cornwall.
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And some wonderful news. According to my latest prostate scan, the tiny trace of prostate cancer that I've had for 2½ years has completely disappeared. I'm officially cancer-free!

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Use it or lose it

Okay, enough of the doom and gloom. Time for something more positive. Something that'll cheer you all up. Ah, I know just the thing. De-cluttering.

One thing Jenny and I wholly agree on is decluttering - or better still, permanent non-cluttering. We've always had a horror of homes packed with useless junk and dust-gathering knick-knacks, homes so awash with assorted stuff that you have to fight your way through the rooms and clear a ton of rubbish off the chair seats before you can sit down.

Our house couldn't be more different. If there's something we don't want or need, it's thrown out pretty quickly. Just about everything in the house is in regular use, apart from a few ornaments and bits of pottery that we love and remind us of the holidays they stem from. Oh and apart from a large number of books. The local charity shops must have made plenty of money out of our frequent throw-outs.

In fact our house is so bereft of superfluous items one visitor likened it to a guest house. I think some visitors actually feel slightly uncomfortable without the usual agglomeration of cosy bits and pieces they're expecting.

But our house is a palace of junk compared to a house I stayed in many years back, belonging to my friend Chris's aunt. She was fiercely religious and believed there should be nothing in the house that wasn't strictly necessary for everyday living. There were tables, chairs, beds and cupboards and that was about it. The idea of an ornament would have given her conniptions.

My mum, as you may remember, was a compulsive hoarder, and after a move to a care home, her flat had to be cleared of umpteen years' accumulation of unworn clothes, old newspapers, holiday brochures, rotting chocolates and very variety of pointless rubbish imaginable.

An image so vivid and unforgettable I vow never to repeat it.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

It'll be okay

What I'm in dire need of right now is reassurance - and lots of it. The state of the outside world is so alarming that a lot more is needed than a stoical shrug of the shoulders - or looking the other way and pretending everything's normal.

I need to know that things won't get any worse - and may even get better. I need to know that the people we elected to look after our well-being are doing just that. I need to know that the future will improve on the present.

I need reassurance that the planet isn't heading for destruction. That humanity isn't heading for destruction. That Britain's chronic political paralysis won't last much longer. That the rampant hatred and xenophobia and misogyny will die down. That the NHS won't be sold off to the highest bidder. That the old and disabled and vulnerable won't be treated like intolerable burdens.

It's not enough to trot out the usual vacuous phrases. "Don't worry, it'll all be okay". "It's not as bad as you think." "It'll all look better in the morning." I want serious, convincing, evidence-based reassurance. I want to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I want to see the sunny uplands on the horizon.

I can't just shut out the world and retreat into my own little personal bubble of friends and family and my favourite TV programmes. The world keeps tapping me on the shoulder saying "Do you see the mess we're in? What's being done about it? Does anyone care?"

I need reassurance - and lots of it.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

A mug's game

I'm always fascinated by neighbour disputes, especially the really crazy ones that go on for years and cost a fortune. What motivates people to push these disputes to the bitter end, whatever the financial and emotional cost?

Cilla Carden of Perth, Australia, is planning more legal action against her neighbours, citing their cooking smells, cigarette smoke, chairs scraping on concrete, reflective light, the sounds of children playing basketball, and pet birds.

Seriously? Aren't all those things just what you would expect from a family enjoying their home? Are they meant to creep around super-silently, avoiding any kind of noise or smells or signs of their existence? I would say Ms Carden is ludicrously intolerant and unable to live and let live.

Jenny and I have had a few problems with neighbours, but there's no way we would pour money into lawyers' pockets to deal with them. There are always other ways of sorting things out.

We once had a flat in a London mansion block, and the neighbours were fond of riotous all-night parties. We kept a detailed diary of the disturbances and asked the local council to take action. The neighbours were fined a large sum and moved out shortly afterwards. Result!

A few years before, in another block of flats, our downstairs neighbours were amazingly noisy, one with a constant hacking cough we could hear all too clearly. We asked them politely if they could be less noisy, but their response was to let down our car tyres.

While we were still wondering what else we could do, they moved out and were replaced by a much quieter couple we befriended. Problem solved.

Now we live in a detached house so neighbour nuisance is less likely, though we did have some neighbours who were also fond of late-night parties. Luckily they tired of such revelry, two of them moved out and the one person left is quiet as a mouse.

Legal action? It's a mug's game.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Crazy dreams

My dreams are very different from other people's. Everyone else seems to dream about real events and real people, while my dreams are totally abstract - bizarre figments of my imagination.

I often dream about an awkward workplace situation, even though I haven't had a paid job for some 16 months. I'm sitting at an office desk with no idea what I'm meant to be doing. Or I'm in a works canteen where everyone is stuffing themselves but I don't know where the food is being served. Or I'm at work trying to read an important report in a language I don't recognise or understand.

Where does this stuff come from? I've never been in any of these situations so my brain seems to go on a solo run as soon as I fall asleep.

I never dream about actual workplaces I've been in, or the people I've worked with. I never dream about the genuinely embarrassing, awkward situations I've encountered.

I dream about Jenny very occasionally and once I dreamt about a Facebook friend, but that's about it. I don't dream about my family, my friends, my neighbours or people I've met during the day. My dreams are nothing but a kind of nocturnal spam.

I've never heard of any other adult whose dreams are so abstract, but surely they must exist? Or does everyone dream about Aunt Gillian upsetting the teapot when she paid a visit yesterday? Or does everyone dream about winning the lottery or meeting their favourite celebrity?

I think I need some urgent adjustments to my dreaming software. It's seriously defective and needs to be replaced by something more normal. I want to dream about Annie Lennox. Or Bonnie Raitt. Or even Aunt Gillian will do.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Letting go

One of the hardest things about being a parent must be giving up the constant supervision of your children and trusting them to make their own decisions - hopefully sensible and intelligent ones.

When you've been keeping an eye on your children 24 hours a day since they were born, it must be quite a wrench to be less vigilant and stop constantly checking up on them.

I'm reminded of this by yet another teenager dying of a suspected drugs overdose at the Leeds music festival. The 17 year old girl had taken not just one drug but a whole cocktail of drugs. She trusted whoever gave them to her and assumed they weren't dangerous.

And every so often kids decide it would be hilarious to wreck the local children's playground or daub graffiti on the wall of the parish church.

At some point a parent has to allow their child to go out on their own and be responsible for their own actions. You have to make a judgment as to whether they'll be safe or whether they'll get into some kind of trouble - drug abuse, sexual harassment, a car accident, shoplifting.

I imagine the farther your child goes, and the longer they're away, the more nervous you get. If they're backpacking in Australia for two months, for example. Or maybe it makes no difference.

Of course at a certain age a child is legally entitled to do whatever they want and their parents can no longer stand in the way.

When I was a teenager I generally made sensible decisions, but not always. I remember driving my girlfriend home once when I was very drunk, as people did in those days. Luckily I didn't have an accident.

Just let go, they say. Easier said than done.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Apocalypse buffs

What turns people into survivalists? Why does someone decide they need to make elaborate prepar-ations for some sort of future apocalypse or arma-geddon? Why don't they just potter along hoping for the best like most of us do?

Apart from anything else, it's such a hit and miss business. You don't know exactly what you're preparing for so you don't really know what you should be stocking up on or making provision for. An economic crisis? A war? A biblical plague? Climate collapse? Aliens from outer space? It's all so nebulous.

Personally I've never had the slightest urge to prepare for some dire future emergency. I've survived for 72 years without taking any special precautions, and I doubt there'll be an apocalypse any time soon.

In any case, where do you put all the stuff you've set aside? You would need a very large house or basement and how many people have those? You would also need plenty of cash to buy all this extra stuff.

There was a wonderful story a couple of years ago about Joseph Badame, an American guy who had spent $1 million making massive preparations for a possible economic crisis, was made bankrupt by medical bills after his wife's stroke and faced having to dispose of everything he had stockpiled - including huge amounts of food.

At the estate sale, he met a Puerto Rican food truck operator hired to work at the sale and she told him of all the Puerto Rican families who were starving after Hurricane Maria had hit the country.

He arranged for all the food he had stockpiled - thousands of dollars' worth - to be shipped to Puerto Rico.

So something good came out of his personal tragedy.

Pic: Joseph Badame

Friday, 16 August 2019

Off the cuff

One of the slightly scary things in life is how a sudden decision, made without proper thought or reflection, made more or less on the spur of the moment, can have quite unexpected and even life-changing consequences.

A politician tweets a racist and abusive comment and his political career is instantly halted. A motorist goes through a red traffic light and is seriously injured in a head-on collision. Someone invests their life savings in a dodgy company and loses the lot. A woman befriends a man who turns out to be a stalker.

A lot of these off-the-cuff decisions are made under the influence of alcohol or drugs or infatuation or misplaced trust. Or someone feels the need to "break out", to escape from a rut, to be their "real self". Or it's just put down to "a moment of madness".

Often the decision seems quite out of character, something the person would never normally do, something that's totally inexplicable.

In the book I've just read, The Silent Wife by A S A (Susan) Harrison, a woman who is known to be placid, sensible and easy-going suddenly decides to do something shocking and illegal (no spoilers!), something that will completely change her life and possibly put her in jail.

It's not something she's reflected on for a while, weighed up the pros and cons. She makes the decision very abruptly and then goes through with it. It seems unbelievable, but in reality people do just that - make life-changing decisions with barely a moment's thought.

Luckily all my spur-of-the-moment decisions have turned out to be good ones and haven't led to disaster. I haven't lost thousands of pounds, got sacked, been hen-pecked, destroyed my health or ended up in jail.

I feel sorry for those people who've wrecked their lives with some stupid impromptu decision they forever regretted. It could happen to any of us.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Elephant in the room

So what to write today? I could blather on about this, that or the other thing - my neighbours from hell maybe, or my tyrannical boss, or my lucky escape from near-disaster. But all those little personal stories are starting to feel utterly trivial beside the enormous elephant in the room, the one thing that now dominates British life and every other conversation - Brexit.

On October 31 Prime Minister Boris Johnson, backed by a bunch of dogged fanatics, has promised to take the UK out of the European Union. Just like that.

He has only the vaguest idea of what will happen next or how our everyday lives will be affected. He just thinks it's a jolly good idea, and in any case it was voted for in a referendum three years ago and he has to obey "the democratic will of the people".

Like millions of others, I'm in despair at the possible consequences of this hare-brained decision. There have been hundreds of grim predictions from expert after expert about the negative effects on business, on the economy, on the public services, on agriculture, on the environment and on scientific research - just about everything in fact. But the predictions have been ignored by the Prime Minister, who regards them all as hysterical scare-mongering.

Jenny and I probably won't be personally affected, unless the predicted food and medicine shortages come about, but other people could be quite severely affected. But hey, we have to abide by the democratic will of the people, even if they voted for the mass slaughter of ugly babies.

I can only hope common sense prevails before it's too late, but that seems increasingly unlikely. The Brexit juggernaut is careering down the hill and nobody knows how to apply the brakes. An almighty crash seems unavoidable.

Pic: Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Neighbourliness

It's conventional wisdom that we should be friendly with all our neighbours so we can support each other in an emergency or whenever we need help - mowing the elderly neighbour's lawn, lending garden tools, watching the house while you're away, and so on.

But in practice it doesn't actually work like that. The neighbours might prefer to keep to themselves - especially if they have several kids and are fully occupied with parenting, or are just the reclusive type, or they decide you're not on their wavelength, or they don't want you to see the mess they surround themselves with. All sorts of hidden reasons in fact.

Then again you might think you're quite capable of dealing with emergencies and sorting out your problems without the neighbours poking their nose in, so why cultivate friendships you don't really need in the first place?

Although Jenny and I have been living here for ten years, we don't know the neighbours very well. Mostly we know their names and we say hello to each other but that's about it.

I take in parcels for the couple next door, and trim our joint hedge occasionally. The couple next to them are much friendlier and we've had some good chats since they moved in a few months back.

There's another neighbour a few doors up who looks after our house while we're on holiday, and we're very friendly with him and his wife and kids.

But the other neighbours keep themselves to themselves and I know next to nothing about them. I seldom meet them on the street as they travel everywhere by car.

I know much more about my Facebook friends than my neighbours, and that probably applies to most people. My Facebook friends may even give me helpful advice in a crisis my neighbours wouldn't even know about.

Well, so be it. I just take my neighbours as they come.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

The spartan years

I would define my life nowadays as privileged. I have a loving partner, a comfortable home, enough money, good health, plenty to eat and drink, and (at the moment) I live in a peaceful country. But I wasn't always so privileged.

Between 1973 and 1979 I lived in a tatty bed-sit in Abbey Road, London (yes, that Abbey Road). There was no central heating, just a small gas fire, there was no toilet or wash basin (only a communal bathroom downstairs), there was no washing machine, there was a one-ring cooker, there was damp all the way up the staircase of the building, and needless to say, any requests to the landlord for repairs or improvements were ignored.

I could have afforded somewhere more comfortable, but I was trying to save money to buy a flat so I was economising. I never invited anyone round, as the shabbiness would have been too embarrassing.

The one-ring cooker discouraged any serious cooking, so I lived mainly on snacks like fruit, biscuits, fruit cake, boiled eggs and peanut butter sandwiches. Not surprisingly, I was a lot thinner then (about 10½ stone).

The other tenants weren't interested in joint approaches to the landlord to get things fixed. The elderly woman upstairs had a serious whisky habit and was usually drunk. The elderly woman downstairs just wanted a quiet life with no fuss or bother.

To keep myself amused, and avoid cabin fever in my tiny bolthole, I would go to all the museums and galleries and take long walks round the neighbourhood. I went to the cinema regularly, especially the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. Or I would take a book to one of the local coffee bars and sit reading for hours on end. In the summer I went to seaside resorts, my favourites being Eastbourne, Folkestone, Hastings and Broadstairs.

Then in 1981 I met Jenny, and things took a turn for the better.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Promises promises

Do people take their wedding vows seriously? Do they honestly intend to stay with their spouse through thick and thin, through hell and high water, through the grimmest of circumstances? Or do they make that promise a bit tongue-in-cheek, not really meaning it? Like you agree to the terms and conditions on an insurance policy, without actually reading them?

I don't recall what wedding vows Jenny and I used. I don't remember us writing our own vows, so I think we must have used the traditional ones, which go something like this:

"I, whoever, take thee, whoever, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."

But since around 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce, clearly in practice everyone has their particular limits, and what one person will happily tolerate will drive another to pack their bags.

Whatever their wedding vows, people may be unable to cope with their partner getting a nasty illness, becoming an alcoholic, being work-obsessed, being a total slob, joining some weird cult, or sleeping around. And you wouldn't expect anyone to put up with ongoing violence or cruelty or gaslighting.

I doubt many spouses really believe they should tolerate absolutely anything, however distressing or humiliating. I suppose the wedding vows are still very much a puritanical hangover from the days when wives were expected to endure whatever their husbands inflicted on them.

Jenny and I have never had our pledge of loyalty put to a serious test - certainly none of the things I just mentioned. How would we cope if one of us got a dreadful illness, or turned into a pugnacious bully? Hard to say unless it actually happened.

Only a saint could adhere faithfully to the wedding vows. And not many of us are saints.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Hair talk

Hair. Something that spawns a hundred opinions. Compli-mentary, censorious, shocked, delighted. People are seldom emotionally neutral about a hairstyle, either their own or someone else's.

So let me share some of my own opinions about hair:
  • I've only had three hairstyles in 72 years. As a kid I had a parting, as a twenty something I had a long hair and a beard, and now the parting (and the beard) is long gone.
  • A lot of people with curly hair would prefer straight hair (my own is straight), but I love curly hair. Especially wild Jewish and Afro hair. I'm baffled by the prejudice against natural Afro hair.
  • I'm also baffled by the prejudice against ginger hair. I love it.
  • I love dreadlocks and corn rows.
  • I like dyed hair, but I also like natural grey hair.
  • I love short haired women. And short hair is so much easier to look after.
  • Some people have hairstyles that totally don't suit them. But you can't say so.
  • Hair that droops over someone's eyes is rather ridiculous.
  • I'd hate to be bald. But I don't fancy a wig.
  • Comb-overs are absurd. You'll never catch me with one.
  • Why is the simplest woman's haircut twice the price of a man's?
  • Men's hairstyles are odd right now. Undercut, Caesar cut, buzz cut, Mohawk. Strange mixtures of long hair and short hair.
  • I'm wary of men with buzz cuts. Are they drug dealers or paramilitaries? Or both?
  • I don't have any fancy shampoos. I just buy the cheapest I can find.
  • I tried not washing my hair for a while, as supposedly hair is self-cleaning. I just ended up with stinky hair.
Basically I prefer women's hairstyles to men's. They're more imaginative and they don't look like a prison cut. And they're nicer to fondle. But jeez they're a lot more fuss and bother.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Unwanted advice

I don't like unasked-for advice. I don't like getting it and I try not to give it. Most of it is plain annoying; it's either irrelevant or offensive or misinformed or smug. I've very seldom had advice that I actually found useful.

When I gave up journalism and became a bookseller, a lot of people were surprised and said I should have stayed in journalism - it was more exciting, better paid, more prestigious etc. I didn't agree with them, I took no notice, and I was irritated by their assumption they knew what was good for me. I spent many enjoyable years as a bookseller (23 in fact) and I never regretted quitting journalism.

When Jenny and I sold our flat in Islington in London and moved to Belfast, once again a lot of people were surprised and said we must be mad to move from a civilised city to an unpredictable trouble spot. We ignored the doubters and now we've been in Belfast for 19 very happy years. We don't miss London's congestion and high prices and pretensions in the least.

Luckily I've been treated to such gratuitous advice very rarely. Family members are renowned for dishing out earnest advice on every subject, but even my family has been reticent in this respect, despite my making decisions they must have found baffling or idiotic or disappointing. Of course that may be because my family are reticent about almost everything.

I try not to give unwanted advice to others, unless they specifically ask for it. How can I possibly know what's in the best interests of another person? Even if I've been through similar experiences, what was right for me isn't necessarily right for them. And suppose they followed my advice and came a cropper because of some crucial factor I wasn't even aware of? So much for my smart-alec interference.

Sometimes silence is golden.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Health emergency

The NHS in Northern Ireland is in dire straits. More than 288,000 patients* were waiting for their first outpatient appoint-ment at the end of March. It's now routine for people to wait over a year to see a consultant or receive medical treatment, unless it's a life-or-death emergency.

Felicity McKee, who ironically is a nurse, has moved from Northern Ireland to Wales to get proper healthcare, after getting the brush-off from one health worker after another in her home country. In Wales a patient is nearly 50 times less likely to be waiting over a year for care than in Northern Ireland.

The main reason for the crisis in the NHS is the 2½ years shutdown of the Stormont government because of a row between the two big political parties. There has been no Minister of Health to take the necessary decisions, and the civil servants have had to keep things going as best they can.

The reason I tell you all this is because I dread the possibilities if my trace of prostate cancer turned into something much bigger, or if I developed some other major illness. How long would I have to wait before I got the necessary treatment? Would my health have got a lot worse by then?

Of course there's always the option of going private, but our savings are limited and if I needed major treatment on a regular basis, we simply couldn't afford it. If I arranged a private session with a consultant, the NHS wouldn't accept the consultant's findings and I would still have to wait to see an NHS consultant before I could get any treatment.

In any case I'm strongly opposed to going private (a) because I'm fiercely loyal to the NHS and (b) because if large numbers of people go private and vanish from NHS waiting lists, then the situation in the NHS doesn't look quite so bad.

There are rumours once more of a return to direct rule from Westminster, in which case the situation might improve. But at the moment things look pretty bleak.

*Out of a population of 1.7 million. That's 17 per cent.

Pic: Health workers at Ulster Hospital.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Goodbye to innocence

Are children today having a more fraught and difficult childhood than the children of previous decades? Is childhood innocence becoming a thing of the past, with today's children exposed earlier and earlier to adult realities?

Yes, says the charity Action For Children. They spoke to 5,000 children, parents and grandchildren and found a wide consensus that modern childhoods were getting worse amid increasing social pressures.

Youngsters were under pressure to achieve at school, fit in with their peers and cope with wider anxieties such as Brexit, poverty and the climate crisis.

Two-thirds of parents and grandparents felt childhood was getting worse, and a third of children agreed. All said bullying - both online and offline - was the main problem, followed by pressure to fit in socially, now more intense because of social media.

A very sad state of affairs. My own childhood seems like unalloyed bliss compared to what children face today.

Yes, I had a bad-tempered father and I was bullied at school, but now that all seems quite trivial when set beside present-day anxieties.

I glided through my school years with little awareness of the outside world and its problems. I wasn't too worried about passing exams, as I wasn't planning to go to university. I went on wonderful family holidays. I felt very little pressure to fit in with anyone else. At home we all enjoyed the popular radio sitcoms and comedy shows of the time. I spent hours whizzing round the neighbourhood on my scooter. I played in the street with no fear of child-molesters or knife-carriers or drug-dealers.

I truly was in a sealed childhood bubble that was seldom disturbed by the grim reality of things like the Suez Crisis, the cold war or nuclear threats, or by mental health issues like eating disorders, self-harm or body loathing. My cosy little world of pleasure and novelty was rarely punctured.

Childhood today seems more like a battleground.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Don't post me

Is it okay to post photos of your kids on social media without their permission? Londoner Cecily Hardy thinks not. She's banned her mother Leah from posting images of her without asking her first.

I agree with her. Children may not want images of themselves posted for all sorts of very good reasons - they don't like the photo, it can be misused, they feel exposed and vulnerable, it may lead to abusive comments, it's an invasion of privacy, or their parents are being presumptious.

It seems obvious to me that children should actively consent to images on social media, and their agreement shouldn't be taken for granted. And if they're too young to give meaningful consent - then don't post.

I think the same applies to anything you write about them, especially whatever might embarrass them.

It's all very well saying, but people want to know how my children are getting on, and posting photos is a way of letting them know. If my children object, aren't they just being over-sensitive and awkward?

No, they aren't. They can probably imagine all sorts of negative consequences that the doting parent simply hasn't thought about.

Image theft is very common. People can steal a child's image and then claim the child as their own. They can use the image for child pornography. They can use it in all sorts of inappropriate ways.

Little details on a post can identify the child, where they live and what school they go to, and complete strangers can locate them and prey on them.

In this age of widespread social media abuse, I'm surprised parents still casually post photos and stories of their kids as if it's a charming and harmless thing to do. They ignore the risks at their peril.

Pic: Leah Hardy (without her children!)

Friday, 5 July 2019

Bathroom habits

Okay, let's talk bathrooms. Some interesting new stats that say we spend an average of 416 days of our life in the bathroom - showering, bathing, moisturising, shaving, applying make-up, cleaning our teeth and even checking our emails and reading our favourite books. Some of us just go there for a bit of peace and quiet.

Seven out of ten of us find sharing a bathroom frustrating, in particular when someone else is hogging the room, the toilet roll hasn't been replaced or there are hairs in the wash basin.

Jenny and I are lucky enough to have three bathrooms - a regular bathroom, an en suite and a downstairs cloakroom. So hogging the bathroom isn't an issue any more, though it often was in the past.

We know exactly what annoys each other - yes indeed, the non-replaced toilet roll or hairs in the basin, but also towels and shampoo bottles left lying around, a dirty mirror, used plasters, toothpaste tubes without caps - and we're good at avoiding the annoyances. We're very considerate of each other's feelings!

We don't like sharing the bathroom and we close the door for privacy. This seems rather unusual as other people happily do their thing with an audience, but that's how we are. We like undisturbed seclusion....

I've used the bath only twice since we moved in ten years ago. I prefer the speed of the shower. A lot of people enjoy wallowing in a hot bath with a glass of wine, especially when it's cold, but not me. I prefer wallowing in a good book.

I certainly don't linger in front of the mirror, inspecting all the wrinkles and crinkles and assorted age-related ravages. A quick glance to make sure I haven't gone bald or lost a tooth and that's it. Luckily, being a man, nobody cares what I look like as long as I have all the expected body parts and I'm not naked or wearing a dress.

And no, I didn't write this in the bathroom.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Roughing it

So the Glastonbury Festival is as popular as ever, despite the vagaries of the English weather and the spartan conditions. The Somerset countryside is once again under siege from thousands of rock fans flocking to see their favourite bands.

I've never been to the festival, and it's certainly not on my bucket list. I steer well clear of it for all sorts of reasons:

1) I don't enjoy camping
2) I keep away from drugs
3) I don't like staying up late
4) I get nervous in large crowds
5) It's no fun wading through mud
6) I don't want to be rained on
7) I dislike long queues for awful food and squalid toilets
8) I'm likely to be so far from the stage I can barely hear the music
9) I don't like being surrounded by litter
10) I prefer to listen to CDs in the comfort of my own home

I've only been to an outdoor rock festival once, and that was the Isle of Wight festival in 1969, which featured Bob Dylan, the Who and 29 other bands, most of them now long-forgotten.

I can remember very little of the music, partly as I say because of the distance from the stage, partly because I spent so long queuing for food, partly because I was exhausted and sleeping. So even without taking drugs I managed to miss most of it. Rather a waste of the admission charge, which no doubt was astronomical.

As I've explained before, I haven't been camping since I was 13, when I went to a Scout camp and was solidly rained on for a fortnight. Everything was swimming in mud, the tents were leaking, my clothes were permanently damp, and I couldn't wait to get home again.

Some people may enjoy roughing it for a few days, but I think I'll stick to my domestic comforts and all mod cons.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Honeymoon period

It's intriguing that honeymoons are now considered an essential follow-up to marriage, though they only became commonplace at the end of the nineteenth century. And that despite initial disapproval from doctors who thought they were bad for women's health!

Not many couples forgo a honeymoon, and when they do it's usually for a good reason - one of them is starting at college or starting a new job, they're short of cash, they're moving house, they're running a business, they've already cohabited for several years, or the bride-to-be is about to give birth!

Jenny and I didn't have a honeymoon as such, partly because we had cohabited for fourteen years, partly because we didn't see the point, and partly because we married mainly for financial reasons - Jenny's local government pension could only be passed on to a spouse. But we did go on holiday after the (register office) wedding. Nowhere very exotic or romantic, just a tour of northern England including Stoke on Trent potteries, Whitby, Scarborough, and to see friends in Chester and York.

We could have gone somewhere more spectacular, but we were counting the pennies a little because we had a huge mortgage to pay for.

It didn't cost very much because we travelled around by car and stayed in very unassuming hotels and guest houses. We kept expecting to feel subtly different now we were married, but of course we didn't - we were the same as before, but with an official document to wave about.

I imagine many couples don't actually do very much on their honeymoons. Organising an elaborate wedding is so stressful probably all they want to do is lie on a beach for two weeks and get their sanity back.

As long as they take care what they eat and drink. Honeymoon food poisoning is remarkably common.

Friday, 21 June 2019

The guilty cyclist

I was astonished by a recent court case about a woman who stepped into the road while looking at her phone and was knocked down by a cyclist. The judge ruled that the cyclist was as blameworthy as the pedestrian, as "cyclists must be prepared at all times for people to behave in unexpected ways."

Well, of course they should, but if someone suddenly steps into the road totally oblivious to what's coming towards them, how is a cyclist meant to prepare for that?

Should he (or she) swerve into the middle of the road in case a pedestrian does something stupid? Should he scrutinise all pedestrians for possible reckless intentions? Should he ring his bell at two-second intervals to warn the local birdbrains?

That would be ridiculous. A cyclist has to assume pedestrians will stay on the pavement unless it's safe to cross the road. If they're not even looking at the road, how is the cyclist to blame?

I was involved in a similar accident in the early nineties. I was approaching a zebra crossing, didn't see anyone about to cross, but then as I drove over the crossing I knocked a woman down. I couldn't understand how she suddenly came to be on the zebra crossing.

Naturally I stopped, apologised profusely and asked if she was hurt. She was unable to answer and I could only assume she was too shocked to speak or was under the influence of alcohol or medication, and therefore too befuddled to notice the oncoming car. In any case there was no visible injury.

I didn't think I was in any way to blame, as I looked carefully at the zebra crossing while approaching it, and didn't see anyone about to cross. But this particular judge might have thought otherwise as "motorists must be prepared at all times for people to behave in unexpected ways."

Do you think the judge was right? Or wrong?

PS (later on Friday) The cyclist has been ordered to pay around £100,000 in compensation and costs, which he says will leave him bankrupt. The woman has been awarded £4,161.79 in damages. So in financial terms the cyclist is seen as around 25 times more guilty than the woman.

PPS (Saturday) A friend of the cyclist has set up a GoFundMe page to help him pay the legal bill. She has so far raised over £50,000. He may need less than first thought, as the £100,000 was the sum asked for by the pedestrian, while the judge indicated that £10,000 would be more appropriate (the exact sum will be decided at a final hearing later).

Monday, 17 June 2019

Fancy a chat?

The growing problem of loneliness has prompted a new initiative you might call "opportun-ities to chat". Coffee shops have introduced "chat areas" and train companies are experimenting with "chat carriages".

The idea is that people who want some social contact can head for these chat areas and strike up conversation with others in the same boat.

Alexandra Hoskyn was 33 when she started the Chatty Café Scheme three years ago. Her son, Henry, was four months old and she felt isolated and deprived of adult company. So she encouraged coffee shops to set up chat areas where lonely people could meet and talk.

Now more than 1,000 cafés, hospitals, council offices, supermarkets and other venues have set up chat tables and the trend is catching on.

It seems like a great idea to me. You can chat to someone knowing they also want to chat, instead of risking a brush-off or just keeping yourself to yourself.

I don't know of any such "chat areas" in Northern Ireland, although Costa Coffee and Sainsbury's have introduced them elsewhere. Mind you, the Northern Irish are naturally chatty and will natter away to anyone anywhere. Sit next to someone on the bus and you could very well hear their entire life story by the end of the journey.

Loneliness has been linked to many medical conditions such as dementia, obesity, high blood pressure and mental disorders, so it seems a no-brainer that anything that makes it easier to link up with other people can only be a good thing.

I'd like to give it a try. Just as long as I'm not landed with some gung-ho political nerd who wants to discuss the finer details of Brexit for at least half an hour....

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Older and wiser?

I expect most younger people dread getting old. As far as they can see, it means only getting more decrepit, getting confused by anything new or complicated, and hankering after "the good old days". But that's a rather jaundiced picture. Getting old also brings plenty of benefits. Such as:

1) You no longer want to drive so fast or so recklessly.
2) It's okay to talk to yourself.
3) You have much clearer priorities.
4) You don't care as much what others think.
5) You can nap whenever you feel like it.
6) You can enjoy rereading old books - or watching TV shows or movies - because you've forgotten the ending and most of the plot.
7) It's easier to manage your emotions.
8) Your secrets are safe because your friends' memories are no better than your own.
9) Almost all the major, difficult decisions in life are behind you.
10) You have a higher sense of self-worth.
11) Much less stress - no more jobs, children now independent.
12) You seldom need to wear formal, uncomfortable clothing.
13) You find it easier to ask for help.

I'm not entirely sure about number four. I still care a lot about what others think - what they think about me, or about other people, or about themselves, or about politics, or about life in general. I certainly don't want to offend or upset people, so I think before I speak. Or stay silent.

But hey, yes, getting old isn't the awful armageddon younger people sometimes think it is. A lot of things get much easier - and much more fun.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Just say it

One of the big changes in my lifetime has been the loosening of the old taboos about what can be openly discussed and what can't. There are now so many things that are talked about quite freely which in my younger days weren't talked about at all, or only in private behind closed doors, and even then with huge embarrassment and trepidation.

The list of now permissible subjects is pretty long and getting longer - mental health problems, suicide and death, sexual preferences and difficulties, disabilities, domestic violence, sexual harassment, intimate parts of the body, grisly medical treatments and many others.

When I was young all these topics were considered barely mentionable for one reason or another - too morbid, too personal, too squeamish, too upsetting, too graphic, too horrifying - and lips were sealed for fear of causing visible consternation.

The result was that many people grew up totally ignorant of things that could cause serious problems in their life, and had no idea what to do about them. They would think they were the only person in the world with such problems, and would get more and more upset about them.

Now people grow up much better informed, able to air all manner of personal traumas to other people, blurting out whatever's on their mind without feeling like a freak, and with much greater self-awareness.

We can tell the world about our prostate operations or depressive episodes or erectile dysfunction or bulimia and nobody bats an eyelid. The raised eyebrows, warning looks and frosty responses are in general long gone.

Some people of course have never adapted to the new era of uninhibited frankness and are stuck in the old taboos. I think one reason I found it so hard to talk to my mum in her later years was because there were still so many things she couldn't bring herself to talk about.

Tell it like it is - why not?

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Was my face red

I often ask myself, what was my biggest ever embarrass-ment? I can't think of any really appalling embarrass-ment, the type where you want to fall through the floor and never be seen again. But of course there are myriads of minor embarrass-ments, the sort where I feel a bit of an idiot for a few minutes and then it rapidly becomes a fading memory. To name a few:

1) Driving the wrong way round a roundabout. Yes, I actually did that, though it was only a very small roundabout so no harm done.
2) Driving the wrong way down a one-way street. I've done that several times, to a cacophony of horn-sounding from other drivers.
3) Confidently getting someone's name totally wrong. Happily calling them Rebecca when their actual name is Natalie.
4) Confidently asking after someone's children when they don't in fact have any.
5) Discovering a large and conspicuous stain on my pants after I've returned home from a very smart social event.
6) Daydreaming briefly while someone is talking to me, then finding I've lost the thread and have no idea what they're talking about.
7) Tucking into a meal at someone else's house, then noticing everyone is waiting for the host to start their meal first.
8) At someone else's house, casually opening what I think is the toilet door and finding it's a bedroom with a strange couple in mid-snog.
9) Returning home from a restaurant where the food and service were superb and realising we didn't leave a tip.
10) On my way out of an airport, discovering that in an absent-minded moment I left that brilliant book I was reading on the plane.

At least my embarrassments are usually in front of a fairly small audience and are quickly forgotten. Pity those celebs and public figures who embarrass themselves in front of an audience of thousands or even millions and never live it down because the videos will be circulating on the internet till the end of human existence.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Holy writ

It seems to be a growing trend that those who challenge popular opinions with a radically different view are hounded and insulted and told to shut up. Their refusal to toe the conventional line is seen as abnormal, perverse, unacceptable.

Historian Hallie Rubenhold, who has exposed the miserable lives of Jack the Ripper's victims, has been the target of "offensive", "stupid" and "almost laughable" attacks from Ripper fanatics with fixed views on the five women who died.

She has challenged the prevailing belief that the murdered women were all prostitutes, saying that three of the women weren't prostitutes, simply "sick, starving, brutally treated women" who just happened to cross their killer's path.

"There are people out there who feel they have ownership of these women's stories and there is an orthodoxy. If you question those 'facts', then God have mercy on you. The response I've had to this is unbelievable."

You would think people with an interest in a particular subject would welcome different views that added to their understanding of it. You would think their only concern would be to discover the truth, whatever that may be. But no, their views turn into holy writ, and anyone who questions them is seen as a heretic, a blasphemer.

I tend to keep quiet about some of my own views that run counter to the fashionable wisdom, for fear of a hostile reaction. There's no point in confronting people who are most unlikely to change their existing opinions.

I'm increasingly glad I'm not a prominent public figure with markedly unconventional views. The predictable vicious trolling would be hard to cope with. The old British tradition of open-minded consideration of opposing views seems to be crumbling rapidly.

All that matters nowadays is being right.

Pic: Hallie Rubenhold

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Sweeping statements

Oh dear, the sweeping generali-sations people make, conveni-ently brushing all our individual differences under the carpet. In this latest case, the question of who is happier? The married or the unmarried? Those with children or without?

Professor Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics tells us that women are generally happier if they're single and childless, while the opposite applies to men.

Well, that may be true in general, but of course it all depends on the individuals and how they behave and what they expect.

Someone married to a kind, gentle, thoughtful, considerate spouse will obviously be happier than someone whose spouse is violent, domineering, arrogant and selfish.

Likewise someone who's single but poor, jobless, unhealthy and badly housed will be less happy than a single person in luckier circumstances.

Personally, I'm very happily married, but if I was married to someone who criticised me non-stop and always demanded the impossible, it would be another story.

Not to mention that Professor Dolan's conclusions are based entirely on self reporting, and people aren't necessarily truthful. He noted for example that when their spouse was present, women usually said they were happy being married, but if their husband wasn't around, they often confessed they were miserable.

I could tell Professor Dolan that I hated being married and my wife was a pain in the arse, and how would he know I was lying?

Also, whether you're happily married depends on whether you chose "the right person" in the first place and you're compatible over the long term. Obviously if you made the wrong choice and everything turns sour, then you're going to feel rotten.

So here's my sweeping generalisation - controversial research findings should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

What lies ahead

Some people like the "what if" game that involves changing the past. What if I had done this instead of that? What if I'd been more adventur-ous? But I prefer the other "what if" game that involves changing the future.

I dislike the constant uncertainty about the future and what it might bring. I dislike not knowing if my decisions will be successful or disastrous. I dislike constantly having to "wait and see".

Just think how helpful it would be if I could see into the future and adjust my plans accordingly. Nagging apprehension would be replaced by confident looking-forward. Badly-informed guesswork would be replaced by tangible facts. Life would be a lot easier. For example:

If I knew when I was going to die, I could make sure my affairs were in order, that Jenny knew all my passwords, had full access to our bank accounts, knew where to find important documents and so forth.

If I knew the country was going to be taken over by an oppressive political regime, we could up sticks and move to a more enlightened country.

If someone planning to start a business knew it would collapse with huge debts in five years' time, they could scrap their plans and do something different.

If someone knew their marriage would end in failure, they could call off the marriage and start looking for a new partner.

Of course some people would hate to know the future. They enjoy the uncertainty and surprise and the challenge of facing something totally unexpected that forces them to make big changes and reassess their life.

They relish all the speculation and prediction. They love imagining the umpteen possibilities and how likely and unlikely they may be. They're happy to accept good luck and bad luck, ups and downs, whatever life sends them.

Not me. The more certainty the better.

PS: It occurs to me that knowing what the future will bring could mean I worry more rather than less. If I knew for instance there would be a nuclear war in ten years' time, I would be worrying about how to prepare for it, how to survive it etc, whereas if I didn't know, there would be nothing to worry about.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Barca Nostra

Much controversy over an exhibit at the Venice Biennale - the hull of a ship in which between 700 and 1,100 Libyan refugees died in 2015. The critics are saying it's not a work of art, just an insensitive exploitation of a terrible human tragedy.

They say it makes no reference to the people who died or what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. It's merely something to be gawped at by the curious as they wonder if it's time for lunch.

Visitors oblivious to what happened on the boat were taking selfies in front of it and tweeting pictures of the adjacent café.

The artist, Christoph Büchel, argues that Barca Nostra (Our Boat) is "a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration". He says the vessel has become a symbolic object, representing the victims of global turmoil and also the policies that create such wrecks.

That's as may be, but I don't think a "symbolic object" amounts to a work of art. To my mind, art has to trigger some emotional or intellectual reaction in the viewer. An empty boat stripped of any context isn't art but a mere object to be casually glanced at.

If an empty boat is a work of art, then so is my garden shed. Perhaps I could have submitted it to the Biennale as a "symbolic object" representing sweating gardeners and hard-working shed-builders. I can see it now, drawing the rapt attention of fascinated art critics.

Seriously though, if Christoph Büchel was really horrified by such a massive loss of human life, he could have found a better way of turning it into art. Like Picasso's Guernica. Or Lichenstein's Whaam! Or Käthe Kollwitz's War. They have an immediate and powerful emotional impact.

A lot more impact than an empty boat.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Not for me

Well, as you know, I'm not interested in fashion. Of any kind. I just go my own way and I really don't care what's trending. Except ice cream and chocolate of course. Fashionable things (or people) I have zero interest in:

Ripped jeans - rain gets in the holes
Beards - they just make me laugh
Fitbits - no need, I get enough exercise
Nigel Farage - a power-hungry rabble-rouser
Quinoa - looks weird and tastes of nothing
Twitter - infested with bullying and abuse
Poetry - I prefer a good novel
Energy drinks - I have plenty of energy already
Cruises - too many people, too much pollution
Botox - I don't mind the wrinkles
Porn - degrades both women and men
Marathons - too strenuous and competitive
Award ceremonies - too pompous and contentious
The Royal Family - an out-of-date waste of money
Harry Potter - wizards leave me cold
Fun drugs* - I'm having plenty of fun without them
Electric toothbrushes - no better than manual
Work-outs - I'm fit enough for my age
Video games - do nothing for me
Frappuccinos - I prefer my coffees hot

Mind you, if I was stranded on a desert island with nothing to read except the collected adventures of Harry Potter, I guess I would get stuck in. I could enjoy Hermione Granger's razor-sharp brain as I wait to be rescued.

*aka recreational drugs