Friday, 3 July 2020

Raised eyebrows

I have a large streak of scepticism. Probably why some people don't take to me - they get the sense I'll never quite believe what they say, even if it's true. And whatever they're enthusiastic about, I might rubbish it.

Well, I'm not quite as bad as that, but I do weigh up what people say very carefully and raise my eyebrows at anything that sounds implausible or far-fetched, or plain ridiculous*. Some of the things I'm sceptical about:
  • Any variety of "alternative remedies"
  • Politicians' promises
  • Gurus who've achieved perpetual bliss and enlightenment
  • Adverts offering me an improved memory, boundless self-confidence, increased energy and vitality etc
  • Estate agents' descriptions of houses
  • Estimates by tradespeople
  • So-called sex changes
  • Phone calls claiming my internet connection is faulty
  • Stories told in celebrity memoirs
  • Businesses that claim to be protecting the environment
  • People who say DIY is easy
  • Lucrative investment opportunities
  • Conspiracy theories
I haven't always been such a sceptic. I was absurdly gullible as a youngster, instantly believing what people said to me and then being taken aback to find they were talking nonsense - or plain lying. Years of painful exposure to smooth talkers and devious rogues forced me to be a bit more questioning.

It seems to me that lying is now seen as quite normal, and people in all walks of life lie about virtually everything, assuming nobody will check the facts and uncover the reality. Celebrities in particular spin their personal back stories every which way, and I take all their dramatic confessions with a bucketful of salt.

But being sceptical doesn't stop me enjoying life. It doesn't mean I'm a nihilist or a spoilsport or a curmudgeon. I savour my chocolate truffles and ice cream and pinot grigio and juicy novels and rousing music like anyone else. I'm just no longer such an innocent abroad.

* Despite my habitual scepticism, there are some things I always believe. Like claims of rape, misogyny and domestic violence.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Family of strangers

Sometimes I wonder what it's like to have a "normal" family. Or at least how I picture a normal family, if such a thing exists. The sort of family that's endlessly paraded in the media and TV adverts.

You know, the kind of family where they all get on with each other (more or less), where there's lots of physical affection, where they have frequent gatherings to celebrate things like Christmas and birthdays, where they defend each other to the hilt.

My family isn't remotely like that. The polar opposite in fact. It would be hard to find a family more dysfunctional, more like a bunch of strangers forced to mingle with each other than a family.

My father and I were estranged for a good twenty years. It seems I was too unconventional for his tastes, so he broke off communication. My sister and I have been estranged for even longer. I suspect she dislikes my political views but there must be more to it than that.

My brother in law and niece are equally non-communicative. We were in close touch for a few months while my mum's probate was sorted out, but then everything went quiet again.

My mum always kept in touch, but we were never that close because like my father she never understood my aberrant personality. Even my vegetarianism defeated her. To her dying day, she was sure I was really a meat-eater.

So I imagine that strange phenomenon, a normal family. A tightly-knit group of buddies rooting for each other and enjoying everyone's odd tastes and opinions.

My mental template of a normal family is the time I visited a Jewish family in Bournemouth. The interaction between them was extraordinary. They were all speaking at once, arguing passionately, sparking each other off. They plainly got on like a house on fire.

A far cry from my own peculiar family.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Bigger and better

I don't have a competitive bone in my body. Truthfully, I don't. I have no interest in proving I'm superior to someone else, or proving them wrong, or proving I'm more popular than they are. I tread my own path in life, and I really don't care if that makes me better or worse than other people.

My natural tendency is to withdraw from competitive situations and let other people (usually male) slug it out to the bitter end. I just watch the manoeuvrings with a detached amusement, with no desire whatever to join in.

When I was working, I never competed with my workmates to get promotion or a higher salary or some prestigious assignment, simply to trounce someone else. I wasn't looking for grand job titles, impressive offices or company cars. I just did my job and enjoyed it.

In just about every political meeting I've been to, there have been a bunch of males yakking away, out to prove they're right and the rest of us are sadly mistaken. I never take part. I'm happy to have opinions without them having to be publicly applauded.

I've never sought the grandest house, the flashiest car, the fattest salary, the most glamorous wife, or any of those clichéd status symbols that other people run after, just to dazzle their friends and neighbours. I was quite happy with my 16 year old Clio, which got me reliably from A to B.

I remember one day at boarding school when I was competing in a long distance running race. About half way through I was trailing badly behind the leaders. I could have either forced myself into a winning spurt, or admitted defeat and dropped out. I dropped out, and never regretted it.

Apart from anything else, competing endlessly with other people must be exhausting. I prefer a more leisurely existence. I've no need to drink someone else under the table, just to prove something or other.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Downsides

One thing I've learnt at my advanced age is that there's always a downside to everything. Always. No matter how wonderful something seems to be, sooner or later the shine will wear off. Assuming that from the start will save a lot of bitter disappointment, or at least keep you prepared for it.

When you're young, you dream of the perfect house, the perfect neighbourhood, the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect life. None of them exist but you're quite sure you can achieve them if you just go about it the right way.

It's only after many decades of experience, many decades of being constantly tripped up by reality, that you realise perfection is unobtainable. If you can achieve about 75 per cent of your ambitions, you're doing well.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mean you should be a grim-faced pessimist always putting a dampener on everything. The trick is to be aware of the potential downside, and be ready for it, while enjoying the upside to the full while you're lucky enough to have been given it. Be as optimistic as you like, but without kidding yourself about the realities of life.

At my age I know a thing or two. However happy a marriage, there are always violent rows and disagreements from time to time. However splendid a house, it still has a leaking roof and dodgy plumbing. However satisfying a job, you still have to work with idlers and bunglers. However desirable a neighbourhood, there are still derelict houses and rowdy teenagers.

So I no longer see life through the rose-tinted spectacles I often wore as a child, but that means I'm also less prone to the constant cycle of high hopes and tearful disappointments I used to experience. I see life as it is, not as I imagine it to be. Or so I kid myself.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Heroes

I wish people wouldn't use the word hero so casually, not just for those who've done something genuinely heroic and life-threatening but for anyone who's done something a little bit daring.

Firefighters rescuing someone from a burning building, or a person fighting back against an armed mugger, yes, that's genuinely heroic, but someone who brings down a cat stuck up a tree - no, that's not heroic, that's just helpful.

Patrick Hutchinson, a black man who carried another man to safety at a far-right protest rally in London on Saturday, has been described by the media as a hero. Well no, not really, because he was shielded by his friends as he did his "heroic" act.

Likewise all those health workers who've been hailed as "heroic" for months. Most of them dislike the word and say they're just doing their job, treating illness and saving lives just as they did before the virus outbreak.

Likewise people delivering food to the housebound are described as heroes, when all they're doing is looking after the vulnerable and making sure people don't starve. That's not heroism, simply altruism and kindness.

The word heroism is always applied to something physical, but to my mind it can also mean something mental or emotional.

Someone who overcomes crippling fear and self-doubt to make a big change in their life they've always shied away from - that's heroic. Or someone who overcomes the memory of a horrific sexual assault to start dating again. Or those who're always true to themselves despite others trying to push them along a different path.

Like Professor Gail Dines, the American anti-porn campaigner, who has been heavily criticised by other academics but carries on regardless.

And then of course there's refusing a second slice of chocolate cake or a second helping of ice cream - how heroic is that?

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Mitchel must go

Good to see that along with the protests over George Floyd's death, there's a rising focus on slavery and demands that statues of famous slave traders should be removed.

As well as the recently toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, the statue of Robert Milligan has been removed in London's docklands. Now I discover there are calls for removal of a statue of slave trader John Mitchel in Newry in Northern Ireland. He lived in Newry for most of his life.

Queens University student Patrick Hughes and the former head of Anti-Slavery International, Aidan McQuade, are demanding the removal of the statue. They also want John Mitchel Place to be renamed.

John Mitchel (1815-1875) was a contradictory character. Although he was an Irish revolutionary famous for his paper The United Irishman, he was also fiercely racist. He supported enforced slavery and white supremacy and wanted to resume the transatlantic slave trade that was abolished in 1807.

Aidan McQuade first wrote to the local council about the statue in 2007. The council still refuses to remove it on the grounds that "19th century figures can't be held to 21st century views".

But he points out that there were radical abolitionists in the mid 19th century who found Mitchel's views repulsive at the time.

He thinks a more informative plaque isn't enough. The statue should be moved to a museum and set in an explanatory anti-slavery context.

The council has now decided that an Equality and Good Relations Forum later in June will discuss the matter.

I know there's an ongoing debate about whether such statues should be disposed of or left as relics of an earlier time, maybe with updated plaques. Personally I think statues of public figures are totally unnecessary and I'm happy to see controversial ones pulled down. Why should a statue that offends hundreds of local people stay put?

Pic: Patrick Hughes and the statue

PS: The University of Liverpool is to rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone due to his support of slavery

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Not grumpy

I've always been determined not to become a grumpy old man. There are far too many of them already, moaning non-stop about one disappoint-ing aspect of modern life after another. I'm determined to be optimistic and cheerful and enjoying whatever life offers me. A few years ago I made these promises to myself:

Not to moan and groan.
Not to become an old miseryguts.
Not to let the world's problems get me down.
Not to make mountains out of molehills.
Not to turn petty irritations into cause célèbres.
Not to complain about my bodily deficiencies.
Not to denigrate other people's lives.
Not to tell other people what to do.*
Not to rant and rave.
Not to demonise young people.
Not to be cynical.
Not to be paranoid.
Not to see the worst in people.
Not to be nostalgic.
Not to think everything was better in the old days.
Not to think I know best.
Not to think life's conspiring against me.
Not to be offended by bad manners.
Not to be offended.
Not to over-react.

I think I've kept to them pretty well (though some of you lot may think differently). I'm constantly amazed at the way other people turn minor upsets into huge grievances, and how they manage to find a negative slant on just about everything. The lunatics are running the asylum, the world's going to hell in a handcart, people only care about themselves and so on.

I wouldn't want to be remembered as the grumpy old codger everyone's glad to see the last of because he was utterly depressing. I want to be remembered as that sweet old guy who always had a friendly greeting and lifted other people's spirits. And only needed a chorus of birdsong to feel as happy as Larry.

*except for politicians and bankers, obviously.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Not guilty

I never feel guilty. It's one of those "normal" emotions we're all supposed to feel from time to time, cringing in embarrass-ment because of something we did or didn't do. But I don't even know what it feels like. Are there others like me or am I some sort of weirdo?

When I was growing up, other people were always saying they felt guilty about this or that. So I assumed guilt was something I would mature into, something that would suddenly sprout one day. Except that it didn't.

I'm glad I don't feel guilty about anything, because it's a very destructive emotion. It means you brood and fixate over something rather than just recognising your mistake and putting it right. It eats away at your self-confidence and buoyancy.

It must be dreadful if you're someone who feels guilty about every five minutes. Like Devorah Baum:

"I feel guilty about everything. Already today I've felt guilty about having said the wrong thing to a friend. Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I said. Plus, I haven't called my mother yet today: guilty. And I really should have organised something special for my husband's birthday: guilty. I gave the wrong kind of food to my child: guilty. I've been cutting corners at work lately: guilty. I skipped breakfast: guilty. I snacked instead: double guilty. I'm taking up all this space in a world with not enough space in it: guilty, guilty, guilty."

How could you get through the day without collapsing in a paralytic heap?

I don't need to feel guilty (so I don't feel guilty about not feeling guilty). I'm sensitive enough and aware enough to know if I've screwed up, if I've been rude to someone, or said something I shouldn't. I don't need guilt to tell me I should do whatever is needed to smooth things over.

The guilt gene clearly passed me by.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Getting it in the neck

The UK news coverage is still overwhelm-ingly virus updates, with little "ordinary" news emerging. Even floods, droughts, famines and earthquakes are barely mentioned. Other countries exist only as examples of how well or badly they're controlling the virus.

But one event that's getting massive coverage is the apparent murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck. Chauvin has since been sacked and charged with murder and manslaughter.

The death has led to four nights of clashes between police and protesters, buildings being burnt, including Minneapolis police station, deployment of the National Guard, four Californian freeways shut down, and violent protests in numerous cities.

As we all know, such brutal police tactics, especially against black people, are nothing new. But the authorities are incapable of stopping the brutality, which goes on year after year. And it's not the first time Chauvin has been in trouble; he has had 17 complaints against him during his 19-year service.

One reason I'm interested in this story is that I've seen some heavy-handed police behaviour myself. Over the years I've been to dozens of rallies and protests and some of them got pretty nasty. I especially remember a rally against the far-right National Front, where there were some very ugly battles between police and demonstrators, and I fled, frightened for my own safety.

Another reason is that usually the police and the authorities concoct some fictitious version of what happened, and make out the victim was committing a crime, provoking the police, appeared to have a weapon, or was resisting arrest. In this case he allegedly offered a fake $20 note at a convenience store. However the shop's owner said "most of the times when patrons give us a counterfeit bill they don't even know it's fake."

It's certainly a riveting diversion from virus this and virus that. But it's an utter tragedy it centres on a totally pointless death.

PS: I wrote "apparent murder" before the two autopsies that concluded it was homicide.

Pic: George Floyd

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Cool cookie?

Am I a cold fish or a cool cookie? I ask myself this a lot and usually decide I'm a cool cookie. The reason I ask this question is because I'm aware that while other people are constantly overcome with rage or jealousy or hostility or 101 other reactions, I seldom get as emotional and I wonder why they're so worked up.

I do get emotional, just not so frequently or so intensely. I can feel sad, or annoyed, or disappointed, or rejected, like anyone else. But I don't get in a boiling rage because the bus is five minutes late. I don't burn with hatred against someone who jumped the queue. I don't burst into tears because I broke my favourite mug.

There are lots of things I enjoy, but I don't jump up and down with excitement or hug everyone in sight or scream with delight.

But I wonder if such low-key emotion means I'm a cold fish - that I'm somehow a bit cut off from what's going on around me and don't have the normal responses other people have.

Or does it just mean I'm more philosophical, more phlegmatic, more able to take things in my stride and not get too thrown by everyday setbacks and accidents?

Naturally I go for the latter. Who wants to be known as a cold fish?

A real cold fish is surely very different - someone who shows no visible distress or horror or fragility even after something devastating like their house burning down or a terrible car crash or a dreadful medical diagnosis.

But I wonder if the more emotional types are living their lives more fully than I am, experiencing things more deeply and more vividly. Are they living at full throttle while I'm stuck in low gear?

It's a dilemma that no doubt I'll carry to my grave.

Friday, 22 May 2020

In the shadows

A funny thing, popularity. Why are some people apparently effortlessly popular, always the centre of attention with everyone gravitating towards them, while others are left on the sidelines and largely overlooked?

I've never been popular. I haven't ever been the centre of attention and never wanted to be. I'm perfectly happy lurking in the shadows. I may be likable, considerate, amusing, pleasant to be with etc etc, but that's never made me one of those sought-after individuals. In school football games, I was invariably the last one to be chosen for a team. I would be invited to parties to make up numbers rather than for my glittering personality.

Sometimes it's obvious why someone is popular. They're handsome, or pretty, or super-smart, or adventurous, or cheeky, or sporting champions. Sometimes it's a bit of a mystery. They just have some sort of charisma or flair that attracts others. Or they're simply larger than life, bursting with energy and vigour.

Some of the most popular people are also total scoundrels, but they're popular because there's often sneaking admiration for scoundrels. And some impeccably-behaved people aren't popular at all, being seen as colourless goody-goodies.

But I'm baffled as to why certain politicians, for instance, are hugely popular even though they're clearly spivs and crooks of the first order. They emanate some quality that wins people over, despite their vices.

I've never attempted to be more popular, even in my schooldays when being popular was seen as something highly desirable. I knew it was a trait you either had or didn't have. It couldn't be faked or simulated. I did't fret about what I might be lacking, I just got on with my life.

Quietly lurking in the shadows.

Thanks to Ramana for the idea.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Absolute essentials

My parents weren't much good at teaching me how to think, how to have my own opinions, how to be sociable, or how to express my emotions. But they did teach me some of the absolute essentials:
  • To wear clean knickers in case I'm in a car crash and have to go to hospital
  • To check there are no bits of spinach stuck in my teeth
  • Not to talk with my mouth full
  • Not to put my elbows on the table when I'm eating
  • Not to gulp down my food but chew it thoroughly
  • Not to leave anything on my plate ("Some people are starving")
  • To say "I beg your pardon" rather than "What?"
  • To say "Thank you" rather than "Ta" (or the more recent "Cheers")
  • Not to talk to strange men with a funny look in their eyes
  • Not to write silly comments inside books
  • Not to cheek my elders and betters (well, it was the 1950s)
  • Not to swear but moderate my language
  • Not to make weird facial expressions ("You'll get stuck like that")
  • To look left, right and left again before crossing the road
  • Not to leave my shoelaces undone or I might trip over them
Needless to say, most of those went by the board as soon as I left home and escaped the clutches of my fastidious parents (though to be fair most other parents probably had similar strictures). Not all of them however. I don't talk to strange men with a funny look in their eyes (especially if they're politicians). But I still make weird facial expressions (especially if I'm listening to politicians). I still gulp down my food as if I haven't eaten for a month. And I still talk with my mouth full - I'm afraid that by the time my mouth is empty I'll have forgotten what I was going to say.

And I can't guarantee to be wearing clean knickers at all times.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Past and gone

Some people seem to be in love with the past. They look back nostalgically at some supposed "golden age", they wish they could be twenty again, they dwell on blissful memories from fifty years ago, they keep countless momentos of their childhood.

I'm not like that at all. I'm more than happy to leave the past behind and move on into the future. Not because the past was terrible or embarrassing or difficult (though it was just that often enough), but simply because it's all over and done with whereas the future is full of novel and exciting possibilities.

I don't believe in any "golden age". All golden ages had plenty of horrors and calamities along with the delights. I don't want to be twenty again. Life was tough at that age, full of disappointments born of inexperience and naivety. And I suspect most of my blissful memories are by now wild exaggerations that bear little resemblance to the long-gone reality.

No, I much prefer to relish the present and wait expectantly for whatever surprises the future has in store. Even the virus lockdown, frustrating as it is, in a way is exciting precisely because we have little idea of what's going to happen next. The past is all settled, frozen in aspic, while the future is still evolving and mutating.

I possess very few reminders of the past, at least prior to Jenny's appearance. I have only one photo of me and my sister at a tender age, and one or two photos of my parents and grandparents. I haven't kept anything from my schooldays - uniforms or reports or prizes. I don't have any old letters or diaries or notes to the milkman. I have far more memories than tangible momentos.

For me the past is all water under the bridge. But I'm always eager to know what tomorrow will bring.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Always a journo

Kylie reckons I'm "ever in journalist mode". Which is surely an awful thing to be, but she might be right. After all, I spent six years as a journalist, so some of the journalist culture must have rubbed off on me, like it or not.

Jenny thinks there's still a bit of the journalist in me. I like inventing spoof tabloid headlines ("Refund joy for tearful Belfast couple"), and I do tend to over-react to a dramatic piece of news.

But despite the residual journalistic quirks, I'm still very critical of journalism and the way it distorts, trivialises and sensationalises important issues. I've never regretted leaving journalism for bookselling, even though many people thought I was crazy.

Apart from anything else, journalism nowadays is hard work. Long hours, low salaries, unpaid internships, constant redundancies. It's a far cry from the well-paid, leisurely, drunken activity it was in the sixties.

But I've never properly explained why I left journalism. Just a few of the reasons:
  • So often it never gets to the heart of an issue. It trots out a few basic facts and seldom digs deeper or asks awkward questions.
  • It spreads rumours and gossip about celebrities and public figures, much of it malicious and untrue.
  • It encourages prejudice of all kinds - racism, sexism, xenophobia, hatred of welfare "scroungers" etc.
  • It turns minor incidents into huge controversies (famous actress has wardrobe malfunction)
  • It's hypocritical. For example, it laments climate breakdown, but welcomes consumerism and long-distance travel.
  • It runs with every fad and fashion, however absurd or irresponsible or pointless.
In the end I just felt uncomfortable as a journalist. There were so many dubious practices I simply couldn't buy into. Bookselling by comparison suited me down to the ground. All I had to do was sell interesting books to interesting people. Nothing uncomfortable there. It kept me happy for 23 highly enjoyable years.

But I still admire a clever tabloid headline.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Skill shortage

Goodness, life is full of surprises. Two commenters who read my post on pretensions suggested I feel superior to other people. Well, I'm always open to such observ-ations and I always mull them over, but this one has me baffled.

If anything I feel inferior to other people. There are so many people with the edge over me in one way or another, I often feel inadequate and incompetent by comparison. Other people have all sorts of skills that leave me standing. For example:
  • They're more intelligent. They understand things quicker, they respond faster, they can follow complicated novels and TV plots.
  • They're more practical. They can do basic plumbing or electrical repairs, they can insulate the loft, even build their own house.
  • They're better informed. While I skim all those articles about neoliberalism or climate breakdown, they read them studiously and absorb all the details.
  • They have better memories. I can barely recall a conversation from yesterday, never mind what I was doing twenty years ago.
  • They're more emotionally literate. They can read other people's feelings and unspoken reactions, while I often miss them.
  • They have better social skills. They find it easier to organise social gatherings, talk to other people, and smooth over awkward moments.
  • They're more adventurous. They backpack around the world, start businesses, move to remote islands, run mega-marathons.
  • They can play musical instruments. Often several instruments. And they've spent many arduous years learning to play them.
  • They appreciate opera and classical music. I've tried hard to share their enthusiasm but I'm just not on the same wavelength.
  • They can write novels. Often very long novels. I tried to write a novel once but got writer's block after 100 pages. And it was a crappy novel.
I've probably left out many other things, but that's plenty. Far from feeling superior, I feel like a very ordinary, very untalented, not especially bright human being. There's not much to feel superior about.

Friday, 1 May 2020

A delicious merlot

Being a fairly straight-forward person (I hope), I can sniff out pretentious-ness in a split second, as can (and could) the rest of my family. So I'm fond of describing other people as pretentious.

But what exactly does pretentious mean? I would say any or all of the following:
  • Name dropping ("As Ian McEwan once said to Zadie Smith....")
  • Claiming to know all about some obscure topic ("Of course marine biology has a lot to say about coral reefs")
  • Claiming to have met lots of famous people ("As I was saying to Greta Thunberg....")
  • Posing as a connoisseur of wine ("A delicious merlot. Strong alpine notes with overtones of pampas grass")
  • Claiming to have read every significant book ("I absolutely adore Ulysses. Molly Bloom is quite unforgettable")
  • Purporting to be generally better educated, more discerning, more sophisticated ("Anyone with half a brain can see the economy is about to collapse")
  • Slavishly following the latest fashions ("My dear, bootleg jeans are so last year")
  • Maintaining that difficult, laborious novels are superior to ones that are readable and uncomplicated ("The reader should have to do a bit of work")
  • Concocting ridiculous explanations of art works ("James is interested in the interface between spatial awareness and partial enclosure")
  • Liking restaurants that offer tiny meals with strange ingredients rather than a good plateful of something with chips ("This chef is so wonderfully experimental")
  • Peppering your conversation with foreign phrases ("It was a coup de theatre, a performance sans pareil")
I think you'll have the general idea by now. So au revoir, mes amis, wishing you oodles of joie de vivre and esprit de corps. Á chacun son goût, as Pablo Picasso once said.

PS: Jean thinks I'm being pretentious myself by acting superior to people who're pretentious. Could she be right?

Monday, 27 April 2020

Leap in the dark

Living with Jenny now seems like the most natural thing in the world, but it wasn't always like that. It took me a long time to decide that yes, we could probably live together without driving each other nuts.

Falling in love was easy enough. We took a shine to each other the moment we met and that has never faded. But for me living together was a major commitment that might or might not have worked out.

I had had affairs with several other women and the first question that always came to mind was, could we live together harmoniously or would we wind up clawing each other to pieces? I rather suspected it would be the second.

So although Jenny was keen to live with me very early on, it took a fair bit of persuading for me to agree to give it a try. I had to swallow the possibility that we might be driven crazy by each other's infuriating habits and tastes and end up calling it a day.

After all, I had lived on my own for 6½ years and got used to my own company. How would I adjust to suddenly living with someone else, someone I still knew very little about and might be the totally impossible flatmate from hell? It was a big leap in the dark, but one I took because in the end it felt like the right thing to do.

Needless to say, in the early days of cohabiting we had plenty of squabbles and bones of contention, but we discovered our relationship was solid enough to survive them without falling apart. And 39 years later, we still have squabbles and bones of contention and we still settle them amicably.

Far from driving each other nuts, we've nourished each other in a thousand different ways.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

University of life

How true that formal education only goes so far and most of our education is from the university of life. Anyone who imagines they will leave school fully equipped for adulthood will be rapidly disabused.

When I look back at my schooldays, it's laughable how many essential adult skills they never taught me and how naive and ignorant I was until I enlarged my education by other means.

I may have absorbed plenty of French, Latin, Mathematics and Chemistry, but my awareness of anything other than academic was abysmal.

One glaring omission was any knowledge of women. I went to two single-sex schools and saw little of the other sex before I started work. It took me a while to adjust to these strange beings with their very different view of life.

I never learnt any practical skills apart from woodwork (Why woodwork? You may well ask). I'm still an ignorant bungler when it comes to cookery, clothing repairs and alterations, painting, electrics, plumbing, or car mechanics. I wasn't taught anything about money matters like banking, mortgages, insurance, wills or tax returns. All those things I had to find out for myself over the years.

And what of all those social skills I only picked up after leaving school - dating, sexual relationships, holding down a job, dealing with difficult people, being true to myself, being discreet, and how to behave at things like leaving dos, marriages, births and funerals. About the only social skills I acquired at school were dodging bullies and routinely exposing my naked body.

Probably the most useful skill the university of life has taught me is critical thinking. When I was young I was remarkably gullible and would happily soak up other people's ideas. Gradually I learnt to look at those ideas more carefully and see if they actually made sense or not. An awful lot of them didn't.

A skill that's been much more useful than chemistry.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Final regrets

I was remem-bering the five major regrets people have on their deathbed, as recorded by an Australian woman who spent many years looking after dying patients.
  • "I wish I'd been true to myself, not to what others expected of me"
  • "I wish I hadn't worked so hard"
  • "I wish I'd stayed in touch with my friends"
  • "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings"
  • "I wish I'd let myself be happier"
If I was on my own deathbed, I wouldn't quote the first three. I've always been pretty much true to myself and resisted people's attempts to turn me into someone else.

I've never worked especially hard, and I never took a job requiring long hours and constant pressure. As for friends, I never had many to start with, but I've kept in touch with those that remain, and with my family.

But I do think I don't express my feelings enough, I suppress them and assume nobody wants to know about them. And I wish I could be more relaxed and easy-going and let myself be happier and less anxious.

There must be other regrets people mention - like not travelling more while they were fit enough to do so, not having a healthy enough lifestyle, not being very good parents, or pursuing the wrong career.

I'm not generally prone to regret. Disappointment is as far as I go. I remain disappointed for example that I didn't have a closer relationship with my mum in the years before she died. As hard as I tried to get through to her, she always kept me at a distance and never revealed very much of herself.

I'm disappointed that I have several friends in Australia who I hardly ever see because of the distance between us. Yes, we keep in touch through our blogs or Facebook pages or email, but that's never the same as face-to-face meetings. Why can't Australia be a bit nearer?

Damn geography.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Under siege

This constant threat posed by the coronavirus is causing the most dramatic sense of being "under siege" I've ever experienced in my lifetime. Nothing else comes near to it. I didn't live through the Second World War, I didn't live through the Troubles, I've never faced repeated flooding or being caught in turf wars by drug dealers. For me this is something very new and very strange.

I'm reminded of under-siege situations I've been through in the past, but they're utterly trivial by comparison. They were hugely stressful at the time but compared to what we're living through now, they pale into insignificance. I wasn't facing the possibility of an agonising death. I wasn't liable to be infected by absolutely anyone I came too close to. I wasn't at serious risk whenever I went out to the shops. They were just difficult situations that came and went.

Several times I've been "under siege" by neighbours. People who were endlessly noisy, people with drink problems, people who had all-night parties, people clattering across wooden floors in high heels.

Now I think, well, I may have had annoying neighbours, but at least I could still go into the outside world without the threat of deadly germs everywhere I went. At least I could continue my everyday life without every step restricted by the two-metre rule.

At least Jenny and I are under siege together. We can discuss how it feels, how it's affecting our daily life, how long it might last, and how well the government is handling the situation (answer - not very well at all). It must be worse for people living on their own, maybe with nobody to talk to or vent their feelings with. I feel a bit like a small child again, only allowed to leave the house if I promise to be VERY VERY careful and not do anything silly.

Friday, 10 April 2020

It gets worse

There have been some huge social changes in my lifetime, one being the lowering of expect-ations from one generation to the next. Things my generation took for granted and confidently anticipated are now impossible fantasies for many young people.

When I was young, it was readily assumed that as people got older they would buy their own home, have a permanent job working reasonable hours, earn generous salaries, have enjoyable and fulfilling jobs (as long as they had a good education), belong to a trade union that constantly improved their wages and working conditions, always be solvent (except for a mortgage), and get excellent medical treatment.

Boy, has all that changed, and changed radically. All those expectations have been blown to smithereens by various political and economic twists and turns.

What do today's young people expect? Unless they have wealthy parents, or parents with good connections, or a family business, or exceptional skills or talents, or a shedload of luck, then probably the following:
  • Be unable to afford their own home
  • Pay an extortionate rent or still live with their parents
  • Have a temporary job or zero-hours contract working at any time of the day
  • Have a miserable salary
  • Have a boring and impossibly demanding job
  • Not be in a trade union as they're no longer so powerful
  • Never be solvent and face a lifetime of debt
  • Have poor medical treatment because the NHS is hopelessly overloaded
When I was young, it was assumed that every future generation would have a better life than the one before. We never dreamt they would have a worse life, with new burdens and obstacles we knew nothing of. And we never dreamt they would be blaming the older generation for the deterioration.

I worry that after the present virus emergency is over, with probably the loss of thousands of jobs, the young will have even worse prospects. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Publish and be damned

Controversy rages over whether Woody Allen's Memoir "Apropos of Nothing" should have been published, given he's now got a rather seedy reputation and seems to be something of an unrepentant misogynist. And given that it's published, should we buy it or read it?

Well, the irony is that according to those who've read it, like Catherine Bennett in the Guardian, it's not at all a whitewash job crushing all the accusations and portraying him as a jolly decent chap who's been unfairly maligned. On the contrary, it makes his rampant misogyny crystal clear and destroys his once shiny reputation.

In which case we should all be reading it to acquaint ourselves with his thoroughly predatory attitudes.

But the row once again raises the question, is it right to ban books, or any other artistic product, because of the off-stage behaviour of the person concerned?

To my mind, a person's artistic output should be judged on its intrinsic merit, and however reprehensible their personal life, that's an entirely separate issue.

Once you start saying a book should be boycotted because of the author's "misbehaviour", you're politicising it and weaponising it. Art shouldn't be a political football, it should be a cultural experience pure and simple.

Otherwise what's the difference between right-on politicos shunning the work of a "misogynist" author and a government banning a book it deems "immoral" or "subversive" or "unpatriotic"? They're both claiming the right to decide for the rest of us what's in the public interest and what isn't. And who gave them that right? Not me, for one.

All the controversy has just whetted my appetite to read the book and see for myself just how much unbridled lechery was hidden behind the charming facade.

PS: Here's a more positive review of the book - https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/120726348/book-review-apropos-of-nothing-by-woody-allen

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Compensation culture

So Jenny and I may be in lockdown, and unable to indulge some of our familiar outside pleasures - coffee and pastries at Caffè Nero, a Fiorentina at Pizza Express, a movie at the Queens Film Theatre, or a new art exhibition at the Metropolitan Arts Centre - but we're compensating with a little more of our usual domestic pleasures:
  • A few glasses of New Zealand or Aussie white wine
  • Peppermint Aero, Twix, Lindt truffles
  • A long walk round the huge Stormont estate (walking is allowed)
  • A Scrabble tournament - so far Jenny 4, Nick 4. I scraped ahead in the seventh game with "XI" (fourteenth letter of the Greek alphabet), which scores 9
  • Watching DVDs. We've just ordered two more - Notting Hill and Gimme Shelter (the Stones film, not the other one)
  • Watching Location Location Location. I love nosing around other people's homes - and potential homes
  • Reading books voraciously. My current read is The Narrow Land by Christine Dyer Hickey. The one before was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • Listening to music. Especially Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Laura Mvula, Annie Lennox, Courtney Barnett
  • Doing sudokus. Jenny can do the really tricky ones that always defeat me
  • Watching the spring growth in the garden. The camellia bush is finally flowering, weeks after everyone else's 
  • Seeing what's new on Facebook. No cute kittens recently
  • The usual free-wheeling political discussions in which we put the world to rights, find an antidote for the coronavirus, instigate world peace, finish off capitalism, and wonder when Labour's going to get its act together
What could be more enjoyable? But it's a slightly guilty enjoyment knowing that out there thousands of people are dying, leaving grief-stricken loved ones, health workers aren't properly protected from the virus (my niece is a nurse in Cambridge), and thousands of people are losing their jobs and facing destitution.

Frightening doesn't begin to describe the desperate situation we're all in.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Still posh

I've always found regional accents fascinating and rather charming, as long as they aren't so thick as to be indeciph-erable (Glaswegian for example). But there's a lot of prejudice against certain accents. My mum hated the cockney accent, which she saw as ugly and grating.

I love the Liverpudlian accent, also the Australian and Irish accents. Apart from anything else, they make a nice change from the posh English accent, which is still the one you hear most in movies and on TV.

People read all sorts of things into accents. Whether someone is trustworthy, whether they behave well or badly, whether they're acceptably British or not, whether they're employable or not.

And those prejudices change from one year to the next. Regional British accents used to be seen as off-putting and quaint, but now they're often sought after because many people find them warmer and friendlier than posh English, which can come across as cold and arrogant.

My own accent is still posh English, despite being in Northern Ireland for twenty years. It can be hard to shed a well-established accent even if everyone around you has a different one. People who speak English as a second language quite often still have the accent of their original language, however much they try to lose it.

I find it rather ridiculous when politicians try to boost their popularity by erasing their posh English delivery and putting on a more proletarian accent. Those folk with the genuine article must find such antics absurdly unconvincing.

Oo do they fink they're fooling, guv?

Pic: Cockney money slang. Godivas, fivers; monkeys, £500; ponies, £25; edges, 50p; carpets, £30.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Who knows best?

Goodness, how attitudes to authority have changed in my lifetime. If my ten-year-old self had been told how dramatic-ally respect for "authority" would drain away in the next few decades, he would have been gob-smacked.

When I was young, we habitually deferred to authority figures of whatever kind. Be they government ministers, civil servants, police officers, teachers or parents, we invariably did what they told us to do because "they knew best" and "they were in charge". The idea of seriously rebelling against them, of routinely challenging their wisdom, was pretty unthinkable.

That all changed in the sixties when young people everywhere finally decided authority figures didn't necessarily know best and started questioning just about everything they said. They railed against the rigid ideas of "the establishment" and "the system" and demanded wholesale changes.

The authority figures didn't know what had hit them. They had to adjust rapidly as their ideas and assumptions were torn to bits by bolshy teenagers and uppity undergrads attacking homophobia, sexism, racism, apartheid and any number of other isms and entrenched beliefs.

The rebellious trend continued apace until now hardly any authority figure can open their mouth without someone shouting "bollocks" or doubting their expertise and credibility. They struggle to convince people they actually have something worthwhile to say.

The Brexit campaigners took this trend to its ultimate extreme, declaring that "experts" weren't to be trusted and that the opinion of the person in the street was as valid as so-called expert opinion. If Joanna Somebody thought Brexit would be a fantastic success, wasn't that good enough?

And then suddenly the coronavirus epidemic arrived, and all at once people were listening to the experts again - even the Prime Minister. Only the medical specialists knew all about the virus and what measures were needed to combat it. A dramatic about-turn by the know-it-all politicians and pundits.

After the epidemic is over, will experts once again be trusted? Only time will tell.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Four legged friends

So we're all looking for something to distract us from the never-ending coronavirus coverage. Something amusing, something quirky, something intriguing. And something to break the monotony of self-isolation. I have the answer - all those things you never knew about cats.
  • Cats spend 70 per cent of their lives sleeping, around 13-16 hours a day.
  • Stubbs the cat was mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, from July 1997 till his death in July 2017. Stubbs was flooded with cards and letters, and drew 30 to 40 tourists a day hoping to meet the mayor.
  • The world's longest cat was a Maine coon called Stewie, measuring 48.5 inches. The tallest cat is Arcturus, a Savannah cat from Southfield, Michigan, measuring 19.05 inches.
  • A house cat can reach speeds of up to 30 mph.
  • The oldest ever cat was Creme Puff, who was 38 years and 3 days when he died in August 2005 in Austin, Texas.
  • The record for the loudest purr by a domestic cat is held by Merlin, a black and white cat from Torquay, Devon. His purr is 67.8 decibels, nearly the same volume as a shower! Most cats purr at around 25 decibels.
  • Unlike humans, cats can't detect sweetness.
  • Cats only use their meows to talk to humans, not each other.
  • The average cat can jump eight feet in a single bound, nearly six times its body length.
  • A cat's sense of smell is 14 times better than a human's.
  • Cats only sweat through their paws and nowhere else on their body.
  • A group of cats is called a clowder.
  • A cat can rotate its ears 180 degrees - with the help of 32 ear muscles.
  • A cat's nose is as unique as a human's fingerprint.
  • A cat's heart beat is almost double that of humans, from 110 to 140 beats a minute.
  • A male cat's left paw is typically its dominant paw, while female cats are usually right-pawed.
  • Cats can spend up to a third of their waking hours grooming.
  • Cats will refuse an unpalatable food to the point of starvation.
  • Female cats can get pregnant when they are only four months old.
  • Grapes, raisins, onions, garlic and chives are extremely harmful to cats.
So you see, for three whole minutes you didn't think of the virus. Don't you feel better for it? Of course you do. Next up: all those things you never knew about toilet rolls.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Give us a kiss

There's still a widespread dislike of public displays of affection. "That sort of thing" should take place in private and well away from curious bystanders. Your passionate kissing and canoodling is an unwanted distraction to those around you.

That's certainly the attitude here in Belfast. It's very unusual to see a couple kissing, holding hands, embracing or just stroking each other fondly. If they're greeting each other, or saying farewell, they might hug or kiss, but in general such behaviour in public is strictly taboo.

Some people would go so far as to say they find such displays "disgusting" or "vulgar", while others just find them embarrassing or theatrical.

Personally I'm not bothered by public affection, as long it doesn't descend into anything overtly sexual. I like to see people showing their love for each other. It's especially nice to see older couples holding hands or kissing. And it's equally nice to see young couples in the first flush of romance and enjoying each other's bodies. Why shouldn't they?

Of course it's mainly heterosexual couples who indulge in such public affection. Despite more relaxed attitudes to sexual preferences, gay couples still aren't free to express their feelings so visibly in case of hostile reactions. It's quite a surprise when I see a couple of women or a couple of men holding hands or kissing. It's still a brave thing to do.

When I was growing up, it was generally understood that the back row of the cinema was reserved for amorous couples, exploring each other as enthusiastically as they liked. I'm not sure if that tradition still holds but certainly there's no sign of it at our local cinemas. Patrons of the Queens Film Theatre are far too genteel to favour "that sort of thing".

I like shows of affection. Much better than shows of hatred.

PS: Jenny points out that a woman might feel uncomfortable about a public embrace, but is loath to make a fuss in the midst of a busy street.

PPS: The coronavirus has put rather a dampener on any kind of intimacy for the time being....

Friday, 13 March 2020

Dodgy doors

I bet you've never given a second thought to revolving doors. You enter, you exit, and that's that. They're of no more interest than a lamppost.

I hadn't thought about them myself until Wednesday, when I went through a revolving door and collided with a glass panel next to the door. Luckily I didn't break anything but my nose was bleeding profusely for several minutes.

When I googled "revolving door injuries", I found they were quite common. People have had broken noses, broken teeth, hip fractures, skull and brain injuries. So I got off lightly with my bleeding nose.

Then I got to wondering, what's the point of revolving doors anyway? Why not just have an ordinary door or an automatic sliding door? Supposedly, revolving doors speed up exit and entry, and reduce heat loss from the building. But does that justify any possible injuries? I think not.

It's interesting that a 2006 study found that only 20 to 30 per cent of people use revolving doors when given the option. I have to wonder why so many people avoid them. I suppose they might be afraid of injuring themselves or getting trapped in them. They might be too heavy to push, or the compartments might be claustrophobically narrow.

Of course you could say the accident was probably my own fault for not looking where I was going. That's as may be, but I don't want to risk another injury - possibly a worse one. I shall now keep well away from revolving doors and use ordinary doors instead. I haven't bashed my nose on one yet.

PS: I was lucky Jenny was with me and she happened to have a plaster to stem the bleeding.

PPS: Both revolving doors and ordinary doors are a coronavirus hazard, since they have to be pushed and hundreds of people have touched the same door. Automatic sliding doors are preferable as you don't have to touch them.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Cruising for a bruising

Jenny and I were never much interested in cruising. Being cooped up on a boat with thousands of other people, with maybe only fleeting visits to the various cities en route, isn't our cup of tea.

We may have had a lucky escape. Now there are three cruise ships in lockdown over a mass of coronavirus cases (one in Yokohama, Japan, one in Oakland, California, and one in Luxor, Egypt) cruising looks distinctly risky right now. Passengers on other cruise ships must fear they too will catch the virus before they get back home. Then they'll have to go through the same ordeal of being in quarantine and possibly having to change their onward travel arrangements.

The chance of catching the virus is increased by the fact that the air conditioning on a cruise ship is constantly recirculating the air and helping to transmit the virus to previously healthy passengers.

A lot of people are so worried about any kind of travel, in case they pick up the virus while travelling, that the hospitality industry has been badly hit. Hotels, restaurants and airlines have seen such a huge slump in bookings that they're facing big financial losses.

Personally I don't think travelling is any more risky than going into a crowded supermarket or a crowded cinema. The chance of catching the virus from a random stranger is surely very remote. Jenny and I are still planning to visit Vienna in early summer, which seems sensible enough given that Vienna has so far only had 50 confirmed cases (most of them recovered and no longer infectious) in a population of nearly two million.

My attitude is, either I catch the virus or I don't. There's no point in worrying myself to death over it.

Pic: The Diamond Princess, now docked in Oakland

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Private agonies

When I was young I used to think that although a few people were psychologically screwed-up and overwhelmed by life, most of us were healthy, well-adjusted individuals who found life easy to deal with.

It's only now, with a lifetime's experience behind me, that I realise that actually the vast majority of people are in some way psychologically damaged and find life an endless struggle. Very few people are lucky enough to have got through life without traumatic or calamitous experiences of some kind, experiences that often leave life-long mental and emotional scars.

Just scratch the surface of someone's seemingly calm exterior and you can open quite a can of worms. It could be something as simple as persistent self-loathing or as complicated as a heap of paranoid delusions. We're all hiding some inner demon we'd rather not display or talk about, and pretending we're as normal as apple pie.

It's good that more and more people are finding the courage to break the silence and reveal their personal agonies. Celebrities in particular are confessing to their eating disorders, acute anxiety, crippling depression or secret fears. And that encourages the rest of us to be equally candid.

I think my father had a bucket-full of inner demons but he never talked about them. He felt he had to be the tough, resilient, dependable head of the household and must never show vulnerability or weakness. We might have had a closer relationship if he'd been able to expose himself more.

I've blogged in the past about my many neuroses and hang-ups due to my dysfunctional parenting, boarding school bullying etc etc. I've managed to have a fulfilling life despite all the inner snarl-ups, and I feel better for revealing so much private turmoil. Bottling it all up is dangerous - sooner or later something has to give and it won't be pretty.

As the old saying goes, Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Tangled hair

Why shouldn't women (or men for that matter) colour their hair any way they want? If they fancy being pink, purple, red, yellow, blue or green, why not? Doesn't it make life more interesting, more fun?

You and I may think that, but for many people apparently it's more bewildering than interesting. An unusual hair colour conjures up all sorts of weird stereotypes about the person concerned.

If they don't instantly suspect you're a druggie, a prostitute or a nutcase, they'll decide you're a wild unreliable party girl, or your boss will say you look too unprofessional for a public-facing role.

There are still plenty of prejudices around hair. Ginger hair can attract snarky remarks. Afro hair styles are frowned on by many employers. Grey hair can make a woman "too old for the job".

Length itself is still an issue. Women are expected to have long hair, men short hair. Even schoolboys have been excluded from school for having over-long hair. I had long hair once in my John Lennon phase, but I've had short hair ever since - a lot more manageable.

And of course there's baldness. Perfectly okay for men (though a lot of men hate being bald and would rather not be). But not okay for women. If you have cancer, then baldness is acceptable. Otherwise it's shocking and ugly and surely you should be wearing a wig.

It's extraordinary that a simple thing like human hair should be subject to such a complicated tangle of prejudice and disapproval and false assumptions. But then the whole human body is subject to just that. Accepting it for what it is seems to be a non-starter.

I guess the only people who can get away with any old hairstyle are celebrities like rock musicians, hospital patients and prisoners. Anyone else had better tread carefully.

PS: A wonderful quote I just came across: "Humans have a big cluster of dead keratin tendrils growing from our heads and we arrange them in different configurations and worry about whether other people find our keratin tendril arrangements aesthetically pleasing."

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

A bit of company

Loneliness isn't just a problem for older people, as commonly assumed. In fact studies suggest young people are more likely to feel lonely than the old. The image of young people as forever clubbing and surrounded by bosom pals is a bit of a myth.

A new apartment block in Helsingborg in Sweden aims to reduce loneliness in several ways. Firstly around half the tenants are young people under 25, while the rest are pensioners. Secondly all new residents have to sign a contract requiring them to spend at least two hours a week with the other residents. And thirdly individual flats are fairly small while the communal areas are spacious and cosy.

You might think some residents would object to such enforced socialising and retreat to their own flats, but on the contrary the scheme seems to be working well.

With (apparently) no pressure at all from the block's managers, residents are happily getting to know each other and saying how much better they feel as a result.

I think I'd be quite happy there myself (assuming no Jenny of course). Two hours a week of socialising is hardly onerous, and I'm sure I would benefit from a bit of company. It would be fun to talk to a few young people and get their take on life, and it would be good to talk to other oldies and see how they're dealing with old age.

You'd have to be careful how you selected people for the scheme though. You wouldn't want persistent moaners or political obsessives or crashing bores. If there were people you had to avoid, that would defeat the whole idea.

My mum complained constantly of loneliness in her last few years, and being in a scheme like this would have greatly improved her life.

Loneliness is too often seen as "one of those things" you just have to cope with. This scheme shows that doesn't have to be the case.

Pic: residents Fia Stegroth (20) and Gunnel Ericsson (86)

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Shameless

I see the journalist and author Julie Burchill shares the same emotional peculiarity as myself - an inability to feel shame, regret or remorse. We never brood over our past actions, thinking we should have done something very differently - or not done it at all. We never feel that we humiliated ourselves or acted like a fool. We don't look back, we just carry on.

Why worry about past shortcomings? My attitude is, I did the best I could at the time, on the basis of my knowledge and experience and common sense, and if that turned out to be not good enough, then so be it. If I made some glaring mistake, I'll correct it. Otherwise I put it all behind me and move on.

Isn't it rather pointless to stew about one's past behaviour, to pick everything apart and find oneself wanting? Isn't it rather self-indulgent? And isn't it a colossal waste of energy? We're all human, we all make mistakes, why make such a big deal out of it? Why not just wind your head in, as they say here, and get on with life?

A survey this week said the average person spends 110 hours a year regretting what might have been. Some 57 per cent wish they'd chosen another career path, while a quarter pine for lost loves. That's an awful lot of regrets. If a survey funded by KP Peanuts is to be believed, of course.

The trouble is, once you start regretting, there's no end to it. You can regret marrying the wrong person, or buying a house on a flood plain, or having so many children, or having no children at all, or not going to uni, or staying in that crap job for so long. You could drive yourself nuts. And never enjoy what you're actually doing right now.

Je ne regrette rien.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Remembering Nick

I saw this interesting question in a book I was reading - "What would you like to be remem-bered for?" It begs the question of course whether you want to be remem-bered in the first place. I guess a few hardened criminals might want to be forgotten as quickly as possible.

I must say I don't care if I'm remembered or not. It's not as if I've made some huge contribution to society like inventing the internet or helping Jews escape from Nazi Germany. I've led a very ordinary life and I don't think I'm remarkable in any way at all.

In fact I wonder why some people are so keen to be remembered. Are they screaming narcissists, do they just want to be famous, do they feel insignificant? All I know is, I don't care if I vanish into oblivion the moment I die. I think the more important thing is whether I enjoyed my life, which I have.

But if by any chance I do happen to be remembered, what for?

Obviously I'd like to be remembered as a civilised, intelligent, considerate, open-minded person, rather than a ranting bigot, a serial killer or a tyrannical boss. In particular I'd like to be remembered as a critical thinker, someone who asked searching questions and didn't just accept the fashionable ideas of the moment.

Or perhaps I'm more likely to be remembered as the hopeless dimwit who gets lost in any tangled TV or movie plot. Or the weak-bladdered old codger who goes for a pee four times a night. Or the scatty driver who gets into the wrong lane and wonders why he's being hooted at.

Or they'll totally mis-remember me and think I was their college lecturer or their driving instructor. Which is okay as long as the people in question were totally brilliant and turned their whole life around.

But not otherwise.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Culture vultures

Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, has been vilified by political activists for writing about people and things that are outside her own personal experience. They say she's guilty of cultural appropriation.

The book is about a mother and daughter who flee Acapulco in Mexico for the US to escape a drugs syndicate. Her journalist husband had been writing articles about the cartel and they took their revenge by murdering the rest of the family.

But the critics point out that she's not black, not Mexican, not a migrant, and not involved with the drug trade, so she shouldn't have written the book. She should have left it to those with direct experience of the subject matter.

What that implies though is that nobody should write about anything other than their personal experience, and anything merely imagined or fantasised is off-limits. This would obliterate whole swathes of fiction and leave us only with autobiography (even biography would be impossible, as it's not written by the person concerned).

Authors like Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie and Aminatta Forna have rushed to Jeanine Cummins' defence, saying that the whole point of fiction is to imagine things you haven't personally experienced, especially things that nobody has even thought about before.

If the critics are so concerned about the authenticity of American Dirt, why don't they write their own novels on the same theme instead of trying to demolish hers?

Yes, it's obviously cultural appropriation if you're blatantly ripping off someone else's culture for your own personal gain. But if all you're doing is imagining other people's experiences, where's the harm? You may even be drawing attention to scandalous situations that need to be remedied.

The keyboard warriors should find some more deserving targets.

PS: A scheduled author tour has been cancelled due to serious concerns about the author's safety.

Pic: Jeanine Cummins

Monday, 10 February 2020

Trust eroded

It seems the police are increasingly not pursuing so-called petty crimes like burglary, theft and minor assault. And the police watchdog, the Inspector of Constabulary, says this is corroding the public's trust in the police.

As a result, the public are often not reporting such crimes, assuming nothing much will be done about them.

Well, to be fair to the police, what do people honestly expect? Do they really think the police can solve every crime that comes their way? Do they really think all that's needed is a bit of hard graft and shrewd detective work?

Are they serious? If a random stranger has picked your house to burgle or your car to break into, how the heck do you identify that random stranger? Unless they've left something incriminating behind them, like their wallet or a shop receipt, where on earth do the police start looking?

If nobody has actually seen the burglar or car thief, there's not even a photo or description to go by. So you're looking for a needle in a haystack.

I'm sure the victim would love to see the offender getting his just desserts in a courtroom, but let's face it, it's unlikely.

It makes perfect sense to me that the police prioritise really serious crimes like domestic violence or fraud or arson. Anyone worried about being burgled should take out adequate insurance to cover the possibility. And get decent locks on all their doors and windows.

Luckily Jenny and I have seldom been crime victims. We've never been burgled and we've only experienced car thefts twice. And I was mugged once. We never expected the police to find the culprits. We just put it down to bad luck and moved on.

Maybe Dixon of Dock Green* was able to magically nab the villains. But that wasn't real-life, it was TV make-believe.

*Long-running police TV series from 1955 to 1976.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

New-look zoo

I hate the idea of animals being stuck in tiny cages and enclosures instead of roaming freely in the wild. So I'm pleased by the new proposal to convert Belfast Zoo from a tourist attraction to a conservation centre, with many of the existing animals released into the wild or more natural surroundings.

The proposal has been presented to Belfast Council, with some councillors in favour and others opposed. And of course the zoo staff and their union are worried about possible job losses if the zoo is slimmed down.

But it can't be right that all those majestic animals, which normally have miles and miles of open space as their daily habitat, are cooped up in small enclosures where all they can do is prowl aimlessly round and round.

It may be all right for small animals like meerkats and prairie dogs, which have plenty of space to run around in, or fish in massive tanks, but the larger animals must be thoroughly miserable in their cramped quarters. It's a known fact that elephants for example die much earlier in zoos than elephants in the wild.

The plan's critics say some animals simply couldn't be returned to the wild. Barbary lions are now extinct. Other animals used to captivity wouldn't survive a natural habitat full of predators or polluted with pesticides.

They say it's important for children to see as many animals as possible in the flesh, that seeing animals on the internet or on TV just isn't the same.

Presumably the zoo would retain those Northern Irish animals in danger of extinction, such as the barn owl, the red squirrel, and the Irish black honeybee.

Jenny and I have been to the zoo a few times, and we love watching all the animals we never normally encounter, but it can't be right that most of them are there simply to entertain us or feed our curiosity.

They deserve better than that.

Pic: meerkats at Belfast Zoo

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Viral panic

It's horribly predictable that the coronavirus epidemic has led to an increase in hostile attitudes towards the British-Chinese. It doesn't take much for hidden prejudice to emerge when a suitable target appears. All these incidents have been reported in London:
  • A man with a Chinese appearance at Gatwick, who hasn't been to China in two years, was told by a nearby couple "They should wear their masks"
  • A woman was asked persistently if she had ever eaten bat soup
  • A woman noticed other train passengers moving away from her
  • Restaurants in Chinatown have seen a big decline in customers
The risk of catching the coronavirus is infinitesimal; only two people have definitely got it in the whole of the UK. There's a far bigger risk of dying from the flu. An average of 600 people a year in the UK die from flu complications, and in 2008-2009 there were over 13,000 flu deaths. But people are panicking and imagining that simply sitting next to a Chinese person puts them in mortal danger - even if they're British citizens and have never been to China.

There are around 10,000 British-Chinese in Northern Ireland, but oddly enough the local papers haven't asked them if the coronavirus has led to abusive encounters. Since Northern Ireland is over 90 per cent white, racist attitudes are not uncommon, and if London is anything to go by, it's highly likely they've increased in recent weeks.

We're friendly with a Northern Irish man and British-Chinese woman who live a few doors down, but I haven't yet had a chance to ask her if the coronavirus has caused any negative remarks. Hopefully not as this area is heavily middle-class and presumably more tolerant than elsewhere.

But irrational prejudice pops up in the most unlikely places.

Pic: An almost deserted Chinatown in London.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Itchy feet

Why the increasing urge to travel? Why the burning desire to go to all those far-flung places? Why the need to check out all those famous spots, despite their often being over-run with thousands of other tourists?

I had little desire to travel when I was young. It wasn't a big thing in those days anyway. Staycations were normal and families up and down the land would spend a fortnight at Southend or Torquay or Eastbourne and not even contemplate going "abroad" or going "to the continent". That was strictly for the nobs, the celebrities, the political bigwigs. Not for the likes of us.

Even well into middle age I had no great yearning to travel the world. I was happy enough sampling the cultural delights of London, or having a day out at "the seaside". Why would I want to go down under or visit the yanks or look at sacred temples? It seemed like an awful lot of effort for some nebulous benefit.

It was only after I met Jenny and she wanted our holidays to be a bit more adventurous that we went all over northern Italy and then farther afield to the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. And enjoyed it all immensely.

Now of course, just as half the world is getting itchy feet and jumping merrily onto long-haul flights, the spectre of climate pollution is stopping us in our tracks and forcing us to rethink our holiday plans.

Should we give Eastbourne another try? A quick trip to the Shetland Isles perhaps? Should we dial back to the nineteen fifties and decide we've done enough "abroad" for the time being?

The problem is, those casual mentions of "our trip to the Maldives" or "our little break in the Bahamas" are now so common that we'd have trouble convincing anyone that we really really enjoyed our rain-swept week in the Lake District.

I might even have trouble convincing myself.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Just be honest

It annoys me when environ-mental activists preach to us about what we should be doing to prevent climate breakdown, but ignore their own advice when it comes to their private lives.

They tell us to stop flying, stop driving, get electric cars, stop eating meat, stop burning wood, stop using fossil fuels, stop using plastic. They imply that we're not taking climate breakdown seriously, that we're clinging to all our bad habits and resisting the necessary changes.

Then what do you discover? The very same activists are jetting round the world to one climate conference after another, driving around in gas-guzzlers, tucking into giant steaks or throwing another log on the wood-burning stove.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying they should instantly give up all these things and revert to some kind of stone-age existence stripped of all our modern-day comforts and pleasures. That would be absurd.

What I object to is the hypocrisy, that they preach one thing while doing something quite different. That they make a show of ideological purity and integrity when in reality they're as fallible and imperfect as the rest of us. That off-stage they're wrestling with the same day-to-day dilemmas as everyone else - how do we give up all these harmful practices and still have a decent life? What would be an easy adjustment and what would be a painful sacrifice?

If they'd just admit that yes, they still fly around the world, that yes, they still have a petrol car and still drive hundreds of miles every week, I would applaud their honesty and human frailty. But pretending to be holier than thou when they know very well they're not - that really pisses me off.

Why can't they just level with us?

PS: Good example: Prince Charles flew 125 miles by helicopter to make a speech about lowering aircraft emissions (02.02.20)
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As a balance to my scathing review of Keith Richards, I would add that I love Annie Lennox, who seems far more talented and a much nicer person all round. Both her music and lyrics are a lot more interesting than the Stones'. "Diva", "Bare", and "Songs of Mass Destruction" are all brilliant albums. She also does masses of charity work for Amnesty International, Oxfam, the British Red Cross and the Burma Campaign among others. And surprise surprise, there's no misogyny.