Monday, 21 September 2020

Domestic cocoon

It's still seen as normal to actively socialise. If you confess to being not much of a socialiser, or even preferring your own company to the company of others, you're still seen as a bit abnormal, a bit weird, a bit standoffish. You're dismissed somewhat disparagingly as "a loner".

I have to admit I'm one of the weird brigade. As Patti Smith says "I'm not a very social person. I could go days without talking to anyone in particular".

I like the odd chat with my neighbours or my book club mates, or my hairdresser. It's convivial and energising. But I don't need constant company. I'm very happy pursuing my own interests, thinking my own thoughts, wandering through the far reaches of my imagination. What more do I need?

I know most psychologists declare that socialising is good for your mental and physical health, and that too little socialising is bad for you, but that's a bit of a sweeping judgment. We're all different, and some of us are quite healthy enough keeping ourselves to ourselves.

I'm glad the hairdresser's daughter is thriving at her new school. I'm intrigued that the next door neighbour has taken up cycling. But I don't need these chance conversations to maintain my well-being. They're rather like that extra slice of cake that I don't really need because I've had plenty of cake already.

But the emphasis on a chatty "normality" means many people are still too embarrassed to admit they're reluctant socialisers. So when necessary, when they're obliged to mingle with others, they pretend to be eager to talk, or even to be the life and soul of the party. Then they thankfully retreat to their domestic cocoon.

Isn't one of the true pleasures in life lounging on the settee with a good book, oblivious to the rest of the world?

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Lonely no more

What's happening in the world is so relentlessly miserable and depressing, I'm not going to add to the misery. So here's something happy and heart-warming for you.

After Tony Williams, from Alton in Hampshire, lost his wife Jo to pancreatic cancer in May, he says it was "unbearable torture" living without her. In desperation he put a poster in his window saying he had no one to talk to and couldn't stand the unremitting silence. "Can no one help me?" it ended.

His story went all around the world and led to a tsunami of emails, calls, letters and gifts. He was overwhelmed by the widespread sincerity and empathy they displayed. "These people really feel my loneliness as their own grief and sometimes I've been reduced to tears."

Tony has had help and support from neighbours and does have some family, but doesn't see them regularly. Messages have come from as far away as the USA, Canada, Australia, the Middle East, Spain and Iceland.

When asked what his advice would be to other elderly people in a similar position, he said "My advice is to do as I've done. Not necessarily in the same way - but you have to somehow go out and meet people."

There's an awful lot of people in the same situation, feeling dreadfully lonely but not sure what to do about it.

What happened to Tony shows there's an enormous amount of goodwill and kindness out there, as soon as people voice the need for it.

Anyone who's known unshakable loneliness will be ready to help Tony reconnect with the outside world.

Pic: Tony Williams, his wife Jo and poster

Sunday, 13 September 2020

A bigger slice

There's a lot of talk nowadays about people feeling "entitled", or feeling they have an automatic right to all sorts of things because - well, because they do. Such people are roundly condemned as arrogant elitists who just want to grab a bigger slice of the pie. The criticism is usually aimed at a certain type of person - well-off, privately educated, right-wing, pompous.

But hang on a minute, shouldn't we all feel entitled - to a decent life, a comfortable home, a worthwhile job, an adequate income, and physical safety? Isn't that the least we can expect as a country's citizens?

What people are really objecting to is not so much entitlement as greed - wanting more than your fair share of whatever's available. Wanting half a dozen houses, an enormous salary, a prestigious job, and the best of everything, from haute cuisine to limousines, private jets and luxury tailoring.

There's a lot wrong with being greedy, but nothing wrong with feeling entitled, if that simply means wanting an enjoyable life rather than a life of constant struggle and deprivation.

As for myself, I certainly feel privileged as my life has gone very well compared to the lives of many others. But I've never felt entitled in any sense. I've never felt greedy and I've never felt that anything should be handed to me. I hoped and expected to have a decent life but I never felt entitled to it. I assumed hard work, luck and sensible behaviour would get me the necessities of life so I wouldn't need any outside help. And by and large that's been the case.

But I quite like a bit of haute cuisine. Not to mention bon vin. I may not be entitled to them but I wouldn't like to be deprived of them.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The ties that bind

As you know, I loathe ties with a vengeance. Utterly pointless items of clothing that are supposed to make the wearer more respectable, more professional, more sexy and more normal. In reality they're just annoying things that flap around and half-asphyxiate you.

Luckily throughout my working life I could get away with very casual clothing. I was mostly a bookseller or an admin worker and in both cases tie-wearing was seen as either weird or pretentious.

So why am I so tie-averse? Here are twenty good reasons for not wearing ties:

  • They're ugly
  • They get caught in machinery
  • They get food stains on them
  • You only see the stains when you take them off
  • They can strangle you
  • They're passion killers
  • Employers love them
  • They have no plausible function
  • They attract germs
  • They're hard to fasten
  • They can be grabbed by small children
  • Dictators wear them
  • You get them as presents when you have a hundred already
  • You get them as presents when you really want champagne and chocolates
  • You can hardly breathe
  • They fall in your soup
  • They're boring
  • You feel like your father
  • Your mother keeps straightening them
  • Your mother thinks they're smart
The irony is that while a man in a tie is seen as more professional and trustworthy, this doesn't apply to a woman. In her case she is only professional and trustworthy if she's wearing high heels and make-up. Try explaining that to a visiting Martian.

And try to explain why male politicians wearing ties are now almost universally seen as incompetent and untrustworthy.

On the few occasions when I was obliged to wear a tie, I had usually forgotten how to knot it and had to resort to a youtube video. Which in itself is a point against ties. What other item of clothing can only be put on with the help of the internet?

Friday, 4 September 2020

No tiny feet

Jenny and I decided very early on that we didn't want children. Lots of our friends and acquaint-ances were having children and they seemed happy enough with their choice, but it wasn't for us.

We just never had the urge. There may be many men and women who're naturally broody and simply can't wait for the patter of tiny feet, but we never felt like that. We had other priorities.

We've always been content as just the two of us, and didn't want a couple of kids possibly complicating our relationship. And we never woke up one middle-aged morning thinking, oh my god we should have had kids, and now it's too late.

There were other factors of course. My parents did a pretty clumsy job of bringing up us kids, and I didn't think I'd be any better than them. Why not leave parenting to those who have an obvious gift for it?

I think both childless couples and couples with children are somewhat baffled by each other's choices. The former think, what's the big attraction of spending twenty years bringing up unruly kids and never having any peace and quiet? The latter think, they don't know what they're missing, there's nothing like it, it's a unique experience.

Childless couples are still accused by some of being selfish, of not helping to raise the next generation. Well, we may not have children but we're paying for other people's children - their healthcare, their education, the libraries they use. So I think we're doing our bit.

No patter of tiny feet for us. Only the tiny paws of trespassing cats.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Count me out

There are more and more people emphasising their Britishness and expecting others to do the same. But I've never felt especially British and I wonder why people have to bang on about it so much. Why is it so important?

I watch rallies where everyone is waving union jacks and shouting about how British they are. I follow the row over the Last Night of the Proms and how the typically British closing songs are being interfered with. I listen to people complaining that the country isn't really British anymore and they no longer recognise it.

Who cares? I happen to be a British citizen because I was born in England, but I have no particular attachment to Britain. If anything, I'm quite repelled by what's going on in England right now. Hatred, trolling, xenophobia, vicious denouncements of other people. Whatever happened to the British tradition of "fair play" and "sympathy for the underdog"?

I don't believe for a second that Britain is the greatest country in the world, that it does everything better than other countries. There are plenty of things Britain makes a complete mess of, most visibly its handling of the virus pandemic. There are many things Britain does that are totally shocking, like its treatment of those who are poor, homeless, disabled or mentally ill.

I may be a British citizen, but I'm well aware that other countries do a lot of things much better than us, and we would do well to pick their brains and follow their example rather than seeing the rest of the world as a bit backward.

I don't want to glorify my Britishness. I don't want to go around waving a union jack. I just want to be seen as a thoughtful, considerate human being who wants everyone to have a decent life. Isn't that enough?

PS: Just seen another example of British incompetence. Average internet speeds in the UK are among the slowest in the developed world, below Barbados, Panama and Thailand. The UK failed to make it into the top 40 countries.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

On the spectrum

It seems to me the pandemic has produced a wide spectrum of attitudes from blasé nonchal-ance on the one hand to paranoid fear on the other, with reasonable caution somewhere in between.

On the one hand there are those who think the whole pandemic is wildly exaggerated, with frenzied scare-mongering from politicians, health experts, trade unions and journalists about the number of deaths, the possibility of infection and the stupidity of those who shun even the most basic precautions.

They happily mix with jam-packed gatherings of hundreds of people, and scoff at any suggestion they're helping to spread the virus to all and sundry.

On the other hand there are those who're terrified of being infected and believe just a few seconds' exposure to someone else could see them in hospital fighting for their lives. They take every possible precaution and rage at anyone who isn't. They won't even leave the house except for a very good reason.

Photos of mass gatherings fill them with horror and they wonder why such irresponsible activities aren't being instantly closed down.

I'd say I'm somewhere in the middle. Yes, I feel more vulnerable than I used to, but I think the chance of being infected is greatly exaggerated (I haven't had the virus although it's been around for eight months or so, and I know very few people who've had it). Nevertheless it makes sense to follow all the recommended measures like wearing a mask and distancing. Why ignore all the precautions and expose myself to risk for the sake of some egocentric obsession with "personal freedom"?

One thing's for sure. The "new normal" of anti-virus measures everywhere we go will be the reality for quite a while. The free-and-easy gadding-about of 2019 is but a distant memory.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Shared traits

How do you maintain a relationship (and a marriage) for nigh on 40 years without the D-word rearing its ugly head? How do you keep things sweet despite all the possible pitfalls and trip-wires? I think it helps a lot if you share a few basic behavioural traits. For instance:
  • We love each other to bits, obviously.
  • We're both neat and tidy. We put the cap back on the toothpaste, we don't leave discarded clothes on the floor, we don't leave food remnants in the sink. It must be hell if one of you is a messy slob and the other isn't.
  • We're both vegetarian and we both like similar foods. Especially Italian and Indian food.
  • We're both energetic and keep ourselves busy. We don't sprawl on the sofa all day, watching old sitcoms.
  • We're both voracious readers. If one of us never read anything but cookery books or car manuals, that would be that.
  • We're both over-thinkers, analysing everything to the nth degree - politics, news events, other people's quirks, shopping trends, you name it.
  • We both do our share of the housework. We don't (on the whole) assume such-and-such is the other person's job/ the woman's job/ the man's job.
  • We both like Scandinavian crime dramas.
  • We consult each other about everything, and never make important decisions (even choice of curtains) unilaterally.
  • We both like breakfast in bed (toast and marmalade) on Sunday mornings.
  • We don't fight over who's going to drive the car.
  • We're both minimalists with a horror of clutter. We have regular clear-outs of stuff we no longer need/ want/ use/ enjoy.
  • We're both socialists. It's hard to understand how political and ideological opposites can live together without coming to blows.
There must be other things I've forgotten, but that's fairly comprehensive. It makes me realise how lucky we were to run into each other. What are the chances of two random strangers sharing so many attitudes?

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Steeped in Brooklyn

It's strange that I feel like a Brooklynite even though I'm not. I was on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge for ten minutes in 1996 and that's it. But it feels like a very familiar place to me.

It's obvious why. I've seen so many films and read so many books based in Brooklyn that I'm acquainted with a lot of Brooklyn streets and landmarks. Plus I once had a friend in Brooklyn who would tell me about her favourite local coffee shop, her walks with the dog, typical Brooklyn street scenes, how Brooklyn was coping with the Hurricane Sandy devastation in 2012, and all sorts of local details. Plus I've looked at Brooklyn on street view so I've digitally been to the Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery.

Right now I'm re-reading "Say Her Name" by Francisco Goldman, who lived with his wife Aura in Degraw Street, Brooklyn, until she died in a tragic surfing accident at the age of 30.

So you can see I'm thoroughly steeped in Brooklyn lore and culture, although I've never set foot in Williamsburg or Carroll Gardens. One day I might actually go there and and see how much of my mental image corresponds with the reality.

Because I'm getting constant reminders of Brooklyn, it seems more real to me than the neighbourhood I first lived in as a child, which is now no more than a distant and fading memory. I've never been back there since the family moved house in 1960.

I guess other people must have vivid images of places they've never been to. Images so tangible you have to remind yourself they're not the real thing.

Pic: Park Slope, Brooklyn

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

I've never

I like those memes where people list all the things they've never done. They're just as interesting as all the things people have done. And they always set me wondering. Why have they never done X or Y? What stopped them? What influenced them? Anyway, just for the record, here's my own list.

I've never:
  • worn boxer shorts (they're uncomfortable)
  • had jet lag (I adjust quickly to different time zones)
  • heckled anyone (it's pointless)
  • lost my voice (I never talk for long enough)
  • gone bald (shortage of testosterone?)
  • had children (never had the urge)
  • had a nickname (can't explain that one)
  • broken a bone (I've just been lucky)
  • had a good sense of smell (roses? what roses?)
  • tried cocaine (not keen on drugs)
  • had cosmetic surgery (I'm just fine as I am, thanks)
  • been religious (it never made any sense to me)
  • voted Tory (I've always been a socialist)
  • had a tattoo (I don't need to decorate my body)
  • been to a (commercial) football match (no interest in football)
  • dreamed of being naked in a public place (or meeting the Queen)
  • been arrested (not the best way of protesting)
  • eaten oysters or caviar (they look disgusting)
  • forged someone's signature (never needed to)
  • read Ulysses or War and Peace (I don't have the stamina)
I've never forged a signature, but I've committed most petty crimes like speeding and litter-dropping and driving under the influence (well, it was 51 years ago). And of course others I'd better not publicly admit to. I've never murdered anyone, though one or two people seemed to have been actively inviting it.

Oh, and I've never chased after a wild boar that stole my laptop. While stark naked.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Taken for granted

I'm bemused by those tourists who seem to have no respect or consideration for the places they're visiting and the local people. They charge into a place, have their fun and charge out again, not caring if the residents have been inconvenienced, annoyed or generally taken for granted.

Over-tourism has been a problem for a while, but the virus pandemic has made things even worse because so many Brits have now opted for staycations rather than risking foreign holidays.

Thousands of tourists are overwhelming seaside resorts to the extent that some of the locals are scared to walk along the busiest streets or go food shopping, in case they catch the virus.

When Jenny and I go on holiday, we see ourselves as guests of the country we're in. We're respectful, considerate, unassuming. We try not to be over-demanding or impatient or arrogant. We don't want the locals to get a bad impression of our own country from the way we behave. We don't expect them to be fawning all over us, nervous we might complain or be abusive.

We leave generous tips where tips are expected. We don't hassle hotel staff in the middle of the night. We don't leave our hotel room looking like a bombsite. We don't demand huge discounts on souvenirs. We don't expect to jump queues ahead of the locals. We don't shout drunken insults at everyone. We don't moan that everything's better at home. We don't under-dress. In short, we don't behave like spoilt arseholes.

I also try to find out more about the country I'm in, rather than just trundling round the well-known tourist attractions. I want to know something about its history, its economy, its culture, whatever is distinctive about it.

Is it really that hard to behave decently?

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Am I free?

If "justice" is a rather nebulous idea, then "freedom" is even more so. It's a wonderful idea, bandied about everywhere you look, something we're all meant to be seeking. But in real life can it ever be achieved?

If freedom means free of all kinds of restraint and obligation, free of all our domestic tasks, free of other people's demands, free of pretence and secrecy, then that's not possible, because we can't just wish away all the things that tie us down.

If freedom means being able to do whatever we want, that's not possible either as there are hundreds of laws telling us what we can and can't do.

I might feel free for a few blissful minutes when there's absolutely nothing to attend to, and nothing bothering me, but permanent freedom? I think not.

Even if I were wealthy enough to afford a bunch of people to look after all my daily needs and wait on me hand and foot, I still wouldn't be free. I would still be worrying about my investments, fending off begging letters, evading the paparazzi, and shooing trespassers out of my country estate.

Unless of course you mean simply the freedom to live your life the way you want to live it. With restraints and obligations, sure, but ones you welcome, ones you're happy to comply with because your life as a whole is a fulfilling one. A sort of comfortable captivity, you might say. In which case, I would say I'm extremely free.

As for that old cliché "freedom means nothing left to lose", then the ultimate freedom would be a sentence of life imprisonment. Doesn't sound much like freedom to me.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Justice denied

The more I read of people seeking "justice" after some horrendous crime, the more I realise it's a bit of a fool's errand, because we all have different ideas of what "justice" means and the chances of our particular idea of justice being met are very low.

Does justice mean retaliation? Or punishment? Or a show of remorse? Or putting someone in jail? It can mean all sorts of things.

Lissie Harper, the widow of PC Andrew Harper, who died after being dragged behind a speeding car for over a mile, said that for many months she had hoped "justice would come".

When the three teenagers in the car were found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, she said she was "immensely disappointed".

But what justice can there possibly be when your husband has died in such a horrific fashion? Nothing can bring him back to life, nothing can erase the grief and suffering she has endured since his death, nothing can compensate for the ruin of all her hopes for the future.

Even if the three teenagers are jailed for life (they'll be sentenced on Friday), how will that help her? It would be a heavy punishment, but punishment isn't the same as justice. Punishment won't ease her pain, or her family's pain.

My idea of justice in this case would probably be equally horrific deaths for the three teenagers, maybe in a nasty car crash while speeding away from some attempted crime. That's not something the law can arrange, though.

But no idea of justice could possibly compensate for that fateful knock on the front door, and a very sombre police officer telling you that your husband is dead.

Pic: Andrew and Lissie Harper

PS: Lissie Harper has written to the Prime Minister asking for a retrial, but it's not clear on what grounds a retrial might be justified. On Friday, one of the teenagers was jailed for 16 years, and the other two for 13 years.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

In an ideal world

I wrote once about the faculties I would like to have in an ideal world. Faculties that would overcome all the annoying limitations of our human bodies and make life so much easier. These are the things I came up with:

1) A perfect memory that remembers absolutely everything. Like the plots of books and TV dramas. Like people's names. Like whichever shop it was that had that brilliant potato peeler.

2) Super-fast legs so I can forget the bus and walk the 3½ miles to the city centre in five minutes.

3) A maximum body-weight setting so that however much chocolate cake, trifle and ice cream I eat, I don't gain an ounce.

4) Fluency in several languages so I can read lots of great books that have never been translated into English.

5) A female body for a month so I can wear all those fabulous clothes I can only lust after as a bloke.

6) A totally adjustable body temperature, so I'm always comfortable however hot or cold the climate, and I don't need central heating or air conditioning.

7) Telepathy, so I know when someone is telling the truth or lying non-stop. Or whether they're just pretending to like me.

8) Infinite empathy, so however extreme a person's emotions, I can understand them instantly. I can feel exactly what they're feeling.

9) The gift of the gab, so whoever the person, whatever their situation, I always have something to say, and it's always what they want to hear.

10) A magic wand that will melt all the pain and misery in other people's hearts.

Goodness, wouldn't life be very different if we had the benefit of all those super-faculties? If the technology of human bodies advanced at the same pace as all our machines and gadgets and appliances? The mind boggles.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

I'm just me

I've never felt in any way "masculine", and I'm not drawn to any of those things men are supposed to be passionate about. When men talk about being more masculine or more manly, I couldn't care less. It all goes right over my head. I have zero interest in
  • Football
  • Cricket
  • Fast cars
  • Gadgets
  • Flirting with women
  • Sexual prowess
  • Heavy drinking
  • DIY
  • Action movies
  • Technical stuff
  • Being the "top dog"
  • Extreme sports
Of course there are certain masculine behaviour patterns I'm obliged to follow to avoid being ostracised by polite society. And there are things I do quite unconsciously because they were endlessly drummed into me when I was growing up. All men are sexist to some degree, whether they realise it or not, just as white people are all racist. The trick is to suss out those sexist habits and suppress them.

It seems to me that being a civilised human being is more important than being masculine, especially if being masculine means harassing and mistreating women. Behaving decently does more good than trying to be on one end or the other of an entirely artificial spectrum. I'm just me and I can't be bothered to chase after some dubious behavioural norm.

Every so often there's a major debate about what it means to be masculine, how masculinity can be "detoxified", why men feel insecure and confused etc. To me these debates seem quite pointless, when the simple answer to all the confusion is surely, stop pursuing false goals, just behave like a normal intelligent human being and you'll be fine.

Fortunately I always gravitated to workplaces where the men had as little interest in being masculine as I did. They never thought me peculiar for being a light drinker, ignoring the big match, or not gawping at someone's tits. What they enjoyed was witty conversation, idle gossip, good food and weird haircuts.

Masculinity? You can keep it.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Digging up the dirt

This new trend of digging up something a person said 20 or 30 years ago and using it to discredit them seems ridiculous to me. We all had different attitudes when we were younger, many of them deeply embarrassing by today's standards, and just about anyone could be discredited on that basis.

Tony Sewell, the new chair of the government's commission on race and ethnic disparities, has had to apologise for saying homosexuals were "the greatest queer bashers around, "tortured queens playing hide and seek" who "made their own sexuality look dirty".

Of course the comments are grotesque and offensive, but they aren't recent comments, they're ones he made in 1990. Why should they be dredged up 30 years later as if he must have the same opinions in 2020? And why should they be used to try and oust him from a job that has nothing to do with homosexuality?

He has said clearly that those remarks "do not reflect my views today nor indeed the views of modern society." Isn't that enough to draw a line under the subject?*

We all have skeletons in the closet when it comes to unsavoury opinions we held when we were younger, and less sensible and circumspect than we are now. I supported all sorts of odd causes I wouldn't support now. I criticised people for personal failings I would now have more sympathy for.

If anybody could lose their job because of some off-the-cuff insult from decades ago, there would be an awful lot of sackings, and an awful lot of job vacancies. Can any of us say we've never let slip an ill-considered remark?

Unfortunately in the age of the internet such mortifying remarks are preserved for posterity and aren't easily buried.

* More to the point, he has denied the existence of institutional racism, which surely disqualifies him from a job concerning racial inequality

Sunday, 12 July 2020

No recollection

I've always envied people with excellent memories, and always seen my own dreadful memory as an embarrassing deficit. But that's not necessarily the case. I'm realising that in some ways a poor memory can be a distinct advantage, and not a liability at all.

My sister has a photographic memory, and my father was the same. My memory in comparison with theirs is sadly lacking.

But having such a superb memory isn't always an asset. You can remember in great detail occasions when someone slighted you, offended you, upset you, or betrayed you. You might feel a lasting sense of grievance that your memory is endlessly reviving.

I on the other hand rapidly forget most of those incidents, leaving me unaware that someone once offended me and allowing me to move on without that emotional baggage.

I know I was bullied at boarding school, but I don't remember how I was bullied or who was bullying me, or how upset I must have been at the time. All I know is that I was bullied, and it just becomes a sort of minor historical detail.

I can avidly reread a book, knowing I've completely forgotten what I originally read and can therefore enjoy it as if for the first time. The characters and plot seem entirely fresh and unfamiliar.

I'll forget all the beginner's errors and mortifying mistakes that occurred in my various workplaces and recall only the successes. So instead of thinking "that job was a disaster" I think "I did that job pretty well."

I'll blot out how traumatic it was enduring many months of next-door neighbours keeping us awake with constant all-night parties. Now I only remember it as an annoying episode that thankfully came to an end.

Yes, it can be frustrating when I forget something really important, but a bad memory isn't the awful burden I often imagine it to be.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Familiar flaws

I've read several thousand novels in my life, so many that whenever I'm immersed in a new book I can see all the flaws as well as the merits. Which doesn't mean I don't enjoy the book, it just means I'm unlikely to be gushing with praise. If it's really bad I won't be rereading it, it'll be off to the charity bookshop.

However many awards the book has picked up, however many celebrities have recommended it, if there are shortcomings or defects, I'll spot them pretty quickly as I'm well attuned to what's good writing and what isn't.

I'll react instantly to one-dimensional characters, an overabundance of characters, implausible plots, irrelevant sub-plots, clunky metaphors, rambling descriptions, high-flown language, confusing flashbacks and flash-forwards, factual inaccuracies and so on. They just leap out at me.

I always wonder why the author couldn't see all these faults when they were writing the book, or why their editor didn't see them and suggest some hefty rewriting. I can't be the only one who sees all the faults and wonders why they weren't corrected.

Not that I would ever stop reading books, however flawed and irritating they may be. I get huge pleasure out of reading. I love interesting characters and original plots and unexpected twists, I love trying to guess the endings, I love quirky oddballs I can easily identify with, I love sad, lonely characters who find love and happiness. And I love being whisked out of my familiar everyday surroundings to a completely different world someone else has imagined.

Books are a bit like people. They may have glaring faults but we overlook them because they also have endearing and inspiring qualities we can't do without. And we know they won't go on a drunken rampage or wreck the car.

Re the pic: I'd thoroughly recommend City of Girls. Beautifully written, very entertaining.

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


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


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 -

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.