Friday, 27 November 2020

No longer taboo

In general I couldn't care less about the royal family, but I think it's great that one particular royal has revealed her distress over her miscarriage, and encouraged others to talk about what is still very much a taboo subject.

One big benefit of all the ongoing feminist campaigning is that so many once-forbidden topics are now openly discussed and women can share their experiences and get the support they need.

Things they once struggled with behind closed doors, things that were considered shameful and humiliating, are now out in the open and subjects of concerned public debate.

Miscarriages, still births, post-natal depression, domestic violence, sexual harassment, the glass ceiling, the obsession with women's appearance, women who're not listened to or taken seriously, and many other issues - now we hear about them all the time and it's not so easy to sweep them under the carpet.

This widespread trend for bringing taboo subjects into the daylight has prompted men to be more open as well. They're more likely to talk about erectile dysfunction, impotence, the straitjacket of "masculinity", their parental anxieties, or workplace bullying. They're more likely to share their emotions, be it sadness, grief, disappointment, inadequacy, despair or helplessness. They're less prone to hide everything behind a facade of tough, unflappable maleness.

To my mind, this is all very positive. The more you share, the more useful feedback you will get, and the more your experiences become normal rather than some disgusting secret. I don't think there's any such thing as "over-sharing", except perhaps when what you say might offend or hurt someone. Sharing something must surely be better than it festering away inside and becoming more and more distressing and painful.

The fewer taboo subjects we have, the better.

Monday, 23 November 2020

The ticking clock

This is puzzling. Janet Sewell, a woman in her forties, writing in the Guardian, complains that people are always asking her if she has children, and if not, whether she's going to have any. "After all, the clock is ticking" they remind her.

People say "You'll be so happy if you have children". And she thinks, "I'm actually happy as I am but will I be happier if I have children?" She feels like she's being told she doesn't carry her weight in society.

Well, the reason I'm puzzled is that neither Jenny or I have had any such "child harassment". We've never had people badgering us about our child-free status or telling us we're missing out on a wonderful experience.

So why is that? Did we look like potential child molesters who mustn't have kids under any circumstances? Did we look so poor our kids would be seriously disadvantaged? Did we look like neglectful slobs who would let our children starve to death? Did we look like angry, belligerent individuals who would terrify our offspring?

Or did we just happen to associate with courteous, easy-going types who felt no need to ask if we were planning to reproduce?

And on the other hand, why are people always asking Janet Sewell if she's going to have children? What is there about her that encourages such a question? Or does she simply mix with a lot of nosey parkers who think the future of her womb is something they have a right to inquire about?

Why do people think it's okay to ask such questions? Especially as the explanation for being child-free might be an embarrassing one the couple would rather not reveal.

But bearing in mind the sort of people Jenny and I associate with, it seems quite normal that people were more interested in our political leanings than in whether we'd reproduced.

Pic: not Janet Sewell

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Anti vax

Of all the odd causes people are passionate about, one that really baffles me is the campaign against vaccinations. I can't for the life of me understand why something that has transformed public health and prevented millions of deaths is seen as some sort of toxic conspiracy.

The anti-vax movement is now so big there are calls for social media to delete all anti-vax sites as they could be a serious obstacle to the take-up of coronavirus vaccine (an estimated 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and 17 million on YouTube). The anti-vaxers insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that the forthcoming vaccines have been rushed along too fast, haven't been tested properly and will be dangerous to the recipients.

Although the scientists developing the vaccine insist they've been thoroughly trialled and have no serious side effects, the critics maintain that's a lot of whitewash and the dangers are being systematically hidden.

Well, personally I have every confidence in the new vaccines and their developers, and I'll be happy to get my virus jab at the earliest opportunity (and as a 73 year old, that'll be sooner than the general population).

After all, I've had loads of vaccinations in my life and none of them have had any adverse effects. I've had jabs for diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, chicken pox, tetanus, flu (several times), pneumonia and shingles, quite uneventfully. So why on earth are the critics getting so hot under the collar?

Do they really think the NHS is setting out to poison and kill people? Why this perverse distrust of health workers? And why do they not recognise the huge health benefits vaccinations have brought since their invention in the 18th century?

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Me time

What a golden opportunity it is when your partner goes away for the day or the weekend or even the week (and takes the children if you have any). Suddenly you have a nice big chunk of me time and you can do absolutely anything you want, free of the usual chores and obligations. Unmitigated pleasure and self-indulgence awaits.

Except of course that it seldom works out that way. Instead of all the unmitigated pleasure - long country walks, starting the new box set, trying those exciting new recipes, tackling that online course on everyday life in the Middle Ages - you find yourself spending the time quite differently. Hours have unaccountably sped by as you:

  • Plucked your nasal hairs
  • Looked again for the missing screwdriver
  • Placed online orders for stuff you don't need
  • Watched yet another endearing cat video
  • Cleaned behind the taps
  • Pondered why letter boxes are red
  • Adjusted all the crooked pictures
  • Purged all the socks with holes in
Then when your partner returns, along with all the old distractions and expectations, you kick yourself for not having used your precious me time more intelligently. And you dream of the next chunk of me time when you really really will make good use of it and not arse around like a ten year old.

To rub it in, your best friend gleefully recounts all the brilliant things she did during her own recent me time while her girlfriend was at a conference in Budapest. It seems she barely had time to sleep.

After that it's back to business as usual, and you find the missing screwdriver down the side of the fridge. And all the pictures are crooked again. And there's a nasal hair you somehow overlooked.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Naked controversy

Fierce controversy over a new statue of Mary Wollstonecraft at Newington Green, North London. People are asking why she's so small and totally naked and saying this is hardly a suitable way of honouring her memory.

The artist, Maggi Hambling, has vigorously defended the statue. "The point is that she has to be naked because clothes define people. We all know that clothes are limiting and she is everywoman. As far as I know, she's more or less the shape we'd all like to be. Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It's crucial that she is 'now'."

This seems to me a bizarre explanation. People aren't defined by their clothes but by their personality and achievements - in this case her passionate pursuit of feminism. Neither is she everywoman, it was specifically Mary Wollstonecraft that campaigners for the statue wanted to memorialise.

Caroline Criado-Perez, who helped campaign for a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, said the decision-making process had been "catastrophically wrong. This representation is insulting to her." She argued that, as a piece of political art, it should have depicted a recognisable Wollstonecraft, as less than 3% of UK statues were of non-royal women.

The writer Caitlyn Moran said "Imagine if there was a statue of a hot young naked guy 'in tribute' to Churchill. It would look mad."

It would look totally bonkers. Personally, I think the Hambling statue should be replaced with a fully-clothed, clearly identifiable statue of Mary Wollstonecraft.

I suspect Maggi Hambling knew very well that her statue was bound to be controversial, and she's enjoying all the fuss and attention. Two other Hambling statues, Conversation with Oscar Wilde and Scallop, were equally contentious when first erected in 1998 and 2003.

Mary Wollstonecraft deserves better.

PS: The statue was commissioned by the Mary On The Green Campaign, which unanimously chose Hambling for the sculpture. Jude Kelly, Patron for the Campaign and Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, said "She is a wonderful choice to capture the spirit and strength of Wollstonecraft."

PPS: A crowdfunder has been launched for an alternative statue of Mary Wollstonecraft by Martin Jennings. This statue would be of Mary Wollstonecraft herself.

Pic: the statue

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Lady appeal

It amuses me to read all those articles telling men "how to make yourself more attractive to women". Probably behaving like an intelligent and civilised human being is all that's needed, but self-appointed romance experts produce long lists of things you should do to have the ladies falling all over you.

Men are advised on what women find irresistible - what brand of perfume, what length of beard, how much muscle, what sort of music, what make of car, what style of clothing, what hairstyle, what conversational gambits.

Well, women are all the same, aren't they? They all respond to similar things, so you just have to get those things right and they'll be putty in your hands.

I must say, if I were a woman, I'd probably run a mile from a guy who's constantly tweaking his appearance and his possessions to make himself woman-friendly, rather than just being himself.

For that matter, long ago when I was still looking for a partner, I'd have run a mile from a woman who was clearly putting on an act for my benefit.

Men who're obviously "performing" for a female audience are very tiresome. Luckily most of my life I've worked with men who found such performing laughable and wouldn't be wondering if women might disapprove of their beard length. More likely they'd be wondering if women would find their political views feminist enough.

According to the romance pundits, I've probably done the wrong things all my life and alienated every woman in sight. Clapped-out cars, dodgy music, outmoded clothing, dumb hairstyle. None of which bothered my partner when I met her in 1981. She would certainly have high-tailed it from some smarmy Mr Pulling-Power.

But it seems plenty of guys still fervently believe in romance-by-numbers.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Smug gits

It seems to be taken as read nowadays that anyone visibly privileged or successful or advantaged or fortunate is therefore smug/ self-righteous/ condescending/ gloating and generally looks down on the less fortunate. I seem to have fallen into that category, which is weird to say the least.

This is a very simplistic view of other people. Yes, a lot of privileged people do indeed look down on the less fortunate and blame them for their own setbacks. They do indeed sneer and scoff from their ivory towers.

But there are plenty more who are well aware that their privilege is very much a matter of good luck and personal circumstances and that those who're struggling in life simply haven't been as lucky and are coping as best they can in distressing and daunting situations.

I think for example of those celebs who have called for better mental health services, an end to food poverty, an end to homelessness, an end to domestic violence and all sorts of other social advances - as well as donating large sums to charity.

Lots of famous figures have stressed that they grew up in abusive and impoverished households, and it was only through a lot of luck and unexpected opportunities that their adult life has been more favourable.

It's easy to get the wrong impression from all those self-satisfied individuals - MPs, business owners and the like - who regularly appear in the media flaunting their wealth and power and clearly quite ignorant of the hand-to-mouth existence that typifies so many ordinary lives in this brutal political era.

Yes, I'm more privileged than most, but that doesn't mean I'm indifferent to all the poverty, misery and dashed hopes hidden behind other people's front doors.

You'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see it and be upset by it.

Pic: Multi-millionaire Old Etonian MP Jacob Rees-Mogg

Friday, 30 October 2020

Survival instinct

We humans are said to have a survival instinct that keeps us alive in dangerous situations. However daunting the odds, however desperate everything seems, when the chips are down, we'll always struggle to stay alive.

Well, that's debatable to say the least. There are plenty of examples of people who seem to have no survival instinct whatever. People who commit suicide, who are keen on extreme sports, who drive too fast or take unfamiliar drugs. Or for that matter refuse to follow basic safety measures in a pandemic.

People die every day because they give little thought to survival and simply do what they feel like doing.

I wouldn't say I have much of a survival instinct. What I have is more a problem-avoidance instinct. I don't want to do anything that might jeopardise my physical or mental health and make my life a problem for myself and other people around me. I don't want to become a burden or a nuisance or an object of pity.

Not that any possible survival instinct has ever been seriously tested. I've never been trapped in a burning house, kept prisoner in a locked basement or been stranded on a mountain top. I've never had to survive more than busy main roads or too much alcohol or gnawing hunger.

Mind you, the survival instinct isn't just about physical survival. It can also mean mental and emotional survival. Can you survive abusive parents or an aggressive boss or a domineering spouse without crumbling psychologically?

I've survived in that sense several times in my life. So maybe I have a survival instinct of sorts, just not the one people normally think of.

I've been lucky enough never to lose my mind.

Monday, 26 October 2020

Crossing the line

It amazes me what some people (usually women but also men) will put up with from their partner in the way of bad behaviour and still stay with them rather than walking out. They'll find some excuse for even the most atrocious goings-on.

The most obvious example is Melania Trump, who has endured the most appalling behaviour since meeting Donald Trump 22 years ago, but there are plenty of other examples. Lots of politicians are serial womanisers but for some reason their wives stick with them.

So I wonder what would cause me to think "that's enough, that's crossed the line" and walk out of a relationship. It would have to be something pretty major, something quite unforgivable. Suppose your partner was guilty of:

  • A serious crime like a physical assault or a hit-and-run
  • A huge fraud
  • A severe addiction
  • Persistent lying and deceit
  • Being generally abusive and belittling
  • Insulting your friends and family
  • A string of affairs
  • Domestic violence
  • Refusing sex
  • Persistent misogyny
  • Using pornography
  • Using prostitutes
What would your attitude be?

Of course it's easy enough to say I would never put up with X or Y when I've never been put to the test, but would I feel differently if these things actually happened? Like others, would I find excuses for what the other person has done rather than take the drastic step of leaving them?

If there's a lot at stake, a lot to give up, like power and wealth and fame in Melania's case, would I still walk away or would I stay put?

I admire those public figures who do say "enough is enough" and pack their bags. Like Marina Wheeler, who finally tired of Boris Johnson's behaviour after 25 years and left him to it. However delinquent someone's conduct, it's never easy to start again.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Defining moments

It's always revealing when you ask someone what were the defining moments in their life - the things that made a huge impression on them, or set them on a totally new path in life, or caused them to radically rethink something.

If you asked me what were the defining moments or events in my own life, I would come up with the following:

  • Meeting Jenny when my life was somewhat stalled. We've achieved so many things together and had such amazing experiences.
  • My first English teacher, John Fraser, who gave me a love of the English language and linguistic skills that were a lasting asset job-wise.
  • My school friend David who gave me a copy of the Communist Manifesto and prompted a life-long belief in socialism and an egalitarian society.
  • My first bookshop job and the immediate feeling that this was something I could enjoy doing for many years. Which I did.
  • Buying our present house. For a long time we assumed we could never afford a house, but circumstances conspired to make it possible. This is our second house and it ticks all the boxes!
  • My first trip to Australia. It was extraordinary landing in Hobart and being on the other side of the world in such a spectacular country.
  • Moving from my cold and spartan bedsit in Abbey Road, London, my home for 6½ years, to a slightly better bedsit.
  • Moving from London to Belfast. We both liked Northern Ireland and decided to take a massive gamble, ditch our existing jobs and move there. It's been a big success and we've never regretted our decision.
  • Hearing that my tiny trace of prostate cancer had vanished of its own accord.
  • Retiring from paid employment 2½ years ago after 53 years of working. I don't miss work and I'm having a great time.
Will there be more defining moments? Who knows what the future will bring?

Friday, 16 October 2020

Mysterious bottles

There's a health food shop down the road that does very good business and stocks every possible variety of trendy cures, supplements and unadulterated foods. But how many of them have any real benefit?

I've always been a bit sceptical of health food shops and the claims they make for their products. Research often concludes that these fashionable remedies and concoctions do little for people's health.

Personally I put my faith in a balanced, nutritious diet and prefer to consult properly qualified doctors rather than a self-appointed expert in a health food shop. The only things I buy there are foods like figs, dates and brazil nuts.

Once I inquired about natural remedies for insomnia and was recommended a tiny bottle of valerian. It cost £9 ($11.60) and had no effect whatever. Once bitten, twice shy, and I made no further inquiries. Luckily my insomnia faded of its own accord.

But it's surprising how many people swear by some natural remedy or other, which they insist gave them a whole new lease of life. Lots of people take vitamin supplements, even though you shouldn't need them if you have a nourishing diet.

The Royal Family are said to be very keen on homeopathic remedies, despite many studies concluding they're worthless.

Some patent remedies just sound a bit fishy. Others are plain ludicrous, like ear candling. This is meant to draw wax out of your ears. But several things can go horribly wrong and land you in the nearest hospital.

But there's always a huge market for unorthodox treatments that are made out to be better for your body than the drugs promoted by Big Pharma. Even if there's no solid evidence that they even work.

I think I'll stick to good wholesome food rather than mysterious bottles of who-knows-what.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Forbidden kisses

Once again Jenny and I have lucked out. While others are having to restrain themselves and keep their distance, we can have as much physical contact as we want because we're a long-established couple. We can hug, kiss, cuddle and fondle as much as we like at absolutely negligible risk.

Spare a thought for those blighted individuals who're trying to start a relationship and are constantly having to rein back their natural desire to be as physically close as possible.

They're supposed to keep two metres away from each other at all times and even a one-second kiss or a quick shoulder-squeeze is forbidden. They have to act like total strangers strictly on their best behaviour rather than passionate lovers who can't get enough of their bodies.

Sex itself would break all the rules so that's out of the question, unless you're prepared to take the risk, follow your impulses and jump into bed.

I must say if I couldn't have any physical contact with Jenny I'd feel incredibly frustrated. Physical affection is a big part of our relationship and having to give it up would be really hard.

I enjoy physical affection in general. It's a Northern Irish habit to hug and kiss a friend when you meet them and (normally) I do the same. I'll hug and kiss anyone, be they male, female, straight, gay, whatever. It's fun and it's friendly and it's pleasurable.

It's strange really, because physical affection was pretty rare when I was growing up. My father wasn't keen on it and my mother gave it up when she got the idea it might turn me homosexual. At my single-sex boarding school physical contact was strictly limited to rugby scrums and fooling about in the shower room. I guess once I left home my long-repressed impulses re-emerged.

And thankfully I never had to think twice before kissing my girlfriends.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Table talk

I've commented before on my relaxed attitude to table manners. I don't bat an eyelid at things that drive other people bonkers. But there are plenty of people (including some of my blogmates) who shudder with horror at someone visibly breaking all the usual rules.

I'm really not bothered by people talking with their mouth full, eating with their fingers, licking their fingers, wolfing down food, blowing on their food, stretching for something across the table, making slurping noises, piling their plate with as much food as possible, or scraping their plate of every last morsel.

I'm too focused on what the other person is saying to dwell on their table manners - unless they're belching non-stop or flinging food on the floor. Which thankfully isn't customary among those I usually eat with.

Like many things, this probably goes back to my childhood. My parents were never very strict about table manners at home and it was basically "anything goes" as long as us kids weren't totally sloppy. Doing our share of the washing up afterwards was more important.

Restaurants were a different matter. My mother was quite a messy eater herself but happily criticised other people's table manners in restaurants. I would listen with some embarrassment as she loudly ticked someone off. At least she didn't complain to them directly, which would have been even more embarrassing.

What bothers me more than how a person eats is someone who spends the entire meal looking at their phone and sending texts. Or parents who chomp away obliviously while their children run amok. Or a wobbly table that keeps shifting up and down unpredictably.

Perhaps restaurants should be divided into two sections - one for messy eaters who can be as slap-happy as their like, and one for careful eaters who follow all the rules.

Then we'd all be happy.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Pushy parents

Well, Ms Scarlet Blue suggested I do a post about skirmishes, but I don't think I want to relive what at the time were very upsetting experi-ences. So I shall swerve away from that topic and try something else.

Like parental expectations. Parents who expect you to do (or not do) certain things with your life. Parents who want you to be just like them. Parents who expect huge achievements rather than modest unremarkable lives.

They expect you to have lots of children and grandchildren. Or take over the family business. Or be a high earner. When you want none of those things.

My parents were happy when I started work as a journalist, but a lot less happy when I abandoned journalism and became a bookseller. They thought I was wasting my abilities as well as not earning enough.

My mother was always disappointed that I never had children or grandchildren, but at least she didn't harp on about it. She was pleased when my sister had a daughter but I'm sure what she really wanted was a massive brood.

My father clearly thought I wasn't masculine enough - that I was far too sentimental and cared far too much about society's losers. He expected me to be tougher and harder and stop excusing other people's weaknesses.

Yes, there are parents who genuinely have no route-map for their children, and are happy with whatever lives they choose. But there are plenty who're less relaxed and want to push them this way or that.

I see what they're after. They want their kids to have fulfilling lives, they have their own idea of what will enable that, and they try to influence their kids accordingly. But their kids may have very different plans.

No, dad, I'm not a chip off the old block and I never wanted to be.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Self righteous, moi?

Every so often someone accuses me of being smug, self-righteous or self-congratul-atory. I always ask myself if they're right, and if I'm unaware of how I come across. And I always conclude they've got me wrong.

Surely I could only be smug if I'm one of those people who's convinced everything I've achieved in life is through my own efforts, and I owe nothing to anyone else. And if other people aren't as fortunate, that's entirely due to their personal failings.

All of which is patently absurd. Because I'm acutely aware that whatever I've achieved is only very partly through my own efforts. It's mostly down to all sorts of other things I had no say in - the country I live in, my family, my education, my physical and mental health, people I ran into, sudden unexpected opportunities. And the most important factor - a lot of good luck.

I got my first bookselling job because the bookshop concerned had just sacked six employees for misconduct (being drunk in the shop) and they needed six new employees in a hurry.

Jenny and I were able to buy a large detached house because of constantly rising property prices which worked to our advantage. When we met, Jenny had one room in a shared house and I was living in a tiny bedsit.

I landed several jobs because of my good command of English - which goes back to a brilliant English teacher at my prep school.

And of course the biggest bit of luck was meeting Jenny. We've achieved so much together that we couldn't have managed on our own.

So no, I'm not smug. On the contrary, I still doubt myself in all sorts of ways and never believe I'm as intelligent and capable as others seem to think. I always feel as if I'm fumbling my way through life and could come a cropper at any moment.

Good luck isn't guaranteed.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Body blow

I should be used to it by now, but I'm always surprised by how many people dislike their body image and how few are happy with the way they look. Apparently the lockdown made many people even more critical of their physical appearance.

A parliamentary report found that 61 per cent of adults and 66 per cent of children feel negative about themselves most of the time. And the vast majority felt worse since the lockdown.

The women who felt worse blamed diet culture, post-natal pressures, the lack of older women in the media, and being bombarded with images of photoshopped, edited and sexualised women.

Men said body image concerns for them are also common but discussing them is still taboo, with pressure to "gain muscle mass" and look masculine.

What surprises me is that instead of regarding their physical appearance as their own business, and no one else's, so many people are striving after the fashionable "look", as displayed by highly untypical botox and surgery enhanced supermodels.

I feel like some kind of freak for actually being happy with my body as it is and not wanting to make it more "desirable". I don't want to be bulging with muscles, purged of body hair, a stone lighter, wrinkle-free or a bit bigger "down there". If people dislike the way I look, too bad. My only consideration is whether I'm physically healthy or not.

I have no wish to pour hundreds of pounds into the bank accounts of the beauty industry moguls who want me to buy perfume, moisturiser, body lotion, make-up, hair removal products, nail polish and all the other more and more numerous "must have" beauty aids.

If anyone thinks my nose is the wrong shape or my bum's too big, that's their problem, not mine.

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.