Saturday 22 June 2024

Too many friends

There are plenty of people who feel lonely and short of close friends. But spare a thought for those people who're so addicted to collecting friends that they have too many of them and would like to lose a few.

Anya Meyerowitz thought that having lots of friends would make her feel better about herself. She seized every opportunity to make new friends but all that happened was that her friendships became more and more superficial and unsatisfying.

"Where I got to instead was a place where I found many of these hurriedly acquired friendships to be draining, tiresome and anxiety-inducing. The more I weaved my way into other people's lives, the less I felt a sense of community. I was juggling a full social calendar that left me feeling empty."

Not a problem I have to deal with. My opportunities for making new friends are strictly limited as I've been retired for 6 years and my only regular socialising is with my monthly book group and a few residual friends.

It seems a bit naive to think that the more friends you have, the happier you'll be. Obviously you'll have less time to spend with each one and inevitably the friendships are likely to get shallower. More is less, you might say.

It's interesting that she managed to keep so many friends for so long. I think for most of us friends come and go quite quickly. You discover something off-putting about them, they move somewhere many miles away, they turn out to be hopelessly needy, or you simply don't have the time to keep in touch.

Anya doesn't tell us what she did after her sudden disillusion. Did she have the nerve to discard half her friends? I'd love to know.

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Beyond the pale

One thing that's totally beyond my comprehension is how people can go on supporting a public figure or a workmate or a spouse even if they've been guilty of the most dreadful behaviour, or a serious crime, or habitual acts of violence. Why do they not say, this isn't acceptable, I can't condone this behaviour, it's totally beyond the pale?

The person I'm thinking of obviously is Donald Trump, but there are plenty of people equally guilty of appalling behaviour but enjoying widespread support from all and sundry.

Nigel Farage, who is standing in the upcoming British general election, is known principally as one of the architects of Brexit, which according to numerous economists has been an economic disaster (sorry, Infidel). Yet still millions of people support him regardless.

But it's not just public figures who benefit in this way. Spouses are fond of saying they'll stand by their man (or woman), even if they're guilty of murder, repeated sexual harassment, massive frauds, medical negligence or whatever.

I don't understand what inspires this blind loyalty. Do they think the person has done nothing wrong? Do they believe they should support their spouse "for better or for worse"? Do they believe they should "love the sinner"? Are they defending the person against what they see as unfair persecution?

I can only assume that the person's actions are being justified in some way. They had been taught that sexual harassment was normal masculine behaviour. They committed fraud to get back at a stingy, domineering boss. And so on.

If I was guilty of some atrocious crime, I wouldn't expect Jenny to stand by me. She would be quite right to pack her bags.

Friday 14 June 2024

Judging and misjudging

I had a sudden thought - what's the most important lesson I've learnt in life? Something that completely changed my outlook from then on?

I think the answer has to be - don't judge by appearances.

And that means not just people, but what I read, what I see around me, what others tell me. Whatever the outward appearance, there's always a lot more going on than meets the eye. There are hidden agendas, personal secrets, crippling traumas, grand ambitions. All sorts of things that lurk behind what's immediately visible.

I try not to judge by appearances, but it's so easy to do, especially when all around me people are doing just that, as if it's perfectly normal behaviour.

We judge people by their colour, their accent, their clothing, their sex, where they live, what job they do, what paper they read - a dozen things that can give us a completely false impression of who they are.

Someone can look blissfully happy and fulfilled when underneath they find their life totally frustrating and soul-destroying. Someone can look desperately poor in their shabby, worn-out clothes, when in reality they're worth millions.

I'm constantly surprised by something a person happens to reveal, something quite at odds with what I thought I knew about them, and I realise I've completely misjudged them all along.

I'm often misjudged myself, given all sorts of traits I've never had, like smugness, aloofness, condescension and stubbornness. but we like to pin people down, don't we? Oh yes, she's this and she's that, you only have to look at her....

There are plenty of people who look like saints and turn out to be mass murderers. And vice versa.

Monday 10 June 2024

Woe is me

"Beware self-pity", my father used to tell me, "It runs in the family". His warning struck home and I've been on my guard against self-pity ever since.

Self-pity is defined as a feeling of excessive unhappiness about one's problems. I never sat around thinking "Woe is me. This is dreadful. Why have I been picked on? Why is life so unfair?" I tend to take most problems in my stride, solving them as best I can and moving on.

So my bed-sit landlords never did any repairs, never installed central heating and never got rid of the pervading damp in the building. I cursed the company freely and then just got on with my life. So one of my bookshop managers micromanaged everyone and expected us all to work feverishly and not waste time nattering. We just called him an authoritarian arsehole and downed tools the moment he went out for a fag break.

In fact my father was much more prone to self-pity than I am. He would be fuming for hours over a boss who constantly messed him around and jumped on the smallest error. He couldn't accept that some bosses can be pernickety sods and you just have to deal with it. If he expected to have a perfect boss who never upset him, he wasn't living in the real world.

Of course if my life had been one awful disaster after another, I daresay I would have struggled to avoid self-pity and I would seriously have asked, why have I had it so bad? It would be hard to simply carry on and tell myself "C'est la vie"'.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Burnt out and disillusioned

I've never been the slightest bit ambitious. I never wanted to "get to the top". I just wanted to have enjoyable jobs that came with an adequate salary. Luckily that worked out for me and I didn't have to take the soul-destroying jobs that others end up in.

Writer Jennifer Romolini's latest book "Ambition Monster" is a cautionary tale about how ambition can take over your life and leave you burnt-out and disillusioned. She spent years being relentlessly ambitious, until she was unexpectedly fired one day and realised her ambition was destroying her. "The illusion was broken for me. I knew that the big jobs were bullshit. That they were like a stress prison."

I spent many years as a bookseller, and I was very happy doing the hands-on stuff like serving customers, stocking shelves and recommending books. I had no desire to be a manager, stuck in some office poring over sales figures or CVs, and dealing with feuding employees. That would just be unrewarding drudgery.

I've done all sorts of jobs over the years, but management never appealed to me. When I was doing admin work for a social services department it was obvious that the office manager was severely overworked and severely stressed and I had no desire to go the same way. She may have enjoyed a huge salary but at a heavy cost.

If I was starting work today, I would probably have to take pressurised high-salary jobs just to keep up with the rising cost of living. I was lucky to be working at a time when a modest salary was enough to keep me solvent and pay the bills. But that's no longer the case.

Friday 31 May 2024

The portal

Two days ago Jenny and I were in Dublin to see the Royal Hibernian Academy's annual art exhibition - and the controversial Dublin-New York portal.

The portal, just off O'Connell Street, is a large screen that shows New Yorkers what's happening on a street in Dublin, and Dubliners what's happening on a street in Manhattan.

Unfortunately when the portal was first activated, it immediately attracted a lot of anti-social behaviour - people swearing, people flashing body parts, and even someone showing a video of 9/11.

So now, instead of the portal being open 24/7 it's open only from 11 am to 9 pm in Dublin and from 6 am to 4 pm (EDT) in New York.

Jenny and I lingered for a while watching New Yorkers do their thing - mainly whooping and holding up slogans - and marvelling at this bit of high-tech.

Hopefully the shorter opening hours will reduce the misbehaviour. But with Dublin being known for its rowdiness, there are no guarantees.

The owners of the portal said they would install software updates "to limit such behaviour appearing on the live stream". Not sure how that would work but it sounds good.

But who needs the portal anyway? Who needs to see a random bunch of New Yorkers for five minutes? Or a random bunch of Dubliners? Isn't it just a rather pointless gimmick?

Monday 27 May 2024

Lots of kids

As someone who has never had any desire for children, I'm intrigued by the American Pronatalist Movement, which wants people to have as many children as possible to reverse the global trend for falling birth rates and the resulting problems.

The most prominent pronatalists are Simone and Malcolm Collins of Pennsylvania, who currently have four children and aim to have another three. And they aren't put off by Simone needing a caesarian every time she gives birth.

They claim that child-rearing is actually pretty easy and not as expensive as is made out. They mostly seem to leave the kids to themselves while they get on with their own pursuits, like revitalising flagging businesses.

Without rising populations "there are going to be countries of old people starving to death" says Malcolm.

Well, I must say I never felt obliged to have lots of kids to maintain global numbers. Surely people should have kids simply because they like them and think they would be good parents.

And unless our gender-based culture changes drastically, presumably it's mainly women who would be lumbered with bringing up the children, having also endured numerous pregnancies.

Yes, falling populations may mean there won't be enough young and middle-aged people to look after the rising number of old people, but I don't think making child-rearing into some kind of duty, or making people feel guilty if they don't have enough, is the way to go. Better to provide a life-enhancing culture that children will thrive in, and a cheap childcare system that gives parents more support.

Pic: Simone Collins

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Silence or chatter?

A surprising number of people hate chatting to their hairdresser. They find it so tedious and unnecessary they would rather not talk at all and just let the hairdresser get on with the job.

Because so many people feel this way, Finnish hairdresser Kati Hakomeri has introduced a "silent service" that lets you opt in advance for no talking. Apparently there are quite a few hairdressers offering the silent option.

Well, I'm an introvert but I don't mind chatting to my hairdresser. In fact I'd rather chat than sit in silence, which actually seems more awkward and uncomfortable than chatting.

It's not exactly difficult. My hairdresser asks me some mundane questions about my life and in return I ask her some equally mundane questions. I'm actually very interested in how other people are getting on - whether they have children, whether their parents are still alive, whether they have money problems, whether there are any serious illnesses in the family.

Is it in fact rude not to chat to your hairdresser? Several surveys have found that most people don't see it as rude, they agree it's a matter of personal choice whether you stay silent or not.

I wonder if hairdressers themselves enjoy chatting or whether they themselves would prefer us to shut up. Are they all natural extroverts or do they look forward to the end of the day when repetitive chit chat can be turned off?

As far as I'm concerned, whether I get a decent haircut is more important than whether I make conversation or not.

Saturday 18 May 2024

What is love?

It occurs to me that love means different things depending on what age you are. In particular what it means to a youngster is not what it means to an oldie.

A youngster may never have been in love, and may not even know what it feels like. They may confuse love with all sorts of other feelings. Have they fallen in love or is it something more prosaic? Is it just a crush, an obsession, fondness, friendship, or simply lust? Asking other people may not help because it's such a personal experience and impossible to explain.

There are plenty of examples of youngsters who thought they were in love, rushed into marriage, and then a short time later realised it wasn't love at all and had to divorce.

An oldie like me however knows exactly what love is because I've been in love with Jenny for 43 years and the feeling is well established. I have no problem telling love from other similar feelings. When I fell for Jenny it was the first time I had been in love so it only gradually dawned on me that that's what it was (I didn't really love my parents, I appreciated everything they did for me but that was it).

Is it love if the feeling isn't reciprocated? That's something I'm not sure of even at my advanced age. I thought I was in love with a bookshop workmate but she never reciprocated so was that love or just a one-sided crush? And what about all those people who say they "love" a public figure - a show-biz celebrity or one of the Royals - even if they've never even met the person? How can that be any more than devotion or admiration?

What is love? It's complicated....

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Reckless males

Once again it's revealed that male drivers are far more likely to have serious accidents than female drivers. It seems they're more aggressive, more impatient and more reckless. Which no doubt all women drivers are well aware of.

Way back in 2022 a Guardian survey discovered that male drivers in the UK are almost three times as likely as women to be involved in accidents that kill or seriously injure pedestrians. French and American surveys confirm this huge difference.

I'm glad to say that although I've been driving on and off for almost sixty years I've never had a serious accident and I certainly haven't injured anyone. I'm probably not quite as cautious or focused as Jenny but I don't take unnecessary risks like dangerous overtaking, going through red lights or using a phone while driving.

A lot of men seem to regard reckless driving as a masculine imperative, while concern for safety and survival take a back seat. Over and over again I encounter other male drivers swerving into my lane without warning, tailgating me or hurtling past me at a crazy speed.

Women seem to be much more safety conscious and more aware of how easily a single hazardous manoeuvre could have disastrous consequences, especially if they're more likely to have children or a baby in the car than a man.

As a French road safety campaign tells men "Conduisez comme une femme". Drive like a woman. But will men take any notice?

Friday 10 May 2024


So all is revealed! Jenny and I paid a six-day visit to Brighton, a seaside resort neither of us had been to for decades. Despite the usual pre-holiday worries about unexpected glitches and cock-ups, everything went smoothly and we had a great time. Amazing weather too - dry and sunny throughout except for some torrential downpours last Monday.

The first thing we noticed was the general physical shabbiness. Many buildings were in urgent need of renovation or redecoration, though the residents and other tourists didn't seem bothered. There were also the usual rough sleepers and graffiti.

But people were very friendly if we seemed lost or needed some help - bus drivers especially.

We were there at the start of the annual Brighton Festival, so enjoyed some great events - a concert by the London Symphony Orchestra, a concert by the Herbie Flowers jazz band, and a talk by Caroline Lucas, the solitary Green MP. We also checked out the Royal Pavilion (unbelievably lavish), Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Hove Museum and the Castle and Museum at Lewes, a few miles north of Brighton.

Everybody seemed to be having a splendid time, with hardly a miserable face to be seen. Brighton is known for its gay and "alternative" vibe and we saw plenty of piercings and tattoos and even two men wearing skirts.

The enormous breakfasts at our guest house kept us fuelled for most of the day. In the evening, as well as our usual visits to Pizza Express, we tried two nearby restaurants, one Indian and the other Italian.

So how would I sum up Brighton? Let's say scruffy, funky, exuberant and easy-going.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

A short intermission

I'll be back soon. Meanwhile here's a selfie.


Sunday 28 April 2024

No such longing

I'm not nostalgic. Meaning I don't long to be back in some earlier time that I see as much better than the present.

The fact is that the past is always a mixture of good and bad, and it's easy to glamorise the positive aspects while overlooking the bad.

Such as the 1960s. Yes, it was a time of amazing creativity and cultural delights, but it wasn't much fun for victimised gays, or women who were expected to be in favour of free love - which in practice meant sexual availability.

But you could say I'm nostalgic not for a particular time period but for everyday things that seem preferable to their present equivalent.

Like making purchases. They used to be a simple matter of handing over cash or a cheque. But nowadays you need all sorts of technology like QR codes and apps, not to mention passwords and pin numbers.

Like train travel. I used to buy a ticket at a booking office and it would take me from A to B. But today prices vary depending on what time of day you travel, which train company you use and whether you book at the station or online.

I could imagine being nostalgic for some earlier time if my present life was utterly miserable and disastrous, but thankfully it isn't anything of the sort. Even when my life seemed a bit bleak and empty in my late twenties I never wished I could go back to an earlier period. I just assumed things would get better.

But it would be quite fun to pay a flying visit to the days of Beatlemania and bell bottoms and Black Forest Gateaux.

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Goodbye dating

It seems an absolute age now between the settled seventies me today and the twenties me when I was still starting out in life and pondering what the future held.

In particular it seems like an eternity from the years when I was still dating and wondering if I would find a long-term partner or if I would become a lonely old codger.

Am I glad I'm not dating any more. I read about people's disappointing dating experiences - dates who aren't what they expected, dates with embarrassing mannerisms, dates who turn out to be married etc etc - and I'm thankful I don't have to go through all that again.

I don't have to ask myself all those awkward pre-dating questions. What will she think of me? Will she find me boring? Will she think I'm weird? Will she like the way I'm dressed? Will she be put off by my height or my voice or my taste in books/films/music?

The whole dating scenario is now so long ago that I can barely remember it, but I must have been a bundle of nerves every time I went out with someone new and hoped they might be "the one".

What a relief it is to have a long-term partner who is as devoted to me as I am to her, and I'm no longer looking for "a likely prospect". We can just enjoy each other's company and let the years go by.

I can hear about people's dating horror stories without having to add a dozen horror stories of my own.

Saturday 20 April 2024

Smoking dilemma

As a life-long non-smoker, I'm intrigued by the British government's latest attempts to reduce cigarette-smoking and reduce tobacco-related hospital admissions.

They're hoping to pass a new law that would ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 15, with the age limit rising each year.

A similar law proposed in New Zealand was heavily opposed and it has now been scrapped by the incoming New Zealand government.

I must say I'm of two minds whether the proposed English law is a good idea. Yes, I'm all in favour of anything that makes people healthier but would people observe the new law or would they try to find ways around it?

You could get an older friend to buy the cigarettes for you, or you could lie about your age, or there would no doubt be a black market in fags you could resort to.

And how would shopkeepers know if you were over 15 or not? If they asked for ID, they could be insulted or threatened.

On the other hand, the sale of alcohol is subject to a similar ban, which says you can't sell alcohol to anyone under 18. It seems to work quite well and nobody is lobbying for the age limit to be scrapped. And young people are consuming much less alcohol anyway, largely because they're more aware of the long-term health risks.

I think on balance I support the new law, if nothing else because it would emphasise the dangers of smoking.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

No prayers please

I have no problem with people who're religious, if that helps them through life's difficulties. But I think religious belief is essentially a private matter and shouldn't be imposed on people who have no interest in religion.

A Muslim pupil has lost a legal case against a London school that has a ban on prayers after an earlier controversy over religious observance.

The pupil argued that the prayer ban was an act of discrimination against ethnic minorities and made her feel "alienated from society".

But the prayer ban only applies within the school. There's nothing to stop her praying or following her religious beliefs anywhere else.

When I was at boarding school I was expected to attend two religious services every Sunday, although they meant nothing to me but a waste of 1½ hours.

We occasionally get religious leaflets through our letterbox, and we occasionally get approaches from religious charities, but in general believers (who are numerous in Northern Ireland) keep a low profile and don't try to get us interested.

In fact I have no idea whether any of our immediate neighbours are religious or not, with one exception. The subject just never comes up.

As the school head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh says "A school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves. Schools should not be forced by one child and her mother to change its approach simply because they have decided they don't like something."

Friday 12 April 2024

Going private

Given that the waiting time for NHS surgery can now be several years, Jenny and I have decided that if either of us needed urgent surgery, we would have to do the unthinkable and opt to use a private hospital.

But one thing that bothers us about private surgery is that if anything goes horribly wrong, the hospital won't be able to deal with it (as most of them don't have intensive care units) and we'd have to be transferred to an NHS hospital. Which was easy enough a few years ago before the ambulance crisis, but now you may have to wait several hours for an ambulance, by which time you could be dead or much more seriously ill.

As we're both in fairly good physical health and have no problematic medical conditions, we assume that the chances of an unexpected medical emergency are pretty small, but even supposedly routine operations can lead to unforeseen mistakes and catastrophes.

Literally tens of thousands of people are dying because they're not getting prompt medical attention from the NHS. Ambulances are overwhelmed, A&E departments are overwhelmed, hospital wards are overwhelmed. We don't want to end up as another delayed-treatment statistic.

If either of us need urgent surgery, goodness knows what decision we'll make. All I know is that more and more people are going private because of the huge NHS waiting lists. They're willing to take risks in order to end chronic pain and get a normal life back.

Monday 8 April 2024

Pets and vets

 A lot of people are complaining about veterinary clinics, saying that they charge too much, don't always give a high-quality service, and are too keen to offer unnecessary scans and tests and procedures.

We don't have any pets, so we have no comment to make, but clearly a lot of pet-owners are far from happy.

A large number of previously independent veterinary clinics have been taken over by big corporations and hedge funds, whose only object it seems is to make as much money as possible out of pet-owners' distress and anxiety.

Ruth Armstrong's Labrador Blackmore had a seizure and she suspected it was time to put him to sleep. The vet advised further investigation - an MRI scan, blood tests and a metabolic check. The bill would be over £7000. Blackmore had more seizures and she and her husband opted simply to put him to sleep.

Ruth believes many owners would rather see pets relieved of their suffering than have vets throw everything at them to extend their lives a bit longer.

There's a veterinary clinic very near to us, the Earlswood Veterinary Clinic. It's owned by one of the big companies, IVC Evidensia, which owns 1074 veterinary practices in the UK. Predictably there's no price list on their website, which suggests they charge whatever they can.

I know some of my blogmates have pets, and I would be interested to hear what you think of your veterinary clinic. Are you happy or unhappy?

Thursday 4 April 2024

Warts and all

I'm quite happy with my appearance and I don't care what other people think about it. I don't care if they think I'm ugly or wrinkled or doddery or ancient-looking. They're not going to tell me how they see me anyway so why should it bother me?

As I see it I just look like a typical 77 year old bloke and I've no wish to look anything different. I certainly don't wish I looked 50 years younger, or looked like George Clooney, or looked like a body-builder.

Neither have I ever considered any kind of cosmetic surgery. Once you go down that road you can easily get hooked on it and end up trying one procedure after another - until you look totally artificial. And in any case I have a horror of operations.

But some elderly people hate the way they look and wish they looked young again, or wish they were wrinkle-free. They just can't accept the way they look as perfectly natural and normal and not worth obsessing about.

The way I look is less important to me than whether I'm physically and mentally healthy and able to enjoy life to the full - which I am.

I was never especially eye-catching even when I was young. I had very ordinary looks. I was never going to be pursued by bedazzled women or for that matter bedazzled men. That was something I missed out on, but I don't think I would have enjoyed that level of attention anyway.

I am what I am, warts and wrinkles and all.

Sunday 31 March 2024

Stuck in the mud

A friend said the other day that I was a bit of a stick in the mud, which rather bothered me until I realised there's nothing wrong with being a stick in the mud in itself. It all depends what you're a stick in the mud about.

I'm happy to be a stick in the mud if it means believing in things like politeness, friendliness, altruism*, democracy, the welfare state, and women's liberation. If you're a stick in the mud about banning immigration or keeping women in their place, that's a different matter.

We could do with a lot more of the high-minded stick-in-the-mud types, given how easily people now abandon any worthwhile principles in favour of bending the rules, breaking the law, lying their heads off and denigrating other people.

If the opposite of being stuck in the mud is being totally suggestible and going along with anything that's trendy and superficially appealing, then I'm very content to be a stick in the mud and true to my beliefs.

It's intriguing that now the phrase implies a personal failing - someone who deliberately resists change. That's not how it was used in the past. It implied someone who was unable to progress through no fault of their own - someone whose feet were stuck in soft clay.

*Now there's a word you don't hear often today - altruism. Meaning a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.