Saturday, 22 February 2020


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

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

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

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

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

Je ne regrette rien.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Remembering Nick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not otherwise.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Culture vultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The keyboard warriors should find some more deserving targets.

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

Pic: Jeanine Cummins

Monday, 10 February 2020

Trust eroded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 6 February 2020

New-look zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They deserve better than that.

Pic: meerkats at Belfast Zoo

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Viral panic

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

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

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

But irrational prejudice pops up in the most unlikely places.

Pic: An almost deserted Chinatown in London.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Itchy feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might even have trouble convincing myself.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Just be honest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why can't they just level with us?

PS: Good example: Prince Charles flew 125 miles by helicopter to make a speech about lowering aircraft emissions (02.02.20)

As a balance to my scathing review of Keith Richards, I would add that I love Annie Lennox, who seems far more talented and a much nicer person all round. Both her music and lyrics are a lot more interesting than the Stones'. "Diva", "Bare", and "Songs of Mass Destruction" are all brilliant albums. She also does masses of charity work for Amnesty International, Oxfam, the British Red Cross and the Burma Campaign among others. And surprise surprise, there's no misogyny.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

All about Keef

Having just finished Keith Richards' massive memoir "Life", I have to conclude he's a pretty unlikable character. He may be a brilliant musician, but the way he treats other people leaves a lot to be desired. I'm amazed at the self-indulgence and self-centredness and rampant misogyny.

He takes for granted that as a global celebrity he should be waited on hand and foot, and he doesn't seem very grateful for all that hidden support.

Domestic staff like cleaners, cooks and chauffeurs are barely mentioned, except the one occasion where the cook accidentally blows up the kitchen.

Women are mainly servants and sex objects, usually referred to as bitches, chicks, brassy matrons or groupies. He shags every woman who looks willing and relies on the groupies to keep him fed, do his washing and generally look after him.

He is (or was) a hardened druggie, who takes every substance going and regularly has to go cold turkey to keep himself fit enough to do the job. Considering he was almost permanently stoned, it's amazing how much of his life he actually remembers.

He says virtually nothing about his children (Marlon, Alexandra, Angela, Theodora and Tara*), as if he had little to do with them, but maybe he just didn't want them to have too much public attention. He mentions Marlon a few times, but clearly Marlon was mostly brought up by other people (and he really objected to his father's behaviour).

He obviously doesn't care that he's a role model for thousands of young males, many of whom will copy his selfish and irresponsible attitudes. As long as he's doing his hedonistic thing, that's all that matters. It's as if he's never grown out of the hippie lifestyle of the late nineteen sixties - sex, drugs and admiring chicks.

It would be interesting to know how his friends and acquaintances and staff see him and whether they think of him as a royal pain in the arse or a lovable rogue.

*Tara died aged two months - a cot death

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Balancing the books

I like indepen-dent bookshops. A lot have closed down because they just couldn't make ends meet, but others somehow soldier on year after year due to the sheer determination and ingenuity of the owners.

There's a great independent bookshop in Belfast called No Alibis. As the name suggests, it specialises in crime books, but it has a more general stock as well. Jenny and I dropped in a while back for a talk by the Australian crime writer Jane Harper.

There's also Keats and Chapman, a second-hand bookshop I'm embarrassed to say I've never checked out (well, it's a bit off the beaten track).

Lots of other people like independent bookshops too, and often come to the rescue if they're in danger of going under.

When John Westwood, who runs the Petersfield Bookshop in Hampshire, specialising in antique and second-hand books, found he hadn't sold a single book all day, one of his staff tweeted the worrying news, and in no time orders were flooding in from all over the world.

John was astonished. "We had someone call from Inverness [in Scotland], telling us they wanted to spend £10 on any book - they didn't care what, they just wanted to support us. Then we had a guy come in who told us he lived locally but had never visited before. His friend in San Francisco saw the tweet and told him he had to go in and buy something."

He has had to bring in extra volunteer staff to help deal with the backlog of hundreds and hundreds of orders.

"It's truly amazing. I think it really shows the passion people still feel for books. The feel of them, the smell of them. That can never be replaced by anything else."

So the shop started by John's father in 1958 has a new lease of life. And all thanks to the awesome power of Twitter.

Pic: John Westwood

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Just a snip

I go to the men's hairdresser about every two months. I get an extensive trim that takes five or ten minutes. The charge is £9.50 ($12.40) or £7.50 if I go for the special over-sixties rate - which I don't because I can well afford £9.50.

If a woman wants a similar cut, taking a similar five or ten minutes, at a woman's hairdresser, she'll be charged treble or quadruple the price. This is actually illegal but it's never been challenged in court so it continues. Many women are understandably annoyed at this sex-based difference.

If they do the obvious thing and ask a men's hairdresser to give them a short back and sides, they're usually told the business only caters for men. This is what actor Georgia Frost was told when she objected to paying the female rate.

"I pointed to the client [whose hair he was cutting] and said, I'm literally asking for this haircut you're doing now, and he just said No." She thinks the refusal is partly because a men's hairdresser is seen as a male sanctuary, and partly because of a belief about what a woman should look like. And maybe a touch of homophobia.

There are a few salons that offer sex-neutral pricing, such as Butchers and Cut UK, but they're still very rare.

What is urgently needed is a test case under the Equality Act to challenge the ongoing dual-pricing. It's not as if it's a negligible pound or two, it's a huge difference.

Of course if you're having colouring or highlights or extensions or some fancy hairdo, a high price reflects the work involved. But £30 or £40 for a few minutes' snipping and razoring? It's ridiculous.

PS: A female columnist on the Guardian says the cheapest price for a woman's haircut in her London neighbourhood is £53.

Pic: Georgia Frost

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Nosey parkers

As a non-parent, I'm grateful I've escaped all those unwanted criticisms that parents are confronted with. As if it isn't hard enough dealing with an unruly, angry child, unhelpful comments from others just add insult to injury.

In an American poll*, nearly two thirds of mothers said they felt they had been criticised for their parenting decisions, from their own family as much as from total strangers.

Discipline, sleep and diet were the topics that usually brought criticism, but anything was grist to the mill. I guess those who are long-time parents often feel entitled to criticise the supposed failings of new parents.

I don't criticise other people's behaviour, unless they're behaving especially badly. I don't even criticise people's table manners, something that gets a lot of people stewing.

And as a non-parent who has little idea of what parenting involves (apart from watching my own parents), and certainly not the day-after-day stress of living with volatile, self-centred, truculent youngsters, I wouldn't dare challenge a parent on his or her parenting skills.

So much of the criticism is a matter of opinion anyway. "Your children are being too noisy". "You should give him a good smack". "You're being too indulgent". "She's manipulating you". Mind your own business and shut the f--- up.

Looking back on my own childhood, I can see now that I must have been an absolute pain in the neck at times. I disagreed with my father on most things and I could be stubborn as a mule. Luckily he was a middle-class father who would think twice about clobbering me, however maddening I was being.

I have every sympathy for hard-pressed parents. However much you love your kids, there are times when they're simply utterly exhausting.

*A poll of 475 mothers of children under five by the C.S.Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Chasing beauty

I can't believe the amount of time and effort and money people spend on beautifying themselves. The beauty industry is worth hundreds of billions of pounds as people slap on the moisturisers, mascara and hair-dye and make furtive visits to the botox clinic or the plastic surgeon.

Personally I'm quite happy with my appearance. I have no beauty routine of any kind. I wash, wash my hair, shave, get dressed, that's it. I never tried to look like some fashionable male model or rock star*. I don't spend hours in front of the mirror wondering how to improve my looks. I have far more interesting things to do.

Women have always been told, one way or another, that their natural appearance isn't good enough and a vast range of beauty routines is needed to make them fit to be looked at and admired. Thorough depilation, skilful make-up, frequent hair-dos, flattering clothes - the list is endless.

It's not just women either. Plenty of men are now being sucked into the beauty game with their own lengthy requirements list. Thin and muscular, a full head of hair, no man-boobs, perfect skin. They're just as likely to be hogging the bathroom mirror first thing in the morning, hard at work with the eye-bag concealer.

I must say all this beautifying leaves me cold. I've always been drawn to natural-looking women, who to my mind look fine just as they are. Women with fancy hair-dos, thick make-up and skin-tight dresses look more like drag queens.

And the quest for a perfect body leads to all sorts of mental and emotional problems. The number of men and women being treated for eating disorders is rising rapidly. So too is the number of girls wanting to be boys because of the relentless pressure on girls to be physically flawless.

The frantic pursuit of unattainable beauty leaves a lot of casualties in its wake.

*except for a brief John Lennon period when I had long hair and a beard.

PS: Hair dye can be toxic. Actor Keira Knightley revealed that she now wears wigs in her films as constant hair-dyeing caused her hair to start falling out.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Still here

When I was young, I was quite certain I'd die before I was thirty. I was sure I'd be gone long before I got wrinkles, crows' feet, arthritis, dodgy eyesight and all the other attributes of old age. I'd be a victim of some freak accident or illness that would finish me off.

There was no good reason for this irrational belief. I wasn't addicted to drugs or alcohol. I didn't have a life-threatening disease. I wasn't doing a dangerous job. I wasn't a reckless driver. I was perfectly healthy. Yet I was convinced I didn't have long for this world.

I think I secretly liked the idea of dying in my prime. A tragic and romantic end to a promising life. A prodigious talent snuffed out far too early. Well, in my case, not quite a prodigious talent, more like a few vague and useless abilities.

And now here I am at the age of 72, still very much alive, still perfectly healthy and set to live another decade or two. Jenny is sure I'll live to 100 at least. How did that happen? What guardian angel is keeping an eye on me?

I've lived to see Boris Johnson, the internet, the obesity epidemic, peace in Northern Ireland, Taylor Swift, climate collapse, ripped jeans and bankrupt banks. I've seen every grisly and brutal thing human beings are capable of. I've been round the block a few times, as they say.

I must say I don't feel as if I'm 72. I feel that a seventy something should be an enormous repository of wisdom, an expert on every subject, in which case I'm sadly lacking as I still seem to have the skimpy and unreliable knowledge of a thirty year old. Anyone coming to see me for some brilliant advice on their latest life crisis would be sadly disappointed. I can just about change a light bulb.

I'm still waiting for the prodigious talent to kick in.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Frocks and heels

For some time now drag queens have been highly controversial. When men imitate women as entertainment, is it just a harmless bit of mock-femininity, or is it barely-disguised misogyny?

I'm ambivalent about drag myself. I see the arguments on both sides, but then I've never been to any drag shows, so the only examples I'm familiar with are pantomime dames like Widow Twankey or the odd female impersonator on TV or in movies (like Tootsie).

Of course as family viewing they would have been carefully sanitized and free of any overt misogyny or nastiness.

Personally I'm not convinced the world of drag is riddled with misogyny. In some cases maybe, but not as a general rule. I think most of it is the harmless fun they make it out to be. It amuses me to see men decked out in absurdly over-the-top hair-dos, gigantic bosoms in ultra-tight dresses, and precarious five-inch heels. I don't see how that's insulting to women. It seems to me they're just playing around with female stereotypes. Or am I missing something?

I was fascinated by drag queens as a kid. The family always went to a Christmas pantomime and I would be chuckling at the sight of Widow Twankey in Aladdin or the cook in Dick Whittington.

I love Grayson Perry's pottery and art work. I also love his alter ego, the flamboyantly-dressed Claire, and so it seems do plenty of women. What's not to like about his crazy dresses and footwear (and his teddy bear Alan Measles)?

If a man wants to put on a dress or prance around in high heels, why not? After all, male clothing is so dull and boring, why not jazz it up a little?

I can't see the harm. But I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise.

Pic: Grayson Perry, alias Claire

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Crowded out

It seems that tourism is being rapidly ruined by a number of fashionable trends that are turning once quiet and peaceful locations into an over-crowded nightmare of idling coaches, massive queues and selfie-mania.

Firstly youngsters are latching onto the "30 before 30" game, which as it suggests means visiting 30 countries before the age of 30. At the same time oldies are working through bucket lists with a long tally of never-visited countries.

Secondly people are travelling simply to look well-travelled, heading for desirable countries and then posting selfies from all the iconic spots to trump other people's selfies with their own far superior shots.

I'm baffled by all this. I visit other countries because they look like interesting places, not out of some competitive urge to outdo my friends and acquaintances and prove how cosmopolitan and up-to-the-minute I am.

The alarming result of this one-upmanship is that all the well-known tourist locations are being swamped and are having to limit the numbers with restrictions of one kind or another. And what should have been an enjoyable experience becomes a miserable one as tourists jostle each other for the best view and the best selfie.

Social media is partly to blame. People jet off to somewhere they've seen idyllic photos of on Facebook or Instagram, only to find that hundreds of other people had the same idea and are queuing up to get their two minutes in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Venus de Milo.

I guess Jenny and I are lucky to have seen a lot of famous locations while they were still relatively under-visited and not the over-run tourist traps they've now become.

And we've got selfies to prove it.

PS: Even Chernobyl is now suffering from over-tourism, with people taking selfies in the famous control room, where radiation can be 40,000 times higher than normal levels.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Girl friends

I didn't have that many serious relation-ships before I met Jenny, and they only lasted a few months or even weeks. It wouldn't take long for one of us to become disenchanted with the other and call it a day. I was very picky about who I dated and the women likewise.
  • There was Sue, my very first girl friend, a trainee solicitor who had a mental breakdown after completing her exams and stopped dating.
  • There was Gill, a religious Tory supporter, who was great fun but we finally fell out over politics.
  • There was Caroline, a go-getter and reckless driver who got bored with my laid-back-ness.
  • There was Pamela, who I dropped because she was oddly submissive and deferential to men (I always preferred assertive women).
  • There was Maggie, scatty and accident-prone, who I ruthlessly abandoned after falling for Trish at a party.
  • There was Grethe, a single mum with a truculent son, who I stopped seeing because her highly-stressed chain-smoking was only fuelling my own anxieties.
  • There was Rosie, who took a fancy to me when she was fighting with her existing boy friend, but then made it up with him.
  • And of course there was Trish, a freewheeling sixties flower child. We lived together for about six months before I decided we were incompatible and abruptly pulled the plug. That's something that bugs me to this day. I have no idea what I meant by incompatible. As far as I remember we got on very well. Maybe it was just the masculine fear of commitment.
There were lots of women I lusted after along the way, but they showed not a flicker of interest in return. Hardly surprising since I was never a dazzling Mr Beefcake, more a pigeon-chested Mr Average. I've posted before about my obsession with Gina, who I was besotted with but who always politely rebuffed me.

Then in 1981 I met Jenny. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

A nurse's story

When I was in hospital for my prostate operation in 2017, I was aware of how busy the nurses were, scurrying from one patient to another checking their vital signs, keeping an eye on whatever equipment they were plugged into, giving them help of one kind or another. But I didn't know the half of it.

A book by the former nurse Christie Watson* reveals the reality of a nurse's job and just how demanding and meticulous and scary and messy it can be. I can only admire those resilient souls who take on such a difficult job and do it so well.
  • They have to clean up shit, piss, vomit, diarrhoea, blood and all sorts of foul liquids that a sick patient produces.
  • They have to give patients the right medicine, at the right dosage, in the right way, at the right time. One tiny slip can lead to a major emergency or even death.
  • They may work very long shifts (often night shifts) of 12 hours or more with barely time to eat or use the toilet, such is the relentless pressure.
  • They have to be familiar with hundreds of common or less common medical conditions and how each is treated.
  • They need to be alert to the smallest change in a patient's condition that means urgent action is needed.
It's not a job for dawdlers or the faint-hearted. They do it for the satisfaction of helping very sick people become fit and healthy again, and seeing pain and terror and misery replaced by smiling, grateful faces. They want to do a job that really means something, not just a pen-pushing office job.

Quite a few nurses don't last the course. Sooner or late they realise they're not up to the unremitting demands and responsibilities of the job and they quit.

Jenny was a nurse for a while. My sister Heather was a nurse for a while. My niece Lucy has just qualified as a Registered Nurse and I applaud her for it. I think of all the pain and suffering she will relieve and the many hundreds of lives she will save.

*The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Story by Christie Watson

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

First and foremost

I was reading about first time experi-ences, which got me thinking about my own most memorable first times. There are quite a few. In fact most first times are memorable for one reason or another.

My first day at work in a local newspaper office is hard to forget. Firstly because at that time smoking wasn't banned in offices and half the staff smoked like chimneys. The fug was so thick I could scarcely breathe and I seriously thought of resigning. Secondly half the reporters were women and after my single-sex education they seemed like an alien species. It took me a while to get used to them!

My first sexual experience was a bit disastrous because my then girlfriend Trish insisted on sex even though she was menstruating. By the time we finished there was blood all over the place. Luckily I left the rented flat before the landlord discovered the mess. It looked like a major crime scene.

My first trip abroad was with my sister and parents to Paris. I remember accidentally locking myself out of my hotel room and trying to explain to one of the staff what had happened in my very poor French. I was so mortified I just wanted to fall through the floor.

The first house I owned (with Jenny) felt like a huge responsibility after living in flats for so many years. When we first moved in I was very nervous something awful would happen - the roof leaking, the chimney collapsing*, the boiler exploding, you name it. After a few weeks of uneventful occupation, I wondered why I'd been so jittery.

Some first times escape me - like my first taste of alcohol, my first hangover, my first day at school, my first driving lesson. Clearly they weren't very memorable. Or else I've buried the memories because they're far too embarrassing to revisit.

* In my first childhood home, the chimney did in fact collapse, seconds after I'd walked past it. A few seconds later and I would have been under a heap of rubble.

Friday, 6 December 2019

On their own

At this time of year there are plenty of media articles about joyful family Christ-mases, with granny and grandpa knocking back the whisky, kids playing with their new toys, and parents happily serving the turkey and sprouts.

There's not much mention of the folk who'll be on their own at Christmas, all too conscious of the festivities going on around them and wishing they were included. It may be only one day, but when you're feeling left out, it can seem a lot longer.

Of course there may be a good reason why they're on their own. Maybe they have the sort of personalities that drive others away. Maybe their relatives live on the other side of the world. Maybe they can't stand their family and want to avoid them. But whatever the reason, it can be a miserable day for some.

When I was living on my own in London, I often spent Christmas by myself, but I didn't feel lonely. I would settle down with a good book, go for a long walk on Hampstead Heath, and work my way through a packet of mince pies. One Christmas I read The Gulag Archipelago, a strange choice for Christmas I know, but it was horribly riveting.

As I've said before, I don't often feel disconnected from other people. I feel very connected to all those with similar passions and interests - especially art, music, books and films - so the lack of connection with particular individuals doesn't bother me. If I'm in an art gallery surrounded by other people, I feel completely at home even if I don't know a single soul. In fact if someone starts talking to me, I might very well shoo them away!

But it's a shame the huge emphasis on Christmas as a rowdy, gregarious get-together only makes the lonely feel even lonelier.