Monday, 19 April 2021

Driven out

For some years now there have been angry complaints from people in more desirable parts of the country that their children are being driven out of the area by wealthy incomers pushing up property prices to levels the locals can no longer afford.

Politicians are taking all sorts of counter-measures but none of them seem to have much effect, and the proliferation of expensive second homes and holiday homes in attractive areas continues apace.

It seems to me that as long as outsiders can afford hefty prices for local homes, and as long as residents can enjoy a large profit by selling up, the trend to "colonise" picturesque villages and towns - and appealing parts of cities - can only continue.

I think the politicians who are trying to turn back the tide are onto a losing battle, but they're reluctant to make the obvious suggestion - that if the locals can no longer afford the rocketing house prices, then there's actually nothing wrong with moving some place where property is cheaper.

After all, that's what Jenny and I did, and it's worked out very well for us. We gave up on Islington, one of the most expensive parts of London, because we couldn't afford to move from a flat to a house. We sold our flat and left for Belfast, where we were able to buy a semi-detached house for cash, with plenty of money left over.

A lot of Londoners defeated by the property prices are now heading for cheaper cities and towns where not only are houses affordable but the quality of life is better - less congestion, a slower pace, friendlier people and lots of nearby beauty spots. Often they wonder why they didn't make the move much earlier.

Being driven out could be a blessing in disguise.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

A bit on the side

Adultery is something that always puzzles me. Most people these days are so busy with one thing or another, I wonder how on earth they find the time to have a second relationship on top of their existing one.

I also wonder how they endure the stress of constantly keeping the other relationship secret and preventing their regular partner from getting suspicious.

And what about the extra expense, if you're barely solvent as it is? The hotel rooms, the restaurant meals, the travelling around, the presents.

I've never had any desire for a clandestine affair. Not just because I'm very happy with my existing partner but because I'm a fairly straightforward person and deceit and subterfuge doesn't come naturally.

When you're putting all your effort into maintaining a long-standing relationship, surely putting a similar effort into a bit on the side must be totally exhausting?

But it seems to be amazingly common. You can't open a newspaper without reading about someone's affair. Or some randy Don Juan who's had one affair after another for decades.

What's also intriguing is the very different attitudes of the person who's been cheated on. Some go completely crazy, physically attacking their partner, destroying their clothes or possessions, even walking out. But others shrug their shoulders and accept that their partners will never be faithful so they may as well get used to it.

I've never been tempted into infidelity. There was a woman once I was strongly attracted to, but I quickly decided that the damage it could do was simply not worth a bit of furtive and possibly disappointing sex. In any case, she was much younger than me and wouldn't have been remotely interested.

A bit on the side? Not for me, thanks.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Feeling frugal

Frugality runs in my family. We all have a tendency to spend money sensibly and sparingly. We're not the sort to go on wild gambling sprees or buy luxury cars or go on round-the-world cruises.

Whatever I'm buying, I'll always look for a bargain. I steer away from designer clothes with absurdly high price tags. I don't buy fashionable clothes that will probably be out of fashion in six months' time. I don't buy fancy expensive furniture that was recommended in some magazine.

Of course there are some exceptions. I'll pay over the odds for a high-quality pair of shoes. I'll shell out a hefty sum for a foreign holiday. I'll dig deep for a really wonderful original painting.

But on the whole I don't splash my money around. I'm not an impulse buyer and I shop strictly for what I want. I don't go in for retail therapy and I don't go in for flashy purchases like jewellery or mountain bikes or upmarket sound systems. My needs are modest.

My mum always prided herself on her frugality, which got more extreme as she got older. She couldn't resist a special offer at the supermarket, or a cut-price holiday deal, or a dirt-cheap winter jacket. Her frugality was a bit of an illusion though, as she was also a hoarder and had bought so many "bargains" that her flat was completely stuffed with them.

But whenever I saw her, she would always tell me gleefully of her latest bit of penny-pinching, and how on-the-ball she had been. All of which was totally unnecessary because she was very well-off, but liked to prove she was a canny shopper who was never conned into wasting money.

I think any sign of luxury actually horrified her.

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For those of you who've read about the Northern Ireland rioting and might be wondering if Jenny and I are safe, yes we're perfectly safe. The mayhem in west Belfast doesn't affect us because we live seven miles away in east Belfast. So worry not!

Monday, 5 April 2021

Fait accompli

Every so often someone makes the headlines by complaining that too many foreign words are making their way into English, and this has to stop. They give the impression that if this tendency goes on, there won't be any English language left. It will have been replaced by all the foreignisms.

American imports get a lot of the blame - words like cookie, closet, movie, apartment, campus, fries, soccer, mailbox. But other languages have given us plenty of words as well. Croissant from French. Delicatessen from German. Glitch from Yiddish. Macho from Spanish. Karaoke from Japanese. Gung-ho from Chinese. Moped from Swedish. Paparazzi from Italian. In other words, English is being infiltrated by other languages non-stop.

So why is this a problem? There seems to be some idea of linguistic purity - some mysterious essence of English - which is being corrupted by all these foreign intruders. They're turning our rich and sophisticated language into some second-rate and polluted language that's embarrassing to use.

What a load of nonsense. Words derived from other languages are constantly enriching and enhancing English. Without them our language would be static and stale and would gradually wither. New and unfamiliar words are fun to decipher and adapt to. And of course they're fun to try out on people who've never heard them.

In any case, what about all those English words that find their way into other countries' languages? I daresay those people who object to the pollution of English are quite happy to pollute other languages with our own linguistic migrants.

I suspect that the wholesale invasion of English by other languages is not a faux pas but simply a fait accompli.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

War mongering

Journalists are always trying to stoke up a supposed generation war - young people hate the old and vice versa - whereas in reality young and old may get on very well and sympathise with each other's problems.

An article in the Independent claims that "the generation wars seem worse than ever" and "the debate is becoming more toxic". Really? Where's the evidence, apart from a load of dubious anecdotes and stereotypes?

Most families include people of different ages and different generations. Are they all at loggerheads, constantly fuming and accusing each other of heinous offences? No, of course they aren't.

Some people get on well, some don't. That's all there is to it. I wasn't at war with my mother or my grandparents or my aunts and uncles. We may not have had the same opinions or attitudes but we rubbed along okay. I was estranged from my father for 20 years but that was exceptional.

Yes, some young people accuse us oldies of making their lives worse while we enjoy the fruits of much better lives. Yes, some oldies accuse young people of knowing it all despite their limited experience of the world.

Most of us take people as we find them however and don't trot out such one-sided stereotypes.

There's a natural tendency though for each generation to think they know better than any other generation - the young because they see us oldies as hopelessly out of touch with the modern world, oldies because we have so much more experience of the problems that life throws up, and the middle-aged because they're in the midst of so many situations the young haven't yet encountered and the oldies have forgotten about - like parenting or running a business.

Bu it takes more than self-righteousness to make a war.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Flag mania

National flags seem to divide people quite dramatically. Some people love them and display them at every opportunity to show how much they love their country. Others loathe them and find their display irritating and unnecessary. Others are simply indifferent to them.

The British government has taken to displaying the union flag at every media briefing. They're also stipulating that every government office must fly the union flag not just on special occasions but every day of the year.

One Tory MP has even criticised the BBC's Annual Report for not including the union flag and said the flag should appear several times. Other Tory MPs have suggested the BBC is ashamed of its British links.

It seems shocking to me that there's so much fuss over the national flag when other important issues like poverty and homelessness never get the attention they deserve.

Quite honestly I don't understand why the union flag needs to be publicly displayed at all. If you're patriotic and proud of your country, isn't that enough? Why the need for flags?

And it's beyond ridiculous when people declare that if you don't like flying the flag then you're unpatriotic or even some kind of traitor to your native land.

I've no objection to flags in general. If people want to fly a gay pride flag or a Thank You NHS flag or a Green Party flag, good luck to them. They may ruffle a few feathers but they don't arouse the violent tribal passions the union flag is now burdened with.

Incidentally, the union jack isn't even recognised in law as the national flag. It has become so purely through custom and practice. Unfortunately custom and practice has also led to a jingoistic intolerance of flag sceptics like myself.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The gift of privacy


It's easy to take privacy, and all that goes with it, for granted. It seems like an absolutely routine thing, but millions of people around the world have little or no privacy. People in refugee camps, in shanty towns, in boarding schools, in large families crammed into tiny flats.

I take for granted that I live in a large house with one other person, and any time I like I can hide away in one of the rooms and do my own thing. I can swear for half an hour or watch kittens on Youtube or stuff myself with chocolate. I can read a book for as long as I fancy without interruptions. I can think interesting thoughts without someone badgering me.

It gives me a degree of freedom that a lot of people don't have. When I'm on my own, I don't have to worry what other people think of me, whether my behaviour is "appropriate", or what's expected from me. I can do what I like without the obligations that come with constant company.

But many people don't enjoy that advantage. If they're always surrounded by other people, they have to keep adjusting to what those people demand, which they may or may not be comfortable with.

During my five years at boarding school. there was no way of escaping the other boys or avoiding their endless scrutiny. At times it could be embarrassing or even humiliating. I couldn't wait for Sundays, when we were allowed an hour of privacy to do whatever we wanted. When I left school and was no longer being watched every minute of the day, I went a little mad with the sudden sense of personal freedom.

Privacy is a luxury. It's something many people can only dream of.

NB: Of course I'm referring to physical privacy rather than data privacy, which is a whole different subject.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Speaking up

"It's time for men to speak up" is the plea from many women after the murder of Sarah Everard. Okay, so I'll speak up.

I like to think that in general I've always treated women fairly well, unlike the large number of men who see women as second-class citizens to be exploited and abused. I never ever saw women as second-class but always as my equals.

I guess that whether you treat women well or badly largely depends on what sort of boys and men you've happened to mix with in your life, something that's pretty unpredictable.

Looking back over the years, I remember very few boys or men who've voiced consistently derogatory attitudes towards women. Nothing more than the odd sexist remark from some pig-headed male, which was easily squashed.

Even at my single-sex boarding school, there was never any misogynistic culture. In fact women were barely mentioned. The latest Beatles or Elvis record were much hotter topics.

Fortunately I've been in workplaces where women were treated as equals and given the same opportunities as men - like newspaper offices, bookshops and charities. It was never suggested women should do the shitty jobs while men cornered the enjoyable ones.

There have been times when I've treated women carelessly, like the way I abruptly split up with a girlfriend in my early twenties. But that's a rare occurrence.

I thank my lucky stars I've never been swept into the sort of virulently women-hating culture that produces men like Sarah Everard's killer. Men who think it's normal to harass, stalk and generally prey on vulnerable women.

Yes, it's time for men to speak up. It's also time for boys' education and upbringing to make it clear that treating women as a lesser species is simply unacceptable in the 21st century.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Scary world

I'm finding that the virus lockdown has had the unexpected effect of making the outside world seem a lot nastier and scarier, and I've realised why that is. It's to do with my limited exposure to the outside world and the things I would normally do.

My knowledge of the outside world now comes mainly from the media, with its endless alarming headlines about one thing or another - male violence, civil wars, Brexit chaos, earthquakes, floods and all the rest.

Normally I would be going to places where I'm mingling with lots of other people - cinemas, art galleries, bookshops, cultural events, restaurants, coffee shops. All those people would be generally friendly, helpful, chatty, easy-going. None of them would be doing anything alarming or violent. They would be constantly reassuring me that the outside world is full of decent, sensible people, a quite different impression from the one painted by the media's shrieking headlines.

The guy in the coffee shop stroking his dog. The woman in the bookshop shelving new books. Restaurant diners laughing and sipping wine. The gallery attendant asking me what I thought of a certain artwork. All a strong antidote to the shocking things that are forever unfolding on the news bulletins.

I have to remind myself that the media presents a very slanted and distorted view of the world that doesn't reflect people's everyday experience. When I walk down the street* I'm not going to be accosted by drug dealers or mown down by guerilla fighters. I might just be accosted by someone asking for directions. Otherwise I can simply go about my business in the usual way.

I need a reality check. I need to do a bit more mingling.

*I realise that walking down the street is a very different experience for women, as the murder of Sarah Everard has reminded us yet again.

Pic: Our favourite local restaurant

Friday, 12 March 2021

Should I vent?

There's a general assumption that it's healthier to vent your emotions as much as possible, and that suppressing them is bad for you. You shouldn't "bottle it all up" or "keep things to yourself", you should let it all out - no matter how startling or awkward it might be to others.

But is such openness as healthy as it's said to be? Is it really a good idea to be seething with rage or collapsing in tears or voicing jealousy and hatred? Does that actually make you happier or calmer or better at coping with life?

Of course I would ask that, wouldn't I, as someone who tends to be emotionally restrained and not publicly displaying my feelings for all to see. But I'm not convinced laying it all on the line would be helpful.

I once had a workmate called Helen who was permanently angry. Just about anything would set her off, and all day she'd be raging about one thing or another. I couldn't see that being at constant boiling point did her any good. She just looked perpetually frazzled and worn down.

I had another workmate called Pat who felt forever cheated and swindled, complaining ceaselessly about all the awful things that had happened to her, all the ways she'd been mistreated and taken advantage of. It may have been largely true, but even if the rest of us were sympathetic, it was exhausting listening to this depressing litany all day. And it clearly didn't help her to be so habitually overwrought.

Am I somehow depleted by being only sparingly emotional? Would it do me good to give my emotions free rein? Would I enjoy spluttering with anger or seething with jealousy? Somehow I doubt it. I'm quite happy the way I am.

Monday, 8 March 2021

Unhappy families

It gradually dawned on me as I got older that there are very few genuinely happy families, and that most families have to contend with conflicts and tensions of one kind or another.

Despite the tensions in my own family, I grew up assuming most families were happy - loving mums and dads tenderly nurturing their cherished offspring, any occasional spats quickly smoothed over and blissful harmony restored.

It didn't help that so many of the children's stories I read were about perfect families who always "lived happily ever after".

As the years went by, I slowly realised that many families aren't as happy as they make out, and that in private heated rows might be the norm. Clashing personalities, political differences, disputes over parenting, squabbles over housework, womanising husbands. A hundred things to disrupt the precarious goodwill.

It's still the convention that families present a united front to the rest of the world and not "air their dirty linen in public". Even if the family is being torn apart, they should pretend there's nothing amiss except the odd good-natured tiff.

But as we can see at the moment, families from the Royal Family downwards can have their troubles. Clearly there's no love lost between the Queen and Meghan Markle.

At least warring couples are now less likely to stay together "for the sake of the children". They've realised children exposed to constant bad feeling and sniping can end up more disturbed than children of couples who've split up.

But it's very embarrassing when you're visiting a married couple and it's immediately apparent there's some simmering hostility between them. The atmosphere is so uncomfortable it's a relief to wind up the evening and depart.

So how about Jenny and me, I hear you ask. Well, obviously we're the happiest of all happy couples. How could we not be?

Thursday, 4 March 2021

A sad decline

Dementia is a cruel and distressing illness. Cruel and distressing both to the victims and to their family and friends who have to watch their gradual mental decline but can do nothing to reverse it.

Both Jenny's parents developed dementia before their death, and so did my mother. My father died of lung cancer at the age of 70, but if he had lived longer, who knows, he might also have succumbed to dementia.

It still haunts me, almost three years after my mother's death, that she slowly deteriorated from a bright and lively woman to someone who barely knew where she was or what she was doing.

She seemed to have forgotten most of her life, and any question I put to her would prompt nothing but a vague smile. She wasn't capable of a coherent conversation and showed no interest in my own life. It was if I was talking to a total stranger, and one who had withdrawn into some remote corner of her mind that was inaccessible to anyone else.

I felt helpless and demoralised, knowing there was nothing I could do to wind back the illness, nothing I could to reawaken the vibrant woman I had once known. I could only watch sadly as her mind crumbled.

Naturally I look for signs that I might be developing dementia myself, but so far things seem to be okay. I may have a terrible memory, but I gather there's no established link between existing poor memory and dementia. Some very smart people with excellent memories, like Harold Wilson and Iris Murdoch, were struck down just the same.

It must be dreadful to be aware your mind is going but you can do nothing to restore it. It's a horrible way to go.

Pic: not my mum!

Sunday, 28 February 2021

An air of authority

Strange things, uniforms. Good in some ways, not so good in others. Some people like wearing them, some don't. What difference would it make if they were abolished tomorrow?

I was fortunate to do jobs that didn't require a uniform - things like bookselling, journalism, admin, charity work. I've only owned one suit in my entire life, when I was a journalist, and I can't remember now if it was obligatory or I just wanted to be a snappy dresser.

Both my schools had uniforms, and I can't remember having any opinion of them one way or the other, apart from feeling smarter than the other kids in the street. I didn't yearn for something more fashionable, as I was never interested in fashion.

I suppose the advantage of uniforms is that they can give you an air of authority and expertise. And of course you don't have to agonise over what you're going to wear today. The decision has been made for you.

The disadvantage is that some people are hostile to anyone in a uniform, equating a uniform with officialdom, bossiness and condescension. They'll have a go at paramedics, nurses, police officers or even cabin crew.

I'm not keen on those workplace dress codes that are effectively uniforms - short skirts, high heels and make-up for women, or suits, plain shirts and ties for men. The idea is that they look more "professional" but personally I couldn't care less if a woman's skirt is long or short, I just want to know if they're good at the job.

Supposedly a lot of men go weak at the knees at the sight of a nurse's uniform. I can't say I've ever had that reaction. Dazzling intelligence is far more likely to put me in a spin. Or dazzling achievement. Or just a zest for life. With or without a uniform.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Fizzing with rage

I'm not easily offended, so I'm often astonished at how easily other people take offence at things that seem to me quite trivial.

Am I very resilient, very thick-skinned, and very self-confident, or am I just totally insensitive and unable to understand why other people feel so hurt and upset by something?

If you wear something associated with another culture, this is "cultural appropriation". If you don't agree that trans women are women, this is "transphobia". If you criticise female circumcision or honour killings, this is "disrespecting other cultures". If you don't accept someone else's version of reality, this could be a "hate crime".

There are no doubt plenty of people who would chastise me for being middle-class, for being privileged, for being well-off, for sounding posh, for being complacent, and so on, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. I'm certainly not going to fizz with rage and demand grovelling apologies. People are entitled to their opinion, even if I think they've got me all wrong.

Obviously some remarks really are offensive - condemning homosexuality as an "unnatural perversion" or describing women as "crazy and hysterical". But other remarks are more tactless or tasteless or stupid than offensive. Getting worked-up over every stupid remark is a pointless waste of breath.

In a society that values freedom of speech, of course some people are going to say things that upset others. Yes, they might be offended for a while, but it's hardly the end of the world. If they stop to reflect, they might even see some truth in whatever's being said.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." - Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Thursday, 18 February 2021

In your dreams

Dreams are very mysterious. In general they have no obvious meaning or advice for us, yet we get dozens of them every night. What for? Why don't we just sleep soundly with no dreams whatever?

My dreams are mostly anxiety dreams. I'm lost somewhere and trying to find my way home. Or someone sinister is chasing me through an empty building. Or I'm at a dinner party and have no idea who the other people are or what to say to them.

All my dreams tell me is that I'm an anxious person, which I know only too well. Why remind me of the self-evident? Why don't I have dreams telling me how to banish anxiety? Or even dreams that say my brain is right now deleting all my anxieties?

Psychologists have puzzled over the meaning of dreams for centuries and no doubt will keep doing so, and will keep drawing a blank. Many therapists are convinced dreams have plenty of meaning if you just interpret them in the right way, but I haven't found that myself. However I interpret my dreams, whatever I imagine they're telling me in some coded form, I usually end up none the wiser.

I hardly ever dream of people I know. If I did they might suggest something interesting about that person - that they're creepy or crazy or cranky. Even people I worked with for many years, even family members, even famous public figures, never appear. One supposedly common dream is to be meeting the Queen, but I must disappoint Her Majesty on that score.

Another apparently common dream is to find yourself naked in a public place, but I have to say that wherever I happen to be, I'm always fully clothed. Clearly whatever mechanism controls my dreams, it believes in public decency.

But I'm still waiting for a dream where I'm bursting with self-confidence and optimism, and anxiety is a thing of the past.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Good riddance

It's a great relief that my advanced age means all the awkward and embarr-assing things I had to do as a youngster are now well behind me and I'll never be subjected to them again. To name but a few:

  • Obeying my parents. Or furtively disobeying them, doing what I wanted to do anyway and making sure they didn't find out.
  • Dating. All those nerve-racking encounters with complete strangers, all those clumsy conversations and inept questioning.
  • Losing my virginity. All in all a rather gauche and fumbling experience, trying not to make a complete fool of myself.
  • Trying to look handsome/dashing/virile etc. Nowadays my only aim is to be not quite as wrinkled and flabby as other seventy somethings.
  • My first day at school. I've forgotten it, but it must have been quite an ordeal for a young boy who wasn't sure what to expect.
  • My first day at work. Wondering what I was supposed to be doing and almost suffocating in the dense cigarette smoke.
  • Going on strike. Necessary as it was, other people's lack of interest in our grievances was disconcerting.
  • Getting on the property ladder. Desperately trying to get enough money together to buy a flat and escape greedy landlords.
  • Learning to drive. Always scared I would do something wrong and smash into a line of very expensive parked cars.
  • Playing football/cricket/rugby. As I was obliged to do at school, utterly indifferent to all of them and hating every minute.
Who'd want to be young again? Who'd want to go through all those things a second time? Not me, for sure.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Costly nosiness

How much privacy are spouses entitled to when it comes to personal information about their financial transactions? Are they entitled to keep it secret or should they be more transparent?

Suspecting her husband of infidelity, Karen Santi opened one of his paper bank statements, read messages on his computer, and sent some of the information to a financial advisor.

It seems she didn't find any evidence of an affair, and her furious husband Lawrence retaliated by seeking a court non-disclosure order to stop her passing the information to anyone else.

The divorce case is continuing, but meanwhile Mrs Santi has been told to pay £54,000 of her husband's £90,000 legal costs, a sum she says will "wipe out her liquid assets".

She maintained that looking at the confidential information of the other in the context of a marriage breakdown was understandable.

Well, this situation would never arise for me and Jenny, because all our financial transactions are on joint accounts and neither of us have individual accounts. Whatever one of us spends is immediately visible to the other.

I can see the £100 she paid for that fancy handbag and she can see the £100 I spent on Calvin Klein underpants (just kidding).

So if one of us was shagging someone else, it would be obvious pretty quickly - that unexplained hotel bill or that purchase from Posh Frocks.

But if we had separate accounts, would I feel justified in having a furtive peek at my spouse's bank statements? If I suspected a clandestine affair, maybe I would. But I'd be more cunning about it and not leave any traces of my nosiness.

Not that either of us has any hankering for affairs. We have much more interesting and guilt-free ways of enjoying ourselves.

Karen Santi is paying a high price for her suspicions.

Pic: Karen Santi

Saturday, 6 February 2021

A nice cuppa

Molly Chesney from Newark in Nottinghamshire, who's 48, claims she's never had a cup of tea in her life. Yes, she's tried a few herbal teas, but never an ordinary cuppa. She says just seeing it and smelling it puts her right off.

I must say it's hard to believe. Not a single cup of tea in 48 years? Surely she's pulling our legs?

But apparently it's not unusual. Quite a few people are revolted by tea and won't drink it. No doubt their friends try to persuade them it's delicious, but they don't get very far.

Personally I can't get enough of the stuff, and neither can Jenny. We drink at least six or seven cups a day each. It would be more if it wasn't for our two cups of coffee in the morning.

We don't drink much else in fact. No beer, no Coca-Cola, no fizzy drinks, no energy drinks. Maybe a glass of wine in the evening, that's it.

When we're staying in a hotel, with the usual stingy allotment of teabags per room (about four), the first thing we do is buy a large packet of teabags to allow us our customary daily quota.

Too much tea is said to be bad for you - you're liable to suffer headaches, anxiety, indigestion and insomnia. That may apply to others, but Jenny and I have never been afflicted.

The ex-Labour Cabinet Minister, Tony Benn, was renowned for his love of tea. He would drink it from massive mugs, claiming once that he drank a pint of tea every hour. Clearly it didn't do him any harm, as he was 88 when he died.

"I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea" - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Enough already

I like novels that focus on one or two characters and explore their lives and personal-ities in great detail. I get to know them so well they become extremely vivid, almost flesh and blood, and I can really get to love them or hate them.

Novels with too many characters drive me nuts. Firstly I can't keep track of them and I have to keep reminding myself who is who, who's related to who, who's shagging who, who does what job, who died, who has a nasty illness, and so on till I'm thoroughly confused. It doesn't help that I have a memory like a sieve and will forget the character on page 51 once I'm on page 52.

Secondly, when there are so many characters you never get to know them in any depth. They flit in and out and often are little more than shallow caricatures. You know the sort of thing - Jim the controlling husband, Karen the timid wife and their two children, truculent Simon and well-behaved Tessa.

And once they become caricatures, it's hard to tell them apart. Is this uncle one, uncle two or uncle three? They're all grumpy, opinionated and doddery. Which is which?

So why do authors flood their books with so many characters? One author, Anne R Allen, confesses: "One of my personal writing issues is I tend to pack my books and stories with way too many characters. If a fascinating person walks into one of my stories, I feel it would be rude not to let them join the party. This drives my editors batty. They think confusing the reader is worse than being rude to fictional people. And of course they're right."

Right now I'm re-reading Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood. I love it precisely because it centres on one person - Rennie - and tells you more and more about her.

Rennie sticks in my mind. Not so, uncle three.

Friday, 29 January 2021

Future shock

I always say I'd love to know exactly what the future will bring, so that instead of being thrown by some extraordinary turn of events, I'll know what's coming and I can plan for anything untoward.

I could get my affairs in order if I was about to die. I could prepare myself if some awful illness was about to strike. I could avoid that dodgy builder who seemed okay but would botch the job.

But if I'd known what my future held when I was young, would I have felt happier? Or would I have been so shocked by all the things that were coming my way (including all the horrors of the outside world), I'd be screaming like a banshee and wishing I'd never known what was in store?

If I'd known about the global pandemic, or the crazy American President, or the climate crisis, would I have been thoroughly downcast? Would I have wished I'd remained ignorant?

On the other hand, if I'd known I was going to meet the love of my life and we would spend many happy years together, if I'd known I would travel to all sorts of amazing places, if I'd known I would end up in a lovely detached house, would I have been cock-a-hoop? Would I have been looking forward to the future with enthusiasm?

Some people say that not knowing what the future holds is what makes life exciting. If we knew exactly what was going to happen, wouldn't life be rather dull and flat? We would have to introduce some artificial excitement like a bunch of exotic animals or some visiting Martians.

Of course, if we could all foretell the future, a lot of clairvoyants and tarot readers and fortune tellers would be out of a job.