Saturday 31 March 2007

Couples and break-ups

There's a lot of arguments about the issue most likely to split couples apart. Is it sex? Money? Housework? Politics? Violence? Weirdness? In theory it could be just about anything - whatever you feel so strongly about that the other person's totally opposite attitude is just too much to take.

With Jenny and I, I think what would separate us beyond repair is actually sexism. Jenny having been a strong feminist ever since I met her, the one thing she couldn't stomach would be my turning into a stereotype male, watching the footie and guzzling beer while she cleaned the house and knocked up the evening meal. We've always tried to share the pleasures and chores of domestic life equally, and hopefully we don't slip into the traditional sex roles too often.

Early in our relationship money became a thorny issue. I still had my own bank account while Jenny wanted us to pool our cash. Luckily I came round to the idea and a joint account saved the day. Jenny has always been freer with money than me, and sometimes sees me as mean and ungenerous. But going broke is one of my big anxieties, so splashing out isn't easy. It helps that we have a lot more money than when we first met - when we were two amorous but seriously underpaid booksellers.

Housework isn't a serious bone of contention. I do my fair share - in fact when Jenny was working in Glasgow I did all the house-cleaning here. Perhaps not entirely to her standard (the thinnest coating of dust makes women very antsy!) but it was respectable enough. Jenny does most of the cooking, as she loves cooking, but I do all the washing up and a lot of the shopping. Not to mention most of the gardening and looking after the two cars. But then Jenny earns a lot more than me so fair's fair.

As for sex, my lips are sealed. Call me old-fashioned, but I think some subjects are too delicate and too intimate for the full-frontal exposure of a global diary. So you'll have to use your imagination on that one. Bondage? Cross-dressing? Nurses' uniforms? That would be telling. All I can say is, it won't be sex that breaks up the happy home. Unless it's sex with someone else of course. But let's not go there either.

I could chatter on freely about couples uncoupling - isn't it strange how those dream couples suddenly crash and burn while the most unlikely matches endure effortlessly? But there's too much to say - it'll have to wait till later.

Wednesday 28 March 2007

The joy of blogs

Do you want the pleasures of socialising without the drawbacks? Do you want to meet interesting, witty people but be free of their irritating quirks? Then blogs are for you!

It suddenly occurred to me that this is the big attraction of blogging. You can contact an infinite number of people, see whether they've got something stimulating to say, and either read more or walk away and try someone else. No conditions and no obligations except to offer a few blogs of your own that others might be interested in.

Are you serious, say the anti-blog diehards. How can staring at a screen possibly be a substitute for face to face encounters, flesh and blood exchanges in a convivial throng of real human beings loosened up by a few glasses of the amber nectar?

Well yes, such encounters can sometimes be exhilarating and inspiring, but too often they're just a disappointing let-down. You get stuck with the biggest bore in the room, the person you want to talk to is being monopolised by someone else, you've had to buy an incredibly expensive round, and some clumsy eejit has just spilt red wine over your jacket. Who needs it?

In blogworld you can forget all these tiresome trade-offs and just indulge yourself painlessly. No need to buy drinks, food, taxis, fancy clothes or presents. No need to host a dinner party or blitz-clean the house. No need to go out in driving rain or a howling gale. No need to put up with someone's nasty personal habits or bad breath. No need to fend off lecherous males or garrulous females.

And isn't there a whiff of hypocrisy here? How many of these snooty anti-bloggers who despise impersonal communication are following all the gossip about celebrities they'll never meet? Or watching soap operas about completely fictitious characters?

Well then - just sit back, enjoy yourself and fill your brain with new ideas, strange experiences and whacky personalities. And all without stepping outside your own four walls. Who could ask for more?


It has to be said there are some flesh and blood relationships I could never do without, like the one with Jenny - as I explained earlier (Lovers Reunited). Sometimes human beings are so amazing just as they are they're irreplacable. Well, every good idea has its limits.

Photocalls and peace walls

No, I'm not impervious to the tangled political process that goes on here in Northern Ireland, I just don't comment on it much because it's so predictably hidebound and static and progress towards the normal everyday politics of how to buy a house or how to get a decent job is so pitifully slow. The politicians just can't resist the engrained sectarian and nationalistic squabbling and point-scoring. Meanwhile the rest of us quietly fall asleep or start a new sudoku.

But I have to say my attention was fully engaged by the historic Ian Paisley/Gerry Adams get-together at Stormont, cautiously burying the hatchet and agreeing to share power from May 8. It's in the interests of our children, said Paisley.

The trouble is that on the ground children are still being taught by their parents to distrust the other lot*, so much so they don't even want them as friends. How can we ever have a normal society when this entrenched 'them and us' attitude is fostered in the cradle and shamelessly flaunted in such popular TV programmes as 'Give My Head Peace'?

The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education is doing a great job encouraging mixed schooling but it's still just a drop in the ocean compared with what's needed. The politicians have to take a lead and show us they themselves are willing to suspend their endless suspicion and paranoia and welcome cultural and religious diversity. Then maybe instead of higher and higher peace walls in more and more neighbourhoods, we might start dismantling some of them.

But while the politicians are edging painfully towards a new era of mutual tolerance, a quite different social trend is also promoting diversity - the rising flow of migrants into Northern Ireland from all over the world. Be they Polish, Chinese, Bangladeshi or Parisian, they have one thing in common - they all come from societies where the bizarre tribal conflicts we are plagued with simply don't exist.

So they scratch their heads and wonder if we're all completely mad - and prompt us to rethink our own prejudices. Which may be why so many Northern Irish folk see migrants as a curse rather than a blessing. Personally I say, the more the merrier - why not shake us all up a bit?

* Note for out-of-Ulster visitors: Protestants or Catholics/Loyalists or Republicans

Sunday 25 March 2007

Mountain fever

As soon as spring is sprung, my thoughts turn to the dazzling beauty of the Mourne Mountains, and it isn't long before I find myself driving down to Newcastle and clambering up those wild slopes for the umpteenth time.

The urge came yesterday, when I spent an ecstatic four and a half hours trudging up Slieve Binnian (747 metres) in a mixture of mist and brilliant sunshine, gasping at the incredible views across the Mournes and across Ben Crom and Silent Valley lakes.

Why are people drawn back time after time to these soggy, windswept lumps of rock? For me, it's a kind of spiritual cleansing, a kind of purging of the soul from all those everyday pressures that can set my nerves jangling and my mind racing. I guess we all have our own spiritual pickmeups. For other people it's God, or Mozart, or cocaine or even Celebrity Big Brother. All I can say is, when I'm up on one of those peaks, drinking in the scenery, walking briskly, listening to the infinite silence, I feel uplifted and revitalised.

How strange that a few years ago I had never set foot in the Mournes, having spent most of my life in the unrelieved flatness, the merciless horizontality of London - and never realised what I was missing. I would stroll round the feeble hillocks of Hampstead Heath, fighting for space among the jostling throngs of nature-starved Londoners, and kid myself it was some kind of recreational high. Mountains were as far removed from my everyday life as icebergs or koala bears.

Even the slightly undulating Cotswolds were several hours' drive away through miles of gridlocked traffic on fume-ridden motorways. Whatever tonic effect they might have would be instantly extinguished by the soul-destroying grind of the journey there and back. No surprise then that I'm firmly ensconced in Northern Ireland and have no wish whatever to return to the vast concrete jungle that is London.

And I haven't even mentioned the Antrim coast road - according to some tourist surveys, even more spectacular than the Grand Canyon or Machu Picchu. Say no more.

Thursday 22 March 2007

Plane stupid

I'm quite happy to change my personal habits to reduce global warming, but some of the daft knee-jerk suggestions from politicians take some beating. In particular English politicians have proposed swingeing taxes on short-haul domestic flights which according to them are an unnecessary self-indulgence.

As usual they are blissfully unaware of far-flung parts of the United Kingdom like Northern Ireland where flying is the only practical way of getting over the Irish Sea and across huge swathes of the Other Island. Are we seriously expected to go by ferry and train, paying a lot more, taking a hell of a lot longer and arriving exhausted and stressed-out? Not me if I can help it. And when did the politicians last take the ferry? Insensitivity and hypocrisy.

What the politicians should really be asking is why so many basic household items - flowers, food, computers, clothes - are flown or shipped thousands of miles into Northern Ireland when they could just as easily be produced locally. It's absurd that Mother's Day flowers (probably grown by downtrodden mothers) are casually jetted in from Africa. Or that potatoes (that rare delicacy fresh to Irish palates) are despatched from the Middle East. Or that vegetables (cultivated in areas of serious water shortage) are winged over from Spain.

I could go on, but my question is - isn't this type of traffic a lot less justified than the movement of human beings visiting their relatives or potential customers?

And why are politicians focussing on planes rather than cars, which produce much heavier pollution and are proliferating rapidly on Northern Ireland's roads? (Jenny and I didn't own a car at all in London, but here we need one each because of the miserly public transport.) Answer - because motorists provide huge tax revenues for the government and public transport doesn't. They don't want to kill off such a nice fat cash cow.

So if anyone's waiting for a better bus and train network that actually takes them where they want to go, and cleans up the environment, they'll be waiting a very long time. If I were you, guv, I'd take good care of the motor. You'll be needing it for a wee while yet....

Monday 19 March 2007

Sixty years old!

Yes, tomorrow's the big day - I finally turn 60. It doesn't seem at all significant to me, though other people insist it's some kind of milestone. But nowadays 60 is nothing, when it's commonplace to reach 80 or even 90 and the average 60 year old is still healthy enough to do a demanding job and then go mountaineering or hang-gliding in their spare time.

I certainly haven't experienced any ageism - I've found jobs as easily (or as laboriously) as people half my age and my workmates have never suggested I'm past it or 'not fit for purpose'. Of course that may be partly because I look very young for my age - a trait that runs in the family. I'm astonished, and slightly disappointed, that my hair is not yet grey - at school I always used to envy my music teacher with his glorious mane of wild grey hair.

I think the most puzzling thing about being 60 is having no idea how long I'm going to live, how healthy or unhealthy I'm going to be, and whether I should indulge all my lingering ambitions ASAP in case of rapid physical decline. My father died at 70 but my maternal grandparents both lived to 91, so it's anybody's guess. I just hope that Jenny, who's ten years younger than me, doesn't wind up looking after a crumbling geriatric.

But some people still think that by my age life must be rather humdrum and flat and I must spend all my time reliving the glory days of my youth - digging out the old Beatles albums and rereading Lord of the Rings. On the contrary - I still find life amazingly interesting and surprising and have no desire to live in the past. I think oldies who condemn contemporary culture as baffling and rarified need to loosen up and open their eyes. I mean, how can anyone not enjoy Pink and Goldfrapp?

And finally I reflect that reaching 60 at all is due to a lucky geographical accident - being born in a prosperous western country. If I lived in Zimbabwe, my current life expectancy would be around 37 - and dropping.

"The good thing about getting older is that, as you become less attractive, so you have less desire to go out and conquer everyone you see." - Julian Clary (47).

Photograph by Smitten at Flickr

Monday 12 March 2007

Lovers reunited

Last weekend I took the ferry to Stranraer to collect Jenny and her possessions from Glasgow, where she was working for 14 months. Like hundreds of other Northern Irelanders before her, she found a job she wanted in another country so she was commuting between Belfast and Scotland roughly once a week. Now she's landed a new job in Belfast and she's back home again, I'm glad to say.

It was an interesting experiment, as prior to the Glasgow job Jenny and I had only lived apart for the first few months of our relationship. We certainly learnt a lot about ourselves: that we could be pretty independent on our own but still missed the physical proximity and everything that goes with it - instant sharing of thoughts and feelings, talking through problems and plans, and of course the regular hugs, kisses and other intimacy. If one of us had a crisis while the other was elsewhere, proper support was difficult at the end of a phone line. The myriad emails, texts and phone calls were wonderful but a poor substitute for the real thing.

I cooked lots of proper meals for myself while Jenny stopped cooking and lived on instant snacks. I cleaned our house in Belfast while Jenny cleaned the flat in Glasgow. I managed to keep the accounts solvent despite two lots of spending in two different places.

But although I adapted to Jenny's absences well enough to begin with (and quite enjoyed being on my own), as the months wore on the constant separation felt more and more odd. At one point I felt like someone's mistress, always waiting for a phone call and a fleeting encounter. At another point it seemed I was the one living in Belfast and Jenny was just popping over to visit me. Over the last few months our divided life felt increasingly unnatural and disruptive, so I'm relieved we're together again. Probably our new proximity will take some getting used to when we've had so much personal space, but we're both agreed - no more separations unless we're desperate!

As for the ferry: the total lack of security is still glaring. Our car was not checked in any way either going or returning. It could have been stuffed with enough explosives to wipe out the ferry twice over but hey, let's live dangerously! And wow, is it different from the sedate, demure aircraft ambience. The ferry is more like one big party: everyone milling around, stuffing themselves with food and drink and generally letting their hair down - notably on Sunday night when all the footie fans were singing fit to bust and looking for punchups. Not the ideal spot for two book-clutching intellectuals (i.e. us). Haste ye back? I think not. Especially as neither of us took to Glasgow - too dour and gloomy beside the exuberance of Belfast.

Sunday 4 March 2007

On being a vegetarian

Being a vegetarian is still seen as something rather strange and puzzling, as if it's some hare-brained new fashion rather than a long-standing tradition thousands of years old and found all over the world.

When someone discovers I'm vegetarian, they usually react as if I've revealed something slightly eccentric, like ironing my underwear or collecting cuckoo clocks. They ask me what exactly I eat, as if the only options are lettuce leaves, carrots or nut cutlets, and that once meat is ruled out there's nothing else worth eating.

Even after 30 meatless years, people still think I'm in the grip of some impulsive fad rather than a rational and principled choice. They just can't comprehend the simple desire to eat foods that don't involve killing sentient animals - aren't I just being squeamish and sentimental?

I'm also accused of being selfish and demanding, putting households to the extra effort of cooking both a meat dish and a non-meat dish. To which I can only say, why not be adventurous and try something vegetarian on all of them? It's only the once after all. And who knows - they might even enjoy it. Is it really such a sacrifice to abandon meat for half an hour?

Even eating in restaurants is quite a challenge. Belfast may be increasingly open-minded and eclectic, with an amazing variety of eating places compared with a decade ago - Indian, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, you name it - but there still is no vegetarian or vegan restaurant. There are some excellent health food shops like Eatwell in Lisburn Road and Nutmeg in Lombard Street, but when eating out I usually have to comb the menu thoroughly for the one or two meat-free options. At least they exist, unlike in Connemara, where I stayed in the summer, and where the locals saw vegetarians as something akin to sheep-rustlers or petrol-siphoners, and were clearly about to tip off the gardai over my perverted habits.

Belfast is proud of its steadily rising tourist visits, but do they come back again? Plenty of those tourists will be vegetarians and when they find there isn't a single veggie hangout in the city, they are likely to strike Belfast off their list and head for other, more vegetarian-friendly capitals. How about the NI Tourist Board giving someone a grant to open a really world-class vegetarian diner? Or maybe Invest Northern Ireland? Isn't this what they call a howling gap in the market? Come on, Belfast, wake up and smell the tofu!

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia