Monday 30 April 2007

Mother knows best

My 85 year old mother, bless her, is quite convinced she knows best about everything, and no amount of reasoned counter-argument from me makes any impression. Frustrating in the extreme.

If I mention my creaky knees, she always blames it on short coats that don't cover my legs. In other words, damp knees. But in that case, mother dear, every swimmer in the country, and everyone taking regular baths, would have no knees left.

When crime comes up, she's adamant it's all down to single mothers and broken homes. Stable families with two parents couldn't produce anything but little angels and rosy-cheeked choirboys, even if all the neighbours are burglars and car thieves.

Knowing that I seldom shop around for the cheapest bargains, mum sees me as hopelessly profligate, squandering money like water and being shamefully ripped off by greedy shopkeepers. But I'm not wasting hours traipsing the streets just to save a few quid, I explain. Which cuts no ice with Mrs Canny-Shopper, The-Woman-Who-Can't-Be-Diddled.

No sooner do I mention our two cars, indispensable in a city with minimal public transport, than mum insists we could make do with one. With the odd taxi, a bit of walking, a bicycle, and more reliance on the local shops, we could manage easily. Er, not really, mum, only if I was a hermit living on bowls of rice and doing nothing but contemplating my navel.

I can argue my point of view till the cows come home, but mum stubbornly stands her ground, listening politely and then promptly repeating what she told me before. I'm obviously mistaken and it's her maternal duty to put me straight.

I guess mothers never quite lose that air of authority they have to acquire when they're a new parent steering their vulnerable offspring towards autonomous adulthood. Although I achieved that state many decades ago, she still thinks I need her guiding hand on the tiller. And her years as a primary school teacher probably reinforced that fond belief.

Still, better a bumptious mother than a clinging one. Or a mother who doesn't give a damn about her children and only cares about property prices and gin.

(NB: Photo is not my mother. Thank you once again, Google images)

Saturday 28 April 2007

The mystery of arson

Who can understand why people set fire to beautiful natural landscapes like the Mourne Mountains, destroying rare plants, spoiling wonderful scenery, and threatening the lives of both livestock and walkers?

Over the last month hundreds of fires have broken out at beauty spots all over Northern Ireland, many started deliberately, and fire fighters have had to work in treacherous conditions on mountainsides, sometimes in the dark, to stop the fires spreading uncontrollably.

The latest fire on Thursday was at Black Mountain, a spectacular area overlooking Belfast and recently acquired by the National Trust.

I can't imagine what anyone gains from such pointless acts of destruction. The people who do this must somehow have been taught not to respect and cherish beautiful things but to resent and wreck them. And perhaps to resent other people who enjoy that beauty, for having a source of pleasure they don't have.

So having scarred these unique landscapes, what do the wreckers feel? Perhaps a sense of childish glee and triumph that they have shown everyone their hatred. I can only wonder how a person's upbringing can go so horribly wrong without anyone noticing or trying to restore a healthier attitude.

But back on the mountains, the worry is how to stop more fires breaking out. These are tracts of land so large and so sprawling they can never be effectively patrolled. If someone's determined to start a fire, they will. The only hope is some level headed friends grabbing the matches and hiding the petrol.

As someone who's spent many happy hours scrambling around the Mourne Mountains (just today I climbed Slieve Donard in brilliant sunshine), I feel sad there are people out there who just want to damage them and cover them with smouldering debris. How fragile is beauty, and how easily betrayed.

(See also Mountain Fever)

Tuesday 24 April 2007

Maidens pursued

It's a weary cliché that older men are often attracted by a much younger woman and launch into a passionate affair or even end up living with her and ditching their existing partner.

Personally I've never understood this tendency, and I can't recall ever being seriously enticed by a woman many years my junior.

There's still an ageist assumption that younger women are more beautiful, more lively, more adventurous and more in-the-know, but I see qualities in older women that more than compensate for that rather rose-tinted checklist.

An older woman may have more lines and wrinkles but not only do they add character, they are a sign of all that experience and acquired wisdom that many twenty somethings just don't have. She's knocked around a bit, lived through rough times, and tried a lot more dishes on the menu. The result is someone with plenty of shrewd observations on any situation.

I know some younger women have packed an amazing amount of experience into a few years and can be just as astute, but I've met many others who simply haven't done enough to acquire truly original insights into life's complexities. They may be tireless clubbers or fearless backpackers but beyond that their horizons can be limited.

Of course what many men see in younger women has nothing to do with their brains but plenty to do with their slim, unblemished bodies and their resemblance to teenage girlfriends or their first romantic glimpse of their wife to be.

All too often they end up making awful fools of themselves, disappointing their restless lovebirds, being thrown out by their devastated wives, or both. They realise too late they were chasing after an empty mirage and failing to appreciate what they already had.

No, give me an older woman any time for sheer worldly-wise, tried-it-all knowingness, as well as a much deeper compassion for the flaws and failings of other human beings, having had time enough to discover all of their own and no longer expecting Mr (or Ms) Perfect to walk through the door. Give me a vintage wine over this year's beaujolais any day.

Saturday 21 April 2007

Paparazzi no thanks

It must be a relief to Northern Ireland's celebrities not to be ruthlessly pursued at all hours of the day and night by totally immoral paparazzi itching for a salacious shot of X in her underwear or Y snorting cocaine.

This predatory media stalking, so routine on the Other Island, simply doesn't happen here. Famous names can just get on with their everyday lives, doing the shopping, taking the kids to school, sunbathing in the garden, and the snappers simply aren't interested.

That's because we regard their private lives as their own business and nothing to do with us. Why do we need to know that presenter A is cheating on her husband? Or that model B likes kinky sex? It's their work we're concerned with, and the rest is strictly off limits.

Furthermore, there just isn't the gulf between the famous and the non-famous that exists elsewhere. Here the famous aren't remote, inaccessible figures living in a world of their own and seen as fair game for constant prying and snooping. In a small society like ours, they're just one of us and entitled to the same dignity and respect.

Also we put a much greater emphasis on the family and family values, and we don't approve of any behaviour that undermines the sanctity of the family and its independence. Photographers lurking behind the garage would be as welcome as the bailiffs or a passing paedophile.

Then again, we take the attitude that if other people are going through difficult personal problems, they need some space to work through them in their own time and in their own way without prurient outsiders poking their nose in and making the problem worse.

We don't share this malicious English tendency to kick someone when they're down, to sneer at their bad luck and try to finish them off completely. No, we love our celebrities, we're proud of them, and we protect them fiercely from unsavoury attentions. The likes of Donna Traynor and Noel Thompson* are national treasures and not to be trifled with by common oiks.

* the presenters of BBC News Northern Ireland

Friday 20 April 2007

Donegal dream

The big dream of many people in Northern Ireland is to retire to a little cottage set in the stunning scenery of County Donegal and spend a blissful decade or two doing all those things they didn't have enough time for when they were working - angling, golf, walking, maybe even surfing or scuba diving.

A cabbie this morning was telling me that in eight years' time, when he's 60, he hopes to buy a little place in Donegal and put the urban hurly-burly behind him. He'll sit on the river bank with his fishing rod thinking of nothing in particular and just waiting for something to bite.*

The only trouble is, too many other people have the same idea. For years now Donegal has had a serious housing crisis as outsiders muscle in to buy retirement and holiday homes, pushing property prices sky-high and preventing the locals getting a home of their own, particularly the children of low-income farmers. To add insult to injury, the second homes (a quarter of the housing stock) lie vacant and unused most of the year while the homes of local people are bursting at the seams as children and grandchildren are squeezed uncomfortably into them.

Why is Donegal the great Mecca anyway? Yes, it's very beautiful but so is most of Northern Ireland. Which is why the same problem afflicts the more desirable parts of this country too, like Portstewart and the north coast towns. It's getting more and more fashionable to have a second home you can tootle off to when the mood takes you. People are snapping up extra homes not just here but all over Europe, now the low-cost airlines have widened everyone's horizons.

Personally, I steadfastly refuse to buy a second home, whatever breathtaking bargains are screaming at me from Bucharest or Sofiya. I'm sure such purchases can only be bad news for indigenous citizens desperate for a place of their own. Why this frantic land-grabbing? Isn't one home enough for anyone?

*what a horrifying image for us vegetarians....

Tuesday 17 April 2007


We've all been bullied at one time or another, though we don't like to admit it because there's still a tendency to blame the victim - they somehow invited it, or they should have done more to resist.

I was bullied on and off for four years at the dreadful boarding school my innocent parents sent me to. I just didn't fit in with the aggressively masculine culture of the other boys - based around sport, snooker, sexual prowess and status-seeking - and they showed their disapproval by ostracising me, taunting me and hiding my possessions. What particularly galled me was the sight of the bullies trooping into chapel every Sunday and professing to be generous, compassionate Christians.

To this day I can't explain why I didn't fight back or simply run away from school. I somehow felt there was no alternative and I just had to struggle through it and not show them they were getting to me.

When I worked at a bookshop a few years ago, a new manager turned out to be a systematic bully who pushed all the staff to work harder and faster and watched us all like a hawk, ready to pounce the moment we slowed down or started to chat. Fortunately we were all union members so we could put up enough collective resistance to keep the pressure at bearable levels, but what had been an enjoyable, easygoing workplace rapidly became a seething morass of resentment and hostility. When the manager's house was burgled one day, we couldn't help letting out a collective whoop of joy, such was our thirst for revenge.

So again, why did I stay there and not instantly hand in my notice? I think because despite the way the staff were treated, we all got on famously and we were loathe to move on in case we jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.

But it's still alarmingly common for the victims of bullies to be told it's somehow their fault. Women subject to merciless sexism are told they can't take a joke or are too over-sensitive. Boys picked on by other boys are told they should toughen up and brazen it out. Seldom are the bullies themselves confronted and told they should grow up and treat others with respect. And line managers who should be intervening turn a blind eye and pretend nothing's happening.

Despite all the anti-bullying declarations popping up in every organisation like spring daffodils, the reality has hardly changed and there are still an awful lot of people living miserable lives because of the continuing assumption that bullying is nothing more than the rough and tumble of everyday life. What are you making such a fuss about? For God's sake, just get a grip!

PS: Have a look at this excellent piece on bullying and the massacre at Virginia Tech in America by a Canadian blogger.

Sunday 15 April 2007

Phantom iceberg

Thinking of the Titanic ramming the iceberg (as you do), I wondered whatever happened to the bizarre plan by Belfast artist Rita Duffy to tow an iceberg from Norway to Belfast. That was two years ago now and the plan seems to be have frozen solid – or maybe it just melted and sank.

There was a lively debate at the time over whether the plan was actually feasible or not – could the iceberg be moved fast enough to reach Belfast intact or would it just thaw at a speed of knots as soon as it reached warmer waters? Enough heat was generated to melt several icebergs but no firm conclusion was ever reached and Rita herself had nothing to add.

She’s maintained a glacial silence on the subject ever since so I have to assume the whole idea was either a clever publicity stunt or a brilliant kind of conceptual art in which you just imagine the work of art without ever seeing anything physical.

She pictured it so vividly it’s almost as if it actually happened – surely I remember that colossal mountain of ice moored off Bangor and all the goggle-eyed locals unable to tear themselves away from the amazing spectacle? Or the well-heeled Gold Coast residents rowing out to it and hacking off lumps of ice for their next cocktail party (as one cynic suggested on Slugger O’Toole).

Of course it would probably be forbidden on safety grounds anyway – a massive iceberg in Belfast Lough would be an obvious hazard to shipping the same as the one that wrecked the Titanic. With the rising number of cruise liners surging up and down the lough to show off our newly fashionable city to curious tourists, there would be a fresh disaster waiting to happen.

I don’t think Northern Ireland would ever live it down if another liner hit another iceberg and the exhausted survivors clambered ashore at Bangor Marina. Those struggling to stay alive would probably give up on seeing the unspeakably hideous concrete embankments protecting all the luxury yachts.

So does anyone know – has the plan just been put on ice or is it dead in the water?

Thursday 12 April 2007

Camping it up

Jenny has always had a yen for camping but ever since my hellish camping experience as a teenager, I've been dead against it. Once bitten, twice shy, as they say.

My grim memory surfaced when I heard of the sudden surge in the number of UK campers - up by 7 per cent, particularly among women - which is reflected in the growth of camping and caravan sites here in Northern Ireland. In fact Millisle on the Ards Peninsula is quite disfigured by the acres of caravans nudging the shoreline.

But nights under canvas aren't for me. As a tender 13 year old Boy Scout, I was persuaded to spend two weeks camping in Yorkshire, and what a mistake that was. It rained non-stop for a fortnight so we were squelching around Glastonbury-style in thick mud. All the tents leaked and kept us sodden. The food was inedible and impossible to cook properly. There was nothing whatever to do. And the scoutmaster was lurking in the background looking for dishy boys he could cuddle up to. Was I glad to pack up and get back to civilisation.

Yes I know tents and caravans these days are supposed to be quite luxurious and element-proof but I'm just not going to risk it. I'm used to hotel bedrooms with all mod cons and en suite bathrooms and I won't give them up without a fight.

The problem we have here is that most of the roads are still single carriageway and in the summer it's common to be stuck in a long line of cursing motorists following a nonchalant caravan that's trundling along at a steady 30 mph. Of course caravan buffs are entitled to their holiday of choice like the rest of us, but maybe if they hit the road at dawn (or midnight) and not at midday it might boost their public image a little.

But really, why spend your well-earned holiday leave roughing it in a field when you could be standing on the balcony of your 4 star hotel room gazing at say, the Mediterranean? I'm sure such spartan, rough-and-ready living is very environmentally sound and does Margaret Beckett a power of good, but it's just not my cup of tea.

Tuesday 10 April 2007

On not having children (2)

An Irish-born reader from Toronto has pointed me to the Ann Landers survey/straw poll from the 1970s which found that the vast majority of those who had had children regretted the experience and would not have children if they had to live their life again.

Ann Landers, a famous agony aunt with a syndicated advice column in North American newspapers for 45 years, published a letter from someone wondering whether to have a child or not. She was deluged with 10,000 responses of which 70 per cent said "Don't do it."

They were very sad and emotional letters, giving all sorts of reasons for their conclusion, in particular: people who didn't want to bring kids into such a messed-up world; parents who said their children had ruined their marriage; people whose children virtually ignored them once they left home; and parents of teenagers in serious problems with things like crime, drugs and joyriding. They went into parenting with high hopes but sooner or later got disenchanted.

Many of them said their relationships were great until the babies came along and everything went downhill from there. One woman wrote: "I was a successful, attractive, career woman before I had these kids. Now I’m an exhausted, shrieking, nervous wreck—too tired for sex, conversation or anything else.”

How come nobody had realised how disenchanted so many parents were? Because it was virtually taboo (and often still is) to voice negative feelings about your kids. Ann Landers pointed out that while it is just fine to moan about your wife or husband, or your mother-in-law, parents are still expected to praise their children and say that child-rearing is a blessing.

For more details of the poll, go to Happily Childfree

PS (October 20): Emilia has pointed me to a properly designed survey which actually got a very different result from the Ann Landers straw poll. That found only 9% of parents regretted their decision to have children, quite contrary to the Landers conclusion. In that case, glad to hear so many parents are actually happy with their lot!

Monday 9 April 2007

On not having children

When I meet someone new, sooner or later they ask me if I have children, and I say no. If they're bold, they might also ask me if I ever wanted children, and I say no again.

I'm always relieved how tolerant people are about my complete lack of desire to reproduce, given their own enthusiasm for children and their evident joy in having them. I always expect to get a little spiel about how wonderful and life-enhancing they are, and what I'm missing by not having any, but not so. Maybe it's because I'm old enough to be beyond it, or old enough to have come to a mature decision, or old enough to have deep regrets they might trigger off.

But the point is that I've never found the idea of having children at all appealing (and fortunately neither has Jenny). I'm sure it's very fulfilling watching your very own offspring gradually developing from drooling, perplexed babies to mature, intelligent adults (hopefully), but I've always felt that my existing life is complete enough as it is and doesn't need children to enrich it. I certainly never fancied children for what I see as entirely selfish reasons like wanting someone to look after you in your dotage (and suppose your child dies before you anyway?).

Looking at other people's babies, I've never had that heart-wrenching pang you're meant to get, and that deep longing for one of your own. To me it was just a baby doing what babies usually do - looking ecstatic or wrecking something. Perhaps I'm just too selfish and too fastidious to put up with all the mess and disorder of little people doing their own thing, getting under my feet, and generally disrupting my own plans and pleasures.

I also wonder whether my parenting abilities would have been up to the job, particularly when I'm in a cafe or a shop and see children behaving like wild animals and their flustered, wrung-out parents not only failing miserably to control them but apparently unconcerned by their behaviour. I was always somewhat daunted by the responsibility that parenting involved, the need to ensure every single day that your child was progressing steadily towards sensible adulthood and not drifting into some dysfunctional cul de sac of drug addiction or gang warfare. Would I end up one of those bitterly disappointed and guilt-ridden souls, wondering where I had gone wrong and disowning my own progeny? And it happens more often than we care to admit....

Sunday 8 April 2007

Bargain hunters

Don't we all love a good bargain? I'll say. The people of Northern Ireland are fanatical bargain seekers, much more than elsewhere. They don't have any of that residual guilt about paying the proper price and protecting the workers' interests. If it's cheaper than it should be, they want it - now. They have an inbuilt radar that detects special offers and introductory discounts at five miles, and they come flocking in.

They like nothing better than arriving on someone's doorstep and saying "Guess how much I paid?" Then there'll be ten minutes of a blow-by-blow account of how they got this amount knocked off the two weeks in Turkey, then the special deal on the car hire, then the upgrade on the flight, then the special luxury suite at the hotel, and all thanks to this friend of a friend of an uncle who's got these amazing connections and anytime you want a good holiday package just say the word and he'll do the same for you, why pay the full price like all those poor mugs in the High Street, it's just a big rip-off, those travel agencies must be laughing all the way to the bank, it's not what you know, it's who you know.... (I could go on)

That's the other thing. People love to boast about their bargains, but they're not gloating, it's not one-upmanship. They want to share their good fortune with you and they want you to have a bit of it as well. That's still very much the Northern Ireland way - we all scratch each other's backs, do each other favours, in one big mutual leg-up that keeps us all afloat.

Now that Belfast is getting more prosperous and cosmopolitan, there's a bit more of the hard-bitten, commercial, take it or leave it approach creeping in, but by and large we haven't yet succumbed to the impersonal product-shifting that pervades other cities. Business, for us, is still just part and parcel of our personal relationships (which is why snubbing or insulting people is a dangerous move - it might come back to haunt you when you're setting up that lucrative deal in a few years' time).

But yes, people here latch on to bargains like homing pigeons. Even the sedate, dignified, well-heeled gentry of suburban Malone can be seen elbowing their way through the Sprucefield* hordes to get their hands on some tantalising cut-price offering. No one wants to be left out of this essential social ritual.

*a huge shopping centre in Lisburn, soon to get Ireland's first John Lewis.

Friday 6 April 2007

Size zero

I can understand people wanting to be thinner, but why this sudden obsession with being ultra-thin, as though a single ounce of unnecessary flesh is some kind of social stigma?

The people of Northern Ireland are mostly too hard-headed and down to earth to fall for such masochistic fads, and there is a reassuring absence of artificially whittled-down females (or males for that matter). They would rather tuck into a few jam-laden scones or a generous helping of champ than starve themselves into a miniscule dress.

But there are still enough women trapped in compulsive dieting to bring calls for a specialist eating disorders unit, which at the moment doesn't exist here. Right now you can only get help from your GP, and it's pot luck whether they're sympathetic or baffled.

I'm fairly thin myself, but I've never felt the urge to be even thinner, or imagined that my perfectly acceptable size is disgustingly flabby. But then I'm not deluged with images of stick-thin males everywhere I look, whereas skinny, streamlined females flood the media.

Or at least that's the case elsewhere but here they're refreshingly scarce. Female celebrities* come in all shapes and sizes and the idea of their slimming down to some tape measure ideal is given short shrift. Politics apart, we're much more willing to accept people as they are, warts and all. Striving too hard to change your appearance is seen as pretentious and false. Which is why there's also a limited market for plastic surgery here. If a well-known TV presenter (say, the delightful Donna Traynor) was suddenly to shed a couple of stone people wouldn't be green with envy, they'd just think she was putting on airs.

Or perhaps women in Northern Ireland just believe the old maxim that most men find larger, more curvaceous women sexier, and have noted that the unnaturally petite showbiz divas don't have very satisfying love lives.

*Actually we tend not to use the word celebrity - we don't believe in putting people on pedestals.

Tuesday 3 April 2007

Saving the planet

Oh dear! The Green Barometer report from the Energy Saving Trust says Northern Ireland folk are lagging behind the rest of the UK when it comes to fighting for the planet.

According to the report, only 15% of us would scrap a holiday flight for environmental reasons, compared with a third UK-wide. Only 25% are making personal lifestyle changes, rather than 39%. And only 6% have used public transport instead of a car, while it's 12% in Scotland.

Well, there you are then - those selfish ratbags in Northern Ireland are holding back the altruistic Brits, demanding extravagant pleasures while everyone else is showing commendable restraint and safeguarding their children's future.

Er, sorry, but you've got us wrong again.

Could it be that we're more reluctant to shelve holiday flights because we don't have the convenient alternative of getting anywhere in Europe via Eurostar? And funnily enough we can't just catch the train to Wales, Cornwall or Yorkshire? Could it be that so-called holiday flights are actually visits to relatives in places like Scotland, Canada or Australia? Or should we just call them up and say "Sorry mum, the Planet says no"?

As for our thumbs-down for public transport, that's hardly surprising in a country full of small villages which don't generate enough potential passengers to make complex transport links viable. The buses amble through all sorts of picturesque locations, but seldom the ones we actually have in mind.

In fact we're as planet-friendly as the rest of the UK, if the measures suggested are practical and don't just make life more difficult. We recycle loads of household rubbish, we're very keen on fair trade, we're busy insulating our houses, and we buy local produce whenever we can.

But you wouldn't know it from the Green Barometer report, which asks the wrong questions, looks in the wrong directions and paints a totally false picture of the locals - and they won't be the last to do that.

See also: Plane Stupid

Sunday 1 April 2007

Flats for sale

The fashion for apartments is still all the rage in Belfast (and Northern Ireland generally). The Titanic Quarter will have heaps of them and so will St Anne's Square. All over the city they are still sprouting everywhere like mushrooms. But personally, having lived in three flats in London, I wouldn't want to live in one again.

The fact is that apartments are more in the builders' interests than the occupants. The builders make shedloads of cash packing the maximum number of people into the smallest possible space, while the residents are always at the mercy of noisy neighbours, hopeless management companies and runaway service charges. And probably you don't have your own garden or a permanent parking space either. But the builders can get away with it because the soaring property prices (the fastest rises in the UK) mean that flats are now the only affordable option for a lot of first time buyers.

By selling our ludicrously overvalued flat in London, we were able to buy a house in Belfast outright so we finally escaped the mortgage millstone as well. Now we have complete control over the maintenance of the house, we have a biggish garden, we have one adjoining neighbour who is never a problem, and we have plenty of parking space.

Flats are falsely glamourised as being compact (i.e. small) and easy to look after (i.e. small), with all the tedious maintenance taken care of by someone else. But the rosy image doesn't necessarily live up to the reality. You may very well find out the hard way that in a block of flats none of the residents care very much about the other residents, and expect to lead their own (sometimes raucous) lives regardless of anyone else's well-being. If you make a polite protest about someone's selfish behaviour, you may get a very impolite response.

I remember an occasion in London when I complained about the constant noise from the flat below, only to find my car tyres let down the next morning. The downstairs neighbours at another flat had to be prosecuted and fined by Environmental Health before stopping their all-night, drug-fuelled parties.

I think there should be a strict quota on the number of flats allowed to be built, with a presumption that the majority of new-builds are houses with all the civilised qualities they imply. In my opinion, flats are strictly last-resort accommodation for the desperate, the deaf and the debt-ridden.