Tuesday 26 February 2008

Mud huts to mortgages

Don't you think the whole business of finding a home has gone backwards rather than forwards? At one time all you had to do was build yourself a house and you lived in it and owned it and that was that. Now most of us can only get a house by paying someone huge amounts of money - and we may not own it either.

Gone are the days of the humble mud hut or tepee. Now houses are so elaborate most people simply don't have the skills to build one. So we have to rely on someone else to do it and they charge us monstrous sums for the privilege.

Instead of just relaxing and enjoying our home, we have to spend years sweating and toiling to pay the rent or the mortgage. Is this really the height of civilisation? Or is it more like some modern form of slavery in which we are permanently in hock to someone else?

I know that in return for all this cash we may have very comfortable, very well-furnished homes with all mod cons - a far cry from a rudimentary shack with no running water or toilet or electricity. But hasn't something gone seriously wrong here, that a bit of domestic comfort has such a high price attached to it?

Of course homes might be a lot cheaper if it wasn't for the property price phenomenon - house prices going up and up seemingly without end because there are never enough to go round and because it's so prestigious to own your own home.

If it wasn't for that, house prices might even be affordable, instead of costing umpteen times the average wage. As it is, we're now stretching ourselves to our financial limits and beyond, with thousands of homes being repossessed every year.

The housing situation has gone from odd to completely insane and there seems to be little we can do about it. Home Sweet Home? These days, more like Home Sweet Ball and Chain.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Hitting the bottle

I have to laugh when people stagger out of supermarkets with vast quantities of bottled water, convinced it's much healthier than dodgy old tap water.

Then comes a puzzled frown as I wonder why they need to drink water at all, when food contains enough liquid to keep us all well hydrated.

People still insist there'll be all sorts of dire consequences if we don't consume huge amounts of water every day. But even if you're running a marathon or weight-lifting, you don't actually lose much liquid.

In fact it's drinking too much water that can be dangerous. The excess water can expand your brain cells, which can lead to coma or even death (I kid you not).

So people are not only forking out ridiculous sums for bottled water when tap water has been shown time after time to be perfectly healthy and drinkable, they don't need the stuff in the first place.

As for the environmental idiocy of shipping water across the world in plastic containers, how anyone can justify that is beyond me.

I've only drunk bottled water about twice, and my health hasn't suffered for it. I sometimes go half a day without drinking anything, without any ill-effects.

Of course drinking is partly habit, as we veteran tea and coffee drinkers know well. When I'm deprived of my regular fix for a while, I don't miss it.

Oh, and one final question: why do people insist on drinking bottled water but they don't mind tap water in their cappuccino or risotto? Some mistake surely?

My thanks to Dominic Lawson in the London Independent - great minds think alike!

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Uneasy traveller

There are some countries I simply wouldn't visit, however beautiful and unusual they are, because the prevailing poverty and injustice would make it impossible for me to enjoy myself without feeling utterly callous.

I'm always bemused that people can casually jet off to places like Thailand and Burma and apparently be unconcerned about the living conditions of the locals - the sexual exploitation and political repression and grinding penury.

I know it's argued that tourism benefits the downtrodden by bringing money into the country, but in practice much of the money doesn't reach them. It just goes to airlines, hotels and tour operators, leaving most people feeling even more exploited.

Then others say "Well, it's not up to me to decide how a country should be run, that's their business. And if conditions are bad, of course I sympathise but there's nothing I can do about it." But if we can choose between a trip to an oppressive country and a trip to a more civilised one, isn't it just a simple matter of morality and decency to choose the second?

I really wouldn't feel comfortable strolling around with plenty of cash in my pocket, gawping at the scenery and soaking up the atmosphere when the 'atmosphere' consists of wretched souls struggling to eke out an existence and bitterly envious of all the material goodies I take for granted.

And since you ask, yes, I'm all in favour of the UK boycotting the Chinese Olympics in protest against their abysmal human rights record. It's shocking that so many politicians and businesses are resisting a boycott because they're more concerned with trade than human dignity. But then again, what did you expect?

Saturday 16 February 2008

Flood blind

Why are so many houses still being built on flood-plains, when thousands of people are already having to clear up the mess from homes ravaged by torrential downpours and overflowing rivers? Why doesn't the British government ban this madness right now?

Every few months the media is full of angry, despairing people standing knee-deep in flooded houses, everything around them ruined and destroyed, sometimes for the second or third time. They curse the builders and planners who allow such houses to be built despite the obvious risk. But they are ignored.

The Association of British Insurers has just warned yet again that hundreds of thousands of homes could become unsaleable, uninsurable and uninhabitable, but the government still plans to build a million new homes on flood-plains.

Already 13 major developments have been approved, despite regular warnings from environmental experts about the serious flood risk.

Some 7000 households are still in temporary accommodation after the massive floods of 2007 across central England, living out of suitcases and wondering when they will be able to return home. Their lives have been turned upside down by reckless, irresponsible planning decisions that defy common sense.

Are the government crazy? Have they not heard of global warming? Have they not heard that rivers have a tendency to burst their banks? No, apparently they think water has natural building-avoidance properties and will make a polite detour round bricks and mortar.

Somebody should give them a good kick up the arse and tell them to stop all flood-plain building right now. Or force them to live on flood-plains themselves.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Cupid's whims

The approach of Valentine's Day always gets me thinking about love and what a mystery it is. Why do we fall in love? Why with X rather than Y? Why do some relationships fail so quickly while others last a lifetime?

Therapists and scientists and writers are constantly looking for the secret of love and its seeming unpredictability but they're still as baffled as ever. Cupid is a capricious little thing and her arrows land in the oddest places.

Who would have guessed, when Jenny and I locked eyes almost 27 years ago, that our tentative hugs and kisses would ignite such an enduring passion? Certainly not us.

We've had plenty of quarrels over the years. In moments of boiling anger or frustration or resentment we've talked of splitting up and calling it a day. Who hasn't? But every time our fundamental love for each other comes bubbling up and miraculously heals the wounds.

In a heated moment, Jenny may accuse me of a multitude of sins. I may accuse her of a multitude more. Is any of it true? Who knows? What matters is that sooner or later we can't help making up and then it's all just water under the bridge.

Above all, we've never found each other boring. We both have quirky, original minds forever going off in unexpected and fascinating directions. Every day we unfailingly amuse and delight and surprise each other.

An astonishing number of couples split up for no other reason than boredom - they've just got nothing to say to each other any more. That's one thing we're never in danger of.

So Happy Valentine's Day to all you lovely couples! And to everyone who's looking for love!

Saturday 9 February 2008

Behind the gates

I don't see the attraction of a so-called gated community. Why would anyone want to live behind high-security walls and barriers where just getting in and out is like being at Fort Knox? What are they so afraid of?

There's a huge block of apartments going up just a few streets away, which are being sold on the basis that the security measures are so elaborate you need never worry about crime.

But the local streets are perfectly safe anyway. The chances of anyone nicking anything are practically zero. You could leave the telly in the middle of the road and it would still be there three hours later.

It's sad that some people have such an exaggerated fear of crime they're convinced their homes will be stripped bare unless they're protected by every security device known to man.

I'd hate living like that. I want to just walk in and out of my house without a fuss. I wouldn't want to run a gauntlet of security guards, padlocks and access codes every time I popped out for a newspaper or a pound of tomatoes. It may be necessary for a gawped-at celebrity, but is your average homeowner really that vulnerable?

How easily fear turns into raging paranoia. And how cleverly the idea of gated communities trades on it.

Work shock: Once again I'm a victim of the mania for job restructuring. It looks as if I might soon be out of work and back on the jobhunting treadmill. Watch this space....
Blog shock: Good grief, I'm on the shortlist for Best Newcomer in the Irish Blog Awards. Some mistake surely? The bribe must have been far too generous....

Pricilla's dilemma

Grannymar has tagged me for a meme devised by Jefferson Davis. Being perverse as usual, I've turned it into my own meme, one of those continuous stories. It's about Pricilla.

What Grannymar knows: Pricilla is caring, obliging, loyal and giving - as long as she approves of you and gets what she wants. She is an intellectual with a thirst for knowledge, but also snobbish and keen on manners and good taste. She is possessive, jealous and exclusive and tries to dominate others with her originality and cleverness.

And now - what Nick knows: Tall and thin, with blue eyes and blonde hair, Pricilla is Director of the Stage Door Theatre Company and adores Samuel Beckett. She is heavily involved with an actor in the company, Matthew. She finds him stunningly handsome and sexy, but he is from a solidly working-class background and constantly makes fun of her accent and posh middle-class roots.

He says it's just playful teasing, but she feels increasingly annoyed and hurt and it's starting to affect her self-confidence. Although she loves him madly, she is wondering if she will have to end their relationship if his behaviour continues. She is kept awake at night by her anger and misgivings, but she just can't decide what to do.

I'm sure Hullaballoo, as one of her oldest friends, will be able to take up the story. And I expect my other readers will have some ideas....

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Spine chiller

Can you believe it? A 12 year old girl has a rapidly worsening spine disease which requires an urgent operation. The Irish health service stalls and delays and refuses to do anything. Eventually a businessman has to offer 100,000 euro for the operation to be carried out in London.

How come one of the richest countries on earth can't arrange a vital operation for a child who is in so much pain that even the heavy doses of painkillers might cause her death?

Her mother is in constant agonies watching her daughter suffer, yet the health authorities give excuse after excuse as to why she may have to wait 12 months for the 'urgent' operation.

Bernadette Kelleher, who lives in Cork, is so furious with the way her daughter Ann-Marie's scoliosis has been dealt with, she has spent six months lobbying her TD (member of parliament), health officials, doctors, the media and a major charity to get things moving.

The list of reasons for not performing the operation has grown and grown: lack of beds, lack of specialist staff, long waiting lists, the complexity of her problems. What all this really amounts to is management incompetence and lack of political will. There's certainly no shortage of money, the country is awash with it.

Now it looks as if the health service will pay for the operation in London. But don't hold your breath - next week there might be yet another U-turn. Why is it so difficult to give sick people the treatment they need, as soon as they need it?

All I can say is, I hope I don't succumb to any major disease that needs extensive medical treatment. The UK health service is not much better than the Irish one when it comes to treating you efficiently and promptly. They're just as ready with excuses and cop-outs and foot-dragging.

That might not matter so much if it's an insurance claim that's at issue, but health is crucial to our quality of life.

Photo: Woman with back pain. I couldn't get photos of Bernadette or Ann-Marie.

Saturday 2 February 2008


Most people I know seem to be permanently overloaded - with work, with children, with domestic chores, with sick relatives. They barely have time to sneeze, let alone relax properly or take up a serious leisure interest.

They're constantly rushing from one thing to the next, juggling a dozen different commitments and emergencies, frantically emailing and phoning and texting, forever postponing things they would like to do but just don't have the time until next week - or next month or next year.

I don't remember it being this bad when I was young. I recall laid-back workplaces where you had plenty of time to chat, plenty of help with demanding jobs, and long boozy lunchhours.

There were always far more employees than work to be done, and less inclination to work yourself into the ground for a slightly higher salary. People felt comfortably off if they had the basics - a house, a spouse, a hobby and some friends - and weren't seeking the relentless lifestyle upgrading that's rife nowadays.

Of course this might be just the 'Good Old Days' syndrome and I'm overlooking the subtle pressures people were still under even if they seemed relaxed. But I think the pace and frantic-ness of life have definitely increased dramatically.

Today even phone conversations are often brusque to the point of rudeness as something is dealt with in the minimum time and the phone is slammed down. Face to face, people are constantly preoccupied with other pressing tasks, checking their mobiles and riffling through notebooks and diaries. Nobody seems 100 per cent focused on anything, their minds fluttering about like restless birds.

Can we all please slow down a bit, shed a few supposedly vital duties, and become a bit more human?