Saturday 27 February 2010

Lucking out

As I get older, I'm constantly amazed and relieved at all the disasters and misfortunes I've somehow managed to avoid, despite all my personal failings and extreme scattiness.

While others have been plagued by huge debts, nasty illnesses, homelessness or chronic addictions, I've been lucky enough to get through life without any serious burdens dragging me down.

I'm not an addictive personality, so I've never succumbed to over-indulgence in drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling or dieting. I'm naturally inclined to moderation in all things, some would say excessively so to the extent that I'm too guarded and never let go enough.

I've always had a horror of debt, so I keep a close eye on what I'm spending. I'm convinced that I only have to be in hock to the tune of a few hundred pounds and this'll trigger off a breakneck slippage to the sort of eye-watering debts you read about in the papers.

I've managed to hold on to my home, even when jobless or earning a pittance. Of course in my younger days I made do with seedy bedsits hardly big enough to swing a cat and the rents were correspondingly modest. And it helps if you have someone else to chip in with a hefty mortgage.

Grisly illnesses have so far passed me by, despite my sister having MND and my father having a stroke at 55. Being a vegetarian with a fairly healthy lifestyle must reduce the risk but only up to a point. I've never been in a serious car crash or done a hazardous job. I missed the Kings Cross station inferno in 1987 by a matter of minutes.

How come I'm not labouring under some colossal mishap? How come I'm not in jail or in a street doorway or in a rehab centre? It could easily have happened if my life had taken a different route. There but for the grace of God go I.

Wednesday 24 February 2010


No way would I buy a house near a cliff edge, however stable and secure it was supposed to be. Cliffs are unreliable things, they can be rock solid for decades and then one day collapse dramatically.

As London property developer Sue Diamond has just discovered. She bought a six-bedroom clifftop house in Torquay, Devon, last week and just six days later a huge chunk of her garden disappeared in a 5,000 tonne rock fall.

Not surprisingly she's said to be too upset to talk about it.

I guess she decided it was a risk worth taking, as a house that would normally cost about £1.5 million was sold to her at auction for just £154,500. A pretty tempting discount for a spacious seaside hideaway with stunning views of the English Channel.

But the cliffs around Britain are eroding rapidly, and numerous houseowners have found their gardens, or even their houses, crumbling into the sea overnight. It's not a risk I would have anything to do with.

And it's a risk the buyer knows all about. They can't say when disaster strikes that it came out of the blue, they were taken unawares.

The people I feel sorry for are the ones who buy a lovely house in a pretty spot and are then faced with some totally unexpected development that ruins their little bit of paradise for ever. All of a sudden rolling green fields turn into a hideous housing estate, or a thunderous motorway, or they find a local factory is pumping out toxic chemicals.

They can protest as much as they like, but the politicians and local authorities seldom take much notice. They're written off as moaning Nimbys*, diehards standing in the way of progress, or hysterical nutters smearing some harmless activity. Or they're told "Well, you had it good for a long time. It couldn't last for ever."

They didn't see their purchase as risky, but it turned out to be just that.

* Not In My Back Yard

Just discovered this splendid website Mothers Against Peeing Standing Up. An idea whose time has come!

Sunday 21 February 2010

Baby blues

It's funny how awkward it still is to ask someone why they don't have children. I always imagine, rightly or wrongly, that they're going to be offended, or sheepish, or distressed. I assume there might be very sensitive personal issues they don't want to reveal.

I don't mind people asking about my own childless state, in fact I explained it in detail in a very early post, but other people aren't necessarily so ready to blurt out their reasons in a society that still places such a high value on childrearing.

I know quite a few childless people but I have no idea why they're childless and I've never dared to ask. I could easily be opening a huge can of worms that would have been better not opened.

Couples may have had serious quarrels about the subject. One may be keen on a large family while the other has no wish for children whatever. One may be sterile and incapable of creating a child, causing resentment and frustration in the other. Or they may have been trying artificial insemination without success.

Someone may have had such a dreadful childhood (abuse, neglect, bullying) that they fear reproducing the same behaviour with their own children. Maybe they don't want to bring a child into what they see as a rotten and corrupt world. Maybe they just have no confidence in their parenting skills.

Whatever the reason, it's often something people feel inadequate about and they want to keep it to themselves rather than divulge it to others. They don't want to risk censorious and thoughtless comments by those secure in their own child-endowed existence and parenting abilities.

So I tread very warily on the absence of tiny feet. I don't want to wade into what might be longstanding personal anguish or disappointment. It's no concern of mine anyway why people don't have children, it's entirely their own business. I would only be enquiring out of idle curiosity. It's better to stay silent.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Greener than you

It seems that family disputes over green issues are getting more and more heated. People will defend their views on water-guzzling baths or imported T shirts to the last, leaving the rest of the family seething and bemused.

It can get doubly acrimonious when there's no clear right or wrong position. Cloth nappies or disposables? Dishwashers or washing up by hand? Each person is adamant they're the eco-purist and the other is ruining the planet.

Having your first child can make things worse as parents want to pass shared values to their offspring but then find their values are more clashing than shared. Then when the children go to school, they pick up the latest planet-saving tips and embarrass careless parents who're still squandering energy in all directions.

Couples can get incandescent over simple things like lighting. "Anita turns every light and computer on as soon as she gets home" says Mike. "I go around after her, turning everything off and quoting the Energy Saving Trust."

It appears that where once green views were just a casual matter of opinion, now they're part of a person's basic identity and an opposing view becomes personally threatening, as controversial as religion or party politics.

Jenny and I clearly haven't reached that stage yet, as we're not too concerned about our differing planet-saving attitudes. Whatever our particular passions, we just end up compromising haphazardly like most other people, cutting down on tea bags but turning up the central heating. Or not wasting food but leaving all the appliances on standby.

We'd be the despair of environmental hotshots with our totally unstructured approach to keeping the earth in good shape. But we're certainly not going to fall out over our footling domestic contribution to global pollution, when big business is laying waste to the planet on such a breathtaking scale.

Now excuse me while I finish off this delicious bottle of (Australian) Sauvignon....

Core Issues, a local evangelical Christian group, is holding a weekend conference at Ballynahinch in Northern Ireland, where they're promoting the idea of curing and saving homosexuals. Several gay groups are picketing the conference. They hope to convince gay attendees that they're just fine the way they are....

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Ready to hug

People have very different attitudes to physical contact. Some, like myself, can't get enough of it - we love hugging, cuddling and kissing and all the affection and warmth that goes with it. Others loathe it and try to avoid even touching another person.

The contact-averse have a hard time here in Northern Ireland, where hugs and kisses are routine when you're meeting someone or parting from them. If you find it repulsive, you have to swallow your feelings and follow the custom, or else risk upsetting someone.

Physical contact is still less effusive among men, who tend to only feel comfortable with a hearty handshake or a slap on the shoulder. Anything more familiar still conjures up an unconscious association with homosexuality and the idea that too much touchy-feely stuff with another bloke is a bit weird. So men are often deprived of the reassuring hugs and cuddles that women get from each other all the time.

I've never had any hang-ups about bodily contact. In fact when I was young I craved it because my parents avoided it. My father just thought it was "inappropriate" while my mother was afraid hugging me too much would turn me queer. And being at an all-male boarding school for five years, not much hugging went on there (and no gayness either).

After I left school, I supported the Gay Liberation movement and never had any inhibitions about cuddling and kissing hundreds of gay men. I couldn't see why so many people objected to it. What could be more natural than showing friendliness and fondness by embracing someone?

For some though, casual physical contact is still deeply repugnant. It demands a degree of openness and spontaneity they find awkward. They feel embarrassed and conspicuous. They see it as theatrical and unnecessary. Well, each to their own, I guess, but if I was permanently deprived of physical affection I think my soul would shrivel up and die. Bodies can express something that any number of words cannot.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Making the best of it

Humans are very adaptable creatures - which is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, we can cope with shit situations. But we do that instead of rebelling and demanding something better.

We adapt to awful working conditions. The boss is a tyrant, the workload is impossible, our workmates are unhelpful, the pay is a pittance, but we somehow put up with it by telling ourselves it could be worse, or it won't be for long, or it's so close to home.

What we should be doing is telling the boss everything that's wrong with this crappy job and this crappy workplace, or getting the hell out, but that seems far too risky and uncertain, so we button our lip and get through the rest of the day.

We adapt to all sorts of things we should be trashing - toxic relationships, overbearing parents, useless governments, filthy hospitals. We even pride ourselves on our adaptability, "making the best of it", "looking on the bright side", "not letting things defeat us", "not making a fuss over nothing". It shows our strength of character, our resilience. It shows our down-to-earth realism.

But how different the world would look if we all flatly refused to be poor, or hungry, or jobless, or waiting endlessly for an operation. If we all stood up en masse and said "Enough. Enough of this shit. We're not taking any more. We deserve better, we deserve decent lives."

We can all imagine a better planet. John Lennon did it brilliantly. But what if we stopped imagining and just demanded it? No more fatalism, no more accepting that some are haves and some are have-nots. No more accepting that "that's the way things are." Suppose we all got up one day and said "Everything is possible. Everything can be changed." And we went out and did it?

This is the best account of being a control freak I've ever read. Eye-opening and hilarious in equal measures.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Unsung heroines (4)

Georgina Downs of Chichester, West Sussex, has spent the last ten years trying to ban pesticide-spraying near homes, schools and workplaces. She is sure it causes serious health problems.

She herself has suffered sore throats, blistering, muscle wastage and other ailments that have stopped her doing what she wanted with her life.

They have led to her not having a partner or children and not pursuing her chosen career in musical theatre. Instead she started the UK Pesticides Campaign to force the government to restrict pesticide spraying.

How can it be right, she says, that chemicals labelled "very toxic by inhalation" can be pumped out yards from people's homes? How come the sprayers themselves have to be properly protected against the chemicals but householders can breathe them in regardless?

In November 2008 the High Court ruled she had produced "solid evidence" that rural dwellers facing repeated exposure had suffered harm, and that the government "must think again" about the use of pesticides.

But eight months later the Appeal Court ruled the government was doing enough to protect its citizens.

Now Georgina is planning to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights and write a book on the subject.

She has researched the harmful effects of pesticides exhaustively and is convinced indiscriminate spraying can cause any number of severe conditions including cancer and Parkinson's Disease.

She says the government's claims that people are properly safeguarded aren't backed up by the evidence and they have misled and misinformed the public.

It's tremendous that people like Georgina won't be fobbed off by government reassurances about their health but are determined to get to the bottom of the matter and fight every inch of the way for better protection and more responsible attitudes. We could do with more people like her.

Unsung heroines 3: Salome Mbugua
Unsung heroines 2: Camila Batmanghelidjh
Unsung heroines 1: Gareth Peirce

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Thanks for the memory

Homeopathic remedies are getting a lot of stick at the moment. Critics are saying they're totally useless and have no active ingredients except water.

A few days ago some Merseysiders organised a mass overdose of homeopathic medicines to prove they were ineffective and no harm would result. Others have pointed out that there isn't a single molecule of anything beneficial in the remedies, only the supposed "memory" of the molecule.

I've never taken a homeopathic potion in my life, but they're lauded by many public figures including the Royal Family. They can be found in chain stores like Boots and they're available on the NHS.

They've become so respectable that the wave of criticism is not having much effect, even though it's pretty unanswerable. If you were offered a cancer remedy with nothing but the alleged "memory" of an active ingredient, would you be rushing to get it? I doubt it.

A lot of people like the idea of it being a "natural" remedy as opposed to some dubiously potent artificial drug. But homeopathic medicines are also artificial since they're manufactured. They're not something you can pick in the garden or gather on the beach. The "natural" is a misnomer.

I've known homeopathic doctors who stoutly defended their methods. I've known lots of individuals who swear homeopathic remedies cured them of some serious ailment. But the scientific evidence flatly contradicts them. Are we seriously to believe in some mysterious magic process that can't be identified by scientists? That way madness lies.

If Her Majesty wants to take memory-imbued water, good luck to her. I shall save my cash for something with more medical credentials than the modern equivalent of snake oil.

PS: Many patients at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital swear by homeopathic remedies and say they have helped with conditions that didn't respond to conventional treatment. My mind is not closed on the subject!

Sunday 7 February 2010

Romantically entwined

The romantic image of couples always shows them sharing a bed, lovingly entwined and amorous or sleeping together blissfully. Separate beds are not romantic.

There can be good reasons for sleeping apart though. One of you snores, or hogs the duvet, or keeps tossing and turning, so the other can't get a decent night's sleep. Separate bedrooms may not be romantic but neither is crawling out of bed when you've hardly slept a wink because of your other half's antics. It's nothing to be embarrassed about.

As it happens, Jenny and I have always shared a bed, because neither of us has nocturnal habits that disturb the other. We only snore very occasionally, we have separate duvets, and we don't toss or turn. We don't wake up screaming from nightmares, or talk in our sleep, or grind our teeth.

In fact we're model bedmates, we happily keep each other company and dream away beside each other. We love waking up together and exchanging bleary-eyed mutterings.

Some people crave separate beds for less obvious reasons. They like a bit of privacy after a day of togetherness. They can't sleep properly with someone else next to them. They don't like too much physical contact, even with a loved one. They want to hide their supposedly imperfect bodies. Or they just work different shifts. Not everyone sees bed-sharing as the ideal arrangement.

It must make for some awkward questions from kids though. "Don't you love each other, mummy?" "Why is daddy not allowed in your room?" And kids will probe and probe until they get an answer that satisfies them.

Come on, own up. Do any of you have separate beds?

Thursday 4 February 2010

Gayness corrected

It seems that the number of therapists offering to "cure" homosexuals and turn them into decent, upstanding heterosexuals is increasing.

So gay man Patrick Strudwick discovered when he investigated some of these therapists and found they even had their own professional associations dedicated to sexual "conversion".

Many of the therapists, not surprisingly, are religious believers and hold that converting gays is a kind of spiritual cleansing and rejection of sin.

One therapist claims that a third of gays treated are completely changed while another third change significantly, but he doesn't produce any recognised research to back this up.

It's been the consensus for many years that homosexuality is a deep-rooted preference that can't be "cured", unless the person was really straight all along. But religious zealots can't accept this.

One therapist told Patrick that a part of him had not developed properly, had "stayed stuck". It was a bit like being retarded, she said. He had turned to homosexuality because he had been "wounded" by inadequate parenting, and had become "confused" about his sexuality.

It's difficult to imagine any intelligent person being taken in by this vacuous mumbo-jumbo. All it's likely to do is undermine their self-confidence.

But if you're gay and not entirely secure about your preference, and maybe having to deal with anti-gay abuse and attacks, then you might succumb to the siren voices of these charlatans and their miracle cure - you too can be a normal heterosexual after all!

Why don't these fanatics just stick to prayer and proselytising instead of trying to meddle with people's minds?

Today (Saturday February 6) is the United Nations International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation. Some 90,000 women in the UK have either been subjected to it or are likely to be. Not one person has ever been prosecuted for what is a designated criminal offence. Two organisations, Forward and Plan, are campaigning to wipe out the practice.

Monday 1 February 2010

Look no cash

Could you survive without money? We're so used to needing the stuff that our immediate reaction is probably no. But a guy near Bath in Somerset is doing just that - and he says it's a fantastic experience.

Mark Boyle makes his own soap and toothpaste and gets food by foraging, working or collecting leftovers. He runs his laptop off solar panels, uses a wood-burning stove for heating and travels around by bike. He lives in a caravan he found through Freecycle.

He gave up using money in November 2008 and says "It's been a fantastic experience. It's taught me a lot about myself. I've never been happier or fitter. I see no reason to go back to using money."

He says the only things he misses are going for a few pints with his mates or going out for a meal with his parents.

Mark's ability to do without money makes me realise just how used we are to spending huge amounts on what we see as the necessities of daily life and how the idea of doing without all those things seems totally absurd.

How could we possibly enjoy our lives without a proper home, central heating, exotic foods and 101 over-the-counter products? Not to mention books, music and sundry cultural fixes.

I couldn't possibly give up all those essentials, I'm far too accustomed to a cash-fuelled lifestyle. Mark's existence is way too spartan and self-reliant for my liking.

But I do think about the sheer scale of spending our modern lifestyles entail and how much of it is really necessary or life-enhancing as opposed to habitual and socially-prompted.

I'm sure we could all simplify our lives considerably without feeling too deprived or out-of-step. I must say I admire Mark's persistence and ingenuity. We all need to reappraise our engrained values occasionally, even if it doesn't lead to such a radical makeover.

See also the story of Joan Pick, whose ultra-abstemious existence aims to slash her carbon footprint to zero.