Thursday 28 August 2014

My humble apologies

I'm good at apolog-ising. I'll happily apologise for anything if it oils the wheels of a relation-ship. Be it a misunder-standing, an unintended insult, an error of fact, or an unpopular opinion, I don't mind humbling myself and admitting that maybe I got it wrong. What's the big deal about that?

But there are so many people who'll do anything rather than apologise. Apologies are apparently a huge humiliation, a huge blow to their ego, something they have to avoid at all costs.

They'll deny doing anything wrong, or find some absurd excuse or justification, or say they were only joking, or say you're over-sensitive. Anything rather than drop their pose of infallibility and admit they're only human and sometimes they drop a clanger.

My father hated apologising. No matter how obviously wrong he was about something, he would never back down. He had to be right, his authority couldn't be challenged, he couldn't bear it that I might actually know more about something than him.

I can recall several workmates who were much the same. Apologising was out of the question. It was always someone else who was wrong, not them. Any attempt to extract an apology was met with anger and incredulity.

The one thing hospital patients always ask for when they've had shoddy treatment of some kind is an apology. "I just want them to admit they got it wrong and they have to do better" they'll say. And the one thing the hospital invariably won't do is apologise. They'll prevaricate and obfuscate and do anything to avoid simply saying "We're really sorry, we made a mess of this and it's not good enough."

And while I'm at it, I sincerely apologise for all those nonsensical, long-winded, infantile, pedantic blog posts I've churned out over the last seven years. If there's anything I can do to make amends, just say the word. You've no idea how ashamed and stupid and careless I feel. What a total dufus I've been. What a total toss-bucket. I promise to do much much better in the future.

Sunday 24 August 2014

The final step

It's easy to understand someone killing themself because of a serious physical illness, or the early signs of one. Obviously they don't want to suffer endlessly or rely on long-term care.*

But when it's suicide after mental distress, people often say they don't understand why the person did it. They wonder why they didn't ask for help or why they didn't respond to the help that was given. Surely there was no need for such a drastic step?

They may even be totally unsympathetic. They may say suicide is selfish, or weak, or melodramatic, or even callous. Did they realise the grief and guilt they were inflicting on their friends and relatives?

I find such lack of sympathy and understanding quite startling. I think it's a failure of imagination, of the ability to see the extremities of pain and distress and misery the person is enduring, pain so severe that any amount of advice, therapy, drugs, support and chivvying is never going to soothe or cure it. Their psyche is so fractured, their emotions so disordered, that life is just an intolerable burden they have to get rid of.

Jenny and I had a friend who was diagnosed schizophrenic for over 30 years. When we visited her she would put on a show of being cheerful and ebullient but sometimes the mask would slip and we would see just how unhappy she was underneath. Her future was obviously cruelly limited and stuck, and eventually she killed herself. Numerous people had tried to help her but her distress was too deep-rooted to be extinguished.

It's all too common to misinterpret severe despair or depression as "being a bit pissed off" or "being up against it" and not recognise the depth and breath of an overwhelming hopelessness. Even if you recognise it, the person may feel too ashamed or timid or paralysed to admit it.

Such suffocating and unyielding misery is all too understandable. The tragedy is that even if you understand, you may be powerless to put things right.

*This suicide note from Gillian Bennett, who was in the early stages of dementia, is astonishingly rational and clear-sighted. No way was "the balance of her mind disturbed", as the cliché has it.

Wednesday 20 August 2014


It's a real double-think being in Berlin. As I strolled around the city, it looked much like any other comfort-able, prosperous city. People looked happy, stylishly dressed, well fed and watered, doing very nicely thank you.

It's only when we went to the historical museums and memorials that I was reminded abruptly of the horrifying events Berliners have had to endure in the not so distant past. It seemed like a parallel universe, another Berlin, a fanciful novel.

But it isn't. The Holocaust, the Berlin Wall, the Cold War. It all happened here and it was a terrifying contrast to the comfort and prosperity of today. Walking among all those contented people, it's hard to envisage all the wretched clusters of the Unwanted, dragged from their homes and bound for concentration camps. It's hard to envisage all the desperate East Berliners resorting to such extreme methods to escape to the West. And it's hard to imagine the anxiety of being so close to Soviet nuclear missiles.

For those Berliners of my generation, it must be a profound relief to finally be free of all that horror and mayhem and to enjoy a city that is once again at peace and tolerant of a wide range of religions, cultures, ethnicities and sexual tastes.

I have to say though that I was surprised at the lack of gay visibility. Although Berlin has a reputation as a gay Mecca, I saw very little sign of it. The Gay Holocaust Memorial is a pathetic nothing, just a concrete cube containing a video of gay men and women kissing. And in all my travels round the city, I saw only three gay couples openly holding hands, plus a gay men's art gallery and bookshop tucked away in the back streets of Charlottenburg, well away from the city centre. I got the distinct feeling that gays still leave a bad taste in many people's mouths and that discretion and secrecy are still the order of the day. Most disappointing.

But today's Berlin is a lovely city to visit - relaxed, civilised, reeking of good taste and sophistication. With fantastic views from the top of the Reichstag, now beautifully restored after the Nazis set fire to it in 1933. And behind the Reichstag, the sprawling parkland of the Tiergarten. What's not to like?

  • The Typography of Terror
  • The Holocaust Memorial
  • The Story of Berlin (museum)
  • The Berlin Wall Memorial
  • The Stasi Museum
  • The Käthe Kollwitz Museum
  • The Reichstag and Dome
Pic: The Berlin Wall Memorial. One of the remaining sections of the Wall.

Tuesday 12 August 2014


Don't worry, Nick will be back in a few days.....

Friday 8 August 2014

Beyond belief

I knew religious belief was common in the States, but I didn't realise it was so rife that atheists are routinely discrim-inated against. So much so that a lot of atheists don't even dare to reveal their non-belief and are forced to stay in the closet.

Atheists are often shunned by their parents and relatives, or showered with abuse, or ostracised by schoolmates. As they are only two per cent of US adults, the other 98 per cent know they can get away with such victimisation.

Now a lot of organisations are springing up to defend atheists and their right to opt out of religion. There's even a TV channel, Atheist TV. They encourage people to "come out" and say what they really think, so others can see just how many atheists there really are.

Religious belief is common in Northern Ireland too, but those who don't believe aren't continually persecuted and hounded and expected to share the same beliefs. In the 14 years I've lived in Northern Ireland, I can't recall a single person objecting to my atheism or expecting me to fall in with the majority.

Of course it might be they just assume I'm a believer; it simply never occurs to them that I'm not, as I never enlighten them. Unlike church-going folk, there's no visible sign of my non-belief, no atheist trappings or rituals.

So why isn't it the same in the States? Why can't they just live and let live? Why this frenzy to wipe out the non-believers, all two per cent of them? Why do they feel so threatened by difference?

As I've said before, I see religion as something private and personal, a sort of self-help programme people use to improve their lives. It has nothing to do with other people unless they freely show an interest in it.

Why is it such a sin to opt out of something?

Monday 4 August 2014

Short of chums

It's curious how some people have a natural talent for friendship, making friends effortlessly wherever they go, while others just never get the hang of it and potential friends come and go like ships in the night.

Being one of the latter, I'm always bemused by the friend-makers. I study them carefully, trying to work out what they're doing right and what I'm doing wrong, but I'm none the wiser. They just have an instinctive way of connecting with others that I seem to have been born without.

There's been no shortage of possible friends-to-be, people who on first encounter I seem to hit it off with. But after a few promising chats, the initial spark flickers out and it goes no further. If a friendship lasts six months, it's a miracle. Is it their fault? Is it my fault? Who can say?

It still bothers me that I'm so crap at making friends*. In a society where virtually everyone seems to have an impressive retinue of devoted buddies, my visible lack of them is embarrassing. I could of course fake a gang of bosom pals I'm gossiping away with every night of the week, but I don't think I could keep up the pretence for long. Why would I want to anyway?

I can tell myself a lack of friends has its advantages. Plenty of peace and quiet. Nobody ringing me in a state of hysterical despair at 2 am. Not having to sympathise with some course of action I secretly find idiotic. Not being expected to explain every domestic row to a dozen people.

But it's not very convincing. The fact is I'd quite like to soothe someone's hysterical despair or share my latest marital upset. I'd quite like to be that close to someone. It's not going to happen though.

"There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate" - Linda Grayson.

*With the notable exception of my long-time partner, of course.