Saturday 31 December 2016

Dignity or disgrace

Funny how some people are really hot on dignity and won't do anything remotely embarrassing or controversial, while others happily disgrace themselves and find the whole idea of dignity laughable.

The dignified faction would never be seen drinking too much, making a fuss in a restaurant, or complaining about ticket prices, while the other lot drink themselves senseless, throw up and pass out on a regular basis. And complain about everything under the sun.

Of course dignity means different things to different people. If it means feeling respected and taken seriously, fine, I'm sure we all want that. Too many people don't get the respect they deserve. But if being "dignified" is just an excuse to be haughty and condescending and sneer at other people's excesses and indulgences, that's "dignity" we could do without.

If dignity only means respectability, or looking good in the eyes of other people, then you can keep that too. I'd rather do what I think is right, and what I'm comfortable with, than look good. Many a monstrous attitude lurks behind respectability.

Likewise, if dignity only means pomp and ceremony, like lawyers' wigs, graduates' gowns, fancy honours and awards, and rows of medals, I think we could live without all that. Respect for others shouldn't depend on what they're wearing or what grand title they've acquired.

And if dignity just means bottling up your thoughts and feelings to appear "in control", that's a big mistake. Why do people praise mourners at a funeral for being "dignified" and not showing their grief and shock? What's wrong with letting it all out?

Like most people, I guess, I want my thoughts and feelings to be taken seriously, and that kind of dignity is welcome. At other times I couldn't care less about dignity and just want to do my own thing, however silly or weird or truculent. I'll hug the nearest tree, recite bad limericks, talk to the neighbour's cat and do my dying seal impression.

I don't drink myself senseless though. Indignity has its limits.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Shrub shortage

My thoughts have returned to neighbours, after Kylie told me about an Australian couple who got an anonymous letter saying their front garden was "in a disgraceful state" and they should "shape up or ship out".

Other less judgmental neighbours have rallied round to defend the Ackroyds, who can't understand what all the fuss is about.

The letter, directed at Ebony Ackroyd, objected to the kids' playground, the old tyres, the weeds and the lack of shrubs, and complained that her idle husband never did any work in the garden.

"Just take a walk up White Avenue and observe every house, there's none in the deplorable, lazy state as yours" says the letter. "If you and your husband can afford fancy haircuts, you can damn well afford six shrubs for your front."

If you look at White Avenue, Hamilton, on Street View, it's a sedate, suburban street with large houses and no doubt plenty of snooty, censorious neighbours who bristle at any garden without manicured lawns and well-tended flowerbeds.

So some households don't apply arbitrary aesthetic standards to their front gardens but just use them as they see fit. If they prefer kids' toys to shrubs, that's their business. It's not as if they're drilling for oil or selling fish and chips. Why does someone get so hot under the collar as to leave a stroppy anonymous letter in the mailbox?

I could think of a few front gardens in my own neighbourhood that are full of junk, builders' rubble and old bikes, but a snotty note isn't the answer. All that does is spread bad feeling and defensiveness. Especially if it's anonymous and you're looking suspiciously at all your neighbours, wondering who can't live and let live.

Just be careful where you put those old tyres.

Pics: the Ackroyds' front garden and Ebony Ackroyd

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Just remind me

I've always had a terrible memory. My past is but a sketchy outline, shorn of all the specifics and minutiae. I struggle to recall convers-ations I had a week ago, or who I had them with. The plots of films and books evaporate within days. Faces and names vanish rapidly, unless they're very distinctive.

This failing has obvious disadvantages. Someone will insist they met me on a previous occasion (or several), though I don't remember them at all. Someone will ask me what a book was about, and I frantically rack my brains. Someone will remind me of a decision we made last week, and I'll ask them what it was.

I'm well used to all the embarrassment, confusion, panic and vagueness this brings about, and the crafty attempts to feign memories and knowledge I don't actually possess. Sometimes if it's just too much to admit a total memory-blank, I'll find a way of skimming over it with some ambiguous remark.

But a bad memory also has its benefits.

Nasty experiences are soon forgotten, and I don't waste time dwelling on them and nurturing grievances. My head isn't clogged up with irrelevant detail so it's easier to get to the heart of something. If the plot of a book I've read escapes me, I can read it again with just as much pleasure.

I've forgotten all the absurd, pretentious and ill-informed rubbish I've written in the past and can confidently carry on writing as if my opinions are brilliantly astute. All the mindless tripe has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

But my inability to recall past events in any depth makes me wonder if they happened at all, or if the scrappy, threadbare images are entirely imaginary. No, that way madness lies....

Saturday 17 December 2016

New neighbours

My new neighbours - will they be okay or will they be the neighbours from hell? Will they be friendly and welcoming or will they be sullen, snobbish and standoffish?

It's the question I always ask myself when I'm moving house, and since I've lived in thirteen different homes, I've asked it a lot.

If I knew my neighbours would be a pain in the butt, I might very well have cancelled the move, but usually there's no way of knowing what they're like until you actually move in and find out. Short of grilling all the other neighbours, or spying on them for a week or two, you're in the dark.

We've seen the whole range of neighbours, from the charming couple who took in our parcels when we were out and trimmed our hedge for us, to the anti-social arseholes who had all-night parties twice a week and ignored every complaint.

Most neighbours were neither one or the other, just inoffensive, unassuming types who kept to themselves and wanted no contact other than "hello there" or "have you seen my missing car keys?" Their lives were a complete mystery until the day we moved out. For all I knew, they were kidnappers, drug dealers, internet trolls, bondage enthusiasts, you name it.

When I lived in a bedsit in Abbey Road, London (yes, that Abbey Road) the elderly woman upstairs proved to be an alcoholic who would reel in at any time of the day or night, stinking of whisky and sometimes throwing up on the stairs. She was well beyond help, even if I'd known what help to offer.

In another bedsit at the Angel, Islington, the landlord lived upstairs and was also an alcoholic. My requests for repairs or properly-functioning appliances or removal of the putrid rubbish dump outside my kitchen window would be brushed aside in his hurry to get to the pub and down a few more pints.

Our best neighbours were probably a lovely couple called Ricky and Sheila who became good friends and helped us out of all sorts of difficulties. It was one of our saddest days when we heard Ricky had died in a head-on collision with another car. By some miracle, his daughter Katy, who was in the passenger seat, survived with nothing but a few bruises.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Ageist tripe

I do get annoyed by the ageist nonsense that people throw around so thoughtlessly. From what you read, you'd think everyone over 60 was hopeless, helpless, gormless and generally past it.

You'd also think that we oldies caused all the setbacks and difficulties younger people are having to cope with, deliberately and selfishly sabotaging everyone else's lives while we swan off on our umpteenth cruise to some exotic location.

Just some of the more persistent myths:

1) We're all chronically ill and taking 20 pills daily. Actually, some of us are quite fit and healthy, believe it or not.
2) Our memories have gone and we can barely recall our own names. Lots of oldies still have photographic memories.
3) We're stealing jobs from young people. Employers often find oldies more reliable and more efficient than youngsters.
4) We're personally to blame for sky-high house prices, sky-high tuition fees, the lack of decent, well-paid jobs, and the cash-strapped NHS. No, they're largely the fault of politicians not planning properly for the future.
5) We're all about to fall over and break our hips. Only if we try to hop, skip and jump down the high street.
6) We sit around all day watching soaps and nature programmes. We're just as likely to be jogging or hill-walking.
7) We've all got huge pensions or private incomes. Plenty of hard-up oldies have to decide whether to eat or heat.
8) We all go on luxury cruises at least twice a year. See number 7.
9) We're all intolerant fuddy-duddies. Some are, while others are red-hot radicals itching for a socialist utopia.
10) We're no longer interested in sex. There's no shortage of randy septuagenarians, especially in the age of Viagra.
11) We loathe the internet. No we don't, we use it all the time. We like funny cartoons and fluffy kittens just like everyone else. Oh, and why not Skype our friends in Australia and Alaska?

Saturday 10 December 2016

No cleavage, girls

Queen's University, Belfast, has attracted angry protests after telling graduating students to avoid short skirts and cleavage and dressing like Kim Kardashian. "Graduation is a formal event and the dress code should match this."

Politics student Sarah Wright criticised the "outrageous" advice to women graduates. "The focus should be on their achievements, not on moralising regarding what they choose as adults to wear to celebrate the occasion."

Well, yes, surely the point of the day is that students have graduated. What has their choice of clothing to do with graduating? Why should they dress like management consultants? Why shouldn't they wear what they feel comfortable in? If some people are bothered by short skirts and cleavage, that's their problem.

Presumably the university is worried about its reputation and thinks over-casual clothing creates the wrong "image". It seems to me that telling students how to dress and how not to dress doesn't do much for their image either.

And if the university is really concerned about its reputation, perhaps they should do something about the students living nearby who subject local residents to drunken rampages and abuse every day of the week. The constant complaints about student behaviour are met with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders from the university.

When I walk past the university on graduation day, I don't give a monkeys what the graduates are wearing. If they have afros and three-inch heels, so what? They can turn up in bikinis for all I care. I'm just glad people can study for degrees in subjects that interest them and improve their future prospects.

I have to confess I had no clothing dilemmas when I graduated. I never got that far. I dropped out of my incredibly uninspiring degree course after a year and became a bookseller instead.

Pic: Chloe Lamont, an English and Film graduate at Queen's

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Playing safe

I used to think I had a strong instinct for self-preservation, which is why I've resisted all those things that spoil other people's lives - like eating too much, drinking too much, abusing drugs, slipping into a couch potato lifestyle.

But when I look a bit more closely, I have to admit it wasn't self-preservation that steered me away from all these habits but other quite random personal characteristics that aren't so impressive.

Eating too much makes me feel queasy and unwell. Drinking too much totally numbs my brain. Drugs might have claimed me if it wasn't for not knowing where to get them. And I could have been a couch potato if it wasn't for the physical restlessness that stops me sitting for very long.

Although we humans are supposed to have a strong self-preservation instinct, actually I think it's pretty feeble and often overwhelmed by our tendency to act on impulse regardless of the consequences. Especially when we just want to enjoy ourselves.

All the time I see people doing amazingly risky things, blatantly dicing with death and injury, oblivious to self-preservation. Motorists overtaking on blind bends, jaywalking pedestrians, drunks about to totter off station platforms, householders on wobbly ladders. They defy all the dangers, convinced they won't come to any harm. Or not even caring if they come to harm or not.

The honest truth is that often I'm as impulsive and reckless as the next person, and self-preservation is the last thing on my mind. If I've never come to any serious harm in my life, it's really more luck than judgment. I can stop feeling self-righteous because I'm not as canny as I think.

Another smug self-appraisal bites the dust.

Saturday 3 December 2016

Malicious rumours

Santa Claus has once again had to quash the constant rumours that he doesn't exist. In a statement today, he insists that he is very much alive and the claims of his non-existence are malicious and upsetting.

"Of course I exist" he said, as he poured me a generous glass of prosecco at his luxurious home, Santa Towers in Reindeer City, Lapland. "Here I am, as large as life, as you can see, working hard on the production of this year's Christmas presents. These mischief-makers should shut up and stop distressing all those children who're looking forward to Santa's annual visit.

"Every year I have to deny these absurd rumours that I'm just a fantasy figure who doesn't exist in real life. I may be extremely old, I may have had one too many on occasion, and I may be a little too plump for the smaller chimneys (I leave those to the elves). But I haven't yet kicked the bucket.

"My lawyers are dealing with the most persistent offenders, and they can expect to pay substantial damages to the Exhausted Elves Benevolent Fund."

Children everywhere have been devastated by the claims that he doesn't really exist. Five-year-old Lucy Gristle of Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, cried non-stop for a week after hearing the rumours. "She was inconsolable" said her mother, Melanie. "I tried everything to stop the tears but nothing worked. I don't know how people can bring themselves to start such pernicious tittle-tattle, knowing full well it will break so many children's hearts. They should be ashamed of themselves."

After watching Santa's TV interview, little Lucy is now over the moon and eagerly awaiting his visit. "He's so clever, he always knows exactly what I want" she said. "I only show my present list to mummy, but he finds out somehow and there they all are under the Christmas tree. I love Santa so much."

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Drained and skint

Another mother has taken the bold step of declaring that bringing up children is hard work and she can't wait for her youngest child to be an independ-ent adult.

"Raising a child is 1% happiness and 99% worry. Raising children not only left me exhausted but it left me bankrupt" says French author Corinne Maier. But she feels obliged to say she loves being a parent, even if it isn't true. "It's time to stop marketing the babies-mean-happiness idea,"

She thinks improving this rotten world "with its exhausted assets and polluted natural resources" is a higher priority than raising children. As child-rearing takes so much energy, it's hard to do both.

Naturally other mothers will disagree. If there are fewer children, who will look after the elderly or keep the economy going, or for that matter who will fight to improve the rotten world?

But certainly while there's no shortage of would-be parents to maintain the population, there's a drastic shortage of would-be environmental campaigners to tackle the worrying state of the planet. If things go on as they are, there'll no longer be a functional world for our children to inherit. So maybe Corinne has a valid point.

I do think many parents rush into child-rearing without properly considering if they're up to the job. The number of children one way or another psychologically damaged by inadequate parents is alarming. But every parent thinks they'll get on just fine, or at any rate they'll muddle through and their kids won't come to any serious harm. If only that were true.

As you know I have no children. For all sorts of reasons, but mainly because having children meant nothing to me. I agree with Corinne - saving the planet is a hundred times more important.

Pic: is not Corinne Maier!

Friday 25 November 2016

Playing the field

I can't imagine what it's like to live with a man who's a compulsive flirt and womaniser. Whenever he's out of your sight, you must be wondering what he's up to and fearing the worst.

Your suspicions of womanising must intensify if he's a prominent public figure mixing with glamorous women who admire powerful men. Can he resist the endless temptation?

I guess you have several choices. Either you watch him like a hawk and try to prevent any shenanigans, or you accept that's the way he is and adapt to it, or you kiss him goodbye and get him out of your life.

I have no such worries about Jenny, and vice versa. Neither of us have ever been promiscuous and we know there are no shameful confessions in the offing. Old-fashioned maybe but that's how we like it.

It must be almost as bad to live with a man who's insanely jealous and convinced you're having affairs when you're not. My father was always sure my mother was up to something behind his back - not only with men but with women. He simply couldn't believe she was 100 per cent loyal to him and was never enticed by anyone else. He thought she was so attractive that other men must be making advances all the time. She would be hurt and offended by his outrageous accusations, but her angry denials never entirely persuaded him.

It doesn't help that affairs are now considered normal by many people. If you've lived with someone for many years, isn't it natural that you get bored with each other sexually and need a fresh partner to stir up that sluggish libido?

Well, it depends on the couple and their relationship, I guess. To some, looking elsewhere might seem the obvious thing to do. To others, it's a sign the relationship is failing and needs to be reassessed.

Fortunately, not a dilemma I've had to face.

Monday 21 November 2016

Who me, smart?

It's said that men tend to over-estimate their intelligence while women under-estimate it. Well, personally I'm one of the under-estimators. However often I'm told how intelligent I am, I never really believe it. I'm quite sure it's just a bit of flattery far removed from reality.

I suppose the reason for my self-doubt is that I fasten on every mistake or misunderstanding or moment of confusion as obvious evidence of my limited intelligence. Surely if I was that intelligent these things wouldn't happen?

On the other hand, when I instantly grasp something complicated or have some brilliant insight, instead of seeing it as a sign of intelligence, I see it as a peculiar fluke or stroke of luck that only emphasises how gormless I usually am.

I also assume intelligence means being quick on the uptake. If I'm in a new job or situation, and I'm not picking things up fast enough, I conclude I'm a prize dimwit. Surely other people grasp things much quicker? I forget that maybe the problem is the complexity and unfamiliarity of what I'm being told, not my brain.

I'm fooled too by people who pretend to understand something that's gone way over their heads. They listen to someone yattering away and nod frequently as if they're totally up to speed, while I'm mentally floundering. Obviously they're much brainier! It never occurs to me that they just don't want to admit their ignorance.

If anyone raves over a book or film or artwork I didn't like, again I assume they must be more intelligent, they've caught all sort of nuances and subtleties that mysteriously passed me by. Their attention must be way sharper than mine. But is it? Perhaps those clever nuances they've spotted are more imaginary than real.

So go on, reassure me that I'm highly intelligent. I still won't believe it.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Questions, questions

All those questions you've been dying to ask, answered at last. More glaring gaps in your nick-knowledge finally filled in. It's your lucky day!

What's your greatest fear?
Being burnt or crushed to death

Which living person do you most admire?
Gareth Peirce, the human rights lawyer

What trait do you most deplore in yourself?
Worrying too much, timidity, brusqueness

What was your most embarrassing moment?
Too many to name - saying something inappropriate, being lost for words, letting someone down

What's the dearest thing you've bought (other than a house)?
Various cars

What's your most treasured possession?
An abstract by an artist I knew in the sixties

What's your favourite smell?
Newly mown grass, coffee, freshly laundered bed linen

What's your favourite word?
Inebriated, impecunious, soporific

Which book changed your life?
Gestalt Therapy Verbatim by Fritz Perls

What in your life would you have done differently?
I would have moved to Australia

What or who is your greatest love?
Jenny, obviously

What do you owe your parents?
Self-discipline, persistence, a crazy sense of humour

What did you want to be when grown-up?
A journalist - which I was for a few years

To whom would you like to say sorry, and why?
Jenny, for careless hurtful remarks

Who would come to your dream dinner party?
Patti Smith, Paris Lees*, Tina Fey

Which word or phrase do you overuse?
Who knows? Why bother? Does it matter?

What's the worst job you've done?
Admin work for a chaotic London council

What was your biggest disappointment?
I'd rather not say

What would improve your quality of life?
More close friends, a better memory

What is your greatest achievement?
Several trips to Australia, going vegetarian

*transgender activist

(questions shamelessly pinched from the Guardian magazine)

Saturday 12 November 2016

A time of trepidation

The media is still wall-to-wall President Pussy-Grabber. Other news has been squeezed out of the headlines. Every available columnist has been told to pen a few words, however trite, on the new Bum-Fancier-in-Chief.

I feel I should do my bit and lob in my ten-cents worth. But what to say that hasn't been said a hundred times already? What to say that isn't apoplectic, hysterical, doom-laden, abusive or childish?

Above all, I feel for all those millions of Americans who are now very scared about the future, and how they might fare under the Trump regime. All those who till recently felt at home in America, and (on the whole) were treated decently by their fellow-citizens. All those who now feel things are changing rapidly and changing for the worse.
  • Homosexuals
  • Transgender men and women
  • The disabled
  • Black people
  • Foreign nationals
  • Migrants
  • Women
They've seen how things declined in the UK after the EU referendum, with a huge upsurge in hate crimes, abuse, death threats, physical attacks, ostracism and ultimatums to leave the country. Some were so nervous about their personal safety, and their families' safety, they have indeed left the country. Many others are thinking of leaving.

Of course those lucky Americans who aren't in one of the threatened groups, those who're well off and doing nicely and largely unaffected by who happens to be President, mostly aren't interested in those less fortunate citizens.

They shrug their shoulders, insist everyone's over-reacting, joke about moving to Canada, say the campaign rhetoric was just hot air, say Trump will be put in his place, and so on.

Such complacent dismissals won't reassure those who know how hard it is to stem the flow of hatred and intolerance once it's become normal and once it's been sanctioned at the highest levels.

I fear Trump's America could turn very ugly.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Not much fun

A study of men who go on stag dos concluded that most of them don't enjoy it and would rather not have taken part. At various times they felt embarr-assed, humiliated, shamed and scared, and only joined in because they felt it was expected it of them.

A groom-to-be was pressured into going to a lap-dancing club and hated every minute of it. One man was subjected to sustained ritual humiliation, given so much to drink he passed out and wet himself, and then tied up with cling-film. And so on.

Thankfully I've never been on a stag do in my life. I've been to very few weddings, but in each case the groom-to-be loathed stag nights and I was never invited to one. The whole idea of relentless debauchery and drunkenness fills me with horror. I can't see the attraction, and I can't see how a hung-over and shattered groom could possibly enjoy his wedding.

People in other countries are reportedly baffled by the frantic over-indulgence of British stag dos, and the mayhem they cause in local communities. They just wish those involved would go back home on the earliest flight.

Perhaps those men who know they won't enjoy themselves should be honest enough to say so and opt out. If that means they're seen as wimps and milksops, so be it.  Better than being ritually humiliated by so-called "friends".

This lingering male tradition of ritual humiliation is pretty sick. Why do some men feel the need to torment other men by getting them to drink too much or harass women or do something disgusting or dangerous? What's wrong with a simple supportive friendship? What's wrong with being nice to each other?

The sooner stag nights go out of fashion, the better.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Happy as I am

I seldom imagine someone else's life to be better than my own. I'm happy with my life, with all its ups and downs, and I know the seemingly fabulous lives I read about often hide miseries and tragedies I wouldn't want to be burdened with.

In fact it's now routine for celebs to reel off the horrible experiences they've had to deal with, as if to say, don't bother to envy me, I'm no better off than you are - except that I have fame and money. Which is a bit of a cushion, granted, but it's no protection against grief, depression, domestic violence or those everyday problems we all run into.

In fact fame and money often make life harder. Divorces are horrendous, as each spouse tries to claim the maximum share of the marital assets. You can never be quite sure if someone is a genuine friend or a gold-digger. You're forever in the spotlight and being mercilessly criticised and picked to bits.

But even people with more ordinary lives don't make me want to swop. However happy and fulfilled they might seem on the outside, who knows what emotional and mental baggage they're carrying around? Who knows what they're carefully concealing? Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

The truth is I'm thoroughly familiar with all my personal quirks and oddities and I've learnt how to deal with them. I know how to exploit my strengths and minimise my weaknesses. If I suddenly fell into someone else's life, I'd have to get acquainted with a brand new personality. I'd be floundering around like a dog on an ice rink.

It would be fun to swop with someone for a week, say. Just to see if their life really is better than mine. I suspect I'd soon be tearing my hair out.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Goodbye, dating

One great relief now I'm older is that I no longer face the fraught business of dating and starting a relation-ship. Thankfully all that's behind me and I'm well settled with my partner of 35 years. Unless disaster strikes and I find myself back in the dating game at the age of 80.

I can remember well all the embarrassments and uncertainties of going out with someone new and fretting over the necessary stages - chatting up, dating, kissing, mutual checking-out, then possibly the bedroom (or car or settee) and sex.

Am I doing this right? Am I going too fast? Am I putting her off? Am I frightening her? Am I looking hopelessly inept? What exactly is she up for? How do I tell?

Nobody ever gave me guidance on the dating thing. The boys at my single-sex school seemed to have little contact with girls and had nothing to say about it. My parents were also saying nothing, expecting me to work it all out for myself.

I was grateful when the woman took the initiative and suggested the next step. Some women virtually dragged me into bed, which made it very easy but rather intimidated me - with a predictable let-down under the sheets.

How thankful I was at the grand old age of 34 when I got it together with Jenny and the trials and traumas of dating were finally over.

Dating seems even more fraught these days. Expectations of possible partners are now so high you wonder how people ever fall for each other and can tick all the boxes. The wrong hairstyle or cut of jeans could be fatal.

But goodness, how exciting it was when a date was going well, and that deliriously smart and attractive woman actually seemed to like me. A lot.

Sunday 23 October 2016

Try being human

The artist Grayson Perry has written a book about the destructive nature of "mascul-inity". Like other men who have explored the same subject, he doesn't think we should junk the concept altogether. He says it just needs a bit of tweaking, a bit of adjustment, to make it more positive.

He thinks there's a more tender, sensitive version of masculinity, typified by men like Barack Obama and David Beckham, that should replace the cold, brutal stereotype many men still aspire to.

I think that's a cop-out. To my mind, however you define masculinity, however you try to soften it and purge its unsavoury reality, it'll never totally lose the underlying nastiness. It's so strongly linked with sexual aggression, emotional stunting, domestic violence, competitiveness, arrogance, egotism and dominance, it's hard to see how it could ever be positive.

I think the whole idea of masculinity is obsolete. It's of no benefit to anybody, either women or men. It should be consigned to the history books. It should be given a decent burial.

The answer to the problem of toxic masculinity is so simple. Instead of searching for some less tainted version of "masculinity", men should simply act like human beings. They should be kind, considerate, generous, supportive, emotional and loving. They should treat other people as equals to be valued and cherished. They shouldn't see weakness, vulnerability and fear as things to be exploited.

Could any version of "masculinity" ever embrace that sort of behaviour? However advanced your definition, wouldn't it still be a bit dubious? Wouldn't it smack of sissies, softies, slop-bags, wimps? Wouldn't it be something for you and your mates to sneer at? Wouldn't it be laughably "effeminate"?

Men can redefine masculinity till the cows come home. It will still be a millstone around our necks. It will still reek of entitlement and belligerence. But human beings are always welcome.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Of all the luck

I react in two different ways to the horrors and miseries of the world. Sometimes I feel sad that so many people are struggling and floundering and unable to better themselves. At other times I feel happy that I'm lucky enough to have a comfortable, peaceful life while others don't.

The sadness tends to win out, but why should it? Why shouldn't the happiness win out? Why shouldn't I fully appreciate my good fortune, even if I'm very aware it's not shared by everyone? Why be sunk in gloom just because others are?

I think I have a problem with the idea of luck. I can't accept its randomness, its capriciousness. I can't accept that if you're lucky you should just be happy and celebrate it.

I find that hard. I dwell on the fact that others are less lucky, others are stumbling around while I'm not. I feel uncomfortable about it. I feel I've had it too easy. I feel I don't deserve it. I feel a sort of survivor's guilt.

But all I'm doing is taking the edge off my happiness. Spoiling it with pointless doubts and misgivings that make me feel bad instead of just enjoying my luck. I won't simply accept luck for what it is, a sort of burst of sunlight that happened to fall my way and brighten my life.

Why look a gift horse in the mouth? I've been lucky. My life has worked out exceptionally well. Why question it? Why pick it to pieces?

Saturday 15 October 2016

The wrong voice

Apparently business is booming for voice coaches (aka speech therapists). Lots of people are sufficiently unhappy with their accent or way of speaking to ask a voice coach to help them change it.

They think their voice is too posh and want it to be more ordinary. Or they have a regional accent and want a London one.  Or they're foreigners who still speak English with a foreign accent and want to lose it. Or they feel they don't speak clearly or forcefully enough.

Whatever the motive, they're ready to spend £400 upwards to have their voice altered so they feel more confident and less of an oddity.

Well, I won't be joining them any time soon. I'm quite happy with my accent, even though it's very noticeably posh English and makes many people assume I'm a rich bastard with a country mansion full of priceless antiques. If they only knew....

I'm not keen on the daft assumptions, but I don't mind that little extra respect my accent encourages. Service does sometimes seem a little brisker and friendlier as soon as I start speaking. Or maybe I'm imagining it.

But I don't know why someone would want to shed a regional accent. Most of them are very attractive and a refreshing change from bog-standard BBC English. In fact I gather some employers prefer regional accents because they sound more friendly and reassuring than cool, clipped London posh.

I can understand those foreigners who want to lose the foreign accent, though. Unfortunately racism and xenophobia are a fact of life and people are very likely to treat you badly if you don't speak "proper" English. Naturally foreigners want to blend in and be taken for "one of us".

But I doubt anyone would actually hanker after the genuine "Queen's English". Who on earth would aspire to that bizarre nasal, strangled tone the Queen uses? I would want to die if I spoke like that.

Monday 10 October 2016

Mountains or molehills?

People's real-life identities are very different from the ridiculous gender roles that follow us all around, but if there's one way men fit the stereotype, it's their urge to be rugged, self-sufficient individuals.

The evidence is that men are less likely to ask other people for support and tend to keep their problems to themselves, even if they're being torn apart by grief, sadness, hatred, or other extreme emotions.

It's a step forward that so many male celebs have admitted recently to their battles with depression, anxiety and other psychological issues, things that in the past they may have kept strictly under wraps, but there's still a long way to go.

It seems to me most women tend to spill out their troubles to anyone who'll listen, and their close friends for sure. They're less likely to bottle up agonising emotions and pretend everything's fine.

Certainly when I was young I conformed to the male stereotype and kept my miseries to myself. When I was bullied at school, as far as I remember I never confided in the housemaster or the head prefect or anyone who might have helped me. I guess I would have seen such an admission of weakness and helplessness as too humiliating. Men are meant to be strong and resilient and all the rest of it.

Now I have Jenny to confide in, of course I share my negative feelings with her all the time, and I'm lucky to be able to. But I still hesitate to show them to anyone else, even people I know very well. I ask myself, why would they want to listen? This is simply the emotional buffeting and turbulence of dealing with life. They'll think I'm making a big fuss over nothing.

It's not that I'm trying to be rugged and self-sufficient, just that I think I'm making mountains out of molehills. Desperate sadness? Overwhelming grief? Crushing helplessness? Who am I kidding? People out there know real distress, real trauma, not the petty emotions I'm peddling.

How am I feeling? Absolutely fine, thanks. On top of the world.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

False impressions

I seem to have given you lot the impression that I'm a perma-nently miserable old sod, awash with neuroses and hang-ups of every possible kind, and that feelings of happiness and enjoyment are quite beyond me.

This is a total travesty of the truth - as Jenny could easily tell you - and needs to be rapidly corrected. The fact is that I'm often happy and relaxed and probably no more neurotic than anyone else. I just happen to have written about my neuroses so often they've unfairly taken centre stage and the rest of my emotional life is left hovering in the wings waiting desperately to speak its lines.

I think the problem is that fears and anxieties and phobias and all the rest are a lot easier to write about than happiness and enjoyment. What can I say about happiness except that I'm happy or not? Euphoric or not? Delighted or not? There's nothing more to say, is there?

I suppose in some cases I could be specific and say, ah yes, I'm happy because I landed that job or booked that holiday or caught up with that long-lost friend. But mostly I feel happy for no obvious reason (as one does). Suddenly I'm over the moon, and I really couldn't tell you why. There could be chaos all around me,there could be a dozen crises on the horizon, but I'm unaccountably and bizarrely happy. How do I explain that? I can't.

So you'll just have to take my word for it that I'm happy as often as I'm neurotic, even if I don't mention it. I may be whooping with joy or leaping with excitement, but how would you know? Only if I install a webcam. But that might reveal a few ugly truths along with the bursts of happiness, so I think I'll pass on that one.

Neurotic or happy? Tell you what, I'm a multi-tasker. I can do both.

Sunday 2 October 2016

Reports of happiness

So the invest-igation continues into the possibility Nick is sometimes happy and relaxed, despite all his kinks and hang-ups. A top-flight team of investigators has been tracking the famous blogger's movements day and night in the hope of verifying the reported glimpses of happiness.

Natalie H (Head of the investigation team): So how's it going? Any results yet?

Miranda G (Chief investigator): Sod all. We thought there were signs of happiness on Thursday around 3.17 pm, but it was a false alarm. He seemed to be smiling but it was just a meaningless grimace.

NH: Disappointing. How about when he was watching his favourite TV drama on Monday evening?

MG: Not a flicker. Totally deadpan throughout. Even when he was eating his special cookies. Even after several glasses of wine. No sign of visible enjoyment. It could have been a toothpaste commercial.

NH: Bizarre. What happened to this guy? Some catastrophic childhood trauma? Was he rendered incapable of happiness at an early age? Did he work for some ball-busting multinational on a zero-hours contract? Has he got some misery gene?

MG: I'm as baffled as you are. I've tracked hundreds of these supposed terminal neurotics and believe me, sooner or later we've got them on tape laughing hysterically. They all crack in the end. Except this guy. He's got me beat.

NH: Are you sure he hasn't spotted us? Are you sure he doesn't suspect anything? If he's on to us, he'll be making damn sure there's no sign he's happy. No smiles, no guffaws, no thigh-slapping, nothing. Just a flawless mask of anguish.

MG: No, he can't have rumbled us. We've totally kept out of sight. Maybe it's some religious thing. He can only be happy at certain times. Like when there's a full moon. Or the spring and autumn equinox.

NH: I don't buy that. We know he's not religious. Are you sure you're watching him all the time? You haven't dozed off or checked your Facebook page?

MH: Course not, I'm a professional, I never sleep on the job. Believe me, if he so much as scratched his ear, I'd know about it. He's just a joyless old fart.

NH: I hope not. Okay, carry on. He can't keep this up for ever.

Pic: Visible signs of happiness

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Feel the fear

You know what they say. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Well, I've done that often enough.  My whole life has been a story of overcoming my natural timidity and saying, fuck it, I really want to do this and I'm going to do it.

I fear all sorts of silly things. Other people's reactions. Simple tasks that turn into never-ending nightmares. Any kind of DIY. Looking like an idiot. Setting off some appalling catastrophe. Getting in too deep. Saying the wrong thing. Letting people down.

But over the years I've learnt to put all these absurd fears to one side, take a deep breath and plunge in anyway. I know from experience that most of the fears will turn out to be unfounded and everything will work out fine. So I brace myself, leap off the cliff-edge, and guess what. Nothing dreadful happens.

I don't look like an idiot. Nobody laughs at me. There's no appalling catastrophe. The world doesn't end. Life goes on.

To look at me, you probably wouldn't suspect I'm awash with secret fears. I've had lots of practice at seeming confident and on top of things. My face doesn't give much away. I'm adept at feigning world-weary nonchalance. As most of us are after years of having to deal with things that frighten the life out of us.

But it's not the done thing to reveal your private fears. Maybe to your closest friends after a drink or two. But not in public, not to just anyone. And certainly not in the workplace. There you're expected to be poised and ready for anything. So we keep our fears and our faked bravado to ourselves.

But hey, what's all the fuss about? Haven't you heard? You have nothing to fear but fear itself. Problem solved!

Friday 23 September 2016

Embarrassing and stuff

That clichéd put-down that someone should "act their age" is one of the silliest remarks ever. Why should someone act their age? What on earth does it mean anyway?

What behaviour exactly is suitable for someone of sixty? Or seventy? Or eighty? Are they meant to wear something that hides every inch of flesh? Or lurk in a corner not saying anything controversial? Or avoid all mention of sex, drugs or gangsta rap?

I suspect all it really means is "Don't do anything a twenty something might do because it's, like, totally embarrassing and stuff, and we'll have to ignore you and pretend we don't know you."

Which in turn really means "We reserve the right to control your behaviour because we're young and cool and you're a fuddy-duddy old person who's only allowed to be fuddy-duddy."

Well, bollocks to that. We oldies have spent most of our life being told what to do by employers, spouses, children and parents, and in our twilight years we claim the right to dress and behave any way we want for a change and take no notice of any strait-laced objections.

Madonna in particular gets regular taunts that she should "act her age" and not come on so sexy and flamboyant. She tells her critics to get lost, that she's going to act any way she wants "because it's MY age and it's MY life."

Good for her. I shall follow her example. I don't feel the need to be sexy and flamboyant, but anything else I fancy doing - I shall just go right ahead and bugger how old I am. I shall dance and cavort and swear and contradict and shock and too bad if it ruffles some feathers.

Because it's my age and it's my life.

Saturday 17 September 2016

A torrent of abuse

I make no apologies for returning to the subject of political abuse, which has reached horrifying levels and deeply worries me as it's a deliberate attempt to censor and silence people you disagree with.

It's now completely normal for public figures with controversial views to be deluged with literally thousands of abusive and threatening messages, both online and offline, and little is being done to stop it.

Women with strong feminist opinions (or any opinions) are targeted. Critics of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, are targeted. Black people are targeted. Sportspeople are targeted. Even school pupils who don't "fit in" are targeted by other pupils. And not just with mild, half-hearted abuse but with vicious, brutal abuse, including death threats and the hope that they're in line for a terminal illness.

Baroness Wheatcroft, who opposes Brexit, says the level of hostility against her during the referendum campaign was appalling. Even now the post and emails she's receiving are unbelievable and "all inhibitions have gone".

It's encouraging that public figures facing this torrent of abuse day in and day out are carrying on and not quitting under the pressure. But many of them wonder if it's worth the relentless hatred, especially if it's affecting their friends and families and not just themselves.

What's really worrying is the fascist overtone of it all. If it gets to the point where people are hiding their views and staying silent to avoid an online lynching, if they're keeping their heads down and playing safe or their lives will be hell, then democracy is in serious danger.

I've already said I don't feel at all British. If I was prone to shame, which luckily I'm not, I think I'd be utterly ashamed to live in a country where such savage, ruthless abuse of anyone you dislike is increasingly seen as normal.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Old and crabby

Here's an odd thing. People are meant to get ruder and grumpier as they age (men especially). They're meant to stomp about, casually insulting shop assistants and shunning friendly greetings. But that's not me at all. If anything I think the older I get the more polite I get.

While the media and the internet are awash with bad-tempered oldies pouring abuse on all and sundry, I just look on with dismay, wondering why they have to be so nasty. What happened to turn them so sour and bitter?

Personally I become more and more convinced that abuse and insults achieve nothing and simply alienate the person being abused. It merely creates bad feeling and makes life more difficult. If it's a question of "getting something off their chest", why can't they just rant and rave in the privacy of their own home rather than taking it out on someone else?

I find politeness often brings results where rudeness doesn't. People treated with respect are more likely to respond positively. Also, I believe in the old principle "do as you would be done by". I don't like other people being churlish and snappy to me, so why should I be churlish and snappy to them?

There's something dignified and decorous about being polite, while constant grumpiness seems only selfish and insensitive. It's also depressing, which is why I give the wilfully grumpy a wide berth.

The grumps have all sorts of excuses for their behaviour. They're just reacting to the awfulness of life. They're fed up with declining standards. They're depressed because of their health problems. Well, we're all fed up with one thing or another, but we don't all think that entitles us to have a go at someone.

So if you're looking for a crabby old codger - you won't find one here.

Thursday 8 September 2016

Bag of nerves

When I lived in a bed-sit in Paddington, London, in the early 1970s, when I was twenty something, I encount-ered the most nervous woman I've ever met. I never did find out what was bugging her.

I can't remember how I met Tanya, but one evening she came round to my bed-sit, and from the moment she arrived she was physically trembling. I said she seemed nervous and did she want to tell me why?

She said it was too painful to talk about and she'd rather not say. I tried hard to get her to relax. I thought if she relaxed a bit, she would open up. We had a few cups of coffee, and we chatted, and she told me she was a nurse. She was still trembling, still unwilling to say why, but it was clear she wanted to go to bed with me.

I said I wouldn't feel right having sex when she was plainly very agitated about something. Maybe she thought sex would be somehow reassuring or soothing, but I wasn't happy about it. I felt I would be taking advantage of someone in a state of desperation.

I thought she might try to seduce me by kissing me or taking her clothes off, but she didn't. She accepted my reluctance and eventually said goodnight and left.

I was none the wiser about her extreme nervousness, and still am as I never saw her again. She vanished as mysteriously as we had met.

Sometimes I try to fill in the blanks. Had she been attacked? Raped? Bullied? Humiliated in some way? Deeply shocked by something? Had she witnessed a horrific car crash or a violent death? I'll never know. But something had had a very dramatic, very disturbing effect on her.

Forty years on I'm still puzzled by that lingering question mark of an evening.

Sunday 4 September 2016

The silent type

I've been shy since I was a small boy. It's something that's not easy to change. So many things are involved, it's hard to disentangle them and overcome them. What would be the result anyway? Morphing from a shrinking violet to a bumptious loud-mouth?

Attitudes to shyness keep altering. Once it was just seen as an endearing though awkward personality trait. Then it became a dysfunctional, embarrassing failing to be treated and cured. Now the endearing but awkward view is back in vogue.

The shy but famous have gone to extreme lengths to avoid agonising social contact. It's said that Emily Dickinson would only speak to visitors through a half-closed bedroom door. I'm not that bad, but I find it hard to talk to anyone I don't know, or who looks unfriendly, looks bored, or seems smarter or more knowledgeable. I become painfully self-conscious, my mind goes blank, my confidence plummets, and I stand there in helpless silence like the village idiot.

Blogging has been a godsend, as I find it easier to spill my thoughts when I'm not actually face to face with someone, and when I can safely assume my regular visitors will be interested in what I'm saying. And of course I have all the time in the world to rehearse my thoughts, without the need for an instant comment or an instant reply.

Shyness is sometimes seen as a virtue - speaking only when there's something worth saying and not blabbering on pointlessly simply for the sake of it. But without the compulsive chatterers, social life could grind to a halt amid a sea of taciturn faces.

Nobody suggests manic chatterers should be treated and cured. It's accepted they have their function, however tiresome it is if you're buttonholed by one of them. But it's very tempting to sit back and listen rather than try to interrupt the relentless flow of words.

Wednesday 31 August 2016

Do not disturb

We should all be exposed to the widest possible range of ideas and opinions, so our knowledge of the world and other people is as complete as it can be. So I'm not in favour of the arbitrary censorship of supposedly "undesirable" and "dangerous" ideas.

Which is why I strongly support the University of Chicago's statement that it won't go along with such censorship, whether it's trigger warnings on books with "disturbing" content, no-platforming of "offensive" speakers, or the existence of "safe spaces" free of upsetting opinions.

All these things are contrary to their commitment to academic freedom, says the university.

Unfortunately the statement has been leapt on by those whose life is dedicated to mocking what they call "political correctness". Or what the rest of us call treating people decently and not crapping on them. So there's a reluctance to say that in this case the anti-PC brigade may have a point.

In general I find the whole concept of "political correctness" odious and mischievous, an ongoing attempt to resist greater equality and maintain elitism and privilege. Same-sex marriages? Transgender folk in the "wrong" bathroom? All-women short lists? Whatever next? It's political correctness gone mad!

However it seems to me that what the University of Chicago and other universities are resisting isn't "political correctness" but something much more familiar - over protectiveness.

They're not opposing tiresome bans and restrictions so much as the over protective indulgence of students too squeamish to deal with ideas and opinions very contrary to their own. Instead of hearing out those ideas and evaluating them, they want to shut them out and pretend they don't exist. Sorry, but that just ain't possible.

There's nothing radical or progressive about trying to silence people you don't agree with. It's much smarter to check out those opposing ideas and then comprehensively demolish them. Listen politely, then whip the rug from under their feet.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Marmite and sponge cake

As I've probably said before, I don't feel at all "British" and I don't understand those who do. The word means such totally different things to different people, I'm not even sure what I'd be identifying with.

One journalist suggests it means Wimbledon, the Shipping Forecast, Marmite, Shakespeare, Royal Weddings and Mary Berry's Victoria sponge. Goodness knows why he picked that particular combination. In any case, I have no interest in any of those things except Marmite. So does that mean I'm disgracefully un-British?

None of the things I'm actually interested in - like fiction, coffee, music, art, foreign food, ceramics - are exclusively British but come from all over the world. Which surely makes me Global or International rather than British.

Neither do I feel British in the sense that Britain is better than any other nation. That's an absurd idea. Every nation has its virtues and vices, Britain included. How can the country of rampant porn, horrendous online abuse, widespread poverty and soaring personal debt be better than any other country?

If feeling British means defending all those wonderful traditions foreigners are undermining with their weird primitive beliefs, then obviously I don't subscribe to that idea either.

Or we're expected to feel fervently British if someone British has excelled at something. When Team GB did so brilliantly at the Olympics, we were told we should be "proud of ourselves", as if I was personally responsible for such prowess. Er no, it had nothing whatever to do with me. They just happen to have similar passports.

The fact is I have a British passport only because I was born in Britain. Beyond that arbitrary accident of birth, "British" means nothing but a confusing bundle of quaint and irrelevant stereotypes.

British? Thanks, but no thanks.

Sunday 21 August 2016

Big fib

As you grow older you're supposed to leave behind all those excruc-iating anxieties and uncertain-ties and naiveties of childhood and become sophisticated, confident and fearless. Well, I'm still waiting for that magical transformation - so far there's precious little sign of it.

Judging by what I hear, I suspect that's the case with most people. They may look to have morphed into emotional and mental maturity, but only because they've learnt to hide all the helpless fumbling and put on a public front of seamless self-assurance.

It seems to me that instead of vanishing, those crippling anxieties and certainties simply revolve around something different. Instead of anxieties about sexual inexperience or exam questions, you uncover anxieties about losing your job or defaulting on the mortgage. Or if you're getting on a bit, anxieties about declining health or all your friends dying.

The idea that adulthood brings poised cool-headedness is no doubt a soothing belief when you're in the midst of teenage angst and desperately wanting it to end, but the reality is rather different. In any case, you only have to look at your own flustered, confused parents to realise there's no such enviable maturity to look forward to.

But it's somewhat reassuring to learn that since most people you meet are secretly haunted by nagging anxieties and doubts of their own, you can feel entirely equal to them and not be fooled by their phoney aplomb.

I don't think I ever seriously believed I would miraculously blossom into a perfectly composed adult sailing through every tricky situation. It was pretty obviously a big fib, along with the tooth fairy, Santa Claus and the man in the moon.

Sunday 14 August 2016

Gender bender

I don't share the view that drag queens are sexist and offensive and mock women. A few of them maybe, but surely the great majority have nothing against women and are simply playing with the idea of femininity.

Most of them are obviously just having a laugh by sending up the whole female stereotype of tight dresses, dizzy heels, big hair and massive tits. Or they're simply enjoying wearing clothes they can't normally wear. Or they're seeing what it's like not being masculine for a while.

Okay, some drag queen performers make a point of insulting and belittling women, but then so do a lot of straight comedians. It's not drag that's sexist, it's women-hating individuals who happen to be in drag. Big difference.

The great thing about drag (or cross dressing) is the way it subverts the usual gender norms. You expect to see a bloke in the standard male outfit of suit and tie - or shirt and jeans - and suddenly there's a guy in a sequinned frock, blonde hair down to his waist and bright red lipstick.

That can only be good in a society where gender stereotypes are still so rigid that anyone who wears clothes of the "wrong gender" gets a rough ride.

I guess the most famous drag queen is RuPaul, and I don't recall anyone accusing him of being anti-women.

The other thing drag queens are accused of is making straight men "uncomfortable". Well, if that means they're disconcerted by men who don't wear what they're supposed to wear and flaunt their unorthodox clothing, that's fine by me. We all need to question these suffocating dress codes that stop us being what we want to be.

"Drag is a sarcastic spoof on culture, which allows us to laugh at ourselves" - RuPaul

Pic: Ireland's very own Panti Bliss

Thursday 11 August 2016

Raging epidemic

It's the elephant in the room. It goes on all the time - in homes, on the street, in workplaces, at public events. It's a raging epidemic nobody is able to control. Yet ordinary folk like you and me seldom discuss it.

Physical, verbal and emotional harassment of women. Going on everywhere you look, sometimes stealthily, sometimes quite blatantly. Every day of the week.

Men don't want to discuss it because they'd rather pretend it doesn't exist. Or they don't want to admit they're guilty of it. Or they keep silent out of male solidarity.

Women don't want to discuss it because they've already discussed it to death. Or because so many men trivialise it and excuse it that complaining is pointless. Or because it's too degrading and humiliating to talk about.

It's not going to stop until society as a whole takes it seriously. Until there's a zero tolerance attitude. Until all the men in positions of responsibility veto such behaviour from their employees instead of turning a blind eye or condoning it. Or doing it themselves.

It's not going to stop until it's treated as the disgusting, perverted, dehumanising activity that it is. Until it's seen as a sickness, an addiction, a mental disorder. Until those concerned are ostracised and condemned.

It's not going to stop as long as men see it as harmless banter, as a joke, as normal male behaviour, as something that impresses other men, as something women are gagging for really, or as something women have invited.

I hate misogyny of any kind. Men who indulge in it sicken me. I don't want anything to do with them. They need to wake up, smell the coffee, and treat women with the respect and courtesy all human beings have a right to.

Friday 5 August 2016

Feet of clay

Hero worship is a funny thing. Generally rational, sensible people pledge their allegiance to someone, and henceforth that person is so perfect they can do no wrong. If you voice the mildest criticism of their idol, they go bananas.

Can they not see that everyone has feet of clay, everyone has personal failings and hang-ups, that absolutely nobody is perfect? Apparently not.

The cult-like worship of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a case in point. His thousands of supporters, aka Corbynistas, are quite sure he can walk on water, that he is a political genius, and any setbacks are always the fault of someone else.

Anyone who suggests Jeremy is falling down on the job, that he's not an effective leader, that he's not doing enough to woo the voters, is treated to a hail of abuse and venom as if they had insulted the Queen.

There are plenty of similar "heroes" whose fans jump on critics like a ton of bricks. Like Caitlyn Jenner or Lady Gaga or Margaret Thatcher. They're put on an artificial pedestal they simply don't deserve.

As a teenager, I was a bit of a hero-worshipper myself. First it was rock stars like the Beatles and the Stones, then it was fashionable rebels like the psychiatrist Ronnie Laing, the black activist Angela Davis and militant feminists like Germaine Greer.

But you would expect adulthood to bring a more realistic view of the world and the realisation that there are no heroes, only fallible mortals who get drunk and swear and make colossal blunders the same as the rest of us. Nobody but nobody is a pure and saintly human being, and treating them as if they are is just idiotic.

I can safely say I haven't hero-worshipped anyone for decades, and I'm astonished at the number of people who do. I threw away the rose-tinted spectacles some time ago.

Friday 29 July 2016

Tangled and dark

However well you think you know someone, however long you've lived with them or been friends with them, you never know them completely. You never know the deepest, darkest parts of their mind - the bits they don't want to show you, the bits they're ashamed of, the bits that are hard to deal with, the bits they're disturbed by.

Over and over again I read of people who've suddenly done something quite out of character, something utterly shocking or extraordinary, something their nearest and dearest could never have predicted or thought possible.

Like builder's merchant Lance Hart, 57, from Lincolnshire, who eleven days ago murdered Claire, his wife of 26 years, and his daughter Charlotte, before turning the gun on himself. Friends and neighbours were stunned by his actions, describing him as a happy, friendly man. One neighbour thought he was "the nicest guy you could ever meet", who "would do anything for anyone".

Yet out of the blue he goes on this rampage of destruction nobody can explain and you wonder what was simmering away under the surface. He was upset by the breakdown of his marriage, but that hardly justifies such carnage.

But you read about these aberrations all the time - husbands who run off with the au pair or reveal weird sexual kinks, women who have endless plastic surgery or wreck their ex's brand-new car. Or just those sudden streaks of greed or meanness or prejudice or cruelty. Or of course terrorism.

After thirty plus years together, Jenny and I know each other pretty well. But I'm sure there are parts of us we've never fully revealed to the other, parts that are still shadowy or mysterious. Hopefully nothing as sinister as homicidal tendencies, only those things that for one reason or another we can't quite own up to.

You think you know someone inside out? Think again.

Saturday 23 July 2016

Console me

I need consolation
It's a horrible world out there
a world of brutality and violence
I need to be soothed
I need to be told
that it isn't as bad as all that
that there are good things
positive things
that there is joy and happiness
that the ugliness
is wildly exaggerated
I need to be treated
with gentleness and affection
with tender loving care
that calms my heart
and my churning emotions
I need a friendly port in a storm
a holy sanctuary
a quiet refuge
a place of safety
where I can leave the horror behind
and rediscover
my purest self
I need consolation
I need a cauterising balm
I need a healing hand

Wednesday 20 July 2016

True or false?

Anxiety comes in different shapes and forms. I have plenty of anxieties but I guess the biggest is whether I'm being true to myself or not. What you might call honesty anxiety.

When I'm talking to other people, I'm forever thinking, am I being honest? Am I telling the truth or am I faking it? Am I simply saying something because it's polite, or it's what they're expecting, or it avoids an argument, or it's an easy-to-understand cliché? Am I dodging any remark that might make the conversation too difficult, too emotional, too startling?

A lot of people seem immune to such agonising.  They gabble away, apparently unconcerned whether they're telling it like it is or making it all up. Maybe they don't even see the difference. Whatever they say is grist to the mill, is oiling the social wheels, and who cares if it's total bollocks or if it's deep-down, straight-from-the-heart, innermost-self sincerity?

I'm amazed at the number of people who spout blatant, outrageous lies and don't seem remotely bothered about what they're saying. It must be some sort of private game to tell the biggest whoppers and get away with it.

But then again, what is truth and what is falsity anyway? If I say something out of politeness, is that false because I'd rather say something a bit rude, or is it genuine because I believe politeness helps you get on with people?

If I fob someone off with a glib cliché, is that false because it misrepresents a more complex reality, or is it genuine because I don't want to embarrass them with some detailed and baffling explanation they really don't need?

Maybe I just have an exaggerated dislike of lies and dishonesty. Where others merely shrug them off, I feel truly sickened and polluted. I feel tricked and insulted. I feel like I've trodden in something nasty.

Friday 15 July 2016

Bumbling along

I've never been remotely competitive. I watch people outdoing each other for the trendiest job or the flashiest house or the smartest children, and I really wonder why they try so hard to impress other people rather than just doing their own thing and enjoying themselves.

I've watched other people strenuously climbing the greasy pole to that sought-after managerial job, or mortgaging themselves to the hilt to get that palatial house, or boasting about their swish holidays in some exotic location. I just think, well, good luck to them, but I'm quite happy bumbling along on a more modest path, savouring what I already have and quietly ruminating.

Ah, but why do you go on about it, comes the obvious retort. Maybe you're jealous of their fancy lifestyles and secretly you'd like the same. Or maybe you're embarrassed at your lack of ambition and humble achievements, but don't want to admit it.

I don't think so. In fact my instinctive reaction to people openly competing with each other is to ignore them and walk away. At political meetings where a bunch of men are vying with each other to make the sharpest, wittiest comments, I have no wish to get involved. I just wait patiently for them to run out of steam.

Being childless, I've never needed to brag about how well my children are doing, how intelligent they are, what plum job they've landed. If I did have children, they'd probably be the ones who slouch around in scruffy clothes and lurch casually from one un-glamorous job to another.

Whether it's intellectual brilliance, career advancement, the property ladder, cultural awareness, sexual conquests or alcohol consumption, I couldn't care less if other people seem more dazzling or more capable. I just carry on ploughing my own furrow.

PS: I've noticed some people's blog posts are not showing the Comments section. If mine isn't, just click on the blog title and the Comments section will show up.

Saturday 9 July 2016

Wild child

My blogmate John says he would never have guessed I was pretty wild in my late teens. Clearly he sees me as a sedate, well-behaved individual who would never have done anything seriously outrageous or shocking.

Well, as I told him, my wildness was a predictable reaction to the very authoritarian boarding school I attended from thirteen to eighteen. While I was there, every minute of every day was tightly scheduled by those running the school, and deciding for yourself what to do was simply not an option.

There were precise times for getting up, having breakfast, going to classes, having lunch, doing homework, and every other routine activity. There were strict rules about what clothing to wear. There was a long list of prohibitions, like visiting the town centre or befriending the locals or writing to the papers. You were told what to do and what not to do, and woe betide you if you stepped out of line.

Not surprisingly, as soon as I left school and stumbled on the counter-culture of the late 1960s, with all its libertarian beliefs and emphasis on doing your own thing, I was hooked. Suddenly I could think what I liked, do what I liked, wear what I liked, go where I liked. After such regimentation, it felt utterly euphoric, and I got pretty carried away by my new-found freedom.

I grew a beard, I grew long hair, I wore gaudy clothes, I went around barefoot, I dabbled in drugs, I played rock music at top volume, I supported every left-wing cause going from gay liberation to easier abortion, cohabitation and equal pay. I went on protest marches, I chanted "kill the pigs", I took part in sit-ins and occupations. I lived it up and explored myself in a big way. Strangely, I was in no hurry for sex, and was unaccountably celibate till I was 22.

Of course inevitably once I got the freedom bug out of my system and felt confident I could be myself without being rapped on the knuckles, I simmered down and got a bit more laid-back. My tastes were much the same but I pursued them in a quieter, subtler fashion. I lost the beard and the long hair, got more choosy about my protests, decided drugs were not my thing, and so forth. And the rest is history.