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."