Wednesday 27 December 2017

Privilege noted

Check your privilege, they say. Oh, I do, I do. Every day. I'm well aware of all those lucky personal advantages that have given me a leg up in life where others have been side-lined and ignored and under-valued.

I'm white, male, able-bodied, well-educated, well-spoken, physically attractive, I own a house and I live in a peaceful country. Compared to millions of people around the world, I'm absurdly privileged and have a pampered, affluent lifestyle.

I've never been in debt (apart from a mortgage), never starved, never been unable to afford clothes, never been driven from my home, never been on the minimum wage, never been caught in a war, never been pimped or tortured or imprisoned.

I may drone on from time to time about my dysfunctional childhood, my tyrannical father, the boarding-school bullies, the grasping landlords, and the psychological damage I've had to overcome, but if that's all I have to complain about, I'm still living the life of Riley compared to all those people who're grappling with problems ten times as nasty and soul-destroying.

Which is why I hesitate to criticise those in less fortunate situations who unknown to me may be labouring under huge domestic or personal burdens. I'm reluctant to complain about shop assistants or delivery drivers or call-centre staff who may be struggling through their working day worrying about eviction or loan sharks or a brutal husband.

It's fashionable for wealthy, adulated celebs to take the edge off their privilege by revealing a poverty-stricken childhood or years of domestic violence or paralysing depressions, but at the end of the day they're still vastly privileged and protected from life's worst miseries.

Oh, I check my privilege all right. I just wish all the other inhabitants of planet earth were equally privileged, and that those responsible for their welfare actually helped them instead of feathering their own nests.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

A prank too far

How would you react to finding out that your surgeon had carved their initials on your liver while they were operating? Would you be horrified or would you just shrug it off as a childish prank?

I pondered my own possible reaction when I read about Simon Bramhall, who autographed the livers of two liver transplant patients. Nobody reported it at the time, and he might have got away with it, except that another surgeon doing a follow-up procedure noticed the initials and duly reported it.

He has just been found guilty of "assault by beating" and will shortly be sentenced.

My first reaction was to dismiss it as a rather trivial incident that did no harm to the patients. In fact one former patient, Tracy Scriven, said "Is it really that bad? I wouldn't have cared if he did it to me. The man saved my life."

But then I thought, no, if my surgeon had done that to my liver, I wouldn't have the same trust and confidence in them. I would feel they hadn't taken my operation seriously but were fooling around. And it wouldn't just damage their reputation but the reputation of other surgeons.

And yes, he saved a patient's life, and of course the patient is grateful, but that still doesn't justify what he did.

It's one thing to carve your initials and a romantic message on a tree trunk. It's quite another to carve your initials on someone else's liver while they're under general anaesthetic and oblivious to whatever you're doing inside their body. It's not just taking advantage of an unconscious person, it's a total lack of respect for them.

Hopefully there aren't any initials on what's left of my prostate....

NB: Assault by beating doesn't literally mean beating. It refers to the use of unlawful force on another person

Friday 15 December 2017

Waxing lyrical

Ursula gets the impression I carp about everything and enjoy nothing. Do I ever wax lyrical over a robin in my back garden, she asks. Or a cat that left her paw prints in the snow? Well of course I do. I wax lyrical over dozens of things. Clearly, not for the first time, I'm giving false impressions galore. I shall now do my best to put the record straight.

There are many things I find beautiful. Sometimes quite dizzyingly so. For instance:
  • Weeping willows
  • Stained glass
  • Jewellery
  • Afros
  • Mosaics
  • Patchwork quilts
  • Tapestry
  • Lace
  • Marbles
  • Roses
  • Rainbows
  • Peacocks
There are also plenty of things I enjoy. Too many to name in fact, but here are some of them:
  • Murmurations
  • Squirrels
  • Cats
  • Butterflies
  • Swans
  • Sunsets and sunrises
  • Beautiful men and women
  • Oddballs and misfits
  • Acrobats and gymnasts
  • Stilt-walkers
  • Dresses (on other people, that is)
  • Modern art
  • Music/books/films/TV dramas
  • Chess
  • White wine
  • Vegetarian and vegan food
  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate
  • Spectacular buildings
  • The sea
  • Mountains
  • Thunderstorms
  • Fountains
  • Waterfalls
Are we all on the same page now? I hope so.

Monday 11 December 2017

Shop till you drop

Apparently compulsive shopping is getting to be a big problem for a lot of people. They just can't stop buying things, whether or not they need them. Especially as the internet makes it easy to shop from your armchair.

That's one problem I'll avoid, for sure. I've always loathed shopping, and do it as little as I can. I never buy things on impulse and I never buy things online - except books. I buy only what I need and that's that.

I'm probably the opposite of the compulsive shopper - I'm a compulsive non-shopper. Any excuse not to go shopping and I'll seize it. That shirt will last a bit longer. I don't really need any more books. And I've quite enough stuff in the freezer.

My idea of hell would be spending an entire day at a shopping mall. But lots of people do that. Have they nothing better to do? Surely there's something more exciting than traipsing round shops looking for clothes?

I hate shopping for all sorts of reasons. It's hard to find what I want, in the size I want. Shop assistants are either surly and off-hand or over-attentive. I'm forced to listen to mindless musak. Or my favourite shop has closed and is now a Caffè Nero.

I've always been immune to adverts. I'm not tempted by rugged male models in Calvin Klein jackets or cut-price strawberry cheesecake from Sainsbury's. If I don't want them I'm not going to buy them. I tune out adverts like I tune out the football results.

So my wardrobe isn't full of unworn clothes I bought on impulse, and hated the moment I got home. There aren't dozens of unused kitchen gadgets gathering dust. And my credit card isn't permanently maxed out with reckless spending.

Sunday 3 December 2017

Quite a stickler

I do have a thing about reliability. I pride myself on being reliable and I expect others to be reliable in return. People who're consistently unreliable drive me nuts. Why can't they just be better organised?

If I say I''ll be at the Dog and Duck at 6 pm, then I'll be there and I'll be on time. If I tell my boss I'll have a report ready on Tuesday, it'll be ready. I'd be mortified if people were saying, oh that Nick he's so unreliable, he's all over the place.

I just think constant unreliability is rude and inconsiderate and self-centred. How hard can it be to organise yourself properly, do what you say you'll do, and not keep messing other people about?

I hate it when someone turns up half an hour late, or pleads for more time to finish something (for no good reason), or says they'll ring me back but never do. I hate it even more when I complain and they don't know what all the fuss is about.

Some people do act as if reliability is just some pedantic, strait-laced notion that serves no purpose and should be treated with derision. They make a point of turning up at any old time, ignoring deadlines, and always doing something different from what they said they'd do.

It's especially annoying when those of us who're reliable end up carrying those who aren't. We're in the office answering calls and dealing with customers, while the habitual straggler is still casually trundling in from their suburban semi.

I guess a lot of people would see me as some sort of tight-arsed martinet, unable to relax, go with the flow and make allowances for human frailty. Well, I'm happy to make allowances for an emotional weakness - grief, anxiety, loneliness, despair, whatever - but unreliability isn't an emotional weakness. It's simply self-indulgence at other people's expense.

So I'll see you at the Dog and Duck. At 6 pm sharp. No excuses.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Win or loos

So let's talk about public toilets. Why? Because they're getting a lot of attention these days from dissatisfied members of the public who find them lacking in one way or another. They're the hot topic du jour.

The gender non conforming population (you know, non-binary, transgender etc) want more gender-neutral toilets so they needn't use a male or female toilet they're not comfortable in.

Women on the other hand don't want gender-neutral toilets but female toilets where they feel safe from predatory males - and where men aren't peeing on the toilet seat. They also want a lot more toilets so they aren't queuing for ten minutes while the men waltz happily in and out of the gents.

People with disabilities want more disabled toilets, and ones better suited to their needs. And they don't want the able-bodied using disabled toilets because it's urgent or they're nearer.

Needless to say, those responsible for toilets seldom listen to the complaints of the users, so the failings are endlessly repeated. It's remarkable then that the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has said toilet provision should be reviewed so as not to drive away visitors to the capital. He's especially keen on gender-neutral toilets it seems.

Personally, I don't have many complaints about public toilets. I seldom come across a queue, I've no worries about personal safety, and I don't mind other men peeing a few inches away. My only grouse is that there aren't enough of them, and when I do find one it's often filthy.

Like a lot of women, I wouldn't want to use gender-neutral toilets. Not because I'm afraid of predatory males but so as not to alarm or embarrass any women who might be using them. There should always be male and female toilets, with or without a gender-neutral option.

Okay, that's enough of that. You must be dying for a pee by now.

Friday 24 November 2017

The cold shoulder

I'm not good at dealing with rejection. Even quite trivial rejection. Even totally justified rejection. Even perhaps unintended rejection. I can't just shrug it off as one of those things. It always hurts. It always bugs me. It always saps my confidence a little.

I know it's supposed to be a sign of maturity, of being grown up, to be less bothered by rejection and not see it as a huge slap in the face, but I do. And I bet plenty of other people do, though they don't like to talk about it.

A big rejection really hurts. If I've known someone for a while and we've been on friendly terms and shared confidences and so forth, it's hard to take it on the chin when abruptly they push you away and don't want to be friends any more.

Even when I tell myself it's their choice who they want as friends and who they don't, and it's their right to edge me away if I'm becoming a turn-off, it still cuts me to the quick.

I dwell on it incessantly. Why did they suddenly push me away? What did I do wrong? What did I say? Why overnight the big frost? Have I turned into some sort of obnoxious weirdo without realising? It takes me quite a while to stop obsessing and finally be more sanguine about it.

But even minor rejections can often sting. Just someone ignoring me, or being curt with me, or looking at me distastefully, makes me feel a bit worthless and belittled. Again, I wonder what I did to cause it. Why the visible snub?

Do other people feel as hurt when I reject them - or appear to reject them? Do they obsess about it in the same way? I hope not, but doubtless some do. This over-sensitivity is a drag, but that's how some of us are made. Like a small child who's lost her teddy bear. Pathetic really.

Sunday 19 November 2017

Tell me everything

I'm always intrigued by the way some people attract intimate personal confessions from everyone they come across, while others attract nothing but the usual small talk and polite trivia. What is it that encourages people to bare their soul to a complete stranger?

It's somewhat frustrating in my case, because although I'm very curious about other people's joys and problems and peculiarities, and how their lives differ from mine, I seldom invite such frank disclosures. Whatever agonising dilemmas people might be struggling with, they keep it all firmly to themselves.

It suddenly struck me that what puts people off might be my slightly sceptical look. I don't look as if I'm ready to believe whatever someone tells me. I always look a little wary, as if I'm not sure they're telling me the truth. They might be embellishing things, or hiding the unsavoury bits, or misremembering something, or simply making it all up. At my age I've met plenty of people who really were peddling me half-truths and outright lies, so I've become more suspicious and less gullible.

It might also be that I'm a habitually quiet person, and some people interpret quietness as a lack of interest in them. It doesn't help that I'm cautious about asking personal questions that might seem intrusive or embarrassing. Or afraid of triggering a torrent of information, half of which I'll promptly forget because of my terrible memory.

But whatever the cause, people tend to assume I'm not remotely interested in them and barely notice their existence. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I'm always burning with questions I'd like to ask, but for one reason or another they stay unanswered. I just don't have a "you can tell me everything" face. It's more like a "do you really want to tell me?" sort of face. Which is hard to readjust.

Saturday 11 November 2017

A bit on the side

I have mixed feelings about affairs. Are they always to be condemned, whatever the circum-stances? Or are they the result of natural human impulses, something that's understandable and excusable?

They're often described as "cheating", but is it more a matter of irresistible longings or personal fulfillment than cheating? Is it cheating to want more than you already have? Is it cheating to be drawn to someone and to act on it?

The real question of course is how the partner who is "cheated on" is likely to react if the truth comes out. They might simply turn a blind eye and let it go on - or fizzle out. Or they might be totally devastated and give their partner the boot. Or anything in between. If you start an affair knowing full well that your partner is likely to be shattered if they find out, then you're an idiot.

Neither Jenny or I have had affairs, but I was once sorely tempted. There was one woman (let's call her Yvonne) who had an absolutely electrifying effect on me. She aroused me so strongly that I seriously thought of trying to take it further. But I knew which side my bread was buttered, I knew the consequences could be catastrophic, and I had enough will-power to resist. But I'm still amazed at the quite inexplicable effect she had on me.

Mind you, if thought of the consequences hadn't stopped me, then I would have shrunk from the degree of secrecy and lying it would involve. I dislike secrecy, I prefer things to be out in the open,  and having to be scrupulously secretive for months on end would have really screwed me up. I would probably have blurted out the truth in a matter of days.

I won't be getting a reputation as a philanderer any time soon.

Saturday 4 November 2017

A lucky escape

Having read the flood of reports about sexual misconduct in Parliament, in the film industry, at the BBC, and in workplaces generally, I thank my lucky stars I've never been immersed in any group of men who are devoted to the masculine sex culture and all it involves. If I had been, I would probably have picked up some of the disgusting attitudes they display.

I've never seen women as sex objects, as toys for male pleasure, as a nice pair of tits, as a nice bit of skirt, as attractive bodies to be groped and fondled, as tempting pussy and all the rest of it. I find all that deeply repulsive.

My life has been strangely devoid of all that masculine depravity. I guess most men have been thrown into that sort of misogynistic culture at some time or another, but I've managed to escape it.

My public school was remarkably sex-free. There was no discussion whatever of sex, never mind sexual attitudes to women. There was no homosexuality and no furtively circulated porn magazines. My fellow pupils were far more interested in rock music than levels of libido.

In my workplaces likewise there has always been a noticeable absence of the sex-object culture. Men like that were pretty rare in the bookshops, charities and local newspapers I've worked for. And the women I worked with were always tough characters who wouldn't tolerate a lascivious male for long.

I've never been keen on pubs or heavy drinking, so I've never encountered those pub-frequenting men who enjoy sizing up the female customers and speculating on what they'd be like in bed.

So I've managed to dodge the whole phallocentric sickness. I'm miraculously uncorrupted.

Monday 30 October 2017

Un-bucket list

A lot of people have bucket lists - all the things they still want to do before they die. I don't have much of a bucket list, but there are plenty of things I DON'T want to do before I die. For instance:
  • Have a guided tour. I want to explore things on my own, without someone bombarding me with (probably incorrect) information.
  • Take a cruise. I've no wish to mingle with thousands of other people in the middle of the Mediterranean.
  • Go camping. I went to a Scout camp when I was 18. It was dreadful - wet and muddy and utterly primitive.
  • Try bungee-jumping. I'd doubtless be the one person in 10,000 who plummeted to my doom.
  • Play bingo. How can anyone enjoy such a mindless activity - even if you're a witless octagenarian?
  • Become a landlord. I've no desire to profit from other people's desperate need for a home.
  • Keep a pet. It would need too much care and attention. I love cats - as long as they're not mine.
  • Own a motorbike. Far too dangerous. I can see myself colliding with a lorry all too easily.
  • Dye my hair. I like my natural colour. And anyway, hair-dyeing is horrendously expensive.
  • Go bald. I don't find bare scalps in any way attractive. I'd have to get myself a wig.
  • Get a tattoo. I like my skin just as it is, without artificial add-ons. Especially ones I might later regret.
  • Run a marathon. No way would I put myself through 26 miles of physical torture and exhaustion.
  • Have plastic surgery. My body is just fine, wrinkles and all. And it could all go horribly wrong.
  • Go to prison. Imprisonment sounds like hell. I would never survive the degradation and humiliation.
  • Wear stiletto heels. Luckily I'm not expected to.
Pic: Hattie demanded a selfie, so she could see for herself how hideously ugly or drop-dead gorgeous I really am

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Optimists wanted

It strikes me that you have to be very optimistic to be a parent. If you weren't optimistic you'd never take the plunge. You'd be too terrified of the dire twists of fate that might overtake your children. So you have to believe:
  • That they'll grow up to be be healthy, happy and secure
  • That they won't be caught up in World War Three
  • That they'll always love you and won't turn against you
  • That they won't become alcoholics, drug addicts or rapists
  • That they won't fall off a cliff while taking a selfie
  • That they'll find rewarding and satisfying jobs
  • That they won't end up in prison
  • That they'll be kind and generous to other people
  • That they won't be as thick as two planks
  • That they won't want to climb the North Face of the Eiger
  • That they won't be right-wing extremists
  • That they won't drive like maniacs
You also need to be a low-anxiety person. If you're the anxious type, you'll be worrying about your kids every minute of the day, wondering if they're safe, or behaving sensibly, or eating properly, or resisting that strange blue tablet their friend's just offered them. You'll be a permanent nervous wreck waiting for tragedy to strike.

Both my parents were pessimistic and anxiety-prone, which not only meant stressful parenting, but turned me into an equally anxious child. I'm sure they expected parenting to be a painful ordeal. And so inevitably that's what it was. While my sister was well-behaved, my constant teenage rebelliousness tested them to the limits. But I survived to tell the tale. And so does my mum - at 95 and counting.

Saturday 21 October 2017

My body and I

I'm happy with my physical appearance and always have been. I'm fine with how I look dressed, and fine with how I look naked. I've no desire to change anything or get rid of anything. I am what I am.

Of course that lack of embarrassment or shame or self-criticism is almost entirely because I'm male. Men just don't face the ruthless physical appraisal that women endure endlessly.

We aren't expected to be two stone lighter, or free of body hair, or have flat stomachs and firm buttocks. We aren't expected to have thick glossy hair and no bald patches. We aren't expected to have a perfect nose, perfect lips or perfect skin. As long as we aren't totally unkempt, nobody cares much what we look like.

Or as Elif Shafak puts it* in her latest novel: "Women stared. They scanned, scrutinised and searched, hunting for the flaws in the other women, both manifest and camouflaged. Overdue manicures, newly gained pounds, sagging bellies, botoxed lips, varicose veins, cellulite still visible after liposuction, hair roots in need of dyeing, a pimple or a wrinkle hidden under layers of powder....there was nothing that their penetrating gazes could not detect and decipher."

Luckily men aren't so brutal with each other, being more concerned with making money or talking football than dissecting another man's appearance. Even massive pot bellies and the shaggiest of beards are more quietly admired than criticised.

When I was at boarding school, we boys used to swim naked every morning in the swimming pool, and nobody ever belittled another boy's body. The result being that I have no problem showing my body to anyone.

Even in my twenties, when I was pretty scruffy and probably not too hygienic, I never got comments on my appearance. If I were a woman, I would doubtless have been seen as "letting myself go" or "looking like a tramp".

 No, I just throw on a few clothes and walk out the front door. I don't have to spend an hour agonising over the way I look. How lucky is that?

*Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak

Friday 13 October 2017

Accounts galore

I now officially have power of attorney over my mum's finances, which means I can start to sort out the rather chaotic state of her bank accounts. It became clear some time ago that she was leaving bills unpaid and losing track of her financial transactions.

I assumed she only had two or three bank accounts, but it turns out she has around forty - and maybe more that I'm not aware of. She had no proper filing system for her various accounts, and left bank statements all around her flat in a haphazard fashion.

My brother in law and I have been trying to collate all the statements, find out how much is currently in each account, and consolidate them into a handful of accounts we can keep up with easily.

For me to get access to the accounts, each bank requires proof of my power of attorney and proof of my identity, so I'm busy sending or taking copies of all the relevant documents to each bank - a very time-consuming task.

Today one bank verified my power of attorney - just another eleven banks left! I can only keep going by telling myself that once this plethora of accounts has been whittled down to a manageable few, my life will be a lot simpler.

Frankly, I think it's very thoughtless of my mum not to have simplified her finances some time ago to avoid just this situation - the rest of the family trying to make sense of her elaborate financial dealings. Thank goodness she didn't still have a pile of stocks and shares - she decided they were too high-risk and got rid of them all.

So here's my advice - "the more the merrier" isn't the best approach to banking.

Monday 9 October 2017

Trust me

I'm good at keeping secrets. I'm good at being tight-lipped. You can trust me with your most private thoughts, your worst fears, your most emb-arrassing moments, and they'll be safe with me. Far from talking too much, I'm more likely to be saying nothing at all.

Over the years I've been privy to all sorts of odd secrets, and I've never divulged any of them. I'm not a gossip, not an attention-seeker, not a rumour-monger. I appreciate that people have trusted me with something very personal and I'm not going to betray their trust.

I've heard about all manner of things - devastating panic attacks, social anxiety, agoraphobia, strange sexual habits, over-large breasts, breast reduction surgery, illegal drugs, gun ownership, excessive body hair, heavy periods. Only once have I heard about an affair, even though affairs are commonplace. And nobody has confessed to a violent husband. Perhaps I just move in very ethical circles where such things simply don't happen. Yeah, right.

Likewise I've revealed my own deepest secrets to other people, trusting they won't go any further. On the whole my trust has been justified and very seldom have I been betrayed. Which is just as well if I've moved on and I now think of whatever it was I blurted out ten years ago as mortifying idiocy.

I'm amazed at those people who merrily spill out absolutely everything to absolutely everybody. People who seem to be embarrassed by nothing and happy for the entire world to peer into their soul. It's all very entertaining and eye-opening but how can they do it? Are they pioneering a new form of total openness, or are they just unremitting narcissists?

Of course there's not much you can keep secret from your partner. Sooner or later they'll uncover all the weird and tawdry aspects of your character. And then you'll find out if they really love you warts and all. Or whether they run for the hills.

Sunday 1 October 2017

Never felt the need

It's funny but I've never for a moment regretted not having children. I'm happily sailing on without them and have never felt there's some kind of void in my life that needed to be filled with scampering offspring.

I've never had a yen for descendants who can carry on the family name, or for someone to love and admire their daddy, or for the delight of childish innocence or misunderstandings or precocity.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not in any way criticising those who have had children and (in most cases) got huge pleasure from them. It's an individual choice, after all. Some are raring to have kids from an early age, and know they'll love it, while others wonder what all the fuss is about and have never felt the need.

All those daft arguments about selfishness don't help, because of course they work both ways. Are you selfish to not want children and not help to replace the older generation? Or are you selfish to have children and expect others to contribute to the public services they'll need? You can go round and round in circles and just get everyone's backs up.

But I must say, from what I see of parents and children every day (and I see a lot of them because there are two schools close by), there's nothing that makes me feel I missed out, that I'm lacking a vital experience.

When I see parents angrily reprimanding their wayward children, when I see children running round restaurants screaming their heads off, when I hear about children with serious mental and emotional problems, when I hear about children in thrall to drugs, when I hear about relentless bullying, I just think that bringing up kids must be equal parts joy and anguish.

So - no charming son who loves and admires his daddy. But suppose he turned out to actively loathe his daddy. What then?

Monday 25 September 2017

Risk averse

I'm a decidedly risk-averse person. I seldom take really major risks, and when I do it's often on Jenny's prompting, as she's much more of a risk-taker than me. As it is, even ordinary everyday errands can make me nervous.

Men are supposed to be good at taking risks, but that doesn't apply to me. I guess I'm too afraid of failure, too afraid of everything going pear-shaped and me feeling like a total idiot.

But I've taken big risks in my life from time to time. Especially with property. I've taken a chance with biggish mortgages and managed to keep paying them. Jenny and I bought an expensive flat without getting a surveyor's report and luckily it turned out to be structurally sound.

I guess the biggest risk I took was moving from London to Northern Ireland with Jenny. We both gave up our existing jobs, confident we'd soon find new ones. It took us longer than we thought (and Jenny decided to do a PhD in the meantime), but we both eventually found excellent jobs.

Of course relationships and friendships can involve risk-taking, something we tend to overlook. I gambled on a future with Jenny and the gamble paid off. I've gambled a few times on what seemed like solid friendships, only to see them inexplicably melt away.

When I do take major risks, it's for a good reason. To better myself, to enrich my life, to get out of a rut, to have some long-term security. I'd never take risks just for the hell of it - things like rock-climbing, bungee-jumping, slot machines, or betting on election results. I guess some people like the sheer adrenalin rush of extreme risk.

I think the biggest risk I could take would be a life-or-death operation - one that could either save my life or kill me. I think I'd take my chance and hope for the best.

Thursday 21 September 2017

Nothing personal

Well, looking at all the comments on the post about my mum, there seems to be a general call for more personal blog posts. Which leaves me a bit mystified, since just about all my blog posts have some personal element.

I've explained all my various hang-ups at length, sometimes several times over - the lack of self-confidence, the doubts about my intelligence, my dislike of darkness, my aversion to "masculinity", and all the rest. I've aired my personal attitude to any number of subjects, from prostitution to celebrity. It's hard to see how I could be any more personal than I already am.

My daily life is pretty predictable, so there's not much in the way of exciting or unusual incidents to pass on. I doubt you're desperate to know what I had for breakfast, or how many traffic jams I've been stuck in, or how I once again mislaid my umbrella, or how some dodgy-looking bloke offered to clean up my guttering. But maybe that's exactly what you want to know?

I deliberately avoid discussing impersonal subjects like politics, religion, climate breakdown or terrorism, since (a) they're already discussed ad nauseam by the media (b) I'm probably preaching to the converted (c) or I'm likely to offend someone and (d) I've usually got nothing new to say. So I tend to drift into the personal anyway as I'm more likely to have an opinion that hasn't been aired a thousand times already.

So I'll leave you with a personal thought. Is it just me, or is life getting more and more complicated? So many forms to fill in, phone menus to negotiate, passwords to remember, ID documents to supply, fancy procedures to follow. Where will it end? I'll need an official permit to catch the bus....

Pic: Forgotten umbrella nervously awaiting its destiny

Sunday 17 September 2017

Moving day

I've just been over to St Ives in Cambridge-shire to see my 95 year old mum move into a care home. It seems like an excellent place, with staff who are genuinely committed to keeping the residents happy and maintaining a sense of independence wherever possible. She certainly looked happy enough after a few hours there meeting the staff and other residents.

Me and the rest of the family - her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter - were reluctant to see her move into a care home, as so many seem to be little more than uncaring warehouses for the elderly, and as my mum has always been fiercely independent.

But we had to admit it was time for her to move somewhere she would be constantly monitored, as she was having frequent falls and sometimes lying on the floor for hours before being found. She also wasn't eating properly or drinking enough. She was feeling increasingly isolated and unsafe.

Unfortunately she seems to have declined rapidly over the last few months, as each further fall undermined her confidence and made her afraid of going out or simply moving around the flat. Just a year ago she was still fit enough for me to take her to some local coffee shops and sit by the river. And before that she was still going on cruises and seaside breaks.

Now we've started on the Herculean task of clearing mum's old flat of all the accumulated clutter and odds and ends that have been piling up for years, since she was reluctant to throw anything away - newspaper cuttings, old bills, Christmas cards, letters, holiday brochures, never-worn clothes, you name it. I think it was all a kind of security blanket.

So we hope she'll be content in her new surroundings. We'll just have to keep our fingers crossed for a few weeks until she's really got the feel of the place. Hopefully she'll be thriving.

Pic: Not my mum, but she looks remarkably similar

Saturday 9 September 2017

Celebrity blues

I'm fascinated by the downside of celebrity. The negative stuff you don't usually hear about when everyone's going on about the wealth, the luxury houses, the lucrative job offers, the fawning service wherever you go. The reality behind the apparent opulence and easy living is seldom so glamorous.

Gemma Collins, hugely famous star of the TV series The Only Way is Essex, has revealed some of the things that piss her off.

Complete strangers calling her a fat cunt or saying her car's being stolen. People who think she sits around all day doing nothing. Endless abuse about her weight. Fits of anxiety. Everybody wanting a bit of her. "People want all from you, absolutely everything. And everyone's got an opinion about you. I get so much criticism now."

"I don't hate my life, I'm not sitting here going I don't want to be famous. But it's come at a price, hasn't it? I just want to do my job, be entertaining and get paid like any normal person, but people think they own you. It's like bear-baiting."

She seems a remarkably resilient person who can cope with all the shit and just carry on. She's not going to let it get to her. But other less resilient souls like Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin struggled to adjust to the hot-house pressures of fame, and finally went under.

That must be the worst thing, everyone latching onto you, treating you as public property and seeing you as fair game for whatever they want to throw at you. Criticism, abuse, harassment, death threats, sexual overtures, begging letters, stalkers, you name it. If you object, they argue that if you deliberately put yourself in the limelight, then you deserve everything you get. They don't believe celebrities are entitled to a peaceful private life like the rest of us.

No way would I want to be a household name. It would be a bed of nails.

Pic: Gemma Collins

Saturday 2 September 2017

Out of reach

I'm hopeless at remem-bering the details of people's friends and relatives. However hard I try, names simply go in one ear and straight out the other. My memory is so feeble I'm just about capable of remem-bering a spouse, a partner or a sibling. Everything else vanishes down a cerebral black hole, never to be retrieved.

Even children's names just flutter by like moths. I'm gaily introduced to little James, Rebecca and Sophie (well, I tend to move in middle-class circles), only to forget their names ten seconds later. Did she say James or Jeff? Rebecca or Robin? Sophie or Sally? I'm searching my memory desperately, hoping I won't need their names in the next few minutes, and wondering how to bluff my way through till I'm reminded. Ah, so it was Sally? Why didn't that lodge in my brain? Doesn't she look just like a Sally?

Or someone casually mentions Robert, and how rapidly he's recovering from his operation. Robert? Who the hell is Robert? And what operation was this? Is Robert anything to do with Teresa, the tall, red-haired woman? Is he the same Robert who's allergic to cats? How do I stealthily find out? Or hide my ignorance?

I can recall the closest names, but all the far-flung connections usually escape me. The in-laws, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces. It's too much to absorb. I marvel at those individuals who can identify every obscure member of someone's family, and recall instantly that Aunt Julia is the one who drinks like a fish, hates Indian food and always wears skirts. How do they do it? What's their secret?

I'm told that not remembering such things is simply down to poor concentration or not listening properly. Or even a lack of interest in other people. But I'm fascinated by other people and their personal quirks and lifestyles. I just have a memory like a sieve. A memory that thinks it's a waste bin.

Monday 28 August 2017

The age of doubt

I think one thing that tends to happen as you age is a rise in self-doubt and a drop in self-confidence. The brash way I threw myself into things as a youngster has now given way to a more cautious approach to life.

When I was young, because I knew so little of the complexities of life, because I had so little work experience, I could dive into things with great confidence, quite sure of my skills and my ability to deal with anything that came along.

As I got older, as I discovered how tangled and complicated life actually was, as I discovered the subtle and detailed requirements of the average job, I realised I wasn't nearly as clever and competent as I had assumed. I had an awful lot to learn and there was always something awaiting me I hadn't bargained for.

So I started to doubt myself. Not necessarily in a destructive way - habitually undermining my own abilities.  But simply in the sense that I lost my earlier cockiness and arrogance and realised that whatever I was doing was more complex than I thought, maybe a bit beyond me, and I was probably going to make mistakes and annoy a few people in the process.

So now I'm a lot more careful about what I do and how I do it, and not overestimating my skills and knowledge. I may doubt what I'm doing, and I expect to ask other people's advice - frequently. I don't charge on like a bull in a china shop, wondering why crockery's smashing and why everyone looks horrified.

Every day I become more aware of how little I know and what vast expanses of knowledge I'm still ignorant of. And I become a little more humble, a little more willing-to-learn, a little less self-righteous and opinionated.

What do you know that I don't know? I'm all ears.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Risky procedures

I know more and more males are opting for cosmetic surgery, but I have no desire to join them. I'm quite happy with my body and feel no need to maul it about in the name of being marginally prettier. Plus I'm very aware of the risks and potential complications of surgery, and if it isn't necessary I'm not interested.

I had a very necessary prostate operation a few months ago, and hopefully there'll be no more surgery needed, but who knows?

Too many people are lured into cosmetic surgery by slick advertising and the knowledge that so many celebs have resorted to it. If the celebs do it, then it must be safe, right? It's just a routine way of perfecting yourself, right? The botched procedures (procedures - what a lovely euphemism!) get a lot less publicity than the happily enhanced individuals smiling for the cameras.

Many of the botch-ups are carefully hidden so nobody knows of the pain, the distress, the embarrassment, the regrets, and the damage done to a once-healthy body. Damage they may have to live with for a lifetime.

Not only have I steered clear of cosmetic surgery, I would never suggest it to anyone else. It disgusts me that some men will actually demand that a woman gets bigger breasts or a more attractive vagina. If I was the woman, I'd break up with him straightaway.

I must say I'm puzzled as to why any woman would want bigger breasts to begin with. Not only are they a big and often uncomfortable nuisance but presumably they attract a lot more unwanted male attention. A flat chest must avoid all the gawping and the man-talking-to-my-tits syndrome.

So no "corrective" surgery for me, thanks. Keep those scalpels to yourself.

PS: I'm not referring to "reconstructive" surgery after a physical injury or an operation. That's fully justified.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

Trigger happy

When does sensitivity to others become over-sensitivity and censorship? The question that springs to mind after a professor of literature allegedly dropped a well-known book from her curriculum and issued a trigger warning on her other course books.

Supposedly, after consulting with students, Professor Judith Hawley removed Fanny Hill from the reading list on the grounds that it contains "pornographic material" and may "cause offence". Supposedly again, her trigger warning explained that certain texts "sometimes reflect the unpleasant prejudices of their time" (However, Professor Hawley says she never banned the book, and never issued a trigger warning, so what actually happened is unclear)

But it's an important issue. Should a lecturer have to be so defensive simply because some students might be offended by words in a book? Surely the whole point of a literature course is to appraise an entire book, with all its negative and positive points, and not to pre-judge it by banning it or issuing warnings about its content?

Many books contain "pornographic material". Many books might "cause offence" or include "unpleasant prejudices". If all books were banned or given trigger warnings for those reasons, there wouldn't be many books left that were safe to read. Literature courses would be reduced to studying children's books or romantic fiction.

Why are books being considered on the basis of whether they offend people or not, rather than their literary or cultural or creative merits? Why are complex works of art being seen only as emotional triggers?

And if students are so over-sensitive to course material they need protecting from it, maybe they should be taking a less stressful course? Maybe accountancy or bricklaying?

Personally, I would say a book that isn't disturbing is hardly worth reading. I like my cosy preconceptions to be rudely jolted.

PS: Professor Hawley has denied banning Fanny Hill, saying it was never on her reading list in the first place (The Guardian) Unfortunately at least nine media outlets have repeated the "censorship" story so most people will continue to believe Fanny Hill was censored. The Telegraph hasn't published any further story or correction. I sent them an official complaint, asking them to publish a correction or provide the sources for their story. They replied that their story was an accurate account of what Professor Hawley had said, and was not in any way incorrect. Professor Hawley has thanked me for my interest in the issue, but she makes no further comment one way or the other.

Pic: Professor Hawley

Friday 11 August 2017

Hopeless dates

A woman from Philadelphia is suing a dating agency on the grounds that the men they offered her weren't properly screened, and were incompat-ible and unsuitable.

Darlene Daggett, a retired businesswoman, paid £115,000 to sign up with the supposedly elite dating agency, which promised ideal matches from around the globe.

One took her to Panama and then jetted off with his ex-partner the day after they returned. Another, nicknamed the "Serial Lothario", spent Christmas and Thanksgiving with her, and then abruptly left her. A third said he was waiting for his terminally ill wife to die. Yet another was a compulsive liar and stalker.

The dating agency has denied any wrongdoing, saying thousands of its clients have got married, but "it doesn't always work out".

I have no experience of dating agencies, having grown up at a time when people still relied on fortuitously meeting their future partner at the pub or the office or someone's party. We regarded dating agencies as strictly for the desperate and socially inept who just weren't getting anywhere.

Nowadays dating agencies are commonplace and nobody thinks twice about using them. But the results can be pretty hit and miss, and it's normal to get a few weirdos and arseholes along with the more appealing contenders.

So I think Darlene Daggett is being a bit absurd accusing the dating agency of offering her unsuitable men. Such is the occupational hazard of dating. Has any woman been spared the usual ration of slimeballs?

Presumably the dating agency's defence will be that however diligently they check a person out, there's always something they're hiding - maybe something pretty unsavoury. That's the risk you take going out with a total stranger.

And the agency can't be responsible for people's sordid secrets.

Pic: Darlene Daggett (right) and actress Cynthia Garrett

Saturday 5 August 2017

Holiday fever

So tourism is out of control in many towns and cities. Then what's the answer? Journalist Simon Jenkins suggests we all stop taking holidays and stay at home. Why do we insist on all this travelling around, he asks, especially when travelling is getting so stressful - jammed roads, overcrowded trains, clogged airports.

Well, he might not want a holiday (though I suspect he sneaks off to other countries when nobody's looking), but most of us love our holidays. There's no way we'll sit at home for 52 weeks a year admiring the wheelie bins. We can't wait to set off somewhere new. And as soon as we've had one holiday, we're planning the next.

But he set me thinking - why do I love holidays so much? Why do I love exploring other countries, despite all the frustrations - flight delays, pricey hotels, unreliable weather, surly cabbies, inpenetrable languages, endless siestas. What makes it all worth it?

For a start, I like to go somewhere with a different culture, different customs, a different way of looking at things. It shakes me up a bit. It's easy to get insular and narrow-minded when you're living in the same predictable spot year in and year out.

I like seeing at first hand what a place is really like, when I've only known it as a name on a map, a photo, a media headline, the setting for someone's anecdote, or where some celeb grew up. Because the reality is often quite at odds with the mental image created from all these bits and pieces.

I want to see places that are visually stunning - Sydney Harbour, Venice, Vancouver, New York. Places with extraordinary architecture and buildings, where it's exciting just to walk down a side street and find beautiful, idiosyncratic houses. And places with breathtaking landscapes, like the Swiss Alps, the Rockies or the Scottish Highlands.

Not go on holiday? You must be joking.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

Let it rip

If there's one major cause of so many problems in the world it's all those people who enjoy violence. While most of us shudder at the thought of violence and do our best to avoid it, there are plenty of people who not only see it as a normal part of life but positively enjoy it.

Needless to say, it's mainly men who find violence so attractive, though women can be drawn to it as well. For those men obsessed with being masculine, violence is the classic way to show your manliness and show how tough and ruthless you can be. Being kind and gentle is strictly for wimps.

So the world is plagued by wars, gangland murders, sexual aggression, terrorist attacks, honour killings, internet abuse and all those other things rooted in the sick thrill of violence. Of course there's always some bogus excuse for it - it's necessary to teach someone a lesson, satisfy your sexual needs, gain political control, or defend your territory.

They'll never admit it, but often it's all down to the sheer enjoyment of violence. The sheer pleasure of terrifying someone, beating them up or finishing them off. The euphoric sense of just letting rip, breaking all the rules.

Who knows what causes someone to relish violence rather than recoiling from it? Is it genetic, is it childhood conditioning, is it a mental disorder, is it a response to the way others have treated you? It's hard to say. I suspect it usually stems from a miserable childhood devoid of parental love and affection. The resulting anger and bitterness all too easily turns to violence.

But whatever the cause, it's sickening to read daily horror stories of people who laugh and gloat as they inflict appalling violence. Even when they're taken to court, they show no remorse but act lackadaisical about what they did.

I can't begin to imagine what's going on in their minds.

Pic: A protest against the molestation of a Tanzanian girl in Bangalore, India in February 2016

Friday 28 July 2017

Growing apart

One thing that can quickly threaten a relationship is a clash of fundament-ally different beliefs. Religious and political beliefs especially, but anything the couple fiercely disagree on.

Often there's an unexpected breaking-point. With one couple it was a miscarriage. Although their views were diverging more and more, they were sticking together - until she lost her baby.

William had been fairly agnostic while his wife was intensely religious. For a while this wasn't a problem. But after the miscarriage they reacted very differently. While William became a confirmed atheist, wondering how a deity could kill an unborn child, his wife found comfort in her religious beliefs, which became even stronger.

When he finally admitted to her that he was an atheist, she had "a full-blown meltdown" and said he would go to hell. He tried to repair the damage by not talking about religion, but things got worse and she asked for a divorce.

An unfortunate turn of events, but one that's probably very common. It's hard to get along if your views differ so dramatically. Initial tolerance of each other's views can easily turn into open hostility.

Luckily both Jenny and I are atheists, socialists and feminists, so scope for disagreement is strictly limited. We won't be at each other's throats over something as basic as the pros and cons of capitalism. We're more likely to differ over the choice of carpeting or whether the bed linen needs a wash.

And neither of us have strange obsessions the other can't stomach. We're not fans of alternative medicine, or flying saucers, or psychic phenomena, or wild conspiracy theories. We're both habitual sceptics who believe in more tangible realities like ice cream and pinot grigio.

If that means we're bound for hell, so be it.

Saturday 22 July 2017

Chatterbox envy

I do envy those folk who can natter away effortlessly, without a hint of self-doubt or embarrass-ment or inhibition. They move seamlessly from topic to topic, the words bubbling up in a non-stop stream. Nothing seems to deter them, be it other people ear-wigging, loud music or scampering children.

How do they do that? I find it hard to think of the next sentence, never mind prattling on for half an hour. I get too self-conscious and too wary of my listener's reactions. Suppose I say something stupid or inappropriate or nonsensical? And will they be interested in what I'm saying or bored to tears?

Booze doesn't help. Far from loosening my tongue, a glass or two of alcohol is more likely to send me to sleep or freeze my brain completely.

It's easier if I know the other person well and I'm fairly relaxed in their company. Or if we get onto a subject I'm passionate about. If it's a stranger I've never met before, and they're just making routine small talk, I dry up rapidly.

It's not that I'm uninterested in people. On the contrary, I'm fascinated by other people's lives - their habits and problems and tastes and peculiarities. But I'm no good at that casual chattering that encourages someone to reciprocate. I can be with a person for quite a while and still know next to nothing about them.

Not saying very much seems to be a family trait. My mother, father and sister were always fairly taciturn, speaking only when they had to rather than spilling everything out. Entire meals could go by with no one saying a word other than "Could you pass the salt" or "These peas taste funny". Motor-mouths we were not.

Supposedly we get more talkative as we age, because we simply aren't bothered any more by what others think. Well, I keep hoping this magical nonchalance will make its appearance, but it never does.

I'd quite like to have the gift of the gab.

Sunday 16 July 2017

Cities under siege

Is tourism out of control in some over-popular cities? The long-suffering residents certainly think so, but still the tourists keep flooding in, pouring out of cruise ships and budget flights. They don't see why they should keep away.

Dubrovnik in Croatia is feeling especially under siege now it's a frequent filming location for Game of Thrones. On a busy day the tiny city is visited by three cruise ships disgorging up to 9,000 tourists. The locals have to fight their way around through the throngs of camera-wielding gawpers.

Florence, Barcelona, Capri and some of the Greek islands face the same daily invasions.

Venice is notoriously over-run, the dwindling population now far outnumbered by the millions of visitors. Jenny and I have been there three times, and on the last occasion the best-known areas were so jammed with people we could barely move an inch. There was no way we could properly appreciate the sights when we were elbow to elbow with other sightseers.

There's regular talk of limiting the number of visitors to the city, but nothing comes of it. The sight of mammoth cruise ships gliding down the Grand Canal and dwarfing the old buildings is obscene, but they're still allowed in. The lure of tourist money always silences the objectors.

Jenny and I tend to visit the less-frequented cities, where tourism is still manageable and not too obtrusive - like Chicago and Berlin. Not so much through concern for the harassed residents elsewhere but simply because they're cities we want to visit.

But even if there's any agreement that a city is now too overwhelmed by tourists, it's hard to see what counter-measures would be acceptable. Turnstiles? Timed admission? An entry fee? A limit on cruise ships and flights? People are used to freedom of movement, going wherever they please, whatever the difficulties.

The locals are just expected to grin and bear it.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Fuggy no more

A doctor has disputed the widespread consensus that passive smoking damages your health. She says the Professor who first proved the link between smoking and lung cancer also said that the health risks of passive smoking were negligible.

But the clampdown on passive smoking gathered pace and now smoking is banned in just about every public building. The ban has been generally accepted as necessary and beneficial.

As a lifetime non-smoker, all I can say is that the ban on passive smoking has definitely improved my quality of life. Instead of going into an office and fighting my way through a thick and smelly fug of tobacco smoke, I can relax and enjoy reasonably fresh air.

It also means that my clothes are still fairly clean at the end of the day and not reeking of smoke and needing a good wash. I remember not wanting to get too close to one heavy smoking workmate who seemed to only wash his clothes about once a week.

I recall vividly my early days in my first-ever job in a newspaper office. The tobacco smoke was so dense I felt as if I was suffocating. I seriously considered resigning because I could hardly breathe.

Fortunately after several days of near-asphyxia, I became acclimatised to the fug and it no longer bothered me. And it's interesting that although I was exposed to heavy smokers day in and day out, it hasn't affected my health, which is still pretty good. I have no lung or circulation problems.

For many years my mother was exposed to my father's cigarettes (he smoked about ten a day and died of lung cancer), yet she's still alive and kicking at the age of 95.

But am I glad we've seen the last of those foul, stinking offices.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

On the take

It seems many hotel guests are so light-fingered they nick everything they can from their hotel rooms. Only the item size and limited space in suitcases prevents wholesale asset-stripping.

Everything is seen as fair game - bed linen, towels, pillows, even batteries, light bulbs and kettles. And as hotels would never dare to search their customers' suitcases as they leave, it couldn't be easier to smuggle things out.

Some items are seen as legit. Like anything that can't be re-used. Or anything unused that might have been used and gets replaced for the next guest. So most people freely take things like shampoo, soap and shower gel.

And if there isn't enough loot in your hotel room, then there's always the unattended housekeeper's trolley ready for a surreptitious raid.

Personally I can't shake off my engrained moral stance that it's wrong to nick stuff. Even if it's going to be replaced. Even if it's only worth a few pence. Even if the room cost was exorbitant. Even if nobody will ever know.

So I never pinch anything. Not even the fancy pens and stationery with a swanky hotel logo. Or a bar of soap. Or the sachets of coffee. I'm obviously a glaring oddity among a tsunami of casual thieves.

As for light bulbs and batteries - are people really so hard up they need to grab them? It's not as if they're charming souvenirs. Why on earth bother?

I guess if the hotel is part of some vast global chain, people often think systematic hoisting doesn't matter as it's merely a tiny dent in their obscenely enormous income. That's as may be, but I still think Theft Is Wrong. Call me old-fashioned....

Or maybe it's just my secret nightmare that as I check out, my suitcase bursts open and an avalanche of hotel property tumbles out around me. The embarrassment would finish me off.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Love and peace

People still think fondly of the sixties as a time of personal liberation, progressive politics, supportive communities, the crumbling of the "old guard", and new directions in art, music, books, movies and theatre. Suddenly all the stuffy old social rules were being torn up and everyone was doing their thing.

To a degree, this was true. Homosexuality was decriminalised, abortion was legalised, there was a resurgence of feminism, the American civil rights movement was fighting racism, CND was pressing for nuclear disarmament, and so on. It was a period of enormous optimism, hope and creativity.

But this was only one side of the picture, because in other ways the sixties were very negative. I know people who found these years frustrating, damaging, hurtful.

The idea of "free love" that just meant women were treated even more blatantly as sex objects. The reckless drug-taking that led to overdoses and death. The squats that turned into disorganised, hedonistic squalor. The fashionable political causes that couldn't be challenged - the IRA, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Marxism, the Soviet Union. Men still undervaluing and belittling women. Trendy cults and therapies run by money-grubbing, womanising charlatans.

Because people loved the image of freedom, of progress, of cultural flowering, they overlooked the unsavoury aspects and pretended they weren't happening. Or they saw them as the actions of a few bad apples who were latching on to the "counter-culture" for their own selfish ends, spoiling it for everyone else.

Personally I found the sixties (and early seventies) far more positive than negative, maybe because I was too sceptical and too self-protecting to get involved in the seedier and crazier fringes. But I didn't always escape the chaotic squats, mind-bending drugs, dotty cults and political dogma. It was hard to avoid the wilder excesses entirely.

It was certainly a more optimistic time than the present, with its relentless austerity and elitism. Love and peace, man. Just do your thing, man.

Friday 23 June 2017

Fish out of water

I'm passionate about politics. I want to see a fairer, more humane, more liberating society. I want an end to poverty, squalor, deprivation. I'm not content to shrug my shoulders and say, that's how things are, you just have to adjust and make the most of what you're given. I want changes. Big changes.

But I don't belong to a political party. I was a Labour Party member in the 1980s but since then I've kept out of organised politics. Why? Because whenever I go to a party-political gathering, I never feel comfortable. I feel like a fish out of water.

There's something about being in a political party that makes many people insufferably smug, self-righteous, pretentious, condescending and cliquey. They think their set of beliefs is the only correct one and that people with different beliefs are clearly muddle-headed and ignorant.

I feel I'm expected to be on-message at all times, and if I voice any opinion contrary to the official line, I'll have my head bitten off. Free speech might seem to be welcome, but in practice there are all sorts of unwritten taboos.

So I avoid such gatherings and give my support to specific protests, campaigns and lobbies where the focus is on a single injustice rather than party politicking. Things like marriage equality, a woman's right to choose, preserving the NHS, preserving the welfare state, ending austerity economics. I go to rallies, I sign petitions, I refuse private healthcare.

I can just be one of the crowd, one of the petition signers, or whatever, without having to subscribe to a particular ideology or doctrine, or watch what I'm saying in case I cross some invisible line and ruffle everyone's feathers.

As an ingrained introvert, I'm happy to plough my own furrow.

Pic: woman on an anti-Trump protest in the USA

Monday 19 June 2017

Scruffy but cosy

I was reading about a woman who slowly ditched the idea that her house had to be pristine when she had visitors. Once she would have spent days deep-cleaning the house in preparation, but nowadays she doesn't care how scruffy the place is, because she knows it's the company and conversation that's important and not the state of her house.

If her visitors are put off by the scruffiness, then they're not the sort of friends she wants anyway, and they're welcome to stay away.

She refers to it as "scruffy hospitality" and says such untidiness is quite normal in other countries and other cultures. It's quite normal of course in households full of children, where keeping the house clean and tidy is virtually impossible.

I think domestic scruffiness is becoming much more routine, for several reasons. Because people are leading busier lives. Because thorough cleaning is exhausting. Because the idea of a pristine house seems increasingly artificial. And because scruffiness simply seems cosier and less inhibiting.

When Jenny and I first moved in together, we devised elaborate cleaning rotas for the flat. As the years went by, the rotas got looser and looser, and nowadays we clean on a very ad-hoc basis, either the bare minimum for visitors (a quick sweep and hoover) or a more concerted effort when the dust bunnies are multiplying.

The pristine-house habit is still common among the generation above me. I remember an aunt whose house was always immaculate, with a place for everything and everything in its place. She must have been secretly horrified when she set foot in our rather ill-kempt residence.

People used to apologise profusely for the state of their house, muttering all sorts of inventive excuses for the slightest hint of disorder. They don't bother any more. That's what their house is like, and if you object to it, that's your problem.

Do come round and look at my dust bunnies some time.

Thursday 15 June 2017

So much loss

The massive fire at Grenfell Tower in West London is shocking and distressing in so many ways. If proper fire control measures had been added to the building, the fire would have remained localised and wouldn't have raged through the 24 storey block.

It's hard to envision what it's like to have escaped the fire but be left utterly devastated. To have lost several members of your family, probably dead in the wreckage. To have lost all your possessions apart from what you're standing up in. To have lost your home. To have lost the sense of safety and security you used to take for granted. To have lost trust in those public bodies responsible for the tragedy.

Above all, I can't imagine what it's like to lose several family members, especially if they were children and especially if you doted on them. The grief and bewilderment and sense of loss must be overwhelming.

I can't imagine losing all my possessions.  My favourite china, rugs, paintings, books, CDs, clothes. All those things I cherish and enjoy every day. All those things that are part of my personality, part of me. All those things that remind me of different stages of my life. All those things that have moved with me from home to home, some of them for 50 years.

How dreadful to lose your home, the place where you can relax and let go, where you can be yourself, where you can hide your bad habits, where you can feel insulated against the horrors and cruelties of the outside world.

And how wary you might become of those public figures who were meant to protect you against disaster. Those people safely nestled in their comfortable suburban houses while your dangerous tower-block went up in flames.

How do they deal with it? How do they cope with such trauma?

Pic: Ines Alves, who fled the inferno and then calmly took a chemistry exam

Saturday 10 June 2017

Six of the best

Does punishment ever work? Does it teach someone a lesson, does it make them behave better, or does it just breed rage and resentment and a sense of unfairness and victimisation?

I suppose in some cases punishment does prompt someone to reconsider their actions and change their behaviour, but in many other cases it must be counter-productive, aggravating a situation rather than improving it.

When I think of the various punishments I've had imposed on me, none of them had the desired effect.

At prep school, I was twice given six of the best for forgetting the dates of English kings and queens. But I still forgot them, simply because they didn't seem important.

At my boarding school I was given extra homework after skipping an obligatory religious service. It didn't make me any keener on religion. I just felt increasingly resentful at the compulsion.

At a bookshop I worked for, I was dragged through a disciplinary hearing for being an hour late to work for no good reason. It was pointless as I was usually punctual and that one slip-up was totally untypical.

I was once fined a hefty sum for speeding in a 30 mph zone. It didn't stop me speeding, as I simply drive at a speed I think suitable for the road and traffic conditions.

If someone has done something offensive, surely the best response is to encourage them to behave more sensibly, not to impose some arbitrary, unrelated punishment.

A lot of punishments are obviously futile. Like fines imposed on prostitutes, who then turn a few extra tricks to pay the fine. Or fines given to shoplifters who're forced to steal things they can't afford, and will probably carry on doing so.

A society based on punishment isn't a happy one.

Sunday 4 June 2017

A tragic decline

I'm fascinated by those celebrities who seem set for a glittering career and then fall into a steady decline, eaten away by addictions, self-doubt, destructive friends and spouses, and the relentless pressures of fame.

I was reading about the new documentary on Whitney Houston, and the recollections of her bodyguard, David Roberts, who thinks she could have survived if those around her had been less intent on exploiting her fame and more concerned with her personal health and well-being.

As soon as he met her new boyfriend, the rapper Bobby Brown, on her 26th birthday, he suspected Brown would be a bad influence on her. He soon discovered he was verbally and physically abusive, jealous of her success, an attention-seeker, a trouble-maker, a heavy drug-user, and a womaniser.

He couldn't understand why she always indulged him and overlooked his immature behaviour, why she crushed her own personality to make him feel comfortable, why she was besotted with someone who was obviously no good for her.

In particular, he's disgusted with all the people in her entourage who were more interested in her profitability than protecting her health and keeping her from self-destruction.

"She became a commodity, a possession, a tool for making money" he says. When he wrote to her lawyers outlining his concerns, he was sacked, and never spoke to her again.

Her story has many similarities with the life of Amy Winehouse, whose promising career was also undermined by an equally unsuitable boyfriend, Blake Fielder-Civil, a growing drugs habit, the stresses of fame, and a money-obsessed entourage.

On February 11, 2012, at the age of 48, Whitney Houston was found dead, the result of drowning, heart disease and cocaine use. "So many people could have done so much to avoid that" says David Roberts. "They didn't. They abdicated responsibility in favour of greed."

Pic: David Roberts