Wednesday 26 December 2018

Up in the air

The lengthy closure of Gatwick Airport last week due to drone activity made me think about the possible risks and glitches of air travel.

As other travellers do, no doubt, I ruminate on all the potential problems that might sabotage the two of us and leave our carefully-planned trips in ruins. Of course if we thought there was a serious chance of all these mishaps occurring, we wouldn't book the trips in the first place. But I remain a sunny optimist who assumes such hitches are most unlikely.

That assumption is borne out by experience. Although we've flown all over the place, including Australia, the USA and Canada, my baggage has never so far been lost. It went astray once returning to Belfast, but was found and delivered to me the next day.

I did once go down with food poisoning on a trip to Australia. A very unpleasant experience. But it wasn't due to the airline food. I just happened to be sitting next to the one other person on the plane with food poisoning, and we deduced that the culprit was an egg sandwich from Costa at Heathrow.

I've never been thrown off a plane because of technical problems. My flight has never been diverted to some far-flung airport. I've never been hijacked. I've never experienced an engine fire. I've never had a drunken pilot on board (as far as I know). I've never been caught in severe turbulence. Virtually all my flights have been remarkably uneventful and routine.

Hopefully that luck will continue. I have great confidence that my plane will stay safely 35,000 feet in the air and I can happily watch rubbishy movies or snooze without any sudden mid-air crisis to disturb me.

The fact is that planes are astonishingly safe. I'm 86 times more likely to die in a car than in a plane. So why worry?

I won't be blogging for a while. But don't worry, I'll be back in due course! In the meantime, talk among yourselves....

Thursday 20 December 2018

Santa's big plan

It's time for my traditional Christmas interview with that much-loved festive figure, Santa Claus. So here goes.

Nick: Well, Santa, are you looking forward to delivering all those presents on Christmas Eve?

Santa: You must be joking. It's an absolute nightmare. It's one crisis after another. The elves go on strike for better pay and conditions. Or the sleighs need urgent repairs. Or the reindeer have fallen sick. Or the wrapping paper's run out and we can't get any more for a week. I'm too old for this malarkey. I've had it up to here. Once Christmas is over, I'm retiring to my Caribbean penthouse and someone else will have to take the reins.

Nick: That's terrible. But you've done the job for quite long enough. You deserve a good long rest. Everyone takes you for granted. If they don't have the right presents on Christmas Day, they abuse you non-stop on Twitter and send you threatening letters. You could do without it.

Santa: Too true. I can't wait to put it all behind me. I can shave off this horrible scratchy beard, chuck out this ludicrous bobble hat, throw away this ridiculous red outfit (I've always hated the colour red), stop being polite to all those little brats who come to the grotto, and stop saying "ho ho ho" every two minutes.

Nick: So what are your plans for retirement? What's on your bucket list?

Santa: I'm going to get super fit. A whole new lifestyle. It's horrifying how much weight I've gained sitting on my arse in the toy factory all day. From now on it's the gym every morning, jogging, rock climbing, yoga. I'll be thin as a rake, with rock-hard muscles and the heart of a teenager. You won't recognise me if you pass me on the street.

Nick: That's terrific. I can't wait for the selfies in six months' time.

Santa: No selfies. I've had enough attention to last a lifetime. I shall just vanish.

Nick: Ho ho ho!

Sunday 16 December 2018

Reality or innocence?

The whole subject of safeguarding children is a real hot potato. To what extent do you protect them from the horrors of the outside world and to what extent do you keep them happy and secure in a little childhood cocoon?

There are no clear answers. Every parent has their own guidelines as to how much cocooning or how much real-life exposure is appropriate or healthy. When real-life nowadays is often so squalid and monstrous, it's a serious dilemma.

Certainly in my own childhood I was very much cocooned. My parents tended to keep me away from newspapers, news reports and gruesome local happenings and encouraged me to stay immersed in my own private world of model trains, comics, glove puppets and my sister's dolls house.

When I started work as a local newspaper journalist, it came as a big shock to discover the realities of everyday life that I had been so ignorant of - poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, grim working conditions and all the rest.

But what should parents do? On the one hand, they want their kids to enjoy a carefree innocent childhood for as long as possible, and not risk their being traumatised by everyday atrocities they aren't ready to deal with.

On the other hand, they don't want their kids to grow up naive and unworldly, unaware of just how brutal and barbaric and wretched some people's lives may be, and how we all need to do our bit to create a fairer world.

These days of course it's virtually impossible to keep your child cocooned. Very early on they'll discover social media and the extremes of real life will be thrust at them in every appalling shape and form. To keep them cocooned you'd have to live on a desert island or in a mountain cave.

Parenting has never been such a complicated business.

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Emotional labour

Christmas calls for a huge amount of emotional labour - manipula-ting your emotions in order to please others - and women in particular are expected to provide it.

Emotional labour was originally defined in terms of the workplace - jobs where you have to be nicer or harsher or pushier than you would naturally be, at the cost of your psychological well-being. But of course it can equally apply to occasions like Christmas.

It's seen as the woman's job to smooth over ruffled feelings, manage children's expectations, deal with tactless relatives, bottle up family feuds, and generally keep people happy for the duration. The stress involved is colossal, but men are usually excused from such emotional labour on the grounds that they're "not very good with emotions", "haven't been socialised to do it" or "would make a mess of it". How very convenient for them.

Luckily for Jenny and I, we don't have big family Christmases anymore and are normally on our own. So the only emotions we have to manage are each other's. And the only quarrel will centre on how many points you get for axalotl in our Scrabble tournament. Or whether we should watch Some Like It Hot or Casablanca.

But emotional labour was very necessary when I was working. I had to be constantly nice to bookshop customers, councillors, charity supporters, social workers and whoever else my job required me to mingle with. Suppressing anger, abuse or antagonism, however justified, was the order of the day.

As a customer, I've had to be studiously polite to bank officials, civil servants, tradespeople and call centre staff to ensure they treat me properly and don't try any funny business. Telling them exactly what you think of them would be fatal.

But sometimes I forget myself. I once told Santa he was a drunken old fool who needed to lose some weight. I haven't had a present from him since.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Koalas and kangaroos

The idea of a holiday has changed dramatic-ally since I was a kid. The simple holidays of sixty years ago are now seen as laughably spartan and primitive, the cheap and cheerful customs of the time.

Our family would spend a fortnight either with my mum's parents at Southend, Essex, or with my father's mother at Perranporth, Cornwall. My sister and I would pass the days on the beach, building sandcastles, eating ice lollies, collecting sea shells and going to the amusement arcades. We were perfectly happy because it never occurred to us in those days that holidays could be far more ambitious.

Other families did the same. It was taken for granted that you took your holidays in Britain and kept the local seaside resorts thriving.

Gradually things changed. Flying became cheaper and more routine and people started heading for sunnier and more scenic countries. Having travelled all over Europe, their wanderlust then took them to the rest of the world.

Now people think nothing of travelling across the globe not just for holidays but for weddings, birthday parties or even to see their grandchildren.

Jenny and I were no exception. After a few British holidays, we thought, why are we being so unadventurous? Why are we pottering round Cornish villages when we could be taking a train through the Rockies, walking over Sydney Harbour Bridge, saying hello to a kangaroo or a koala, standing on top of the Empire State Building or riding the L train in Chicago?

So we joined the footloose masses, signed up for all those shameful long-haul flights with their shocking levels of carbon emissions and had a look at the USA, Canada and Australia. Which I have to say, despite the environmental misconduct have been some of the most amazing experiences of my life (in my defence, I've done my bit for the environment by being a vegetarian for some 43 years).

Perranporth has well-and-truly lost its magic.

Tuesday 4 December 2018

More undesirables

I once listed ten things that seemed totally pointless, things that should never have existed and did little or nothing for anyone's quality of life. I thought I would add another ten items to the list:

1) Group photos. Of politicians, school pupils, employees etc. Either grinning inanely or looking sullen and awkward. Who needs them?
2) Posed selfies. Taken after an hour of primping and preening to achieve a phoney visual perfection that fools nobody.
3) Vegan cheese. Which despite the hype are nothing like traditional cheese. Peculiar flavours that are virtually inedible.
4) Crisps. A nice taste and a satisfying crunchy noise, but that's it. Thin slivers of a single large potato with zero nutritional value.
5) High heels. Serve no purpose except to pander to male fetishism. If they make you look "professional", why aren't men wearing them?
6) Push-up bras. More male fetishism. Even more uncomfortable and annoying than the regular ones.
7) Trigger warnings. Trying to anticipate every possible upsetting trigger in the universe is absurd. Why not just deal with what's upsetting you?
8) Bottled water. No better than tap water, and only adds to the mountain of plastic waste that's polluting the planet.
9) National anthems. Inane ditties that only encourage jingoism and nationalism. "God save the Queen" indeed.
10) Stretch limos. A bogus air of luxury travel for your special occasion, blocking the traffic wherever they go.

So now you're sure to tell me you love nothing better than prancing around in high heels and a push-up bra, scoffing vegan cheese and Pringles, while posing for a selfie and singing the national anthem. How very perverse of you.

If you're interested, the original list can be read here.

Wednesday 28 November 2018

A big fat blank

It strikes me that I have little idea what my parents thought about the whole business of parenting. They said virtually nothing about it and I never asked them. Was it a positive experience or a negative one? Did they enjoy it or did they hate it? I honestly couldn't tell you.

I had little chance to tackle my father on the subject as we were totally estranged for the last twenty years of his life. I had plenty of opportunities to question my mum, who outlived my father by thirty years, but I never did. The subject simply never came up, maybe because we were both afraid of what dark secrets would come tumbling out. And also because my mum was just extremely secretive.

My guess is that they enjoyed bringing up my sister, who was always obedient and well-behaved and cheerfully conventional, while they found me more of a handful because  I played up and answered back and had wayward views on just about everything.

But it's all guesswork because they never confided their real feelings about parenting. For all I know, in the secrecy of their bedroom they complained non-stop about the heavy demands of child-rearing and how inadequate and ignorant they felt. They may even at the worst moments have wondered why they had children at all. Who knows? It's just one big fat blank.

Some of the questions I have:
1) Were they glad they had children, or not?
2) What were the best aspects of parenting, and the worst?
3) Were there times when they were totally at their wits' end?
4) Were there times when they just wanted to get rid of us?
5) Did they feel they weren't really up to the job?
6) Did they feel other parents were much better at it?
7) What was the biggest mistake they made?
8) What would they have done differently?

I'd love to know the answers.

Friday 23 November 2018

On the game

Talking of secrets, I've never been with a prostitute. Never ever. But a surprising number of men have been. Some research says one in ten. Clearly they're not put off by all the negative associations of what they're doing.

I once lived in a red-light district near Paddington Station in London. Every so often one of the women would ask me if I "wanted a good time" or "wanted to do some business." I always politely turned them down.

I've long been mystified by men's taste for prostitutes (I refuse to use the sanitised term sex worker). For many reasons I never shared their keenness. And not just because of a shortage of a cash.

I couldn't live with all the secrecy and lying. Not just to your girlfriend or wife but to other family members, friends, workmates, strangers - just about everyone. If it's something so shameful or disgusting you daren't tell anyone, why are you doing it at all?

I have no desire for sex with a complete stranger, and certainly not if it's been turned into a commercial transaction. And certainly not if the woman is doing it unwillingly and out of desperation. And certainly not if she's a victim of sexual trafficking, as many prostitutes now are.

I wouldn't want to go along with all the obvious falsity. The woman pretending she's delighted to see you, that you're a mighty handsome fella, that you're sexual dynamite, that it's dreadful your wife has lost interest etc. Some men must actually believe all this bullshit.

And yes, the shame. How do some men live with themselves, seeing women not as human beings worthy of respect and consideration but handy sexual receptacles when they're feeling randy?

As the old question goes, would you treat your own daughter like that?

Friday 16 November 2018

Keeping mum

Ramana and Chuck have both posted about secrets today, so I thought I'd join in. People have very different attitudes to secrets. Some think it's healthy to get everything out in the open and not bottle things up, others think it's more sensible to reveal the bare minimum and keep the rest to yourself.

Things have changed a lot since I was young. In those days there was no social media to broadcast your every personal quirk to. You might confide something to a family member or one or two friends and that was that. Now you can tell Facebook you're suffering from PTSD and hundreds of people know your secret instantly.

But is that a good or bad thing? The "let it all out" school of thought says that revealing everything, however perverse or trivial or hateful or idiotic, might upset a few people but there's nothing festering away inside to cause inhibitions and awkwardness.

Which is fine in theory, but in practice there are many very good reasons for keeping things secret.

Someone might have told you something in confidence. If you reveal it, others will stop confiding in you. Something might be so controversial or bizarre that you can't face all the possible negative reactions, so you prefer to keep it quiet. If you're a whistle-blower exposing some sort of malpractice, you might find yourself ostracised or even sacked.

Although personally I'd like to be entirely frank about every aspect of my life, it's for reasons like those that in reality I keep many things secret. It would simply be too damaging to lay everything on the line.

My family have always been intensely secretive, telling me what's strictly necessary and keeping everything else under wraps. I know very little about my mother and father because they told me next to nothing. My sister and brother-in-law and niece are equally reticent.

Well, total transparency sounds good but can easily turn sour.

Sunday 11 November 2018

In my dreams

I can't make head or tail of my dreams. Most of them I instantly forget, but the ones I remember are invariably anxiety dreams - I'm lost and I don't know where I should be; I know where I should be but I don't know how to get there; I've lost my shoulder bag or my suitcase or some other possession; I'm being chased by someone; I'm trapped in a locked room; or I'm supposed to be giving a speech, but I've lost my notes and have no idea what to say.

I hardly ever dream about a real-life, everyday situation. Occasionally I dream of Jenny, or a blogmate, or a Facebook friend, or a former workmate, but only once in a blue moon. Scary imaginings are the norm.

I don't have any of the classic dreams others mention - walking into a social event and realising I'm naked; shaking hands with the Queen; taking a test; floating or flying;  searching for a toilet; or murdering someone.

My dreams have no relation to my daily life. I don't feel lost, I know I'm exactly where I should be. My belongings hardly ever get stolen. Nobody chases me (except when I've left something in a shop). I've never been trapped in a locked room. I've given the odd speech, my notes to hand.

If the dreams are trying to tell me something, I've no idea what. As I say, they're totally disconnected from real life. Maybe they're a hangover from my childhood fears, which my brain has never managed to erase. Or they're scenes from various books I've read, which have stuck in my mind.

But it would be lovely to have some normal, pleasant dreams. Like walking through a wood, listening to birdsong. Or eating a delicious three-course meal. Or being in a Venetian gondola. Or taking a train through the Alps.

Fat chance.

No news yet on the Tate Modern court case. I'll let you know the moment I hear anything.

Saturday 3 November 2018

In full view

Owners of flats close to the Tate Modern in London have taken the art gallery to court over its viewing platform, which they say is an invasion of their privacy. They complain that thousands of people are staring into their flats every day, some with binoculars and zoom lenses.

One resident counted 84 people photographing the flats in 1½ hours and discovered a photo of himself posted on Instagram to 1,027 followers. Another said he was constantly watched, waved at, photographed and filmed by people on the viewing platform.

The Tate Modern replies that residents who object to all the attention should draw their blinds or install curtains. They say the viewing platform is an important public amenity with a 360 degree view of London and the surrounding area, and the residents "have no unencumbered right to enjoy their own view."

What amazing arrogance and contempt for the flat-owners. Why on earth should they have to put up with being watched all day, like animals in the zoo? Why should they be appropriated for other people's entertainment?

If thousands of people were idly gawping at my house all day, I would object strongly. Of course it's an invasion of privacy. But because the Tate Modern is a major public organisation and tourist attraction, they think they can ignore the locals and do whatever they like.

So while the flat-owners have no right to enjoy their own view, the Tate's visitors can enjoy a 360 degree view whenever they like, with no restrictions. Perhaps they should be advised to view the works of art inside the building, and not the local residents?

I hope the flat-owners win. The Tate Modern needs to be put in its place.

Pic: The viewing platform and the nearby block of flats

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Expert bashing

There's quite a fashion in some quarters to deride "experts" and make out that they don't really know any more than you or me. They're dismissed as "so-called experts", "self-appointed experts" and so on.

This was one factor that led to a majority voting for Brexit. We were constantly advised to ignore the experts who foresaw disastrous consequences if we left the EU. We were told the experts were talking nonsense and were just hysterical "prophets of doom".

The expert-bashers will cite doctors who take two years to diagnose a serious illness, or diagnose a serious illness that turns out to be non-existent. Or they cite dieticians who say a certain food is unhealthy, and six months later it's fine, eat as much as you want. "You don't know who to believe" say Joe and Joanna Public.

The trouble is that people expect experts to be 100 per cent certain about something. They should have a clear-cut answer, an infallible explanation. Experts aren't meant to change their mind or get it wrong, that shows they're not really experts.

But of course experts change their mind all the time. It's precisely because they're experts and constantly reviewing new information and new findings that they change their minds accordingly. That's not ignorance, it's keeping up-to-date.

I'd like to know how these expert-bashers would get on if all the experts disappeared. If there was no neurosurgeon to remove their brain tumour, no mechanic to repair their car, no chemists to formulate shampoo and detergent, no builder to fix the leaking roof. We'd be living in pretty spartan and backward conditions.

Sure, there are some bogus "experts" who really are ignorant or are deliberately scamming the public (miracle cures and natural remedies come to mind), but that doesn't mean every expert is bogus. That's an absurd conclusion.

But don't take my word for it. Ask an expert.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Faulty fingernails

There's something very wrong with people when a five-year-old Massa-chusetts boy who likes wearing nail polish is so viciously attacked by his fellow pupils that he goes home demoralised and in tears.

Sam Gouveia's father said "Sam was ridiculed for being a boy with nail polish. They called him names and told him to take it off. This lasted the entire day. He was devastated at how other kids turned on him, even his friends."

It seems that by the age of five, most boys have been so thoroughly indoctrinated into the idea of masculine and feminine clothing that something as trivial as wearing nail polish is jumped on as if some major crime has been committed.

If a five-year-old boy wants to wear nail polish, what's the problem? It's not harming anybody, it's not threatening anybody, it's not disrupting lessons. If other boys find it threatening, because it challenges their macho fixations, that's their problem and not his.

There has been similar bullying of boys who want to wear skirts or dresses or long hair or any kind of "female" clothing. The bullying is often supported by teachers quoting the official school dress code.

Surely boys who misbehave, disrupt lessons, and abuse teachers are the real problem, not boys who like to have shocking pink fingernails or floaty skirts? Surely the quality of the teaching is more important than what a boy puts on his fingers?

The idea of gender fluidity may be popular in certain fashionable quarters, but clearly it hasn't caught on with the general population, who still rigorously enforce masculine and feminine boundaries.

Think twice before you dress. The gender police are watching you!

Pic: Sam Gouveia

Friday 19 October 2018

Motorway madness

The other day there was another case of an elderly driver going the wrong way on a motorway. On this occasion the couple in the car, both in their eighties, and the 30-year-old driver of another car, were all killed.

Aside from the question of how on earth it was possible to enter the wrong side of the motorway in the first place, missing all the signs for the correct slip road, I wonder if yet again an elderly motorist refused to admit that he or she was no longer safe on the roads and should stop driving.

I ask myself, would I willingly recognise that I was no longer a competent driver and stop driving before I caused some calamity? Or would I keep kidding myself I was safe enough, though maybe not quite so alert or clear-sighted as I used to be, and carry on driving just the same?

I ask that because it seems quite a lot of elderly drivers kid themselves they're still safe on the roads when they're not. They end up crashing into another car, careering into a shopfront, driving on the wrong side of a motorway, or killing someone. I want to admit my failings before I do something disastrous.

I've already decided not to hire a car to drive on unfamiliar roads, as it feels too risky. I've driven several times between the M11 and Stansted Airport, and I find all the different lanes and roundabouts too confusing for my liking. It was always a relief to return the car without mishap.

I would never drive in another country, where not only are the roads unfamiliar but I might be driving on a different side and facing road signs in foreign languages. I would be far too nervous to enjoy it.

Drivers who won't admit they've become a liability are a public menace.

Monday 15 October 2018

Festering grudges

Do I bear grudges or don't I? It depends how you define it. The dictionary says it's a feeling of persistent ill-will towards someone. But to my mind that's just an everyday feeling and nothing unusual. Surely we all feel ill-will towards certain people because they're rude or obstructive or bad-tempered or needy? So what?

I think ill-will only becomes a grudge when it turns into obsessive, irrational, all-consuming hatred, or when there's also a desire to get revenge on the person, to give them a taste of their own medicine. Then you're no longer talking about an everyday feeling but something abnormal and unhealthy.

I've often felt persistent ill-will towards somebody, but it never develops into something obsessive or magnified. Dislike is enough for me, I don't need to build it up into something huge and grotesque. For one thing, I don't the energy for such intensity. It's too exhausting.

I guess grudges are usually driven by anger, and I'm not an angry person. If someone's pissing me off, I don't get enraged, I just look for a way of dealing with their obnoxious behaviour. Or I keep away from them.

Some grudges result from a failure to get something you dearly wanted, and the conclusion that you were unfairly treated. You fail to get that prestigious job you were after, and you're convinced the interview panel was biased against you. Thus a grudge is born and lasts for decades, based solely on an unproven belief. I've never had that sort of grudge either.

I've known men with a severe grudge against a woman who wouldn't go out with them, or abruptly ended a relationship. They simply can't get over the rejection, and they're nursing a continual grudge that they didn't get what they wanted and feel slighted and scorned.

I don't need grudges. Ill-will suits me nicely.

Thanks to Chuck and Ramana for the subject.

Thursday 11 October 2018

The gay cake

The global controversy continues over the so-called "gay cake" case, and whether a Belfast bakery was entitled to refuse a cake order that included the message "Support gay marriage" on the icing.

The British Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Ashers bakery was indeed entitled to refuse the order, as this wasn't discrimination against the customer's homosexuality, simply an objection to a particular message that conflicted with their religious beliefs (the owners being devout Christians).

The two lower courts had sided with the customer, Gareth Lee, but the Supreme Court sided with the bakery. Which has reignited the tangled debate over homophobia, what amounts to discrimination, whether a business can refuse an order or not, to what extent you can assert your religious beliefs and so on.

The legal action has already lasted almost 4½ years and cost over £500,000 (partly funded by the Equality Commission). It could last even longer, as Gareth is considering a further appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (through crowdfunding).

Personally I wonder if this interminable legal action is really worth it. Surely the whole dispute could have been resolved at a much earlier stage, with a bit of common sense and flexibility? Someone suggested that after his order was refused, Gareth could simply have shrugged his shoulders, recognised that some people don't agree with gay marriage, and found another bakery that was happy to make his cake.

If one particular bakery throws a wobbly over the message on a cake, is that such a big deal? There must be plenty of bakeries that are more obliging, so does it really matter?

If I ordered a cake with the message "Bollocks to Brexit" and the bakery refused the order, would it be worth  starting a £500,000 legal action to demand my culinary rights? I think not. It would just suggest I had a very large chip on my shoulders.

Pic: Gareth Lee

Sunday 7 October 2018

Shared passions

I had an interesting thought about loneliness the other evening, while I was sipping wine at an art gallery exhibition launch. I wondered why I didn't feel lonely, even though I was on my own and I was surrounded by people in couples and groups chattering away to each other.

Loneliness is normally taken to mean the lack of close relationships in your life, the sort of relationships where you can connect with someone at a deep level and feel a sense of intimacy and empathy.

But I wasn't with anyone else, so why didn't I feel lonely? I realised it was because even though I wasn't with someone, I shared with the others present a passion for modern art, and an enthusiasm for this particular artist, which meant I felt connected to them and had that sense of intimacy and empathy that dispels loneliness.

I get the same sort of feeling when I attend political rallies. I share with those around me the same political aims and attitudes, the same passion for a better and fairer society, and again that makes me feel connected to them.

In fact I feel connected to other people in all sorts of ways. I see them going through the same struggles as myself, the same difficulties, the same successes and failures, the same hopes and fears, and I don't need to talk to them or befriend them to empathise with their predicaments.

It surprises me when people don't feel that general connectedness to others, when they feel cut off from other people, shut up in their own personal existence as if there's some invisible barrier between them and the rest of the world.

I should sip wine at art galleries more often. And wait for the dazzling insights.

Wednesday 3 October 2018

Rules and regimes

The media is stuffed with articles about how to be healthier, how to stay physically fit, and how to live longer. But do I necessarily want to live longer? And do I want to enslave myself to all the arduous restrictions and regimes that might add a few months to my life?

Do I really want to spend hours at the gym, stop eating chocolate and ice cream, stop drinking alcohol, chomp the latest super-food, or do everything standing instead of sitting? No, I don't. That would take a lot of the pleasure out of life. It would turn me into a self-denying killjoy constantly asking myself if I should do this or do that rather than just doing what I enjoy.

My mother lived until she was 96, but by that age she was declining mentally and physically and was a shadow of her former bubbly, energetic self. Do I want to be alive at 96 in the same frail condition? I can't say I do. I'd rather conk out at an earlier age when I still have all my faculties and I'm still enjoying life to the full.

There's also the small matter of looking after all these frail elderly folk who have survived many more years than they used to a few decades ago. They're a burden on families and a burden on the NHS who may or may not give them the care and attention they need. And quite often the people looking after elderly relatives are elderly themselves, with their own infirmities to deal with.

So spare me all the well-meaning articles about octogenarian yoga maestros, nonagenarian marathon runners and globetrotting centenarians. Just give me another bowl of ice cream and some chocolate truffles. And a generous glass of pinot grigio.

Thursday 27 September 2018

Mislaid memories

My memory works in peculiar ways. I can't remember a conversation I had last week, but I can remember helping the milkman with his deliveries in the 1950s. I can't remember the name of someone I've seen umpteen times but I can remember being paralytically hungover on a London bus in the late 1960s.

My theory is that rather like a computer, the human brain accumulates more and more memories until by my age it's totally overloaded and it adjusts by instantly forgetting what it regards as irrelevant trivia and only remembering what's strictly necessary for my everyday survival.

So I can remember what date my state pension is due or the name of the electrician, but other dates and names slide rapidly into some memory black hole and can only be retrieved with sophisticated salvage equipment. Or by asking the woman with curly hair yet again what her name is, prefaced by the usual embarrassing apologies and ingratiating smiles.

One useful quirk of my forgetful memory is that I seldom recall insults or criticism. They slip rapidly into the black hole. Some people remember even trifling insults for years, brooding on them and cursing the person who uttered them, but for me they're simply water off a duck's back. I see insults as mindless acts of malice, not to be taken seriously.

Some people are so sensitive that an especially macabre or gruesome image can make them physically sick. The image sticks in their mind and they wish they'd never seen it. Luckily I don't respond like that. I don't want to expunge the image of the collapsing Twin Towers, or the girl fleeing napalm in South Vietnam, or the priest trying to stop carnage on Bloody Sunday in Derry. I want to know about these things.

But I'd quite like to obliterate all the memories of my dreadful boarding school. Painful memories I could do without.

Sunday 23 September 2018

A loss of trust

I used to be an enthusiastic supporter of charities. In fact I've worked for several, including Asthma UK and Diabetes UK. But all the charity scandals in recent years have drained my enthusiasm and turned it into a wary scepticism.

It seems that the public generally now have less faith in charities. The reputation of several charities has plummeted, and people are much more selective about who they give money to.

It's sobering to sum up all the recent misconduct:
  • Oxfam staff sexually exploiting victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2010
  • Women in Syrian refugee camps forced into sex by UN aid workers
  • The suicide of 92-year-old poppy seller Olive Cooke, after being deluged with begging letters from charities
  • Chuggers (charity muggers) asking people for donations in the street
  • Huge financial irregularities at Kids Company, which had to close down
  • Direct debit "donations" taken from Alzheimer's sufferer Joseph Frost
  • Excessive spending on administration
  • Chief Executive salaries as high as £140,000
The only charities I donate to now are ones that are well-known and not tainted (as far as I know) by any unethical or pushy behaviour. Like St John Ambulance and the Salvation Army.

When I worked at Diabetes UK I was aware money was sometimes being wasted, for example on London staff meetings for employees across the UK, whose hotels and transport (including flights from Northern Ireland) were paid for by the charity. I found the meetings almost entirely unproductive, but attendance was compulsory.

Charities have become big business, and it seems that some of them are adopting the behaviour of big business and doing whatever they can get away with.

Baroness Stowell, Chair of the Charity Commission, says the public no longer trust charities any more than a stranger in the street. Well, a bit exaggerated perhaps, but there's some truth in that. And once lost, trust isn't easily regained.

Pic: Olive Cooke with begging letters

PS: One organisation I regularly donate to is Wikipedia. I use it virtually every day and I want to make sure it keeps going.

Wednesday 19 September 2018

Fine as I am

It sometimes seems like 90 per cent of the population dislike their appearance and want to change it in some way - or any number of ways. The only thing stopping them is lack of money.

Tattoos, piercings, botox, cosmetic surgery, shapewear, hormones. The demand for all of them just goes up and up. So many people chasing after some personal image of perfection, and they won't rest until they achieve it.

I was brought up in an age when most people accepted their appearance as it was, however imperfect or unfashionable or plain ugly. Very few people thought of rushing off to the cosmetic surgeon or tattooing huge tracts of their body. Going to such lengths was just seen as a bit daft. Or for the religious, a blasphemous rejection of the body God gave you.

My childhood attitude stuck as the years went by and I still accept my body as it is, with no passionate desire to change it. I would quite like to be shorter, with shorter arms and legs, so it was easier to find clothes that fit me properly. I would quite like to be free of the facial hair I have to shave every day. I would quite like to have perfect sight so I didn't have to bother with glasses. I would quite like to lose the growing collection of wrinkles.

But I'm not concerned enough about any of these things to get some sort of treatment. I still have the old-fashioned view that what goes on in my brain is more important than what I look like.

I'm not a car. I don't need to be redesigned every year or two to be more aesthetically pleasing. As long as I've got all my senses, as long as I can enjoy life, as long as I can smell the roses, that'll do me nicely.

Friday 14 September 2018

Holiday headaches

Planning holidays is a bit tricky these days. It's not just a question of choosing a place to go and booking up. If you're at all politically aware, there are all sorts of ethical and environmental implications to be thought about.

Jenny and I give serious consideration to all the contentious issues before we finally pin down a destination. They might not stop us but we feel as responsible travellers we should at least acknowledge them.

Should we fly long haul when it produces so much carbon pollution? Should we even fly short haul if we could go by train or bus instead? Should we go to places that are already overwhelmed by tourists, like Venice? Should we use hotels that probably pay their employees peanuts?

The problem is that if we took all these issues seriously, we could never go anywhere outside our own country. Well, not unless we're ready to travel overland thousands of miles instead of flying. Or avoid popular places like Sydney, even though it's one of our favourite cities. Or avoid budget hotels and pay quadruple the price for a luxury hotel that might pay its employees properly.

We'd have to settle for a fortnight in Blackpool or a long weekend in Bournemouth. Which wouldn't be quite the same as a tour of New Zealand or a trip through the Canadian Rockies.

Then again, even if the two of us ruled out all unethical and climate-damaging holidays, what difference would it make when millions of other people are busy swanning round the world without a qualm? When global air travel is actually increasing by leaps and bounds (7 to 8 per cent a year)? When vast new hotels are sprouting like mushrooms? When more and more people are visiting Venice, even though it's tourist gridlock in Piazza San Marco? Wouldn't we just be pissing in the wind?

Enjoying yourself is getting far too complicated.

Monday 10 September 2018

Haloes and holiness

I don't tend to idealise people. I tend to see them just as they are, warts and all, their faults as well as their good points. I'm always surprised by how readily people idealise public figures and turn them into saints who can do no wrong.

When everyone was idealising Barack Obama and saying what an amazing President he would be, I was thinking, he'll probably do a good job but he'll also disappoint a lot of people who're expecting something more revolutionary. Which turned out to be the case.

When everyone was idealising the new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and saying what an amazing Prime Minister he would be, I had similar reservations. I knew he wouldn't be the sweeping reformer everyone's waiting for, he'd fall short in all sorts of ways. Because he's an imperfect human being like all the rest of us.

I've never idealised rock stars, film stars, politicians, authors, gurus or celebrities generally. I never idealised my parents or my teachers. I knew they all had feet of clay - bad habits, weird obsessions, blind spots, fierce prejudices. Behind the respectable public facade there's always a darker side.

But I'm not perfect either. One person I did idealise was John Lennon. I adored his personality - his rebelliousness, his sharp wit, his humour, his crazy stunts, his music. I grew my hair long and grew a beard to look more like John. So I was very upset when he was murdered. I conveniently overlooked his womanising, his misogyny, his egotism and his arrogance until many years later.

And I do tend to idealise women. I often see them as more beautiful, more intelligent, more perceptive and generally nicer than they truly are. I shut out the bitchiness, the self-doubt, the competitiveness, the begrudgery. At my age, I really should know better.

When other people are seeing haloes and holiness, I'm looking for the Achilles Heel.

Thursday 6 September 2018

Money to burn

What's the best way to squander £90 million? Simple - relaunch your local bus service with flashy new buses that aren't needed and aren't any quicker than the old buses.

To a fanfare of hype and gushing soundbites, along with free doughnuts, our local number 4 bus route in East Belfast was relaunched this week with purple bendy buses, pre-paid journeys and  drivers who no longer interact with the passengers.

I sampled the new bus earlier in the week and was totally underwhelmed. When I tried to validate my bus pass, the machine said it was faulty. Not a problem though as I could board the bus and travel to my destination without meeting any ticket inspectors (apparently there are very few).

Unlike the old buses, all the seats were taken so like many other passengers I had to stand for the whole journey to the city centre - which at around 15 minutes was no shorter than previously. The bus lanes now operate all day but that didn't make the bus any quicker.

So £90 million was spent on buses that offer no visible improvement on the old buses, and will be a magnet for fare dodgers who can hop on and hop off tourist-style. It will be fun to see how many journeys I can make without seeing a ticket inspector (now grandly renamed as Revenue Protection Officers).

The bendy buses are also less flexible than the old double-deckers. On tight corners they have to swing right into the middle of the road to clear the kerb. And there are plenty of tight corners in the city centre.

Just think what we could have done with £90 million if it hadn't been squandered on this pointless exercise. In particular it could have drastically reduced hospital waiting lists, which are shockingly huge (I had to wait 18 months for a routine prostate operation).

Spending scandals? I'm sure there'll be another one along in a minute....

Sunday 2 September 2018

Driven crazy

A journalist has compiled a handy list of all those everyday annoyances we come across - those things that drive us crazy but usually we can't do anything about, unless we're ready for an angry argument.

Here's a selection of his petty irritations:

1) Kisses from people you've never met
2) People who board trains (or buses) without letting people off first
3) Out-of-control children in restaurants
4) Loud phone talkers on public transport
5) Losing the end of the cling film or sellotape
6) Automated checkouts (there's always a problem)
7) When you can't remember your passwords
8) Other people's personal noises (tapping on table, sniffling etc)
9) Food served on wooden boards
10) People who suddenly stop dead on pavements
11) Slipping-down socks. And itchy bras
12) Bags on seats when others are standing
13) Litter droppers
14) Packets of food slightly too much for your storage jar
15) Train announcements - long, rambling, unintelligible
16) Drivers who take up two parking spaces

I'd agree with most of those. But which ones really exasperate me? Out-of-control children maybe, especially if the parent is oblivious to what they're doing. And people who stop dead on pavements, or walk at a snail's pace when you can't get past them. And food served on wooden boards. Firstly, what's the point, and secondly, how hygienic are they?

I've always enjoyed kissing, so I'm happy to accept kisses from just about anyone, be it in the flesh or on social media. But I would draw the line at smelly old drunks. And I prefer a kiss that isn't accompanied by an unnecessary kissing noise like "Mwergh". Why do people do that?

I'm not too bothered by loud phone talkers, unless they're discussing the clap clinic or their bowel habits. Their strange conversations can be quite entertaining, especially if they're having a heated argument with their spouse/ girlfriend/ boyfriend.

Your everyday annoyance might be my unexpected pleasure.

Monday 27 August 2018

Believe it or not

I'm intrigued to read that religious faith is on the rise around the world and 84 per cent of the world's population identifies with a religion. I'd had the impression that religion was declining and non-believers were increasing.

That may be so in some countries - the number of people in the Irish Republic who disclaim any religion has risen by 200,000 - but elsewhere the number of believers has leapt.

As my regulars will know, I was put off religion at an early age, firstly as the idea of a supreme being or cosmic plan made no sense to me, and secondly because the everyday behaviour of believers belied their professed religious principles. They would exude moral superiority but treat others with disdain.

My fellow boarding-school pupils would profess religious devotion while bullying me at every opportunity. The boys I was closest to, who were always kind and respectful, had no interest in religion - they just believed in common decency.

I hasten to add that despite the off-putting phoneys, of course there are many believers who not only live up to their principles but do a huge amount of charitable work, without making any song-and-dance about it. I know several of my blogmates are deeply religious and I respect their personal beliefs even if I don't share them.

We all need help and encouragement to get through the ups and downs of life, and if religion is your chosen guide, then good luck to you. I'm not proposing a ban on religion any time soon.

I know religious charities do wonderful work, and when we get doorstep visits from the Salvation Army or St John Ambulance, we always happily give them a donation. I thoroughly applaud those religious charities helping refugees all over the world, like Christian Aid, Sisters of Charity and the Knights of Columbus, as refugees face the most dreadful situations.

Whatever floats your boat, as they say.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Just trust me

It surprises me to realise there's no official system for monitoring the carrying-out of wills, for ensuring the right amount of money goes to the various recipients and there's no funny business going on, nobody siphoning off large sums they're not entitled to.

As the executor of my mum's will, it's entirely up to me to make sure the money is passed on to the three beneficiaries as it should be, and I'm not stealthily whisking the odd £10,000 into my own bank account. As far as I know nobody in authority is going to check I'm doing things properly.

My mum left a lot of money to her half-brother. None of the family have met him and nobody, including him, knew he had been left any money. We could in theory have ignored the legacy and divided it between the rest of us. Or we could have told him he'd only been left £100. Who would know? How would the long arm of the law ever find out? But of course we're all honest and he'll get what he's meant to get.

As far as I can see, an irregularity only comes to light if someone challenges the will and claims some sort of fraud. And they can only do that if they've seen the will. If they haven't seen it, they would have to contact the probate registry, which has custody of every original will.

It's also entirely up to me to declare the right value of my mum's estate to the tax authorities. I haven't been asked for documentary proof, so I could in theory have undervalued her estate by thousands of pounds, paid a lot less tax, and passed on more money to the beneficiaries. But again I'm honest so I told the truth. Perhaps the tax people make secret checks with the banks to confirm what I've told them?

All I can say is that a lot of people are simply trusting me to do things properly. Which is remarkable in a society where constant suspicion is widespread.

Friday 17 August 2018

Masculine traits

Leftie men like to give the impression that the way they treat women is thoroughly sensitive and liberated, unlike those awful right-wingers who're misogynists through and through. Leftie men are proud of their feminist credentials. They've shed all those primitive masculine traits. Or so they like to think.

The truth is that the powerful tentacles of masculine conditioning aren't shed that easily - if at all. They've been embedded in the male mind from a very early age - from birth in fact - and by the time adulthood is reached they're well dug-in and pretty hard to shift.

I know my own mind is warped by my masculine upbringing, and it would be stupid to pretend otherwise. I was taught that women should be seen in a certain way - that they should be objectified, fetishised, sexualised, pornified, commodified, trivialised, ignored, ridiculed, controlled and dominated. That's a hefty rejection of decent, healthy behaviour towards half the population, and not something that can just be shed overnight like torn jeans or a faulty kettle.

At the age of 71, I'm very aware that those disgusting misogynistic attitudes still hover at the back of my mind, however much I might pretend they've been thoroughly purged and forgotten. But unlike the men who still see those attitudes as normal and mindlessly act on them, I can at least clearly recognise the hatred of women that runs through them and consciously adopt different and more civilised behaviour.

When women angrily point out my residual anti-women habits, as they sometimes do, it's a timely reminder of that stubbornly entrenched conditioning that I might otherwise think the passing years have obliterated. If only. Unfortunately society did a bloody good job of indoctrinating me at a tender age when I was too ignorant to realise what was being fed into me.

PS: I think trying to shed masculine conditioning is like trying to shed a Catholic upbringing - virtually impossible.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Tying the knot

I'm surprised marriage is still so popular, when cohabiting is now seen as perfectly normal - unlike in my younger days when it was still frowned upon. In fact my own father so disapproved of me and Jenny cohabiting in the 1980s that he left me nothing whatever in his will.

In 2015 the number of marriages in England and Wales had fallen by 40 per cent from 1947, the year I was born. But there were still 239,000 marriages, many of them elaborate affairs with exotic locations, lavish catering and all the trimmings.

Clearly marriage is still very meaningful to a lot of people. For me it's just some solemn promises in a suitably solemn venue, but for others it's a lot more. It marks a major turning point in their life, a huge transition and a huge commitment to another person.

Jenny and I cohabited for 14 years, and intended to carry on that way. We knew we loved each other and we didn't need a piece of paper to confirm it. But as I've explained before, we faced a minor crisis when Jenny's employer said that if she died her occupational pension could only go to a spouse and not to a cohabiting partner or significant other. So we bit the bullet and got married. What you might call a bit of creative accounting.

I think many people still believe that cohabiting amounts to something called common-law marriage, which gives you the same legal rights as those who are married. In fact cohabiting couples have no legal protections whatever, which may be one reason marriage is still popular.

I suspect it's also the celebrity effect. People see celebrities having extravagant weddings and want to do the same. Quiet devotion isn't enough. They want their day of glitter and glamour to prove they're serious. And can still look stunning in a wedding dress*.

*and that's just the men....

Sunday 5 August 2018

A slippery slope

I'm not good at self-indulgence, at enjoying myself freely and spontaneously. I always hold back, as if too much personal fun might be a bit decadent and immature.

I see other people letting themselves go so eagerly - boozing, bingeing, joking, raiding the shops, cheering football teams - I'm taken aback. I'm seldom that enthusiastic or uninhibited about even my biggest passions. A sort of quiet pleasure is all I can manage.

I guess I come from that social background where too much obvious enjoyment was seen as "showing off" or "drawing attention to yourself". All horribly undignified and childish. Enjoyment was fine up to a point, but not if it meant "making a spectacle of yourself". That would never do. I'm trapped by the stiff upper-lip tradition of the English middle classes.

A part of me thinks too much enjoyment is the slippery slope to total debauchery and public humiliation. One drink too many and I'll end up an alcoholic. Too much cheesecake and ice cream and I'll be a 20-stone fatty in days. Just go too far and in a trice I'll be like a runaway car.

Maybe I'm influenced by occasions when enjoyment turned sour. I once drove a girlfriend home when I was roaring drink and could have killed us both. Another time, on a heavy dose of LSD, I was oblivious to traffic and almost killed myself again. I've played practical jokes and seriously upset the victims. Such memories make me wary of too much abandon.

But I do my best. When others around me are getting wilder and wilder, I tell myself to loosen up and get in the swing of it all. Come on, Nick, throw away the rule book, forget all those childhood vetoes and indulge your natural impulses. And the result? A bit like a lifelong virgin sampling a brothel. It's hard to change the habits of a lifetime.

Sunday 29 July 2018

Vow of silence

I'm still subject to an indefinite gagging order I signed when I left a well-known charity ten years ago. I had to sign it as part of a voluntary redundancy package and it stays in force until the day I drop dead. It forbids me from saying anything about how the charity was run and any disturbing incidents I witnessed while I was there.

Not only that but it forbids me from even revealing that I signed a gagging order or what the order specifies, which means that right now I'm breaking the law. But given I'm not revealing anything too damaging, and not naming the charity, I doubt if a solicitor's letter will drop through my front door any time soon.

The order also forbids me from making disparaging comments about the charity or taking any legal action, such as claiming unfair dismissal, claiming the national minimum wage or claiming age discrimination.

I gather gagging orders are getting more and more common, especially when someone is leaving a workplace, possibly under a cloud and probably knowing of all sorts of negative things that could wreck the organisation's reputation. Even sexual harassment can be hushed up by such orders.

In June it was revealed that the House of Commons spent £2.4 million on 53 redundancy-related non-disclosure orders in five years.

Well, just to carry on breaking the law, I can disclose that my own gagging order followed a severe personality clash between several workmates, and a new manager's desire to clear out those of us he regarded as "dead wood" in order to hire people more to his liking.

Hardly explosive revelations, especially as similar things must go on in every charity in the land. So a voluminous five-page gagging order is absurdly over the top.

But it's a nice little earner for the lawyers.

Monday 23 July 2018

Seize the time

I'm not a procrastinator. I don't put things off until next week or next month or some time in the distant future. If I have something to do, I like to do it right now and get it out of the way.

I get very frustrated when I can't act immediately. Because I have to wait on someone else for permission or guidance or paperwork. Because it's the weekend and offices and shops are closed. Because the person I want is off sick or on leave. Or a dozen other things that stop me in my tracks.

Unlike procrastinators, I don't like things hanging over me. I like things to be disposed of as quickly as possible so I can feel relaxed and unburdened.

I suppose it's partly an irrational fear that if I get into the habit of delaying things, in no time I'll have a list of outstanding tasks as long as my arm and I'll be hopelessly overwhelmed.

Also I don't see the point of procrastinating. The job has to be done eventually, so why not right now? I guess a lot of procrastinators hope that if they wait long enough the job won't need to be done any more, or someone else will have done it.

It's equally frustrating when others are procrastinating. I've been waiting seven weeks for a partial refund of my mum's care home fees, but the company concerned is in no hurry to settle things. They would rather keep me dangling until such time as they feel like sending me the money.

There must be others like me who like to do things promptly. But oddly, there seems to be no word for us. Promptinator? Promptarian? Promptian? We're the tendency without a name, the missing word in the dictionary.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Forgive and forget

It astonishes me what some people can forgive - even the most appalling and extreme behaviour that on the face of it seems totally unforgiv-able.

Personally I don't forgive or forget easily. Why would I forgive someone who's deliberately and knowingly treated me badly and thought that was okay? I won't forgive and forget, though at the same time I don't nurse grudges and I don't get sour and bitter. I just put it behind me and get on with my life.

Yet other people are able to forgive the most shocking things and just carry on as normal as if nothing has happened. Or at least nothing that awful.

A Texan woman, Nancy Shore, says she has forgiven her ex-husband Frank for having a secret mistress for three years, hiring a hit man to murder her, causing her to lose her left eye after being shot in the head, and denying he had anything to do with the attack.

She is a devout Christian and attributes her ability to forgive to her deep faith. She says she still loves him and would have tried to rebuild the relationship if he hadn't been found guilty and jailed.

Of course you can never be sure how you would react in some entirely unexpected situation such as that one, but I really couldn't see myself forgiving Jenny for hiring a hit man or having a clandestine three-year affair. How could I forgive such systematic deceit and deviousness and hatred? I'm amazed that anyone could.

Yes, we're all human, we all do dreadful things, we all act abominably at times, but outrageous behaviour on that scale? It implies such sheer contempt for his wife.

It's not the first time I've read of someone forgiving something utterly indefensible, and it won't be the last. It always has me scratching my head in disbelief.

Pic: Nancy Shore

Sunday 15 July 2018

Toxic air

Jenny and I live very close to three schools, which means that twice a day during term time the local streets are jammed with cars as parents drop off and pick up their little darlings.

Now I read that thousands of schools across Britain are taking measures to end the parental school run because of the serious air pollution it causes. It harms children's lungs and drives up hospital admissions and GP visits. A nine year old London girl died recently of asthma after a spike in air pollution around her home.

Schools are banning school runs, encouraging walking, cycling and scooting, and asking parents to park a few minutes' walk from the school.

We've been living here for nine years and haven't yet had any personal health problems related to air pollution, but who knows what hidden damage might be going on? Unfortunately air pollution isn't usually visible so it's easily ignored.

As far as I know, not a single school in Northern Ireland is taking any measures to limit school runs and air pollution. So I intend to write to the nearby schools and ask them if they have any plans to reduce school runs.

It has to be said that the general attitude to air pollution in Northern Ireland is pretty lax. People are accustomed to driving long distances for work or to visit relatives, and they turn a blind eye to the resulting pollution. That really needs to change.

How will the schools respond to my letters, I wonder? Watch this space.

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Weighing it up

I've sat on a jury several times, but I'm not convinced a jury is any more reliable than a judge when it comes to the verdict being the right one. Both judges and juries are fallible and both can get it horribly wrong.

I'm glad I never landed a really serious case like gang rape, serial killing or sexual trafficking. The responsibility to reach the correct verdict, and to deal with some thoroughly nasty characters, possibly with the whole world watching, would have been nerve-racking. As it was, my cases were relatively minor ones - affray, physical assault, obstructing the police.

Who knows if our verdicts were the true ones? Only the defendants and victims could ever be certain. In one case, a single juror persuaded the rest of us the defendant was guilty rather than innocent. Was she right or were we all taken in by her smooth talking? I have no idea.

I'm also glad I never got a case that went on for months, as some do. I was almost picked for the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979, which lasted six weeks, but the person just before me in the queue was approved as juror number twelve.

Jurors are still banned from discussing completed cases. They can't say how they assessed the evidence and how they arrived at the verdict. Regrettable in a way, since we'd all love to know how  an especially controversial verdict was reached. But probably also sensible, since our faith in juries would be rapidly undermined if we discovered that blatant prejudice or the desire to get home again were the main considerations.

But after some serious thinking about my jury experience, I concluded that in the end the crucial factor isn't whether it's a judge or jury that decides, it's the quality of the evidence. Whichever side has the strongest and most compelling evidence will prevail, whoever is weighing it up.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Up for grabs

One very noticeable aspect of growing older is that I no longer take so much for granted. I'm much more aware of the imperman-ence of everything, that however solid something seems, it could collapse at any moment.

As a child, I took most things for granted - my parents' relationship, my home, my school, my physical and emotional well-being, having enough money, living in a peaceful country and a dozen other things. It never occurred to me that some unfortunate twist of fate could end them all tomorrow.

As I grew older I became aware of the fragility of all these supposedly rock-solid circumstances. Relationships could end, my home could be repossessed, I could develop some crippling illness, my country could go to war. Whether one's life was going well or going badly depended on personal effort and also on luck.

My parents didn't just magically stay together. They had to work at the relationship, at dealing with their differences. My home was only there as long as the mortgage was paid. My well-being relied on my parents' love and affection. And so on. I gradually realised that all these apparent "givens" were not given but painstakingly arrived at.

And I took things for granted not just in the sense of assuming an inherent permanence but in the sense of not fully appreciating them for what they were. I didn't realise how lucky I was to have a supportive and settled home life when thousands of people are orphans or refugees or live on the streets. I wasn't aware of how privileged I was.

No longer taking things for granted is both scary and exciting. Scary because I realise just how easily my life could implode, exciting because everything's up for grabs and everything's negotiable.

My life could change utterly in the twinkling of an eye.

Friday 29 June 2018

Doctor gorgeous

Every day I hear of another extraord-inary misuse of social media, of some new trend that's utterly repugnant and anti-social.

The latest fad is to post photos and videos of female doctors online and ask people to rate their attractiveness. Which one's hottest, Doctor Deborah or Doctor Alison?

Apparently it's okay for patients to video their consultations, for instance to record baby scans or their child's first GP appointment or help them remember what was discussed or what treatment was recommended.

But some patients are making videos, sometimes without express permission, and then staging online beauty contests. Doctors revealed their alarm at the British Medical Association's annual meeting.

What sort of people think this is acceptable? A doctor's life is hard enough without their being subject to a sleazy online parlour game - a game they may not even realise is happening unless someone tips them off.

Those idiots who think it's all very amusing fully deserve to be struck off their GP's list. Or perhaps to have their own attractiveness, or lack of it, rated by a bunch of uninhibited women.

It's never even occurred to me to video my consultations. They can be quite detailed, but I do my best to remember everything that comes up and make a note immediately afterwards of what the doctor said. That seems to work very well - my note always includes the most important points.

I assume a doctor can contact Twitter or Facebook or whatever and ask for the offending images to be removed, but maybe that's not the case.

My own doctor (that's Dr Joanne) is very competent and very thorough. What she looks like is of no significance.

Monday 25 June 2018

Urban delights

I'm a 100 per cent urban person. I thrive on cities and all the amenities and attractions they offer. I can't imagine myself living in some remote rural location lacking all the urban advantages I'm used to.

It would drive me mad having to travel miles to get the simple things like shampoo or a pillow case, or to see a dentist or solicitor or hairdresser. It would be a perpetual worry that if I fell seriously ill, the nearest hospital might be so far away I might die in transit.

I would be hopeless on a farm. I have no natural abilities for what's involved. I've tried milking a cow, moving goats and pigs, and shearing sheep, and I'm useless at all of them. I would soon be defeated by the sheer flat-out hard work and early starts.

I'm currently reading about someone who feels totally at home in the Orkney Islands, with the often terrible weather and physical isolation, and I wonder what's the big attraction of that kind of life. She couldn't be more different from me.

I've always lived in a city - first London and then Belfast. I'm so accustomed to the benefits of urban living that doing without them is unthinkable. I'm so used to nipping to the local shops for a coffee, a pizza, a haircut or a kettle. I'm so used to frequent buses to the city centre for anything else. I'm so used to the nearby health centre and the nearby hospital. I'm so used to the abundant art and culture. How could I say goodbye to all that?

I'm sure it very much depends on your upbringing. If you were raised in a city, you're likely to stay in a city. If you were raised on a farm, you're likely to become  a farmer. If you were raised in the Scottish Highlands, you're likely to live somewhere similar.

Me, I'm an unrepentant city dweller. I would never swap skyscrapers and ring roads for barns and haystacks.