Wednesday 31 January 2018

Sleepy suburbs

Some people always nurse a fond affection for wherever they grew up. Even after moving to other towns and cities - and countries - to better their lives in some way, they end up returning to their childhood locality and going back to their roots.

But probably most people are glad to have escaped their old patch, which they found stultifying and restricting and thwarting their full potential in life.

Personally I have no nostalgia for the sleepy suburb I was brought up in. I was only too happy to spread my wings and move somewhere more exciting.

I spent my first 13 years in a typically boring London suburb called Harrow. For nine years after that I lived in Pinner, just north of Harrow.

Nothing of any interest happened in either place, unless you count the annual Pinner Fair, which took over the main street for a day, or the odd drug-taking scandal at Harrow School.

When I was offered a journalistic job in London at 22, I seized it and moved to the big bad city, which proved a huge shock after my previously sheltered existence. Rough sleepers, squats, druggies, flamboyant homosexuals, militant feminists, sexual orgies, outrageous art, wild rock concerts. It was quite an eye-opener for this naive suburbanite.

I stayed in London for another 31 years, by which time I was thoroughly steeped in its general craziness and creativity, and going back to the suburbs would have meant being a dolphin trapped in a fish tank.

Then I moved to Belfast, even farther from my original home, and discovered the different blend of craziness and creativity that prevails in Northern Ireland. And after 18 years in this extraordinary city, I have even less desire to return to a soporific English suburb. I shall be very happy if I never see Pinner again, ever. Or its dull, sedate streets.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Hopeless fumblings

For the benefit of Ursula, who maintains that I flag up all my strengths and gloss over all my weaknesses (she can't have been reading my blog posts very carefully), here's a list of some of the things I'm crap at:

1) Parallel parking
2) Cooking
3) Small talk
4) DIY
5) Remembering
6) Painting and decorating
7) Child minding
8) Sport
9) Yoga
10) Going to the gym
11) Car repairs
12) Meditation
13) Science
14) Love letters
15) Growing vegetables
16) Ice skating
17) Taking exams
18) Suffering fools gladly
19) Getting a good night's sleep
20) Card games

And I'm sure that's just a small sample of the 101 things I screw up or fumble with on a regular basis. Any impression you might have that I'm a perfect human being who sails effortlessly through life's daily challenges is wholly mistaken and should be scrapped right now. Agreed?

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Imperfect flesh

I'm surprised that so many people - mainly women but also men - find it so hard to expose their body to doctors and nurses. People have so much inhibition, shame and self-loathing about what they look like and how they might be judged.

I've never had any problem showing my body to health professionals. I'm sure they couldn't care less what I look like - whether I'm fat or old or ugly or bald or whatever. They're just doing a job and what the patient looks like is neither here nor there. I'm sure they've seen every possible variety of human oddities and one more won't faze them. They don't expect anyone to be "normal" as they know we come in all shapes and sizes.

But there are many people who're completely thrown by the idea of exposing their imperfect flesh for examination. They would rather ignore worrying symptoms than face a doctor's scrutiny.

I read that many women avoid smear tests because they're embarrassed by the look and smell of their pubic areas. Or they worry that they're wearing the wrong sort of underwear or clothing. Or they feel awkward about their body shape. So they invent all sorts of excuses for not getting tested.

I guess some men are equally embarrassed about showing their bodies, though we don't hear much about them. The guys who're mortified by their beer bellies, general flabbiness, or rampant hairiness. I'm sure they're out there.

I'd like to confirm my human frailty and vulnerability by telling you how I squirm and cringe as the doctor examines me, but it wouldn't be true. I honestly don't give a toss what she thinks of my spreading bum or misshapen toenails or weedy chest. I just want to know if there's anything unhealthy going on and get it treated. That's my only concern.

Friday 19 January 2018

Little luxuries

I guess we all have a different idea of what's a luxury and what's just a routine part of daily life. It all depends on your personal circumstances of course and how much spare cash you can afford to throw around.

A survey of people's little luxuries revealed some surprising "luxuries", like someone making you a cup of tea, or a lunch date with a friend, or quilted toilet paper. I wouldn't have thought any of those were very special.

For me, a luxury is something much grander, more unusual, and more pampering. Something that lifts me out of my everyday existence and makes me feel on top of the world, however briefly.

Some of my personal luxuries are:

1) Eating out. Hugely extravagant but a lovely occasional treat.
2) Foreign holidays, especially in places I've never been to before.
3) Extra-delicious food. In particular bread, cake, desserts, chocolate.
4) Wine, prosecco, champagne.
5) A trip to the theatre. Only rarely given such crazy prices!
6) My weekly chat with Jenny in the local coffee shop.
7) Books. I love being totally engrossed in a really good book.
8) A beautiful piece of furniture that cost a lot but I can enjoy it for years.
9) Ditto a beautiful painting.
10) Lazing in the garden on a hot, sunny day. Not that frequent in Belfast!

It's all very relative though. To someone desperately poor, getting a takeaway, having a manicure or buying new bed linen might be the height of luxury, while to someone fabulously rich, to feel any sense of luxury they'd have to buy yet another Rolls-Royce or a £10,000 coat.

It's interesting how yesterday's luxuries often become today's standard items - like washing machines, mobile phones and air travel. And how quickly we take them for granted, as if they were always easily affordable.

"Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury" - Coco Chanel

Monday 15 January 2018

The very first

Bijoux had a wonderful list of "firsts", so I thought I'd pinch the idea.

First vacation:  As a child, to Southend, Essex, and Perranporth Cornwall, to visit relatives. As an adult, to Dublin, and then to Venice, Florence and Rome. I was worried that, not speaking Italian, it would be highly problematic. Of course it wasn't.

First car:  A secondhand Austin A60 in the late nineteen sixties. Forever breaking down and needing repairs. But usually it got me to my girlfriend's house.

First job:  A cub reporter on the Harrow Observer (a London suburb). Journalists were paid very well in those days - a generous salary plus expenses.

First crush:  A trainee solicitor called Sue W. We never actually dated. Probably a good thing as she proved to be almost as neurotic as me.

First kiss:  Another neurotic woman called Maggie H. We were enthusiastic kissers and long, lingering French kisses were the norm.

First flight:  As a child, in a friend's mother's private plane. I felt decidedly queasy, but it was an amazing trip. As an adult, to Dublin.

First fancy dinner:  I don't go in for fancy dinners, but I guess you could count the lavish marriage reception for our friends Joy and Kevin.

First apartment:  Actually a couple of rooms in a shared house. Very cosy because the owner (a friend of a friend) had recently renovated the house. Also where I lost my virginity (at the ripe old age of 22).

First record:  Not sure. Possibly the single "How Do You Do It?" by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Or something by Billy J Kramer.

First pet:  As a child, two Scottish terriers called Mac and Remus. Lots of mice and the odd hamster. As an adult, none. I'm happy to admire other people's.

First concert:  I made regular visits to the Marquee Club in Soho. I don't remember which was the first band I saw - probably someone long-forgotten.

Compiling that lot stirred up a few poignant memories. I sometimes forget what an eventful life I've led.

PS: I see that I did a slightly similar post a couple of years ago

Thursday 11 January 2018

A touch of romance

I have a romantic streak. I like those little things that make a relationship soft at the edges, that add a magical tingle to the everyday routine. I like it when an unexpected gesture of tenderness or fondness leaves me feeling slightly gooey inside.

Jenny's not quite so romantic. Too much lovey-dovey affection and she declares me a big slop-bucket and waits for me to come down to earth again.

A survey of attitudes to romance found that it isn't by any means dead. Some 76 per cent of us would like more romance in our lives, though 57 per cent avoided romantic gestures for fear of being "cheesy". Excuse me? What's cheesy about being romantic? It's a welcome impulse in a world that can be harsh and brusque and unforgiving.

So what do people find romantic? Holding hands, cuddling, a surprise gift, a walk together, a bunch of flowers, breakfast in bed, a surprise trip, a candlelit dinner, a home-cooked meal and a love letter were the most popular choices.

And what was decidedly unromantic? Too much mobile phone use, being rude to waiters, poor personal hygiene and so-called "chivalry" (usually something that implies women are inferior in some way and need help - like ordering for them at a restaurant). Though predictably, 93 per cent of over 45s still thought chivalry was a great idea.

Personally, I love holding hands and cuddling, but I'm not so good at surprise gifts. I do make us breakfast in bed on Sundays, but candlelit dinners aren't my thing. And I've never written a love letter in my life. I just don't have the right turn of phrase. But all sorts of things are romantic. Like a fond kiss at a famous landmark. I've kissed on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, kissed by the Grand Canal in Venice, kissed on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

If romance ever died, it would be a sad day for the human race.

Saturday 6 January 2018

Gallery habitu├ęs

Having visited several London art galleries during the week, I recognise certain types of visitor who can be found at galleries anywhere in the world.

There's the rake-thin, ultra-cool woman or man who studies the art quietly, thoughtfully, unobtrusively, absorbing every little detail, a shrewd connoisseur of artistic techniques.

There's the loud-mouthed man (usually a man) who holds forth to his companion (usually a woman) about whatever they're looking at, explaining what the artist was trying to achieve (according to him) and how hampered they were by brutal depressions, imminent penury and chronic ill-health. They're confident they're the world's authority on Rothko, Hockney or Lowry, but are generally oblivious to women artists, who are clearly only exhibited in the name of gender equality.

There are the artistically challenged tourists who're only in the gallery to satisfy their daily sight-seeing quota, and aren't sure what they're looking at. They scurry through the gallery in great haste, glancing briefly at the odd work of art to show willing.

There's the pretentious poser who's only in the gallery so he can tell his dinner-party guests he's been to this week's most talked-about exhibition. He secretly thinks the artist is an over-hyped second-rater but pretends to be a big fan.

At the entrance to the exhibition, there are always the slightly anxious types who're not sure about trusting their precious bags to the cloakroom staff, convinced their valuables will vanish in seconds the moment their back is turned.

Which type am I, you might ask? Well, obviously the ultra-cool guy who's a shrewd connoisseur of artistic techniques. Jenny laughs at the way I scrutinise the art so thoroughly, peering intensely at every last daub of paint and unusual brush-stroke.

I'm no expert on art and I'd never be foolish enough to pontificate on an artist's credentials. As long as they make me feel something, or think something, or gasp with amazement, that's good enough for me. I don't need to know that Rothko topped himself or Warhol was afraid of hospitals and doctors. So what?