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.