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.