Sunday, 19 May 2019

Barca Nostra

Much controversy over an exhibit at the Venice Biennale - the hull of a ship in which between 700 and 1,100 Libyan refugees died in 2015. The critics are saying it's not a work of art, just an insensitive exploitation of a terrible human tragedy.

They say it makes no reference to the people who died or what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. It's merely something to be gawped at by the curious as they wonder if it's time for lunch.

Visitors oblivious to what happened on the boat were taking selfies in front of it and tweeting pictures of the adjacent café.

The artist, Christoph Büchel, argues that Barca Nostra (Our Boat) is "a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration". He says the vessel has become a symbolic object, representing the victims of global turmoil and also the policies that create such wrecks.

That's as may be, but I don't think a "symbolic object" amounts to a work of art. To my mind, art has to trigger some emotional or intellectual reaction in the viewer. An empty boat stripped of any context isn't art but a mere object to be casually glanced at.

If an empty boat is a work of art, then so is my garden shed. Perhaps I could have submitted it to the Biennale as a "symbolic object" representing sweating gardeners and hard-working shed-builders. I can see it now, drawing the rapt attention of fascinated art critics.

Seriously though, if Christoph Büchel was really horrified by such a massive loss of human life, he could have found a better way of turning it into art. Like Picasso's Guernica. Or Lichenstein's Whaam! Or Käthe Kollwitz's War. They have an immediate and powerful emotional impact.

A lot more impact than an empty boat.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Not for me

Well, as you know, I'm not interested in fashion. Of any kind. I just go my own way and I really don't care what's trending. Except ice cream and chocolate of course. Fashionable things (or people) I have zero interest in:

Ripped jeans - rain gets in the holes
Beards - they just make me laugh
Fitbits - no need, I get enough exercise
Nigel Farage - a power-hungry rabble-rouser
Quinoa - looks weird and tastes of nothing
Twitter - infested with bullying and abuse
Poetry - I prefer a good novel
Energy drinks - I have plenty of energy already
Cruises - too many people, too much pollution
Botox - I don't mind the wrinkles
Porn - degrades both women and men
Marathons - too strenuous and competitive
Award ceremonies - too pompous and contentious
The Royal Family - an out-of-date waste of money
Harry Potter - wizards leave me cold
Fun drugs* - I'm having plenty of fun without them
Electric toothbrushes - no better than manual
Work-outs - I'm fit enough for my age
Video games - do nothing for me
Frappuccinos - I prefer my coffees hot

Mind you, if I was stranded on a desert island with nothing to read except the collected adventures of Harry Potter, I guess I would get stuck in. I could enjoy Hermione Granger's razor-sharp brain as I wait to be rescued.

*aka recreational drugs

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Just make it up

There's a big fuss over a company that's promoting men's make-up with a video of a heavily tattooed and muscular man. The company, War Paint, has had over 2,500 Twitter comments, many critical.

Firstly, they ask, why do men need make-up anyway? Secondly, why do men and women need different make-up? And thirdly, why the tired old stereotype of a super-masculine, physically intimidating male?

Well, indeed, why do men need make-up at all? It's all part of the ongoing trend to get men as heavily addicted to beauty products as women, plastering on moisturisers, make-up, concealers, body lotions, skin cleansers and the rest.

I find all this rather baffling, and not only as an oldie who grew up in an age when men accepted the rugged natural look and saw no reason to try and change it. I've never had any problem with the way I look, and I certainly don't want to spend half an hour every morning hiding imaginary blemishes or creating some supposedly ideal, celebrity-inspired face. I've got better things to do.

Nor do I see the need for so many women to slather on make-up every day. Women minus make-up usually look just fine, yet there's this constant pressure to conceal their normal face as if it must be hideously ugly. So everywhere you go there are hundreds of artificial, heavily-disguised faces drifting past.

Of course make-up is useful to hide birthmarks, scars or bruises you would prefer not to be seen, but if all you're trying to do is hide pimples, freckles or wrinkles, why on earth bother? Not to mention the astronomical price of a tube of moisturiser or a pot of body lotion, whose ingredients probably cost about 20p.

At my age anyway the wrinkles and blemishes are so thick on the ground a lorry-load of make-up wouldn't provide much camouflage.

In any case, if I looked 20 years younger, my bus pass might arouse too much suspicion.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Rush to judgment

I'm a lot less judgmental as I get older (or I like to think so at any rate). I was horribly judgmental when I was young, only too ready to condemn other people's behaviour and tell them where they were going wrong. Everything seemed so simple, so cut-and-dried, I never doubted those instant judgments I flung at everybody.

Why were people depressed? There was no need to be, they just lacked a more positive attitude. Why were people so hard-up? Surely they could manage their finances a bit better and be nicely solvent? Why were people addicted to fags or alcohol? Couldn't they just control their cravings instead of giving in to them?

Nowadays of course remembering such sweeping opinions makes me cringe with embarrassment at my bottomless ignorance. My total unawareness of how other people think and feel and cope with life was breathtaking. Clearly I'd spent too much time with my parents' favourite reading matter, the Daily Mail.

Luckily decades of exposure to the realities of people's behaviour have demolished all those glib pronouncements and made me much more reluctant to pass comment on someone else's situation.

I can finally recognise the infinite complexities of other people's personalities, the tangled morass of needs, obligations and commitments their daily existence confronts them with, and all the myriad twists and turns of their life so far, and I realise I have barely a clue why they're the way they are or why they do what they do.

Now I just want to listen to people, to hear their own explanations of why they went downhill, why their lives went wrong, why they're struggling to cope. No sweeping judgments, no self-righteous homilies, just a sympathetic ear and the desire to understand the roots of their predicament.

You never know, I might even learn something.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Like it or lump it

It strikes me yet again that one of the big differences between well-off people like myself and people who are permanently hard-up is whether you have to put up with things you dislike or not.

If there are things I'm not comfortable with, things I object to, as a general rule I don't have to put up with them. I have the resources to reject them and find a better alternative. A better job, a better place to live, a better holiday, better food, and so forth.

Those at the bottom of the heap don't usually have that option. They have to put up with things - often totally degrading and soul-destroying things - because they don't have the means to find something more acceptable.

I was reminded of this difference while reading James Bloodworth's book, "Hired", in which he takes on various low-paid, menial, oppressive jobs and talks to the people who do them. So many of them are simply stuck in those jobs because they have little choice.

They don't have the skills or determination or money to find something more dignified. They have to do anything that will pay the rent or the mortgage and feed their families. They have to put up with ruthless employers and impossible working conditions and take whatever is thrown at them.

I've been privileged enough to avoid such misery. I had the money to be out of work for months without worrying about paying the bills. So if I didn't like a job, I could just walk out. I had the skills to talk myself into decent jobs with decent salaries. And I had several unexpected windfalls from my mum. It's easy to take all these personal advantages for granted and forget the less fortunate.

I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I've certainly had my share of good luck.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

To stay or to go?

It's conven-tional wisdom that divorce has a very bad effect on children, that it can seriously traumatise them and damage their self-confidence and sense of security. But can a failing marriage be just as damaging?

Keeping a crumbling marriage going "for the sake of the children" isn't necessarily the right thing to do. Ending the marital tension and bitterness and making a new start might actually be the better choice.

I wonder about all this because staying together "for the sake of the children" is probably what my parents did, except that they never said much about their relationship so it was never made explicit.

However, I do vividly remember that at one point my mother was planning to move out and took me and my sister to see several flats she might have moved into. As it turned out, things were patched up, the marriage continued, and the divorce never happened.

But there was always tension and bitterness in the marriage, which didn't do my emotional health any good. My father was bad-tempered and prone to verbally abusing my mother, as well as demanding she be the traditional housewife, cooking his meals and doing the cleaning.

Would it have been better if they had divorced, put an end to the constant tension and abrasiveness, and provided my sister and I with a calmer and happier household? I suspect the answer is yes and we kids would have benefited. But who can say? It's one of those nebulous what-if scenarios.

I've certainly seen what look like very fraught marriages and very emotionally troubled children, but who knows what the children need? And for that matter, what the parents need? Feeling more and more ground-down by a frustrating marriage is itself emotionally destructive.

Whatever the decision, it's a tough one.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Bad habits

The journalist Virginia Ironside doesn't see why old age should mean kicking bad habits and taking up healthier ones. If you're going to die soon anyway, what does it matter if a bad habit might take a year or two off your life?

At the age of 75, she still smokes and drinks, she loves butter and cream, she takes strong painkillers against the doctor's advice, and in general she scoffs at health warnings.

I both agree and disagree. I agree that slavishly adopting healthier habits in order to live slightly longer is a bit pointless. Especially if the habits in question really go against the grain. But I also disagree because if your bad habits make you ill, then someone else has to step in and make you healthy again - if they can. Why should other people be burdened with that?

Not that it's a big issue in my case, because I've never had any bad habits to speak of. Perhaps I should be adopting a few rather than avoiding them. Would life be more fun, I wonder?

The fact is I've never smoked, I seldom drink more than one glass of wine, I've only taken "fun drugs" like marijuana and LSD on four occasions, I don't eat anything with too much salt, sugar or fat, I eat very little chocolate, and I don't spend all day on the sofa. I don't find any of this abstinence tiresome or alien, it all comes quite naturally and has done for decades.

But as Kingsley Amis once said "No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home." So if you're prone to dangerous habits, why not carry on with them and to hell with the consequences?

Well, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. So I'm unlikely to be stuffing myself with booze, drugs or double cream any time soon.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Luxury be damned

Is luxury all it's cracked up to be? We're always given the impression that "luxury" experiences are a cut above the bog-standard stuff us lesser mortals are expected to make do with. But is it true?

Jay Rayner, the Guardian's food critic, says that when it comes to food, he much prefers an ordinary everyday meal to supposed luxuries like champagne receptions, 11-course tasting menus, hotel afternoon teas, extravagant food presents, or even breakfast in bed. The blatant over-indulgence and fancy-pants palaver is not for him.

Well, being of modest means, my experience of luxury has been pretty limited, but I tend to agree with him that luxury is rather over-rated. I have no desire to be chauffeured everywhere, buy £200 shirts, sip exotic cocktails on my private yacht, or own a 50-room mansion.

I'm more than happy in my unassuming house, scoffing mushroom risotto, sipping a humble glass of white wine, and reading a good book. That's more than enough to send me to bed feeling happy and relaxed. I see nothing inferior or deprived about such a low-key lifestyle.

That said, I can think of a few luxuries I'd appreciate. First class travel on planes and trains would be rather wonderful. Ditto a huge private swimming pool with nobody to collide with. Ditto a private beach free of children kicking balls in my direction. Ditto private health care that avoids the horrendous NHS waiting lists (I hasten to add I've always been loyal to the NHS, even when I waited 18 months for routine prostate surgery).

But they're all things I can easily do without. In any case I don't like the way luxury lifestyles cut you off from the rest of society. What's the point of £200 shirts if it means you look down on those who can barely afford to eat?

The tantalising smell of a delicious meal is luxury enough for me.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Old curmudgeons

One of the dangers of being such an advanced age is that it's easy to become over-cynical. I can recall so many people who've been a big disappoint-ment, promising so much and delivering so little. Politicians, campaigners, tradespeople, friends and acquaintances, bosses, businesses, you name it. How often they've beguiled me and then let me down.

It's so tempting to be scathing about the whole lot of them. Don't believe anyone's promises, don't be taken in by charming smiles, don't be fooled by glossy advertising, don't be impressed by fancy jargon and slick patter. Don't trust anyone and presume everyone has a hidden agenda they're carefully concealing.

Politicians? They're all feathering their own nests. Bosses? They'll demand hard graft and pay peanuts. Tradespeople? They'll charge exorbitant fees for botched and sub-standard work. So-called friends? They'll turn out to be clingy and super-needy and offer nothing in return.

After being disillusioned once too often, it's easy to become airily dismissive of just about everyone and conveniently forget the many positive experiences I've had. It's easy to become a leery know-it-all who never has a good word for anyone.

I have to keep reminding myself that along with arseholes like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, there are people with integrity like Jacinda Ardern and Katrin Jakobsdóttir*. Along with the ruthless bosses there are the generous, considerate ones. Along with the burdensome friends there are those I love to have around.

Cynicism is a poison that would rapidly rot my soul if I allowed it to. All too quickly I'd turn into one of those curmudgeonly old codgers who regards the whole world as a conspiracy against his very existence. Even next door's cat is a surly and incontinent beast that wrecks his garden when he's not looking.

Think again. For every scheming bastard there's someone with a heart of gold. You just have to look in the right place.

*Prime Minister of Iceland

Friday, 5 April 2019

What's the point?

In general I don't have it in me to hate people. Such a strong, violent, overwhelm-ing, unres-trained emotion is beyond me. The most I'm capable of is dislike or repulsion or disdain.

I've only hated two people in my entire life. My father for steadfastly refusing to accept I was an independent person and not a clone of himself. And a bookshop manager who micro-managed me for two years and put me through a distressing and unnecessary disciplinary procedure.

I think it's mainly because I don't see the point of hating people. What does it achieve? I'm not going to change the person concerned, or whatever personal quirks of theirs I find annoying or peculiar. I would simply create bad feeling and eat myself up with bitterness.

If I find someone rude, or condescending, or bossy, or hypercritical, I don't hate them for it. I just shrug my shoulders and work around whatever it is I dislike, or keep away from them.

Of course my lack of hatred is partly due to a fortunate life in the sort of respectable circles where most people have treated me decently. If my life had been rougher and I had been at the mercy of vicious, predatory thugs who cared nothing for my health or well-being, no doubt I would have hated them pretty quickly.

If I had been a victim of sex traffickers, or sweatshop bosses, or a brutal husband, or a barbaric religion, then it would be hard to avoid sheer, unadulterated hatred for the way I was being treated.

I certainly don't have it in me to hate complete strangers, people I've never met and know nothing about except what I read in the media. Why should I take the slightest interest in them, never mind cultivate such strong emotions on their behalf?

I wouldn't have been much good as a soldier....

Monday, 1 April 2019

Friction avoided

Jenny and I have always shied away from major renovations to wherever we happen to be living. A bit of updating maybe but no significant structural work like a loft conversion or an extension. Neither of us would have the patience or the stamina to see it through.

It would all have ended in tears, as it sometimes does for other couples. Apparently around 10 per cent of couples who buy what's called a "fixer-upper" and embark on major structural alterations say they almost split up over it, and 7 per cent actually do.

It doesn't surprise me. I can just imagine the endless friction there would have been between Jenny and me over every little detail of the work to be done. We'd have very different visions of what the finished product would look like, and we would rapidly drive each other crazy trying to find some workable compromise.

When we lived in a mansion-block flat in London, we thought of updating the huge kitchen-diner, but then decided to move somewhere else.

We bought a house in south Belfast and considered building an extension on the back, but concluded we simply weren't up to the task (a) of finding a competent, reliable builder and (b) making sure they did exactly what we wanted, to the standard we wanted. We didn't think either of us could handle the huge stress and strain of getting it all done and getting it done properly.

When we were looking for our present house, we were adamant that any desirable building work and updating had already been done and we could just move in and enjoy our new home. No way would we saddle ourselves with a fixer-upper and goodness knows how many months and years of dust, rubble and upheaval as the builders tore the place apart.

We've never regretted our decision. I'm sure it's saved an awful lot of marital discord.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The name game

Apparently many parents (one in seven, according to a survey) regret the name they gave their child and want to change it. Children themselves may also regret their name.

Parents go off a child's name for all sorts of reasons - it doesn't fit their personality, it's gathered unwanted associations, it's become too popular, it's become too unpopular, or it's become a commercial brand. Or even because someone they detest has a child with the same name.

A lot of children change their names as well. They shorten it, or adopt a completely different or androgynous or more memorable name, or turn a foreign name into something that sounds more English. Or replace a totally ridiculous name like Peaches with something more normal. Not surprising really since we're given no choice over our names and can easily take exception to them.

Personally I never use my given name, Nicholas (except on official documents), and I'm always known as Nick. It seems to me Nicholas is a bit long - and slightly pompous. Luckily it hasn't been tainted in any way - there's no serial killer called Nicholas or Nick as far as I know. And as yet there's no Nicholas rat poison.

My father disliked his given first name, Edward, and was always known by his second name, Colin. My sister's name is Heather, but she's usually known by the abbreviated Heth (th as in though).

The fashion for androgynous names can cause a lot of confusion. Names like Sam, Alex, Charlie, Frankie, Robin, Jackie and Jules can prompt very wrong and embarrassing assumptions about the person's sex. If they look androgynous as well, there's even more scope for confusion.

It must be galling for parents when they've agonised for months over what name to give their child, only to find the child loathes it and adopts a different name anyway. Or little Trixie decides she'd rather be called Kardashian or Wittgenstein.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

No fisticuffs

I've never been in favour of violence, be it political, personal or otherwise. It may occasionally bring results, but nine times out of ten it's simply harmful and unpro-ductive.  And violence generally breeds more violence.

I've known plenty of people who believe political violence is necessary, that non-violent protests get nowhere and are usually ignored by the powers that be. They're always ready for a dust-up, ready to throw bricks at the police, smash shop windows or set fire to cars. All they do is alienate the public and discredit those of us who prefer peaceful, law-abiding protest.

I was on a march once in central London (I think it was the Anti Nazi League) when we were suddenly confronted by a very nasty-looking mob of National Front supporters. Some people were obviously prepared for a fight with them but not me. I had no wish to get involved and left the march in a hurry.

I know political violence does sometimes work - the poll tax was abandoned soon after serious rioting - but mostly it just means protesters being injured and maybe less inclined to join other protests in the future.

I've never indulged in personal violence either. I've never kicked anyone, punched anyone, threatened anyone. If it looks like a conversation is getting aggressive, I simply walk away from it. Luckily alcohol makes me soporific and easy-going rather than belligerent.

Luckily also I'm not an angry person. I can't imagine being so enraged by someone's opinions that I'm tempted to punch them in the face or knock them down. Even if someone's been blatantly rude to me (which doesn't happen very often) I wouldn't respond with violence, I would just be rude back. Or assume they were having a bad day and felt like taking it out on the nearest person.

Brickbats are safer than bricks.

I'll leave the fisticuffs to others.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Asking for trouble

It's a truism that you can never understand other people's relation-ships. If you offer any well-meaning advice, you're asking for trouble. Chances are you'll be told to shut up and mind your own business.

But the number of times I've asked myself questions like:

"All they do is argue. What on earth keeps them together?"
"I'm told they never have sex. What on earth....?"
"She's totally sweet, he's a loud-mouthed alcoholic bully. What on earth....?"
"He never lifts a finger, he just sits around watching TV. What on earth....?"
"He has one affair after another. What on earth....?"
"All she does is whinge and moan. What on earth....?"

I guess there's some underlying motive or dynamic that keeps such couples together despite the baffling outward behaviour. It's all about money, or security, or property, or loyalty, or habit. Something strong enough to override the arguments and affairs and alcoholism. Something only they can appreciate.

A relationship you're sure is going to collapse at any minute lasts for 50 years. One that seems like the perfect match ends in divorce a few months later. There's no accounting for it.

Relationships are so intricate, trying to analyse one is a bit like being a novice at quadratic equations. Or the rules of chess. You're bound to make a fool of yourself because of your total ignorance of the complexities. Best to keep your thoughts to yourself.

Of course if someone actually confesses to a marital crisis and asks for your advice, that's another matter. And the crisis they reveal will probably be very different from anything you might have  imagined.

As for my own relationship, Jenny and I have been an item now for almost 38 years. How extraordinary is that? So what keeps us together? Buggered if I know. Some mysterious connection that's impossible to comprehend. And even more impossible to put into words.

Friday, 15 March 2019

A twinge of envy

There are plenty of things I envy in other people - certain skills and abilities, certain personality traits, certain physical features. Things I would quite like to have myself, instead of what I was actually blessed with. Things that had been mysteriously overlooked when I came into the world. For example:

Intelligence: I'm constantly impressed by those who are smarter, more quick-witted, can think on their feet, get straight to the point of something, and always have a witty comeback to an unexpected criticism.

Memory: I admire those with a better memory, who can recall all those little details that rapidly escape me. In particular I envy the sort of photographic memory my sister has.

Writing: I'm in awe of those who can produce novel after novel, who have the ability to keep a complex plot and umpteen characters in their mind as they twist and turn over hundreds of pages.

Height: I would quite like to be a bit shorter, so I don't have to stoop a dozen times a day and it's easier to find clothes that actually fit me.

Sight: It would be nice to have perfect sight rather than a hazy blur and not need the glasses I've worn since I was 17.

Happiness: Some people seem to be perpetually happy, despite all the challenges and mishaps of daily life that so often upset the rest of us. How do they do that?

Tolerance: I admire those with infinite patience over things that annoy the hell out of everyone else. Like boisterous children and unhelpful call centres.

Don't get me wrong. These aren't things that eat me up with jealousy, or things I brood over into the small hours. They're just things I'd quite like to have in an ideal world. Which of course doesn't exist and never will.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Crisis, what crisis?

The media and popular culture would have us believe that men go through four major crises in their lives, which they may or may not weather smoothly. We can't escape them, they're a simple fact of life. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint all the pundits, but there's been no sign of these dramatic crises in my own life. I've mysteriously avoided them.

First there's the teenage crisis. Supposedly an uncontrollable surge in testosterone turns teenage boys into acne-ridden sex maniacs, trying to take advantage of every girl in sight, and so distracted from their studies they're liable to fail all their exams. Well, I have to confess I never went through any such phase. My schooldays were entirely humdrum and sex-free.

Sometime in middle-age (the exact age is always rather nebulous) men are prone to a mid-life crisis - concluding that life is passing them by, they've wasted their energies on all the wrong things, and they're generally missing out. They ditch their wives for younger women, buy flashy sports cars, go for a brand-new career, and take up some odd hobby like paragliding. Er, no, not me either.

Then there's the later years crisis, when men want to deny their age and re-enact their youth, chatting up young women in supermarkets, starting strenuous domestic projects involving rickety ladders, driving like lunatics as if their reflexes are still razor-sharp, and slurping down litres of alcohol as if hangovers were obsolete. No, that one has passed me by too.

The retirement crisis also looms large. Men who retire after working non-stop for decades are supposed to feel bereft, having identified so strongly with their job that without it they have no idea what to do with themselves and feel empty and depressed. Not me, guv, I love being retired, doing what I want and no longer at someone else's beck and call.

So much for the pundits.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Taking advantage

I don't usually comment on outside controversies, but I'm so aghast at this particular trend that I have to say something about it. It seems that political fashion has banished common sense, but few people are prepared to say so.

I refer to the growing tendency for sportswomen to be defeated by men who have declared themselves to be women, entered women's sporting events and triumphed easily because of their superior physical strength and stamina.

Sports authorities have allowed them into women's events on the grounds that regular use of female hormones and testosterone-suppressing hormones has made their bodies sufficiently "female" for them to compete on an equal basis with natural women.

As I understand it, this is nonsense, because however many hormones a man takes, this will never negate the superior physique he developed as a growing man, and he will always be stronger than a woman who didn't develop in that way.

Quite a number of sportswomen, such as Martina Navratilova, Sharron Davies, Paula Radcliffe, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Sally Gunnell, Kelly Holmes and Nicola Adams, have now protested against this unfairness, which they regard simply as cheating and trickery.

If I were a sportswoman who had trained for years to reach a certain level of performance and expected to compete with like-bodied members of my own sex, I would be enraged at this blatant injustice and at the well-meaning idiots who declared that with a little pharmaceutical help trans women could qualify as real women.

Of course the trans women lucky enough to benefit from this fashionable attitude fiercely justify it. Cyclist Dr Rachel McKinnon, who recently won a world title at a California track event, claims there is no evidence trans women have a competitive advantage and calls the criticism "transphobic hate speech".

So how come trans women keep winning time and time again?

Pic: (L to R) Carolien Van Herrickhuyzen, Rachel McKinnon and Jen Wagner-Assali, who called McKinnon's victory unfair.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Out in the open

It's the era of openness, of transparency, of people telling it like it is, of all those little personal quirks and oddities being broadcast to the world. People coming out as gay, as anorexic, as self-harming, as having mental health issues.

All those things people used to keep to themselves out of embarrassment, shame, fear of being abnormal, fear of being misunderstood, all those things a tangle of inhibitions stopped us revealing, are now being voiced more freely.

You can't open a newspaper or turn on the TV without someone being astonishingly frank about some psychological weirdness they've been struggling with for years, and all the ways in which it's drastically affected their life.

I think it's a very healthy trend. There were many things I kept quiet about as a child because I was afraid of other people's reactions. But now I try to be as open as I can and less in thrall to those unnecessary inhibitions.

On the whole I'm happy to discuss my numerous neuroses - my anxieties, my fears, my lack of confidence, my doubts about my intelligence, my social shyness, my inarticulacy, my odd sleep patterns, my peculiar dreams. There are only one or two things I'm silent about, so as not to embarrass other people.

It's an unusual trait in my family. My mum was always obsessively secretive, confining herself to small talk and steering away from anything too personal or revealing. My brother in law and sister are much the same. Happily my niece is a lot more open, probably because she's 36 and part of a generally more communicative generation.

As a kid I was taught that men should "keep a stiff upper lip", not show anyone we were upset or afraid or couldn't cope. We were supposed to bottle up our emotions and put on "a brave front". Thank goodness that absurd attitude is gradually fading away.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019


When a movie or TV sitcom depicts someone as a bit hopeless - awkward, dim-witted, socially inept, accident-prone etc - I might cringe a bit, I might want to stop looking, but mainly I just find it amusing. Yet a lot of people find such scenes so embarrassing they can't bear it and have to stop watching.

They empathise with the person so much that it's actually painful to go on watching. Even if it's pure fiction, and not real life, they can't endure it. I gather it's called second-hand embarrassment.

I think it rather depends how far the ineptness goes. If it's just a few seconds of awkwardness, it's endearing. But if the person is persistently seen as Harriet Hopeless, and everything she does goes wrong, then it gets embarrassing and cringeworthy and I'd rather not watch it.

But I've never been so deeply affected that watching becomes painful. That suggests an amazing degree of empathy and identifying.

Which leads to the question, does popular entertainment rely too much on ridiculing people, wheeling on the classic bumbling halfwit, the resident figure of fun?

I don't think so. After all, we're talking about fictional characters, people we can laugh at with impunity. When we meet such characters in everyday life, of course we treat them with the appropriate tact and tolerance. Or should do.

The fact is hopeless characters are funny. There's something about them stumbling around in confusion that's amusing, for all sorts of reasons. They reflect our own insecurities about screwing things up. They're vulnerable. They're endearing. We want to help them out. And they're more interesting than people who get everything right.

It's no accident that the most popular person in Fawlty Towers has always been Manuel, the clueless Spanish waiter who never knows if he's coming or going and can't understand anything Basil says to him.

I certainly have my own streak of awkwardness and social ineptness. But that's another story.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Muddling through

My mum was always fiercely independent, right till her death at 96. She dreaded being a burden on others, and in a difficult situation would "make do" or "muddle through" rather than depend on other people. However overwhelmed she got, she was loathe to ask for help.

Even in her eighties and nineties, she moved to new homes on her own. She looked after her finances on her own. She went on holidays on her own. She did her domestic chores on her own, apart from having a regular cleaner. If I knew something rather big and demanding was on the way, I would offer to help, but she always refused.

It gradually became apparent to my sister, brother in law, niece and myself that despite her making out everything was fine, in reality she wasn't coping very well. She wasn't doing much housework, she wasn't eating properly, she was losing interest in the outside world, she would sit for hours doing nothing, there were piles of junk everywhere and so on. But she still resisted any outside help.

It was only very slowly we became aware that she'd gone beyond not-coping-very-well and was now just letting everything slide. Her flat was getting filthier, bills weren't being paid, she was missing meals, she wasn't keeping up with old friends, she wasn't sending birthday or Christmas cards, she could barely maintain a conversation. We reluctantly concluded that she needed to go into a care home and be properly looked after, and that's what we arranged. And that's where she died nine months later.

But what strikes me is that she never asked for help. She always pretended she was on top of everything and shrugged off the very suggestion she wasn't coping. If only she had been able to ask for help, her last few years could have been quite different.

I suspect a lot of elderly people are the same. Just the thought of being a burden on others really upsets them. They would do anything rather than admit their frailty.

Pic: not my mum!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

City dweller

I've always been a city dweller. I lived at various London addresses until 2000 when Jenny and I moved to Belfast. I've never lived outside a city and never anywhere seriously remote. I'm an urbanite through and through.

No doubt a rural dweller could list numerous drawbacks about city dwelling, like nosy passers-by, traffic noise, litter, dog shit, raucous young men, hideous apartment blocks, annoying neighbours and air pollution, but they are all things I'm totally used to and seem quite trivial compared to the benefits - such as good public transport, masses of cultural events, all the shops I need, and plenty of bank branches.

I can't imagine what it's like living somewhere totally secluded and isolated. I'm both bemused and admiring. Bemused because I wonder how people handle everyday emergencies when they're so far from shops, tradespeople, doctors or hospitals. But admiring because I'm impressed by their ingenuity, resilience, determination and adaptability. I'm sure if I found myself living in some such isolated spot, I would be in a constant panic about whether I could cope and what on earth I would do if the roof suddenly collapsed or I was snowed in overnight.

I watch programmes about life on tiny islands like the Isle of Eigg in western Scotland (population around 83) and I'm amazed how cheerful and happy the residents seem to be despite their difficult lives. In fact they appear to thrive on the difficulties and their ability to overcome them.

I suppose one important factor is the close-knit community that develops, which means there's always someone ready to help if you have a problem. Very different from cities where households often keep to themselves and don't care what's happening two doors down the road.

I have to admit that as a city dweller I'm entirely dependent on the almost instant availability of anything I need, and the thought of suddenly being without them is an alarming prospect.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Bring it on

It seems people either love or hate Valentine's Day. Either you see it as a lot of commercial and sentimental hype or you seize the chance to be totally romantic and slushy and cherish your loved one.

Well, I'm firmly in the romantic and slushy camp. I enjoy being with Jenny and sharing our favourite everyday pleasures like chocolate, wine and books. It would be rather sad if one of us scoffed at the whole idea of Valentine's Day and wanted nothing to do with it.

Oddly enough, I can't recall ever getting a Valentine's card from anyone. Clearly I never prompted the sort of gooey-eyed veneration that would send a suitably gushing Valentine in my direction.

I did get a rather lovely rose once from a male admirer, but it didn't lead to anything romantic. I had to disappoint him as I'm not that way inclined. A shame, as he was rather gorgeous.

Other countries have their special Valentine's Day traditions, some of them not so popular. Japanese women are pushing back against giri choco, the tradition that they give chocolates to male colleagues on Valentine's Day. They object to this "forced giving" and abuse of power.

Apparently the Welsh don't bother with Valentine's Day but celebrate St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, on January 25th. They give each other carved wooden spoons as a token of fondness.

I don't see what's so repugnant about Valentine's Day. Better a mass outbreak of affection than the sullen frostiness most people choose as their habitual public persona. You never know, someone might even kiss me (other than Jenny, that is).

Bring on the romantic slushiness. And bring on the chocolate.

The High Court judge has just ruled against the flat-owners who took the Tate Modern to court on the grounds that the gallery's viewing platform was an invasion of their privacy. Mr Justice Mann said there was no case to answer either on privacy or nuisance grounds. It is unclear why he made this decision (which makes no sense to me at all).

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Waste not, want not

My parents were obsessed with waste - or rather, avoiding waste. This was largely due to rationing, which started in 1940 after WW2 began and didn't end until 1954, seven years after I was born.

They were always alert for waste of any kind - electricity, food, heating, time spent on the phone, toilet rolls, paper, you name it. Wastage basically meant anything "unnecessary", i.e. anything not strictly essential for daily survival.

Woe betide us kids if we left a light burning, left some of our food, chattered too long on the phone, turned the radiators too high, or used too much toilet paper (that was after we finally replaced torn-up newspaper with toilet rolls).

Nowadays a lot of people seem to be going to the other extreme and using as much as they fancy of everything. The idea of waste seems not to occur to them. There are houses in which all the lights are blazing, radiators are red-hot, and surplus food is regularly thrown away.

Jenny and I have never moved far in that direction. Childhood habits are deeply engrained, and the idea of waste is still very much alive. We plan our meals carefully so there is seldom any surplus food. We turn off lights we aren't using. We keep radiators at a modest heat. We're still prey to the notion that we're being unduly "profligate" or "extravagant", and we watch our consumption accordingly.

Mind you, given we're now both retired and have a limited income, avoiding waste is probably a sensible goal rather than a post-war hangover.

Then again, we often drive a coach and horses through our thriftiness by splashing out on something special, like touring New Zealand, giving the garden a make-over or updating the kitchen. We've spent lavishly on holidays over the years, and that will only stop when one of us is too decrepit to travel.

Damn, I think I left a light on....

Pic courtesy of Laura Taylor on Flickr

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Pesky tourists

By visiting New Zealand, we were of course adding to the growing problem of over-tourism in the country. Tourists are flooding in by the thousand and the most popular places are struggling to cope with the influx. In Queenstown visitors outnumber the locals 34 to one, and overall tourist numbers will soon overtake the resident population of 4.8 million.

One English family caused widespread outrage recently by shoplifting, refusing to pick up their rubbish on a beach, and throwing food on a café floor. The whole family were issued with deportation notices.

The government is to introduce a tourist fee of 35 New Zealand dollars (£18.50) to fund conservation and improved infrastructure. They are also doubling fees at campsites. But the Mayor of Queenstown says much more needs to be done.

One reason for the tourist increase is of course The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Many people want to see the locations where the films were made. The number of Chinese visitors is also rising rapidly.

Personally we didn't see much evidence of over-tourism. In most of the country the traffic was pretty light and few tourist attractions were overcrowded. But no doubt the locals see things differently if they're constantly exposed to uncouth and selfish visitors.

Well, it's unlikely we'll be going to New Zealand again, given the lengthy flights. We've satisfied our curiosity and I don't think any return visits would live up to the magic and excitement of our recent tour. I think our next holiday will be closer to home. We haven't been to Edinburgh for a while....

Pic: Tourists visit boiling pools of volcanic mud and water at Wai-O-Tapu, North Island

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The guided tour

Jenny and I are just back from a 16-day guided tour of New Zealand. We wanted to visit New Zealand, as everyone kept telling us how beautiful it was, and the best way seemed to be the guided tour. We didn't fancy driving thousand of miles and we didn't want to visit only the major cities, we wanted to see as much of the country as possible.

We were a bit hesitant about signing up for a tour. Suppose we loathed all the other people on the tour? Suppose the long daily drives were hell on earth? Suppose the arrangements were chaotic, the hotels sub-standard and the coach driver a heavy drinker? We decided to take the plunge anyway and assume all our worries were groundless - which as it turned out they were.

The tour was a wonderful experience. The other people were all very interesting, the hotels were superb, the daily drives didn't seem that long at all, and everything went remarkably smoothly.

The plus points:

1) Michelle was a brilliant guide. She lives in Wellington and knows New Zealand very well. She gave us constant commentaries on the native wildlife and plants, local characters, the history of New Zealand, its volcanoes and earthquakes, its economy, Maori culture and lots more.
2) We visited all the major towns and beauty spots and saw absolutely stunning scenery in the mountainous South Island.
3) It was a great overview of New Zealand, from the big cities to sleepy villages and remote townships.
4) Hotels were all four and five star, and we had delicious food wherever we went.
5) At some places we could also pick from a range of great outings.
6) The coach seats were rotated daily, so we all had good and less good views.
7) Michelle was always helpful with any problems, like catering for vegetarians, allowing for disabled passengers, finding new camera batteries etc.
8) Everything was organised impeccably, from outings to hotel check-ins and meal times.
9) The long distances travelled went by very quickly because of Michelle's commentaries, stops for toilets and food, and stops to look at beauty spots.
10) Reece, the coach driver, always drove safely and was never reckless.

The minus points:

1) We were always on the move and didn't stay anywhere for longer than two nights. We would like to have spent more time in Christchurch.
2) The morning starts were very early - usually 7.30 or 8.00, with suitcases collected an hour earlier.
3) We were always in the company of other people, and would have liked more time on our own to explore the cities.
4) We thought some of the hotels had a lack of awareness around catering for vegetarians, which surprised us.

But the plus points so outweighed the minuses, we thought this particular company (APT Touring) did a fantastic job. If you want to see the best of an unknown country, we'd definitely recommend a guided tour.

Pic: Mount Cook, South Island