Tuesday 31 December 2019

Still here

When I was young, I was quite certain I'd die before I was thirty. I was sure I'd be gone long before I got wrinkles, crows' feet, arthritis, dodgy eyesight and all the other attributes of old age. I'd be a victim of some freak accident or illness that would finish me off.

There was no good reason for this irrational belief. I wasn't addicted to drugs or alcohol. I didn't have a life-threatening disease. I wasn't doing a dangerous job. I wasn't a reckless driver. I was perfectly healthy. Yet I was convinced I didn't have long for this world.

I think I secretly liked the idea of dying in my prime. A tragic and romantic end to a promising life. A prodigious talent snuffed out far too early. Well, in my case, not quite a prodigious talent, more like a few vague and useless abilities.

And now here I am at the age of 72, still very much alive, still perfectly healthy and set to live another decade or two. Jenny is sure I'll live to 100 at least. How did that happen? What guardian angel is keeping an eye on me?

I've lived to see Boris Johnson, the internet, the obesity epidemic, peace in Northern Ireland, Taylor Swift, climate collapse, ripped jeans and bankrupt banks. I've seen every grisly and brutal thing human beings are capable of. I've been round the block a few times, as they say.

I must say I don't feel as if I'm 72. I feel that a seventy something should be an enormous repository of wisdom, an expert on every subject, in which case I'm sadly lacking as I still seem to have the skimpy and unreliable knowledge of a thirty year old. Anyone coming to see me for some brilliant advice on their latest life crisis would be sadly disappointed. I can just about change a light bulb.

I'm still waiting for the prodigious talent to kick in.

Thursday 26 December 2019

Frocks and heels

For some time now drag queens have been highly controversial. When men imitate women as entertainment, is it just a harmless bit of mock-femininity, or is it barely-disguised misogyny?

I'm ambivalent about drag myself. I see the arguments on both sides, but then I've never been to any drag shows, so the only examples I'm familiar with are pantomime dames like Widow Twankey or the odd female impersonator on TV or in movies (like Tootsie).

Of course as family viewing they would have been carefully sanitized and free of any overt misogyny or nastiness.

Personally I'm not convinced the world of drag is riddled with misogyny. In some cases maybe, but not as a general rule. I think most of it is the harmless fun they make it out to be. It amuses me to see men decked out in absurdly over-the-top hair-dos, gigantic bosoms in ultra-tight dresses, and precarious five-inch heels. I don't see how that's insulting to women. It seems to me they're just playing around with female stereotypes. Or am I missing something?

I was fascinated by drag queens as a kid. The family always went to a Christmas pantomime and I would be chuckling at the sight of Widow Twankey in Aladdin or the cook in Dick Whittington.

I love Grayson Perry's pottery and art work. I also love his alter ego, the flamboyantly-dressed Claire, and so it seems do plenty of women. What's not to like about his crazy dresses and footwear (and his teddy bear Alan Measles)?

If a man wants to put on a dress or prance around in high heels, why not? After all, male clothing is so dull and boring, why not jazz it up a little?

I can't see the harm. But I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise.

Pic: Grayson Perry, alias Claire

Sunday 22 December 2019

Crowded out

It seems that tourism is being rapidly ruined by a number of fashionable trends that are turning once quiet and peaceful locations into an over-crowded nightmare of idling coaches, massive queues and selfie-mania.

Firstly youngsters are latching onto the "30 before 30" game, which as it suggests means visiting 30 countries before the age of 30. At the same time oldies are working through bucket lists with a long tally of never-visited countries.

Secondly people are travelling simply to look well-travelled, heading for desirable countries and then posting selfies from all the iconic spots to trump other people's selfies with their own far superior shots.

I'm baffled by all this. I visit other countries because they look like interesting places, not out of some competitive urge to outdo my friends and acquaintances and prove how cosmopolitan and up-to-the-minute I am.

The alarming result of this one-upmanship is that all the well-known tourist locations are being swamped and are having to limit the numbers with restrictions of one kind or another. And what should have been an enjoyable experience becomes a miserable one as tourists jostle each other for the best view and the best selfie.

Social media is partly to blame. People jet off to somewhere they've seen idyllic photos of on Facebook or Instagram, only to find that hundreds of other people had the same idea and are queuing up to get their two minutes in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Venus de Milo.

I guess Jenny and I are lucky to have seen a lot of famous locations while they were still relatively under-visited and not the over-run tourist traps they've now become.

And we've got selfies to prove it.

PS: Even Chernobyl is now suffering from over-tourism, with people taking selfies in the famous control room, where radiation can be 40,000 times higher than normal levels.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Girl friends

I didn't have that many serious relation-ships before I met Jenny, and they only lasted a few months or even weeks. It wouldn't take long for one of us to become disenchanted with the other and call it a day. I was very picky about who I dated and the women likewise.
  • There was Sue, my very first girl friend, a trainee solicitor who had a mental breakdown after completing her exams and stopped dating.
  • There was Gill, a religious Tory supporter, who was great fun but we finally fell out over politics.
  • There was Caroline, a go-getter and reckless driver who got bored with my laid-back-ness.
  • There was Pamela, who I dropped because she was oddly submissive and deferential to men (I always preferred assertive women).
  • There was Maggie, scatty and accident-prone, who I ruthlessly abandoned after falling for Trish at a party.
  • There was Grethe, a single mum with a truculent son, who I stopped seeing because her highly-stressed chain-smoking was only fuelling my own anxieties.
  • There was Rosie, who took a fancy to me when she was fighting with her existing boy friend, but then made it up with him.
  • And of course there was Trish, a freewheeling sixties flower child. We lived together for about six months before I decided we were incompatible and abruptly pulled the plug. That's something that bugs me to this day. I have no idea what I meant by incompatible. As far as I remember we got on very well. Maybe it was just the masculine fear of commitment.
There were lots of women I lusted after along the way, but they showed not a flicker of interest in return. Hardly surprising since I was never a dazzling Mr Beefcake, more a pigeon-chested Mr Average. I've posted before about my obsession with Gina, who I was besotted with but who always politely rebuffed me.

Then in 1981 I met Jenny. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Saturday 14 December 2019

A nurse's story

When I was in hospital for my prostate operation in 2017, I was aware of how busy the nurses were, scurrying from one patient to another checking their vital signs, keeping an eye on whatever equipment they were plugged into, giving them help of one kind or another. But I didn't know the half of it.

A book by the former nurse Christie Watson* reveals the reality of a nurse's job and just how demanding and meticulous and scary and messy it can be. I can only admire those resilient souls who take on such a difficult job and do it so well.
  • They have to clean up shit, piss, vomit, diarrhoea, blood and all sorts of foul liquids that a sick patient produces.
  • They have to give patients the right medicine, at the right dosage, in the right way, at the right time. One tiny slip can lead to a major emergency or even death.
  • They may work very long shifts (often night shifts) of 12 hours or more with barely time to eat or use the toilet, such is the relentless pressure.
  • They have to be familiar with hundreds of common or less common medical conditions and how each is treated.
  • They need to be alert to the smallest change in a patient's condition that means urgent action is needed.
It's not a job for dawdlers or the faint-hearted. They do it for the satisfaction of helping very sick people become fit and healthy again, and seeing pain and terror and misery replaced by smiling, grateful faces. They want to do a job that really means something, not just a pen-pushing office job.

Quite a few nurses don't last the course. Sooner or late they realise they're not up to the unremitting demands and responsibilities of the job and they quit.

Jenny was a nurse for a while. My sister Heather was a nurse for a while. My niece Lucy has just qualified as a Registered Nurse and I applaud her for it. I think of all the pain and suffering she will relieve and the many hundreds of lives she will save.

*The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Story by Christie Watson

Tuesday 10 December 2019

First and foremost

I was reading about first time experi-ences, which got me thinking about my own most memorable first times. There are quite a few. In fact most first times are memorable for one reason or another.

My first day at work in a local newspaper office is hard to forget. Firstly because at that time smoking wasn't banned in offices and half the staff smoked like chimneys. The fug was so thick I could scarcely breathe and I seriously thought of resigning. Secondly half the reporters were women and after my single-sex education they seemed like an alien species. It took me a while to get used to them!

My first sexual experience was a bit disastrous because my then girlfriend Trish insisted on sex even though she was menstruating. By the time we finished there was blood all over the place. Luckily I left the rented flat before the landlord discovered the mess. It looked like a major crime scene.

My first trip abroad was with my sister and parents to Paris. I remember accidentally locking myself out of my hotel room and trying to explain to one of the staff what had happened in my very poor French. I was so mortified I just wanted to fall through the floor.

The first house I owned (with Jenny) felt like a huge responsibility after living in flats for so many years. When we first moved in I was very nervous something awful would happen - the roof leaking, the chimney collapsing*, the boiler exploding, you name it. After a few weeks of uneventful occupation, I wondered why I'd been so jittery.

Some first times escape me - like my first taste of alcohol, my first hangover, my first day at school, my first driving lesson. Clearly they weren't very memorable. Or else I've buried the memories because they're far too embarrassing to revisit.

* In my first childhood home, the chimney did in fact collapse, seconds after I'd walked past it. A few seconds later and I would have been under a heap of rubble.

Friday 6 December 2019

On their own

At this time of year there are plenty of media articles about joyful family Christ-mases, with granny and grandpa knocking back the whisky, kids playing with their new toys, and parents happily serving the turkey and sprouts.

There's not much mention of the folk who'll be on their own at Christmas, all too conscious of the festivities going on around them and wishing they were included. It may be only one day, but when you're feeling left out, it can seem a lot longer.

Of course there may be a good reason why they're on their own. Maybe they have the sort of personalities that drive others away. Maybe their relatives live on the other side of the world. Maybe they can't stand their family and want to avoid them. But whatever the reason, it can be a miserable day for some.

When I was living on my own in London, I often spent Christmas by myself, but I didn't feel lonely. I would settle down with a good book, go for a long walk on Hampstead Heath, and work my way through a packet of mince pies. One Christmas I read The Gulag Archipelago, a strange choice for Christmas I know, but it was horribly riveting.

As I've said before, I don't often feel disconnected from other people. I feel very connected to all those with similar passions and interests - especially art, music, books and films - so the lack of connection with particular individuals doesn't bother me. If I'm in an art gallery surrounded by other people, I feel completely at home even if I don't know a single soul. In fact if someone starts talking to me, I might very well shoo them away!

But it's a shame the huge emphasis on Christmas as a rowdy, gregarious get-together only makes the lonely feel even lonelier.

Sunday 1 December 2019

And another thing....

So it seems there's yet another advantage we baby boomers have had over the young, which we're only now coming to appreciate.

Yes, many of us have had very fortunate lives compared to younger generations who are facing any number of challenges - tuition fees, soaring rents, soaring house prices, falling salaries, welfare cuts, a crumbling NHS and all the rest. We've done very well and we're shocked at how bad things have got for the young. We always confidently assumed their lives would be even better than ours.

And now I realise that all these years we've had another benefit that we never recognised at the time but is now becoming glaringly obvious - we never for a second worried about how our behaviour might be bad for the climate.

We happily drove thousands of miles, flew thousands of miles, ate meat every day (well, not me, I'm a vegetarian), enjoyed log and coal fires, enjoyed oil and gas central heating, and bought things that had been flown across the world. We never saw anything wrong with what we were doing. We took it all for granted.

Only in the last few years has it sunk in that we're facing a massive climate breakdown and need to radically change our lifestyles to put things right.

Suddenly I have to examine everything I do and consider if it's harmless or if I'm damaging the climate. If I'm doing damage, I have to ask myself, is it really necessary or can I do without it?

No longer can I just mindlessly follow my whims without a thought for the consequences. No longer can I casually whizz around the world, or crank up the central heating. All that innocent indulgence is a thing of the past. And something forever denied the young.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

A blind eye

I have to admit that when I notice someone doing something reprehens-ible - something criminal or cruel or anti-social - I'm always in a quandary. Should I turn a blind eye or should I take action? Many's the time when for one reason or another I've turned a blind eye.

I'm sure I'm not the only one. How many of us are prepared to take it further if we risk violence, abuse or some other kind of retaliation? I suspect most people would hesitate before diving in.

When I was working at a London bookshop once, one of the staff quite casually walked out with two bulging carrier bags of stolen books. Nobody said a word. None of the other staff, including me, were prepared to intervene. Why, I couldn't say. I guess we were all waiting for someone else to make the first move.

Another time Jenny and I were in a supermarket when the manager stopped an elderly man who was walking out with some stolen cheese and physically knocked him to the floor. On this occasion we took action. We were so disgusted by this inhuman response that we abandoned a trolley full of shopping and took our custom elsewhere.

When I see a mother shouting and screaming at her truculent child, I'm tempted to defend the child and tell her to calm down. I don't though because I tell myself that (a) it's none of my business and (b) what right do I have as a non-parent to criticise her behaviour? But that allows her to keep shouting and screaming.

There are more trivial misdeeds - dog shit left on the pavement, parked cars blocking cycle lanes, people dropping litter. But I can't object to everything, I'd soon be known as the mad bossyboots at number 90. So I keep quiet and let them get away with it.

My mother was bolder, a shameless busybody. She was always embarrassing me by ticking people off for their bad behaviour.

I'd end up ticking her off for ticking people off.

Saturday 23 November 2019

Fascists and fusspots

People are so easily offended nowadays. They fume and rage at virtually anything that doesn't meet their lofty expectations of other human beings. They're unable to take things in their stride and just live and let live.

Personally I'm not easily offended. Not because I'm thick-skinned, which I'm not, but because I seldom see what someone's said or done as offensive. I'm more likely to conclude they're just being ignorant, or insensitive, or thoughtless, or having a bad day. Or simply looking for attention.

If I took offence at every opinion about old people for example I'd be doing nothing but firing off complaints. Every day there's an abundance of crazy comments about us oldies. Such as:
  • Old people are an increasing burden on the NHS
  • They've outlived their usefulness and should hurry up and die
  • They drive slowly and erratically and hold up other drivers
  • They're greedy and take too big a share of our resources
  • They're an embarrassment when they try to dance
  • They're all fascist reactionaries who voted for Brexit
  • They've sabotaged the life prospects of young people
  • They clog up supermarket aisles with their trollies full of All Bran
  • They're totally out of touch and living in the past
  • They're pernickety fusspots who want everything to be just-so
Okay, I exaggerate - but not much. If I got publicly indignant about every stupid observation, I'd be exhausted by the end of the day. I just marvel at people's willingness to write off 20 per cent of the population (all those over 65) as dysfunctional, useless has-beens.

Mostly I simply ignore it all, and liken it to the half-baked ramblings of the irascible drunk in the local pub.

The elderly irascible drunk, naturally. These old people, just no inhibitions....

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Dire straits

I don't recall ever being sunk in despair. Despair meaning that sense of complete hopelessness, helplessness, inability to escape from an awful predicament. That sense that whatever you do, you're not going to solve the dreadful mess you're in.

I'm very lucky. Other people experience despair on a regular basis, even a daily basis if they're extremely poor, heavily in debt, coping with a serious disability or suffering domestic violence.

I've been in tough situations where it was hard to see any way out, but I never sank into black despair. I always believed there was light at the end of the tunnel, things would get better, the crisis would pass.

Even when I lived in a spartan and freezing bedsit and couldn't afford anywhere really comfortable, and the landlord refused to do any necessary repairs, and my upstairs neighbour was a raucous alcoholic, I never lost hope that things would eventually improve. And they did.

Even when we were selling our London flat and moving to Belfast, and the prospective buyer went on stalling and delaying for months, and we seemed to be going nowhere, I never sank into despair (though I got pretty near it). We just kept pushing and prodding until finally the sale was completed and we were off.

But this is all utterly trivial compared to what others go through. I can't imagine the wrenching despair felt by those unlucky people caught in the catastrophic floods in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire - their homes and businesses ruined and their lives turned upside down. Or the despair felt by longstanding migrants to Britain who're suddenly told by the government they aren't welcome here and should leave the country. That's real, overwhelming despair.

I've been lucky so far. But despair may be just lying in wait.

Friday 15 November 2019

Not a curmudgeon

Ten years ago I remarked that although elderly males are commonly depicted as grumpy old men, I had yet to become one and remained the cheerful, easy-going, philosophical person I had always been.

I'm pleased to report that remains the case and I haven't yet degenerated into the sort of surly, abusive curmudgeon people hastily cross the road to avoid.

I don't habitually rage and curse at stupid motorists, hate teenagers and sales assistants, fume at red tape and form-filling, attack dumbing down and falling standards, or despise anything invented in the last 20 years.

I don't accept the mantra that "everything's getting worse", "the country's going to the dogs", "everyone's so selfish nowadays", and all those other pessimistic pronouncements.

On the contrary, there's so much about life today that's inspiring and uplifting and stimulating. The endless possibilities of the internet for getting information, keeping in touch with people, sharing jokes, and looking for tradespeople. The cultural riches of art, music, books and films. All the new ideas and tastes brought by migrants from all over the world. The increasing political awareness of the young, worried about climate breakdown, authoritarian governments and their personal future.

When I'm lucky enough to have all that, why get worked up about a few sullen teenagers, offhand shop assistants or careless motorists? They're wee buns in the grand scheme of things, minor irritations to be noted and forgotten.

My father was one of the "everything's getting worse" brigade, convinced we were all going to hell in a handcart and thankful he wouldn't be alive much longer. I'm glad to say I couldn't agree less with the old misery guts.

Just think, without the internet I would never have met Simon's Cat.

Monday 11 November 2019

Attention deficit

When I was young, attention-seeking was a cardinal sin. You had to be quiet and unassuming, hiding your light under a bushel. My parents were always telling me not to draw attention to myself, not to show off, not to make a spectacle of myself.

It wasn't just my parents. This was a social norm most people adhered to. Persistent attention-seekers were seen as immature, vulgar, weird, a bit mentally lacking. It was best to ignore them, to avoid encouraging them.

Nowadays we've gone to the opposite extreme. Attention-seeking is routine, and thousands of people spend their lives seeking as much attention as possible. Their every move is broadcast on Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social media sites. We know what they had for breakfast, when they last had a pee, the embarrassing pimple on their nose, their sexual disappointments, their ingrowing toenails, their fear of hedgehogs. There's absolutely nothing they keep to themselves.

They'll do virtually anything to get attention, especially politicians. They tell lies, they make wild allegations, they smear their opponents, they pour out vitriolic abuse. So long as it stirs up heated controversies that keep them in the public eye.

I've never succumbed to this new fashion. I have no desire to be the centre of attention. If anything I have a horror of attention, a deep aversion to other people inspecting me too closely, judging me and gossiping about me. I much prefer to be on my own, enjoying my favourite activities without a flock of curious people around me.

It's not that I have anything to hide. I don't have all sorts of sordid secrets I'm desperate to keep under wraps. I'll reveal anything, even the most personal quirks and oddities, but preferably to an audience of one. I just get nervous when too many people are watching my every move.

So I don't think I'll tell you what I had for breakfast.

(PS: Blogging is just fine. I'm happy to reveal all to my cosy little band of blogging friends)

Thursday 7 November 2019

Addiction free

I may have 101 idiotic neuroses, from dislike of darkness to social anxiety and imposter syndrome, but one thing I'm thankful for is not having an addictive personality. Something I've inherited I guess, as I can't think of any other family member who has (or had) any addictions. Well, apart from my father's 10-a-day fag habit (which he gave up instantly after having a stroke at the age of 55). And apart from my mother's persistent hoarding.

It's simple enough to get addicted to something, after all. Casual enjoyment can very quickly turn into a raging compulsion. And goodness knows, there are plenty of addictions to choose from - tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, shopping, the internet, OCD, fast food, chocolate, sugary drinks, hoarding, the list is endless.

I've always found it easy to stop doing something when it gets to the threshold of addiction. I just tell myself "Okay, that's enough" and I stop. I have two glasses of wine and that's it. I shop for the clothes I need and that's it. I eat a chocolate or two and that's it.

It's not that I'm terrified of getting addicted. It's not that I've had to deal with someone's chronic addiction. I just know when to stop before something enjoyable becomes something compulsive, an urge I can't resist. Maybe I have a strong sense of self-preservation that stops me doing something obviously self-destructive. Whatever.

I just don't understand addiction, because I've never been addicted. My mother was a relentless hoarder, and I despaired at the mountains of junk in her flat. But I hadn't a clue why she felt the need to hoard. I know lots of people who drink far too much and I don't understand that either. Though I can imagine the pain and distress of knowing you're addicted to something and desperately wanting to get it under control.

"Just say no" isn't as simple as it seems.

Sunday 3 November 2019

Playing with fire

The just-published report on the fire at Grenfell Tower makes me even more certain I couldn't live at the top of a tower block. I would always feel nervous that a sudden fire might reach my flat and I couldn't escape from it.

It may sound irrational, because fires in high-rise blocks are very rare, but the fact is that you're totally reliant on adequate fire-control measures that may or may not have been installed and may not be working when the need arises. You're also reliant on firefighters who may have no detailed, well-rehearsed plan for dealing with a high-rise fire (as was the case at Grenfell Tower).

At Grenfell the fire alarms weren't working properly, there were no sprinklers in the building, there weren't enough firebreaks to contain the fire, there was only one staircase, and of course there was highly inflammable cladding on the outside. Many high-rise blocks still have inflammable cladding that hasn't yet been replaced.

We've never had a flat above the first floor (second floor if you're American). I'd happily live on the second or third floor, which would be fairly easy to escape from, but any higher and I'd feel distinctly unsafe.

I'm not worried though about high-level hotel rooms. A huge fire in a hotel would ruin their reputation so I assume they have very strict fire-control measures, closely monitored by the authorities. In which case I'm happy to be on, say, the fifteenth floor a long way from street level. Also, I'm only in a hotel for a few days and it isn't my permanent residence.

If you live in a high-rise flat, you may have fantastic views, you may have exceptional privacy, you may be well insulated from the hurly burly of the city, but that wouldn't be enough if it might also be a death trap.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Winging it

It's weird how my inner feelings can be so at odds with my outer self, or how other people see me. Despite being a very well organised person, I always feel the exact opposite - that I'm hopelessly disorganised, never quite on top of anything, always running to catch up, haphazardly responding to things.

To other people's eyes, I'm wonderfully organised. I meet people at the right place at the right time. I keep the house clean and tidy. There's always enough food indoors for a few decent meals. I keep track of all the money going in and out. I arrange domestic repairs promptly. I keep the garden in good order. Everything's ticking over nicely, no to-do lists full of tasks left undone for months. Who could ask for more?

Yet on the inside I always feel as if I'm desperately winging it, never properly prepared for anything, doing everything at the last minute, vaguely muddling through, leaving all sorts of loose ends and neglected chores. I feel that other people are much better organised than I am and I'm barely keeping my head above water. I feel that my apparent adeptness is some kind of lucky accident, nothing to do with any deliberate action on my part.

Perhaps I just don't want to believe that I'm well organised because it makes me look like some sort of goody goody, someone lacking in the normal human failings that people find endearing and comforting. People would prefer to know that the windowsills are thick with dust, the garden is an unkempt wilderness, the bed linen hasn't been changed for months, that faulty tap is still dripping, and there's nothing in the fridge but some stale cheese and one mouldy potato.

Sorry, but the goody goody seems to have the upper hand.

Saturday 26 October 2019

Glorious botching

There hasn't been much talk of multi-tasking recently. Which is odd, because supposedly the reason why some people could juggle so many different roles was because they could do six things at once and do them all brilliantly - or at any rate competently.

Well, that was the theory. Then researchers discovered that most people can't multi-task, or at least not effectively. You might think you're doing everything splendidly but in reality you're just muddling through.

I have to say I'm probably the world's worst multi-tasker. Give me two things to do at once and I'll botch both of them - gloriously. Expect me to have an intelligent conversation while I'm driving the car and without doubt I'll drive straight into the closest shopfront.

Expect me to answer the phone while I'm picking out items at the supermarket and you can be sure I'll forget who I'm talking to while simultaneously knocking fifty tins of baked beans off the nearest shelf. Which in itself is a deft piece of multi-tasking - but not the one intended.

I'm afflicted with absolutely single-minded concentration. I can focus superbly on one particular thing -  to a degree that sometimes drives Jenny nuts. But if you ask me to spread my concentration a bit more widely, you're on to a loser. Something's got to give, and invariably it does. I catch sight of a fascinating article in the paper, settle down to read it, and instantly forget there's something in the oven.

The cliché has it that women are better at multi-tasking than men, but I'm not sure that's true. I think some people just happen to be better at it than others, whatever their sex. If such a thing really exists, that is.

Tell you what though - I can be obsequiously polite to someone while at the same time marvelling at their infinite stupidity. Does that count as multi-tasking?

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Coffee nirvana

When did coffee shops become so amazingly popular? So popular that right across the world, even in remote villages and on modest ferries you can get a first-rate cup of coffee.

Their earlier incarnation, the coffee bars of the nineteen fifties and sixties, were fashionable for a while but then lost their appeal, until eventually they were seen as a quaint relic of the past, frequented only by the likes of sad loners, tourists and cheating husbands. I can't remember ever going to one myself.

In those days of course few people had even tasted a top-notch coffee. Most of us were used to the insipid taste of instant coffee out of a jar, consisting of mysterious brown particles, and knew nothing better.

Now there's a coffee shop on virtually every street and the number escalates by the day. The quest for the perfect coffee - the freshest, tastiest, healthiest, climate-friendliest cup of joe, made from the most ethically-sourced beans on the planet - has become a relentless obsession. I'm as keen on a good cup of coffee as anyone else,  but I can't help thinking the search for coffee nirvana has gone a bit too far.

It's now quite normal to drop into a coffee shop several times a week, and pay anything up to a tenner for a coffee and a pastry. Anyone who never enters a coffee shop or doesn't like coffee is seen as a bit strange.

I have to admit Jenny and I like coffee shops. We go for a coffee and a chat every week at Caffè Nero (I know, I know, tax avoidance etc, but we love their coffee). We'll have a coffee if we're meeting friends or sitting in an airport or just killing time. But I'm not a fanatic about the taste. A decent latté will do me fine. I hope the beans weren't harvested by downtrodden peasant farmers, but I'm not going to spend the morning investigating.

I'd rather amuse myself by trying to spot the cheating husbands.

(Thanks to Kylie for the idea)

Saturday 19 October 2019

The cutting edge

When I was young the word "trendy" was an insult. People laughed at the "mindless trendies" who were slaves to every passing fashion and couldn't bear to feel they were behind the times.

Now that's all changed and there's a total obsession with being trendy at all costs, being at the cutting edge of clothing, cookery, movie-watching, house décor, musical taste, holiday location, climate awareness, and even vocabulary - woe betide us if we use an obsolete term about other people (diabetics, transsexuals, dykes, nutters, natives etc).

The joke is that most trends are so nebulous and often simply assertions by some (fashionable) journalist, beauty editor or pundit. One person's boldly expressed trend will flatly contradict someone else's. In one place we hear that short skirts are back, in another that long dresses are now all the rage. Staying at the cutting edge is an arduous task when everyone disagrees about what the cutting edge consists of.

For years now I've never been remotely trendy and I just do and wear what I feel like doing and wearing. If my decisions happen to coincide with some fashionable dictat, it's mere coincidence. And few people actually care if I'm up-to-the-minute or not, except in the political sphere where being "off-message" can lead to instant ostracism rather than a healthy debate.

I remember trying to keep up with my fellow pupils at boarding school (when I was still young and impressionable) and failing miserably. I would attempt an Elvis-style hairdo, or adopt the required footwear of winkle pickers or chisel toes, or buy some Buddy Holly-style thick-rimmed glasses, but they all knew I was insincere and simply trying to fit in, and I'm sure they laughed at me behind my back.

It was only a year ago I bought my first backpack, after everyone else had had them since the year dot. I still haven't succumbed to a smartphone, Netflix, WhatsApp, airbnb or Uber. But I do take a very trendy set of hessian bags to the supermarket. Do I get any brownie points for that?

Tuesday 15 October 2019


So we spent a few days in Montreal, as Jenny thought it was a wonderful city and wanted me to share her enthusiasm. I have to say though that I wasn't as taken with it as she was.

I felt slightly intimidated by the massive and impersonal high-rises and skyscrapers, some a good forty or fifty storeys (and visually pretty bland). I felt quite insignificant, like a small child on the sidewalk. And I felt a bit drained, as if the skyscrapers were sucking something out of me. They were too grandiose, too excessive.

The city had no central focus, it was just a huge sprawl of hotels, businesses and little squares, unlike Manhattan, which has Central Park, or Belfast, which has City Hall, or Sydney, which has the Harbour Bridge.

But having said all that, Montreal has its attractions. Like the Musée des Beaux Arts, which is full of fantastic artwork. We spent nearly five hours there, drinking it all in. Like the Parc du Mont-Royal, just above the city centre, where the belvedere at the summit has a panoramic view across the city. Like the Basilique Notre-Dame, sumptuously decorated and breathtaking.

We also went to the Musée d'Art Contemporain, but were surprised to find there was only one exhibition at the time, the rest of the museum being closed to install new exhibits. Which made no sense as there were dozens of blank walls which could have been hung with hundreds of artworks. Why weren't they? Lack of funding maybe? They must be disappointing an awful lot of tourists.

Accommodation-wise, we did very well. The last time Jenny was in Montreal she found a spacious hotel apartment complete with fully equipped kitchenette, and we stayed there again this time round (Le Square Phillips Hotel).

So Montreal didn't quite capture my heart, but it was worth visiting.

Pic: Le Vieux Port, Montreal, one of the better preserved districts

Friday 11 October 2019

The Canadian Maritimes

And now all can be revealed. Jenny and I have been on a 10 day guided tour of the Canadian Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton Island). After that we spent a few days in Montreal, as Jenny wanted me to see what she thinks is a wonderful city.

One defining feature of the Maritimes is seafood - muscles, oysters, scallops and lobster in particular. Vegetarians are still unusual and Bernadette, our tour manager, worked hard to provide adequate veggie meals wherever we went.

There's pretty spectacular scenery too, especially on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Island and on the Fundy Trail in New Brunswick. The trees were sporting their amazing autumn colours - yellow, brown, red, orange.

The Maritimes are still thickly forested, with little sign of the commercial interests like mining and fracking that are threatening much of Northern Ireland's natural beauty. And there are lots of unspoilt little fishing villages.

We learnt about some of the indigenous communities that fought for their survival against invading English and French forces - such as the Acadians, the Mikmaq, the Inuits and the Glooscap. They refused to be cowed into submission.

At the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck, we discovered that Bell not only invented the first practical telephone, but invented many other things like metal detectors, the hydrofoil, the audiometer and the wheat husker.

We learnt that New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in Canada, and many of the inhabitants speak both French and English. Jenny and I soon realised that our pathetic grasp of French hardly mattered as English is spoken everywhere.

The residents of the Maritimes are keen on lighthouses, with over 160 in Nova Scotia alone. They also like model lighthouses, which pop up in people's front gardens and other unlikely spots.

Like our guided tour of New Zealand in January, this tour gave us a great overview of the area and what makes it distinctive. We more than satisfied our nagging curiosity.

We were hoping to meet up with Wise Web Woman. But like most people, I confused St John's Newfoundland (where www actually lives) with Saint John, New Brunswick. So we never met up. Maybe some other time....

Thursday 19 September 2019

The jealous ex

Some exes get insanely jealous of the new lover and do everything they can to wreck the budding relation-ship. Luckily that seldom happened to me, and most of the exes accepted the situation, either happily or reluctantly.

My girlfriend Trish had an ex but he didn't make any trouble. It would have been difficult as he was living in Birmingham and Trish and I were in London.

Grethe had an ex and was bringing up their son Reuben. The couple were in regular contact but he never tried to separate us.

Rosey had a boyfriend, Barry, who didn't accept our relationship at all and was actively trying to end it. He would tell her I was totally the wrong type for her and it would all end in tears. She did break up with me eventually, and I guess Barry's opinions had something to do with it.

Jenny also had an existing boyfriend but again he didn't make any trouble, probably because Jenny was obviously very keen on me and he didn't think he would get anywhere.

But I've heard plenty of people complaining not just about their ex's jealousy but about their current partner's jealousy. Constant questioning about where they're going and who they're meeting. Making out they fancy someone they just casually glanced at. Claiming a casual note to someone looks flirtatious.

My father was fiercely jealous and possessive. He always questioned my mother about people she was meeting and often implied there was a sexual element. He would even claim some lesbian affair was going on.

I've never been the jealous type myself so I didn't try any dirty tricks when a girlfriend fell for another man. However upset and bewildered I was, I would never have tried to destroy someone else's happiness.

Come to terms with it and move on, is my attitude.

I won't be blogging for a while. Will explain all in due course! In the meantime, please talk among yourselves....

Sunday 15 September 2019

Clothes line

Just about every week there's a new row about school uniforms. A pupil is sent home for breaking the school's code, or the school has a new code that parents object to. There seems to be a lack of flexibility and common sense all round, be it from pupils, parents or school staff.

Pupils are being ticked off for having corn rows, afros, dyed hair, the wrong length of hair, make-up, too-short skirts, the wrong colour of tights, the wrong kind of shoes, the list is endless. And school staff seem increasingly strict about minor breaches.

It was all a lot simpler when I was at school. There were uniform codes the same as now, but in general, however daft they seemed, everyone stuck to them and didn't kick up a stink over something they weren't allowed to wear. Getting an education was thought more important than arguing about the uniform.

My uniform code was short hair, trousers, jacket, shirt and tie, and smart shoes (no trainers in those days!). The girls' code was shoulder-length hair, below-the-knee skirt, opaque blouse, jacket, plain bra, plain stockings (or tights in the sixties) and smart flat shoes.

I don't remember anyone ever objecting to the uniform, or insisting on their own choice of clothes. It was just accepted that the uniform was adhered to.

But now more and more pupils demand the right to choose their own clothing and uniform codes are often seen as repressive and old-fashioned. Why shouldn't a girl have corn rows or patterned tights or scarlet lipstick? Why shouldn't a boy have long hair or jeans or sneakers?

It gets even more fraught when pupils call for gender-neutral clothing, including what's normally confined to the opposite sex. Transgender boys demand to wear skirts and dresses and make-up and take legal action when they're denied.

Well, why shouldn't kids wear whatever they feel comfortable in? As long as it doesn't interfere with their studies, what's the problem? If a boy wants to prance around in a Laura Ashley frock, so what?

Pic: Very smart pupils at Truro High School for Girls, Cornwall.

And some wonderful news. According to my latest prostate scan, the tiny trace of prostate cancer that I've had for 2½ years has completely disappeared. I'm officially cancer-free!

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Use it or lose it

Okay, enough of the doom and gloom. Time for something more positive. Something that'll cheer you all up. Ah, I know just the thing. De-cluttering.

One thing Jenny and I wholly agree on is decluttering - or better still, permanent non-cluttering. We've always had a horror of homes packed with useless junk and dust-gathering knick-knacks, homes so awash with assorted stuff that you have to fight your way through the rooms and clear a ton of rubbish off the chair seats before you can sit down.

Our house couldn't be more different. If there's something we don't want or need, it's thrown out pretty quickly. Just about everything in the house is in regular use, apart from a few ornaments and bits of pottery that we love and remind us of the holidays they stem from. Oh and apart from a large number of books. The local charity shops must have made plenty of money out of our frequent throw-outs.

In fact our house is so bereft of superfluous items one visitor likened it to a guest house. I think some visitors actually feel slightly uncomfortable without the usual agglomeration of cosy bits and pieces they're expecting.

But our house is a palace of junk compared to a house I stayed in many years back, belonging to my friend Chris's aunt. She was fiercely religious and believed there should be nothing in the house that wasn't strictly necessary for everyday living. There were tables, chairs, beds and cupboards and that was about it. The idea of an ornament would have given her conniptions.

My mum, as you may remember, was a compulsive hoarder, and after a move to a care home, her flat had to be cleared of umpteen years' accumulation of unworn clothes, old newspapers, holiday brochures, rotting chocolates and very variety of pointless rubbish imaginable.

An image so vivid and unforgettable I vow never to repeat it.

Saturday 7 September 2019

It'll be okay

What I'm in dire need of right now is reassurance - and lots of it. The state of the outside world is so alarming that a lot more is needed than a stoical shrug of the shoulders - or looking the other way and pretending everything's normal.

I need to know that things won't get any worse - and may even get better. I need to know that the people we elected to look after our well-being are doing just that. I need to know that the future will improve on the present.

I need reassurance that the planet isn't heading for destruction. That humanity isn't heading for destruction. That Britain's chronic political paralysis won't last much longer. That the rampant hatred and xenophobia and misogyny will die down. That the NHS won't be sold off to the highest bidder. That the old and disabled and vulnerable won't be treated like intolerable burdens.

It's not enough to trot out the usual vacuous phrases. "Don't worry, it'll all be okay". "It's not as bad as you think." "It'll all look better in the morning." I want serious, convincing, evidence-based reassurance. I want to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I want to see the sunny uplands on the horizon.

I can't just shut out the world and retreat into my own little personal bubble of friends and family and my favourite TV programmes. The world keeps tapping me on the shoulder saying "Do you see the mess we're in? What's being done about it? Does anyone care?"

I need reassurance - and lots of it.

Tuesday 3 September 2019

A mug's game

I'm always fascinated by neighbour disputes, especially the really crazy ones that go on for years and cost a fortune. What motivates people to push these disputes to the bitter end, whatever the financial and emotional cost?

Cilla Carden of Perth, Australia, is planning more legal action against her neighbours, citing their cooking smells, cigarette smoke, chairs scraping on concrete, reflective light, the sounds of children playing basketball, and pet birds.

Seriously? Aren't all those things just what you would expect from a family enjoying their home? Are they meant to creep around super-silently, avoiding any kind of noise or smells or signs of their existence? I would say Ms Carden is ludicrously intolerant and unable to live and let live.

Jenny and I have had a few problems with neighbours, but there's no way we would pour money into lawyers' pockets to deal with them. There are always other ways of sorting things out.

We once had a flat in a London mansion block, and the neighbours were fond of riotous all-night parties. We kept a detailed diary of the disturbances and asked the local council to take action. The neighbours were fined a large sum and moved out shortly afterwards. Result!

A few years before, in another block of flats, our downstairs neighbours were amazingly noisy, one with a constant hacking cough we could hear all too clearly. We asked them politely if they could be less noisy, but their response was to let down our car tyres.

While we were still wondering what else we could do, they moved out and were replaced by a much quieter couple we befriended. Problem solved.

Now we live in a detached house so neighbour nuisance is less likely, though we did have some neighbours who were also fond of late-night parties. Luckily they tired of such revelry, two of them moved out and the one person left is quiet as a mouse.

Legal action? It's a mug's game.

Thursday 29 August 2019

Crazy dreams

My dreams are very different from other people's. Everyone else seems to dream about real events and real people, while my dreams are totally abstract - bizarre figments of my imagination.

I often dream about an awkward workplace situation, even though I haven't had a paid job for some 16 months. I'm sitting at an office desk with no idea what I'm meant to be doing. Or I'm in a works canteen where everyone is stuffing themselves but I don't know where the food is being served. Or I'm at work trying to read an important report in a language I don't recognise or understand.

Where does this stuff come from? I've never been in any of these situations so my brain seems to go on a solo run as soon as I fall asleep.

I never dream about actual workplaces I've been in, or the people I've worked with. I never dream about the genuinely embarrassing, awkward situations I've encountered.

I dream about Jenny very occasionally and once I dreamt about a Facebook friend, but that's about it. I don't dream about my family, my friends, my neighbours or people I've met during the day. My dreams are nothing but a kind of nocturnal spam.

I've never heard of any other adult whose dreams are so abstract, but surely they must exist? Or does everyone dream about Aunt Gillian upsetting the teapot when she paid a visit yesterday? Or does everyone dream about winning the lottery or meeting their favourite celebrity?

I think I need some urgent adjustments to my dreaming software. It's seriously defective and needs to be replaced by something more normal. I want to dream about Annie Lennox. Or Bonnie Raitt. Or even Aunt Gillian will do.

Sunday 25 August 2019

Letting go

One of the hardest things about being a parent must be giving up the constant supervision of your children and trusting them to make their own decisions - hopefully sensible and intelligent ones.

When you've been keeping an eye on your children 24 hours a day since they were born, it must be quite a wrench to be less vigilant and stop constantly checking up on them.

I'm reminded of this by yet another teenager dying of a suspected drugs overdose at the Leeds music festival. The 17 year old girl had taken not just one drug but a whole cocktail of drugs. She trusted whoever gave them to her and assumed they weren't dangerous.

And every so often kids decide it would be hilarious to wreck the local children's playground or daub graffiti on the wall of the parish church.

At some point a parent has to allow their child to go out on their own and be responsible for their own actions. You have to make a judgment as to whether they'll be safe or whether they'll get into some kind of trouble - drug abuse, sexual harassment, a car accident, shoplifting.

I imagine the farther your child goes, and the longer they're away, the more nervous you get. If they're backpacking in Australia for two months, for example. Or maybe it makes no difference.

Of course at a certain age a child is legally entitled to do whatever they want and their parents can no longer stand in the way.

When I was a teenager I generally made sensible decisions, but not always. I remember driving my girlfriend home once when I was very drunk, as people did in those days. Luckily I didn't have an accident.

Just let go, they say. Easier said than done.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Apocalypse buffs

What turns people into survivalists? Why does someone decide they need to make elaborate prepar-ations for some sort of future apocalypse or arma-geddon? Why don't they just potter along hoping for the best like most of us do?

Apart from anything else, it's such a hit and miss business. You don't know exactly what you're preparing for so you don't really know what you should be stocking up on or making provision for. An economic crisis? A war? A biblical plague? Climate collapse? Aliens from outer space? It's all so nebulous.

Personally I've never had the slightest urge to prepare for some dire future emergency. I've survived for 72 years without taking any special precautions, and I doubt there'll be an apocalypse any time soon.

In any case, where do you put all the stuff you've set aside? You would need a very large house or basement and how many people have those? You would also need plenty of cash to buy all this extra stuff.

There was a wonderful story a couple of years ago about Joseph Badame, an American guy who had spent $1 million making massive preparations for a possible economic crisis, was made bankrupt by medical bills after his wife's stroke and faced having to dispose of everything he had stockpiled - including huge amounts of food.

At the estate sale, he met a Puerto Rican food truck operator hired to work at the sale and she told him of all the Puerto Rican families who were starving after Hurricane Maria had hit the country.

He arranged for all the food he had stockpiled - thousands of dollars' worth - to be shipped to Puerto Rico.

So something good came out of his personal tragedy.

Pic: Joseph Badame

Friday 16 August 2019

Off the cuff

One of the slightly scary things in life is how a sudden decision, made without proper thought or reflection, made more or less on the spur of the moment, can have quite unexpected and even life-changing consequences.

A politician tweets a racist and abusive comment and his political career is instantly halted. A motorist goes through a red traffic light and is seriously injured in a head-on collision. Someone invests their life savings in a dodgy company and loses the lot. A woman befriends a man who turns out to be a stalker.

A lot of these off-the-cuff decisions are made under the influence of alcohol or drugs or infatuation or misplaced trust. Or someone feels the need to "break out", to escape from a rut, to be their "real self". Or it's just put down to "a moment of madness".

Often the decision seems quite out of character, something the person would never normally do, something that's totally inexplicable.

In the book I've just read, The Silent Wife by A S A (Susan) Harrison, a woman who is known to be placid, sensible and easy-going suddenly decides to do something shocking and illegal (no spoilers!), something that will completely change her life and possibly put her in jail.

It's not something she's reflected on for a while, weighed up the pros and cons. She makes the decision very abruptly and then goes through with it. It seems unbelievable, but in reality people do just that - make life-changing decisions with barely a moment's thought.

Luckily all my spur-of-the-moment decisions have turned out to be good ones and haven't led to disaster. I haven't lost thousands of pounds, got sacked, been hen-pecked, destroyed my health or ended up in jail.

I feel sorry for those people who've wrecked their lives with some stupid impromptu decision they forever regretted. It could happen to any of us.

Monday 12 August 2019

Elephant in the room

So what to write today? I could blather on about this, that or the other thing - my neighbours from hell maybe, or my tyrannical boss, or my lucky escape from near-disaster. But all those little personal stories are starting to feel utterly trivial beside the enormous elephant in the room, the one thing that now dominates British life and every other conversation - Brexit.

On October 31 Prime Minister Boris Johnson, backed by a bunch of dogged fanatics, has promised to take the UK out of the European Union. Just like that.

He has only the vaguest idea of what will happen next or how our everyday lives will be affected. He just thinks it's a jolly good idea, and in any case it was voted for in a referendum three years ago and he has to obey "the democratic will of the people".

Like millions of others, I'm in despair at the possible consequences of this hare-brained decision. There have been hundreds of grim predictions from expert after expert about the negative effects on business, on the economy, on the public services, on agriculture, on the environment and on scientific research - just about everything in fact. But the predictions have been ignored by the Prime Minister, who regards them all as hysterical scare-mongering.

Jenny and I probably won't be personally affected, unless the predicted food and medicine shortages come about, but other people could be quite severely affected. But hey, we have to abide by the democratic will of the people, even if they voted for the mass slaughter of ugly babies.

I can only hope common sense prevails before it's too late, but that seems increasingly unlikely. The Brexit juggernaut is careering down the hill and nobody knows how to apply the brakes. An almighty crash seems unavoidable.

Pic: Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Wednesday 7 August 2019


It's conventional wisdom that we should be friendly with all our neighbours so we can support each other in an emergency or whenever we need help - mowing the elderly neighbour's lawn, lending garden tools, watching the house while you're away, and so on.

But in practice it doesn't actually work like that. The neighbours might prefer to keep to themselves - especially if they have several kids and are fully occupied with parenting, or are just the reclusive type, or they decide you're not on their wavelength, or they don't want you to see the mess they surround themselves with. All sorts of hidden reasons in fact.

Then again you might think you're quite capable of dealing with emergencies and sorting out your problems without the neighbours poking their nose in, so why cultivate friendships you don't really need in the first place?

Although Jenny and I have been living here for ten years, we don't know the neighbours very well. Mostly we know their names and we say hello to each other but that's about it.

I take in parcels for the couple next door, and trim our joint hedge occasionally. The couple next to them are much friendlier and we've had some good chats since they moved in a few months back.

There's another neighbour a few doors up who looks after our house while we're on holiday, and we're very friendly with him and his wife and kids.

But the other neighbours keep themselves to themselves and I know next to nothing about them. I seldom meet them on the street as they travel everywhere by car.

I know much more about my Facebook friends than my neighbours, and that probably applies to most people. My Facebook friends may even give me helpful advice in a crisis my neighbours wouldn't even know about.

Well, so be it. I just take my neighbours as they come.

Saturday 3 August 2019

The spartan years

I would define my life nowadays as privileged. I have a loving partner, a comfortable home, enough money, good health, plenty to eat and drink, and (at the moment) I live in a peaceful country. But I wasn't always so privileged.

Between 1973 and 1979 I lived in a tatty bed-sit in Abbey Road, London (yes, that Abbey Road). There was no central heating, just a small gas fire, there was no toilet or wash basin (only a communal bathroom downstairs), there was no washing machine, there was a one-ring cooker, there was damp all the way up the staircase of the building, and needless to say, any requests to the landlord for repairs or improvements were ignored.

I could have afforded somewhere more comfortable, but I was trying to save money to buy a flat so I was economising. I never invited anyone round, as the shabbiness would have been too embarrassing.

The one-ring cooker discouraged any serious cooking, so I lived mainly on snacks like fruit, biscuits, fruit cake, boiled eggs and peanut butter sandwiches. Not surprisingly, I was a lot thinner then (about 10½ stone).

The other tenants weren't interested in joint approaches to the landlord to get things fixed. The elderly woman upstairs had a serious whisky habit and was usually drunk. The elderly woman downstairs just wanted a quiet life with no fuss or bother.

To keep myself amused, and avoid cabin fever in my tiny bolthole, I would go to all the museums and galleries and take long walks round the neighbourhood. I went to the cinema regularly, especially the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. Or I would take a book to one of the local coffee bars and sit reading for hours on end. In the summer I went to seaside resorts, my favourites being Eastbourne, Folkestone, Hastings and Broadstairs.

Then in 1981 I met Jenny, and things took a turn for the better.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

Promises promises

Do people take their wedding vows seriously? Do they honestly intend to stay with their spouse through thick and thin, through hell and high water, through the grimmest of circumstances? Or do they make that promise a bit tongue-in-cheek, not really meaning it? Like you agree to the terms and conditions on an insurance policy, without actually reading them?

I don't recall what wedding vows Jenny and I used. I don't remember us writing our own vows, so I think we must have used the traditional ones, which go something like this:

"I, whoever, take thee, whoever, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."

But since around 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce, clearly in practice everyone has their particular limits, and what one person will happily tolerate will drive another to pack their bags.

Whatever their wedding vows, people may be unable to cope with their partner getting a nasty illness, becoming an alcoholic, being work-obsessed, being a total slob, joining some weird cult, or sleeping around. And you wouldn't expect anyone to put up with ongoing violence or cruelty or gaslighting.

I doubt many spouses really believe they should tolerate absolutely anything, however distressing or humiliating. I suppose the wedding vows are still very much a puritanical hangover from the days when wives were expected to endure whatever their husbands inflicted on them.

Jenny and I have never had our pledge of loyalty put to a serious test - certainly none of the things I just mentioned. How would we cope if one of us got a dreadful illness, or turned into a pugnacious bully? Hard to say unless it actually happened.

Only a saint could adhere faithfully to the wedding vows. And not many of us are saints.

Thursday 25 July 2019

Hair talk

Hair. Something that spawns a hundred opinions. Compli-mentary, censorious, shocked, delighted. People are seldom emotionally neutral about a hairstyle, either their own or someone else's.

So let me share some of my own opinions about hair:
  • I've only had three hairstyles in 72 years. As a kid I had a parting, as a twenty something I had a long hair and a beard, and now the parting (and the beard) is long gone.
  • A lot of people with curly hair would prefer straight hair (my own is straight), but I love curly hair. Especially wild Jewish and Afro hair. I'm baffled by the prejudice against natural Afro hair.
  • I'm also baffled by the prejudice against ginger hair. I love it.
  • I love dreadlocks and corn rows.
  • I like dyed hair, but I also like natural grey hair.
  • I love short haired women. And short hair is so much easier to look after.
  • Some people have hairstyles that totally don't suit them. But you can't say so.
  • Hair that droops over someone's eyes is rather ridiculous.
  • I'd hate to be bald. But I don't fancy a wig.
  • Comb-overs are absurd. You'll never catch me with one.
  • Why is the simplest woman's haircut twice the price of a man's?
  • Men's hairstyles are odd right now. Undercut, Caesar cut, buzz cut, Mohawk. Strange mixtures of long hair and short hair.
  • I'm wary of men with buzz cuts. Are they drug dealers or paramilitaries? Or both?
  • I don't have any fancy shampoos. I just buy the cheapest I can find.
  • I tried not washing my hair for a while, as supposedly hair is self-cleaning. I just ended up with stinky hair.
Basically I prefer women's hairstyles to men's. They're more imaginative and they don't look like a prison cut. And they're nicer to fondle. But jeez they're a lot more fuss and bother.

Sunday 21 July 2019

Unwanted advice

I don't like unasked-for advice. I don't like getting it and I try not to give it. Most of it is plain annoying; it's either irrelevant or offensive or misinformed or smug. I've very seldom had advice that I actually found useful.

When I gave up journalism and became a bookseller, a lot of people were surprised and said I should have stayed in journalism - it was more exciting, better paid, more prestigious etc. I didn't agree with them, I took no notice, and I was irritated by their assumption they knew what was good for me. I spent many enjoyable years as a bookseller (23 in fact) and I never regretted quitting journalism.

When Jenny and I sold our flat in Islington in London and moved to Belfast, once again a lot of people were surprised and said we must be mad to move from a civilised city to an unpredictable trouble spot. We ignored the doubters and now we've been in Belfast for 19 very happy years. We don't miss London's congestion and high prices and pretensions in the least.

Luckily I've been treated to such gratuitous advice very rarely. Family members are renowned for dishing out earnest advice on every subject, but even my family has been reticent in this respect, despite my making decisions they must have found baffling or idiotic or disappointing. Of course that may be because my family are reticent about almost everything.

I try not to give unwanted advice to others, unless they specifically ask for it. How can I possibly know what's in the best interests of another person? Even if I've been through similar experiences, what was right for me isn't necessarily right for them. And suppose they followed my advice and came a cropper because of some crucial factor I wasn't even aware of? So much for my smart-alec interference.

Sometimes silence is golden.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Health emergency

The NHS in Northern Ireland is in dire straits. More than 288,000 patients* were waiting for their first outpatient appoint-ment at the end of March. It's now routine for people to wait over a year to see a consultant or receive medical treatment, unless it's a life-or-death emergency.

Felicity McKee, who ironically is a nurse, has moved from Northern Ireland to Wales to get proper healthcare, after getting the brush-off from one health worker after another in her home country. In Wales a patient is nearly 50 times less likely to be waiting over a year for care than in Northern Ireland.

The main reason for the crisis in the NHS is the 2½ years shutdown of the Stormont government because of a row between the two big political parties. There has been no Minister of Health to take the necessary decisions, and the civil servants have had to keep things going as best they can.

The reason I tell you all this is because I dread the possibilities if my trace of prostate cancer turned into something much bigger, or if I developed some other major illness. How long would I have to wait before I got the necessary treatment? Would my health have got a lot worse by then?

Of course there's always the option of going private, but our savings are limited and if I needed major treatment on a regular basis, we simply couldn't afford it. If I arranged a private session with a consultant, the NHS wouldn't accept the consultant's findings and I would still have to wait to see an NHS consultant before I could get any treatment.

In any case I'm strongly opposed to going private (a) because I'm fiercely loyal to the NHS and (b) because if large numbers of people go private and vanish from NHS waiting lists, then the situation in the NHS doesn't look quite so bad.

There are rumours once more of a return to direct rule from Westminster, in which case the situation might improve. But at the moment things look pretty bleak.

*Out of a population of 1.7 million. That's 17 per cent.

Pic: Health workers at Ulster Hospital.

Saturday 13 July 2019

Goodbye to innocence

Are children today having a more fraught and difficult childhood than the children of previous decades? Is childhood innocence becoming a thing of the past, with today's children exposed earlier and earlier to adult realities?

Yes, says the charity Action For Children. They spoke to 5,000 children, parents and grandchildren and found a wide consensus that modern childhoods were getting worse amid increasing social pressures.

Youngsters were under pressure to achieve at school, fit in with their peers and cope with wider anxieties such as Brexit, poverty and the climate crisis.

Two-thirds of parents and grandparents felt childhood was getting worse, and a third of children agreed. All said bullying - both online and offline - was the main problem, followed by pressure to fit in socially, now more intense because of social media.

A very sad state of affairs. My own childhood seems like unalloyed bliss compared to what children face today.

Yes, I had a bad-tempered father and I was bullied at school, but now that all seems quite trivial when set beside present-day anxieties.

I glided through my school years with little awareness of the outside world and its problems. I wasn't too worried about passing exams, as I wasn't planning to go to university. I went on wonderful family holidays. I felt very little pressure to fit in with anyone else. At home we all enjoyed the popular radio sitcoms and comedy shows of the time. I spent hours whizzing round the neighbourhood on my scooter. I played in the street with no fear of child-molesters or knife-carriers or drug-dealers.

I truly was in a sealed childhood bubble that was seldom disturbed by the grim reality of things like the Suez Crisis, the cold war or nuclear threats, or by mental health issues like eating disorders, self-harm or body loathing. My cosy little world of pleasure and novelty was rarely punctured.

Childhood today seems more like a battleground.