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