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.