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.