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.