Wednesday 26 February 2020

A bit of company

Loneliness isn't just a problem for older people, as commonly assumed. In fact studies suggest young people are more likely to feel lonely than the old. The image of young people as forever clubbing and surrounded by bosom pals is a bit of a myth.

A new apartment block in Helsingborg in Sweden aims to reduce loneliness in several ways. Firstly around half the tenants are young people under 25, while the rest are pensioners. Secondly all new residents have to sign a contract requiring them to spend at least two hours a week with the other residents. And thirdly individual flats are fairly small while the communal areas are spacious and cosy.

You might think some residents would object to such enforced socialising and retreat to their own flats, but on the contrary the scheme seems to be working well.

With (apparently) no pressure at all from the block's managers, residents are happily getting to know each other and saying how much better they feel as a result.

I think I'd be quite happy there myself (assuming no Jenny of course). Two hours a week of socialising is hardly onerous, and I'm sure I would benefit from a bit of company. It would be fun to talk to a few young people and get their take on life, and it would be good to talk to other oldies and see how they're dealing with old age.

You'd have to be careful how you selected people for the scheme though. You wouldn't want persistent moaners or political obsessives or crashing bores. If there were people you had to avoid, that would defeat the whole idea.

My mum complained constantly of loneliness in her last few years, and being in a scheme like this would have greatly improved her life.

Loneliness is too often seen as "one of those things" you just have to cope with. This scheme shows that doesn't have to be the case.

Pic: residents Fia Stegroth (20) and Gunnel Ericsson (86)

Saturday 22 February 2020


I see the journalist and author Julie Burchill shares the same emotional peculiarity as myself - an inability to feel shame, regret or remorse. We never brood over our past actions, thinking we should have done something very differently - or not done it at all. We never feel that we humiliated ourselves or acted like a fool. We don't look back, we just carry on.

Why worry about past shortcomings? My attitude is, I did the best I could at the time, on the basis of my knowledge and experience and common sense, and if that turned out to be not good enough, then so be it. If I made some glaring mistake, I'll correct it. Otherwise I put it all behind me and move on.

Isn't it rather pointless to stew about one's past behaviour, to pick everything apart and find oneself wanting? Isn't it rather self-indulgent? And isn't it a colossal waste of energy? We're all human, we all make mistakes, why make such a big deal out of it? Why not just wind your head in, as they say here, and get on with life?

A survey this week said the average person spends 110 hours a year regretting what might have been. Some 57 per cent wish they'd chosen another career path, while a quarter pine for lost loves. That's an awful lot of regrets. If a survey funded by KP Peanuts is to be believed, of course.

The trouble is, once you start regretting, there's no end to it. You can regret marrying the wrong person, or buying a house on a flood plain, or having so many children, or having no children at all, or not going to uni, or staying in that crap job for so long. You could drive yourself nuts. And never enjoy what you're actually doing right now.

Je ne regrette rien.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Remembering Nick

I saw this interesting question in a book I was reading - "What would you like to be remem-bered for?" It begs the question of course whether you want to be remem-bered in the first place. I guess a few hardened criminals might want to be forgotten as quickly as possible.

I must say I don't care if I'm remembered or not. It's not as if I've made some huge contribution to society like inventing the internet or helping Jews escape from Nazi Germany. I've led a very ordinary life and I don't think I'm remarkable in any way at all.

In fact I wonder why some people are so keen to be remembered. Are they screaming narcissists, do they just want to be famous, do they feel insignificant? All I know is, I don't care if I vanish into oblivion the moment I die. I think the more important thing is whether I enjoyed my life, which I have.

But if by any chance I do happen to be remembered, what for?

Obviously I'd like to be remembered as a civilised, intelligent, considerate, open-minded person, rather than a ranting bigot, a serial killer or a tyrannical boss. In particular I'd like to be remembered as a critical thinker, someone who asked searching questions and didn't just accept the fashionable ideas of the moment.

Or perhaps I'm more likely to be remembered as the hopeless dimwit who gets lost in any tangled TV or movie plot. Or the weak-bladdered old codger who goes for a pee four times a night. Or the scatty driver who gets into the wrong lane and wonders why he's being hooted at.

Or they'll totally mis-remember me and think I was their college lecturer or their driving instructor. Which is okay as long as the people in question were totally brilliant and turned their whole life around.

But not otherwise.

Friday 14 February 2020

Culture vultures

Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, has been vilified by political activists for writing about people and things that are outside her own personal experience. They say she's guilty of cultural appropriation.

The book is about a mother and daughter who flee Acapulco in Mexico for the US to escape a drugs syndicate. Her journalist husband had been writing articles about the cartel and they took their revenge by murdering the rest of the family.

But the critics point out that she's not black, not Mexican, not a migrant, and not involved with the drug trade, so she shouldn't have written the book. She should have left it to those with direct experience of the subject matter.

What that implies though is that nobody should write about anything other than their personal experience, and anything merely imagined or fantasised is off-limits. This would obliterate whole swathes of fiction and leave us only with autobiography (even biography would be impossible, as it's not written by the person concerned).

Authors like Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie and Aminatta Forna have rushed to Jeanine Cummins' defence, saying that the whole point of fiction is to imagine things you haven't personally experienced, especially things that nobody has even thought about before.

If the critics are so concerned about the authenticity of American Dirt, why don't they write their own novels on the same theme instead of trying to demolish hers?

Yes, it's obviously cultural appropriation if you're blatantly ripping off someone else's culture for your own personal gain. But if all you're doing is imagining other people's experiences, where's the harm? You may even be drawing attention to scandalous situations that need to be remedied.

The keyboard warriors should find some more deserving targets.

PS: A scheduled author tour has been cancelled due to serious concerns about the author's safety.

Pic: Jeanine Cummins

Monday 10 February 2020

Trust eroded

It seems the police are increasingly not pursuing so-called petty crimes like burglary, theft and minor assault. And the police watchdog, the Inspector of Constabulary, says this is corroding the public's trust in the police.

As a result, the public are often not reporting such crimes, assuming nothing much will be done about them.

Well, to be fair to the police, what do people honestly expect? Do they really think the police can solve every crime that comes their way? Do they really think all that's needed is a bit of hard graft and shrewd detective work?

Are they serious? If a random stranger has picked your house to burgle or your car to break into, how the heck do you identify that random stranger? Unless they've left something incriminating behind them, like their wallet or a shop receipt, where on earth do the police start looking?

If nobody has actually seen the burglar or car thief, there's not even a photo or description to go by. So you're looking for a needle in a haystack.

I'm sure the victim would love to see the offender getting his just desserts in a courtroom, but let's face it, it's unlikely.

It makes perfect sense to me that the police prioritise really serious crimes like domestic violence or fraud or arson. Anyone worried about being burgled should take out adequate insurance to cover the possibility. And get decent locks on all their doors and windows.

Luckily Jenny and I have seldom been crime victims. We've never been burgled and we've only experienced car thefts twice. And I was mugged once. We never expected the police to find the culprits. We just put it down to bad luck and moved on.

Maybe Dixon of Dock Green* was able to magically nab the villains. But that wasn't real-life, it was TV make-believe.

*Long-running police TV series from 1955 to 1976.

Thursday 6 February 2020

New-look zoo

I hate the idea of animals being stuck in tiny cages and enclosures instead of roaming freely in the wild. So I'm pleased by the new proposal to convert Belfast Zoo from a tourist attraction to a conservation centre, with many of the existing animals released into the wild or more natural surroundings.

The proposal has been presented to Belfast Council, with some councillors in favour and others opposed. And of course the zoo staff and their union are worried about possible job losses if the zoo is slimmed down.

But it can't be right that all those majestic animals, which normally have miles and miles of open space as their daily habitat, are cooped up in small enclosures where all they can do is prowl aimlessly round and round.

It may be all right for small animals like meerkats and prairie dogs, which have plenty of space to run around in, or fish in massive tanks, but the larger animals must be thoroughly miserable in their cramped quarters. It's a known fact that elephants for example die much earlier in zoos than elephants in the wild.

The plan's critics say some animals simply couldn't be returned to the wild. Barbary lions are now extinct. Other animals used to captivity wouldn't survive a natural habitat full of predators or polluted with pesticides.

They say it's important for children to see as many animals as possible in the flesh, that seeing animals on the internet or on TV just isn't the same.

Presumably the zoo would retain those Northern Irish animals in danger of extinction, such as the barn owl, the red squirrel, and the Irish black honeybee.

Jenny and I have been to the zoo a few times, and we love watching all the animals we never normally encounter, but it can't be right that most of them are there simply to entertain us or feed our curiosity.

They deserve better than that.

Pic: meerkats at Belfast Zoo

Sunday 2 February 2020

Viral panic

It's horribly predictable that the coronavirus epidemic has led to an increase in hostile attitudes towards the British-Chinese. It doesn't take much for hidden prejudice to emerge when a suitable target appears. All these incidents have been reported in London:
  • A man with a Chinese appearance at Gatwick, who hasn't been to China in two years, was told by a nearby couple "They should wear their masks"
  • A woman was asked persistently if she had ever eaten bat soup
  • A woman noticed other train passengers moving away from her
  • Restaurants in Chinatown have seen a big decline in customers
The risk of catching the coronavirus is infinitesimal; only two people have definitely got it in the whole of the UK. There's a far bigger risk of dying from the flu. An average of 600 people a year in the UK die from flu complications, and in 2008-2009 there were over 13,000 flu deaths. But people are panicking and imagining that simply sitting next to a Chinese person puts them in mortal danger - even if they're British citizens and have never been to China.

There are around 10,000 British-Chinese in Northern Ireland, but oddly enough the local papers haven't asked them if the coronavirus has led to abusive encounters. Since Northern Ireland is over 90 per cent white, racist attitudes are not uncommon, and if London is anything to go by, it's highly likely they've increased in recent weeks.

We're friendly with a Northern Irish man and British-Chinese woman who live a few doors down, but I haven't yet had a chance to ask her if the coronavirus has caused any negative remarks. Hopefully not as this area is heavily middle-class and presumably more tolerant than elsewhere.

But irrational prejudice pops up in the most unlikely places.

Pic: An almost deserted Chinatown in London.