Sunday 29 March 2020

Still posh

I've always found regional accents fascinating and rather charming, as long as they aren't so thick as to be indeciph-erable (Glaswegian for example). But there's a lot of prejudice against certain accents. My mum hated the cockney accent, which she saw as ugly and grating.

I love the Liverpudlian accent, also the Australian and Irish accents. Apart from anything else, they make a nice change from the posh English accent, which is still the one you hear most in movies and on TV.

People read all sorts of things into accents. Whether someone is trustworthy, whether they behave well or badly, whether they're acceptably British or not, whether they're employable or not.

And those prejudices change from one year to the next. Regional British accents used to be seen as off-putting and quaint, but now they're often sought after because many people find them warmer and friendlier than posh English, which can come across as cold and arrogant.

My own accent is still posh English, despite being in Northern Ireland for twenty years. It can be hard to shed a well-established accent even if everyone around you has a different one. People who speak English as a second language quite often still have the accent of their original language, however much they try to lose it.

I find it rather ridiculous when politicians try to boost their popularity by erasing their posh English delivery and putting on a more proletarian accent. Those folk with the genuine article must find such antics absurdly unconvincing.

Oo do they fink they're fooling, guv?

Pic: Cockney money slang. Godivas, fivers; monkeys, £500; ponies, £25; edges, 50p; carpets, £30.

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Who knows best?

Goodness, how attitudes to authority have changed in my lifetime. If my ten-year-old self had been told how dramatic-ally respect for "authority" would drain away in the next few decades, he would have been gob-smacked.

When I was young, we habitually deferred to authority figures of whatever kind. Be they government ministers, civil servants, police officers, teachers or parents, we invariably did what they told us to do because "they knew best" and "they were in charge". The idea of seriously rebelling against them, of routinely challenging their wisdom, was pretty unthinkable.

That all changed in the sixties when young people everywhere finally decided authority figures didn't necessarily know best and started questioning just about everything they said. They railed against the rigid ideas of "the establishment" and "the system" and demanded wholesale changes.

The authority figures didn't know what had hit them. They had to adjust rapidly as their ideas and assumptions were torn to bits by bolshy teenagers and uppity undergrads attacking homophobia, sexism, racism, apartheid and any number of other isms and entrenched beliefs.

The rebellious trend continued apace until now hardly any authority figure can open their mouth without someone shouting "bollocks" or doubting their expertise and credibility. They struggle to convince people they actually have something worthwhile to say.

The Brexit campaigners took this trend to its ultimate extreme, declaring that "experts" weren't to be trusted and that the opinion of the person in the street was as valid as so-called expert opinion. If Joanna Somebody thought Brexit would be a fantastic success, wasn't that good enough?

And then suddenly the coronavirus epidemic arrived, and all at once people were listening to the experts again - even the Prime Minister. Only the medical specialists knew all about the virus and what measures were needed to combat it. A dramatic about-turn by the know-it-all politicians and pundits.

After the epidemic is over, will experts once again be trusted? Only time will tell.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Four legged friends

So we're all looking for something to distract us from the never-ending coronavirus coverage. Something amusing, something quirky, something intriguing. And something to break the monotony of self-isolation. I have the answer - all those things you never knew about cats.
  • Cats spend 70 per cent of their lives sleeping, around 13-16 hours a day.
  • Stubbs the cat was mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, from July 1997 till his death in July 2017. Stubbs was flooded with cards and letters, and drew 30 to 40 tourists a day hoping to meet the mayor.
  • The world's longest cat was a Maine coon called Stewie, measuring 48.5 inches. The tallest cat is Arcturus, a Savannah cat from Southfield, Michigan, measuring 19.05 inches.
  • A house cat can reach speeds of up to 30 mph.
  • The oldest ever cat was Creme Puff, who was 38 years and 3 days when he died in August 2005 in Austin, Texas.
  • The record for the loudest purr by a domestic cat is held by Merlin, a black and white cat from Torquay, Devon. His purr is 67.8 decibels, nearly the same volume as a shower! Most cats purr at around 25 decibels.
  • Unlike humans, cats can't detect sweetness.
  • Cats only use their meows to talk to humans, not each other.
  • The average cat can jump eight feet in a single bound, nearly six times its body length.
  • A cat's sense of smell is 14 times better than a human's.
  • Cats only sweat through their paws and nowhere else on their body.
  • A group of cats is called a clowder.
  • A cat can rotate its ears 180 degrees - with the help of 32 ear muscles.
  • A cat's nose is as unique as a human's fingerprint.
  • A cat's heart beat is almost double that of humans, from 110 to 140 beats a minute.
  • A male cat's left paw is typically its dominant paw, while female cats are usually right-pawed.
  • Cats can spend up to a third of their waking hours grooming.
  • Cats will refuse an unpalatable food to the point of starvation.
  • Female cats can get pregnant when they are only four months old.
  • Grapes, raisins, onions, garlic and chives are extremely harmful to cats.
So you see, for three whole minutes you didn't think of the virus. Don't you feel better for it? Of course you do. Next up: all those things you never knew about toilet rolls.

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Give us a kiss

There's still a widespread dislike of public displays of affection. "That sort of thing" should take place in private and well away from curious bystanders. Your passionate kissing and canoodling is an unwanted distraction to those around you.

That's certainly the attitude here in Belfast. It's very unusual to see a couple kissing, holding hands, embracing or just stroking each other fondly. If they're greeting each other, or saying farewell, they might hug or kiss, but in general such behaviour in public is strictly taboo.

Some people would go so far as to say they find such displays "disgusting" or "vulgar", while others just find them embarrassing or theatrical.

Personally I'm not bothered by public affection, as long it doesn't descend into anything overtly sexual. I like to see people showing their love for each other. It's especially nice to see older couples holding hands or kissing. And it's equally nice to see young couples in the first flush of romance and enjoying each other's bodies. Why shouldn't they?

Of course it's mainly heterosexual couples who indulge in such public affection. Despite more relaxed attitudes to sexual preferences, gay couples still aren't free to express their feelings so visibly in case of hostile reactions. It's quite a surprise when I see a couple of women or a couple of men holding hands or kissing. It's still a brave thing to do.

When I was growing up, it was generally understood that the back row of the cinema was reserved for amorous couples, exploring each other as enthusiastically as they liked. I'm not sure if that tradition still holds but certainly there's no sign of it at our local cinemas. Patrons of the Queens Film Theatre are far too genteel to favour "that sort of thing".

I like shows of affection. Much better than shows of hatred.

PS: Jenny points out that a woman might feel uncomfortable about a public embrace, but is loath to make a fuss in the midst of a busy street.

PPS: The coronavirus has put rather a dampener on any kind of intimacy for the time being....

Friday 13 March 2020

Dodgy doors

I bet you've never given a second thought to revolving doors. You enter, you exit, and that's that. They're of no more interest than a lamppost.

I hadn't thought about them myself until Wednesday, when I went through a revolving door and collided with a glass panel next to the door. Luckily I didn't break anything but my nose was bleeding profusely for several minutes.

When I googled "revolving door injuries", I found they were quite common. People have had broken noses, broken teeth, hip fractures, skull and brain injuries. So I got off lightly with my bleeding nose.

Then I got to wondering, what's the point of revolving doors anyway? Why not just have an ordinary door or an automatic sliding door? Supposedly, revolving doors speed up exit and entry, and reduce heat loss from the building. But does that justify any possible injuries? I think not.

It's interesting that a 2006 study found that only 20 to 30 per cent of people use revolving doors when given the option. I have to wonder why so many people avoid them. I suppose they might be afraid of injuring themselves or getting trapped in them. They might be too heavy to push, or the compartments might be claustrophobically narrow.

Of course you could say the accident was probably my own fault for not looking where I was going. That's as may be, but I don't want to risk another injury - possibly a worse one. I shall now keep well away from revolving doors and use ordinary doors instead. I haven't bashed my nose on one yet.

PS: I was lucky Jenny was with me and she happened to have a plaster to stem the bleeding.

PPS: Both revolving doors and ordinary doors are a coronavirus hazard, since they have to be pushed and hundreds of people have touched the same door. Automatic sliding doors are preferable as you don't have to touch them.

Monday 9 March 2020

Cruising for a bruising

Jenny and I were never much interested in cruising. Being cooped up on a boat with thousands of other people, with maybe only fleeting visits to the various cities en route, isn't our cup of tea.

We may have had a lucky escape. Now there are three cruise ships in lockdown over a mass of coronavirus cases (one in Yokohama, Japan, one in Oakland, California, and one in Luxor, Egypt) cruising looks distinctly risky right now. Passengers on other cruise ships must fear they too will catch the virus before they get back home. Then they'll have to go through the same ordeal of being in quarantine and possibly having to change their onward travel arrangements.

The chance of catching the virus is increased by the fact that the air conditioning on a cruise ship is constantly recirculating the air and helping to transmit the virus to previously healthy passengers.

A lot of people are so worried about any kind of travel, in case they pick up the virus while travelling, that the hospitality industry has been badly hit. Hotels, restaurants and airlines have seen such a huge slump in bookings that they're facing big financial losses.

Personally I don't think travelling is any more risky than going into a crowded supermarket or a crowded cinema. The chance of catching the virus from a random stranger is surely very remote. Jenny and I are still planning to visit Vienna in early summer, which seems sensible enough given that Vienna has so far only had 50 confirmed cases (most of them recovered and no longer infectious) in a population of nearly two million.

My attitude is, either I catch the virus or I don't. There's no point in worrying myself to death over it.

Pic: The Diamond Princess, now docked in Oakland

Thursday 5 March 2020

Private agonies

When I was young I used to think that although a few people were psychologically screwed-up and overwhelmed by life, most of us were healthy, well-adjusted individuals who found life easy to deal with.

It's only now, with a lifetime's experience behind me, that I realise that actually the vast majority of people are in some way psychologically damaged and find life an endless struggle. Very few people are lucky enough to have got through life without traumatic or calamitous experiences of some kind, experiences that often leave life-long mental and emotional scars.

Just scratch the surface of someone's seemingly calm exterior and you can open quite a can of worms. It could be something as simple as persistent self-loathing or as complicated as a heap of paranoid delusions. We're all hiding some inner demon we'd rather not display or talk about, and pretending we're as normal as apple pie.

It's good that more and more people are finding the courage to break the silence and reveal their personal agonies. Celebrities in particular are confessing to their eating disorders, acute anxiety, crippling depression or secret fears. And that encourages the rest of us to be equally candid.

I think my father had a bucket-full of inner demons but he never talked about them. He felt he had to be the tough, resilient, dependable head of the household and must never show vulnerability or weakness. We might have had a closer relationship if he'd been able to expose himself more.

I've blogged in the past about my many neuroses and hang-ups due to my dysfunctional parenting, boarding school bullying etc etc. I've managed to have a fulfilling life despite all the inner snarl-ups, and I feel better for revealing so much private turmoil. Bottling it all up is dangerous - sooner or later something has to give and it won't be pretty.

As the old saying goes, Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.

Sunday 1 March 2020

Tangled hair

Why shouldn't women (or men for that matter) colour their hair any way they want? If they fancy being pink, purple, red, yellow, blue or green, why not? Doesn't it make life more interesting, more fun?

You and I may think that, but for many people apparently it's more bewildering than interesting. An unusual hair colour conjures up all sorts of weird stereotypes about the person concerned.

If they don't instantly suspect you're a druggie, a prostitute or a nutcase, they'll decide you're a wild unreliable party girl, or your boss will say you look too unprofessional for a public-facing role.

There are still plenty of prejudices around hair. Ginger hair can attract snarky remarks. Afro hair styles are frowned on by many employers. Grey hair can make a woman "too old for the job".

Length itself is still an issue. Women are expected to have long hair, men short hair. Even schoolboys have been excluded from school for having over-long hair. I had long hair once in my John Lennon phase, but I've had short hair ever since - a lot more manageable.

And of course there's baldness. Perfectly okay for men (though a lot of men hate being bald and would rather not be). But not okay for women. If you have cancer, then baldness is acceptable. Otherwise it's shocking and ugly and surely you should be wearing a wig.

It's extraordinary that a simple thing like human hair should be subject to such a complicated tangle of prejudice and disapproval and false assumptions. But then the whole human body is subject to just that. Accepting it for what it is seems to be a non-starter.

I guess the only people who can get away with any old hairstyle are celebrities like rock musicians, hospital patients and prisoners. Anyone else had better tread carefully.

PS: A wonderful quote I just came across: "Humans have a big cluster of dead keratin tendrils growing from our heads and we arrange them in different configurations and worry about whether other people find our keratin tendril arrangements aesthetically pleasing."