Saturday 30 May 2020

Getting it in the neck

The UK news coverage is still overwhelm-ingly virus updates, with little "ordinary" news emerging. Even floods, droughts, famines and earthquakes are barely mentioned. Other countries exist only as examples of how well or badly they're controlling the virus.

But one event that's getting massive coverage is the apparent murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck. Chauvin has since been sacked and charged with murder and manslaughter.

The death has led to four nights of clashes between police and protesters, buildings being burnt, including Minneapolis police station, deployment of the National Guard, four Californian freeways shut down, and violent protests in numerous cities.

As we all know, such brutal police tactics, especially against black people, are nothing new. But the authorities are incapable of stopping the brutality, which goes on year after year. And it's not the first time Chauvin has been in trouble; he has had 17 complaints against him during his 19-year service.

One reason I'm interested in this story is that I've seen some heavy-handed police behaviour myself. Over the years I've been to dozens of rallies and protests and some of them got pretty nasty. I especially remember a rally against the far-right National Front, where there were some very ugly battles between police and demonstrators, and I fled, frightened for my own safety.

Another reason is that usually the police and the authorities concoct some fictitious version of what happened, and make out the victim was committing a crime, provoking the police, appeared to have a weapon, or was resisting arrest. In this case he allegedly offered a fake $20 note at a convenience store. However the shop's owner said "most of the times when patrons give us a counterfeit bill they don't even know it's fake."

It's certainly a riveting diversion from virus this and virus that. But it's an utter tragedy it centres on a totally pointless death.

PS: I wrote "apparent murder" before the two autopsies that concluded it was homicide.

Pic: George Floyd

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Cool cookie?

Am I a cold fish or a cool cookie? I ask myself this a lot and usually decide I'm a cool cookie. The reason I ask this question is because I'm aware that while other people are constantly overcome with rage or jealousy or hostility or 101 other reactions, I seldom get as emotional and I wonder why they're so worked up.

I do get emotional, just not so frequently or so intensely. I can feel sad, or annoyed, or disappointed, or rejected, like anyone else. But I don't get in a boiling rage because the bus is five minutes late. I don't burn with hatred against someone who jumped the queue. I don't burst into tears because I broke my favourite mug.

There are lots of things I enjoy, but I don't jump up and down with excitement or hug everyone in sight or scream with delight.

But I wonder if such low-key emotion means I'm a cold fish - that I'm somehow a bit cut off from what's going on around me and don't have the normal responses other people have.

Or does it just mean I'm more philosophical, more phlegmatic, more able to take things in my stride and not get too thrown by everyday setbacks and accidents?

Naturally I go for the latter. Who wants to be known as a cold fish?

A real cold fish is surely very different - someone who shows no visible distress or horror or fragility even after something devastating like their house burning down or a terrible car crash or a dreadful medical diagnosis.

But I wonder if the more emotional types are living their lives more fully than I am, experiencing things more deeply and more vividly. Are they living at full throttle while I'm stuck in low gear?

It's a dilemma that no doubt I'll carry to my grave.

Friday 22 May 2020

In the shadows

A funny thing, popularity. Why are some people apparently effortlessly popular, always the centre of attention with everyone gravitating towards them, while others are left on the sidelines and largely overlooked?

I've never been popular. I haven't ever been the centre of attention and never wanted to be. I'm perfectly happy lurking in the shadows. I may be likable, considerate, amusing, pleasant to be with etc etc, but that's never made me one of those sought-after individuals. In school football games, I was invariably the last one to be chosen for a team. I would be invited to parties to make up numbers rather than for my glittering personality.

Sometimes it's obvious why someone is popular. They're handsome, or pretty, or super-smart, or adventurous, or cheeky, or sporting champions. Sometimes it's a bit of a mystery. They just have some sort of charisma or flair that attracts others. Or they're simply larger than life, bursting with energy and vigour.

Some of the most popular people are also total scoundrels, but they're popular because there's often sneaking admiration for scoundrels. And some impeccably-behaved people aren't popular at all, being seen as colourless goody-goodies.

But I'm baffled as to why certain politicians, for instance, are hugely popular even though they're clearly spivs and crooks of the first order. They emanate some quality that wins people over, despite their vices.

I've never attempted to be more popular, even in my schooldays when being popular was seen as something highly desirable. I knew it was a trait you either had or didn't have. It couldn't be faked or simulated. I did't fret about what I might be lacking, I just got on with my life.

Quietly lurking in the shadows.

Thanks to Ramana for the idea.

Monday 18 May 2020

Absolute essentials

My parents weren't much good at teaching me how to think, how to have my own opinions, how to be sociable, or how to express my emotions. But they did teach me some of the absolute essentials:
  • To wear clean knickers in case I'm in a car crash and have to go to hospital
  • To check there are no bits of spinach stuck in my teeth
  • Not to talk with my mouth full
  • Not to put my elbows on the table when I'm eating
  • Not to gulp down my food but chew it thoroughly
  • Not to leave anything on my plate ("Some people are starving")
  • To say "I beg your pardon" rather than "What?"
  • To say "Thank you" rather than "Ta" (or the more recent "Cheers")
  • Not to talk to strange men with a funny look in their eyes
  • Not to write silly comments inside books
  • Not to cheek my elders and betters (well, it was the 1950s)
  • Not to swear but moderate my language
  • Not to make weird facial expressions ("You'll get stuck like that")
  • To look left, right and left again before crossing the road
  • Not to leave my shoelaces undone or I might trip over them
Needless to say, most of those went by the board as soon as I left home and escaped the clutches of my fastidious parents (though to be fair most other parents probably had similar strictures). Not all of them however. I don't talk to strange men with a funny look in their eyes (especially if they're politicians). But I still make weird facial expressions (especially if I'm listening to politicians). I still gulp down my food as if I haven't eaten for a month. And I still talk with my mouth full - I'm afraid that by the time my mouth is empty I'll have forgotten what I was going to say.

And I can't guarantee to be wearing clean knickers at all times.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Past and gone

Some people seem to be in love with the past. They look back nostalgically at some supposed "golden age", they wish they could be twenty again, they dwell on blissful memories from fifty years ago, they keep countless momentos of their childhood.

I'm not like that at all. I'm more than happy to leave the past behind and move on into the future. Not because the past was terrible or embarrassing or difficult (though it was just that often enough), but simply because it's all over and done with whereas the future is full of novel and exciting possibilities.

I don't believe in any "golden age". All golden ages had plenty of horrors and calamities along with the delights. I don't want to be twenty again. Life was tough at that age, full of disappointments born of inexperience and naivety. And I suspect most of my blissful memories are by now wild exaggerations that bear little resemblance to the long-gone reality.

No, I much prefer to relish the present and wait expectantly for whatever surprises the future has in store. Even the virus lockdown, frustrating as it is, in a way is exciting precisely because we have little idea of what's going to happen next. The past is all settled, frozen in aspic, while the future is still evolving and mutating.

I possess very few reminders of the past, at least prior to Jenny's appearance. I have only one photo of me and my sister at a tender age, and one or two photos of my parents and grandparents. I haven't kept anything from my schooldays - uniforms or reports or prizes. I don't have any old letters or diaries or notes to the milkman. I have far more memories than tangible momentos.

For me the past is all water under the bridge. But I'm always eager to know what tomorrow will bring.

Saturday 9 May 2020

Always a journo

Kylie reckons I'm "ever in journalist mode". Which is surely an awful thing to be, but she might be right. After all, I spent six years as a journalist, so some of the journalist culture must have rubbed off on me, like it or not.

Jenny thinks there's still a bit of the journalist in me. I like inventing spoof tabloid headlines ("Refund joy for tearful Belfast couple"), and I do tend to over-react to a dramatic piece of news.

But despite the residual journalistic quirks, I'm still very critical of journalism and the way it distorts, trivialises and sensationalises important issues. I've never regretted leaving journalism for bookselling, even though many people thought I was crazy.

Apart from anything else, journalism nowadays is hard work. Long hours, low salaries, unpaid internships, constant redundancies. It's a far cry from the well-paid, leisurely, drunken activity it was in the sixties.

But I've never properly explained why I left journalism. Just a few of the reasons:
  • So often it never gets to the heart of an issue. It trots out a few basic facts and seldom digs deeper or asks awkward questions.
  • It spreads rumours and gossip about celebrities and public figures, much of it malicious and untrue.
  • It encourages prejudice of all kinds - racism, sexism, xenophobia, hatred of welfare "scroungers" etc.
  • It turns minor incidents into huge controversies (famous actress has wardrobe malfunction)
  • It's hypocritical. For example, it laments climate breakdown, but welcomes consumerism and long-distance travel.
  • It runs with every fad and fashion, however absurd or irresponsible or pointless.
In the end I just felt uncomfortable as a journalist. There were so many dubious practices I simply couldn't buy into. Bookselling by comparison suited me down to the ground. All I had to do was sell interesting books to interesting people. Nothing uncomfortable there. It kept me happy for 23 highly enjoyable years.

But I still admire a clever tabloid headline.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Skill shortage

Goodness, life is full of surprises. Two commenters who read my post on pretensions suggested I feel superior to other people. Well, I'm always open to such observ-ations and I always mull them over, but this one has me baffled.

If anything I feel inferior to other people. There are so many people with the edge over me in one way or another, I often feel inadequate and incompetent by comparison. Other people have all sorts of skills that leave me standing. For example:
  • They're more intelligent. They understand things quicker, they respond faster, they can follow complicated novels and TV plots.
  • They're more practical. They can do basic plumbing or electrical repairs, they can insulate the loft, even build their own house.
  • They're better informed. While I skim all those articles about neoliberalism or climate breakdown, they read them studiously and absorb all the details.
  • They have better memories. I can barely recall a conversation from yesterday, never mind what I was doing twenty years ago.
  • They're more emotionally literate. They can read other people's feelings and unspoken reactions, while I often miss them.
  • They have better social skills. They find it easier to organise social gatherings, talk to other people, and smooth over awkward moments.
  • They're more adventurous. They backpack around the world, start businesses, move to remote islands, run mega-marathons.
  • They can play musical instruments. Often several instruments. And they've spent many arduous years learning to play them.
  • They appreciate opera and classical music. I've tried hard to share their enthusiasm but I'm just not on the same wavelength.
  • They can write novels. Often very long novels. I tried to write a novel once but got writer's block after 100 pages. And it was a crappy novel.
I've probably left out many other things, but that's plenty. Far from feeling superior, I feel like a very ordinary, very untalented, not especially bright human being. There's not much to feel superior about.

Friday 1 May 2020

A delicious merlot

Being a fairly straight-forward person (I hope), I can sniff out pretentious-ness in a split second, as can (and could) the rest of my family. So I'm fond of describing other people as pretentious.

But what exactly does pretentious mean? I would say any or all of the following:
  • Name dropping ("As Ian McEwan once said to Zadie Smith....")
  • Claiming to know all about some obscure topic ("Of course marine biology has a lot to say about coral reefs")
  • Claiming to have met lots of famous people ("As I was saying to Greta Thunberg....")
  • Posing as a connoisseur of wine ("A delicious merlot. Strong alpine notes with overtones of pampas grass")
  • Claiming to have read every significant book ("I absolutely adore Ulysses. Molly Bloom is quite unforgettable")
  • Purporting to be generally better educated, more discerning, more sophisticated ("Anyone with half a brain can see the economy is about to collapse")
  • Slavishly following the latest fashions ("My dear, bootleg jeans are so last year")
  • Maintaining that difficult, laborious novels are superior to ones that are readable and uncomplicated ("The reader should have to do a bit of work")
  • Concocting ridiculous explanations of art works ("James is interested in the interface between spatial awareness and partial enclosure")
  • Liking restaurants that offer tiny meals with strange ingredients rather than a good plateful of something with chips ("This chef is so wonderfully experimental")
  • Peppering your conversation with foreign phrases ("It was a coup de theatre, a performance sans pareil")
I think you'll have the general idea by now. So au revoir, mes amis, wishing you oodles of joie de vivre and esprit de corps. Á chacun son goût, as Pablo Picasso once said.

PS: Jean thinks I'm being pretentious myself by acting superior to people who're pretentious. Could she be right?