Sunday 28 June 2020

Family of strangers

Sometimes I wonder what it's like to have a "normal" family. Or at least how I picture a normal family, if such a thing exists. The sort of family that's endlessly paraded in the media and TV adverts.

You know, the kind of family where they all get on with each other (more or less), where there's lots of physical affection, where they have frequent gatherings to celebrate things like Christmas and birthdays, where they defend each other to the hilt.

My family isn't remotely like that. The polar opposite in fact. It would be hard to find a family more dysfunctional, more like a bunch of strangers forced to mingle with each other than a family.

My father and I were estranged for a good twenty years. It seems I was too unconventional for his tastes, so he broke off communication. My sister and I have been estranged for even longer. I suspect she dislikes my political views but there must be more to it than that.

My brother in law and niece are equally non-communicative. We were in close touch for a few months while my mum's probate was sorted out, but then everything went quiet again.

My mum always kept in touch, but we were never that close because like my father she never understood my aberrant personality. Even my vegetarianism defeated her. To her dying day, she was sure I was really a meat-eater.

So I imagine that strange phenomenon, a normal family. A tightly-knit group of buddies rooting for each other and enjoying everyone's odd tastes and opinions.

My mental template of a normal family is the time I visited a Jewish family in Bournemouth. The interaction between them was extraordinary. They were all speaking at once, arguing passionately, sparking each other off. They plainly got on like a house on fire.

A far cry from my own peculiar family.

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Bigger and better

I don't have a competitive bone in my body. Truthfully, I don't. I have no interest in proving I'm superior to someone else, or proving them wrong, or proving I'm more popular than they are. I tread my own path in life, and I really don't care if that makes me better or worse than other people.

My natural tendency is to withdraw from competitive situations and let other people (usually male) slug it out to the bitter end. I just watch the manoeuvrings with a detached amusement, with no desire whatever to join in.

When I was working, I never competed with my workmates to get promotion or a higher salary or some prestigious assignment, simply to trounce someone else. I wasn't looking for grand job titles, impressive offices or company cars. I just did my job and enjoyed it.

In just about every political meeting I've been to, there have been a bunch of males yakking away, out to prove they're right and the rest of us are sadly mistaken. I never take part. I'm happy to have opinions without them having to be publicly applauded.

I've never sought the grandest house, the flashiest car, the fattest salary, the most glamorous wife, or any of those clichéd status symbols that other people run after, just to dazzle their friends and neighbours. I was quite happy with my 16 year old Clio, which got me reliably from A to B.

I remember one day at boarding school when I was competing in a long distance running race. About half way through I was trailing badly behind the leaders. I could have either forced myself into a winning spurt, or admitted defeat and dropped out. I dropped out, and never regretted it.

Apart from anything else, competing endlessly with other people must be exhausting. I prefer a more leisurely existence. I've no need to drink someone else under the table, just to prove something or other.

Saturday 20 June 2020


One thing I've learnt at my advanced age is that there's always a downside to everything. Always. No matter how wonderful something seems to be, sooner or later the shine will wear off. Assuming that from the start will save a lot of bitter disappointment, or at least keep you prepared for it.

When you're young, you dream of the perfect house, the perfect neighbourhood, the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect life. None of them exist but you're quite sure you can achieve them if you just go about it the right way.

It's only after many decades of experience, many decades of being constantly tripped up by reality, that you realise perfection is unobtainable. If you can achieve about 75 per cent of your ambitions, you're doing well.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mean you should be a grim-faced pessimist always putting a dampener on everything. The trick is to be aware of the potential downside, and be ready for it, while enjoying the upside to the full while you're lucky enough to have been given it. Be as optimistic as you like, but without kidding yourself about the realities of life.

At my age I know a thing or two. However happy a marriage, there are always violent rows and disagreements from time to time. However splendid a house, it still has a leaking roof and dodgy plumbing. However satisfying a job, you still have to work with idlers and bunglers. However desirable a neighbourhood, there are still derelict houses and rowdy teenagers.

So I no longer see life through the rose-tinted spectacles I often wore as a child, but that means I'm also less prone to the constant cycle of high hopes and tearful disappointments I used to experience. I see life as it is, not as I imagine it to be. Or so I kid myself.

Monday 15 June 2020


I wish people wouldn't use the word hero so casually, not just for those who've done something genuinely heroic and life-threatening but for anyone who's done something a little bit daring.

Firefighters rescuing someone from a burning building, or a person fighting back against an armed mugger, yes, that's genuinely heroic, but someone who brings down a cat stuck up a tree - no, that's not heroic, that's just helpful.

Patrick Hutchinson, a black man who carried another man to safety at a far-right protest rally in London on Saturday, has been described by the media as a hero. Well no, not really, because he was shielded by his friends as he did his "heroic" act.

Likewise all those health workers who've been hailed as "heroic" for months. Most of them dislike the word and say they're just doing their job, treating illness and saving lives just as they did before the virus outbreak.

Likewise people delivering food to the housebound are described as heroes, when all they're doing is looking after the vulnerable and making sure people don't starve. That's not heroism, simply altruism and kindness.

The word heroism is always applied to something physical, but to my mind it can also mean something mental or emotional.

Someone who overcomes crippling fear and self-doubt to make a big change in their life they've always shied away from - that's heroic. Or someone who overcomes the memory of a horrific sexual assault to start dating again. Or those who're always true to themselves despite others trying to push them along a different path.

Like Professor Gail Dines, the American anti-porn campaigner, who has been heavily criticised by other academics but carries on regardless.

And then of course there's refusing a second slice of chocolate cake or a second helping of ice cream - how heroic is that?

Thursday 11 June 2020

Mitchel must go

Good to see that along with the protests over George Floyd's death, there's a rising focus on slavery and demands that statues of famous slave traders should be removed.

As well as the recently toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, the statue of Robert Milligan has been removed in London's docklands. Now I discover there are calls for removal of a statue of slave trader John Mitchel in Newry in Northern Ireland. He lived in Newry for most of his life.

Queens University student Patrick Hughes and the former head of Anti-Slavery International, Aidan McQuade, are demanding the removal of the statue. They also want John Mitchel Place to be renamed.

John Mitchel (1815-1875) was a contradictory character. Although he was an Irish revolutionary famous for his paper The United Irishman, he was also fiercely racist. He supported enforced slavery and white supremacy and wanted to resume the transatlantic slave trade that was abolished in 1807.

Aidan McQuade first wrote to the local council about the statue in 2007. The council still refuses to remove it on the grounds that "19th century figures can't be held to 21st century views".

But he points out that there were radical abolitionists in the mid 19th century who found Mitchel's views repulsive at the time.

He thinks a more informative plaque isn't enough. The statue should be moved to a museum and set in an explanatory anti-slavery context.

The council has now decided that an Equality and Good Relations Forum later in June will discuss the matter.

I know there's an ongoing debate about whether such statues should be disposed of or left as relics of an earlier time, maybe with updated plaques. Personally I think statues of public figures are totally unnecessary and I'm happy to see controversial ones pulled down. Why should a statue that offends hundreds of local people stay put?

Pic: Patrick Hughes and the statue

PS: The University of Liverpool is to rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone due to his support of slavery

Sunday 7 June 2020

Not grumpy

I've always been determined not to become a grumpy old man. There are far too many of them already, moaning non-stop about one disappoint-ing aspect of modern life after another. I'm determined to be optimistic and cheerful and enjoying whatever life offers me. A few years ago I made these promises to myself:

Not to moan and groan.
Not to become an old miseryguts.
Not to let the world's problems get me down.
Not to make mountains out of molehills.
Not to turn petty irritations into cause célèbres.
Not to complain about my bodily deficiencies.
Not to denigrate other people's lives.
Not to tell other people what to do.*
Not to rant and rave.
Not to demonise young people.
Not to be cynical.
Not to be paranoid.
Not to see the worst in people.
Not to be nostalgic.
Not to think everything was better in the old days.
Not to think I know best.
Not to think life's conspiring against me.
Not to be offended by bad manners.
Not to be offended.
Not to over-react.

I think I've kept to them pretty well (though some of you lot may think differently). I'm constantly amazed at the way other people turn minor upsets into huge grievances, and how they manage to find a negative slant on just about everything. The lunatics are running the asylum, the world's going to hell in a handcart, people only care about themselves and so on.

I wouldn't want to be remembered as the grumpy old codger everyone's glad to see the last of because he was utterly depressing. I want to be remembered as that sweet old guy who always had a friendly greeting and lifted other people's spirits. And only needed a chorus of birdsong to feel as happy as Larry.

*except for politicians and bankers, obviously.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Not guilty

I never feel guilty. It's one of those "normal" emotions we're all supposed to feel from time to time, cringing in embarrass-ment because of something we did or didn't do. But I don't even know what it feels like. Are there others like me or am I some sort of weirdo?

When I was growing up, other people were always saying they felt guilty about this or that. So I assumed guilt was something I would mature into, something that would suddenly sprout one day. Except that it didn't.

I'm glad I don't feel guilty about anything, because it's a very destructive emotion. It means you brood and fixate over something rather than just recognising your mistake and putting it right. It eats away at your self-confidence and buoyancy.

It must be dreadful if you're someone who feels guilty about every five minutes. Like Devorah Baum:

"I feel guilty about everything. Already today I've felt guilty about having said the wrong thing to a friend. Then I felt guilty about avoiding that friend because of the wrong thing I said. Plus, I haven't called my mother yet today: guilty. And I really should have organised something special for my husband's birthday: guilty. I gave the wrong kind of food to my child: guilty. I've been cutting corners at work lately: guilty. I skipped breakfast: guilty. I snacked instead: double guilty. I'm taking up all this space in a world with not enough space in it: guilty, guilty, guilty."

How could you get through the day without collapsing in a paralytic heap?

I don't need to feel guilty (so I don't feel guilty about not feeling guilty). I'm sensitive enough and aware enough to know if I've screwed up, if I've been rude to someone, or said something I shouldn't. I don't need guilt to tell me I should do whatever is needed to smooth things over.

The guilt gene clearly passed me by.