Monday 31 August 2020

Count me out

There are more and more people emphasising their Britishness and expecting others to do the same. But I've never felt especially British and I wonder why people have to bang on about it so much. Why is it so important?

I watch rallies where everyone is waving union jacks and shouting about how British they are. I follow the row over the Last Night of the Proms and how the typically British closing songs are being interfered with. I listen to people complaining that the country isn't really British anymore and they no longer recognise it.

Who cares? I happen to be a British citizen because I was born in England, but I have no particular attachment to Britain. If anything, I'm quite repelled by what's going on in England right now. Hatred, trolling, xenophobia, vicious denouncements of other people. Whatever happened to the British tradition of "fair play" and "sympathy for the underdog"?

I don't believe for a second that Britain is the greatest country in the world, that it does everything better than other countries. There are plenty of things Britain makes a complete mess of, most visibly its handling of the virus pandemic. There are many things Britain does that are totally shocking, like its treatment of those who are poor, homeless, disabled or mentally ill.

I may be a British citizen, but I'm well aware that other countries do a lot of things much better than us, and we would do well to pick their brains and follow their example rather than seeing the rest of the world as a bit backward.

I don't want to glorify my Britishness. I don't want to go around waving a union jack. I just want to be seen as a thoughtful, considerate human being who wants everyone to have a decent life. Isn't that enough?

PS: Just seen another example of British incompetence. Average internet speeds in the UK are among the slowest in the developed world, below Barbados, Panama and Thailand. The UK failed to make it into the top 40 countries.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

On the spectrum

It seems to me the pandemic has produced a wide spectrum of attitudes from blasé nonchal-ance on the one hand to paranoid fear on the other, with reasonable caution somewhere in between.

On the one hand there are those who think the whole pandemic is wildly exaggerated, with frenzied scare-mongering from politicians, health experts, trade unions and journalists about the number of deaths, the possibility of infection and the stupidity of those who shun even the most basic precautions.

They happily mix with jam-packed gatherings of hundreds of people, and scoff at any suggestion they're helping to spread the virus to all and sundry.

On the other hand there are those who're terrified of being infected and believe just a few seconds' exposure to someone else could see them in hospital fighting for their lives. They take every possible precaution and rage at anyone who isn't. They won't even leave the house except for a very good reason.

Photos of mass gatherings fill them with horror and they wonder why such irresponsible activities aren't being instantly closed down.

I'd say I'm somewhere in the middle. Yes, I feel more vulnerable than I used to, but I think the chance of being infected is greatly exaggerated (I haven't had the virus although it's been around for eight months or so, and I know very few people who've had it). Nevertheless it makes sense to follow all the recommended measures like wearing a mask and distancing. Why ignore all the precautions and expose myself to risk for the sake of some egocentric obsession with "personal freedom"?

One thing's for sure. The "new normal" of anti-virus measures everywhere we go will be the reality for quite a while. The free-and-easy gadding-about of 2019 is but a distant memory.

Friday 21 August 2020

Shared traits

How do you maintain a relationship (and a marriage) for nigh on 40 years without the D-word rearing its ugly head? How do you keep things sweet despite all the possible pitfalls and trip-wires? I think it helps a lot if you share a few basic behavioural traits. For instance:
  • We love each other to bits, obviously.
  • We're both neat and tidy. We put the cap back on the toothpaste, we don't leave discarded clothes on the floor, we don't leave food remnants in the sink. It must be hell if one of you is a messy slob and the other isn't.
  • We're both vegetarian and we both like similar foods. Especially Italian and Indian food.
  • We're both energetic and keep ourselves busy. We don't sprawl on the sofa all day, watching old sitcoms.
  • We're both voracious readers. If one of us never read anything but cookery books or car manuals, that would be that.
  • We're both over-thinkers, analysing everything to the nth degree - politics, news events, other people's quirks, shopping trends, you name it.
  • We both do our share of the housework. We don't (on the whole) assume such-and-such is the other person's job/ the woman's job/ the man's job.
  • We both like Scandinavian crime dramas.
  • We consult each other about everything, and never make important decisions (even choice of curtains) unilaterally.
  • We both like breakfast in bed (toast and marmalade) on Sunday mornings.
  • We don't fight over who's going to drive the car.
  • We're both minimalists with a horror of clutter. We have regular clear-outs of stuff we no longer need/ want/ use/ enjoy.
  • We're both socialists. It's hard to understand how political and ideological opposites can live together without coming to blows.
There must be other things I've forgotten, but that's fairly comprehensive. It makes me realise how lucky we were to run into each other. What are the chances of two random strangers sharing so many attitudes?

Saturday 15 August 2020

Steeped in Brooklyn

It's strange that I feel like a Brooklynite even though I'm not. I was on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge for ten minutes in 1996 and that's it. But it feels like a very familiar place to me.

It's obvious why. I've seen so many films and read so many books based in Brooklyn that I'm acquainted with a lot of Brooklyn streets and landmarks. Plus I once had a friend in Brooklyn who would tell me about her favourite local coffee shop, her walks with the dog, typical Brooklyn street scenes, how Brooklyn was coping with the Hurricane Sandy devastation in 2012, and all sorts of local details. Plus I've looked at Brooklyn on street view so I've digitally been to the Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery.

Right now I'm re-reading "Say Her Name" by Francisco Goldman, who lived with his wife Aura in Degraw Street, Brooklyn, until she died in a tragic surfing accident at the age of 30.

So you can see I'm thoroughly steeped in Brooklyn lore and culture, although I've never set foot in Williamsburg or Carroll Gardens. One day I might actually go there and and see how much of my mental image corresponds with the reality.

Because I'm getting constant reminders of Brooklyn, it seems more real to me than the neighbourhood I first lived in as a child, which is now no more than a distant and fading memory. I've never been back there since the family moved house in 1960.

I guess other people must have vivid images of places they've never been to. Images so tangible you have to remind yourself they're not the real thing.

Pic: Park Slope, Brooklyn

Tuesday 11 August 2020

I've never

I like those memes where people list all the things they've never done. They're just as interesting as all the things people have done. And they always set me wondering. Why have they never done X or Y? What stopped them? What influenced them? Anyway, just for the record, here's my own list.

I've never:
  • worn boxer shorts (they're uncomfortable)
  • had jet lag (I adjust quickly to different time zones)
  • heckled anyone (it's pointless)
  • lost my voice (I never talk for long enough)
  • gone bald (shortage of testosterone?)
  • had children (never had the urge)
  • had a nickname (can't explain that one)
  • broken a bone (I've just been lucky)
  • had a good sense of smell (roses? what roses?)
  • tried cocaine (not keen on drugs)
  • had cosmetic surgery (I'm just fine as I am, thanks)
  • been religious (it never made any sense to me)
  • voted Tory (I've always been a socialist)
  • had a tattoo (I don't need to decorate my body)
  • been to a (commercial) football match (no interest in football)
  • dreamed of being naked in a public place (or meeting the Queen)
  • been arrested (not the best way of protesting)
  • eaten oysters or caviar (they look disgusting)
  • forged someone's signature (never needed to)
  • read Ulysses or War and Peace (I don't have the stamina)
I've never forged a signature, but I've committed most petty crimes like speeding and litter-dropping and driving under the influence (well, it was 51 years ago). And of course others I'd better not publicly admit to. I've never murdered anyone, though one or two people seemed to have been actively inviting it.

Oh, and I've never chased after a wild boar that stole my laptop. While stark naked.

Thursday 6 August 2020

Taken for granted

I'm bemused by those tourists who seem to have no respect or consideration for the places they're visiting and the local people. They charge into a place, have their fun and charge out again, not caring if the residents have been inconvenienced, annoyed or generally taken for granted.

Over-tourism has been a problem for a while, but the virus pandemic has made things even worse because so many Brits have now opted for staycations rather than risking foreign holidays.

Thousands of tourists are overwhelming seaside resorts to the extent that some of the locals are scared to walk along the busiest streets or go food shopping, in case they catch the virus.

When Jenny and I go on holiday, we see ourselves as guests of the country we're in. We're respectful, considerate, unassuming. We try not to be over-demanding or impatient or arrogant. We don't want the locals to get a bad impression of our own country from the way we behave. We don't expect them to be fawning all over us, nervous we might complain or be abusive.

We leave generous tips where tips are expected. We don't hassle hotel staff in the middle of the night. We don't leave our hotel room looking like a bombsite. We don't demand huge discounts on souvenirs. We don't expect to jump queues ahead of the locals. We don't shout drunken insults at everyone. We don't moan that everything's better at home. We don't under-dress. In short, we don't behave like spoilt arseholes.

I also try to find out more about the country I'm in, rather than just trundling round the well-known tourist attractions. I want to know something about its history, its economy, its culture, whatever is distinctive about it.

Is it really that hard to behave decently?

Sunday 2 August 2020

Am I free?

If "justice" is a rather nebulous idea, then "freedom" is even more so. It's a wonderful idea, bandied about everywhere you look, something we're all meant to be seeking. But in real life can it ever be achieved?

If freedom means free of all kinds of restraint and obligation, free of all our domestic tasks, free of other people's demands, free of pretence and secrecy, then that's not possible, because we can't just wish away all the things that tie us down.

If freedom means being able to do whatever we want, that's not possible either as there are hundreds of laws telling us what we can and can't do.

I might feel free for a few blissful minutes when there's absolutely nothing to attend to, and nothing bothering me, but permanent freedom? I think not.

Even if I were wealthy enough to afford a bunch of people to look after all my daily needs and wait on me hand and foot, I still wouldn't be free. I would still be worrying about my investments, fending off begging letters, evading the paparazzi, and shooing trespassers out of my country estate.

Unless of course you mean simply the freedom to live your life the way you want to live it. With restraints and obligations, sure, but ones you welcome, ones you're happy to comply with because your life as a whole is a fulfilling one. A sort of comfortable captivity, you might say. In which case, I would say I'm extremely free.

As for that old cliché "freedom means nothing left to lose", then the ultimate freedom would be a sentence of life imprisonment. Doesn't sound much like freedom to me.