Tuesday 29 September 2020

Self righteous, moi?

Every so often someone accuses me of being smug, self-righteous or self-congratul-atory. I always ask myself if they're right, and if I'm unaware of how I come across. And I always conclude they've got me wrong.

Surely I could only be smug if I'm one of those people who's convinced everything I've achieved in life is through my own efforts, and I owe nothing to anyone else. And if other people aren't as fortunate, that's entirely due to their personal failings.

All of which is patently absurd. Because I'm acutely aware that whatever I've achieved is only very partly through my own efforts. It's mostly down to all sorts of other things I had no say in - the country I live in, my family, my education, my physical and mental health, people I ran into, sudden unexpected opportunities. And the most important factor - a lot of good luck.

I got my first bookselling job because the bookshop concerned had just sacked six employees for misconduct (being drunk in the shop) and they needed six new employees in a hurry.

Jenny and I were able to buy a large detached house because of constantly rising property prices which worked to our advantage. When we met, Jenny had one room in a shared house and I was living in a tiny bedsit.

I landed several jobs because of my good command of English - which goes back to a brilliant English teacher at my prep school.

And of course the biggest bit of luck was meeting Jenny. We've achieved so much together that we couldn't have managed on our own.

So no, I'm not smug. On the contrary, I still doubt myself in all sorts of ways and never believe I'm as intelligent and capable as others seem to think. I always feel as if I'm fumbling my way through life and could come a cropper at any moment.

Good luck isn't guaranteed.

Friday 25 September 2020

Body blow

I should be used to it by now, but I'm always surprised by how many people dislike their body image and how few are happy with the way they look. Apparently the lockdown made many people even more critical of their physical appearance.

A parliamentary report found that 61 per cent of adults and 66 per cent of children feel negative about themselves most of the time. And the vast majority felt worse since the lockdown.

The women who felt worse blamed diet culture, post-natal pressures, the lack of older women in the media, and being bombarded with images of photoshopped, edited and sexualised women.

Men said body image concerns for them are also common but discussing them is still taboo, with pressure to "gain muscle mass" and look masculine.

What surprises me is that instead of regarding their physical appearance as their own business, and no one else's, so many people are striving after the fashionable "look", as displayed by highly untypical botox and surgery enhanced supermodels.

I feel like some kind of freak for actually being happy with my body as it is and not wanting to make it more "desirable". I don't want to be bulging with muscles, purged of body hair, a stone lighter, wrinkle-free or a bit bigger "down there". If people dislike the way I look, too bad. My only consideration is whether I'm physically healthy or not.

I have no wish to pour hundreds of pounds into the bank accounts of the beauty industry moguls who want me to buy perfume, moisturiser, body lotion, make-up, hair removal products, nail polish and all the other more and more numerous "must have" beauty aids.

If anyone thinks my nose is the wrong shape or my bum's too big, that's their problem, not mine.

Monday 21 September 2020

Domestic cocoon

It's still seen as normal to actively socialise. If you confess to being not much of a socialiser, or even preferring your own company to the company of others, you're still seen as a bit abnormal, a bit weird, a bit standoffish. You're dismissed somewhat disparagingly as "a loner".

I have to admit I'm one of the weird brigade. As Patti Smith says "I'm not a very social person. I could go days without talking to anyone in particular".

I like the odd chat with my neighbours or my book club mates, or my hairdresser. It's convivial and energising. But I don't need constant company. I'm very happy pursuing my own interests, thinking my own thoughts, wandering through the far reaches of my imagination. What more do I need?

I know most psychologists declare that socialising is good for your mental and physical health, and that too little socialising is bad for you, but that's a bit of a sweeping judgment. We're all different, and some of us are quite healthy enough keeping ourselves to ourselves.

I'm glad the hairdresser's daughter is thriving at her new school. I'm intrigued that the next door neighbour has taken up cycling. But I don't need these chance conversations to maintain my well-being. They're rather like that extra slice of cake that I don't really need because I've had plenty of cake already.

But the emphasis on a chatty "normality" means many people are still too embarrassed to admit they're reluctant socialisers. So when necessary, when they're obliged to mingle with others, they pretend to be eager to talk, or even to be the life and soul of the party. Then they thankfully retreat to their domestic cocoon.

Isn't one of the true pleasures in life lounging on the settee with a good book, oblivious to the rest of the world?

Thursday 17 September 2020

Lonely no more

What's happening in the world is so relentlessly miserable and depressing, I'm not going to add to the misery. So here's something happy and heart-warming for you.

After Tony Williams, from Alton in Hampshire, lost his wife Jo to pancreatic cancer in May, he says it was "unbearable torture" living without her. In desperation he put a poster in his window saying he had no one to talk to and couldn't stand the unremitting silence. "Can no one help me?" it ended.

His story went all around the world and led to a tsunami of emails, calls, letters and gifts. He was overwhelmed by the widespread sincerity and empathy they displayed. "These people really feel my loneliness as their own grief and sometimes I've been reduced to tears."

Tony has had help and support from neighbours and does have some family, but doesn't see them regularly. Messages have come from as far away as the USA, Canada, Australia, the Middle East, Spain and Iceland.

When asked what his advice would be to other elderly people in a similar position, he said "My advice is to do as I've done. Not necessarily in the same way - but you have to somehow go out and meet people."

There's an awful lot of people in the same situation, feeling dreadfully lonely but not sure what to do about it.

What happened to Tony shows there's an enormous amount of goodwill and kindness out there, as soon as people voice the need for it.

Anyone who's known unshakable loneliness will be ready to help Tony reconnect with the outside world.

Pic: Tony Williams, his wife Jo and poster

Sunday 13 September 2020

A bigger slice

There's a lot of talk nowadays about people feeling "entitled", or feeling they have an automatic right to all sorts of things because - well, because they do. Such people are roundly condemned as arrogant elitists who just want to grab a bigger slice of the pie. The criticism is usually aimed at a certain type of person - well-off, privately educated, right-wing, pompous.

But hang on a minute, shouldn't we all feel entitled - to a decent life, a comfortable home, a worthwhile job, an adequate income, and physical safety? Isn't that the least we can expect as a country's citizens?

What people are really objecting to is not so much entitlement as greed - wanting more than your fair share of whatever's available. Wanting half a dozen houses, an enormous salary, a prestigious job, and the best of everything, from haute cuisine to limousines, private jets and luxury tailoring.

There's a lot wrong with being greedy, but nothing wrong with feeling entitled, if that simply means wanting an enjoyable life rather than a life of constant struggle and deprivation.

As for myself, I certainly feel privileged as my life has gone very well compared to the lives of many others. But I've never felt entitled in any sense. I've never felt greedy and I've never felt that anything should be handed to me. I hoped and expected to have a decent life but I never felt entitled to it. I assumed hard work, luck and sensible behaviour would get me the necessities of life so I wouldn't need any outside help. And by and large that's been the case.

But I quite like a bit of haute cuisine. Not to mention bon vin. I may not be entitled to them but I wouldn't like to be deprived of them.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

The ties that bind

As you know, I loathe ties with a vengeance. Utterly pointless items of clothing that are supposed to make the wearer more respectable, more professional, more sexy and more normal. In reality they're just annoying things that flap around and half-asphyxiate you.

Luckily throughout my working life I could get away with very casual clothing. I was mostly a bookseller or an admin worker and in both cases tie-wearing was seen as either weird or pretentious.

So why am I so tie-averse? Here are twenty good reasons for not wearing ties:

  • They're ugly
  • They get caught in machinery
  • They get food stains on them
  • You only see the stains when you take them off
  • They can strangle you
  • They're passion killers
  • Employers love them
  • They have no plausible function
  • They attract germs
  • They're hard to fasten
  • They can be grabbed by small children
  • Dictators wear them
  • You get them as presents when you have a hundred already
  • You get them as presents when you really want champagne and chocolates
  • You can hardly breathe
  • They fall in your soup
  • They're boring
  • You feel like your father
  • Your mother keeps straightening them
  • Your mother thinks they're smart
The irony is that while a man in a tie is seen as more professional and trustworthy, this doesn't apply to a woman. In her case she is only professional and trustworthy if she's wearing high heels and make-up. Try explaining that to a visiting Martian.

And try to explain why male politicians wearing ties are now almost universally seen as incompetent and untrustworthy.

On the few occasions when I was obliged to wear a tie, I had usually forgotten how to knot it and had to resort to a youtube video. Which in itself is a point against ties. What other item of clothing can only be put on with the help of the internet?

Friday 4 September 2020

No tiny feet

Jenny and I decided very early on that we didn't want children. Lots of our friends and acquaint-ances were having children and they seemed happy enough with their choice, but it wasn't for us.

We just never had the urge. There may be many men and women who're naturally broody and simply can't wait for the patter of tiny feet, but we never felt like that. We had other priorities.

We've always been content as just the two of us, and didn't want a couple of kids possibly complicating our relationship. And we never woke up one middle-aged morning thinking, oh my god we should have had kids, and now it's too late.

There were other factors of course. My parents did a pretty clumsy job of bringing up us kids, and I didn't think I'd be any better than them. Why not leave parenting to those who have an obvious gift for it?

I think both childless couples and couples with children are somewhat baffled by each other's choices. The former think, what's the big attraction of spending twenty years bringing up unruly kids and never having any peace and quiet? The latter think, they don't know what they're missing, there's nothing like it, it's a unique experience.

Childless couples are still accused by some of being selfish, of not helping to raise the next generation. Well, we may not have children but we're paying for other people's children - their healthcare, their education, the libraries they use. So I think we're doing our bit.

No patter of tiny feet for us. Only the tiny paws of trespassing cats.