Sunday 26 December 2021

Begone, Mr Grumpy

I don't want to become one of those miserable old geezers who're convinced the world is going to pot, nobody does their job properly any more, there are fraudsters everywhere you look, young people have no respect for their elders, motorists drive like maniacs, and good taste is a thing of the past. I want to see the world through a positive lens rather than finding fault with everyone and everything.

If you don't watch yourself, it's easy to slip into habitual pessimism, especially when the media love to focus on disasters and cock-ups rather than most people's uneventful daily lives. Or if you have such a rose-tinted view of the past that today's world seems like a steady decline from once-impeccable standards.

So hopefully I'm still abiding by my pledges against grumpiness (originally drawn up in 2012):

  • I won't moan and groan
  • I won't become a grumpy old man
  • I won't let the world's problems get me down
  • I won't make mountains out of molehills
  • I won't let petty irritations annoy me
  • I won't complain about my bodily deficiencies
  • I won't denigrate other people's lives
  • I won't tell other people what to do*
  • I won't rant and rave
  • I won't demonise young people
  • I won't be cynical
  • I won't be paranoid
  • I won't see the worst in people
  • I won't be nostalgic
  • I won't believe everything was better in the old days
  • I won't think that I know best
  • I won't think life's conspiring against me
  • I won't be offended by bad manners
  • I won't be offended
  • I won't over-react
Of course Jenny might say I'm not as sanguine as I make out, that there's a grumpy old man lurking just under the breezy exterior. Well, if Mr Grumpy does make an appearance, I'm sure she'll silence him pretty promptly.

*except politicians and bankers, obviously

Tuesday 21 December 2021

Reluctant adult

A lot of children want desperately to be adults. They find childhood totally frustrating - always being told what to do, prevented from doing things, treated like idiots, not understanding what the grown-ups are talking about.

They passionately want to be adults so they can do what they want, make their own decisions, understand life a bit better, not be constantly watched.

Not me. I can't remember ever yearning to be an adult or chafing under all the parental restrictions. I think I wanted to be a child forever, always looked after and never having any adult worries.

Even though my childhood was far from ideal, with a bad-tempered father and a dreadful boarding school,  I must have concluded that all things considered perpetual childhood would be the ideal state.

Maybe it was because so many of the adults I came across seemed to have numerous worries and burdens and didn't seem very contented with their lot in life. My parents themselves had been on the verge of divorce at one point and other adults had to cope with huge mortgages, nasty bosses, serious illnesses and endless bills. I could stay a child and avoid all those frightening problems.

I didn't see adulthood as a land of opportunity, more as a land of increasing encumbrances and obstacles. The drawbacks seemed to greatly outweigh the benefits. How often did I hear an adult saying how much they enjoyed being an adult? Not often enough for my liking.

Of course now I've been an adult for so long I can better appreciate the benefits and make light of the encumbrances. But I guess there's still a small part of me that thinks childhood was really rather idyllic and why couldn't I have been a self-indulgent, irresponsible teenager a little longer?

Friday 17 December 2021

High risk

I always wonder what it's like to live with someone in a high risk occupation, or who enjoys high-risk pastimes. Does it terrify them or do they just take it in their stride?

I imagine they must be always scared stiff that their partner will sooner or later have a serious accident and end up either dead or disabled. It would be hard to take it in your stride when there's a very real risk that today might be their last day ever. And if you have children then the possibility of their losing their father is an added worry.

I had a friend once whose husband was a police officer, and I don't think she ever lost her terror of his dying on the job. He worked in a city where acts of violence were common and many police officers had been injured or killed.

The number of high-risk occupations is large. Police, fire fighters, the military, construction, bomb disposal officers, jobs involving hazardous materials, working in a covid ward. Plus the high-risk pastimes like sky-diving, rock-climbing, bungee-jumping and potholing. So there must be many anxious partners out there, trying to suppress their fears and just carry on with their daily life.

Do they try to persuade their partners to do something less risky or do they accept that they love what they do so much they couldn't possibly give it up?

Luckily neither Jenny or I have had high-risk jobs or pastimes. I wonder how I would have coped if Jenny had been a police officer, say. I suspect the answer is not very well. I would have had feverish imaginings of her being caught in some melee involving guns and knives and ruthless criminals. Carrying on with my daily life would have been quite a struggle.

Pic: Israeli police woman

Monday 13 December 2021

Fleeting glamour

I've changed a lot over the years as I've become more worldly-wise and learnt more about the reality of other people's lives. One thing I realised as I got older is that all those jobs I thought were so glamorous as a kid aren't that glamorous at all. Behind the beguiling facade there's always a lot of hard work and stress and self-doubt.

When I was a kid I used to hanker after seemingly glamorous jobs - brain surgeon, airline pilot, journalist, author, artist, film director, rock musician. They all seemed so exciting, so prestigious, so exotic. Gradually it sank in that the reality was rather different from my imaginings.

Jobs that involve relentless global travel and dreary hotel rooms. Jobs that mean working all hours to finish something. Jobs where the customer is never satisfied. Jobs that attract abuse and hate mail. Jobs requiring scrupulous attention to detail for hours on end. Jobs where you're bullied, patronised or sexually harassed.

Yes, I was a journalist for a few years, but there was little glamour involved. I had to write up such mundane events as golden weddings, church fetes, court hearings or the induction of a new mayor. I had to get quotes from politicians who wanted to keep something under wraps. I had to wait in pouring rain for someone important to emerge from a meeting. Hardly an enviable existence.

There are regular reports of someone in some supposedly glamorous occupation being unable to withstand the pressures - succumbing to drug or alcohol addiction, developing mental disorders or even committing suicide. The glamour can wear off very quickly.

The jobs I did after journalism - bookselling, admin worker - were pretty humdrum. Sometimes I thought, maybe I should be doing something more glamorous? Until I realised all the glamour was an illusion.

Thursday 9 December 2021

Set in our ways?

It's a common complaint among younger folk that we oldies are set in our ways, incapable of being flexible or "keeping up with the times". Being set in your ways is seen as something very negative, something to be avoided at all costs.

Well, suppose we look at it another way. Suppose we say the problem's not being set in your ways but what ways you're set in.

If the ways you're set in happen to be positive and sensible - progressive politics, open-mindedness, generosity, kindness, respect for others, supporting the vulnerable - what's wrong with that? Let's have more of it.

But if the ways you're set in aren't so positive - drunkenness, misogyny, narcissism, bullying - then yes, that's not so attractive and you need to change.

If being set in your ways means having firm principles that are of benefit to yourself and others, surely that can only be welcomed. If the alternative is not having any firm principles but simply following the latest trend or doing and saying anything that's convenient, what good is that?

In any case, whatever our age, the reality is we're all set in our ways. We're just set in different ways. Oldies may believe in good manners and thriftiness, but the young may be equally fixated on their own little habits - clubbing, recreational drugs, alcohol, smart phones. They just don't see it as being set in their ways.

I don't mind admitting I'm very intransigent when it comes to treating other people decently and making our society more egalitarian. I don't see any problem with that. I'm not going to chuck all my entrenched beliefs out of the window just because they're not fashionable right now. I'm set in my ways and happily so.

Sunday 5 December 2021

Just suppose

Now here's an interesting mental exercise. Can you imagine a world without celebrities? Without fame? A world where we're all ordinary, anonymous people and nobody is idolised or given special attention? It's almost impossible because the celebrity syndrome is so pervasive.

Just suppose actors and artists and musicians and sportspeople were simply appreciated and their talents recognised, without their being mobbed and obsessed over, without their being accosted and stared at wherever they went, without screaming media headlines when they got divorced or had a baby or wore a risqué dress.

Just suppose nobody cared where Lady Gaga lived or who she lived with or how wealthy she was or what she was wearing or what was her big break or whether she has fibromyalgia or if she gets stage fright or what is her favourite food or what she finds embarrassing. Just suppose people loved her music but had zero interest in her personal life.

Difficult, isn't it? We're so used to this huge stratum of society called celebrities, who get endless attention and adulation simply because they're talented, who're constantly in the media, whose every trivial utterance is treated as if it's the holy grail, that it's almost impossible to imagine their sudden absence. It's easier to imagine the death of the planet than the absence of celebs.

A celeb-free world is a bit easier to imagine here in Northern Ireland where public figures aren't idolised to the same extent as they are in England. In general they're treated as ordinary folk and if they start acting as if they're someone special they're quickly told that they're "losing the run of themselves".

But just suppose there were no celebs. The paparazzi would be out of a job. And the media would have to find some genuine news stories.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Marriage wreckers

I was revisiting a long-ago post on why marriages collapse. It can happen very easily. All it takes is a total difference of opinion about some pattern of behaviour. What seems quite normal to one of you is baffling and infuriating to the other. Is it about sex? Money? Housework? Politics? Violence? Weirdness?

With Jenny and I, I think the one thing that would absolutely drive us apart is sexism. Jenny has always been a passionate feminist who expects me to do my fair share of the household tasks and treat her with respect and consideration.

If I suddenly became the stereotype bloke, sprawled on the sofa watching Match of the Day and clutching a bottle of beer, while she scuttled round the house with the hoover and changed the bed linen, she wouldn't put up with that for long. I'd be packing my bags and moving out.

Of course there are some strong runners-up as marriage wreckers. Like politics. Jenny and I are both ardent socialists, but if one of us suddenly became a rabid right-winger, banging on about dangerous vaccines and imaginary viruses, that would be pretty terminal.

Like domestic order. We're both minor neat-freaks, wanting everything in its place and a place for everything. If one of us was always messy, never clearing anything up and leaving a trail of clothing and chocolate wrappers and dirty mugs everywhere they went, the other would be driven totally mad.

Like weirdness. We both have our peculiar habits and opinions, but they're all pretty benign - nothing disturbing enough to horrify the other. Nothing to justify a sudden moonlight flit.

And there's the very obvious contender - one of us having an affair. As it happens, neither of us has bowed to temptation, though we may have toyed with the idea on occasion, when someone utterly delicious caught our eye. But apart from anything else, deceit and subterfuge aren't in my nature.

Anyway, Jenny needn't worry too much about an outbreak of sexism.

Match of the Day? I'd rather pluck out my eyeballs.

Saturday 27 November 2021

Assisted dying

I strongly support voluntary euthanasia, or assisted dying. So I was interested to hear that politicians on the island of Jersey have approved the principle of assisted dying. Details of the procedures and safeguards will now be worked up, for a draft law in 2023.

I've read so often of people with terrible terminal illnesses, illnesses that cause constant pain, destroy their quality of life, and impose a huge burden on their partners and family, wanting to die but being unable to do so. The stories are quite heart-breaking.

Those who oppose assisted dying always raise the spectre of unscrupulous relatives wanting to get rid of someone and claim their inheritance, but in other countries where it's legal I gather there's scant evidence of such behaviour.

People can be so desperate to die that they arrange it discreetly with their doctor and family, who cover it up by presenting the death as due to natural causes. Or they travel to the Dignitas centre in Switzerland, which enables assisted dying for members of the organisation.

I would hate to be suffering from some appalling terminal illness but be unable to end the misery. I would want to finish with my suffering at the earliest opportunity. I don't see anything commendable about enduring such hardship until the bitter end - which could be decades away.

I wouldn't want Jenny to have to put the rest of her life on hold in order to care for me, with all the messy and distasteful tasks that would involve. Why should she have to make such a sacrifice?

(Assisted dying may in fact be legalised in the rest of the UK. The Assisted Dying bill is currently progressing through parliament, but I've no idea when it would become law. The bill is modelled on legislation that has been in place in Oregon, USA, for 23 years, since adopted by nine other American states plus the District of Columbia, five Australian states and New Zealand)

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Gender dissenters

I hate gender roles. They put so many arbitrary limits on what you can and can't do. Women should be this and this. Men should be this and this. And if you do something that doesn't fit your allotted gender role, you can get a very frosty reception.

Which is why I really admire those people who deliberately flout their designated role and are prepared to put up with all the negative responses, however upsetting and infuriating.

Like the artist Grayson Perry, who revels in his alter ego Claire, with her flamboyant dresses and bizarre hairdos. Of course he can get away with it because he's a phenomenally successful artist, but even so.

Like Samira Ahmed, who took the BBC to an employment tribunal in a dispute over equal pay, and won.

Like the Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai, who from the age of 11 campaigned for the right of girls to go to school.

Like Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman in space when she rode the space shuttle Challenger.

Like women who sport cropped hair, a suit and tie, and chunky footwear. They know the ignorant will assume they're lesbian or "wasting their femininity" but that doesn't put them off.

Like all the women who're determined to pursue careers traditionally reserved for men, and all the men who're happy to be house-husbands.

But these unabashed gender benders are still thin on the ground. The reality is that gender roles are very strictly enforced and you need a thick skin and a lot of bravery to ignore them.

It would be fun if I could wear a dress occasionally, but I don't think east Belfast is quite ready for such wayward behaviour. I'll have to leave it to the celebs and the unrepentant social mavericks.

Friday 19 November 2021

Worldly wise

One big thing that's changed as I get older is that my passionate youthful idealism has given way to a more realistic view of the world and the realisation that things are a lot more complicated and a lot harder to change than the teenage me naively assumed.

How difficult could it be, I thought, to end poverty or homelessness or sexism or warmongering? Surely if enough people wanted to banish these things, it could be done? Surely if enough people were sufficiently horrified and sickened by what other people were forced to endure, then things would change?

I was forever going to rallies, going to sit-ins, signing petitions, lobbying politicians, and being the stereotype frenzied activist, espousing every worthy cause and predicting a better tomorrow.

I gradually realised as I grew older and more worldly-wise that these problems were much too deeply rooted to be eradicated overnight. They were so embedded in our collective way of life, so taken-for-granted as "just one of those things" ("the poor are always with us") that it would take the most colossal effort to make even the smallest inroads into these long-standing horrors.

I could agitate to the point of exhaustion with little to show for it because so many people were content to live with these problems rather than solving them. Or even worse, they stood to gain from them. The weapons manufacturers. The loan sharks. The privileged males. The landlords charging exorbitant, unaffordable rents.

So now I desist from most political activity and let others summon up their enthusiasm and optimism on my behalf. I still sign petitions and email my MP but that's about it. I anticipate that by the time I've shuffled off my mortal coil the poor will unhappily still be with us.

Monday 15 November 2021

Sure to survive

It suddenly strikes me that one of the assumptions I make as a relatively privileged person is that I'll survive. And not just that, but survive until a ripe old age. There are millions of people around the world who can't make that assumption.

People caught in a civil war. Refugees trekking across multiple countries. Women trapped in domestic violence. People with severe mental disorders. People caught in famines. And even people living in high-rise flats that turn out to be a major fire risk.

Centuries ago very few people could assume they would survive. Health care and living conditions were so poor that people were lucky to reach their thirties. Many children died at a tender age.

Now living conditions are so improved that the average British lifespan is 81 and there are many centenarians. So I've always taken for granted that I'll survive and very little can jeopardise it.

But many people can't assume that. They have to live from day to day, not knowing if they'll still be alive by tomorrow. Not knowing if a serious health condition will take a turn for the worse. Not knowing if their spouse might attack them. Not knowing if they'll be hit by a bomb. Not knowing if they'll be overcome by suicidal urges.

I have a sense of safety and security and a bright future that many others don't have. Instead of having to concentrate first and foremost on keeping myself alive, I can take my survival as read, sit back and enjoy my comfortable lifestyle.

It's a huge privilege that it's easy to overlook.

Pic - February 2013: a woman in Aleppo, Syria, in the ruins of her house, destroyed by government warplanes, killing 11 members of her family.

Thursday 11 November 2021

Going private

Many people outside Britain still think of the NHS as the envy of the world, but it hasn't been anything of the sort for several years now. The NHS is seriously underfunded and understaffed and many of its employees are so overwhelmed and so exhausted they're thinking of quitting for less stressful jobs - or they already have.

I've always been a loyal supporter of the NHS and a critic of private medicine, which provides swift treatment if you've got the money, but leaves those who can't afford it at the mercy of a declining public health service.

I'm very conscious that with rapidly lengthening waiting times for both consultations and surgery, there might come a day when I face a choice between waiting indefinitely for the NHS to attend to me or going private and getting the sort of care that should be standard practice.

I don't mean waits of a few weeks or months. I mean years. Some people in Northern Ireland are waiting up to seven years for a medical procedure. Some are waiting over three years for pain management appointments. There were long waits before Covid, but now they're totally off the scale.

So suppose I needed a hip replacement, a knee replacement, cataract surgery or some other operation, and I was told I'd have to wait years? And suppose things would get worse in the meantime? And suppose a private clinic could treat me tomorrow? I would seriously consider going private, despite my socialist principles.

I had to wait 18 months for a routine prostate operation under the NHS. I could have gone private but it wasn't urgent and I wasn't in pain so I was prepared to put up with the long wait.

But I can see myself being forced into some agonising decisions.

Sunday 7 November 2021

Begone, damn tie

As you know, every so often I like to have a good rant about ties and how pointless they are. I've always avoided wearing them whenever possible, and luckily most of the time I've had jobs where ties weren't required.

In the late sixties I was a local newspaper reporter and I was expected to wear a suit and tie, but since then I've worn a tie so infrequently that when I did so I had to resort to youtube to remind me how to knot it.

I've never understood why wearing a tie for work is supposed to make a man more professional, more trustworthy, and more competent. Women apparently have all these qualities without the need for tie-wearing.

What's more, there are several health and safety reasons for not wearing ties. It seems that a tightly-knotted tie can not only reduce your cerebral blood flow but affect your eyes and aggravate eye problems. They're also said to spread infections in hospitals as ties aren't washed very often. Some British hospitals have banned tie-wearing by their staff altogether. Dangling ties can also get caught in machinery.

Yet I still see men walking into their offices in suits and ties, looking uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed rather than professional. A crumpled suit that probably hasn't been cleaned for a while looks rather less than professional.

There are still elderly gents who feel undressed without a tie. On the hottest days they'll still be in their tie and resist all hints that they might be more comfortable without it. My maternal grandpa was a splendid example.

The longer my tie stays in the drawer, the happier I am.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Christmas ruin

Apparently a lot of people are getting their knickers in a twist about Christmas. They're afraid Christmas will be ruined by a possible shortage of the traditional festive items, due to Brexit, Covid, supply chain hold-ups, and other problems.

They might have trouble getting turkeys, mince pies, children's toys and Christmas trees.

Well, who says Christmas has to include all these things anyway? Christmas is just a holiday, and you can celebrate it any way you want. Will Christmas really be ruined if you can't chomp a mince pie, or guzzle some turkey?

There are plenty of tasty foods you could have instead. And plenty of alternative toys. And will the world come to an end if you have no Christmas tree?

Surely the only important thing is to be enjoying yourself, and enjoying the company of your family or friends. People who're going nuts because they can't have all the traditional trimmings are being ridiculous.

When I was young, Christmas was a much simpler affair, and not the massive consumption-frenzy it is today. I don't recall having turkey or mince pies, though I may just not remember them. We had a few token decorations like paper chains. We did have a Christmas tree. But we didn't have all the fashionable and wildly expensive children's toys that are now deemed essential or little Rebecca might throw a tantrum.

One thing we didn't have when I was a kid, but which is now a crucial part of my Christmas, is a daily tipple of white wine. If there was a severe wine shortage, then I might very well throw a serious tantrum. A cup of tea would not be a passable substitute.

Thursday 28 October 2021

But it's tradition

It's common for someone to justify their beliefs or actions by saying "Well, it's traditional". It's a handy explanation because few people are going to challenge the idea of "tradition", implying as it does something that thousands of people have been doing or saying for centuries.

Why do so many people have turkey at Christmas? Because it's traditional. There are plenty of alternatives, but no, it has to be turkey because turkey's traditional.

Why do brides invariably wear white? Because it's traditional. You could wear something green or blue or red but that wouldn't be traditional.

Why are so many boys circumcised? Because it's traditional. You can produce good reasons for not doing it, but you'll probably be ignored because tradition wins out.

If falling back on "tradition" really means that you're too timid to make your own choices and so you just follow the herd, then that's rather sad. But if you really love turkey, and you really love white bridal dresses, and you really think circumcision is beneficial, fair enough, go ahead.

Of course many traditions are to be applauded - like democracy and free health care and public transport and politeness and donating to charities and teetotallers. Something that goes back centuries can be pointless and irrational and toxic, but it may also be a valuable contribution to our daily lives.

Some traditions are so absurdly over the top I can only look on in disbelief as they take place. Like the state opening of parliament, with the Queen trundling along in her golden coach and all the uniformed flunkeys who preside over the various opening rituals. The state opening costs around £214,000.

PS: I was circumcised, but I never found out why. My parents weren't Jewish. It's something I could have asked my father, if we hadn't been estranged for 20 years.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Hidden messages

Some people habitually read things into what others say. They never take a remark at face value, they always speculate on what the person is actually saying. Is it really a put-down, or a cry for help, or a sign of indifference? What are the hidden messages?

I hardly ever read things into other people's remarks. Maybe I'm stupid or insensitive or unimaginative, but I do tend to take what others are saying at face value. I don't assume there's some subtle meaning I have to tease out.

I remember a woman I knew telling me she always read too much into what others were saying. This had led to a few heated arguments with her boyfriend when he insisted that what she was imagining was nonsense.

Journalists are front-runners in interpreting people's remarks in a hundred different ways. Could that politician's chance remark mean they're considering resigning? Or they're getting dementia? Or they're angling for promotion? Or they're panicking over some imminent scandal? Of course most of it turns out to be claptrap.

Actually I'm fibbing slightly when I say I don't read anything into people's remarks. I like to be liked and I do try to figure out from what someone's saying whether they like me or not. Did I detect a certain frostiness there? Did I detect a note of warmth? Did they agree with what I just said? Did they look disapproving? I can't quite go along with the "just be yourself and don't worry about the reaction" brigade.

Mostly I confine my speculation to novels and the fate of fictional characters therein. Whether I guess right or guess wrong, it's of no consequence.

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Sibling rivalry

Apparently sibling rivalry isn't just one of those dubious cliches, it's real. There are plenty of siblings who really do compete frantically with each other and can't bear it when their brother or sister seems to be doing much better than them.

A quarter of people polled on the subject admitted to sibling rivalry. They confessed to competing over just about everything - their careers, their homes, their cars, their holidays, their education, their cooking skills and, naturally, who their parents like best.

Well, I'm relieved to say my sister and I have never been prone to sibling rivalry. Our relationship has always been amicable, reasonable and non-competitive. We've both lived our lives as we wanted and we haven't spent a second comparing our different "score cards". We've never been jealous of the other's achievements, or gloating at their failures.

We were never bothered about who our parents liked best. Clearly my father, and possibly my mother, preferred my sister, but so what? It didn't stop me getting on with my life.

What motivates siblings to compete with each other anyway? Why are they desperate to be top dog and always one step ahead of the other? I really don't know, but I suppose if parents are the competitive type, that can get passed on to their children. Luckily our parents weren't in the least competitive.

But if your relationship with your sibling is the longest relationship you'll ever have, then constantly competing with each other will spoil your life in a big way.

And there's no easy fix, because siblings are bound to each other for life. You can't divorce them, you can't simply dump them. Somehow you have to find a modus operandi.

Just try to stop quibbling with your sibling.

Thursday 14 October 2021

Call my bluff

At the age of 74 I still don't feel like an adult, only an overgrown child. There are so many things I can barely cope with, and only with a lot of effort.    There are so many things I stealthily keep away from, quite sure I'd instantly mess them up.

I may have all the physical trappings of adulthood. I've had three mortgages, I own a house, I've owned several cars, I was the executor of my mum's will, I've had paid jobs on and off for 53 years, I've travelled all over the world.

Yet I still don't feel like an adult. When people treat me like an adult and expect me to behave like an adult, I'm straight into impostor syndrome. I do my best to live up to what's required, but it's mostly a feverish pretence, a frantic pursuit of this ever-elusive quality known as adulthood.

People expect me to make intelligent, informed decisions on a whole range of subjects, when I'm all too aware that actually on most subjects I have a hazy, anecdotal knowledge at best. I rack my brain for relevant wisdom, find the cupboard is bare and cobble together some supposedly authoritative opinion that might get me convincingly through the next five minutes.

I'm looking around desperately for a real adult, someone who actually has adult-like capabilities and can rescue me from this scary demand for responsibility and guidance. I want to be like the newsreaders who just pass on the stream of information fed into their earpieces.

I might look like a mature adult, but it's all an illusion. In reality I'm still a confused child hoping I'm doing and saying the right thing but always suspecting I'm totally goofing up. Sooner or later someone's going to call my bluff.

PS: A post on Facebook - "My personality is basically a mix between a needy five year old child who can't control her emotions, a teenage rebel who makes poor life decisions, and an eighty year old woman who's tired and needs a nap."

Saturday 9 October 2021

Tactical error

One of the big debates among political protesters is what sort of protest to engage in - what is most likely to get the result they want and what is most likely to get the public on their side. Choose the wrong thing and you simply alienate everyone.

The recently formed campaign "Insulate Britain", which is seeking a much bigger government programme to remedy badly insulated homes, is attracting a lot of opposition over its recent activities.

Day after day they've been blocking major roads in southern England, causing huge disruption, and those people who have been stuck in the resulting traffic jams have been angry and upset.

Carers, nurses and other key workers have been unable to get to work. People have been unable to get to hospital appointments or get to dying relatives. Furious motorists have been physically dragging protesters off the roads.

I don't see how this bloody-minded obstruction of people's daily lives can possibly be justified, or how it's going to have any more influence on the government than some other sort of protest that is dramatic without being so disruptive.

The police have arrested dozens of protesters, and the government has threatened them with jail sentences, but the protests continue regardless.

I would also be furious if protesters had stopped me from getting to work or getting to a medical appointment. Luckily I'm retired and luckily also there's no offshoot of Insulate Britain in Northern Ireland (as yet).

So far the government is unmoved, and the protesters are just pissing off the general public.

Tuesday 5 October 2021

I'll sleep on it

A long time ago I made a list of all my sleep-related quirks and habits. I thought my more recent followers might like to see it.

  1. I seldom sleep in, I seldom nap.
  2. I'm invariably asleep within ten minutes
  3. I'm usually up and about by 7 30 am
  4. I almost always have bad dreams
  5. I sleep on my left side or my right side, hardly ever on my back or front
  6. I find it easy to get out of bed in the morning
  7. I prefer a nightshirt to pyjamas
  8. I sleep naked if it's warm enough
  9. I read books in bed but never newspapers
  10. My bedside cabinet contains my watch, my alarm clock, my glasses, a box of tissues and a book
  11. I find it hard to sleep on planes
  12. I slept for 13 hours straight after arriving in Vancouver Island, Canada
  13. I never take sleeping pills - they don't work and just make me feel weird
  14. There are no teddy bears in our bed
  15. Our hotel room in San Francisco had the creakiest bed of all time
  16. We slept on a futon for several years
  17. We have single duvets, which avoids duvet hogging
  18. We have breakfast in bed every Sunday morning - toast and marmalade and a cup of tea
  19. We change the bed linen often
  20. I can have a completely coherent conversation while I'm asleep, and not remember a word of it the next day
  21. My sex none of your business

Friday 1 October 2021

In a nutshell

Slang is always contro-versial. Is it a valid part of the language or is it something to be avoided? Does it add colour and vividness or is it just sloppy?

Lucy Frame, the principal at a London secondary school, has decided slang should be avoided, though only in lessons and not in the playground. She has declared that if pupils are using slang they aren't expressing themselves clearly and accurately.

I think she's being ridiculous. Everybody uses slang, and why not? Unless it's a term that's offensive or mystifying, what's the problem?

One academic who was asked to comment pointed out that Shakespeare is full of slang and teachers don't see any difficulty with that. He accused the school of "cultural and linguistic snobbery".

All slang really refers to is unfamiliar words that haven't yet become commonplace. But if the unfamiliar word conveys something useful, isn't that what language is all about?

And who decides if a word is slang or just an ordinary, routine word? Who decides for example whether "getting hitched" or "tying the knot" are slang terms or unremarkable bits of English?

If slang just means an unusual and ingenious way of expressing something, I'm all for it. It livens up the language and gets people's attention.

So that's my opinion "in a nutshell". Which might or might not be slang.

PS: The full list of slang banned by the school is:

  • He cut his eyes at me (shot me a withering glance)
  • Oh my days (my goodness)
  • Oh my god
  • That's a neck (you need a slap for that)
  • Wow
  • That's long (boring, tough or tedious)
  • Bare (very, extremely)
  • Cuss (swear or abuse)

Monday 27 September 2021

Missing tips

When Jenny and I are in a restaurant, we're always aware that tips added to a credit card payment may never reach the server but be stealthily extracted by the management. Which is why we always leave a cash tip on the table instead.

Restaurant staff have been fuming about these missing tips for years, but it's only now that the British government is acting to stop what is effectively theft and ensure any tip or service charge goes to the server it's intended for.

It will become illegal for restaurant, bar and café owners to siphon off the tips, a move benefitting up to two million workers. Members of staff will also be able to see tipping records, and if necessary take employers to a tribunal*.

But this won't be any help to those servers who encounter the no-tips brigade, those mean-minded diners who either never give a tip or only give a tip if the food and service are impeccable. Which is unlikely.

We always give a tip unless the meal was a genuinely disastrous experience. We're not going to quibble about a dirty knife or insufficient smiling or bland coffee. And we know how much the probably underpaid servers rely on tips to top up their pay.

Of course tipping is an absurdly antiquated practice that should have been abolished years ago and replaced by decent and reliable salaries. Nevertheless there's a certain satisfaction in seeing a server's face light up when they get an unexpectedly generous tip.

I imagine the new law can't come in fast enough for all those servers who're systematically fleeced by their employers.

*But will the new law be properly enforced?

Thursday 23 September 2021

Still bewildered

Back in 2013 I listed some of the modern-day trends that I simply don't understand. Things that leave me scratching my head in bewilderment. Things that seem daft or unnecessary or absurd or risky. The list stays much the same, except for Gangnam, which nobody even mentions any more. So here's the slightly amended version:

  1. The obsession with celebs
  2. Tattoos
  3. Tongue-piercing
  4. Stag and hen weekends*
  5. The prejudice against public services
  6. Posting naked selfies on Facebook
  7. Wearing a face veil
  8. Having private quarrels in public
  9. Personalised car number plates
  10. Going berserk on a plane
  11. Nouvelle cuisine
  12. Barbecues
  13. Thongs**
  14. Cosmetic surgery***
  15. Weddings on the other side of the world
  16. High heels
  17. Letting kids run wild
  18. Teeth whitening
  19. Designer labels
  20. Lads' mags
I went to a barbecue quite recently, but I still don't see the attraction. Eating indoors is more comfortable, and you don't get rained on. Of course the climate here doesn't encourage outdoor eating - it's more likely to be cold and wet than warm and dry. Big kitchen diners are more popular than barbecue grills. I imagine barbecues are more common in the States and Australia with their long hot summers.

* bachelor and bachelorette parties in the States
** the underwear not the footwear
*** other than reconstructive surgery

Sunday 19 September 2021

Sheer anarchy

I lost my faith in politicians a long time ago, and this sort of thing is why - the ongoing anarchy in the Holylands area of Belfast, an area of concentrated student housing close to Queen's University.

Literally for years now, since 2005, students have been running riot in the area, having wild all-night parties, vandalising cars and property, throwing rubbish onto the streets, and intimidating longstanding local residents.

The besieged residents complain continuously to Queen's University, Ulster University, Belfast Council, Stormont, and the Police Service, but nothing effective is ever done.

Statements are issued condemning the students' behaviour and threatening them with various sanctions, a few students get arrested, but the anarchy continues regardless and the beleaguered residents despair over the politicians' apparent utter indifference to their plight.

Predictably the buck is continually passed from one authority to another, each one offering trumped-up excuses for their hopeless inability to end the disorder. Meanwhile families lie awake at night, trying to ignore the sounds of breaking glass, vomiting and ear-splitting music.

No doubt the university top brass have nice quiet homes to retreat to in respectable areas of the city, so there's no danger of their own comfortable existence being jeopardised. They can sit back and watch it all on the telly like the rest of us.

And they can sleep soundly at night without shrieking mayhem outside their bedroom window.

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Why fame?

For the life of me I don't understand why so many people want to be famous. I can understand wanting to be rich and never having any more money worries, but wanting to be famous? What's the point? Do they realise the massive downside of fame?

Probably not. Celebrities tend not to mention the downside because it would spoil their image and because it would make them look like spoilt brats. They prefer to maintain the illusion that fame is wonderful and they can't get enough of it.

All the public usually see is celebrities swanning around in fabulous designer clothes, being presented with prestigious awards, being applauded and fawned over, getting preferential treatment wherever they go.

What they usually don't see is the endless invasion of privacy, the hordes of paparazzi, the social-media abuse, the phoney "friends", the obsessive fans, the fabricated media stories.

It seems to me that being famous just makes your life more difficult, more treacherous, more overwhelming. Why would you want to live in a goldfish bowl day in and day out, with people watching your every movement?

There are regular stories about people who've been unexpectedly thrust into the limelight and been badly damaged by it. Like Steve Dymond, who died seven days after taking part in the Jeremy Kyle chat-show.

A lot of musicians have had psychological crises after a sudden rise to fame - like Katie Melua, who had a mental breakdown in 2010 and was in hospital for six weeks.

Fame ? You can keep it.

Friday 10 September 2021

But is it true?

I tend to assume that everything in a biography/ autobiography/ memoir must be true because they're based on real lives and real people. And because they all sound so convincing, so credible. Surely they haven't made anything up?

But actually quite a few biographies and memoirs have been either partly or totally fabricated. Wikipedia lists 12 such examples since 2001, some of them completely fake. Like Michael Gambino's The Honored Society, in which he claimed to be the grandson of a notorious Mafioso. He was exposed by Carlo Gambino's real son, Thomas Gambino.

I've read a lot of autobiographies, including those by Michelle Obama and Keith Richards, and I've assumed that everything they say is true, but that's not necessarily the case.

Even if they seem more or less truthful, there are always things that by their very nature must arouse suspicion. Like long verbatim conversations. Whoever remembers conversations in such detail? For that matter, whoever remembers the entirety of their life in such detail? Isn't some of it what they think happened or would like to have happened rather than what really occurred? And might a few things have been tweaked a little to look more flattering, or less shameful?

Family members and friends often dispute what someone says in a biography or autobiography. They claim there was no such family feud, or estrangement, or disinheritance, or child abuse. Of course they would, wouldn't they? They don't want their good reputation dragged through the mud.

People who fabricate whole memoirs are so likely to be exposed by someone who knows the truth, you have to wonder why they do it. I suppose they calculate that by the time they're exposed they'll already have made a tidy sum from their sensational lies so it hardly matters.

Sunday 5 September 2021

Not so lucky

Winning a fortune may seem like a wonderful idea, but the reality may not be so enjoyable. All sorts of unforeseen conse-quences could make you wish you'd never had the money at all.

Margaret Loughrey, from Strabane in Northern Ireland, who won £27 million in the national lottery, killed herself a few days ago. Some months after her huge win, she said "If there is a hell, I have been in it. It has been that bad. I was a happy person before. All it has done is destroy my life."

She bought a historic old mill that was plagued by fires and vandalism. She was found guilty of assaulting a taxi driver while drunk. She was ordered to pay £30,000 for discriminating against a Catholic employee. And other unspecified mishaps.

She only bought a lottery ticket on the spur of the moment. She was living on welfare benefits of £58 ($80.50) a week and was returning home from the Job Centre when she decided to buy the ticket.

I wouldn't want to win such a vast sum. I wouldn't know what to do with it. I'd hate all the attention I'd get, especially from people wanting handouts or people who hated me for getting such a windfall. Everyone would be gossiping about me behind my back.

Whoever I gave money to, other people would be saying I should have given the money to them or someone else more deserving. Every Tom, Dick and Harriet would give me unsolicited advice on how to spend the money. I'd suspect every friendly approach of hiding an appeal for cash.

There's the option of receiving the money anonymously, but I doubt that would last very long. Once I was seen to be spending on a lavish scale, questions would be asked and my win would surely become known.

No fortune for me, thanks. I'm very happy just as I am.

Pic: Margaret Loughrey

Wednesday 1 September 2021

What might have been

When I think of my parents (both now dead), I have a strong sense of loss. But it's not the loss of what was, or what they meant to me. It's the loss of what might have been, what I never had.

It's not the loss of what was, because I was never close to either of them. They were so different from me and never understood the sort of person I was, or what I wanted to do with my life. And they were both very cagey about anything personal.

Some people are lucky enough to have a close relationship with one or both of their parents, one that's enriching and inspiring and supportive. When those parents die, there's a deep sense of an important part of one's life being taken away. All at once there's a big hole that needs somehow to be filled.

In my case that particular sense of loss is absent. What I feel is more the loss of what might have been - exactly that sort of intimate bond with a parent that might have greatly enriched my life.

Above all, the lack of that close relationship means I know next to nothing about my parents' personal lives and they remain shadowy, blurry figures. Just about everything that happened to them before I was born is a mystery. Likewise much of what they thought and felt. Did they ever get anxious or depressed or frustrated or despairing? What went through their minds? Mostly, I have no idea.

They must surely have wanted close bonds with their children (otherwise why have children at all?), so why did they do so little to foster that closeness? Why were they always so reticent, so guarded? Why couldn't they open up? It leaves another sort of big hole - but one that can never be filled.

Saturday 28 August 2021

Imperfect bodies

Apparently a majority of men (53%) have negative feelings about their body image, which isn't far off the figure for women (62%). They don't like being fat, or bald, or paunchy, or not tall enough, or too hairy, or not very muscular. Or a dozen other things.

I'm always baffled by this, as I have no problems with my own body image. In fact it almost feels there's something wrong with me for finding my body so acceptable. Am I just not critical enough? Is my nose a funny shape? Are my eyes too close together? Surely there's something I absolutely loathe? Nope, I just can't work up any negativity about my physical self.

Yes, I'm an oldie and I look it, but that doesn't bother me. Yes, I've got a bit of a tummy bulge, but so what? Yes, I've got a small bald patch, but it's only other people who can see it. Yes, I've got some crooked teeth, but to my mind they look more natural than rows of perfectly straight, shining white choppers. I'm not going to spend hours of my time regretting what I look like.

I'm certainly not going to shovel cash into the bank accounts of the purveyors of botox, cosmetic surgery, hair restorer, tummy control shapewear and all the other products exploiting people's self-loathing. I'd rather spend my money on exotic holidays, brilliant novels and wonderful paintings than on desperate attempts to turn the physical clock back.

Because that's mainly what this negativity is all about, isn't it? The desire to recapture one's youth and reverse the ageing process. Well, I hate to disillusion anyone but ageing will have its way, whatever your efforts to halt it.

There are only two things certain in life - death and taxes.

Tuesday 24 August 2021

Flight of folly

I'm endlessly amazed at the dotty projects local councils get up to, quite often ignoring widespread advice that the project is dotty and should be scrapped.

Westminster Council in London thought it would be a super wheeze to build an artificial 25 metre (82 feet) hill next to Marble Arch. For £4.50 you could climb up to the top and see supposedly splendid views across the city.

Unfortunately the hill (the Marble Arch Mound) has been panned and ridiculed by just about everyone, including most of the visitors, local residents and 23 local amenity groups. Not only are the views far from splendid, they include rubble, building works and scaffolding. And unfortunately the hill (hillock would be more accurate) cost a staggering £6 million.

The £4.50 charge has been temporarily dropped and hundreds of people have flocked to the hill just to see how bad it is.

I'd like to think Belfast Council wouldn't dream up anything so monumentally daft, but you never know.

I wonder how long it will be before the Mound is discreetly removed at dead of night (or dead of several nights) and the council pretends it was never there in the first place. "Mound? What Mound? Where did you get that idea?"

Pic: the infamous Mound

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Distasteful legacies

It's the custom to pass on your inheritance (if you're lucky enough to have one) to your offspring or other family members. Eyebrows are raised if you hand it all to the local cat shelter or the Teddy Bear Society (yes, there is one).

But not everyone approves of this practice. Actor Daniel Craig, who has a three year old daughter, a stepson and an adult daughter, says he won't leave his children a large inheritance because he finds the practice "distasteful".

He thinks it's better to "get rid of it or give it away before you go". He adds "Isn't there an old adage that if you die a rich person, you've failed?"

His estimated net worth is currently over $180 million, and he's due to pick up another $100 million from future film deals. That's quite a hefty sum to not inherit.

He may be one of those who think handing your children a huge windfall just makes them lazy and self-centred and they should have to make their own way in life, presumably just as their own parents did.

But what if your children are already grown-up and doing very nicely? Should you then deny them an inheritance because they don't need it?

And if your children are grown-up but not doing very well, should you still deny them an inheritance because you think they squander money left right and centre and should just get a grip on their life?

Or what if you just can't stand one of your children and think they're a right pain in the arse? Do they also get nothing? (as happened with my father, who left me precisely zilch)

Whatever the reason for disinheriting family members, I imagine resentment and bitterness are almost sure to follow.

Friday 13 August 2021

Hard to imagine

I have a problem with novels that other people don't seem to have. I find it very hard to conjure up a vivid mental picture of the characters. Even if I read a description of someone several times, they remain words on the page and I get no clear image of them. I can summon up a stereotype of an old man or a young woman or a gurgling baby, but nothing more specific.

Most people seem to conjure up characters in their head quite easily. They have a very haunting image of the person, almost as vivid as someone in real life. They know exactly what Elizabeth Bennet or Jay Gatsby or Jane Eyre look like, while I have no such image.

If I have a vivid picture of someone, it's only because I've seen them in drawings or films - like Miss Marple, Frankenstein's Monster, Oliver Twist or Winnie the Pooh. I may know what they look like even if I haven't read the book - like Harry Potter.

It's frustrating because I feel I'm not really enjoying a book fully, I'm not totally immersed in it, if I can't picture the characters in my head. I can follow the plot and know what's going on, but there's something missing. It's like being in a very bare room with only a few sticks of furniture.

I guess I just have an inability to translate words into a visual image. They remain words and for some reason don't fire up my imagination as they should.

I'd love to see novels that have illustrations of all the main characters. I seem to remember that being a common practice when I was young (in Dickens for instance), but somewhere along the line they got dropped.

Monday 9 August 2021

Speech! Speech!

Social phobias of one kind or another are very common, and one of them is fear of public speaking. That's certainly one of my own fears, and fortunately an ordeal I've managed mainly to avoid.

I can talk easily enough in small groups, when I know all the people present very well. I was a trade union rep for several years and I had no problem chairing meetings, bringing up topics and getting people to make decisions. With only a handful of people scrutinising me, it wasn't too scary.

But large groups are a different matter. I've never had the nerve to make a speech at a marriage, a birthday party, a farewell do or a funeral. All those dozens of eyes in my direction would paralyse me. Not to mention the stress of writing the speech - wondering what would be appropriate, or flattering, or amusing, or what on the other hand might go down like a lead balloon and insult half the assembled company.

Even the need to make a short speech at work thanking people for a leaving present was enough to cause deep embarrassment as I tried frantically to cobble together a few pertinent comments without looking like a total halfwit.

In public meetings, I see plenty of people sounding off, clearly confident they have something very valid to say, while I'm sitting there in silence, not at all convinced it's worth opening my mouth in the face of much more informed and original opinions than my own.

Those meetings where a circle of attendees are asked to introduce themselves are also quite excruciating because I'm sure whatever I say is bound to seem trivial and pointless rather than interesting or heart-warming.

A witty speech is called for? Don't look at me....

Thursday 5 August 2021

Punch bag

I know I've got a slight bee in my bonnet, but I can't help noticing that a lot of people are getting more aggressive and abusive, and I wonder why that is. Why are they unable to behave in a civilised manner?

The latest victim of all this aggression is the humble Punch and Judy Show. Two Punch and Judy performers on Dorset beaches are having to contend with spectators who don't want to pay, who swear and shout, who dodge the donation box, and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

This never used to be the case, but nowadays it seems that if spectators aren't 100 per cent satisfied, they feel entitled to disrupt the show and make a huge disturbance.

One performer, Mark Poulton, had to post on his Facebook page calling for the abuse to stop. He said "We love making people happy, seeing everyone smile, and enjoying themselves. If you don't wish to pay for the show, please politely decline and move along, please don't hurl abuse at people simply for trying to make a living."

Of course some people would like to end Punch and Judy Shows, which they see as glorifying male violence, and I tend to agree. Or maybe you could write a modernised version with a more assertive July telling Punch to pull his weight or pack his bags.

As a kid I went to quite a few Punch and Judy Shows, and really at that age the political message entirely escaped me. I just thought it was funny in the same way as children's violent cartoons are funny. But I guess that message can seep in unconsciously.

Punch and Judy Shows have always been a traditional part of seaside holidays and it would be sad if they disappeared simply because of the loud-mouthed abuse from a few uncouth (possibly tipsy) bystanders.

Pic: Take that, Punch, you nasty little man

Sunday 1 August 2021


It's easy to take for granted in a relationship that your partner can be trusted - that they'll do what they say, behave the way you expect them to, and in general not present you with any nasty surprises.

I feel sorry for those women who can't trust their men an inch - who're never sure where they are or what they're doing, and always suspect they're up to something disturbing or illegal or shameful. They're forever on tenterhooks, wondering what fresh embarrassments are on the way (I guess there are also men who can't trust their women but far fewer of them).

Jenny and I have complete trust in each other. We don't dread finding out something shocking about the other person.

Jenny knows I'm not going to raid our savings and disappear into the night, or develop some insatiable addiction to gambling or alcohol or drugs or porn, or burn the house down, or wreck the car, or run off with a buxom blonde twenty years younger, or live in a cave seeking spiritual enlightenment, or smash windows in Whitehall, or join the British National Front.

She knows I value her company and won't be down the pub every evening with my mates, discussing football, making misogynist jokes, ranting about immigrants, getting blind drunk, and then heaving a sigh and saying "Oh well, I suppose I'd better be getting back to the old ball and chain."

I guess there are women who've lost all trust in their men but stick with them anyhow, rather than start afresh with a new partner who might turn out to be equally untrustworthy. After all, could they ever trust a man again?

It's very easy to destroy trust and very hard to rebuild it.

Wednesday 28 July 2021

The glorious past

There are two types of nostalgia, and I don't subscribe to either of them.

There's nostalgia meaning a belief in some sort of golden period in the past, when everything was better than nowadays - people were kinder, more reliable, more efficient, more honest etc etc. You would actively like to go back to that period and leave all the deficiencies of the present day behind.

Then there's nostalgia meaning the belief that standards used to be higher, people took more of a pride in what they did, whereas now the bare minimum will do and sloppiness and mediocrity are rampant. Journalism has degenerated into tittle-tattle, bad grammar goes uncorrected, letters from businesses make no sense, and so on.

Well, I've never believed in a golden period. Whatever years you look at, there are plenty of failings along with the benefits. In the 1960s for example, often seen as a glorious decade, yes, you had high salaries, cheap housing and free university tuition, but you also had homophobia, much more racism, and until 1967 abortion was illegal.

But the problems of previous eras tend to be conveniently forgotten while the problems of the present are all too evident and emphasised day after day by the media, often blown up out of all proportion.

As for slipping standards, well, they are and they aren't. Yes, standards of some things like letter-writing, journalism and degree courses may have declined, but what about the coronavirus vaccines, or complex medical treatment, or computer software, or the increasing reliability of cars? No diminishing standards there.

Personally I've no desire to turn the clock back. I think I'll stay right here with the internet and all its little miracles. So thanks but no thanks.

Saturday 24 July 2021

Armchair critics

What really struck me as I was watching an Amy Winehouse documentary last night (she died ten years ago yesterday) was how many people happily pontificate about who or what caused her death and heap blame on whoever they think pushed her over the edge.

People who never met Amy, know nothing about her except what they read in the media, but set themselves up as instant experts on her complex psychological state.

They'll casually pour scorn on her mother, her father or her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, also people they've never met, oblivious to the effect their vitriol might be having on the recipients.

All they're doing is adding insult to injury. Her parents, still struggling with deep grief ten years on, also have to fend off the endless barrage of accusations and derision from people who think they know better than her family and friends what might have saved her.

Who knows what could have saved her? She was clearly in a very bad way when she died, but rejected any type of therapy or professional help. She suffered from bulimia, alcoholism, a period of drug addiction, and was mentally and emotionally very fragile and unstable.

To begin with she enjoyed her sudden rise to fame, but that turned into another psychological hindrance she could have done without.

Her parents Mitch and Janis are adamant they did everything they could to help her but were constantly thwarted. They're obviously hurt and shaken by all the criticism from complete strangers.

These armchair critics would be better off minding their own business and reflecting on their own imperfections - which no doubt are numerous.

Monday 19 July 2021

The flying ordeal

So to continue the plane theme, it's amazing what people like us put up with in economy class when we simply can't afford anything better. You can forget about comfort and convenience - they were long ago dispensed with in the search for bigger profits and maximum bums on seats.

  • For anything up to 12 hours, I'm stuck in a tiny seat with not enough room even to stretch my legs. Chances are the person in front will recline their seat to the utmost until it's about three inches from my face. If I ask them not to recline their seat, they'll likely be rude and defensive.
  • Moving around is strictly limited. In theory I can walk up and down the aisle, but with dozens of people doing the same, and cabin crew doling out meals and drinks, I'm forced into immobility. As I'm normally a physically restless person unable to sit for more than an hour or so, this lack of movement is torture.
  • Eating a meal is a nightmare. The tray table is so small I can't lay out the different items properly and I have to juggle them ingeniously to keep them all on the table and stop them falling on the floor. Needless to say the food itself is usually barely edible and only eaten because I'm starving.
  • If I'm in a window seat, I have to brace myself to tell the adjacent passenger/s I need the toilet, and be ready for the standard hard-done-by look. If I'm not in the window seat, I have to undo my seat belt, unplug my earphones and try not to look hard-done-by.
  • Odds are there are queues for the toilets and the people currently using them are taking so long they must be cutting their toenails, looking for their missing contact lens or weeping copiously. And if you need the toilet while meals are being served and the aisles are blocked, you're stuffed.
Which is why if I'm on a 12 hour flight, I insist on Premium Economy. At east I have a bit more room to manoeuvre.

PS: If I'd included all Jenny's comments on economy class, this post would have been twice as long!

Thursday 15 July 2021

Casual flyers

I've always been captivated by planes. As someone with no understan-ding at all of aerodyn-amics, I constantly marvel that these incredibly heavy machines (the Dreamliner is 190 tons) somehow not only manage to take off but travel thousands of miles across the world with no visible means of support.

Jenny is even more captivated. She was an ardent plane spotter as a kid, and often visited Heathrow, which was close to her parents' house.

When we first met we were always financially stretched, so we didn't actually fly anywhere until 1994, when we went to Venice, Florence and Rome. Before I met Jenny my only flights were in a private plane flown by a friend's mother, and a short family hop from the now defunct Lympne Airfield in Kent to Paris.

Now of course we've flown all over the world and think nothing of it. Unfortunately millions of other people are equally casual flyers and the resulting pollution has made us rethink our flying habits. We may abandon long-haul trips altogether. But short-haul trips are unavoidable to go elsewhere in the UK.

I've never been afraid of flying. Planes are maintained to much higher standards than the average car, and besides, the flight crew don't want to die because of some botched repair job. If the crew are happy, so am I.

I do always wonder, when I'm in a really massive plane trundling down the runway, whether it'll actually take off or end up in the adjoining field, but of course it always does take off.

Our only edge-of-the-seat experience was when our plane from the US was coming in to land at Gatwick in thick fog. The pilot circled several times before deciding it was okay to land, and when the plane touched ground there was a huge round of applause from the passengers.

I could say something about in-flight conditions - and the food - but I'll leave that for another day.

Sunday 11 July 2021

A helping hand

It's terrible getting old, people say. You've got aches and pains every-where, people don't respect you any more, you're baffled by all the new ways of doing things, you know death's just round the corner.

Well, actually life can be terrible at any age. As a child, you're always told what to do by other people, there are so many things you don't understand, you want things you can't buy, you're put in clothes you loathe, you're forced to spend time with distant uncles and aunts who mean nothing to you.

When you're middle-aged, you're loaded with ongoing responsibilities like bringing up children, looking after elderly parents, paying off a mortgage, building up a retirement fund, scrambling up the career ladder, coping with tyrannical bosses, maybe saddled with a huge overdraft.

Any age can be ghastly. But the real difference between one age and another is how much help and support you get.

Children have the support of their parents and relatives and siblings and teachers. They're surrounded by other people who want them to have happy and fulfilling lives.

The middle-aged are usually supported by a family network that helps with child-minding, ferrying children to school, giving parenting advice, providing loans and dealing with emergencies.

If they're lucky, older people will also have a family and friends to keep an eye on them, but they may not be so fortunate. Deaths may have wiped out their family and many of their friends and they may end up quite isolated and unable to get the support they need. They may struggle to keep their spirits up and get through their daily lives.

It's not old age that's the problem. It's whether you have a helping hand when you need it. Or preferably a whole bunch of helping hands.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Taken for granted

People who've been fortunate in life often take it for granted. They take their life and whatever they've achieved as the natural order of things - not the result of luck, family background, inheritance or where they live but as something that simply "happened".

I've never had that attitude. I've never taken anything for granted, and I'm very aware that some bizarre twist of fate could take away all those things I'm accustomed to overnight. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is cast in stone, life can change utterly in a moment.

I think taking things for granted is a good definition of entitlement. Instead of thanking your lucky stars for being so fortunate, you feel you have what you have because you're entitled to it.

It makes a big difference if your life only took a turn for the better as you got older. If you've always had a privileged life and never had to struggle for a step upward, then you're more likely to take things as a matter of course.

If your early life was deprived or constrained, then you realise you can't take anything for granted and when things improve you always have a sense that life is precarious, fragile, that nothing is as solid as it seems.

In my late twenties I didn't have much money, I lived in a spartan bedsit, I had few friends and my father wouldn't speak to me. As my life gradually brightened over the years, I enjoyed the change but I was never complacent about it. I knew so much was down to luck or being in the right place at the right time.

Your life is more precarious than you think. As a deadly virus has been reminding us for many months.