Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Fizzing with rage

I'm not easily offended, so I'm often astonished at how easily other people take offence at things that seem to me quite trivial.

Am I very resilient, very thick-skinned, and very self-confident, or am I just totally insensitive and unable to understand why other people feel so hurt and upset by something?

If you wear something associated with another culture, this is "cultural appropriation". If you don't agree that trans women are women, this is "transphobia". If you criticise female circumcision or honour killings, this is "disrespecting other cultures". If you don't accept someone else's version of reality, this could be a "hate crime".

There are no doubt plenty of people who would chastise me for being middle-class, for being privileged, for being well-off, for sounding posh, for being complacent, and so on, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. I'm certainly not going to fizz with rage and demand grovelling apologies. People are entitled to their opinion, even if I think they've got me all wrong.

Obviously some remarks really are offensive - condemning homosexuality as an "unnatural perversion" or describing women as "crazy and hysterical". But other remarks are more tactless or tasteless or stupid than offensive. Getting worked-up over every stupid remark is a pointless waste of breath.

In a society that values freedom of speech, of course some people are going to say things that upset others. Yes, they might be offended for a while, but it's hardly the end of the world. If they stop to reflect, they might even see some truth in whatever's being said.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." - Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Thursday, 18 February 2021

In your dreams

Dreams are very mysterious. In general they have no obvious meaning or advice for us, yet we get dozens of them every night. What for? Why don't we just sleep soundly with no dreams whatever?

My dreams are mostly anxiety dreams. I'm lost somewhere and trying to find my way home. Or someone sinister is chasing me through an empty building. Or I'm at a dinner party and have no idea who the other people are or what to say to them.

All my dreams tell me is that I'm an anxious person, which I know only too well. Why remind me of the self-evident? Why don't I have dreams telling me how to banish anxiety? Or even dreams that say my brain is right now deleting all my anxieties?

Psychologists have puzzled over the meaning of dreams for centuries and no doubt will keep doing so, and will keep drawing a blank. Many therapists are convinced dreams have plenty of meaning if you just interpret them in the right way, but I haven't found that myself. However I interpret my dreams, whatever I imagine they're telling me in some coded form, I usually end up none the wiser.

I hardly ever dream of people I know. If I did they might suggest something interesting about that person - that they're creepy or crazy or cranky. Even people I worked with for many years, even family members, even famous public figures, never appear. One supposedly common dream is to be meeting the Queen, but I must disappoint Her Majesty on that score.

Another apparently common dream is to find yourself naked in a public place, but I have to say that wherever I happen to be, I'm always fully clothed. Clearly whatever mechanism controls my dreams, it believes in public decency.

But I'm still waiting for a dream where I'm bursting with self-confidence and optimism, and anxiety is a thing of the past.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Good riddance

It's a great relief that my advanced age means all the awkward and embarr-assing things I had to do as a youngster are now well behind me and I'll never be subjected to them again. To name but a few:

  • Obeying my parents. Or furtively disobeying them, doing what I wanted to do anyway and making sure they didn't find out.
  • Dating. All those nerve-racking encounters with complete strangers, all those clumsy conversations and inept questioning.
  • Losing my virginity. All in all a rather gauche and fumbling experience, trying not to make a complete fool of myself.
  • Trying to look handsome/dashing/virile etc. Nowadays my only aim is to be not quite as wrinkled and flabby as other seventy somethings.
  • My first day at school. I've forgotten it, but it must have been quite an ordeal for a young boy who wasn't sure what to expect.
  • My first day at work. Wondering what I was supposed to be doing and almost suffocating in the dense cigarette smoke.
  • Going on strike. Necessary as it was, other people's lack of interest in our grievances was disconcerting.
  • Getting on the property ladder. Desperately trying to get enough money together to buy a flat and escape greedy landlords.
  • Learning to drive. Always scared I would do something wrong and smash into a line of very expensive parked cars.
  • Playing football/cricket/rugby. As I was obliged to do at school, utterly indifferent to all of them and hating every minute.
Who'd want to be young again? Who'd want to go through all those things a second time? Not me, for sure.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Costly nosiness

How much privacy are spouses entitled to when it comes to personal information about their financial transactions? Are they entitled to keep it secret or should they be more transparent?

Suspecting her husband of infidelity, Karen Santi opened one of his paper bank statements, read messages on his computer, and sent some of the information to a financial advisor.

It seems she didn't find any evidence of an affair, and her furious husband Lawrence retaliated by seeking a court non-disclosure order to stop her passing the information to anyone else.

The divorce case is continuing, but meanwhile Mrs Santi has been told to pay £54,000 of her husband's £90,000 legal costs, a sum she says will "wipe out her liquid assets".

She maintained that looking at the confidential information of the other in the context of a marriage breakdown was understandable.

Well, this situation would never arise for me and Jenny, because all our financial transactions are on joint accounts and neither of us have individual accounts. Whatever one of us spends is immediately visible to the other.

I can see the £100 she paid for that fancy handbag and she can see the £100 I spent on Calvin Klein underpants (just kidding).

So if one of us was shagging someone else, it would be obvious pretty quickly - that unexplained hotel bill or that purchase from Posh Frocks.

But if we had separate accounts, would I feel justified in having a furtive peek at my spouse's bank statements? If I suspected a clandestine affair, maybe I would. But I'd be more cunning about it and not leave any traces of my nosiness.

Not that either of us has any hankering for affairs. We have much more interesting and guilt-free ways of enjoying ourselves.

Karen Santi is paying a high price for her suspicions.

Pic: Karen Santi

Saturday, 6 February 2021

A nice cuppa

Molly Chesney from Newark in Nottinghamshire, who's 48, claims she's never had a cup of tea in her life. Yes, she's tried a few herbal teas, but never an ordinary cuppa. She says just seeing it and smelling it puts her right off.

I must say it's hard to believe. Not a single cup of tea in 48 years? Surely she's pulling our legs?

But apparently it's not unusual. Quite a few people are revolted by tea and won't drink it. No doubt their friends try to persuade them it's delicious, but they don't get very far.

Personally I can't get enough of the stuff, and neither can Jenny. We drink at least six or seven cups a day each. It would be more if it wasn't for our two cups of coffee in the morning.

We don't drink much else in fact. No beer, no Coca-Cola, no fizzy drinks, no energy drinks. Maybe a glass of wine in the evening, that's it.

When we're staying in a hotel, with the usual stingy allotment of teabags per room (about four), the first thing we do is buy a large packet of teabags to allow us our customary daily quota.

Too much tea is said to be bad for you - you're liable to suffer headaches, anxiety, indigestion and insomnia. That may apply to others, but Jenny and I have never been afflicted.

The ex-Labour Cabinet Minister, Tony Benn, was renowned for his love of tea. He would drink it from massive mugs, claiming once that he drank a pint of tea every hour. Clearly it didn't do him any harm, as he was 88 when he died.

"I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea" - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Enough already

I like novels that focus on one or two characters and explore their lives and personal-ities in great detail. I get to know them so well they become extremely vivid, almost flesh and blood, and I can really get to love them or hate them.

Novels with too many characters drive me nuts. Firstly I can't keep track of them and I have to keep reminding myself who is who, who's related to who, who's shagging who, who does what job, who died, who has a nasty illness, and so on till I'm thoroughly confused. It doesn't help that I have a memory like a sieve and will forget the character on page 51 once I'm on page 52.

Secondly, when there are so many characters you never get to know them in any depth. They flit in and out and often are little more than shallow caricatures. You know the sort of thing - Jim the controlling husband, Karen the timid wife and their two children, truculent Simon and well-behaved Tessa.

And once they become caricatures, it's hard to tell them apart. Is this uncle one, uncle two or uncle three? They're all grumpy, opinionated and doddery. Which is which?

So why do authors flood their books with so many characters? One author, Anne R Allen, confesses: "One of my personal writing issues is I tend to pack my books and stories with way too many characters. If a fascinating person walks into one of my stories, I feel it would be rude not to let them join the party. This drives my editors batty. They think confusing the reader is worse than being rude to fictional people. And of course they're right."

Right now I'm re-reading Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood. I love it precisely because it centres on one person - Rennie - and tells you more and more about her.

Rennie sticks in my mind. Not so, uncle three.

Friday, 29 January 2021

Future shock

I always say I'd love to know exactly what the future will bring, so that instead of being thrown by some extraordinary turn of events, I'll know what's coming and I can plan for anything untoward.

I could get my affairs in order if I was about to die. I could prepare myself if some awful illness was about to strike. I could avoid that dodgy builder who seemed okay but would botch the job.

But if I'd known what my future held when I was young, would I have felt happier? Or would I have been so shocked by all the things that were coming my way (including all the horrors of the outside world), I'd be screaming like a banshee and wishing I'd never known what was in store?

If I'd known about the global pandemic, or the crazy American President, or the climate crisis, would I have been thoroughly downcast? Would I have wished I'd remained ignorant?

On the other hand, if I'd known I was going to meet the love of my life and we would spend many happy years together, if I'd known I would travel to all sorts of amazing places, if I'd known I would end up in a lovely detached house, would I have been cock-a-hoop? Would I have been looking forward to the future with enthusiasm?

Some people say that not knowing what the future holds is what makes life exciting. If we knew exactly what was going to happen, wouldn't life be rather dull and flat? We would have to introduce some artificial excitement like a bunch of exotic animals or some visiting Martians.

Of course, if we could all foretell the future, a lot of clairvoyants and tarot readers and fortune tellers would be out of a job.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Just do it

When I was young, self control and will power were highly valued. My parents were always telling me I should have more self control, that it would rid me of my scattiness, my impulsiveness, my over-eating, and a dozen other undesirable traits.

But self control seems to have gone out of fashion long ago. Who even talks about it? And who boasts about possessing it? Very few people.

There's a general assumption that self control is a relic of a bygone age, an age when people were so full of inhibitions they never had any fun, never "let go".

More and more, people are encouraged to just do whatever they want, whatever they feel comfortable with, go wherever the urge takes them. Get as angry as you like, as jealous as you like, as belligerent as you like. If that annoys or offends other people, too bad.

I see people doing exactly that and it's cringe-worthy. They get impossibly drunk. They shout at shop assistants. They jump queues. They chuck rubbish everywhere. They drive like maniacs. They spout outrageous opinions. They ignore all the virus restrictions.

I don't mind admitting that I have a lot of self control and will power and I see nothing wrong with that. I've acquired skills I wouldn't have acquired otherwise. I've made the most of my abilities and the opportunities I've been given. I've steered away from things that could do me harm, like dangerous drugs or binge-drinking. I don't feel like my life has been crushed in the process.

Perhaps the pendulum will finally swing back and people will conclude they've been a bit too free-and-easy, a bit too self-indulgent, and now is the time to rein it all in a bit.

Perhaps. But don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

A bit lacking

There's a general assumption that both extroversion and introversion are normal, natural tendencies, and that each are valuable in different ways. It's not the case that one is more normal or desirable than the other.

But is that so? I can't help feeling that extroverts are actually the exemplar, the ideal, and that introverts may have their strengths but in the last analysis are a bit short of the basic human traits - like self-confidence, friendliness, sociability and openness.

Isn't it only natural to be gregarious, to seek out other people, to be able to chatter freely to them? Isn't it natural to feel comfortable in other people's company, to enjoy getting to know them?

And isn't it a bit unnatural to want to keep to yourself and avoid other people? Surely we're all essentially social animals?

I know introversion is largely inherited, and your upbringing can only modify it to a limited extent, so in the end we introverts just have to "suck it up" and make the most of it.

Of course we justify our difference by saying we think things through better, we dream up important inventions, we produce wonderful art, we're good listeners, we're more observant etc etc. But that seems more like making the best of a bad job than a convincing defence.

In any case, extroverts can be all those things as well, they're just more talkative and more gregarious while they're at it.

I happily hype up my introversion for public consumption, but deep down I always feel a bit of a social duffer compared to all those outgoing chatterboxes who love to be surrounded by other people.

I feel like the little boy trying to learn to swim, while all around me seasoned swimmers are effortlessly ploughing through the water.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Puttering along


I'm grateful for the fact that Jenny and I have weathered the pandemic and the various lockdowns so successfully. There haven't been any big psychological or emotional traumas, and we've just puttered along comfortably.

That's not the case for many others who've found the pandemic hard to cope with and have been driven to unexpected extremes. They've divorced, or had affairs (or discovered them), or developed mental problems like anxiety or depression, or had violent arguments over housework or shopping - or just different attitudes to fighting the virus.

Of course it helps that Jenny and I are such a long-standing couple and have had plenty of time to adjust to each other's personalities and quirks and weaknesses. The pandemic is just another crisis we've adjusted to together. Therapists have noticed that long-standing couples are coping better with the pandemic than short-term couples.

Sometimes I miss the old freedoms we took for granted - going wherever we wanted, going to the cinema or art galleries or literary events, jetting off to some exciting destination - but most of the time I'm happy to hunker down with a good book or a glass of wine. After all, I've been retired for almost three years, so I'm used to amusing myself.

I'm also glad all this has happened now, when I can share the crisis with a partner in a big, warm house. If it had happened in the seventies, when I was living on my own in a bleak, freezing bedsit, I would probably have been very miserable. For a start, I wouldn't have had the internet to entertain me.

The only thing that worries me right now is, will I get my usual slap-up birthday meal at our favourite local restaurant, or will it still be closed? Will I have to make do with a mushroom pizza and a few swigs of pinot grigio? Time will tell.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Not for me

Sometimes I ask myself, what is the worst possible job I could have done? What would I have absolutely hated doing? What would I have been utterly unsuited for?

There are plenty of contenders, plenty of jobs where I would have been floundering desperately or totally humiliating myself or wondering why on earth I took the job. Or all three.

One thing I would hate to be right now is a police officer. They have a thankless job at the best of times, but in the midst of the pandemic they're being asked to do the impossible.

On top of all their existing tasks, they're expected to police all the new laws and restrictions and stop people from disobeying them. How on earth can they do that with a chronically under-funded police force and thousands of people determined to ignore all the restrictions and do whatever the hell they like?

But there are so many things that would stop me taking the job, however generous the salary. For example:

  • Enforcing laws I don't necessarily agree with, like possessing drugs or producing obscene publications or being drunk and disorderly
  • Facing violent opposition from bystanders like brick-throwing, kickings, or being pinned to the ground
  • The widespread hostility towards the police, based more on blind prejudice than what the police are actually doing
  • Being blamed for "heavy-handed" behaviour, when often the police are deliberately provoked by aggressive crowds
Of course the police can sometimes be their own worst enemies, picking on black people (and killing them), laying into peaceful demonstrators, stopping people for trivial offences, roughing up detainees and so on. But they do a very difficult job and have to contend with some extremely ugly situations.

Would I fancy joining the forces of law and order? Thanks but no thanks.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

The good old days

Was life really better in "the good old days"? I don't think so, but it seems many people do. A survey a few years ago found that half of adults over 50 thought life in the past was preferable, while just 19 per cent opted for the present day.

Their reasons? Less traffic, longer-lasting products, a slower pace of life, more patience and consideration, no distracting internet, better TV shows and music, more community spirit, free university tuition, cheaper houses.

Yes, they mention all the things that were better, but what about all the things that were worse? Rampant sexism, homophobia and racism; plenty of sub-standard housing; deference to authority figures; freezing homes without central heating; hand-washed laundry; limited access to information prior to computers and search engines; far fewer university places. And no doubt other things I've forgotten about.

Perhaps what people really mean when they talk about the good old days is that modern life baffles and frightens them and they can't adjust to all the changes. Sure, there's a lot of problems, but they overlook all the good things - especially the internet and how it's made life easier in so many ways, and better treatment of women and minorities.

Certainly I don't see any "good old days" in my own life. My childhood was far from happy, and my early adult life was pretty discouraging - spartan bedsits, not much money, lots of disappointing dates, little contact with my family. It was only in my thirties that things started to look up.

I think the "good old days" are more a product of rose-tinted spectacles than an honest look at how life used to be. I for one wouldn't want a re-run of my early years and all their ordeals.

Apart from anything else, how would I have got by without all the delights of blogging?

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Books galore

When does book collecting become book hoarding? When do you have a normal number of books and bookshelves, and when does it become abnormal? When does book-buying become such a wild compulsion that you no longer have enough bookshelves for them, and there are piles of books all over the floor?

People with absurd numbers of books (like tens of thousands) will justify them by saying they fully intend to read them all one day, or they're of sentimental value, or they can't bear to part with old favourites, or they're related to a particular interest (like hundreds of bird books).

Jenny and I have always kept our book stock to a modest level - about a thousand books at the last count - by aiming to discard as many books as we buy. This routine has served us well so far. Luckily there's a charity second-hand bookshop just down the road. so our abandoned books will find new readers. Of course we may simply be encouraging book hoarders to buy dozens of cheap second-hand books....

There's a temptation to acquire as many books as your home can accommodate. The first flats Jenny and I lived in were too small for large numbers of books, so we were more likely to "read and discard", but as we moved to bigger flats the need for a rapid recycling of books declined and they tended to linger.

We keep a lot of books on the basis that we're sure to re-read them some day, only to find that many of them never get re-read and just gather dust. Sooner or later our tastes change and that wonderful old book from ten years ago suddenly seems clunky and rambling and ready to be thrown out.

At least I don't buy books I know very well I'll never read, like Ulysses or War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time. That's a few less to worry about.