Saturday, 15 May 2021

Sign of the times

If your neighbour put a small BLM sign in their window, would you think "Good for them, it's a great campaign, we should all support it"? Or would you think "People shouldn't put up controversial political slogans in their window"?

A resident of Cheam, a posh south London suburb, has caused a stir by sending an anonymous letter to a neighbour complaining about the Black Lives Matter sign in their upstairs window. The offended party (they don't say if they're male or female) says the sign "does not reflect well on the neighbourhood" and looks like "a protest message to your neighbours".

I can't help wondering if the origin of the family in the offending house (Aj Shehata's parents were born in Sudan) might have something to do with the complaint.

It seems like an absurd over-reaction. The BLM sign is so small it's barely visible. Most passers-by would probably not even notice it. Yet the letter-writer thinks it's a serious blot on the landscape.

The Shehatas' neighbours are also bemused by the complaint. Some of them say they'll put up BLM signs in solidarity.

My own neighbours have had "Thanks to the NHS" signs in their windows for months. Nobody is the least bit bothered by them.

It would be a different matter if they were displaying (for instance) huge "Bring back the death penalty" signs. I would be the first to leap into action and demand they be removed. But a miniscule BLM sign? Some people clearly have too much time on their hands.

If the letter-writer had had the decency to ring the Shehatas' doorbell and have a proper conversation with them, the matter could probably have been resolved quite easily without the need for a stroppy anonymous letter.

Pic: the Shehata family's house. The BLM sign is inside the circle.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Silver splitters

Apparently there's a rising trend for "silver splitters" - older couples who divorce in their fifties or sixties, often after decades of marriage, and either marry again or stay single. They no longer want to stay together till the bitter end, but decide to split up and make a new start while there's still plenty of their life left.

But one relationship counsellor says that people underestimate the consequences of splitting, both for themselves and other family members. It can be much more expensive than they thought, it can greatly upset their children, and it can be hard to cast aside the psychological bonds of a long-lasting relationship.

Personally, I can't imagine leaving Jenny and starting again with someone else. After so many years of forging such close bonds with each other, I'm sure it would be incredibly difficult to begin that process all over again with another person. At every step I'd be bringing a whole lot of emotional baggage from my previous relationship, which surely would get in the way of making a new one.

Of course if your existing relationship is disastrous, if there's domestic violence, if you have fiercely differing views on many subjects, if you simply don't get on, if your partner is an alcoholic or a drug addict, then it's a lot easier to make the break, though even then there may be a reluctance to give up on a relationship you've invested so much in over so many years.

Then again, some former spouses simply don't want another relationship. They decide they're perfectly happy living on their own. As one divorcee put it: "All of my girl friends who have got divorced went wild in the year afterwards. They were having a blast dating guys."

What you might call Silver Seducers.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Letting rip

I'm baffled by people who get some sort of kick out of criticising total strangers - people they've never met, maybe never heard of up till now, people they know nothing whatever about, people who have nothing to do with their own lives.

They don't care how insulting or hurtful or ignorant their criticism might be. They don't care what effect they're having on the people concerned. They don't care if what they're saying is a complete fabrication. They think it's perfectly okay to put the boot in whenever they feel like it.

I try to avoid such gratuitous attacks on people. I'm no fan of the royal family, but I don't lay into them at every opportunity*. I just ignore them. Naturally I'm aware of all the scandals involving public figures, but I don't promptly add my vitriolic comments to the usual social media pile-on. I mind my own business.

My mother was fond of making disparaging remarks about homosexuals. I used to ask her why she was so obsessed with a group of people totally unconnected with her own life, whom she'd never met, who didn't affect her life in any way, but she wouldn't listen.

There are plenty of people whose views I disagree with, whose personal behaviour appals me, whose mad ambitions alarm me, but I don't feel the need to publicly hurl abuse at them or tear them to bits. I have much more interesting things to do.

It's now routine for public figures, especially women, to get torrents of unrelenting hatred day in and day out. Why should anyone have to live with this kind of permanent denigration? I'm certainly not going to add to it.

*the racist and misogynistic abuse heaped on Meghan Markle is quite shocking.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Off or on?

Wise Web Woman started an interesting thread on whether you should wear your shoes in other people's houses, or take them off. Is removing your shoes common sense or fastidious nonsense?

There are strong views either way. What the shoe-removers say:

  • It's a question of hygiene. They don't want shoes that have picked up who-knows-what filth on public streets dropping that filth on their floors, especially on pale-coloured carpets and rugs.
  • Thousands of harmful bacteria lodge on people's shoes, and are easily shed inside a house. If children regularly play on the floor, they could pick up something nasty.
  • In some countries it's normal to remove your shoes on entering a house, and not doing so is seen as disrespectful. Often the householder will supply slippers to replace outdoor shoes.
However there are also good reasons for not removing your shoes:

  • You might have some sort of deformity or foot infection. A disability might make it difficult to remove and replace your shoes. You may have holes in your socks. Your feet may feel cold easily. Or there are splinters in wood flooring.
  • The hygiene aspect is exaggerated. The chance of catching something toxic from a person's shoes must be pretty low, or we'd all be falling ill very day. We're a lot more likely to get food poisoning.
  • With no shoes on, you're more likely to pick up bacteria from the householder's carpets and other floors, especially bacteria left by dogs and cats.
But if someone prefers to keep their shoes on, they shouldn't be forced to remove them or asked for a reason. That would just be rude.

Jenny's brother asks visitors to remove their shoes in his house. So do the couple two doors down from us. We're happy to do so, on the grounds of hygiene. But there isn't a no-shoes rule in our own house. What filthy beasts we are!

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Virus meltdown

To judge by what I read in the media, after a year of lockdowns we're all in psychological turmoil, battered by so many restrictions and vetoes that we're unable to function normally.

According to the health experts, we're more anxious, more depressed, more lonely, more frustrated. We no longer know how to relate to other people or have a routine conversation. Once the lockdowns are over, we'll struggle to relearn our social skills and get back to normality.

Well, I think they're laying it on a bit thick. I don't see much sign of psychological turmoil among my friends or neighbours. Or among my blogmates and Facebook pals. People seem to be a lot more resilient and adaptable than the experts make out, and coping with the unusual situation very well.

I had a long conversation with a friend outside Tesco on Monday, and we had no problem with conversation. We were chatting away happily for some twenty minutes. There was no sign that either of us was unduly anxious, depressed or otherwise psychologically clobbered.

The children going to and from the local schools seem to be as happy and boisterous as always. I don't see anyone trailing along looking miserable and listless.

Maybe I just move in the wrong circles. Maybe in some milieu unknown to me people are quivering wrecks, incapable of acting normally and desperately in need of help. But if so, I haven't come across them.

Of course the lockdowns are causing financial problems, medical problems, schooling problems, travel problems. But serious psychological problems? I suspect that's much less common than the experts would have us believe.

But hey, the media have to find something sensational to write about, and there's still plenty of mileage in covid meltdown.

Saturday, 24 April 2021

The urge to destroy

One of the many things that baffle me is the crazy urge to destroy that some people possess. However you look at their actions, they make absolutely no sense except as a brainless desire to annoy and inconvenience other people.

Right now there's a massive wildfire in the Mourne Mountains, 30 miles south of Belfast. There have been many wildfires there over the last few years, some of them clearly started by arsonists. Why deliberately destroy many acres of beautiful scenery and innocent wildlife?

A 24 year old man has been arrested in Surrey after dozens of mature trees were randomly chopped down. Again, there have been other similar tree-felling incidents over the years, and never any plausible explanation. Needless to say, the locals are always incensed by such vandalism.

Memorials, monuments and gravestones are regularly defaced, broken and covered with graffiti. Plastic rubbish, which could harm or kill marine creatures, is left on beaches. Obstacles placed on railway lines could cause crashes and derailments. Equipment in children's playgrounds is wrecked beyond repair.

Goodness knows what the motivation is. Is it some personal grudge or grievance? Is it the urge to disrupt other people's seemingly happier lives? Is it the need to impress some bunch of friends they hang out with? Is it to give them a sense of power? It's a mystery.

It's impossible to understand why some people want to destroy something valuable and life-enhancing rather than to nurture it. Unfortunately it can be the work of a moment to destroy something, while nurturing can take a lot more effort and dedication.

Monday, 19 April 2021

Driven out

For some years now there have been angry complaints from people in more desirable parts of the country that their children are being driven out of the area by wealthy incomers pushing up property prices to levels the locals can no longer afford.

Politicians are taking all sorts of counter-measures but none of them seem to have much effect, and the proliferation of expensive second homes and holiday homes in attractive areas continues apace.

It seems to me that as long as outsiders can afford hefty prices for local homes, and as long as residents can enjoy a large profit by selling up, the trend to "colonise" picturesque villages and towns - and appealing parts of cities - can only continue.

I think the politicians who are trying to turn back the tide are onto a losing battle, but they're reluctant to make the obvious suggestion - that if the locals can no longer afford the rocketing house prices, then there's actually nothing wrong with moving some place where property is cheaper.

After all, that's what Jenny and I did, and it's worked out very well for us. We gave up on Islington, one of the most expensive parts of London, because we couldn't afford to move from a flat to a house. We sold our flat and left for Belfast, where we were able to buy a semi-detached house for cash, with plenty of money left over.

A lot of Londoners defeated by the property prices are now heading for cheaper cities and towns where not only are houses affordable but the quality of life is better - less congestion, a slower pace, friendlier people and lots of nearby beauty spots. Often they wonder why they didn't make the move much earlier.

Being driven out could be a blessing in disguise.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

A bit on the side

Adultery is something that always puzzles me. Most people these days are so busy with one thing or another, I wonder how on earth they find the time to have a second relationship on top of their existing one.

I also wonder how they endure the stress of constantly keeping the other relationship secret and preventing their regular partner from getting suspicious.

And what about the extra expense, if you're barely solvent as it is? The hotel rooms, the restaurant meals, the travelling around, the presents.

I've never had any desire for a clandestine affair. Not just because I'm very happy with my existing partner but because I'm a fairly straightforward person and deceit and subterfuge doesn't come naturally.

When you're putting all your effort into maintaining a long-standing relationship, surely putting a similar effort into a bit on the side must be totally exhausting?

But it seems to be amazingly common. You can't open a newspaper without reading about someone's affair. Or some randy Don Juan who's had one affair after another for decades.

What's also intriguing is the very different attitudes of the person who's been cheated on. Some go completely crazy, physically attacking their partner, destroying their clothes or possessions, even walking out. But others shrug their shoulders and accept that their partners will never be faithful so they may as well get used to it.

I've never been tempted into infidelity. There was a woman once I was strongly attracted to, but I quickly decided that the damage it could do was simply not worth a bit of furtive and possibly disappointing sex. In any case, she was much younger than me and wouldn't have been remotely interested.

A bit on the side? Not for me, thanks.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Feeling frugal

Frugality runs in my family. We all have a tendency to spend money sensibly and sparingly. We're not the sort to go on wild gambling sprees or buy luxury cars or go on round-the-world cruises.

Whatever I'm buying, I'll always look for a bargain. I steer away from designer clothes with absurdly high price tags. I don't buy fashionable clothes that will probably be out of fashion in six months' time. I don't buy fancy expensive furniture that was recommended in some magazine.

Of course there are some exceptions. I'll pay over the odds for a high-quality pair of shoes. I'll shell out a hefty sum for a foreign holiday. I'll dig deep for a really wonderful original painting.

But on the whole I don't splash my money around. I'm not an impulse buyer and I shop strictly for what I want. I don't go in for retail therapy and I don't go in for flashy purchases like jewellery or mountain bikes or upmarket sound systems. My needs are modest.

My mum always prided herself on her frugality, which got more extreme as she got older. She couldn't resist a special offer at the supermarket, or a cut-price holiday deal, or a dirt-cheap winter jacket. Her frugality was a bit of an illusion though, as she was also a hoarder and had bought so many "bargains" that her flat was completely stuffed with them.

But whenever I saw her, she would always tell me gleefully of her latest bit of penny-pinching, and how on-the-ball she had been. All of which was totally unnecessary because she was very well-off, but liked to prove she was a canny shopper who was never conned into wasting money.

I think any sign of luxury actually horrified her.

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For those of you who've read about the Northern Ireland rioting and might be wondering if Jenny and I are safe, yes we're perfectly safe. The mayhem in west Belfast doesn't affect us because we live seven miles away in east Belfast. So worry not!

Monday, 5 April 2021

Fait accompli

Every so often someone makes the headlines by complaining that too many foreign words are making their way into English, and this has to stop. They give the impression that if this tendency goes on, there won't be any English language left. It will have been replaced by all the foreignisms.

American imports get a lot of the blame - words like cookie, closet, movie, apartment, campus, fries, soccer, mailbox. But other languages have given us plenty of words as well. Croissant from French. Delicatessen from German. Glitch from Yiddish. Macho from Spanish. Karaoke from Japanese. Gung-ho from Chinese. Moped from Swedish. Paparazzi from Italian. In other words, English is being infiltrated by other languages non-stop.

So why is this a problem? There seems to be some idea of linguistic purity - some mysterious essence of English - which is being corrupted by all these foreign intruders. They're turning our rich and sophisticated language into some second-rate and polluted language that's embarrassing to use.

What a load of nonsense. Words derived from other languages are constantly enriching and enhancing English. Without them our language would be static and stale and would gradually wither. New and unfamiliar words are fun to decipher and adapt to. And of course they're fun to try out on people who've never heard them.

In any case, what about all those English words that find their way into other countries' languages? I daresay those people who object to the pollution of English are quite happy to pollute other languages with our own linguistic migrants.

I suspect that the wholesale invasion of English by other languages is not a faux pas but simply a fait accompli.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

War mongering

Journalists are always trying to stoke up a supposed generation war - young people hate the old and vice versa - whereas in reality young and old may get on very well and sympathise with each other's problems.

An article in the Independent claims that "the generation wars seem worse than ever" and "the debate is becoming more toxic". Really? Where's the evidence, apart from a load of dubious anecdotes and stereotypes?

Most families include people of different ages and different generations. Are they all at loggerheads, constantly fuming and accusing each other of heinous offences? No, of course they aren't.

Some people get on well, some don't. That's all there is to it. I wasn't at war with my mother or my grandparents or my aunts and uncles. We may not have had the same opinions or attitudes but we rubbed along okay. I was estranged from my father for 20 years but that was exceptional.

Yes, some young people accuse us oldies of making their lives worse while we enjoy the fruits of much better lives. Yes, some oldies accuse young people of knowing it all despite their limited experience of the world.

Most of us take people as we find them however and don't trot out such one-sided stereotypes.

There's a natural tendency though for each generation to think they know better than any other generation - the young because they see us oldies as hopelessly out of touch with the modern world, oldies because we have so much more experience of the problems that life throws up, and the middle-aged because they're in the midst of so many situations the young haven't yet encountered and the oldies have forgotten about - like parenting or running a business.

Bu it takes more than self-righteousness to make a war.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Flag mania

National flags seem to divide people quite dramatically. Some people love them and display them at every opportunity to show how much they love their country. Others loathe them and find their display irritating and unnecessary. Others are simply indifferent to them.

The British government has taken to displaying the union flag at every media briefing. They're also stipulating that every government office must fly the union flag not just on special occasions but every day of the year.

One Tory MP has even criticised the BBC's Annual Report for not including the union flag and said the flag should appear several times. Other Tory MPs have suggested the BBC is ashamed of its British links.

It seems shocking to me that there's so much fuss over the national flag when other important issues like poverty and homelessness never get the attention they deserve.

Quite honestly I don't understand why the union flag needs to be publicly displayed at all. If you're patriotic and proud of your country, isn't that enough? Why the need for flags?

And it's beyond ridiculous when people declare that if you don't like flying the flag then you're unpatriotic or even some kind of traitor to your native land.

I've no objection to flags in general. If people want to fly a gay pride flag or a Thank You NHS flag or a Green Party flag, good luck to them. They may ruffle a few feathers but they don't arouse the violent tribal passions the union flag is now burdened with.

Incidentally, the union jack isn't even recognised in law as the national flag. It has become so purely through custom and practice. Unfortunately custom and practice has also led to a jingoistic intolerance of flag sceptics like myself.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The gift of privacy


It's easy to take privacy, and all that goes with it, for granted. It seems like an absolutely routine thing, but millions of people around the world have little or no privacy. People in refugee camps, in shanty towns, in boarding schools, in large families crammed into tiny flats.

I take for granted that I live in a large house with one other person, and any time I like I can hide away in one of the rooms and do my own thing. I can swear for half an hour or watch kittens on Youtube or stuff myself with chocolate. I can read a book for as long as I fancy without interruptions. I can think interesting thoughts without someone badgering me.

It gives me a degree of freedom that a lot of people don't have. When I'm on my own, I don't have to worry what other people think of me, whether my behaviour is "appropriate", or what's expected from me. I can do what I like without the obligations that come with constant company.

But many people don't enjoy that advantage. If they're always surrounded by other people, they have to keep adjusting to what those people demand, which they may or may not be comfortable with.

During my five years at boarding school. there was no way of escaping the other boys or avoiding their endless scrutiny. At times it could be embarrassing or even humiliating. I couldn't wait for Sundays, when we were allowed an hour of privacy to do whatever we wanted. When I left school and was no longer being watched every minute of the day, I went a little mad with the sudden sense of personal freedom.

Privacy is a luxury. It's something many people can only dream of.

NB: Of course I'm referring to physical privacy rather than data privacy, which is a whole different subject.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Speaking up

"It's time for men to speak up" is the plea from many women after the murder of Sarah Everard. Okay, so I'll speak up.

I like to think that in general I've always treated women fairly well, unlike the large number of men who see women as second-class citizens to be exploited and abused. I never ever saw women as second-class but always as my equals.

I guess that whether you treat women well or badly largely depends on what sort of boys and men you've happened to mix with in your life, something that's pretty unpredictable.

Looking back over the years, I remember very few boys or men who've voiced consistently derogatory attitudes towards women. Nothing more than the odd sexist remark from some pig-headed male, which was easily squashed.

Even at my single-sex boarding school, there was never any misogynistic culture. In fact women were barely mentioned. The latest Beatles or Elvis record were much hotter topics.

Fortunately I've been in workplaces where women were treated as equals and given the same opportunities as men - like newspaper offices, bookshops and charities. It was never suggested women should do the shitty jobs while men cornered the enjoyable ones.

There have been times when I've treated women carelessly, like the way I abruptly split up with a girlfriend in my early twenties. But that's a rare occurrence.

I thank my lucky stars I've never been swept into the sort of virulently women-hating culture that produces men like Sarah Everard's killer. Men who think it's normal to harass, stalk and generally prey on vulnerable women.

Yes, it's time for men to speak up. It's also time for boys' education and upbringing to make it clear that treating women as a lesser species is simply unacceptable in the 21st century.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Scary world

I'm finding that the virus lockdown has had the unexpected effect of making the outside world seem a lot nastier and scarier, and I've realised why that is. It's to do with my limited exposure to the outside world and the things I would normally do.

My knowledge of the outside world now comes mainly from the media, with its endless alarming headlines about one thing or another - male violence, civil wars, Brexit chaos, earthquakes, floods and all the rest.

Normally I would be going to places where I'm mingling with lots of other people - cinemas, art galleries, bookshops, cultural events, restaurants, coffee shops. All those people would be generally friendly, helpful, chatty, easy-going. None of them would be doing anything alarming or violent. They would be constantly reassuring me that the outside world is full of decent, sensible people, a quite different impression from the one painted by the media's shrieking headlines.

The guy in the coffee shop stroking his dog. The woman in the bookshop shelving new books. Restaurant diners laughing and sipping wine. The gallery attendant asking me what I thought of a certain artwork. All a strong antidote to the shocking things that are forever unfolding on the news bulletins.

I have to remind myself that the media presents a very slanted and distorted view of the world that doesn't reflect people's everyday experience. When I walk down the street* I'm not going to be accosted by drug dealers or mown down by guerilla fighters. I might just be accosted by someone asking for directions. Otherwise I can simply go about my business in the usual way.

I need a reality check. I need to do a bit more mingling.

*I realise that walking down the street is a very different experience for women, as the murder of Sarah Everard has reminded us yet again.

Pic: Our favourite local restaurant

Friday, 12 March 2021

Should I vent?

There's a general assumption that it's healthier to vent your emotions as much as possible, and that suppressing them is bad for you. You shouldn't "bottle it all up" or "keep things to yourself", you should let it all out - no matter how startling or awkward it might be to others.

But is such openness as healthy as it's said to be? Is it really a good idea to be seething with rage or collapsing in tears or voicing jealousy and hatred? Does that actually make you happier or calmer or better at coping with life?

Of course I would ask that, wouldn't I, as someone who tends to be emotionally restrained and not publicly displaying my feelings for all to see. But I'm not convinced laying it all on the line would be helpful.

I once had a workmate called Helen who was permanently angry. Just about anything would set her off, and all day she'd be raging about one thing or another. I couldn't see that being at constant boiling point did her any good. She just looked perpetually frazzled and worn down.

I had another workmate called Pat who felt forever cheated and swindled, complaining ceaselessly about all the awful things that had happened to her, all the ways she'd been mistreated and taken advantage of. It may have been largely true, but even if the rest of us were sympathetic, it was exhausting listening to this depressing litany all day. And it clearly didn't help her to be so habitually overwrought.

Am I somehow depleted by being only sparingly emotional? Would it do me good to give my emotions free rein? Would I enjoy spluttering with anger or seething with jealousy? Somehow I doubt it. I'm quite happy the way I am.

Monday, 8 March 2021

Unhappy families

It gradually dawned on me as I got older that there are very few genuinely happy families, and that most families have to contend with conflicts and tensions of one kind or another.

Despite the tensions in my own family, I grew up assuming most families were happy - loving mums and dads tenderly nurturing their cherished offspring, any occasional spats quickly smoothed over and blissful harmony restored.

It didn't help that so many of the children's stories I read were about perfect families who always "lived happily ever after".

As the years went by, I slowly realised that many families aren't as happy as they make out, and that in private heated rows might be the norm. Clashing personalities, political differences, disputes over parenting, squabbles over housework, womanising husbands. A hundred things to disrupt the precarious goodwill.

It's still the convention that families present a united front to the rest of the world and not "air their dirty linen in public". Even if the family is being torn apart, they should pretend there's nothing amiss except the odd good-natured tiff.

But as we can see at the moment, families from the Royal Family downwards can have their troubles. Clearly there's no love lost between the Queen and Meghan Markle.

At least warring couples are now less likely to stay together "for the sake of the children". They've realised children exposed to constant bad feeling and sniping can end up more disturbed than children of couples who've split up.

But it's very embarrassing when you're visiting a married couple and it's immediately apparent there's some simmering hostility between them. The atmosphere is so uncomfortable it's a relief to wind up the evening and depart.

So how about Jenny and me, I hear you ask. Well, obviously we're the happiest of all happy couples. How could we not be?

Thursday, 4 March 2021

A sad decline

Dementia is a cruel and distressing illness. Cruel and distressing both to the victims and to their family and friends who have to watch their gradual mental decline but can do nothing to reverse it.

Both Jenny's parents developed dementia before their death, and so did my mother. My father died of lung cancer at the age of 70, but if he had lived longer, who knows, he might also have succumbed to dementia.

It still haunts me, almost three years after my mother's death, that she slowly deteriorated from a bright and lively woman to someone who barely knew where she was or what she was doing.

She seemed to have forgotten most of her life, and any question I put to her would prompt nothing but a vague smile. She wasn't capable of a coherent conversation and showed no interest in my own life. It was if I was talking to a total stranger, and one who had withdrawn into some remote corner of her mind that was inaccessible to anyone else.

I felt helpless and demoralised, knowing there was nothing I could do to wind back the illness, nothing I could to reawaken the vibrant woman I had once known. I could only watch sadly as her mind crumbled.

Naturally I look for signs that I might be developing dementia myself, but so far things seem to be okay. I may have a terrible memory, but I gather there's no established link between existing poor memory and dementia. Some very smart people with excellent memories, like Harold Wilson and Iris Murdoch, were struck down just the same.

It must be dreadful to be aware your mind is going but you can do nothing to restore it. It's a horrible way to go.

Pic: not my mum!

Sunday, 28 February 2021

An air of authority

Strange things, uniforms. Good in some ways, not so good in others. Some people like wearing them, some don't. What difference would it make if they were abolished tomorrow?

I was fortunate to do jobs that didn't require a uniform - things like bookselling, journalism, admin, charity work. I've only owned one suit in my entire life, when I was a journalist, and I can't remember now if it was obligatory or I just wanted to be a snappy dresser.

Both my schools had uniforms, and I can't remember having any opinion of them one way or the other, apart from feeling smarter than the other kids in the street. I didn't yearn for something more fashionable, as I was never interested in fashion.

I suppose the advantage of uniforms is that they can give you an air of authority and expertise. And of course you don't have to agonise over what you're going to wear today. The decision has been made for you.

The disadvantage is that some people are hostile to anyone in a uniform, equating a uniform with officialdom, bossiness and condescension. They'll have a go at paramedics, nurses, police officers or even cabin crew.

I'm not keen on those workplace dress codes that are effectively uniforms - short skirts, high heels and make-up for women, or suits, plain shirts and ties for men. The idea is that they look more "professional" but personally I couldn't care less if a woman's skirt is long or short, I just want to know if they're good at the job.

Supposedly a lot of men go weak at the knees at the sight of a nurse's uniform. I can't say I've ever had that reaction. Dazzling intelligence is far more likely to put me in a spin. Or dazzling achievement. Or just a zest for life. With or without a uniform.

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.