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!