Monday, 16 May 2022

Hassles and hurdles

Jenny and I are back from a week in Liverpool. And what did we conclude after our trip? For one thing, we've lost some of our enthusiasm for travelling - especially long distance travelling.

We're getting less patient with all the hassles and hurdles we have to negotiate just to spend a few days somewhere different. In this case, fiddly journeys to and from ferry terminals, a ferry departing 2½ hours late, noisy guests in nearby hotel rooms, and a biting wind that prevented any proper walks along the waterfront.

Not to mention the tricky ins and outs of booking a holiday in the first place. Which is the best airline? Which is the best hotel? How much are we prepared to pay? What does Trip Advisor say? Will the flights be cancelled or delayed? Will the hotel be in the middle of building work? So many imponderables.

Of course there was plenty to enjoy in Liverpool. We revisited some of the excellent museums and galleries, we met up with a couple of old friends in Chester, and we had some great food and drink. And we had a fabulous view across the Mersey from our ninth floor hotel room. But are the enjoyable bits worth all the annoying bits? We decided that maybe they weren't - unless we were so keen to go somewhere that the annoying bits simply wouldn't matter.

So we're still happy to visit places in the UK or Ireland, but we'd be loath to visit anywhere farther afield unless it was somewhere we really really wanted to go to. Especially when my energy levels at 75 are flagging somewhat.

But watch this space. We may suddenly have a burning desire to visit Costa Rica. Or Jamaica. Or Mexico. Who can predict the odd twists and turns of the human brain?

Pic: Tate Liverpool

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

The old normality

Belfast is rapidly returning to a kind of normality after two years of pandemic restrictions. Very few people are still wearing masks or using hand sanitiser and few shops still have limits on customer numbers.

But it's not the new enlightened normality a lot of people were predicting, it's more the old restrictive normality that people wanted to change.

When we were all outside our houses on Thursday nights clapping for the health workers who were dealing with incredible pressures in an underfunded NHS, and we were aware of all the other frontline workers who were keeping society going - teachers, lorry drivers, supermarket staff, transport workers, postal workers, the emergency services - it looked like a big step forward.

A lot of us hoped that once the pandemic was over, those frontline workers would get the proper appreciation they deserved - big salary rises, special bonuses, better staffing levels, better working conditions. They would be seen as vital cogs in society and not invisible minions nobody cared about.

Some businesses did indeed compensate their employees generously, but most didn't and in fact if anything salaries and working conditions are now worse than they were pre-pandemic. Not only are wage levels still in many cases dismal but the rapidly rising cost of living is eating into them.

Most people are once again taking frontline workers for granted or even abusing them when they slip up. The politicians are setting the tone by refusing to reward them for their hard work and their high exposure to covid.

Health workers who always went the extra mile and did absurdly long shifts (and still do) are now taking out loans and using food banks in order to keep going.

The old normality is reasserting itself quite ruthlessly.

Friday, 29 April 2022

What did we do?

I was wondering how parents react to a perceived failing in their child. Do they blame themselves for something lacking in their child's upbringing, or do they say, it's just one of those things, we're not at fault?

What got me wondering was reading Carol Shields' book Unless, in which a young woman suddenly abandons university to live on the street with a sign saying "Goodness". Her parents are baffled as to why she's taken this path, and her mother in particular wonders whether something in her upbringing has caused it.

Of course the daughter's strange behaviour could be caused by any number of things other than her upbringing, but naturally her parents start pondering their own possible influence in what's happening.

I also wonder if women in general are more likely than men to assume a personal blunder when a child goes off the rails (or just does something disappointing).

I get the impression (nothing was ever made explicit) that my parents were disappointed by my choices in life and felt I could have "made more" of myself. They maybe expected me to be a high-flying journalist or a best-selling novelist. In which case, did they blame themselves for not making me ambitious enough? Who knows?

It must be tempting for parents to criticise themselves for all sorts of perceived failings in their child, even if there's no obvious cause, and even if the supposed failing is not seen as such by anyone else.

It must also be tempting to have grand ambitions for your child that are simply unrealistic, and will inevitably lead to parental disappointment. Let's face it, you're more likely to be raising a tone-deaf karaoke fan than a budding Beethoven.

Monday, 25 April 2022

Dying for a pee

One big advantage of being a bloke is that I'm not expected to wear all those impractical, uncomfort-able clothes that women submit themselves to. I can wear clothes that don't impede me in any way, clothes I'm not desperate to remove after being in them for half an hour.

The comedian Jessica Fostekew was describing a party she attended, saying that her bunched toes were agony inside her pointed high heels and going to the loo in her spanx-lined jumpsuit was so complicated she was holding her pee in for as long as possible. Not to mention the make-up she was trying not to smear.

So why does she wear all this stuff? As a self-employed comedian, not subject to any workplace dress code, she can wear whatever she wants so why not just wear something comfortable?

If a man can be hilarious in a jacket and pants and sensible shoes, why not a woman? Is a woman's joke only amusing if  she's torturing herself and desperate for a pee? Of course not.

If a man was required to wear stilettos all day, he'd soon be ripping them off and refusing to wear them. I'm amazed so many women actually claim to enjoy having them on. Who are they kidding?

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Costly panic

I must say I sympathise with Kevin Berling, the Kentucky man who told his boss he didn't want a surprise birthday party because he suffered from anxiety and the party might give him a panic attack. His boss took no notice, the surprise party went ahead, and Mr Berling did indeed have a panic attack, forcing him to leave the party. He was later sacked.

He sued the company for discriminating against his disability, and was awarded $450,000 (£346,000) by the jury - $300,000 for emotional distress and $150,000 for lost wages.

The company claimed he had violated a workplace violence policy and that the other employees were the victims, not Mr Berling. The jury thought otherwise.

Clearly there are firms that still have little understanding of mental disorders and refuse to make any allowance for them. They trivialise the problem and force the employee to "soldier on" regardless. A costly mistake in this case.

I'm sure there are plenty of people who dislike surprise birthday parties (or surprise anything come to that) Why should they be compelled to attend and feign enjoyment, if that isn't how they feel? It just amounts to total insensitivity on the part of those other employees who were determined to hold the party whether he liked it or not.

In my lengthy working life I was never subjected to a surprise birthday party. I'm not sure how I would have reacted. Pleased or mortified - or a mixture of both? I was given a surprise leaving ceremony and present at my final workplace, which left me both chuffed and nonplussed - mostly chuffed.

Luckily I'm not prone to panic attacks, and no budget-busting law suits were called for.

Saturday, 16 April 2022

On a postcard

I was saying earlier I know little about my mum's thoughts and feelings, not only regarding my early childhood but many other things. She was very secretive about whatever was going through her mind.

The same goes for my sister. We've never been close and we've never kept in touch on a regular basis, so there are lots of things I still don't know about her. Such as:

  • Would she say she had a happy childhood?
  • Did she like one parent more than the other?
  • Were her schooldays happy?
  • What does she feel about having a terminal and severely disabling illness?
  • What did she feel about having to give up her work?
  • What are her likes and dislikes?
So what do I actually know about her? I assume she enjoyed her schooldays and had a happy childhood. She got on with our father much better than I did. She started a nursing course but didn't complete it. She had several jobs at the BBC (she almost became a radio newsreader), then had various jobs at a hospital, a doctors' surgery and an infants school.

After marrying, she had a daughter in 1982 and then in 2005 was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. The reason she has survived so long is that her lungs and heart are still healthy despite her general physical decline.

Oh, and another thing - she has a photographic memory. So if aged five I broke her favourite doll, she'll remember it vividly.

So what I know about my sister could be written quite comfortably on a postcard. Considering I've known her for 73 years, that's remarkable. But I guess I'll just have to be satisfied with the bare outlines!

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

The price of cake

Should a restaurant charge you for bringing in your own birthday cake? One man who asked a restaurant if it would be okay to bring in a birthday cake was told there would be a "cakeage" charge of £10 a person.

It's not clear if he went to the (unnamed) restaurant anyway or whether he went elsewhere. But his complaint started a predictable Twitter storm, with some people saying the charge was unjustified and others saying it was quite reasonable as the diners would be using a restaurant table and probably wouldn't have ordered a dessert. It was also pointed out that restaurants operate on very low profit margins and can't afford to let people sit and eat their own food.

I must say I'm on the side of the restaurant. I don't see why people should be allowed to eat their own food when the whole point of going to a restaurant is to have food provided.

I gather a cakeage charge is very common when diners want to bring their own celebration cake. Maybe £10 is a bit steep, but if you have a dozen diners and none of them order a dessert, that could be a loss to the restaurant of £80 or so - hardly a trivial sum. And don't forget the cost of washing up all the dirty plates afterwards.

London restaurateur Asma Khan says she not only bans diners from bringing in their own cakes, she also bans them from singing Happy Birthday. That seems a bit extreme. There's no cost involved and in my experience other diners find the celebrations rather charming.

Not that I need worry about cakeage charges. I haven't had a birthday cake for many years. I prefer Lindt truffles and choc ices.

Friday, 8 April 2022

Out it pops


Because such things weren't talked about much when I was young, I was actually middle-aged before I realised that pregnancy was quite a complicated and perilous business.

For a long time I thought it was all very simple - you got pregnant and then nine months later out popped the baby. What was all the fuss about? Why were mothers always congratulated for doing something so routine?

It gradually dawned on me that pregnancy was in fact quite a trial. Every stage can be problematic. You can fail to conceive, fail to remain pregnant, fail to have a healthy diet or a healthy lifestyle. The baby can be premature, or defective, or harmed by medical mistakes, or suffer a cot death.

So if you manage to overcome all those hazards, congratulations are very much in order. Hardly a case of "out pops the baby". More a case of surviving a tough obstacle course against all the odds.

So I welcome the increasing trend to be more candid about pregnancy and all its difficulties. It means I'm much more aware of the ordeal women may be privately going through, however straightforward it may all seem from the outside.

I'm amazed that after all the problems of pregnancy, women don't always say "that was dreadful - never again" but are often willing to go through it several times to satisfy their burning desire for children. I can only admire their unflagging determination.

I'm very glad pregnancy is something that only happens to other people.

Monday, 4 April 2022

Childhood blanks

It suddenly came to me that I know next to nothing about my early childhood. My mum was very silent about a lot of things (like the second world war and her personal ailments) and my infancy was one of them.

There are so many unanswered questions that only now occur to me. For instance:

  • Did she conceive easily?
  • Was her pregnancy easy or difficult?
  • Did she have a miscarriage?
  • How long was she in labour?
  • Was it an easy birth or were there complications?
  • Did she have a a caesarean?
  • Was I an easy or difficult baby?
  • Did she adjust easily to being a parent?
  • Did my father give her enough help?
I have some of the answers but mostly I'm in the dark. I assume she got pregnant easily because I was born very soon after the war (March 1947). As far as I know it was an easy birth and she didn't need a caesarean. And presumably I was an easy, well-behaved baby but maybe she just preferred not to remember what a pain in the arse I was. But I didn't speak until my sister appeared in April 1949 (it must have been the excitement of getting a sister).

So in general my early childhood is a bit of a mystery. All I really know for certain is that my mum got pregnant, gave birth to me and changed a lot of nappies (and they were the old-style cloth nappies, long before disposable nappies came on the scene).

Unanswered questions - the story of my life.

Thursday, 31 March 2022

Whodunit?

I envy those people who can remember all the salient plot details of a TV drama, and can tell you instantly that X was suspected of murdering Y in episode three, when I can barely remember who X was and who was murdered.

Either I have a very defective brain or some people just have a brilliant memory for detail while I promptly forget half of what I'm watching.

I have a better memory for the characters than the plot. I don't really care "whodunit". I'm not interested in all the red herrings and false trails and bogus clues. Just name the villain and stop wasting my time!

But I'm very aware of the introverted florist who hates swearing and is devoted to her tabby cat, even if her part in the plot rapidly escapes me. Never mind the identity of the murderer, does the florist become more outgoing? Does she develop a potty mouth? Does her cat live to a ripe old age? That's what I really want to know.

The detectives are usually more interesting than the plot or who did the dirty deed. They've invariably got drastic personal problems of one kind or another. Alcoholism, mental disorders, domestic violence, drug addiction, you name it. My favourite is Saga Norén in The Bridge. Her social clumsiness, lack of empathy and emotional ineptness make her seem cold, insensitive and blunt, but she's honest and direct and a brilliant detective.

Jenny loves speculating as to who's the murderer. She'll come up with wonderfully elaborate theories about the culprit. And she'll remember all those incriminating details very clearly. Sometimes she's spot on, sometimes she's way off track.

Well, I'm pretty sure it was Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the billiard room. Though it might have been Professor Plum. Who knows?

Sunday, 27 March 2022

A long way to go

A lot of people assume that since the Belfast Peace Agreement of 1998, the toxic legacy of sectarianism is gradually dying out. However this isn't the case and people are still being picked on for their religion (or perceived religion).

Just last Wednesday 13-year-old Louis Kerr from north Belfast was subjected to sectarian abuse by a gang of around ten youths as he made his way to football training. He was also physically attacked and given two black eyes and a bruised head.

He was attacked simply because he lives in a protestant area. He probably isn't even actively religious but his presumably catholic attackers didn't care about that. He was just seen as a "wrong 'un" who was "in the wrong place".

There are plenty of community workers, teachers and others trying to replace sectarianism with more normal attitudes, but progress is slow, especially when such attitudes are passed down through the generations.

Thankfully our neighbourhood in east Belfast doesn't see any such incidents. This is a very mixed area with people of different religions, skin colours and sexual preferences living peacefully together. A more middle-class area, in short.

Unfortunately our politicians aren't above aiming sectarian remarks at each other, which hardly encourages ordinary folk to mend their ways.

It's hard to see what more could be done to eradicate these noxious attitudes. So called integrated schools (schools that take pupils from all religions) are slowly increasing in number but they're still few and far between. Again certain politicians do their best to stop them opening.

Regrettably sectarianism will be with us for a long time yet.

Pic: Louis Kerr

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Success

There's no agreed definition of success, is there? We all have different ideas of what success is and whether our own lives have been "successful" or not.

For one person, success could be a huge salary, an expensive car, a big house and lots of children. For another, it could just be staying solvent, managing to pay the bills, having some close friends and going on the odd outing.

For someone who's disabled, it could simply be getting out of bed in the morning, or being pain-free, or being treated courteously.

My own life may not have been "successful" in some people's eyes. They may say I've not been ambitious enough or pushy enough or making the most of my talents or abilities.

But as far as I'm concerned, I've had a very successful life. I've enjoyed all the jobs I've had, I've met lots of very interesting people, I've always had enough money to get by, and I've travelled all round the world.

That's more than enough for me. You can keep all the flashy and over-priced trappings of conventional success. You can keep all the luxury limos with their cocktail cabinets and wide-screen TVs. You can keep all the fancy awards and honours and decorations.

I admire people who're driven to amazing achievements, like Olympic champions or concert pianists or mountaineers, but I could never be that sort of person. I wouldn't have either the tenacity or the motivation. I'd rather linger over a tasty meal than clamber up a mountain. I'd rather stroke koala bears in Australia.

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Bad vibes

There are certain homes I would never buy if they had unsavoury associations from the past. Some people may not be deterred by such things but I'm sure I would always be aware of the bad vibes.

For instance, if there had been a murder at the house, or child abuse, or domestic violence, or the house had been haunted, or been a brothel, or housed a terrorist (or even been a bomb factory). I wouldn't want anything like that hanging over my head.

There's a derelict house not far from here, Kincora House, that was the centre of a child sexual abuse ring in the nineteen seventies. Nobody wanted to live there after that discovery and it's due to be replaced by a new apartment block.

Of course you might not know of any such goings-on unless it had been all over the media, or unless a nieghbour told you. You might only find out after you've moved in, or you might never find out if it's been successfully hushed up. Somehow I doubt the estate agent would tell you.

But a lot of people aren't bothered by such associations and can happily ignore them. Abigail Dengate lives in a house at Margate, Essex, where a serial killer buried two bodies. She says "People have had a lot to say about this house and its history but to us it's just a home. I wasn't thinking about who once lived here and what he did."

Well, perhaps I have an over-active imagination, but I'm sure I would think of the murderer pottering around the house, working out how he would kill his victims and what he would do with the bodies. I would think of the victims screaming or pleading for their lives.

It would certainly put me off my cornflakes.

Pic: Kincora House, Belfast 

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Just obeying orders

Since like many others I'm thinking a lot about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I feel I should write something about it. But what can I write that hasn't been said a hundred times already?

One question that often occurs to me is how on earth the Russian pilots who're relentlessly bombing buildings and innocent civilians can justify what they're doing. How do they live with themselves? How do they carry on, knowing they're killing and wounding more and more people, continually adding to the carnage and suffering?

One captured pilot, Maksim Kryshtop, said he was just following orders. He said he could have refused to obey the orders, but this would have shown weakness and cowardice.

No doubt if pilots refused to fly the bombing missions and deserted, they would face heavy penalties. In World War Two, 158,000 Russian troops were executed for desertion.

But the pilots must somehow have become entirely detached from the human beings they're bombing, and totally oblivious to the pain and misery they're causing. They simply see people on the ground as targets to be obliterated.

Presumably also they've swallowed the crazy propaganda that Putin has been spreading for years - that Ukraine is run by neo-nazis, drug barons and terrorists and that the invasion is liberating the Ukrainian people.

They were told the Ukrainians would welcome them with open arms, relieved at the prospect of their evil leaders being toppled. They're astonished when far from being welcomed they're greeted with hostility and told they weren't wanted and should return home before they were killed.

I have a simple request to Russian bomber pilots - just say no.

Pic: Maksim Kryshtop

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Mealy mouthed

Apparently the English are renowned abroad for not saying what they really mean and coming up with something that hides their true feelings. I love those charts that explain what foreigners think we mean as opposed to what we actually mean. For example:

  • "I was disappointed" (I was absolutely furious)
  • "I hear what you say" (I totally disagree)
  • "With the greatest respect (You're an idiot)
  • "That's an interesting proposal" (It can't possibly work)
  • "I'll bear it in mind" (But do nothing about it)
  • "You must come to dinner sometime" (It would be a nightmare)
  • "It's fine" (It can't possibly get any worse)
  • "There's a slight problem" (This is a disaster)
  • "It really doesn't matter" (That was incredibly offensive)
  • "It's not ideal" (It's totally inappropriate)
Well, you get the idea. I gather Americans are more direct, and more likely to say exactly what they think, whatever the reaction might be. They don't understand all this English subterfuge.

I must admit to falling into this trap myself. I'm not brave enough to say to someone "That was a really boring evening and I'm not going to repeat it." I'm more likely to say "That was fun. We must do that again sometime", meaning the exact opposite.

The English custom is to be elaborately polite even in the most dire circumstances, and never to say anything blatantly rude. One must avoid confrontation at all costs and keep the atmosphere calm and comfortable.

I admit to finding any sort of confrontation quite agonising, and I go to extreme lengths to avoid it. I wouldn't have been much good as a police officer or a politician or a debt collector.

But maybe the English have the right idea. Maybe skirting round a delicate issue is better than picking a fight.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Expensive soup

Modern art still divides people. Some people think it's all rubbish, others think it's endlessly fascinating. Personally I'm firmly with the latter.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is the appeal of modern art. It's really up to the viewer to get something out of it. If you put aside all conventional notions of what art should be and look at it with an open mind, then it can be highly enjoyable - and even a lot of fun.

But despite how long modern art has been with us, and despite all the attempts to explain it, I still hear all the familiar criticisms:

  • But what does it mean?
  • My six year old could have done that
  • She's just pulling our leg
  • How can that be worth half a million?
  • It looks like something out of a dumpster
  • It's a grotesque version of the human body
  • Why can't she just do a normal painting?
  • He's just trying to shock us
Yes, I think some artists are simply pulling our legs. Like Carl Andre's Bricks, which is just that - a pile of 120 bricks. Or Damien Hirst's Away From The Flock, which is a dead sheep in a tank of formaldehyde.

But they're the infamous exceptions. The majority of modern artists are producing genuine artwork that challenges traditional ideas of what art consists of and is exciting and thought-provoking.

When Andy Warhol said "Art is what you can get away with", I think that quote in itself was tongue in cheek. Warhol produced some highly original artwork that was much more than a practical joke.

Of course all the controversy just pushes up the price of modern art so that Warhol's paintings of Campbell Soup Tins have been sold for anything up to £15 million. That's some very expensive soup.

Pic: Spider by Louise Bourgeois

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Secret pleasures

Kylie asked an interesting question in her last blog post. What are the guilty pleasures you spend money on and what do you definitely not spend money on?

She mentioned a Tik Toker whose guilty pleasures are manicures, coffees, magazines and uber eats.

Well, I'm not prone to guilt, so for me it's more a question of unhealthy or extravagant or secret pleasures. So what am I (or Jenny) spending less money on? Or no money at all?

  • We're eating out less
  • We never buy ready meals
  • We only buy printed newspapers on Saturday and Sunday
  • We don't buy scented candles or pointless knick-knacks
  • We have no subscription services except Sky
  • We hardly ever go to the theatre
  • We hardly ever use taxis
  • We don't have any pets
  • We don't buy bottled water
  • We have no extended warranties
  • We don't belong to a gym
  • We buy cheap books from the local charity bookshop
  • I get a lot of books from the local library (for my book club)
  • I don't have a smartphone, only a PAYG phone
  • I don't have a camera
  • I never buy designer clothes
  • I never wear formal clothing
  • I never wear a suit
  • I never buy magazines
  • And I've never had a manicure (or a pedicure)!
But I couldn't give up coffee, or chocolate, or ice cream, or the internet, or books, or music, or trips to the cinema, or holidays. Some things are just essential for my wellbeing.

I certainly wouldn't squander money on a luxury car, a second home, a swish barbecue set-up, cosmetic dentistry, or an exercise machine. Who needs them?

But above all we aren't the sort of people who rush to replace some household item or piece of clothing simply because it's no longer fashionable. We have a lot of things that are decades old and no longer remotely fashionable, but we're quite happy with them, and that's all that matters.

Friday, 25 February 2022

The need to know

I'm surprised how many of you felt there was nothing wrong with keeping the cause of death secret. In particular people suggested there was no need for others to know and families were entitled to keep such information to themselves. Demanding to know the cause was an unwarranted intrusion into people's lives.

I beg to differ. I think in many cases there is very much a need to know, especially if the death points to some sort of institutional mistake or technical mishap or personal tragedy that needs to be investigated. For example:

  • A software failure in a plane
  • A mechanical fault in a car
  • Medical negligence in a hospital
  • Suicide after persistent bullying
  • An overdose of a fashionable drug
  • The unexpected side-effect of a medicine
Twelve year old Drayke Hardman from Utah killed himself on February 10 in response to bullying from a classmate. This led to much discussion about how to reduce bullying in schools. If the cause of death hadn't been disclosed, then that discussion wouldn't have happened.

Nerissa Regnier, 45, from California died of covid in December after being told seven times by her healthcare provider that she shouldn't be vaccinated because the vaccine contained a "live virus" (which is untrue). So because her death was publicised, anyone who's told about the "live virus" now knows it's nonsense.

There must be hundreds of cases like that, where surprising (or even unsurprising) causes of death lead to beneficial changes. Yes, you might want to be evasive out of embarrassment or shame, but if that allows institutional failures or avoidable tragedies to continue, isn't that a big missed opportunity?

I still think frankness is better than secrecy.

Monday, 21 February 2022

Secrecy and coyness

I'm baffled by this constant reluctance to reveal how someone died. Why the obsessive secrecy and coyness in an age of increasing frankness?

A local MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) has died suddenly at the age of 39, but the family aren't explaining how he died. So naturally there's all sorts of speculation, probably most of it nonsense, about the possible cause. Suicide is the front runner, but no doubt there's a few takers for a drugs overdose, a sex game that went wrong, a fall down the stairs, an undiagnosed heart condition, a scandal about to break, and anything else our fevered imaginations can come up with.

Why not just tell us the cause of death? What's the big deal? Possibly the cause is something the family is embarrassed or ashamed about, so they prefer to stay silent.

But in these lay-it-all-on-the-table days, when people will reveal almost anything about themselves, no matter how lurid or shocking or intimate, why this odd exception?

I guess people are often afraid that if the cause of death is something that could have been prevented, something that might implicate other people, then they'd rather keep quiet to avoid all the judgmental tut-tutting from self-righteous busybodies.

But surely nowadays people are much more likely to be sympathetic and consoling than judgmental? Surely we're all aware for example that something like suicide has all sorts of contributory factors and that blaming their family or friends for not doing enough to prevent it is simply stupid and unhelpful.

Certainly I have no objection to my own cause of death being revealed, however bizarre or unusual it might be.

So why not just tell us how this chap died? Just take a deep breath and stop all the wild speculation.

PS: Wow, today is my 15th blogiversary!!

Thursday, 17 February 2022

Null and void?

A Facebook friend has related the awful story of someone she knows who was cheated out of an inheritance because of a secret marriage.

Daphne Franks' mother, who had vascular dementia and terminal cancer, befriended a much younger man who secretly married her. When she died, he inherited everything because an English marriage* immediately cancels any previous wills. The daughter never knew about the marriage so was unable to stop it.

Which got me wondering on what grounds you can annul a marriage, as that is one possible solution.

An English marriage is automatically void if:

  • you're closely related to the other person
  • one or both of you were under 16
  • one of you was already married or in a civil partnership
Your marriage is voidable** if:

  • it wasn't sexually consummated (doesn't apply to same-sex couples)
  • you didn't properly consent - for example you were forced into it
  • you were unable to consent because of a lack of mental capacity
  • your spouse had a sexually transmitted disease when you married
  • your spouse was pregnant by someone else when you married
  • your spouse is transitioning to the opposite sex
Surely there's a case for voiding the marriage, both on the grounds that her mother was forced into it, and because she lacked the mental capacity to understand what was happening. Apparently the registrar noticed she was acting strangely (she couldn't remember her age or house number) but was satisfied with the explanation that she was a bit forgetful.

Daphne Franks is also campaigning for a change in the law to stop a marriage cancelling a previous will.

But what a terrible end to her mother's life.

*but not in Scotland

**you have to apply to a divorce court for a declaration that the marriage is void

Pic: Daphne Franks and her mother Joan Blass

PS: I've been in touch with Daphne through Facebook and she says "Fabian Hamilton MP asked Boris Johnson what he was going to do about it in Prime Minister's Questions on 9 June 2021. Change is now on the way I'm pleased to say but don't know the details yet!"

Sunday, 13 February 2022

The bigger picture

I was getting rather depressed and despairing about the state of the world, pondering over all the terrible problems people are struggling with - poverty, violence, sex trafficking, drug addiction, the list is endless.

Then suddenly I realised the reason for my despair was that I was only looking at one half of the picture. I was only looking at the problems while totally ignoring all the efforts to improve things.

Yes, people are dealing with huge problems but there are thousands of organisations around the world devoted to reducing those problems and salvaging people's lives.

I remind myself that poverty for instance is being tackled by dozens of organisations. Oxfam alone has 21 branches across the world, including Oxfam GB which in 2016/17 had a total income of £408.6m, with 5,000 employees and 23,000 volunteers. Among other things, Oxfam is a global leader in providing water sanitation to impoverished and war-torn areas.

I also remind myself of the hundreds of research projects into horrible diseases like Ebola, multiple sclerosis, cancer and dementia.

I know many people are rather cynical about charities, suggesting for example that too much of their money goes into administration and executive salaries rather than the good causes the public's donations are intended for. But nevertheless they make a big difference to the millions of lives blighted by dire circumstances.

So now that I'm seeing the wider picture, seeing solutions as well as problems, seeing all the help going to those who urgently need it, I feel a lot more cheerful and optimistic.

Unfortunately that wider picture tends to be ignored by the media, which much prefers to focus on dreadful disasters rather than the organisations that come to the rescue.

No wonder despair is so common, But it doesn't have to be.

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Write and wrong

The writer Sebastian Faulks is involved in a bizarre argument over whether he should describe the physical appearance of women in his books.

After his last book was published, several people complained that as a man he had no right to describe a woman's appearance.

He had a good think about it and decided not to describe the appearance of the female protagonist in his latest book "Snow Country". He's leaving what she looks like to his readers' imagination. There are one or two hints but that's it.

Other authors have leapt to Sebastian Faulks' defence, saying it's absurd not to describe a woman's appearance. "The idea that writers can't invent characters beyond their own communities is ridiculous" says Bernardine Evaristo. And Dawn French says "The minute we start to police people's imaginations, we go down a very nasty old route."

The logical conclusion of a man not writing about a woman's appearance is that he shouldn't write about women at all, which would be ludicrous.

Surely the real issue is not whether a man writes about a woman's appearance but how he writes about it. If it's merely a matter-of-fact description of her physical features, what's wrong with that? But if he describes her in a sexualised way (big boobs, tempting lips, shapely bottom etc), that's entirely different and obviously annoying to many female readers.

If a man couldn't write about women, or white people couldn't write about black people, or heterosexuals couldn't write about gay people, and so on, where would it end? Books would be stripped to the bone. You could just about mention Jasper the dog and that would be that. Until someone objected that you couldn't write about dogs because you weren't a dog.

Sebastian Faulks should have stood firm and ignored the idiotic criticisms.

Saturday, 5 February 2022

Down the hatch

Attitudes to alcohol have certainly changed over the years. Stricter in some ways, more relaxed in others. Alcohol consump-tion in Britain is actually falling steadily, especially among the young, though you wouldn't think it from the way some people casually pour it down their throats.

When I was on my first ever job as a local newspaper journalist, the rest of the staff would routinely go off for extremely boozy lunches and return so pissed they could barely string a few words together, let alone turn in a serious article.

This behaviour didn't last long though, and in my second job, also on a local paper, we would all go for massive lunches (usually heart-rotting fry ups) rather than massive drinking sprees.

Nowadays in many workplaces it's strictly taboo to drink any alcohol at all at lunchtime, to ensure people can do their job and not doze off in a state of happy inebriation. This was definitely the unwritten rule at most of my workplaces and I abided by it, which was easy enough as I've never been a heavy drinker.

As a twenty something I got absurdly drunk a few times with my fellow students on a sociology course, but the hangovers were so dreadful I vowed never to get that drunk again.

But I'm still surprised when I go to other people's homes and they're obviously expecting me to drink copious amounts of alcohol. Bottles of wine are in plentiful supply and my glass is topped up the moment it looks less than full.

Neither of my parents were more than occasional drinkers, so that's probably where my own restraint comes from. They might sheepishly dust off a bottle of sherry for the Christmas dinner but that was about it.

Go on, have another. Cheers!

Tuesday, 1 February 2022

John's tooth

The price people will pay for a seemingly utterly trivial item, simply because it's associated with some global celebrity, is staggering. Often of course the motive is money and the assumption that said item will turn a handsome profit when resold.

In 2011 one of John Lennon's teeth was auctioned with a guide price of between £10,000 and £20,000. With it was a sworn affidavit from John's former housekeeper that it was genuine and given her by John.

A Canadian dentist bought it for £19,000 and he did in fact see it as a potential money-spinner.

I can only hope he didn't mislay such a tiny item, that it didn't somehow slip down the back of the sofa or get swept into the hoover.

Mind you, you can never be truly sure an item is genuine. Even if it comes with a sworn affidavit, is that totally reliable? But what the hell, if you can afford to splash out £19,000 you're probably pretty wealthy and won't miss the odd wasted £19,000.

Signatures are notoriously dodgy. Busy celebrities often leave their staff to forge signatures on their behalf, so something supposedly signed by the Fab Four may not be the real deal. The Beatles were known to be adept at forging each other's signatures.

Hand-written copies of famous Beatles lyrics sell for huge sums (the hastily-scribbled lyrics for Hey Jude went for $910,000 a few years back), but again there must be a money motive, since who cares what the original lyrics looked like?

But John Lennon's tooth got me wondering. What happened to all the other personal items belonging to the Beatles? John's toothbrush and toothpaste for example. Are they stashed in some millionaire's safe? Or were they just thrown out with the rubbish? Who knows?

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

Odourless

It's weird having virtually no sense of smell. It means I'm blissfully unaware of nasty smells, but also frustratingly unaware of beautiful ones.

Jenny is always asking me if I smell something or other, to which I invariably reply that I can't smell a thing. Everyone around me is swooning over some delicious scent, and I'm wondering what all the fuss is about.

I used to work with a local councillor who several people told me wasn't too hygienic and had an unpleasant body odour. He drove me to a meeting once and even in such close proximity I couldn't smell anything unusual.

There's a coastal walk at the end of Belfast Lough where apparently the accumulated seaweed "absolutely reeks", but I can't detect anything out of the ordinary (which is handy because it greatly improves the walk). 

Jenny sometimes asks me if a newly-washed towel smells a bit off, but I regularly tell her it smells fine to me. I can only assume it really does smell off and she's not just imagining it.

Unfortunately beautiful smells usually pass me by, so I'm missing out on quite a lot. Roses and other flowers, coffee, freshly-cooked food, perfumes, shampoos, melting chocolate, newly mown grass, paint, scented candles, to name but a few (though I can generally smell perfume if someone is soaked in it).

I can't rely on my sense of smell to tell me if I need a shower or clean clothes, but luckily my sweat is quite pleasant (so I'm told) so I'm unlikely to embarrass myself with an undetected stink.

Luckily I have Jenny to alert me if the house is on fire and I haven't noticed anything untoward. If I was on my own, I might have been incinerated by now.

I wonder what it's like to have a normal sense of smell?

Saturday, 22 January 2022

Wandering mind

I'm not good at concentrating. At the best of times my concentration is probably about 75 per cent of what it should be. My attention wanders constantly as I'm easily distracted.

Whether it's TV, the media, books, or when I'm talking to other people, I'm just not focusing 100 per cent. Which means there are all sorts of details I don't take in, and consequently a lot of details I don't remember.

I daresay a psychologist might diagnose me with ADHD, but most of the relevant symptoms are ones I don't experience. Like excessive talking, acting without thinking, and interrupting conversations.

I don't think it's an age thing. My concentration wasn't any better when I was young. I would easily get the wrong end of the stick because some important detail had escaped me.

I must say my poor concentration has seldom been a hindrance. It hasn't stopped me having a great life. It hasn't stopped me doing demanding jobs. I just have to make allowances for it (and envy those whose concentration is a lot better).

It can be a problem with TV dramas, where Jenny keeps reminding me of crucial details I've somehow missed. "Don't you remember, she's the one who discovered the body in the first episode?"

Somehow I doubt I could radically improve my concentration, even with special mental exercises. It would take a miraculous overhaul of my brain to achieve gimlet-like concentration.

Of course I'm not alone. Plenty of people have poor concentration, as I repeatedly discover when some politician blatantly misconstrues a document they've just read because they haven't read it properly.

I wonder how many crime dramas I've unwittingly misconstrued?

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Food for thought

I'm reading a fascinating book by the American nutritionist Michael Pollan, who says all nutritional and dietary advice should be viewed with great scepticism as we actually know very little about what happens to food inside the human body.

The typical food item contains so many substances, many of them not yet even identified, that it's pretty hazardous trying to predict what that food will do to us after we eat it.

Also, every person has a unique metabolism that processes food in a unique way. So how a food will affect my body is quite different from how it affects someone else's body.

One person will get fat and develop heart disease, while another person eating the same food will stay thin and have a healthy heart.

Food is far more complex than nutritionists make out, but if they admitted how little they know about food and what it does to our bodies, their reputations would plummet.

One splendid example of ill-informed pronouncements was the advice to cut down on saturated fats to avoid heart disease. When people did so, the incidence of heart disease in fact rose. The advice turned out to be based on guesswork and supposition rather than solid evidence.

I must say I generally ignore nutritionists' advice, as I know that advice can change radically from year to year, often totally reversing the previous accepted wisdom. I just try to eat a healthy range of foods, including as many raw foods as possible.

One thing many nutritionists agree on is that what's known as the Western diet - lots of processed food, foods full of sugar and fat, food lacking vital vitamins and minerals - is wreaking a huge toll of chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. So I also try to avoid such foods.

Common sense is probably more reliable than the latest dietary dictum.

Pic: Michael Pollan

Friday, 14 January 2022

Unwelcome words

I keep up as best I can with all those linguistic changes to avoid offending one group or another in society, but sometimes I'm taken by surprise to learn that a particular word I'd never even thought about is highly offensive and needs to be replaced.

There's currently a big furore over the word "midget". Dr Erin Pritchard, a lecturer in disability studies, who herself has achondroplasia, a growth-stunting condition, says the word is offensive to short people and has a very derogatory origin in Victorian freak shows.

The outcry started after Marks and Spencer announced they were rebranding their sweet Midget Gems as Mini Gems to avoid offence. Several other companies have said they're considering doing the same.

Predictably enough, dozens of trolls have pitched in, saying it's wokery gone mad, or politically correct nonsense, or language policing, or just someone looking for something contentious to complain about.

Well, no, it's not just wokery gone mad. If a lot of people are so offended by a specific word that they avoid using it, then we should take note and avoid using it ourselves. How hard is it to make a simple change that would make other people more comfortable?

Dr Pritchard explains that the word's origin automatically dehumanises people like herself. "It was a word popularised during the Victorian freak show, where many disabled people, including people with dwarfism, were oppressed and exploited. When people scream the name at you in the street, it is only right that it is removed."

Yes, there are plenty of examples of "wokery gone mad" but this isn't one of them. This is a sensible request to phase out a disparaging word with a shameful history. Is that so hard to understand?

Pic: Doctor Erin Pritchard

Monday, 10 January 2022

Not a patriot

I'm not a patriot. By that I mean I'm not going to defend my country to the last and make out that everything it is or does is wonderful. That's just idiotic. Britain does some things well and does other things very badly.

To gloss over the failures and pretend they don't exist, and to magnify the successes even if they're simply the basics of a properly-run country, seems to me a cock-eyed way of looking at things.

But don't misunderstand me. When I say I'm not a patriot, that doesn't mean I slag off Britain and how it's run at every opportunity. It just means I take a realistic view of my country, with all its faults, and I don't mindlessly defend it like some blinkered fanatic.

When I say I'm not patriotic, what that means is:

  • I couldn't care less about the union jack
  • I couldn't care less about the national anthem
  • I'm not distraught if Britain doesn't win some big sports event
  • I don't wildly exaggerate Britain's achievements
  • I'm not at all proud of my country
  • I don't dismiss all other countries as inferior
  • I don't think the British are all fine, upstanding, law-abiding citizens
  • I don't believe the British have some unique cultural or spiritual quality
  • I don't believe Britain is the "cradle of democracy"
  • I don't see what's so special about the "village pub"
There's nothing wonderful about this very average country.  Alongside those with dazzling talents and abilities, there are many more with modest skills who're simply going through the motions till retirement - that is, if they can even afford to retire, when the state pension is so scandalously low*.

Not so much a wonderful country as a country staggering on chaotically from day to day.

* The basic state pension is £179.60 ($243.91) a week.

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Cake célèbre

A decision today by the European Court of Human Rights means that the notorious "gay cake" case still hasn't been resolved.

In 2014 Gareth Lee asked Ashers, a Belfast bakery, to make him a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage (which at that time was still illegal). The bakery refused, saying the slogan conflicted with their religious beliefs. So Mr Lee started a legal action for discrimination.

The case has made it way slowly through various courts, finally reaching the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled today that Mr Lee's case was inadmissible because he hadn't exhausted all options in UK courts.

It's not clear if Mr Lee will now abandon his legal action or soldier on in some way.

A lot of people have wondered why he bothered to take legal action in the first place. If Ashers refused to bake his cake, why didn't he just find another bakery that had no such objection? Why make such a big issue out of someone else's beliefs not aligning with his own?

He's spent huge amounts of time and money pursuing his legal action, when there was a very simple solution to Ashers' objection - just take his custom elsewhere.

Mr Lee seems to have a very large bee in his bonnet about a bakery that wouldn't supply exactly what he wanted. Perhaps he should kill the bee and put an end to his ridiculous obsession with trouncing Ashers.

It's not even a case about homophobia. Ashers have explained that they have nothing against homosexuals, only the particular slogan Mr Lee wanted on his cake.

After all, if someone wanted to buy a cake with a slogan supporting Adolf Hitler and Nazism, shouldn't the bakery have a right to refuse? I think so.

Pic: Gareth Lee

Saturday, 1 January 2022

The honest truth

A woman from North Carolina has caused huge controversy with her new book on marriage, in which she lists all her husband's faults and says marriage requires you to blot out certain aspects of your spouse to stay happy.

Heather Havrilesky says that "after 15 years of marriage, you start to see your mate clearly, free of your own projections and misperceptions." Her husband Bill "is exactly the same as a heap of laundry: smelly, inert, almost sentient but not quite" until he has had his coffee each morning.

If Jenny was that frank about my shortcomings, I'd die of embarrassment. And I wouldn't dream of broadcasting all her shortcomings. But she claims Bill has read her book three times, and loves it. He approves of her brutal honesty, has a great sense of humour about himself, and "doesn't lose sleep over what other people think". I must say I find it hard to believe he can be that un-bothered.

Not many people would be that candid publicly about their spouse's failings. There's a sort of unwritten rule that you stress all the benefits of your marriage while skipping over the less desirable aspects. Moaning about your spouse is reserved strictly for the ears of close friends only.

Is that good or bad? If everyone hides the downside of their marriage, these must be a lot of people hearing all these glossy accounts and thinking their own marriage must be a dismal failure. Wouldn't it be better if we were all more honest and admitted that marriage isn't necessarily the joyous idyll we imagined on our wedding day? That making a marriage last over the long term is hard work?

Anyway, I won't be putting pen to paper any time soon. My marital secrets will stay exactly that - secret.

Pic: Heather Havrilesky