Wednesday 26 January 2022


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