Tuesday 29 November 2022

Fit as a fiddle?

It's generally assumed that to live to a fit old age, you need to stick to a healthy lifestyle. Regular gym workouts, a nutritious diet, no meat-eating, no alcohol or smoking, plenty of exercise.

Well, there are numerous people who've ignored all the medical advice, been conspicuously idle and self-indulgent, who live to a ripe old age anyway. Or of course done all the right things for decades and dropped dead at 60.

My mum didn't bother with medical advice. She never went to a gym, lived on ready meals and processed food, never took much exercise, and lived till she was 96.

Likewise my maternal grandma got little exercise, smoked and drank, never went to a gym (gyms were a rarity in those days), and lived till she was 91.

Some people say the important thing is not your lifestyle but whether you actively enjoy life and fling yourself into it. That'll keep you going when all the world-weary gym enthusiasts and teetotallers quietly fade away.

In any case, do I really want to live to 96 (or even longer)? I imagine I would be so disenchanted by then (not to mention decrepit) I would be happy to bow out.

But even if you have the healthiest lifestyle in the world, a sudden unexpected illness can come along and disable you - or even finish you off. My sister was having a good life until she developed motor neurone disease at 56 (amazingly, she's bed-ridden but still alive 17 years later). There's nothing she could have done to keep it away - what causes MND is still a mystery.

As for me, I have a fairly healthy lifestyle (minus the gym workouts) but I don't kid myself it'll keep me fighting fit. There are plenty of nasties waiting to pounce.

Friday 25 November 2022

Tight lipped

I've tried very hard but I still haven't learnt how to be a chatterbox. I'm far too self-conscious to gabble away effortlessly and not be too worried about other people's reactions.

I listen to the chatterers spilling out their thoughts and wonder how they manage to do it. Are they just natural chatterboxes? Were they encouraged to chatter as children? Do they simply lack the inhibitions that affect others? I wish I had the secret of this very useful ability.

I'm far too aware of other people's possible reactions. Suppose I say something stupid or inappropriate or offensive or nonsensical? And will they be interested in what I'm saying or bored to tears?

Alcohol may loosen some people's tongues but not mine. A glass or two of wine doesn't make me more loquacious, quite the opposite. It's more likely to send me to sleep or block my brain completely.

I'm quite talkative if it's someone I know well and I don't feel they're judging me. Or if we get onto something I'm passionate about. If it's a total stranger and I feel scrutinised, I clam up rapidly.

In my case, the way I was brought up probably has a lot to do with my reticence. My parents and my sister were always quite tight-lipped, speaking only when necessary rather than pouring everything out. Entire meals would be as silent as the grave except for the odd request to pass the salt or the occasional hearty sneeze. My father thought conversation got in the way of eating.

The gift of the gab is a talent that I missed out on.

Monday 21 November 2022

A tragic past

Would you be unable to live in a house where some terrible tragedy occurred, or would you be able to ignore it and carry on with life as usual?

Kincora Boys Home in east Belfast (just down the road from here) is currently being demolished to make way for a new housing development.

The home was once the scene of serious organised child sexual abuse, causing a scandal and attempted cover-up in 1980, with claims of state collusion. It has been quietly rotting ever since, with a lot of people wanting nothing to do with it.

But one developer isn't put off by the site's seedy reputation and work is about to start on a £1.8 million apartment block comprising nine flats.

It's hard to say what my reaction would be if I actually set foot in one of the new flats, but I'd like to think I wouldn't be put off. If the building itself has gone, and the scandal happened over 40 years ago, I'm sure I could easily ignore the history and just get on with my life.

But would it be as simple as that? If I actually lived in one of the new flats, would I be constantly reminded of the past to the extent that it haunted me and forced me to move out?

Certainly a lot of people wouldn't even contemplate living there, given the site's associations. The very idea would horrify them.

Jenny is quite sure she couldn't live in a place that had such a dark pall hanging over it. She couldn't possibly ignore what had gone on there previously.

It remains to be seen whether the new apartments will be sold easily or whether prospective buyers will give them a wide berth.

Pic: Kincora Boys Home

Wednesday 16 November 2022

Paint throwers

A man and a woman have been charged with criminal damage, disorderly behaviour and burglary after throwing paint at a Barclays Bank in Belfast city centre. The two protesters from Extinction Rebellion want an end to fossil fuel extraction, which Barclays finances.

I have to say I don't support the protest because it's unnecessary. There are plenty of people urging an end to fossil fuel extraction so the message is well and truly out there without the need for such vandalism.

Extinction Rebellion maintain that nobody is taking the accelerating climate breakdown seriously enough and they're making these dramatic protests to bring some urgency to the situation.

They've also thrown paint at valuable paintings, halted traffic on the M25 motorway, halted public transport, blocked oil facilities and glued themselves to buildings and roads.

It all generates eye-catching media headlines, but what has it actually achieved? Fossil fuel extraction is still going on at the same rate, or even increasing according to some reports. 

Some of the protests have caused serious problems for those caught up in them. During the motorway protests people were unable to get to work, unable to keep hospital appointments or have operations, and unable to reach dying relatives. Not surprisingly, a majority of the public disapprove of these protests.

I'm not dogmatically against political protests. In the right circumstances and carried out in the right way, they can be very effective. I remember taking part in the poll tax protests in London in 1990, which ended in a riot and helped bring about the cancellation of the new tax.

But disrupting people's everyday lives to make an already well-publicised point is never going to be popular.

Pic: Barclays Bank, Belfast city centre

Friday 11 November 2022

Who needs presents?

Journalist Allison Pearson says she's lost count of the number of people who have told her they're not buying or expecting presents for Christmas. Gifts for the children, yes, but not for adult relatives or friends.

When so many people are watching the pennies because of the cost of living crisis, having to exchange Christmas presents is an expense they could do without. And how many people even appreciate the pricy gifts they're presented with?

I think she's right. Yes, children expect presents and will be sorely disappointed if they don't get any. But adults don't need presents. Allison would rather people brought a bit of food and drink, or simply loaded the dishwasher. That would be warmly welcomed.

Jenny and I decided some time ago not to give each other presents for Christmas or birthdays. We were always racking our brains for something suitable and drawing a blank. We realised that all we really wanted at Christmas was just some tasty food, a glass or two of wine, something entertaining on the telly, and a few games of Scrabble. Presents weren't necessary.

Lots of people get into huge debts at Christmas because they feel obliged to give presents to all and sundry but simply can't afford it. Then they spend months trying to pay off the debts and maybe failing to do so. But media images of Christmas, with vast piles of presents under a Christmas tree, perpetuate the idea that it's normal to give presents and not giving any is unthinkable.

Well, perhaps we would start thinking the unthinkable.

Monday 7 November 2022

Trashing celebs

One of the hardest things to adjust to if you're an up-and-coming celebrity must be the fact that everyone can write about you and they can be as abusive and malicious and vitriolic as they want, they can spread lies and half-truths and scurrilous accusations, and there's very little the person targeted can do about it.

They can demand a retraction or correction, but won't necessarily get one. They can sue for libel but that's expensive and chancy. They can use an interview to try and scotch the most ludicrous stories and inventions, but people might still believe them anyway.

It's all a bit like trying to hold back floodwaters with a bucket. So much is being written about you on such a colossal scale, it's impossible to react to more than a tiny percentage. The rest you just have to do your best to ignore.

Knowing that so much hostile and trumped-up nonsense is being aimed at you day after day must be a very surreal and unnerving experience.

What feeds this unwanted deluge of commentary is the general assumption that the writers are simply exercising freedom of speech and can therefore say what they like as long as it's legal. And also the assumption that celebs are "fair game" and being subject to venomous criticism goes with the territory.

Then again, some celebs actually welcome everything that's written about them, however derogatory. They just revel in all the attention as it shows that they're famous and controversial and they've caused millions of people to focus on them.

Personally I'm glad absolutely nothing is being written about me and I can enjoy the cosy cocoon of total anonymity.

Thursday 3 November 2022

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Going back to dress codes, I see that school pupils are still being told to change their "unacceptable" hairstyles, and can face expulsion if their refuse.

So I'm pleased that the equality body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has just advised schools not to penalise pupils with afros because that's a form of racism.

Unfortunately the guidance only applies to afros and not to other hairstyles. And it says nothing about workplaces, which might also be picky about hairstyles.

I've never understood why schools and workplaces are so censorious about someone's hairstyle, if in most cases their hairstyle makes no difference to anything. I accept that a hairstyle may be objected to if it's a safety hazard, like long hair if you're using dangerous machinery, but otherwise, why all the fuss?

A pupil's unusual hairstyle won't stop them learning, and an employee's odd hairstyle won't stop them doing their job.

Strangely enough, neither me nor any other boy at my two schools were ever ticked off for unacceptable hairstyles. That was partly because in those days most boys opted for an unadventurous "short back and sides". They didn't have long hair as that only became popular after I left school in 1965. And they didn't dye their hair as that was seen as effeminate. But even those boys with a slicked back Elvis hairstyle were never told off. Hair just wasn't controversial.

Of course beards are never in contention for schoolboys as you can only grow a beard from around the age of 18. But there are still workplaces that ban them as "unprofessional". As a bookseller, my hairstyle was never questioned. If I had had hair down to my ankles nobody would have objected, though they might have wondered how on earth I washed it.