Wednesday 29 March 2023

False impressions

When Jenny and I first moved to Belfast in 2000, a lot of people were puzzled by our decision. Why Belfast, they asked? What was wrong with London? So do you think you'll be staying there for good or might you be moving back to England?

Well, we couldn't understand all the fuss. We'd had holidays in Northern Ireland several times and really liked the country and the people. There were beauty spots everywhere, property was much much cheaper than London, and there wasn't the ubiquitous congestion - on the roads, on the trains, on the buses.

Londoners constantly fed news headlines about terrorism, bombs and paramilitaries assumed we would be dicing with death every time we popped out to the shops. The reality of course is that there are small pockets of violence but 95 per cent of the country is as safe as anywhere in England. Actually crime levels where we live in East Belfast are almost zero compared with crime levels in Islington, North London, where we used to live. In Islington car thefts, muggings and burglaries were routine occurrences.

I mention all this because the new TV drama Blue Lights, which focuses on the police force in Belfast, suggests that Belfast is nothing but a hotbed of violence and disorder that the police struggle to cope with.

In fact the drama is set mainly in a specific area of West Belfast where violence and disorder are indeed a constant feature. But other parts of Belfast, like our own East Belfast neighbourhood, are almost embarrassingly sedate and sleepy. The only sign of violence is a grand old house being noisily demolished.

We would say that our quality of life here is a lot better than in London. The Big Smoke is vastly overrated - and totally unaffordable.

Pic: The lovely Belmont Park, five minutes' walk from our house.

Saturday 25 March 2023

Unbearable noise

Some people find everyday noises so disturbing they have to get away from them. They simply can't endure someone chewing gum, tapping their fingers, slurping tea, snoring or sniffing. As yet it's not clear why they react so strongly to sounds most people would just find slightly irritating.

I see there's a word for this common condition - misophonia. I'm glad to say I don't have any such aversion to certain sounds. There are lots of things that slightly annoy me but no more than that.

Jenny has a strong antipathy to tea-slurping, noisy food-chewing, snoring and sniffing. Whether her antipathy is greater than other people's I have no idea. But it means I have to be careful to avoid the habits that set her off.

It's estimated that 18 per cent of the population have misophonia - an extraordinary figure that amounts to 12 million people. They often think they're alone because it's something that's hardly ever discussed. Apparently there's an assumption that women are more prone to it than men, but that isn't the case.

There are some sounds you might think would drive me crazy, but for some reason they don't. When we lived in a flat in London, the woman upstairs was forever walking round the flat in high heels. She made quite a racket but I was able to disregard it. Likewise another flat-neighbour had a hacking cough throughout the day and often during the night as well. I imagine both sounds would drive misophonics clean round the bend.

One advantage of blogging is that my blogmates aren't exposed to whatever noisy habits I might be guilty of. I might be slurping my tea like a thirsty elephant but nobody knows except me.

Tuesday 21 March 2023

Power junkies

I've never understood those people who're obsessed with power. People who're desperate to be the Prime Minister, or the chief exec of some huge company, or a police officer or a judge. Some job in which they can disrupt other people's lives, tell them what to do and what not to do, cause them pleasure or misery.

I'm reflecting on power junkies because of Boris Johnson's frantic attempts to be reinstated as prime minister and his reluctance to accept that he's had his day, he's disgraced himself, and he ought to just sit quietly on parliament's back benches.

I've never wanted power. I was always happy in quite low-level jobs where I had no power over anyone but I was just enjoying what I did.

In any case, people who gain power often find they don't have as much power as they were expecting. Former prime ministers for example have complained that their hands were often tied by legal restraints, rebellious MPs, unpredictable voters, media scrutiny and unexpected crises. How much power you have is always subject to other people's behaviour.

But that doesn't stop people wanting power. They love the adrenaline surge of having control over other people's lives, as well as always being in the public eye and indulging their pet obsessions. And like Boris, once they lose that power, they're desperate to have it back.

And unfortunately they often misuse that power. We're all aware of the regular reports of bribery, corruption, sexual abuse and nepotism linked to people in high office. They think they can get away with it and they frequently do.

I'm glad the power gene passed me by.

Thursday 16 March 2023

Back home

I never considered moving back to my parents' house as a young adult, but more and more children are doing so as the cost of living crisis continues.

The number of adult children living with their parents in the UK has jumped to five million, with more than half those aged 19 to 23 doing so.

Parents aren't necessarily happy about it, if they've got used to having the home for themselves. And they may be distressed that their child is finding life so difficult.

I never thought of returning to the parental home, as I'd never been close to my parents, and as my father had taken an active dislike to me. We'd have driven each other nuts in no time. In any case, I would have felt very restricted by having always to allow for my parents' attitudes and scrutiny.

Also there was no cost of living crisis at the time (the seventies in London). My year as an undergraduate was paid for by the state so I had no outstanding student loans. I lived in a rented bed sit with minimal costs for gas and electricity. I didn't need a car as public transport was excellent. My salary was more than adequate. So there was nothing to make reverting to the parental home a serious option.

So what if I'd got on famously with my parents and my financial situation was dire, would I have moved back in with them? Maybe. But I'd have to have got on with them extremely well. And how many children get on with their parents extremely well (as opposed to somehow rubbing along)? Not that many, from what I can gather.

Saturday 11 March 2023

Who is Jane?

Most novelists seem to assume that their readers all have photo-graphic memories and can follow every twist and turn of their books without the author's help. Even if the plot is labyrinthine and the book is overflowing with characters, you're expected to keep track of it all quite effortlessly.

Unfortunately some of us have such appalling memories we find it hard to keep up and could do with a little assistance from the author to ward off galloping confusion.

The sort of thing that bugs me:

  • A chapter that starts without naming the character and you're supposed to know who it is by their physical description on page two.
  • Mention of a character's tragic accident sometime in the past, and you're meant to remember what was the tragic accident.
  • A character who refers to his "harrowing" divorce. Why was it harrowing? Was that explained somewhere?
  • A character with a voluminous back story that's impossible to remember but fifty pages on it becomes crucial to the plot and you're meant to be familiar with it.
  • A character called Jane suddenly appears on page 77. Is this a new character or was she mentioned earlier in the book?
Well, you get the general idea. Maybe some authors think it's insulting people's intelligence to keep clarifying details you might have forgotten. But that's preferable to finishing a book in a state of confusion because the reader is assumed to be absorbing everything with sponge-like efficiency. I'm afraid not. My memory is more like some slippery surface that things may or may not stick to.

How wonderful it would be if on seeing Jane on page 77 I'd think, Ah yes, she's Tim's cousin, she has short cropped hair, she's allergic to peanuts and her roof leaks.

Fat chance.

Tuesday 7 March 2023

Even worse

Three years ago, I lamented that the assumption that every succeeding generation would do better for themselves than the previous one seemed to be dead and buried. I noted all the ways in which the young were now worse off than their parents and grandparents. I never imagined things would get even worse. But they have.

Job conditions and salaries are worse, homes are even less affordable, zero-hours and part-time contracts are more common, personal debt is colossal, there are even longer waits for medical treatment, and the interest rate for student loans has increased.

When I look back on my younger days, it's hard to believe I had it so good. Salaries were generous, homes were relatively cheap, most jobs were permanent (and often included annual bonuses), I was never in debt (except later on with a mortgage), and medical treatment was prompt.

My year as an undergraduate now seems extraordinary. I got free tuition, a maintenance grant and a travel grant. If I did a degree now, I'd be up to my eyeballs in debt, and paying it off for years to come.

Some youngsters blame us oldies for this deterioration, which is nonsense because we oldies have always wanted people's lives to get better, not worse. It's the politicians who've presided over a flagging economy and crumbling public services. It was Prime Minister Tony Blair who ended free university tuition in 1998. It's successive governments that have allowed the growth in precarious job contracts. And it's the present government that has allowed the NHS to fall apart.

It must be very upsetting for parents that their children will be so much worse off. They must have wondered whether to have children at all, given the bleak future they'll be up against.

Friday 3 March 2023

Doubt sets in

I've got to the age when I start to doubt some of my memories, seeing as they're so long ago and there may be nobody to corroborate them.

Certain memories I can rely on because there's physical evidence of them. I know I went to a certain prep school because the school's still there. Ditto my boarding school, my various workplaces, the houses and flats I've lived in, the cities I've visited, the famous people I've met. And so on.

But when it comes to entirely subjective memories, ones stored only inside my own head, after all this time can I really be sure they happened? Or that they happened in the way I seem to remember?

Was I really almost crushed by a falling chimney? Did I really almost drown at Southend beach? Was I really almost run over by a speeding car? Was I really bullied at boarding school as much as I make out? Did I really lock myself out of a hotel bedroom in Paris? Or are these memories greatly embroidered, or even totally fabricated? Am I confusing my own memories with something I read somewhere? There's no one to confirm that yes, my memories are accurate and not just a tangle of distortions and make-believe.

We all know that if we ask a dozen people for their recollections of an event, their accounts will probably differ wildly and the objective truth may be hard to find. In which case my own memories may be equally unreliable.

Unlike some celebs, I've never been tempted to re-invent my childhood to make it look more dramatic or exciting or extraordinary. My memory is so poor that a week later I would have forgotten what I invented.