Wednesday 31 January 2024

Letting rip

If you're desperate for a pee but you're in the middle of nowhere, is it okay to find some hidden spot and let rip? Or should you try to hold it in until you find a public toilet?

Dacorum Borough Council in Hertfordshire clearly think you should hold it in. They fined two men £88 each for peeing in a layby. The men objected, the council stood firm, but eventually the council relented and their fines were rescinded.

A layby is a bit public and not a sensible place to pee, but what if they were in the midst of a wood and totally invisible? Is it really a good use of council funds to track them down and penalise them?

I've often had a pee when I'm walking in the Mourne Mountains. As long as there's nobody else around, what's the harm? It's either that or have an embarrassing accident.

Peeing in a public street is a different matter. It's vulgar and selfish. Usually the culprits are men who've had far too much to drink and suddenly need to pee on the way home. They're oblivious to the mess they make and other people's reactions.

Theoretically you can be fined £40 for peeing in a public street, which counts as indecent behaviour. But how often do you hear of someone being fined?

Of course there should be more public toilets, but they can't be everywhere, and your chances of being near one when you need to pee are pretty low.

Just be careful what you do in a layby.

Saturday 27 January 2024

Watch your language!

There's heated controversy in Northern Ireland over bilingual signs, especially road signs. Quite a lot of signs are bilingual already (English and Irish, that is), but any proposal to add to them is always contentious.

People can apply for signs to be made bilingual, and in 2023 there were over 600 such requests. In the past road signs could only be changed if two thirds of the road's residents asked for it, but the threshold in Belfast has now been cut to 15 per cent.

There are two opposing views on bilingual signs. One says that because most people here speak English, adding Irish is unnecessary and costly, and is just a pointless political gesture by Irish language campaigners.

The other viewpoint is that the Irish language needs to be supported and promoted and used more widely as it's an important part of Irish culture, and those opposing bilingual signs are just being narrow-minded and obstinate.

I must say I tend to support the unnecessary-and-costly argument. If people want to learn and promote Irish, fine, it's a wonderful language, but why bilingual road signs? If most people speak English I don't see the need for them.

If we can find our way around quite adequately with an English road sign, why add Irish?

The bilingual road sign issue came to mind because a Welsh language campaigner is currently embroiled in a three year legal battle after refusing to pay a £70 car park penalty notice written only in English. Toni Schiavone will only pay the penalty notice if it's translated into Welsh, and he says he's being unfairly harassed.

I'm keeping well out of the language controversy. Or as an Irish speaker would say "Tá mé ag éirí go maith as".

Monday 22 January 2024

Housing blues

I'm very concerned that young people are finding it so hard to buy a home because of the stratospheric property prices, and many still live with their parents because they can't afford to either buy or rent.

I've been lucky enough to end up owning a large detached house, but if I'd had less luck I could have been struggling to find somewhere to live in my old age and making do with a run-down flat in some seedy neighbourhood.

In my twenties I was living in a run-down flat in London and wondering how on earth I could afford somewhere more desirable. I was saving money but although I had about enough for the deposit on a flat, a mortgage was quite unaffordable.

I was lucky enough to run into Jenny and between the two of us we were able to buy a tiny flat. As a result of rapidly rising property prices we were able to sell up at a profit and move into a bigger flat.

When we moved to Belfast in 2000 we sold our London flat for an even larger profit and were able to buy a house here for cash, as local house prices are much lower than in London.

Then with a large windfall from my mother we were able to buy our present house, where we've lived for almost 15 years.

But I'm always aware of the many thousands of youngsters who aren't as lucky as us and are desperate for a decent home of their own. The politicians seem unable to control the endlessly rising rents and house prices and just let them get higher. Now only the seriously wealthy can afford a sizeable house in the big cities.

Home sweet home? Only if you're lucky enough to have one.

Thursday 18 January 2024

Unfairly demonised?

I've thought for a while that social workers are often unfairly vilified for failing to prevent someone's death or serious injury. The latest instance is the death of two-year-old Bronson Battersby, who was found dead next to his father Kenneth, who had had a fatal heart attack.

Predictably his mother Sarah has blamed social services for not preventing Bronson's death. She said "If social services had done their job Bronson would still be alive. We have to be able to rely on social workers to keep our children safe."

But when you look at the details of the case, I wonder what else social services could have done.

A Skegness social worker paying her usual weekly visit on January 2 couldn't get any answer and alerted the police, who did nothing. Two days later a repeat visit also went unanswered and again the police were alerted but did nothing. The social worker finally entered the property on January 9 using the landlord's key. And discovered the two bodies.

So the police are obviously at fault for failing to visit the property.

And what about the mother's responsibility? Why wasn't she in the house when Kenneth died and her son needed her? It seems she had rowed with Kenneth and was living temporarily somewhere else. Yet she knew Kenneth had had one heart attack and could have another, meaning he might be unable to look after Bronson.

She blames Social Services for Bronson's death, but as I see it the social worker did what she could to get into the house while the police ignored her. And Sarah herself was absent.

So as I say, I think once again social workers are being unfairly blamed for a tragic death.

Update on January 18: A revealing interview with Sarah here

Update on January 19: Bronson's sister Melanie Battersby told the BBC she believed social services and the police "did what they could within the powers they had and the information they were given"

Sunday 14 January 2024

Not that special

The world could do with a little more humility right now - meaning accepting that we're not that special and not acting as if we're hugely important or influential.

I see humility as the opposite of pride - which on the contrary is the bigging up of your own or other people's achievements as if they're fantastic.*

Personally I'm more prone to humility than pride. I'm quite self-effacing and I don't see myself as in any way exceptional. I'm just a very ordinary person doing very ordinary things.

If anyone suggests I'm special I promptly deny being any such thing. I'm just a grain of sand on the banks of the Ganges, as the Buddha supposedly put it.

I find it rather odd that people take pride in other people's achievements (especially their children), as if they themselves have achieved whatever it is. They seem to be looking for some sort of reflected glory.

But I wouldn't describe myself as humble, which unfortunately has come to mean grovelling and arse-licking rather than just being ordinary. I prefer to say I'm modest or unassuming.

Many public figures develop a view of themselves as extra-special because of all the attention paid to them by the media and by the general public. They mistake attention for genuine appreciation and respect.

Politicians in particular strut around as if they're the bee's knees and as if the world revolves around them. I hate to break it to them, but they're just temporary public servants who might be replaced at any moment.

* Isn't pride a form of boasting?

Wednesday 10 January 2024

I blame the parents

There are different opinions about psychological problems in adulthood.

You can trace them back to childhood and blame parental failings.

You can say that blaming your parents is a cop-out and you should just work through your hang-ups.

Or you can say that your parents did their best by the standards of the times and so you shouldn't blame them for their failings.

Personally I take the first approach. It's clear to me that my parents sent me to an entirely unsuitable boarding school that didn't equip me properly for adult life and left me emotionally and intellectually under-developed.

I don't think it's a cop-out to blame my parents if it's quite obvious they made a major error of judgment and there's no way they could pin it on anything else. That error is a reality and should be acknowledged.

I also think referring to the standards of the times doesn't absolve my parents. Whatever the standards of the times, they picked an unsuitable school and they should have noticed I wasn't happy, I wasn't thriving, and the quality of teaching wasn't good enough.

Of course if your parents are still alive, you don't want to upset them by telling them they were deficient parents. So you're likely to hide your criticism and pretend they did a great job. Which simply sweeps everything under the carpet.

Falling back on "the standards of the times" is dangerous, as it can excuse all sorts of negative behaviour - like domestic violence, homophobia and sacking pregnant women. Behaviour should be judged by today's standards and not the standards of 50 years ago, as if the following decades of cultural changes never happened.

Saturday 6 January 2024

Exercise sceptic

My only regular exercise is a 30 minute daily walk. I've never done anything more systematic than that, and I'm still fairly healthy at the age of 76 - apart from the usual aches and pains that affect us oldies.

  • I don't do yoga
  • I don't do pilates
  • I don't do tai chi
  • I don't have an exercise bike
  • I don't work out
  • I don't aim for 10,000 steps a day
  • I don't do marathons
  • I don't go jogging
  • I don't cycle
  • I don't swim
Mind you, if there was a gym in the immediate neighbourhood I might very well use it, but there isn't. The nearest gym requires a car journey which I would rather not have to make.

I suspect that a lot of exercise regimes don't actually make much difference to your present or future health. It's probably more the case that it makes the person feel good or they like the sense of self-discipline. At any rate that's how an exercise sceptic like me explains my sedentary lifestyle.

I certainly don't need to exercise surplus flesh away. My weight has remained constant for over 40 years at around 11½ stone - the ideal weight for my height of six feet. Strangely I always shed several pounds overnight. It seems that my body uses a lot of calories concocting the weird dreams I'm saddled with.

I suppose that's one benefit of all the cricket and rugby I had to play at school - I left school in good physical shape and not covered in flab, like so many of today's podgy youngsters.

Tuesday 2 January 2024

Dodgy memories

Since I have such a bad memory, and since so many years have elapsed since the events in question, I've been wondering lately how many of my early memories are reliable. In other words, did they truly happen or has imagination taken over from reality?

  • Was I almost crushed to death by a falling chimney?
  • Did I almost drown at Southend on Sea?
  • Was I almost killed by two speeding cars as I ran across a busy road?
  • Was I really bullied for several years at boarding school (why can't I remember any of the details)?
  • Did a schoolmate really commit suicide?
  • Did I almost suffocate in my first workplace from all the tobacco smoke?
  • Did one workmate really tell me she thought her breasts were too small?
  • Did two of my workmates die of cancer?
  • Did I really sleep with a couple of men?
  • Did I really climb the Eiffel Tower as a teenager?
There's no way of confirming most of these supposed memories. In most cases there were no witnesses, or if there were they're now untraceable. Possibly my sister could confirm one or two of my memories - if she hasn't tweaked them herself.

But after all, most of these memories are 40 or 50 years old, which means plenty of time for them to be embellished or altered or simply invented.

At least I don't deliberately concoct dramatic memories to impress whoever I'm talking to. I don't claim to have met the King or swum the English Channel or climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. My memories, what's left them, are boringly humdrum.

And I didn't climb the Eiffel Tower. You can't climb right to the top for safety reasons. So that memory is definitely dubious.