Sunday 31 March 2024

Stuck in the mud

A friend said the other day that I was a bit of a stick in the mud, which rather bothered me until I realised there's nothing wrong with being a stick in the mud in itself. It all depends what you're a stick in the mud about.

I'm happy to be a stick in the mud if it means believing in things like politeness, friendliness, altruism*, democracy, the welfare state, and women's liberation. If you're a stick in the mud about banning immigration or keeping women in their place, that's a different matter.

We could do with a lot more of the high-minded stick-in-the-mud types, given how easily people now abandon any worthwhile principles in favour of bending the rules, breaking the law, lying their heads off and denigrating other people.

If the opposite of being stuck in the mud is being totally suggestible and going along with anything that's trendy and superficially appealing, then I'm very content to be a stick in the mud and true to my beliefs.

It's intriguing that now the phrase implies a personal failing - someone who deliberately resists change. That's not how it was used in the past. It implied someone who was unable to progress through no fault of their own - someone whose feet were stuck in soft clay.

*Now there's a word you don't hear often today - altruism. Meaning a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Endless pressure

When I compare working conditions today with the working conditions I had in my own work life, I'm shocked at what so many people have to put up with nowadays.

I didn't realise how lucky I was and how drastically things were about to change. I took for granted how well I was treated.

When I worked for the Harrow Observer, a local newspaper in North West London, in the late sixties, it was clearly overstaffed and we spent most of the day chattering and fooling around. We would take a good hour for a liquid lunch. We might spend an hour or two of the day writing the odd story. And for that we got a generous salary and equally generous expenses.

From what I can gather, newspapers nowadays are chronically understaffed and journalists have to work their arses off writing one story after another. And salaries and expenses are as low as the owners can get away with.

When I worked for the Economists Bookshop, part of the London School of Economics, in the seventies my workload was so light I had plenty of time to read the Guardian from cover to cover and do more chattering and messing around. We got a rude awakening when Dillons and then Waterstones took over the bookshop in the eighties.

I hear so much now from disgruntled employees who're under constant pressure, who're micromanaged and set unreachable work targets, who're bullied and abused and expected to work when they're ill, who get home exhausted and demoralised, that I'm glad I no longer have to work for a living. I'd simply be unable to cope.

The sooner employees are treated decently again, the sooner we stop reliving the Victorian age, the better.

Saturday 23 March 2024

A bit of a fetish

There are still people who believe that mental disorders have become a bit of a fetish and that people are "self-diagnosing" their reaction to the normal ups and downs of life as mental problems that prevent them simply getting on with things.

Mel Stride, the Work and Pensions Minister, has got into hot water by saying just that, claiming that the diagnosis of mental problems "may have gone too far" and wanting to push 150,000 people with "mild conditions" back into work.

Of course there's no evidence that thousands of people are effectively "faking it" and developing non-existent mental problems, but that didn't stop Mel Stride making such wild statements. Just because he's mentally healthy (or so one assumes), he imagines that everyone else would be mentally healthy if they just got a grip.

Anyway, why would anyone claim to have a mental illness at the present time when it's never been harder to get therapy or treatment, when the NHS is currently overwhelmed with demand? They'd just be making life difficult for themselves.

Has Mel Stride ever talked to anyone with a severe mental disorder and grasped exactly how debilitating and crushing it can be? It doesn't sound like it. He just delivers a casual slap in the face and adds insult to injury.

He would be well advised not to parade his ignorance.

Pic: Mel Stride

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Language deficit

I've suggested before that all schools should be bilingual, meaning that while you're in school you have to speak another language so that by the time you leave school you're fluent in that other language.

But the English are mostly very arrogant about not wanting to learn another language, insisting that English is spoken in so many countries that there's no point in us speaking anything else.

Well, apart from the established fact that learning a second language stimulates the brain in various ways, it just seems like a friendly gesture to, say, someone French or German or Spanish that you can talk to them in their own language rather than expecting them to speak your own.

If you got seriously fluent you could work as a translator or interpreter, skills that are always in demand. Plus you could read books in their original language.

I had French lessons at school, but as I never spoke French to anyone I never acquired more than the basics and failed a French exam. If I had had to speak French all the time, I would surely have been fluent by the time I left school.

I know quite a lot of Italian but I'm nowhere near being fluent. Molto embarazzante!

It's pitiful that so many Europeans in particular can speak several languages and think nothing of it. They're often quite bemused that we only speak English and have no wish to speak another language thank you very much.

French or German would certainly be more useful to me than the Latin I did at school - most of which I've totally forgotten anyway. Cela n'a aucun sens!*

*It makes no sense

Friday 15 March 2024

Going to the dogs

How often do you read that people's conduct has declined, the country's going to the dogs, nobody knows how to behave any more etc etc?

Supposedly people are more angry, abusive, lawless, corrupt, neurotic, selfish and lazy than they used to be - and what's more it's getting worse.

But is this really true? Is people's behaviour actually slipping or is this a false impression? How on earth do you measure such things when there's no way of directly comparing behaviour now with behaviour, say, twenty years ago?

Today's bad behaviour is much more visible when it's constantly flagged up by the media and made out to be more common than it is. And yesterday's bad behaviour is not so noticeable because we've forgotten a lot of it. So of course it seems like people's behaviour has got worse.

The fact is that there's a large number of people who are badly behaved and always have been. There are plenty of people who get drunk on planes, insult shop assistants, jump queues, feign sickies and so on. Such wrongdoers didn't simply jump out of the woodwork last week.

And I admit to making these false comparisons myself. Just recently I was saying that people seem to be angrier than they used to be, but of course if you ask me for evidence or statistics, I don't have any. It's simply my personal hunch, based on nothing whatever.

I need to take the media's sensationalism with a large pinch of salt.

Monday 11 March 2024

Extremism redefined

The British government is planning a new law on extremism, saying that the existing definitions don't go far enough and democracy is threatened. What a pointless exercise.

Needless to say they're tying themselves in knots trying to find a suitable redefinition* of something that seems perfectly obvious. To my mind, and probably most people's minds, extremism is simply violence or the threat of violence.

Anything else is just free speech or public protest - possibly abusive and ignorant free speech but that's not the same as extremism. If free speech and public protest becomes "extremism", we're on a very slippery slope indeed.

But the government wants to include anything that "undermines UK democracy", an absurdly vague concept that could include just about anything.

Would rallies in support of Gaza be caught in the net? Or attacks on the government? Or trade union activities? All sorts of routine grassroots protest could be outlawed.

Civil liberties groups and lawyers have already pointed out how dangerous the new law could be, but the government is notorious for ignoring expert advice and going its own sweet way.

*The proposed redefinition of extremism runs as follows (new redefinition on March 13): "the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance" that aims to "negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others" or "undermine, overturn or replace the UK's system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights."

Thursday 7 March 2024

Silence that alarm!

Noise is a big factor in our everyday lives but it isn't discussed very much. We all react to noise in different ways, depending what the noise is and depending on our personal likings and aversions. Some things I can easily screen out while other things totally get on my nerves. The things that annoy me:

  • Background music in restaurants and shops, especially music I dislike. I prefer silence so I can focus on conversation.
  • Music blasting out of people's cars
  • Souped-up cars with roaring engines
  • Car alarms and security alarms
  • Motorbikes
  • People having loud phone conversations on public transport
  • Leaf blowers. Why can't the leaves just stay where they are?
  • People rustling food wrappers in a cinema or theatre
The things I'm okay with:

  • Mild background noise when I'm falling asleep
  • Jenny's occasional snoring
  • The sound of pigeons
  • The sirens on emergency vehicles
  • Planes taking off from the nearby airport
  • Chewing noises
  • People tapping their feet
  • The noise from washing machines
  • Chainsaws
I'm glad I've still got good hearing, despite the deafening rock concerts I went to when I was younger, which left my ears ringing for hours. I'm also glad I don't have tinnitus, which is very common, incredibly annoying and unfortunately not curable. Thankfully also I don't have hyperacusis or extreme sensitivity to noise, so sounds always seem louder than they should.

Now excuse me while I go and sabotage a few leaf blowers.

Sunday 3 March 2024

Get a grip

It's good that mental health is now so widely discussed and there's a lot more help available* for those who have mental problems. It's now perfectly okay to admit to chronic depression, anxiety, panic attacks or even suicidal feelings, and to ask for help in dealing with them.

It's suggested that one reason for the change is that young people are now enduring so many overwhelming pressures in their lives that they can't bottle up their feelings anymore and are bringing them into the open and looking for professional guidance to help them out.

Whatever the reason, this big change can only be for the good. When I was young, people were a lot less sympathetic about mental problems and tended to shrug them off as some minor quirk. If you expressed your inability to cope, you would probably be told to "get a grip", "pull yourself together" or "be more positive". Such knee-jerk advice may have helped some people, but many others felt their problems weren't being taken seriously.

There's still some reluctance to use medications to deal with mental problems, and some reluctance to reveal they're being used, but they can be very effective in many cases.

Unfortunately they weren't much help to Jenny's old school friend who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was taking medicines for a number of years before killing herself at the second attempt. Her problems were very deep-rooted and not responsive to any kind of treatment.

Of course there are still people who're unsympathetic to mental problems, partly because they're lucky enough not to have any themselves, partly because they're still stuck in the "get a grip" approach, and partly because mental problems are by their nature invisible. But that sort of ignorance is fast declining.

*but not nearly enough