Wednesday, 27 February 2013

I can't tell you yet but ...

You know that 'keeping a secret' thing? When you really, really want to say something and you've agreed to keep your mouth shut?

So, I've agreed not to post links to 65 Things to Do When You Retire: Travel before it comes out on 9th March - because that's when you'll be able to buy it.

Do you remember, ages ago, I wrote about an editor appearing from behind a metaphorical tree while I was looking the other way and asking for a piece on taking a gap year in retirement? It's here, should you want to read it again - and get a flavour of just how excited I was. And I now know I'm in the company of some wonderful travel writers from America which makes it even more astonishing.

Anyway - I'm not showing you the cover, nor the blurb, nor anything else I've agreed not to show you. But I am reminding you it's coming out - not only because I'm looking forward to an excuse to eat cake and feel generally pleased with myself, but also because this book will raise money for cancer charities. Which is almost as good a reason for you to get ready to buy it as its contents! (I think much of the practical information is more useful for those living in the US - but there's still some great ideas for those of us across the pond.)

(I haven't really told you much, have I ...)

Sunday, 24 February 2013

What gives you joy?

Don't get me wrong - I enjoy a good grumble as much as the next woman. Don't get me started on the packaging of toothbrushes or the price of gas. When it's cold and grey and the daffodils are wondering whether to retreat back into the frozen ground - well, it's hard to find much to celebrate.

Yet - and here I speak only for myself - there is so much that makes me smile that all this foot-stamping and growling into my beard (that's a metaphor, I don't really have a beard) gets in the way of noticing the little things that cheer me every day. So here are a few of them:

Snowdrops - lively, delicate little flowers that come out to play in the meanest weather.

The smell of fresh coffee.

Bookshops. (Coffee in bookshops is one of the best ideas ever!)

Warm slippers - even furry slippers, that look ridiculous but keep your toes toasty.

Birds on the feeders in my garden - brave little birds, feathers ruffled against the cold. When the sun shines they wake me in the morning and I forgive them even if it's early.

Grandchildren. (Ah, grandchildren ...)

The Today Programme (a news programme that comes on radio every morning in the UK)

Singing - from bellowing in the kitchen while the kettle boils to the sweetest carol with my choir.

My passport (you know why!)

Aren't I lucky? Such day-to-day delights that greet me every morning. This list wrote itself in five minutes - think how much there'd be on it in half an hour? 

And you - what makes you smile, just to think of it?

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Little boxes - and those of us who don't fit in them.

I read (well, skimmed) an article the other day: pensionsers should learn to go online, as it will combat loneliness. Underneath it lay three assumptions: pensioners are lonely, they need specific encouragement to join in with digital playing, and that younger people know what is best for them.

What springs to mind when you read the word 'pensioners'? Grannies by the fireside? Granddads with zimmer frames? Grandmas dribbling into their cocoa? Grandpas with holes in their slippers? The woman next door who helps in the charity shop on Monday, meals on wheels on Tuesday (she has to finish early to fetch grandchildren from school), does a language class on Wednesday, yoga on Thursday and organises transport for the local Day Centre on Friday? (She relaxes with wine at the weekend!)

Last time you had to fill in a form that gave you boxes for your age - did you notice the divisions - under 25, 26-35, 36-45, 46-55, 56-65 - and over 65.

This presumes that men and women over 65 have needs and ideas in common. I'm not quite there yet - but am preparing for the scrap.

I accept that ideas, interests, abilities and energy changes over a lifetime. Thank goodness it does - it means we can continue to surprise ourselves. But the implication that all that stops at 65 is so obviously false that such short-cut-boxes serve only to infuriate rather than to clarify the glorious differences of people at various stages of their lives.

So, going back to the article that set me off, how about acknowledging that loneliness is not the prerogative of the over 65s but can happen at any stage of life. That individuals can, unless seriously ill or with disabilities that make thinking impossible, make their own decisions about what they need - which may or may not involve computers.

And - vitally - to realise that pensioners come in as many shapes, sizes, colours and abilities as the rest of the population. And we can - and do - think for ourselves!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The ethics of memoir.

Recently, I was in a cafe in London when I overheard a phone conversation - the young woman on the table next to me talked, loudly, of finding her friend who had hanged himself. I grabbed my notebook, as you do, and wrote it all down.

If I gave you details of that conversation - which was riveting, in spite of (or maybe because of) it's gruesomeness - it's possible that young woman could be identified. Now I'd be astonished if she every saw this blog, or if any of her friends did. The chances that anyone would put two and two together and she would find out I'd written about her are minimal.

But still, I'm left with questions, about her, and about my listening to her: How much was her horror about herself or about her friend, and does that distinction matter? Should she have had that conversation in front of her 4-year-old, tucking into chips beside her, or does the urgency of her need to unburden herself make that allowable?

Should I have written it down in the first place (it was impossible not to listen - the whole cafe was captivated)?

I often scribble down overheard conversations in cafes. Some find their ways into stories, or into my travel books, suitably disguised. I defy anyone to identify themselves - unless I've asked permission in which case real names are used.

But this feels different - it's too personal, too terrible - to play with the details. I feel that both this young woman and her friend need the dignity of keeping the truth of their stories to themselves. So I'm not going to tell you any more - but what would you have done?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

It's Valentine's Day, so what next?

As if you could miss it. The shops are full of cards, and red ribbons, and roses. You can buy dressing gowns covered in hearts, rude pants, mugs, towels, balloons, rabbits ... Restaurants have special deals. Hotels suggest a night in their honeymoon suite will rekindle ... I have even seen a Valentine's card to a dog, but let's not go there.

I'm sure there will be many happy couples. And I wish you all well. I hope you have a wonderful day, reminding each other just why you are together.

And I'm sure the card-makers, and the fluffy-toy makers, and the restaurants will all have a wonderful day too. Good luck to them - times are hard, and if there's profit in bunnies - well, it's better than being on the dole.

So, in the spirit of fostering our faltering economy, I think we should suggest other occasions which can be used as an excuse for spending money and general celebrating (and filling the coffers of the card-makers etc). Halloween - that's exploited to the full now; as is Mother's Day, Father's Day, Grandparent's Day - is there space for Auntie's Day, Uncle Day? Daughter's Day? (I've 4 daughters who'd sign up for that one.)

We have cards for birthdays, cards for starting school, for leaving school. But surely parents can celebrate: little Johnny's first day at school (you can snivel together at the school gate and settle with celebratory cake), when he leaves for university, when he comes to live at home again ... the day he finally leaves ... We have wedding cards, but nothing to mark a divorce. We cheer when we reach 18, but how about raising a glass to the menopause (all that monthly money you'll save). Retirement - that brings presents. But how about a cake for the day you move back in with Johnny and he has to make your breakfast before racing off the work ...

OK, I'm not entirely serious. But if it's fine to exploit Valentine's Day to the point where people can feel guilty if they can't afford the dinner, the champagne, the rude pants - then almost everything is open to exploitation. Can you think of other life events you might like to raise a glass to?

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Why not eat horse?

I choose not to eat meat, so this horse-eating furore doesn't affect me directly - in fact, I feel a bit of an outsider to the whole performance. But it has made me think.

I think there are two issues here - and, in much of the reporting - they are getting muddled.

Firstly, it is important that 'it does what it says on the tin.' If something says it's beef, it should be beef. There are many people with food intolerances, or with religious dictates, who need to be able to rely on labelling. (Let's not get into the size of print on food labels - that way madness lies.) And if there has been an international conspiracy - well, that will keep the journalists happy for a long time, and maybe allow the politicians to distract us for long enough to bury other bad news.

Secondly - why shouldn't we eat horse? We've eaten cows and pigs and goats and chickens for centuries. At my local market, I can buy (should I want to) burgers made from kangaroo and ostrich. Why not horse?

Why not dog? Or cat? Or rat? Or scorpion? In the affluent west, we take for granted that we can pick and choose which animals we eat. We can throw up our hands in horror at the mere idea of serving up Dobbin for Sunday lunch. Of giving Rover a final pat before shoving him in the oven for a couple of hours. Of setting traps by rat holes and mixing a tasty sauce with tomatoes and a chilli or two.

We are privileged in being able to make the arbitrary decision that some animals are food and others are not. Hungry people find protein where they can. We might not fancy horse, but don't have a right to judge those who - through poverty, or tradition - make different food decisions from ours.

Or do you meat-eaters disagree?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Birthdays, and why they matter.

I had a birthday this week - no, this isn't a plea for cake (oh well, go on then, just a small slice); but rather an opportunity to reflect on birthdays in general, and why they matter.

In our western culture, birthdays are an opportunity to remind people that they're important - simply because they are alive, have a space in the world, and people around to care enough to buy a card and sing a song (and eat cake together). It's a day we don't share with anyone else (except for twins, who may see things very differently), but to stand on our own little dais, say, 'Hello world, I'm still here - taking up my own little person-space, with my own ideas and dreams, my joys and struggles.'

But - a question here - how much is this a western-centric celebration, based on a notion of the right of individuals to self-expression and self-determination. Our focus of interest is the individual - competition (even if it's only fighting for the last slice of cake) is based on one person's claim or ability over another's.

Not every culture organises itself as we do. Some Asian families regard the focus of interest as the family unit - so an individual who travels to distant parts, works their socks off in cockle-fields or bean-picking or care homes, shares an attic with six others, and sends all his or her money home to feed parents or children, or pays for a sister's education - is working for the family, not for personal gain. The woman who works in the fields while her husband hunts in the jungle, the children who cannot go to school as they are needed to help herd the goats - they all assume that the survival of the family takes precedence over individual needs or feelings.

But does that mean that they have no occasion to celebrate their own unique place in the world? No one will sing to them, make them a cake, remind them that they matter just for being who they are.

From my perspective, it feels essential that we all have birthdays, a day just for us. But maybe I'm blinkered by my western upbringing. Does anyone else see it differently?

Sunday, 3 February 2013

So, will I write a book about Laos?

I don't know.

Come on, I hear you say; you must know. You must have pages of journals, photographs (woops, sorry, you had the camera stolen.)

Actually, some people I met are sending photographs, so I'm not picture-less. And yes, I do have two exercise books full of notes.

This was a very different trip from my visit to Nepal. There was no cyclone. No tiger - well, actually, there were tigers, but tame tigers, which is definitely not the same thing at all. But at no time did my stomach go flippy-flop and leave me wondering how I was going to survive this time.

It was a trip full of questions - about the country, and how people live there now, after the years of bombing and then the closed decades of unremitting communism. It was a trip for gawping at astonishing scenery - mountains and rivers and waterfalls. Of listening to roosters at dawn and tree frogs as the sun set. A trip of wandering into local markets where there was nothing for sale but a few root vegetables and dead rats. A trip with monks rubbing shoulders with tourists whose behaviour can best be described as rapacious. A trip of wandering around towns and villages, trying to find someone who could speak enough English to answer my endless question, and meeting mainly tourists - a few, like me, trying to make sense of the place, and most of them young and looking for adrenalin thrills and parties.

My task, now, is to unravel all that and see if there is a story there. I shall transcribe the diaries and then begin to untangle them, pick out the highlights, look for stories, and maybe even draft a book. Then I shall show it to others - and ask, is this good enough?

Bear with me - this will take time. I'll let you know how I get on.