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Sunday, 13 October 2013

Making The Most of Middle Age

Today is my birthday. I am forty six. Saying that out loud makes me laugh since it is so patently ridiculous, yet my mother and other apparently sane people insist it is true. Given that my age appears to be a fact of life, I gave some thought to middle age - the good stuff and how to make the most of it.

Every time is like the first time

I have read many books in my lifetime and the wonderful thing about reaching middle-age is that I can't remember the plot of any of them. Every time really is like the first time. Until you get maybe about half way through and then people's names and behavioural tics start to feel uncomfortably familiar. Same with sex.

Room for improvement

Frank Sinatra once said, "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning that's as good as they're going to feel all day." When you're middle aged the same applies to the way you look. You may wake each morning with a face like a dirt bike track, churned up and splattered with sun spots, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you can't look any worse. (Except for some days, when you do.)

Bucket lists

In middle-age your bucket list becomes shorter and more achievable. One of my new bucket list items is to ride on a Stannah Stairlift. There is every chance that this will come about quite naturally and with no effort at all on my part. What could be better? James McAvoy, in his shirt sleeves, making me an omelette, that's what. Probably have to put my back into that one a bit.

Modern life

There has never been a better time to be middle-aged. Beds are comfier, slippers are cosier, tights have in-built temperature controls also, LAKELAND!  Rock concerts are another example. So easy to use! This year I attended my first ever stadium gig. I was expecting a Woodstock vibe with naked nymphs getting high and writhing in mud. Thankfully, I couldn't have been more wrong. It was mostly cheery middle-aged people eating hot dogs and drinking coke like an open-air Costco.

Financial security

If you were lucky enough, or daft enough, to buy a house 15 or 20 years ago you will have sufficient equity that when it all goes tits up and it's Weimar Republic time, you'll be able to buy all the wheelbarrows you need to take your useless paper money to the bank. Trebles all round!

Losing your inhibitions

Dance like no-one's watching. Love like you'll never be hurt. Sing like no-one is listening. Drink like you don't loathe yourself.  Eat a Scotch egg in the street like a pure animal.   Middle age is very liberating I find, you lose your inhibitions. (Not to be confused with becoming disinhibited, which is all of the above but in your nightie singing, " Roll Out The Barrel". Been doing a bit of that lately, too.)

You get the gist. Now, brace yourselves, because here comes the soppy bit.

Growing older is often seen as going into a decline. I prefer to think of it as the ascent of a strange, wild, hill. An exhausting, exhilarating climb, sometimes striding out, sometimes scrabbling for a foothold, occasionally locking eyes with a stranger who may stay with you for a while. If you're very lucky, holding the hand of a small person till they're big enough to strike out on their own.

So, I've been climbing for a while, my breathing is a little ragged and I've been knocked about a bit, but the view is all my own and it makes my heart glad.

(PS Earlier birthday blogs can be found here, here and here. It's basically more of the same.)













Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Democracy Max

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland (ERS Scotland) has just published a report, “Democracy Max: an Inquiry into the Future of Scottish Democracy”. The report follows a year long process of discussion and deliberation which set out to explore a vision for a good Scottish democracy. It started with the premise that politics is too important to be left to the politicians.  I was involved with the second phase of the process as a participant in the round table discussions which explored issues in a little more depth, chairing the third of the round tables and co-authoring that section of the report.

This short post does not set out the findings of the report in any detail, nor does it represent the views of ERS Scotland. These are simply personal observations on some of the broad themes.

Increasingly, it seems, people are not interested in politics. And if they are not interested in politics per se, they are even less interested in its dullard, techy, room-mate political process.

Try and run a vox pop on deliberative democratic techniques, or the case for a written constitution, and you’d have a hard job keeping the participants awake long enough to get a response. In that context ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max initiative could be seen as an anoraky exercise in constitutional navel gazing.

I disagree. Democracy Max asks a question of fundamental principle; not what party of government do we want, or even what powers we want, but what kind of democracy do we want?

And people do care about that.

People may not be interested in political process but they are interested in power. They know when they are denied it. They know when decisions are taken, not in their interests, but in the interests of powerful lobby groups, or political parties themselves. They know when politicians act in bad faith.

The clich├ęs of, “They’re all as bad each other”, or “They’re all in it for themselves”, may do our parliamentarians a disservice, but those sentiments exist because of a real and deep dissatisfaction with modern politics. It cannot be wished away as ignorance, or railing against authority for its own sake. Traditional representative democracy is faced with falling confidence, and without the confidence of the people it will fail.

In Scotland the forthcoming independence referendum is an opportunity to rethink how our democracy works. To re-imagine how power is exercised. Sadly to date the debate has ploughed a depressingly narrow furrow, with parties bickering over where to draw the line on powers and economic shroud waving.

Is this really the best we can do? Can we not take this opportunity to introduce some more radical thought to the question of how political power could be shared and exercised more equitably and with greater integrity? Are we really saying political evolution stops here, with the shuffling of powers from one established political class to another? If so, how sad, how complacent and how limited is our vision of the future, and how little faith we must have in ourselves.

No one is suggesting that we take a hatchet to the central concept of parliamentary democracy. There is much in the political life of Scotland and the UK to applaud and to be thankful for, but we have been depressingly reluctant to open our eyes and minds that little bit wider. 

There is ample precedent internationally if we care to look and to listen: citizen’s assemblies where members are selected by lot; further devolution of power to local communities who control the budget for their public services; a genuine belief in the concept of virtuous leadership - these are not ridiculous notions. They exist and work in the real, wider world

Certainly alternative models are not perfect. Neither are they a replacement for electoral politics. But they can complement, scrutinise and “round out” representative democracy, making it more diverse, more open and less susceptible to atrophy and self-interest. Any alternative systems will have drawbacks and problems and there will certainly be failures along the way. But frankly traditional policy making has produced some catastrophically awful results, yet we still keep putting our money in the slot and taking the gamble.

The Democracy max report does not pretend to offer fully thought out solutions to all of democracy’s woes. Neither should it. Far too much government is about a handful of interested, well- meaning people with a bit of expertise shutting themselves in a room and doing the policy making equivalent of the Disney Fairy Godmother’s “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo”. Many proposals in the report are embryonic and seek simply to open up a dialogue. Democracy Max is just one way of encouraging our political elites to demonstrate their willingness to talk, to listen and to live up to the rhetoric of a desire to introduce a new kind of politics.

Change is needed, but it will not happen of its own accord. I hope this inquiry will be an important early step in challenging the political system to deliver on the high hopes that voters still hold for democracy in Scotland.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Procrastination Is the Name of the Game

I like my deadlines like I like my men, urgent but not too serious.

In fact I approach deadlines in pretty much the same way I approach men I fancy - ignore them and hope for a miracle.

Well, not ignore them so much as put on an elaborate display of ignoring them, while watching their every move in my compact mirror and having anxiety dreams about them.

Some people have a very straightforward relationship with deadlines. "Aha!" they cry, training their spyglass on the event horizon, "A deadline! My favourite! I shall pack my spotted handkerchief this very day and make steady progress, little and often, until I reach my goal, in good time, with some cheese, bread and spreadsheets left over to share with the mouse I befriended on my journey."

That is not me. I am a thrill seeker and procrastination is how I get my rush. Not buying milk when you're down to the last quarter of the carton, not opening that HMRC package that says "OPEN IMMEDIATELY!",  not wiping the steam off the bus window till you're almost past your stop.

I am tingling at the very thought of the myriad ways in which the daily grind can be avoided, subverted or toyed with like, er, like, chewing gum that you can't get rid of because there's no bin and you threw away the wrapper so you can't spit it into that, you idiot. Where were we? Oh yes!

Procrastination! You sexy, maddening, Mata-Hari of time management! If procrastination is the thief of time, I like to imagine it as a dashing cat-burglar, negotiating the dangerous moonlit rooftops between Netflix and a thousand words on genetic engineering with aplomb. In reality, of course, it is a shifty-eyed nyaff, stuffing your potential down its jogging bottoms.

I know this to be true. I know procrastination is responsible for any number of humiliating failures; birthday gifts of wooden spoons wrapped in newspaper, laddered tights held together with nail varnish, unravelling hems, rambling speeches, blotted copybooks - need I go on?

And yet, I still lock horns with it, still hang onto the messed-up buzz it gives me. Let's face it, a cliff-hanger's not a cliff-hanger if you stop the coach and horses half a mile from the cliff edge, is it? Far better to walk nonchalantly backwards towards the precipice, whistling "Dixie" and teeter on the edge. I am the Harold Lloyd of deadlines, defying gravity, doing my best work when hanging by a thread.

Sometimes a bit of jeopardy is just what we need when a task requires super-human effort. Which makes me think I'd make a pretty great super-hero.

 "Shelagh! I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the earth!"

"Put the kettle on, Toots. Plenty of time."

(So, if I'd started a little earlier maybe we wouldn't have lost Alaska. Let's write that up as a learning point.)

Maybe procrastination is bad, maybe I should embrace deadlines, not circle them warily like a neanderthal circling fire. But maybe it's just the way I am.

Sometimes it's fun to defy nightfall and dance in the dusk till the last embers of light are gone. Unless you get eaten by the wolves.









Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Joys of Middle Age Part 2.

Today is my birthday. I am forty-five. This means that if you laid me end to end I'd feel obliged to buy you a drink.

Seriously though folks, the fact is that if you joined two of me together you'd make NINETY. There can therefore be, in mathematical terms at least, no question that I am middle-aged. Some people recoil from the thought of being middle-aged, as if it were bearing down on them like Kay Burley on a grieving townsperson. I choose to embrace it. I am middle-aged. There, I said it. (Ooh, I felt a bit like Harry Potter when he says "Voldemort" then.)

This is the third birthday I've had since I joined Twitter. A significant achievement, I'm sure you'll agree. What with that and the Nobel Peace Prize it's been quite a week. Anyway, I have written a blog on my birthday each year since I joined Twitter. (You can find them here and here.) This continues that grand tradition and I am sticking with the same theme, namely The Joys of Middle Age.

Sexy Time

In your 20's sexy time could be the kind of frenzied romp that smashed the lampshade and pulled the curtain pole off the wall, or that at the very least made the neighbours think the mice in the walls were back, but it could also be bloody hard work. First you had to catch, kill and cook your boyfriend and who has time for that nowadays when there's so much good telly on? When you're knocking on a bit, and if you are fortunate enough to have a long term partner, you have, in the grand tradition of Blue Peter, one you trained up earlier.  Even if you don't have a partner possible quarry tend not to be quite so fast on their feet so, all is not lost.

Sexy time in your 20's could be exciting and wild, it could also mean putting a chair under the door handle to stop pervy "sleep walking" housemates attempting to join in. Now it's okay for sexy time to involve comfy trousers and a couple of walnut whips, maybe with some hot Tina Fey "30 Rock" action as an appetiser since of course you both fancy her. (Who wouldn't?) Most importantly though, in your forties you know what you want if you can get it.

Food

Science has  proven that in your 20's it is possible to live off Tango, Monster Munch and ouzo without your internal organs behaving like the alien in, er, "Alien". In your forties you have to be a bit kinder to the ravaged temple that is your body.  I'm still not averse to the odd Pot Noodle but, whereas I once ate nothing but fried egg pieces for two weeks, now my fridge looks like a proper grown-up's with unusual vegetables and condiments that are not Branston pickle and HALF DRUNK bottles of wine. Good food is one of the glories of being alive and in middle age I savour it more than ever.

Personal style

When you get older your personal style is supposed to become more refined, classic. You are supposed to want to start wearing structural grey garments and statement jewellery. Sorry, not me. I increasingly want to dress like Sylvester Stallone's mother. If it sparkles or has animal print I am on it like Paul Gambaccini on an obituary. When I was younger I wanted to dress like everyone else. Now I want to dress distinctively. I'm not saying I always achieve it, but I dress how I want to dress and I couldn't give a toss if it's "directional".

Friendship

I wrote something a while back about having recently re-watched Woody Allen's "Hannah and her Sisters". I watched it in my 20's and it washed over me like when your parents used to reminisce about when they were courting and you were thinking, "Yeah, yeah, great, now give me the twenty quid." This time it touched me deeply. I am not denigrating the friendships you have when you are younger. Many of my closest friends today were also my closest friends 20 years ago. But the weight of time does something to your knowledge and understanding of a person, compacts it like silted earth into much more precious material.

If you have read my two earlier birthday blogs (and if you haven't - Chop! Chop!) you will know that this is the bit where I tend to go a bit soppy and Hallmark greetings card. I make no apology for it. I am quite a soppy person.

I am middle-aged and I am glad of it. Being young is, or can be, fantastic.I loved it. I loved feeling free and doing crazy shit and learning and making my way in life. Of course I know I have been very lucky. Many people have dreadful hardship in their lives from a very young age. I don't know how I would feel about life if that had been my experience. I have been incredibly fortunate and have had a life filled with love and opportunity. Even so, you can't get to forty-five without the little of pebbles of sadness building up like stones on a cairn, and some days I feel the weight of it. Sometimes life doesn't go the way you want and it's hard not to rail against it and to force yourself to wake up and smell the coffee. But still, how glorious to open your eyes each day.


Sunday, 12 August 2012

How Not to Miss the Olympics

We are all agreed that the Olympics has been a hit. (I do of course entirely respect the view of those who disagree, even though they are wrong.)

At first I had my doubts, which was understandable given the distasteful air of positivity and sportiness. But just as you never fancied that Dad in the playground that tucks his jumper into his trousers but changed your mind when you met him in his trunks at the pool, so the Olympics has won my heart by revealing its essential self.

I know you're all dying to read my thoughts on the Olympic spirit and what it tells us about the inner city but I am a terrible tease, so instead I offer some more practical advice on how not to miss the Games in the post-apocalympics period that lies ahead.

1.When complimented on your hair, don't forget to thank the whole hairdressing team.

2.Buy some union jack pants and cry when you hoist them up on the clothes pulley.

3.When your turn is called at the Post Office, moonwalk to the cashier and kiss your t-shirt.

4.Do a deep lunge while twiddling some turkey drumsticks in Sainsbury's.

5.Buy some Dracula teeth, put on a cloak and tell people to take their tops off. Hey presto! You are Sebastian Coe!

6.When you get on the bus, turn and wave to the queue, both hands above your head. 

7.Take a hobby horse with you when line dancing.

8.Ask women leaving the ladies' loos whether they have left a legacy.

9.Marry Clare Balding. Marry Denise Lewis. Marry Michael Johnson. Do not marry John Inverdale but leave the coat hanger in your jacket at all times.

10.Always ensure you are wrapped in the flag when crossing the finishing line. If you impregnate your wife with twins, all the better.

Last but not least, sit on the sofa, crying and tweet about the telly. Oh and watch the Paralympics.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Change of Lifestyle



Welcome to my life! Or rather my lifestyle, which is a bit different, in that it is how I live in my head, unencumbered by the constraints of time, money, general ineptitude and chunky ankles. 

In an idle moment today I indulged myself by making this "mood board" from leftover magazine cutouts that my daughter had been mucking around with at the weekend. 

"Look at this," I said proudly to my husband, "Isn't it pretty? This is what life could be like if we were much richer and naturally stylish, if we were not us. Why is our life not like this? Something is awry. Our tea towels, for example, are all wrong. We have failed. I blame you." 

The answer is simple. I must become a totally different person. How hard can that be? People do it on Oprah all the time after 15 minutes with Dr Phil and his magical hamster moustache. I will simply envision it.  

My table will be graced by the world's most beautiful fruit bowl, filled with guavas and pomegranates, not dusty grape stalks and a surgical bandage, no siree Bob.

I shall ride my vintage push bike with its basket full of hyacinths, wearing my pretty tea dress, flip-flops and cloche hat. This will not result in my unprotected head being stoved in when my flip-flops catch on the pedals and I am hurled into the path of a corporation bus. These things do not happen to people like me. And even if it did, I would go gladly to my doom rather than be caught in a stained fleece, leggings and a helmet, calling to mind an escapee from a high security hospital. 

My night table will be adorned only by a cut crystal water decanter and a slim volume of Rilke's greatest hits, sorry, I mean poems. It will not feature balls of hair, mouldy raisins and post it notes which read "Sell things?" and "ARMPIT SUDOCREM". 

The cupboards will be stocked with miso soup and harissa paste sandwiches and different coloured magic beans. There will be butterflied lamb for supper, not Special K or anything, oh no, we are not SAVAGES. 

At night the garden will be lit by hundreds of tea lights in Victorian glass specimen jars arranged to form the face of Diana Vreeland, the children's rooms will be adorned with original artwork, not posters of Rhianna fellating a Solero, the cat will not shit in the sock drawer, the phone will not be found in the bread bin, spiders will not hatch in my hair, I WILL NOT DRINK THE BATHWATER. 

It will be lovely. I just have to not be me. 

(First posted on my other blog http://therealshequeen.tumblr.com/ on 10 May 2012.)

Exercised



I need to get fit.

I used to be very fit. I used to hang off the wall bars at the gym and lift my legs up to my nose, quite effortlessly. I liked to cartwheel round the garden and, after several pints of snakebite, would do forward walkovers down the corridors of the student union.

Sadly that was knocking on 30 years ago. Now I am a dreadful indolent mess, whose efforts to haul herself out of the swimming pool call to mind a sea lion climbing the stairs.

I went to the gym for a while. It wasn't me. I tried the treadmill, but always ended up near horizontal, hanging onto the bar, like a toddler that is learning to walk by pushing a cart but that has forgotten to move its legs. It just never felt like fun, all that grunting and groaning and not even the excitement of having rearranged the furniture as a result.

Once every six months I decide that I will take up running but by the time I've found my sports bra, which is older than most Olympic competitors, I've generally gone off the idea.
We bought a Wii fit but it's proximity to the telly often proves to be a distraction.

I went to Zumba and liked it, but due to the same mysterious self-destructing gene that makes me eat Pringles when I don't really like them, stopped going.

I think I need some kind of head gear that will dangle a photo of Ryan Gosling in front of me while, at the same time, I am chased by Jeremy Clarkson.

That might get me to shift. I dunno though. I wish I'd just get on with it. I really annoy myself sometimes.

(First posted on my other blog http://therealshequeen.tumblr.com/ on 7 June 2012.)