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Monday, 29 June 2015

A Modest Proposal for dog-free green spaces

I am not a connoisseur by nature. There are things that I like but they are not arrived at by exhaustive testing of all the possibilities nor do I insist on them.

I do like relatively small, enclosed public gardens. Botanical gardens, country house gardens and such like. In central Prague, there is a wonderful old enclosed kitchen garden, the Vojanovy Sady, now a public park. I once spent some time taking photographs there.

Much nearer to home, I have Lewes Southover Grange Gardens, owned and managed by Lewes District Council. It dates from the 16th century, with some very old trees still standing, and is on low-lying ground straddling an east-west stream. It’s enclosed and, in relation to the town, is sunken. If you sit looking north, you get a wonderful view of the roofscape of old Lewes and the castle at the top of it all. It’s very well maintained with colourful seasonal flower beds backed by mature shrubs. It’s a huge credit to the Council and the gardeners.

I’ve been going there for thirty years or more. It’s very peaceful and when young people from the local tertiary college gather there, they lounge on the grass relaxed and chatting as if the garden dictates quietness as appropriate behaviour.

It’s long been a favourite of parents with babies and toddlers and they also spread out on the lawns close to the hatch in the main building through which tea and cakes are served (there is no actual tea room).

It occurred to me that one reason that everyone can relax like this is a simple prohibition: dogs are not allowed in the gardens. So you can spread out on the grass without first having to check for dog shit and without ever being worried by someone’s terrier.

One of the sad things about public green spaces in England is that at least 90% of the surface area is dedicated to dog shit. This is true even for green spaces used as school playing fields or for weekend football. Near to Lewes, Worthing has a large central green area, Victoria Park, with two schools facing onto it. Two or three percent of the surface area is cordoned off as an over-used and under-maintained children’s playground with No Dogs allowed. The rest is a dog shitting field, visited by a constant stream of professional dog walkers. People are sometimes bitten there by uncontrolled dogs and I have been pursued there by a nasty little yapping Jack Russell. It could be a very pleasant green space and it isn't.

Why local councils put dogs above people I don’t know. It may just be thoughtlessness – but then they are constantly reminded of what they are doing because they have to spend very large sums of public money removing dog shit from the ground and from dog shit bins.

I have a Modest Proposal. As a Quality of Life measure, the government should instruct local authorities to designate 50% of the green public spaces, seafront promenades, beaches and so on which they control as people-only zones, rather as one designates pedestrian precincts. It would make such a difference. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Take the Toys from the Boys

Look for a United Kingdom Member of Parliament who is not in favour of a “Special Relationship” with the USA and you are looking for an almost extinct species. Willingness to big up the USA is a job requirement. Maybe some of them are paid to be in favour but for most of them it is genuine Fervour.

I puzzle about it every time I read of some new gun crime in the USA. We only get to read about the spectacular ones but we know there are a hundred more for every one we read about. Most of them are racist crimes. Most are committed by young-ish men. They are not deterred by the death penalty or America’s horrific Gulag of prisons, specialised in cruel and unusual punishments for black people.

Gun crime is one of the reasons America appears very low down on the Global Peace Index, sitting next to its own Special Relation, Saudi Arabia:

Take the toys from the boys. 

I don’t know how you bring it about, it’s so ingrained in so many American cultures, but somehow they have to be talked out of their attachment to guns. Maybe the EU should threaten sanctions, maybe the UN should investigate, maybe women in America should take the lead (though many of them are caught up in gun cultures too). Here in the UK, maybe MPs should start murmuring that this is not the sort of friend we want. Maybe we should be less enthusiastic about Hollywood films, a tired genre offering little more than video clips of guns blazing – one of the inspirations of course for the psychopaths of Isis.

America’s gun cultures are a global problem because they also shape the way Americans feel about the rest of the world, a place into which you go armed and ready for a shoot out. America believes in its right to bear arms, anywhere in the world - the UK tagging along behind.

Guns are not the only reason I wonder about this Special Relationship. Republican Presidential candidates are another, nutters and fruitcakes - to borrow an expression of Mr Cameron’s. Then there is this huge industry of religious quackery, God’s name a cover for financial corruption and sexual abuse. Then there is the religious fundamentalism – you can see once again how they get along so well with Saudi Arabia. 

Then there is the mass poverty which the UK's Parliament is busily trying to bring to its own citizens.

Want a Special Relation? How about Iceland? But would they have us? They are #1 in the Global Peace Index. I doubt they would want British stag parties descending on Rekjavik.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Thinking about Professor Tim Hunt

I don’t have a Twitter account. It would bring out the worst in me. Seems to do that to lots of people. Nor do I publish anything under a pseudonym except in one case where I am expected  to do so by the conventions – so at The Guardian I publish my Comments as “Sixty Plus”. But I don’t like that. This nickname system encourages a genre of writing well-satirised in Private Eye.

A British Nobel Prize winning scientist, Professor Tim Hunt, is currently in deep shit with the Twitterati and the Nickname Mob for these words, uttered at a lunch held alongside a conference of Science Journalists in Seoul:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry”

I have let these words roll round my head. Is it a joke? - but very far off Nobel standards of funniness – it’s surely going to fall flat (especially to the invited lunch audience of female journalists and scientists!). Or does it tell you what he feels about women in the laboratory – well, his laboratory I suppose. In which case, you might laugh at him rather than the supposed joke. The old dinosaur! Just possibly, you might laugh with him because (secretly) you think it’s all true. Just possibly, you might think that faced with an all-female audience in a foreign land this is his idea of flirting.

[The more I think about it, the more I incline to the flirting interpretation. He's a 72 year old man addressing a lunch of female scientists and science journalists, most of whom will be younger than him and prettier. He's a long way from home. His opening gambit is confessional: he's the kind of guy who falls in love with female scientists. It follows: If you want to fall in love with me, feel free. But there are risks ... ]

Imagine a female Professor, Nobel Prize winning if you like, saying to an all-male audience:

“The trouble with boys in the laboratory is that they are always phoning in with manflu - and when they return to work, they look to you for the Kleenex”

I can’t do better. But the idea is to get the same ambiguity: Is this a joke? Or is she telling you how she feels about men in the laboratory – her laboratory? If it’s about how she feels, then we laugh at her for having such a stereotyping view of her male colleagues. Just possibly, we laugh with her because (secretly) we think it’s true. Just possibly, you might think that faced with an all-male audience that this is an attempt at flirting.

In neither case would I want to force an apology, a retraction, a resignation or whatever other punishment the mob demands. I would do nothing except say that the joke was in poor taste or the sentiments probably immature.

The world is full of people whose jokes are unfunny. And it’s full of people with minor or major resentments against the opposite sex, some of them partly founded in experience (of things like divorces, when aggrieved hetereosexual spouses are allowed to indulge in as much sex-stereotyped invective as they can spit out to anyone of the same sex willing to listen).

But there is one hesitation I have about doing nothing. There used to be lots of male-dominated institutions where women were either excluded or made to jump more admission hurdles than their male counterparts. Universities – which historically have been backwater places, providing sinecures and sheltered accommodation for men - probably once contained as many or more men prejudiced against women as did the Church and Parliament. Whether both straight and gay men were equally prejudiced I don’t know, though it would be interesting to know. But it meant that they were able to stack the odds against women when it came to offering  employment, if indeed they offered employment to women at all. The worry you then have about someone like Professor Hunt is that he is going to keep out the girls from his laboratory (though, of course, his words could not have been spoken unless he had admitted them …)

Well, it’s normally the case that an interviewing panel comprises more than one person. It’s unlikely that Professor Hunt picks staff single-handedly. Nor should he – or anyone in publicly-funded employment.

We then hit a new big problem. Interviewing panels for public-sector jobs are now so cowed and restricted by ideological pressures – just as if the Party was monitoring their every question – that the chances of them picking the best person for the job have been much reduced. They pick the most politically correct person and, failing that, the most colourless. Gone are the days when interviewing panels would give a job to someone knowing that he or she would be a complete pain in the arse but really very very good at their core role. Perhaps Nobel-Prize winning Professor Hunt is someone in that category

Postscript 20 June: It is now being reported that Professor Hunt followed the words which I quoted above and introduced his next subject matter with the words, "Now seriously". So he labelled what he had just said as non-serious. But, of course, that doesn't resolve the problems of interpretation - he may still have thought that he was speaking a true word in jest

Friday, 19 June 2015

Mrs Thatcher's Personal Papers

When in Zurich, do walk down to the lake and amble beside it. Doing just that one day, I was suddenly confronted by a sculpture by Henry Moore – a very big sculpture. Wow! There was a small plaque identifying the work and in fairly small letters at the bottom, “From a grateful citizen to his city”. Another Wow!

You might reckon a state or a city state in good order when its citizens not only pay their taxes, more willingly than less, but also on occasion give things into public ownership.

In the past in the UK, it happened occasionally that people left money in their wills to the Treasury, to “help reduce the national debt”. I suppose they were people who believed that there was such a thing as society and that they owed a debt to it. Quaint and charming. I believe you can still give money to the Treasury but they don’t encourage it. Bit embarassing really when so much Treasury effort goes into framing legislation designed to help those people who don't want to pay them money at all.

Mrs Margaret Thatcher – who told us that there is no such thing as society – obviously passed on her views to her children and grandchildren. They have just secured a £1 million reduction in their £1.9 million Inheritance tax bill in exchange for “gifting” to the nation some personal papers of Mrs Thatcher - diary notes about the Falklands War and such like – clearly of historical interest.

Before her death, Mrs Thatcher did give many of her papers – and her handbag – to an archive, accessible to researchers, and housed at Churchill College Cambridge. That sounds to her credit. The actions of her Executors in contrast rather spoil the effect.  No grateful citizens to their city they.

Skulptur in Zürich
Eine Skulptur in Zürich von Henry Moore >Sheep piece< an der Seefeldquai

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Radicalism in Ruritania: then and now

I grew up here, in Ruritania. 

Fifty years ago – yes, it’s as long ago as that for me – teenage boys in my grammar school used to quiz themselves to find out if they were conservatives or radicals, authoritarians or democrats, socialists or whatever-the-opposite of-socialist was in those days. Some of the quizzes were devised by a popular psychology Professor of the period, Hans Eysenck – who it was later discovered, faked his research results. Anyway, it was good fun. We were an argumentative lot.

You came out of those quizzes as a Radical if you signed up to Disestablishment of the Church of England, Abolition of the Ruritanian Monarchy, Abolition of its House of Lords, Abolition of the Death Penalty, Decriminalisation of male homosexuality (female homosexuality was never illegal in Ruritania) and Prohibition of Blood Sports. 

In other words, a Radical – aka a Progressive - was anyone who took democratic ideas seriously and had a bit of humanity about them. 

The list of boxes to be ticked could be expanded, of course, but at my school I don’t think we knew much about the boxes for Abortion, Divorce, Free Love though we did know about Votes for Women (which was no longer a Radical box to tick because the conservatives had already caved in on that one). Belief in God was optional – you could be a Radical and believe in God and more did then than do now.

Socialism was another dimension and whether you were Socialist or not depended on your views on state power, economic egalitarianism, property ownership and so on. Belief in God was optional – you could believe in God and Christian Socialists (who existed then) did.

It’s all changed now. 

Immigration has created completely new Boxes to tick. You get to be a Progressive if you are against Female Genital Mutilation and Forced Marriages since conservatives in immigrant communities favour those things. To someone of my age and background, it’s like we have gone back centuries. I find it hard to see how you can have debates about whether or not it’s right to mutilate a girl’s genitals. It's a crime of violence and a matter for the police to prosecute. You can put money and effort into explaining to people that they will go to prison or have their children taken away from them if they ignore your warnings. But there is really no Debate to be had. It's not a bit like debating the House of Lords. The long-term health and happiness of particular, nameable individuals is at stake, now and irreversibly.(I feel the same about male genital mutilation).

The Ruritanian government, which rests on the support of the quarter of the population who are Middle Englanders, has in recent years redefined the meaning of “Radical”. A Radical – often enough an argumentative teenager in many respects like the one I was – is now someone who sits at home watching videos of people having their heads cut off with a knife and thinking that this is the right way to treat people who have different views on theological matters. Our only defence against these teenagers, we are told, is their conservative elders. It's a strange world in which a Radical is someone with a taste for snuff movies

As for Socialism, well you can’t even see those boxes anymore. The Daily Mail won’t allow it. And most of what remains of the Labour Party agrees.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Debts again

When someone buys a Lottery ticket, they do so in full knowledge that it will be a miracle if they get their money back. Come Monday morning, they don't march indignantly into the local corner shop demanding, "Where's my money?"

When someone lends to someone else, they know there is always a risk that they won't get their money back. Shit happens, some of which can be insured against. A prudent lender will want to know what the money is going to be used for and whether the person lent to is likely to be both able and willing to repay. The greater the risk, the greater the rate of return - the interest - expected.

Society expects that if you have incurred debts you will at least try to repay them. But it also accepts that sometimes you won't be able to. In the latter situation, nowadays instead of the Debtor's Jail, everyone is expected to Move On. Like marriages, loans don't always work out.

"The French have always had a sure instinct for investing in bankrupt countries" - British Treasury Official 1928, quoted in Liaquat Ahmed, Lords of Finance.

When Greece was on its borrowing spree, lots of big institutions were also on lending sprees. Big banks like France's BNP Paribas bought lots of Greek bonds - in other words, they lent to Greece. Recklessly it seems. They didn't ask what Greece was going to do with the money or whether it was likely to be able or willing to pay it back. Because it was "sovereign debt", BNPs men in suits - or their computer programs - did not really consider the risk of default. They had their eyes fixed on their commissions and bonuses from these very big trades.

Now we are in a situation (and have been for a couple of years - see Footnote to understand this remark) where Greece fesses up and says that though it's willing to repay its debts, truth is, it can't. It pissed the money it borrowed up the wall.

The response of the banks - and other governments in Europe - has been to say that though Greece will have to be excused some of its debt, for the most part, the debt must be paid. Other people must pay it, people like German taxpayers. In this way, BNP Paribas won't go bust and the men in suits won't lose their shirts.

All this raises a completely different question about debt, When should I pay my neighbour's debts?

Parents sometimes pay their children's debts, just because it's their children. Friends sometimes help out their friends because they are their friends. Probably people do help out their next door neighbour who is in difficulty. And people put small ads. in Private Eye asking for help and giving their bank account details.

But Germany paying for Greece?

It does happen, and all the time. For example, Northern Ireland on the periphery of the UK is not a viable state. If it was as independent as Greece, it could not balance its budget. Locked into the sterling zone, it would not have the option of devaluing to improve its competitiveness. The only alternative to a vicious circle of cuts and deflation is for someone else to bail it out. This is what the UK parliament does, annually, using revenues from English taxpayers. Northern Ireland is subsidised, heavily and recurrently.

There are no obvious gains from this generosity, except lower bills for policing civil disorder in Northern Ireland. But that could have been achieved by throwing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, forcing it to choose between independence and uniting with the Republic of Ireland.

English taxpayers don't really notice what is going on for two reasons. First, some of them think that they are In It Together with Northern Ireland - one language, one flag, one Queen - even if they would never dream of going there for a holiday. Second, there is no English Parliament to raise awkward questions about all this subsidising of peripheral regions.

So the way to make German taxpayers think of Greeks as their neighbours whose debts they should pay is simple. A United Europe Parliament, analogous to the UK Parliament. And no Bundestag to raise awkward questions.

The only alternative is to let Greece default and for everyone to Move On. That's what used to happen in the old days.

Reblogged from this site where it originally appeared on 3 July 2012

Monday, 8 June 2015

Less Violent and More Violent Societies

I don’t know whether there is a simple index you could use to rate societies as more or less violent. I feel that I have lived my life in a place which is low on violence – though, at the same time, I recognise that the state I live under has even in my life time used extreme violence, repeatedly, against poor people in far away countries. It goes with having a large industry devoted to arms manufacture.

I have never seen anyone shot or knifed or seriously beaten up. I have seen parents physically assault their own children, but not in recent years. I have never seen an enraged mob. I have never watched a bomb go off, though in the days of the IRA there were bomb scares. On a very few occasions, I have been threatened with assault by complete strangers, drunks and nutters – but they never carried through their threats - sometimes  because I found a way to talk them down and sometimes because they were mere threats.

It helps that for most of my life I have stayed away from places where violence does often enough occur: football grounds, pubs, clubs. Male or Masculine places.

Reading  newspapers and books, I form the impression of other societies as horrifically violent: Russia, the USA, much of Latin America, much of Africa, much of the Middle East, parts of Asia. Some of that violence is state violence, as for example when US law enforcement officers shoot to kill when manifestly there is no need even to shoot. The USA to me is a trigger-happy society, far too many guns and far too many unpleasant people handling them. Not always unpleasant: children routinely kill other children or their parents because they have found a gun to play with. Unthinkable in England.

England suffers from domestic violence, from genital mutilation (male and female), and from all the other forms of child abuse. I don’t know how we compare with other countries.

I don’t think it is policing which keeps a society from violence. I don’t think it is fear of the power of the state. It’s a sort of habit – it’s about how you do things. In Paris, they still honk their car horns at the slightest provocation or even in the complete absence of any provocation – the result an idiotic cacophony which is enough to make the French appear childish. In London, car honking is virtually absent. It’s not about policy; it’s about habit.

Having written that, I realise it's not good enough. It's not just about habit; it's about feeling secure. If you think your neighbours are about to murder you, burn down your house, wreck your shop, rape your children - well, then of course that creates a situation of unbearable insecurity where it seems to make sense to get your retaliation in first.

I think I am fortunate to have been born into a society which is not, in important respects at least, habitually violent. I feel for those not so fortunate. But do I exaggerate the peacefulness of my own society and the violence of others? That’s why I would like an Index.

Added 19 June 2015: And immediately I get one! The Institute of Economics and Peace has ranked 162 countries for the period 2008 - 2015 on a Global Peace Index, using 23 indices of peacefulness and peaceableness - things like homicide rates, civil unrest but also military expenditure. The UK gets to position 39 in the 162, a bit ahead of France (45) and well ahead of the USA (94 - Saudi Arabia is at 95) with Russia near the bottom at 152. Right at the bottom we have Syria and Iraq.  Right at the top we have Iceland and several European countres in the top ten along with New Zeland, Canada, Japan and Australia. One country in the top ten is from the former Soviet bloc, the Czech Republic.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Rational Dress and the English

The English (I no longer write about the British) have never been strong on Rational Dress. You could say that the whole social order is constructed around people having to wear unsuitable clothing. Think of the Guard at Buckingham Palace in uniforms which make them incapable of guarding anything and so suffocating that they collapse on sunny days.

Protests are rare, though they do happen. This one dates from 1893:

Click on Image to Magnify

Irrationality about dress begins in schools where school uniforms have been  designed  –  over a very long period of time and often with loving paedophilic care - as wilfully inappropriate to normal activity and prevailing  weather. In addition, since children grow quickly, family budgets are easily strained by the cost of frequent replacements. School uniform has always exploited this opportunity to humiliate the poor, who can’t afford the whole rig to begin with let alone the annual replacements. (I once taught in a rural school where the local draper was a school governor since he controlled an essential aspect of school life, the price of the uniform, of which he was the monopoly supplier).

Private schools have always reckoned that parents judge them by the cost of the uniform, the more outlandish the better. For many parents, their ambition for their children rises to nothing more than a desire to put them into woollen blazers with colourful ribbon trimmings and a cap to match – and at the earliest possible age. It’s the pinnacle of English stupidity. 

Sartorially, I don’t dislike ties and I once had a large collection – most of it now gone to charity. In winter, a tie can help keep you warm. In summer, it is just a punishment. Many people of my generation went to schools where as the temperature soared, you waited for the Head’s word that pupils might remove their ties. Male teachers waited for the head to tell them they could remove their jackets. Headteachers had thermometers on their desks.

In courts, as the temperature soars, the grown up schoolboys and schoolgirls called barristers wait for judges to give them permission to remove their wigs .They rarely do, a taste for sadism being very strong in the English legal profession. It has always been  the rock-solid customer base for the BDSM industry. Only the invention of air conditioning has brought some relief to our red faced and malodorous lawyers.

At Election time, English politicians venture into nurseries or primary schools and – as the modern equivalent of Kissing the Baby – like to be photographed as they join in a session of finger painting or some such. They are always inappropriately dressed in their uniform of sober suit and tie. The pupils often enough, but thankfully not always, likewise:

Boris Johnson and David Cameron, typical English schoolboys, in their everyday uniforms

Parents would probably be shocked if they knew how much teacher time (and teacher salary) goes into devising and enforcing school uniform rules. The chief enforcer is always a Deputy Headteacher and they don’t come cheap. Abolishing school uniform would free up a great deal of school resource for better uses and would save parents money. But I do not think English parents find it possible to believe that there are successful countries, not plagued by juvenile delinquency or illiteracy, that manage to function without any school uniform at all.

And just to show the trouble really does begin at Buckingham Palace:

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth ( in a I'm-not-even-going-to try-to-compete hat) 1937

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Doomed, we're all Doomed: Britain under the Conservatives

I begin to agree with those who think that the United Kingdom’s electoral system will sooner rather than later doom the country. But my reasons for thinking this may not be the same as theirs.

At the recent General  Election 37% of votes went to the Conservative Party. That translated into 51% of seats in the House of Commons and 100% of Ministerial posts. As just 67% of electors voted, it means that the new Government rests on the active endorsement of one in four voters. Some dictators could probably do better.

The “Winner Takes All” political system means that there is no means and no motive to find consensual solutions to common problems. In contrast, systems of proportional representation which produce coalition governments can, at their best, force people to work together to agree what the problem is and what might solve it. This is what we see in Germany which (as is often forgotten when the British media focus on Angela Merkel) has a “Grand Coalition” government, stretching from centre left and even beyond to centre right and even beyond.

With no motive to build a consensus, to create a Big Tent, Mr Cameron’s government is set to alienate and disenchant voters. Arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk (or, perhaps more to the point, don’t know elementary macroeconomics) will simply do as they please, and the proles can like it or lump it.

There is a further problem. The active support for Mr Cameron comes from ageing voters of limited vision. They don’t have aspirations. They want house prices to go up (it makes them feel more secure) and they want Free Bus Passes (aka, "Benefits" as in "Scroungers"). They are a bit worried about their health care and about elderly care and Mr Cameron will try to reassure them on that, even if in reality things go from bad to worse.

An ageing electorate is a curse for any country. Ours may be no worse than others and maybe better – think of France’s self-righteous active electorate which is happy to ghettoise everyone else, young people especially. But this is scant consolation.

One could come at all this from a different perspective. Why does anyone vote Conservative?

My mother (1907 – 1978) only ever gave me one reason for the way she cast her vote, “You’ve got to have the people with money”. Well, she would be pleased with our present Cabinet line-up. But what did she actually mean? Did she think that the people with money dipped into their own pockets to pay for the running of the country? Take this, my good woman, as our Chancellor – one day to be Sir George Osborne, Bt. – might say (provided a photographer was to hand). Or did she mean that the government had to have on its side the people with money, because otherwise they would sabotage it with non-co-operation? But they sabotage it anyway: that’s what tax evasion and tax avoidance is about.

My father (1912 – 1997) was a small businessman and active Ratepayers’ Association person. He voted Conservative to keep down the rates and keep down the taxes. If it meant you ended up tripping over neglected pavements, not a problem:  you could sue the Council, as an individual, and make a killing.

Are there any other reasons for voting Conservative?  I don’t think so. 

Monday, 1 June 2015

Longevity without 5-a-Day

Click on Image to magnify

Today, Googling idly (or is it idly Googling?) I discovered that my father's elder brother William (Uncle Willy)  - on the right in the photo - died in 2009 at the age of 98 and not very far from where I now live. I last met him in 2002 at the funeral of his sister Florence (Aunty Kit) who had died aged 88. My father - on the left - had predeceased both of them dying in 1997 at the age of 85. But still quite a bit of longevity in this family, which I think passed through the maternal line - their mother ( a London - born child of the Veryards of Castle Cary) lived to the age of 94 on a diet of tea, sardines on toast and Guinness.

Uncle Willy was not a major figure in my childhood. I recall as a small child visiting his builder's yard where blue tiles were stacked - he built swimming pools. Later in life, he bred ornamental fish in his own swimming pool (this I only know from report). When portable tape recorders came on the market, he used one to record bird song - that I recall witnessing as a child.

I am a bit troubled by Uncle Willy's longevity, hence today's Blog. Until recently I had calculated my own life expectancy by summing my father's 85 with my mother's 71 and dividing the two, which yields 78 - a figure with which I was satisfied: not too soon and not too late.

In the past year or so, ill-health has prompted me to make a mental revision to my sense of life expectancy. On my mother's side, the men all died in their sixties and of the females, none - apart from my Auntie Nellie - got into their eighties. And from what I read, mother's life span is a better predictor than father's and Five a Day doesn't much come into it. 

So I've scaled back my expectancy to a few more years added to my existing 68, but preferably not tomorrow.

I find even the possibility that I could go on until I am 98 a bit alarming. Surely that means being a terrible burden on my children or outliving them. Surely it means ending up in an Institution of some kind or other - though I guess that Uncle Willy didn't. He was a very successful self-made businessman and when I spoke to him at my Aunt's funeral when he was 91 he enthused about a new property development he was planning.His eyesight was failing but his walk was that of a much younger man - fast and nervous and without a stick.

Both he and my father had materially and (I think) emotionally impoverished childhoods which marked their later behaviour. My father rarely spoke of his childhood. I recall him talking of being sent down the shops to buy a penn'orth of broken biscuits and not much more. 

Both he and his brother alienated their wives and (at least for some of the time) their children. Both were charming, energetic and talented - but (if what I was told about Willy by my mother was true) both were bad tempered and worse. My father was eccentric and awkward and Willy may have been.

(One story about my father: in later life, he allowed the Council to prosecute him for unpaid Rates on a garage. Asked in Court for his defence he replied, "I don't own this garage". The Judge, seeking to dismiss the case, asked if there was anything further needing to be said. My father piped up, "My Bus Fare". It was found most convenient for the Clerk of the Court to reach into his pocket and pass a coin to this vexatious litigant. My father told the story with relish)

Anyway, I discover Uncle Willy lived to 98.