Sunday, 21 August 2016

Big fib

As you grow older you're supposed to leave behind all those excruc-iating anxieties and uncertain-ties and naiveties of childhood and become sophisticated, confident and fearless. Well, I'm still waiting for that magical transformation - so far there's precious little sign of it.

Judging by what I hear, I suspect that's the case with most people. They may look to have morphed into emotional and mental maturity, but only because they've learnt to hide all the helpless fumbling and put on a public front of seamless self-assurance.

It seems to me that instead of vanishing, those crippling anxieties and certainties simply revolve around something different. Instead of anxieties about sexual inexperience or exam questions, you uncover anxieties about losing your job or defaulting on the mortgage. Or if you're getting on a bit, anxieties about declining health or all your friends dying.

The idea that adulthood brings poised cool-headedness is no doubt a soothing belief when you're in the midst of teenage angst and desperately wanting it to end, but the reality is rather different. In any case, you only have to look at your own flustered, confused parents to realise there's no such enviable maturity to look forward to.

But it's somewhat reassuring to learn that since most people you meet are secretly haunted by nagging anxieties and doubts of their own, you can feel entirely equal to them and not be fooled by their phoney aplomb.

I don't think I ever seriously believed I would miraculously blossom into a perfectly composed adult sailing through every tricky situation. It was pretty obviously a big fib, along with the tooth fairy, Santa Claus and the man in the moon.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Gender bender

I don't share the view that drag queens are sexist and offensive and mock women. A few of them maybe, but surely the great majority have nothing against women and are simply playing with the idea of femininity.

Most of them are obviously just having a laugh by sending up the whole female stereotype of tight dresses, dizzy heels, big hair and massive tits. Or they're simply enjoying wearing clothes they can't normally wear. Or they're seeing what it's like not being masculine for a while.

Okay, some drag queen performers make a point of insulting and belittling women, but then so do a lot of straight comedians. It's not drag that's sexist, it's women-hating individuals who happen to be in drag. Big difference.

The great thing about drag (or cross dressing) is the way it subverts the usual gender norms. You expect to see a bloke in the standard male outfit of suit and tie - or shirt and jeans - and suddenly there's a guy in a sequinned frock, blonde hair down to his waist and bright red lipstick.

That can only be good in a society where gender stereotypes are still so rigid that anyone who wears clothes of the "wrong gender" gets a rough ride.

I guess the most famous drag queen is RuPaul, and I don't recall anyone accusing him of being anti-women.

The other thing drag queens are accused of is making straight men "uncomfortable". Well, if that means they're disconcerted by men who don't wear what they're supposed to wear and flaunt their unorthodox clothing, that's fine by me. We all need to question these suffocating dress codes that stop us being what we want to be.

"Drag is a sarcastic spoof on culture, which allows us to laugh at ourselves" - RuPaul

Pic: Ireland's very own Panti Bliss

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Raging epidemic

It's the elephant in the room. It goes on all the time - in homes, on the street, in workplaces, at public events. It's a raging epidemic nobody is able to control. Yet ordinary folk like you and me seldom discuss it.

Physical, verbal and emotional harassment of women. Going on everywhere you look, sometimes stealthily, sometimes quite blatantly. Every day of the week.

Men don't want to discuss it because they'd rather pretend it doesn't exist. Or they don't want to admit they're guilty of it. Or they keep silent out of male solidarity.

Women don't want to discuss it because they've already discussed it to death. Or because so many men trivialise it and excuse it that complaining is pointless. Or because it's too degrading and humiliating to talk about.

It's not going to stop until society as a whole takes it seriously. Until there's a zero tolerance attitude. Until all the men in positions of responsibility veto such behaviour from their employees instead of turning a blind eye or condoning it. Or doing it themselves.

It's not going to stop until it's treated as the disgusting, perverted, dehumanising activity that it is. Until it's seen as a sickness, an addiction, a mental disorder. Until those concerned are ostracised and condemned.

It's not going to stop as long as men see it as harmless banter, as a joke, as normal male behaviour, as something that impresses other men, as something women are gagging for really, or as something women have invited.

I hate misogyny of any kind. Men who indulge in it sicken me. I don't want anything to do with them. They need to wake up, smell the coffee, and treat women with the respect and courtesy all human beings have a right to.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Feet of clay

Hero worship is a funny thing. Generally rational, sensible people pledge their allegiance to someone, and henceforth that person is so perfect they can do no wrong. If you voice the mildest criticism of their idol, they go bananas.

Can they not see that everyone has feet of clay, everyone has personal failings and hang-ups, that absolutely nobody is perfect? Apparently not.

The cult-like worship of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a case in point. His thousands of supporters, aka Corbynistas, are quite sure he can walk on water, that he is a political genius, and any setbacks are always the fault of someone else.

Anyone who suggests Jeremy is falling down on the job, that he's not an effective leader, that he's not doing enough to woo the voters, is treated to a hail of abuse and venom as if they had insulted the Queen.

There are plenty of similar "heroes" whose fans jump on critics like a ton of bricks. Like Caitlyn Jenner or Lady Gaga or Margaret Thatcher. They're put on an artificial pedestal they simply don't deserve.

As a teenager, I was a bit of a hero-worshipper myself. First it was rock stars like the Beatles and the Stones, then it was fashionable rebels like the psychiatrist Ronnie Laing, the black activist Angela Davis and militant feminists like Germaine Greer.

But you would expect adulthood to bring a more realistic view of the world and the realisation that there are no heroes, only fallible mortals who get drunk and swear and make colossal blunders the same as the rest of us. Nobody but nobody is a pure and saintly human being, and treating them as if they are is just idiotic.

I can safely say I haven't hero-worshipped anyone for decades, and I'm astonished at the number of people who do. I threw away the rose-tinted spectacles some time ago.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Tangled and dark

However well you think you know someone, however long you've lived with them or been friends with them, you never know them completely. You never know the deepest, darkest parts of their mind - the bits they don't want to show you, the bits they're ashamed of, the bits that are hard to deal with, the bits they're disturbed by.

Over and over again I read of people who've suddenly done something quite out of character, something utterly shocking or extraordinary, something their nearest and dearest could never have predicted or thought possible.

Like builder's merchant Lance Hart, 57, from Lincolnshire, who eleven days ago murdered Claire, his wife of 26 years, and his daughter Charlotte, before turning the gun on himself. Friends and neighbours were stunned by his actions, describing him as a happy, friendly man. One neighbour thought he was "the nicest guy you could ever meet", who "would do anything for anyone".

Yet out of the blue he goes on this rampage of destruction nobody can explain and you wonder what was simmering away under the surface. He was upset by the breakdown of his marriage, but that hardly justifies such carnage.

But you read about these aberrations all the time - husbands who run off with the au pair or reveal weird sexual kinks, women who have endless plastic surgery or wreck their ex's brand-new car. Or just those sudden streaks of greed or meanness or prejudice or cruelty. Or of course terrorism.

After thirty plus years together, Jenny and I know each other pretty well. But I'm sure there are parts of us we've never fully revealed to the other, parts that are still shadowy or mysterious. Hopefully nothing as sinister as homicidal tendencies, only those things that for one reason or another we can't quite own up to.

You think you know someone inside out? Think again.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Console me

I need consolation
It's a horrible world out there
a world of brutality and violence
I need to be soothed
I need to be told
that it isn't as bad as all that
that there are good things
positive things
that there is joy and happiness
that the ugliness
is wildly exaggerated
I need to be treated
with gentleness and affection
with tender loving care
that calms my heart
and my churning emotions
I need a friendly port in a storm
a holy sanctuary
a quiet refuge
a place of safety
where I can leave the horror behind
and rediscover
my purest self
I need consolation
I need a cauterising balm
I need a healing hand

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

True or false?

Anxiety comes in different shapes and forms. I have plenty of anxieties but I guess the biggest is whether I'm being true to myself or not. What you might call honesty anxiety.

When I'm talking to other people, I'm forever thinking, am I being honest? Am I telling the truth or am I faking it? Am I simply saying something because it's polite, or it's what they're expecting, or it avoids an argument, or it's an easy-to-understand cliché? Am I dodging any remark that might make the conversation too difficult, too emotional, too startling?

A lot of people seem immune to such agonising.  They gabble away, apparently unconcerned whether they're telling it like it is or making it all up. Maybe they don't even see the difference. Whatever they say is grist to the mill, is oiling the social wheels, and who cares if it's total bollocks or if it's deep-down, straight-from-the-heart, innermost-self sincerity?

I'm amazed at the number of people who spout blatant, outrageous lies and don't seem remotely bothered about what they're saying. It must be some sort of private game to tell the biggest whoppers and get away with it.

But then again, what is truth and what is falsity anyway? If I say something out of politeness, is that false because I'd rather say something a bit rude, or is it genuine because I believe politeness helps you get on with people?

If I fob someone off with a glib cliché, is that false because it misrepresents a more complex reality, or is it genuine because I don't want to embarrass them with some detailed and baffling explanation they really don't need?

Maybe I just have an exaggerated dislike of lies and dishonesty. Where others merely shrug them off, I feel truly sickened and polluted. I feel tricked and insulted. I feel like I've trodden in something nasty.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Bumbling along

I've never been remotely competitive. I watch people outdoing each other for the trendiest job or the flashiest house or the smartest children, and I really wonder why they try so hard to impress other people rather than just doing their own thing and enjoying themselves.

I've watched other people strenuously climbing the greasy pole to that sought-after managerial job, or mortgaging themselves to the hilt to get that palatial house, or boasting about their swish holidays in some exotic location. I just think, well, good luck to them, but I'm quite happy bumbling along on a more modest path, savouring what I already have and quietly ruminating.

Ah, but why do you go on about it, comes the obvious retort. Maybe you're jealous of their fancy lifestyles and secretly you'd like the same. Or maybe you're embarrassed at your lack of ambition and humble achievements, but don't want to admit it.

I don't think so. In fact my instinctive reaction to people openly competing with each other is to ignore them and walk away. At political meetings where a bunch of men are vying with each other to make the sharpest, wittiest comments, I have no wish to get involved. I just wait patiently for them to run out of steam.

Being childless, I've never needed to brag about how well my children are doing, how intelligent they are, what plum job they've landed. If I did have children, they'd probably be the ones who slouch around in scruffy clothes and lurch casually from one un-glamorous job to another.

Whether it's intellectual brilliance, career advancement, the property ladder, cultural awareness, sexual conquests or alcohol consumption, I couldn't care less if other people seem more dazzling or more capable. I just carry on ploughing my own furrow.

PS: I've noticed some people's blog posts are not showing the Comments section. If mine isn't, just click on the blog title and the Comments section will show up.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Wild child

My blogmate John says he would never have guessed I was pretty wild in my late teens. Clearly he sees me as a sedate, well-behaved individual who would never have done anything seriously outrageous or shocking.

Well, as I told him, my wildness was a predictable reaction to the very authoritarian boarding school I attended from thirteen to eighteen. While I was there, every minute of every day was tightly scheduled by those running the school, and deciding for yourself what to do was simply not an option.

There were precise times for getting up, having breakfast, going to classes, having lunch, doing homework, and every other routine activity. There were strict rules about what clothing to wear. There was a long list of prohibitions, like visiting the town centre or befriending the locals or writing to the papers. You were told what to do and what not to do, and woe betide you if you stepped out of line.

Not surprisingly, as soon as I left school and stumbled on the counter-culture of the late 1960s, with all its libertarian beliefs and emphasis on doing your own thing, I was hooked. Suddenly I could think what I liked, do what I liked, wear what I liked, go where I liked. After such regimentation, it felt utterly euphoric, and I got pretty carried away by my new-found freedom.

I grew a beard, I grew long hair, I wore gaudy clothes, I went around barefoot, I dabbled in drugs, I played rock music at top volume, I supported every left-wing cause going from gay liberation to easier abortion, cohabitation and equal pay. I went on protest marches, I chanted "kill the pigs", I took part in sit-ins and occupations. I lived it up and explored myself in a big way. Strangely, I was in no hurry for sex, and was unaccountably celibate till I was 22.

Of course inevitably once I got the freedom bug out of my system and felt confident I could be myself without being rapped on the knuckles, I simmered down and got a bit more laid-back. My tastes were much the same but I pursued them in a quieter, subtler fashion. I lost the beard and the long hair, got more choosy about my protests, decided drugs were not my thing, and so forth. And the rest is history.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

No longer welcome

I can't imagine what it's like to be nervous about walking down the street, or being at work, or riding a bus, for fear someone will aim some kind of racist abuse at you. But this is happening more and more since the referendum - in England at any rate.

People are being targeted simply because they look different, or are speaking another language, or have a foreign-sounding name, or wear foreign-looking clothing. Suddenly they face a tirade of insults and threats, and often the ultimatum that they should "go back home".

No matter that they might have lived in the UK for decades, might be British citizens, might pay hefty taxes, might never have claimed benefits, might never have been unemployed. No matter how much they resemble ordinary, humdrum Brits, they are treated like some sinister alien who "doesn't fit in", who "isn't one of us".

An increasing number of those targeted, or likely to be targeted, are saying they now feel so unwelcome and so uncomfortable they are thinking of moving to another European country, or indeed back to their home country.

They came here because they saw the UK as somewhere open-minded and tolerant where they would feel accepted and appreciated, but now everything seems to have changed and they feel like suspicious outsiders.

Says one anonymous Eastern European, too scared to give her name, living in Surrey, "I have been living here for almost ten years and must say I have never felt uncomfortable until now. I don't feel comfortable to speak my own language in the street, as I don't want to provoke anyone or even to be seen as just another immigrant."

What a shocking state of affairs. As I've said before, I'm not ashamed to be British because I don't identify with the mindless bigots persecuting "foreigners" in this way. But I'm certainly not proud to live in a so-called civilised country that's so saturated with xenophobia.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

No shame

I'm immune to shame. It's something I just don't feel, ever. I can't imagine what it even feels like. People say "I'm ashamed to be British" or "I'm ashamed of my parents" and I really don't understand what they mean.

It seems to me you only feel shame if you're embarrassed by your own thoughts and emotions and actions, and by other people's responses to them. You think there's something wrong with you for being the way you are, so you feel disgraced, disgusted with yourself, "rotten".

I've never seen it like that. I'm not embarrassed by my own behaviour. Why should I be? It's what comes naturally to me, and I can't stop that. If I make mistakes, it can't be helped. I do the best I can in any situation and if it falls short, that's just bad luck. If other people judge me for my mistakes, I don't care. I know they make as many mistakes themselves, so they've no right to be so judgmental.

It's strange that I pay a lot of attention to other people's opinions - as I don't like to offend or upset anyone - yet those opinions never cause me shame. They might cause me to act differently, or choose my words more carefully, but shame seems like a weird over-reaction.

Why should I be ashamed to be British? I'm not responsible for the actions of 65 million other Brits. If a bunch of them create havoc in some foreign city, it's nothing to do with me. I may share their nationality, but I don't share much else.

And why should I be ashamed of my parents? Your parents are what they are, with all their shortcomings and daft beliefs, and it doesn't reflect on me in any way. I'm a totally different person, and my parents' oddities are neither here nor there.

It might be different of course if I'd done something seriously outrageous. If I was a serial killer or an arsonist or a wife-beater. But my misdemeanours aren't in that league.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Leaving do

The British people have voted by a narrow margin (four per cent) to leave the European Union, on the grounds that it's a millstone round our neck, it's dragging us down, it's burying us in red tape, and so on. Now we're about to be free of this ghastly institution, things can only get better and better. All our troubles will be over. Or so it's fondly believed.

But the opt-outers have been sold a pup. They've been conned. They've been taken for a ride. Ambitious politicians who want to make a name for themselves and climb the greasy political pole have spun a load of fibs.

They've painted an entirely false picture of the EU. That it's the cause of all our ills, that it tells us what to do, that it snares us in pointless regulations. And in particular that the large number of immigrants it sends our way are responsible for just about every pressing problem from unemployment to homelessness, the beleaguered NHS and high welfare bills.

Never mind that it's all untrue. Never mind that those familiar problems actually have a whole host of causes, mostly unconnected with the EU, like government spending cuts, a shortage of doctors, and not enough house-building. No no, they're all the fault of the horrid EU and we have to leave it fast or sink into a lethal quagmire.

What the EU really does has been deliberately suppressed. That it outlaws prejudice and discrimination. That it protects the environment. That it defends and improves workers' pay and conditions. That it strengthens our legal rights. And much more.

But all this has been thrown out of the window in favour of relying on our own government. A government that believes in austerity, spending cuts, selling off our public services, keeping wages down, and generally making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

If people really think they'll be better off under our homegrown politicians, with their contempt for ordinary folk, they are surely sadly mistaken. As the months and years go by, and nothing much changes, they will realise just what a massive trick has been played on them. And their fury will be horrible to witness.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Memory lane

I'm not one for nostalgia. I don't sit around fondly remembering some supposed golden period of my life when everything fell into place and I coasted along on a wave of trouble-free happiness. I wouldn't be so daft.

I may have a terrible memory, but I remember enough to know there was no such golden period and every part of my life has thrown up problems and crises and disappointments as well as the things that went well and made me happy.

There can only be some imagined golden period if you gloss over the negative bits and exaggerate the successes. If you ignore the leaky roof and the grumpy landlord and the extortionate rent and flag up the sexy girlfriends, the wild parties and the brilliant rock festivals. But I can't do that. I always remember both sides of the picture, the rough and the smooth, the crap and the haute cuisine.

Neither do I believe, as many people seem to, that the difficult bits of my life in 2016 are somehow more difficult and more frustrating than anything I had to deal with in years gone past. It may seem like it at the time, when I'm desperately trying to sort out something horribly complicated, but I know in retrospect it'll seem much more prosaic.

Schooldays are the best days of your life? You must be joking. The comfortably settled years of middle age? Give me a break. They weren't any better than life right now, and in some ways were a lot worse.

I have very few momentos of my early life, and I don't feel the lack of them. I'm not one to pore over blurry old photos or musty childhood toys or a faded school blazer, overcome by wistful pangs and a tear or two. What's gone is gone and I'm impatient to move forward.

The good old days? Don't make me laugh.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Hatred unleashed

As someone virtually hate-free, I find it impossible to understand the sort of extreme hatred and violence that led to the murder of MP Jo Cox yesterday. I'm baffled as to what on earth went on in the mind of her assailant Tommy Mair.

Instead of seeing her as the rest of us would - a conscientious MP helping her constituents, a mother of two children aged three and five, someone with all sorts of plans for the future - he saw her as simply an object of hatred, a symbol of something detestable, someone to be brutally disposed of. So he shot her and stabbed her and left her for dead like a piece of trash.

As I say, I hardly ever feel hatred, and certainly not such virulent hatred. People can annoy me, puzzle me, frustrate me, offend me, but I don't hate them, I just deal with them as best I can and move on. To my mind, hatred achieves nothing but a poisonous and frightening atmosphere.

But some people delight in stirring up hatred, and the current referendum campaign has prompted a torrent of hatred from one reckless politician after another - hatred of elites, of bureaucrats, of migrants, of foreigners, of Europeans, of welfare claimants. It's hardly surprising that some individuals like Tommy Mair take their cue from these public figures and let rip with the same hatred, so ferociously that other human beings become simply enemies to be eliminated.

Of course the politicians make no reference to the widespread hatred of politicians, but that may also have been a factor in Jo Cox's killing. It seems to me that the hatred of politicians has never been so intense - and so mindless.

Maybe the politicians will now reflect on what their casual vitriol is unleashing. Maybe.

Pic: the late Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, West Yorkshire

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Sticking together

An article today claims that the best predictor of whether a relationship will last or not is how conscien-tious you are. If you're efficient and reliable, your relationship will do well. If you're scatty and disorganised, sooner or later it's break-up time.

If you answer yes to these five questions, then supposedly everything's rosy and the two of you will stick together like glue into a blissful old age.

a) do you pay attention to detail?
b) do you get chores done straightaway?
c) do you like order?
d) do you follow a schedule?
e) do you ensure you are always well-prepared?

Well, I'm not sure conscientiousness predicts anything at all. Some people might love a partner who's so well organised and methodical, but it would drive others round the bend. They'd hate the constant activity and fussing and demand some mindless lazing about for a change. They'd ask why everything has to be done right now and why it can't wait till tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year.

Jenny and I are both efficient and reliable people, which is definitely one reason why we've stayed together for so long. We absolutely loathe disorder and mess, and we would certainly say yes to all those questions. We don't let the greasy dishes pile up. We don't leave dirty clothes everywhere. We don't run out of food. Our household is a well-oiled machine and we like it that way.

If I have to stay for any length of time in a more shambolic household, I do find it hard to cope with. I keep wanting to leap up and sort everything out, and I have to resist my organising urge and hide my dismay. Interestingly, some of those households consist of very long-standing relationships, which just goes to show the experts are wrong yet again.

Health warning: take all quizzes with a pinch of salt.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Worry wart

Like many other people, I'm prone to anxiety. I worry about all sorts of things I don't need to worry about, but I'm unable to stop. However much I try to reassure myself that I'm a capable person and everything will work out, the anxiety continues.

It seems an awful lot of people don't like to admit they're affected by anxiety. They find it embarrassing, or they think they'll be shunned, or they think nobody will understand. So they keep quiet and hide it behind a fake facade of confidence and poise.

But it's estimated that four in every hundred people are affected, and that social anxiety is the third most frequent psychological problem after depression and alcohol dependence. That's a pretty big hidden problem.

Luckily my anxiety is fairly mild. It's purely internal and I don't get the physical symptoms of sweating, shaking or nausea. I don't get paralysed. I don't get panic attacks. I just worry needlessly. And have bad dreams.

There were calls this week for more research into this widespread condition, as little is still known about the causes. In my case, it probably goes back to my insecure childhood, but my whole family is anxiety-prone so it may also be genetic.

One of my blogmates, who's a therapist, says that nowadays there are lots of techniques for curbing anxiety and nobody needs to suffer. There's a long waiting list for therapy on the NHS though, and long-term private therapy can be very expensive. But as my anxiety is quite mild, and as I've developed my own ways of overcoming it, I don't feel any urgent need for treatment. It's simply another personal foible that I deal with.

I wonder what it's like just to take things as they come?

Friday, 3 June 2016

Thoroughly battered

Journalist Alexi Duggins has been battered and fried by a predictable social-media onslaught after saying that the great British tradition of fish and chips was the most disgusting meal on earth - "a dreadful mush of artery-hardening grease....that should have stayed in the bad old days of British cuisine."

His article was scathing enough to give hundreds of fish-and-chip lovers instant apoplexy and send them scurrying to the internet to vent their wrath.

"Just go somewhere quiet and die there. You have nothing to contribute to human progress, you pointless philistine" was the sort of comment thrown at him. Chippy owners complained loudly that he was damaging their businesses.

He was invited to work a shift at a renowned fish-and-chip shop. He did, but remained unconvinced that fish and chips were a tasty, healthy meal. He was quite taken by the fried halloumi though (he comes from Cyprus).

As a vegetarian, I haven't eaten fish and chips since my twenties, but it was one of my favourite meals. I loved the combination of fish and batter, and I've always loved chips. I could think of many disgusting meals, but that's not one of them.

Clearly there are plenty of fish-and-chip enthusiasts who don't take kindly to their beloved dish being sneered at. We're talking a national institution here, a piece of British heritage along with the Union Jack, the Royal family and Big Ben. Think carefully before you rubbish it.

"I have since learned what it's like for the internet to scream that you're as popular as venereal disease" says a bruised Alexi. He's a brave man to have repeated his scepticism about this revered dish. There could easily be another outbreak of apoplexy.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Biographies - no thanks

I seldom read biog-raphies. I admire people for what they've created or achieved, but in most cases the details of their personal lives are irrelevant to the things I admire. What they've given the world is usually unique and extraordinary, while their daily comings and goings are mostly much like anyone else's and of limited interest.

Marriage, children, affairs, divorce, drugs, alcohol, money problems, mental illness. We've heard it a thousand times before, and it sheds little light on their brilliant paintings or films or plays or music.

I love Mark Rothko's paintings, for instance, but does it help to know that he killed himself by slashing his elbows, that he drank and smoked heavily, that he had a tense relationship with his wife, or that he had a heart problem? No, it adds nothing unless you're into fancy theories about great art stemming from neurosis or whatever.

Most biographies aren't meant to illuminate the person's achievements anyway. They're usually just a way to trade on someone's fame with a money-spinning best-seller. And some are of dubious reliability, cobbled together from all sorts of questionable sources and sometimes actively opposed by the person's family who dispute much of the content.

Quite often biographies are simply an excuse to name-drop copiously - how X had a long-running spat with famous artist Y or was royally swindled by famous art dealer Z. The banality of the average biography increases of course when it's turned into a film with a string of dramatic set-pieces that distort the reality even further.

So no, I rarely read biographies. Why waste the time when I could be enjoying the things the person is actually celebrated for? I'm sure Lionel Shriver would much rather I savoured her books than read about her adolescent weight gain.

PS: But I do enjoy fictitious faux biographies like William Boyd's Sweet Caress.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Nudes and prudes

There's a general assumption nowadays that prudery has died out and all the old hang-ups about sex and nudity are a thing of the past. But it's not true. Everywhere you look sex and nudity are causing as much fuss as ever. If anything the squeamishness is getting worse.

A long list of things can prompt anything from tut-tutting to all-out uproar. Breastfeeding in public. Kissing in public. Over-revealing female clothing. Too much visible cleavage. Bra-less breasts. Naked male chests. Nudity on TV. The word vagina. Politicians having affairs. Older people's sex lives. Photos of women with stretch marks, scars or mastectomies.

Despite today's supposed laid-back attitudes, in fact there's still a vast unspoken code of conduct about what's permitted and what isn't, and one step over the boundary can unleash a barely-concealed puritanism.

Of course there should be limits on what we do or show in public. I don't think daily life would be improved if everyone strolled around in the nude and shagged wherever they felt like it. But a bit more tolerance and open-mindedness would avoid a lot of the sillier complaints.

Some protests are just balmy. Is it really outrageous to name a female body part? Or show your affection by kissing someone? Or feed your child as nature intended? Only if you're a fully paid-up member of the Permanently Offended community.

Given my enthusiasm for kissing and hugging in public, I'm surprised nobody has ticked me off, though I've had a few disapproving looks. I don't expose my chest to all and sundry, and not my legs either unless it's a scorching Aussie summer. And I've never had an affair, so I'm free from criticism on that score.

But I have to report that prudery is a long time dying.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Was my face red

Supposedly many people feel acutely embarr-assed talking about anything too personal with their doctors. And equally embarr-assed by any over-intimate examination of their bodies. Especially anything related to sex.

Or so I keep reading. Whether it's true I don't know. But it seems the only people who talk freely to their doctors are either doctors' children or people who were simply never taught to be embarrassed. Or maybe hypochondriacs.

I must say I'm one of the exceptions, as I'm happy to talk to my doctor about anything at all. In fact, I sometimes feel she's the one who's embarrassed and not me. I don't know why that's the case, but I have no problem discussing what's happening "down there" or having her hand up my bum to check my prostate.

For a doctor, surely it's just part of the day's work. She's discussed it all and examined it all with thousands of patients so for her whatever I say is totally unsurprising and unshocking and the moment I've left her she'll probably forget everything I said.

And obviously whatever I say is strictly confidential and goes no further than the consulting room. It's not as if my revelations are broadcast to all and sundry. It's not as if my trite medical concerns are hot gossip to be whispered to the other doctors. I haven't suddenly grown a pair of breasts or an extra head. So why the squeamishness?

I'm really curious as to why people get so embarrassed. Especially if they have serious and worrying physical symptoms that need looking at urgently. Surely protecting your health is more important than avoiding embarrassment? But who knows what goes through people's minds, what deep inhibitions they've learnt from someone.

Sometimes spilling it all out can be hard.

PS: A survey by the British Menopause Society found that half of women going through the menopause are too embarrassed to speak to their doctor