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

Friday, 13 May 2016

Well heeled

It's hard to believe that in the year 2016, when gender equality is meant to be progressing rapidly, a woman can be sent home without pay by her employer for refusing to wear high heels all day.

But that's what happened to Nicola Thorp when she turned up for work at Price Waterhouse Cooper in London. When she said she couldn't escort clients round the office all day if she was in high heels, she was ignored. Her petition to the British government for a change in the law has attracted huge support.

Surely by now it's well-established that regular wearing of high heels is physically harmful, acutely painful, impedes numerous activities, and hinders personal safety. Yet employers can still overlook all these dangers and insist on their being worn in the name of "looking professional" and "promoting the right image".

As far as I know there's no evidence whatever that high heels make a woman look more professional or inspire more confidence in her abilities, but they're still part of the obligatory dress code in many companies.

If high heels look "professional", then how come men can look professional without having to hobble round the office in such things, and can inspire confidence simply by wearing a tie and a crumpled suit? Why aren't men asked to do their job in agonising shoes with bleeding feet? Why aren't they asked to "promote the right image"?

The obvious answer is that men simply wouldn't put up with chronic pain day in and day out, and wouldn't entertain the idea for two seconds. That and their entrenched dread of doing anything "effeminate", of course.

I can think of a novel way of opposing the high heels dress code. If we have business with a company that applies it, just refuse to talk to a woman in high heels and ask for a woman in normal footwear. That would soon bring a few changes.

PS: Nicola Thorp's petition is here

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The real me

What's the real me and what's the fake me? Does it even matter? Is the fake me all a part of the real me anyway? And why do I worry about such nonsense?

I worry about it because I don't want to fool people, to appear as something I'm not. I want to be seen exactly as I am, warts and all, loud socialist left-wing views and all, weird private habits and all.

But what the hell is the real me, I wonder. Is it the me that keeps to myself and wants peace and quiet whenever possible? Or the me that enjoys a good conversation and enjoys a raucous, high-spirited public rally? Or is it both?

Perhaps I should leave the judgment to others. I'll behave as I feel like behaving, and others can decide if that's the real me or some peculiar impostor. They can decide if I'm being Nick or channelling an alien being.

Of course they might just be seeing my well-polished public persona. The kind, considerate, sensible old geezer who gives everyone a fair hearing and never rants or raves. As opposed to the private curmudgeon who takes exception to everything, hurls crockery across the kitchen and kicks the cat*.

But if I'm being super-polite and super-agreeable, am I fooling people or do they know very well it's just my bland public image? I mean, nobody can be that polite, can they? They must assume straightaway that in private I'm as potty-mouthed and sweary as the next person.

Mind you, however hard I try to be my genuine, unedited self, some people will always read something bizarre into what I've said and get me all wrong anyway. A fake me I never even thought of. I can't win.

* Don't worry, we don't have one.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Eye of the storm

Stillness. Calm. Tranquill-ity.

So desirable yet so hard to achieve in this era of constant noise, media contro-versies, social chit-chat, cold calls, "keeping busy" and random internet blurtings.

It's so soothing and restorative to be totally still for a while, mentally vacant, stripped of all this outside communication. But the compulsion to be endlessly on the move and spilling something out has infected us all and is well nigh impossible to turn off.

Luckily Jenny and I live in a largish detached house and can shut everyone else out if we wish. We can keep the world at bay in our little private sanctuary. All those people forced to flatshare or live with relatives, but craving peace and quiet, aren't so fortunate.

There seems an unspoken assumption nowadays that we must all have opinions on everything, however trite or absurd or violent, and must voice those opinions to as many people as possible via every available outlet.

The result is a daily tsunami of raucous pontificating and ranting on every conceivable subject from fluffy kittens to surly shop assistants to anti-Jewishness. A tsunami to which I'm personally contributing of course with my own feverish outpourings. Do feel free to turn me off at any time....

Now and then I climb Slieve Donard, the tallest mountain in Northern Ireland. You'd think that there at least I could enjoy perfect peace. But no. Slieve Donard is so well-known that there are always trails of hikers trudging up and down the mountainside, cheerily saying hello and commenting on the weather.

I think to get perfect peace I'd have to clamber into a rocket and be shot into outer space. That's the only way the constant buzz of humanity could be left behind.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Being insulted

It's really infuriating when I'm accused of insulting people and I know I never insulted them or had any thought of insulting them. Yet the accuser refuses to back down or admit they might be mistaken.

Just this week I've been accused of patronising someone, of treating someone "like a silly schoolgirl" and of "defending antisemitic rantings".

The last is the worst of course. Being patronising (if it were true) is hardly a hanging offence. Treating someone like a schoolgirl (if it were true) is a modest faux-pas on the sexist spectrum. But to suggest I'm a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Jewish bigot is outrageous.

Like most people, I have Jewish friends, so why would I condone attacks on them? What could I possibly have against Jews apart from my not being religious?

I begin to understand how angry the 400,000 Labour Party members must be as they are all smeared as being anti-Jewish week in and week out by the media and have little or no opportunity to defend themselves.

I try very hard not to gratuitously insult people. If I'm about to say something derogatory, I ask myself "What's the evidence? Am I sure about this? Or is it just an assumption?" If I'm not sure of my ground, it goes unsaid. Other people don't abide by the same rules though. An idea pops into their head and they run with it, regardless. Often with predictably disastrous results.

Of course some insults slip through my mental filter, and I'm happy to apologise if need be. But I hate being accused of something that's categorically untrue, or at the very least a matter of personal interpretation.

Just give me a break. Think before you speak.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Innocence

People say innocence is a splendid thing, and isn't it awful when you finally lose it and become a wised-up adult? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could somehow return to that blissful childhood state?

Well, no, I don't agree. Innocence puts you at a huge disadvantage and opens you to all sorts of trickery and exploitation. The sooner you lose it the better, in my opinion. The sooner you get to know the wicked and devious realities of adulthood, the better equipped you'll be to get what you want out of life.

Personally, I lost my innocence very late in the day. I was absurdly naive and blinkered for far too long. Not only did I believe in Father Christmas until I was ten, and probably the tooth fairy as well, it was only in my late teens, after I left school and started work, that I abruptly realised how dumb I was and how much of the world's horrors and injustices - and simple facts of life - had been kept from me by my over-protective parents.

I remember emerging from my totally single-sex schooling into a female-packed workplace and realising I knew virtually nothing about women except that they were shaped differently. It took me a while to stop being intimidated by them and start feeling comfortable in their company.

As a local newspaper reporter, I was rapidly confronted with the more unsavoury aspects of life that were hidden from me for so long. Homelessness, squalid housing, poverty, political corruption, alcoholism, violent crime, suicide - the list was endless. I was shocked at so many ugly truths. But my eyes were opened, I was learning fast, and the bubble of innocence had popped.

For the first time I started thinking seriously about my personal identity and realising it wasn't what I had assumed. I had taken for granted that I was much the same as the other young boys I knew - heterosexual, traditional, obedient, well-behaved. I discovered I wasn't necessarily any of those things but was rebellious, deviant, politically left-wing, eccentric. I had to totally reconstruct my idea of myself and kill off the innocent little boy.

So, no, innocence isn't a splendid thing. It's a liability to be shaken off at the earliest opportunity.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Rudeness

Rudeness has got completely out of hand since I was young. In fact rudeness is now a feeble description of the routine viciousness and spite aimed at everyone from celebrities down to cheating spouses and badly-dressed schoolgirls. We need a much stronger word to sum up this wholesale character assassination.

When I was a kid, rudeness never went much further than telling someone to get lost, take a running jump, mind their own business, keep their nose out of it. The blunt swearwords of today like fuck, cunt, prick, arse-licker, were seldom heard and "bloody fool" or "blithering idiot" were the height of disdain.

But now rudeness has morphed into something utterly hideous. It's standard practice for people to face death threats, rape threats, grotesque sexual fantasies, savage attacks on every aspect of their clothing and appearance, the hope that they'll get terminal cancer or some nasty disease, and the most extreme abuse imaginable.

I don't know why people feel the need for such ferocious attacks, but they've turned public discourse into something horrific, a sort of verbal bloodbath that leaves its victims reeling. The familiar decent, considerate Brit of yesterday seems increasingly scarce, elbowed out by the spitting, snarling Brit of the Twittersphere.

I long for a return to that innocent era when people kept their insults within sensible limits, didn't set out deliberately to hurt and distress, but merely wished to show disapproval without causing too much offence.

I can't imagine sending a death threat to anyone - or anything half as cruel. In fact I seldom insult anybody, even in the mildest terms, as I know how hurtful the slightest put-down can be. I can only be insulting if I'm furiously angry, and that's not often.

Simple rudeness has turned into an ugly, slavering monster.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Double standards

An alarming number of people still think it's okay to criticise a woman's appearance at every opport-unity. Men do it, women do it, the media do it, the internet trolls do it. Yet men are generally immune from such criticism, even if they look like they've just been dragged through a hedge backwards.

Why is such criticism seen as normal? Why are women seen as fair game? Why do some people enjoy tearing them to bits?

The historian Mary Beard is just one example. She was said to be "too ugly for television", to have disastrous hair, terrible teeth, embarrassing clothes, and much worse. Fortunately she's resilient enough to shrug it all off as hateful nonsense, but why should she have to put up with such comments?

Of course for men the hidden agenda is to control women by insulting and intimidating them. For women, the motive is to undermine other women who're seen as competitors. For the media, the aim is simply to whip up controversy and get more readers. As for the internet trolls, there are all sorts of sadistic tendencies at work, too varied to disentangle.

Men on the other hand are usually spared such ruthless appraisals. They can have paunches the size of blimps, body hair like a shag-pile carpet, and suits that might have fit them ten years ago, and nobody says a word because well, they're blokes and they're different. You don't criticise their appearance, only their football team or their make of car.

Personally, I hardly ever criticise a woman's appearance. I know women are anxious enough about how they look without me adding to the anxiety. In any case, it's none of my business how other people present themselves to the world. And there are more important things to attend to than a shapeless dress or hairy armpits.

Like all those women who're being raped or pimped or stalked or genitally mutilated, for starters.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Hugs and kisses

Journalist Shane Watson says she's increasingly confused about social hugs and kisses. When are they appropriate and when not? And just how effusive or affect-ionate should the hugs and kisses be?

I don't have any trouble with the etiquette for embraces myself. Enthusiastic hugs and kisses are routine in Northern Ireland, even for slight acquaintances or people you haven't seen for decades. We're very physical with each other and not remotely embarrassed about it, even if we get it a bit wrong. Nobody reels in horror as we kiss them flamboyantly on the cheek, or hug them like long-lost relatives.

But Shane finds herself more and more in awkward clinches, either under-doing it or over-doing it, liable to frosty or shocked responses. What is now the correct way of greeting or departing, she wonders? Does anybody know?

Numerous encounters seem to call for kissing, she says. Politicians in the street; exceptionally decent taxi drivers; the au pair's husband; your boss. Is there anyone you absolutely shouldn't kiss?

Well, I think she's getting herself a bit steamed up over nothing. My rule of thumb is, if it's someone you've met before and not a complete stranger, kiss them or hug them and if they give any sign they don't like it, then just back off. What's the problem?

Of course some people simply dislike hugging or kissing or any kind of embrace unless it's a loved one or relative, and physical contact with anyone else makes them squirm. Fine, they can just make that clear and you file a mental note to refrain.

Personally I'm happy to kiss anyone, male or female, but most men are still horrified at the idea of kissing another man, so I have to limit myself to the customary hug or handshake or shoulder-pat. Why are men so weird about kissing each other, I wonder? Surely they're not still nervous about gay overtones? Hey, it's 2016, guys!

So kiss me, hug me, greet me as fondly as you like. I guarantee I'll enjoy it.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Stop the world

Stop the world, I want to get off.
Also, I demand a refund. It's not what I expected.
Too much hatred and violence.
Too much corruption.
There must be other worlds I can try.
Can you send me your full brochure?

What do you mean, I've spent 69 years here, it's a bit late in the day to ask for a refund?
How did I know things would get so awful?
It all looked very promising fifty years ago.
So kindly apply the brakes and I'll just quietly alight.
And then I'll float languidly round the cosmos admiring the view.

What do you mean, I can't get off until my time is up?
That could be another twenty years.
Nobody warned me it would be so long.
And not even an interval.

What do you mean, all the other worlds are full?
People are dying all the time, aren't they? There must be room for more.
Surely you can squeeze me in somewhere?
I'm quite thin. I don't take up much space.
I'll make it worth your while.

Just give me a break, all right?

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Innocent abroad

I feel more and more like an innocent abroad. I potter through my very moderate and ordinary life while other people's behaviour seems to get wilder and wilder and increasingly incompre-hensible.

Here I am tootling off to work, getting the shopping, doing my daily walk round the block, watching TV and generally being a decent, upright citizen, while the world around me becomes one huge orgy of self-indulgence and lunacy.

Every day I'm reading of men snorting cocaine off their mistress's tits, millions being stashed in offshore tax havens, binge-drinkers collapsing in near-fatal stupors, day-trippers taking selfies on the edge of 200-foot cliffs, rock stars taking daily cocktails of mind-blowing drugs, people with tattoos from head to foot, and I feel like Tinker Bell.

I feel like the newbie at Big School. Or a tourist stumbling into a harem. Or a small boy finding his big sister's diary. Or a mountain hermit who's met nobody for 20 years. I reel in permanent shock at what others see as run-of-the-mill.

I'm hopelessly restrained and incapable of excess. I have a totally non-addictive personality. Moderation in all things describes me perfectly. I don't smoke, I don't take fun drugs, I drink very little, I don't over-eat, I don't gamble, I don't squander money, I have no debts. I'm disgustingly sensible.

I'm baffled by those who can't help but over-do it. And not just over-do it, but over-do it dramatically, vertiginously, obsessively. Taking selfies of every single moment, whether it's sitting on the toilet or picking their nose. Drinking entire bottles of whisky as if it's water. Taking a crowbar to their ex's Mercedes. Such single-mindedness, such ruthlessness.

Well, I suppose it takes all sorts. How suicidally boring life would be if we were all so cautious and abstemious and no one had the urge to snort cocaine off someone's tits. So carry on snorting, by all means.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

All too much

It's all too much. All too much.
The world's going to pot.
Britain's going to pot.
The planet's going to pot.
Armies fighting each other.
Religions fighting each other.
Governments fighting each other.
Refugees by the million.
The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.
Prejudice of every kind against other human beings.
The British government demolishing every public service in sight.
Oceans full of plastic.
It's depressing and alarming and shocking.
I just want to run away and hide.
Shut it all out.
Live in a little isolated bubble in the middle of nowhere.
With just a cat to keep me company.
And Jenny of course.
We'll tell each other stories
of beautiful, unspoilt places.
We'll sleep and dream and smell the flowers.
We'll watch the sunrises and sunsets.
We'll listen to the birdsong.
No one will know where we are.
No one can bring us news we don't want to hear.
No one can spoil our solitude.
Just imagine that.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Forgive and forget

There's a lot of sancti-monious piffle about forgiving and forgetting, often by people who bear grudges by the lorry-load. But how many of us are able to be so charitable and so big-hearted?

It's hard to forgive someone why has deliberately insulted you or exploited you or cheated you out of something. It's not as if they made an innocent mistake and didn't really know what they were doing.

Likewise it's hard to forget something that had a big impact on your life, that ruined a relationship or lost you a job or wrecked your health. How can you forget something that had a lasting influence and can't be reversed?

I can't forgive my parents for keeping me at a school that was clearly unsuited to my personality and abilities, and where I was obviously unhappy. I can't forgive a particular boss for putting me through a nerve-wracking disciplinary process for what I thought was a quite trivial offence. I can't forgive politicians who have made life worse for so many people. I can't forgive the neighbours who kept us awake time after time with their all-night parties. Nor can I forget all these things, unless I suddenly develop total amnesia.

So no, I think forgiving and forgetting is a pretty tall order. Maybe the saintly gurus and holy men can manage it, but for most of us it's a non-starter. What is practical though is to say, I don't forgive and I don't forget but there's nothing to be gained in dwelling on these things and wishing they had never happened. And there's nothing to be gained by fuming with rage or seeking revenge. That won't remedy anything, it'll just turn me into a sour, bitter old sod.

Even that's too much for some. People nurse their private grudges for years, even when the person who prompted them is long dead and buried. They go on pushing for "justice" when anyone else can see they're asking for the moon.

Forgive and forget? You'll be lucky.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Little luxuries

I suppose we all have different ideas of what a life of luxury would consist of. Not necessarily limousines and yachts, or servants waiting on us hand and foot. Just those things that would make our own particular lives easier, cosier and a bit more exciting. In my case, the list of luxuries would include the following:

  • Never having to worry about money ever again.
  • Constant warmth all the year round (move to Australia perhaps?)
  • Perfect health into old age
  • Beautiful clothes (satin pants? dresses? skirts?)
  • Delicious food from my personal chef
  • Several good, close friends
  • Brilliant paintings in every room
  • Go to gigs by all my favourite musicians (no expense spared - wherever they may be)
  • A chauffeur for long car trips
  • A private swimming pool (or even a private lake)
  • Travel to the world's most exotic places (business class naturally)
  • A photographic memory
Those are merely the ones that came to mind. I'm sure there are many more.

Not that I find my present-day life lacking or frustrating. On the contrary. My life is fine just as it is. But it's fun to imagine those little embellishments that would make it even better. There's nothing wrong with daydreams.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

All steamed up

This fiasco in Italy is exactly why I have no time for the organised church. Not content to encourage religious beliefs, they too often want to impose those beliefs on everyone else, with utter contempt for people's freedom of opinion. In this case, proselytising has become overt censorship.

The Catholic Church, which owns over 1,100 cinemas in Italy, has decreed that the film "Weekend", from the same director who made "45 Years", is irreligious and has banned it from all their cinemas.

According to the Italian Conference of Bishops' Film Evaluation Commission, the film is "not advised, unusable and scabrous (indecent or salacious)." It claims that the film's main themes - seen by critics as love and identity - are actually drugs and homosexuality.

So now it can be seen in just ten independent cinemas not controlled by the Catholic Church.

The film is in fact about two gay men who meet in a club and spend the weekend together. They talk about sex, relationships, coming out, careers and aspirations, before finally separating.

Says Cesare Petrillo, the distribution company's President, "I cannot see any other explanation than a problem of homophobia in the church. They decided that it was unacceptable, that it should be censored, and they have used their power to paralyse the distribution."

What gives the church the right to censor a film, or anything else, and declare that people can't decide for themselves what they think of it? What gives them the right to say their views are the only valid ones and other views count for nothing?

I have plenty of time for religious teachings in general. People like the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Buddha and Jesus have helped many troubled individuals to live better and more productive lives. But what repels me is when religions aggressively seek converts and try to control other people. When they turn into ruthless empire-builders rather than spiritual advisers. That's when humility gives way to arrogance and the rot sets in.

Pic: Chris New and Tom Cullen in "Weekend"

Friday, 11 March 2016

Bully beef

It seems to me that bullying has never been more prevalent. It also seems to me that people are falling over themselves to deny it's bullying and make out it's something quite normal - or even desirable.

No no, it's not bullying; no no, X is not a victim, X is not being unfairly treated. You're looking at it the wrong way, you're over-reacting.

Your boss is piling on the pressure, loading you with extra work? He's simply trying to get the job done, trying to improve productivity. The other boys are picking on you in the playground? Well, you're such an easy target, you won't make any effort to fit in.

And of course, the old chestnut - women get harassed and attacked by men not because men are uncivilised louts but because women ask for it. They dress provocatively, they're on their own, they're in a dodgy neighbourhood etc.

People are afraid of the bullies, reluctant to challenge them. Or they want to curry favour with them, because they're in a position of power. Or they really believe that toughness and arrogance get better results than kindness and sympathy.

But the more the bullying is justified, the worse it gets. The bullies get cocky, assuming they'll always get away with it. You only have to look at the British government, which gets more ruthless by the day.

All sorts of everyday phrases condone bullying. Constant talk of "tough decisions", "the age of austerity", "deterring scroungers and skivers", "the workshy". All excusing casual cruelty and victimisation.

"Do as you would be done by" has become a quaint old notion seldom heard outside the pulpit.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

How very brave

The word "brave" is thrown around so carelessly nowadays, it's almost lost any meaning. People use it about quite routine everyday events like dealing with an illness or going out in cold weather. But it ought to mean something much weightier than that, something truly courageous.

Personally I think one of the bravest things is simply to be yourself - to stand up for your own opinions and convictions when everyone around you is saying something totally different. And when they may be violently hostile if you disagree with them.

Openly defending women for example, when you're surrounded by men being aggressively misogynistic. You can be met by frosty stares, ridicule or personal abuse. Plenty of people would keep their mouths shut rather than speaking out.

Then again, some people would say that isn't really bravery, it's just self-assertion. Real bravery, they say, is taking serious physical risks - on a battlefield, or fighting a fire, or rescuing someone in danger. Disregarding your own safety for the sake of others is the real test of your inner mettle.

A lot of people talk about someone's brave fight against cancer. But what's brave about it? You fight cancer because you have to - either you fight or you die. You aren't taking a physical risk, you aren't challenging anyone, you're just doing what you have to do.

Or people say it's brave to make a new start in life - to move to another country, or change your career, or remarry. But again, is that true bravery or just doing what you have to do - abandoning something you never felt comfortable with?

I think we should use the word "brave" more sparingly, more accurately, and not chuck it around like a casual compliment. Otherwise genuine bravery - like that of Malala Yousafzai - gets overlooked and devalued.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Posh gits

I have a very posh English voice. Not sure why. As a child, I never lived in posh areas, and my parents never sounded posh. Probably it comes from attending a pseudo-posh boarding school for pretentious middle-class twits, or rather their pretentious middle-class parents.

Whether my posh voice is an advantage or a liability, I've never quite decided. Sometimes with trades people and shop assistants and call centre staff it seems to get me more respect and better service. And they often call me sir, which is ridiculous but it seems pedantic to object.

At other times it probably gets me worse service because people promptly nail me as a snooty English git and give me the minimum respect and service they can get away with. Of course I'm assuming that because they'd never openly admit it. But anti-English sentiments often lurk under polite Northern Irish exteriors.

The stereotype isn't entirely false either. The English can be very snooty indeed if it suits them. They whine and whinge about everything and customer service is never quite good enough for them. Whereas the locals tend to be more laid back and more inclined to adjust to a situation than complain. But I digress....

I've never had any wish to change my voice. I know some people find a posh tone embarrassing and they deliberately change it to something more ordinary like Estuary English or a regional accent. But my voice doesn't bother me, I think partly because I like it, partly because I'm so used to it and partly because I don't have to listen to it. To me it's just a sort of bland vibration inside my head.

But I do object to the surfeit of oily posh voices on TV, and the lack of shall-we-say vocal diversity. When do you hear any alternative accent, be it regional, ethnic, cockney or whatever? Not often. Which is a shame because there are some wonderful accents out there. Starting with Irish and Northern Irish.

So that's abart it, guv. Nuffink more to tell yer. Gawd bless.