Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Groom or doom

Surveys keep telling us most women dislike their bodies and would like to change them. Well of course they dislike their bodies. Is that surprising when everyone around them says they're not attractive until they've been through a string of laborious grooming procedures? The obvious conclusion - their natural self without all the recommended beautifying and prettifying must be a hideous sight nobody wants to look at.

The message blares out endlessly from the mass media, from movies, from parents, even from friends - if you've missed out on make-up, skincare, body-hair removal, weekly hairdos, nail polish, push-up bras or shapewear, then you're simply not feminine or glamorous enough and nobody will give you a second glance.

The message for men is totally different, in fact almost the opposite. If they pay any undue attention to their appearance, they're just narcissistic - or maybe gay. Real men simply sling on a few nondescript clothes, comb their hair and that's that. Nobody cares two hoots about the condition of their skin, or when they last had a haircut, or all the hair carpeting their chest. Nobody suggests their natural self is something to be worked on obsessively to make it passably attractive.

In fact some men seem to revel so shamelessly in their wild and woolly appearance that I sometimes think a little pressure to beautify themselves female-style wouldn't come amiss.

Of course there's nothing wrong with prettifying yourself as such. It must be a lot of fun dolling yourself up occasionally. I'd quite like to doll myself up now and again but gender forbids. No, the problem is the implication that if women don't doll themselves up, they're ugly ducklings who'll never get to the ball.

Well, ducklings look pretty good to me, even without make-up....

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Prima donnas

I've worked with plenty of prima donnas in my time. Or should I say I did my best to work with them, as they're impossible to please however hard you try.

The tell-tale signs of a prima donna being:
  • Changing their opinion every ten minutes
  • Never being satisfied with anything
  • Wanting everything their own way
  • Puffed-up with self-importance
Trying to pin them down on anything at all is like nailing down a lump of blancmange. Trying to meet their ever-shifting demands is like wrestling with an octopus. They're endlessly evasive and enigmatic.

I could name someone I work with right now as a classic prima donna. But since another key feature is sensitivity to criticism, I think I'd better wait till I've moved on to pastures new.

The obvious prima donnas are of course those showbiz stars who insist on all sorts of special treatment to go with their elevated status - obscure dietary requests, new toilet seats, air purifiers, specific room temperatures, everything in their favourite colour, special toilet paper, you name it.

But prima donnas pop up in every walk of life - families, political campaigns, dinner parties. There's always one, driving everyone else nuts. They never notice how annoying their impulsive and erratic behaviour is to those around them.

There was a bookshop manager I once worked with who was never happy with my work. Whatever I did, he always wanted it done differently, and every day his diktats would change. However I defended my time-tested methods, he always thought his methods were better.

I've never been a prima donna. I'm good at working with other people. I may be neurotic, insecure, anxious and timid, but I'm at least consistent and pin-downable. No guessing games required.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Rush to judgment

Ursula suggested I write a more frivolous post. Well, given there's something utterly frivolous on my mind right now, what the hell, no sooner said than done....

I can't believe the fuss everyone's making about Renee Zellweger's changed appearance. Do they have too much time on their hands? Are they paid-up members of the Image Police? Do they never change their own appearance? Why this rabid Renee-trashing?

Personally I'm the old-fashioned type who believes a person's appearance is their own affair and nothing to do with me. I wouldn't be happy if everyone was zooming in on my own appearance and saying they didn't like the change, they preferred the old me, had I had plastic surgery etc etc. I'm amazed she's taking it so calmly and hasn't fled to some secret hideaway.

I couldn't care less if Renee Zellweger had piled on 10 stone, cut all her hair off and went everywhere in bright pink pajamas. It's none of my business. And the fact that she suddenly appeared in public after a long absence doesn't entitle every Tess, Debbie and Harriet to weigh in with their opinions (and yes, it does seem to be mainly women slagging off one of their own).

What does strike me though is that she now bears an uncanny resemblance to J K Rowling - the same face, the same expression, the same hairstyle. Has she turned into J K Rowling? Has J K Rowling turned into Renee Zellweger? Is this a weird double-case of identity theft? Is Renee now a phenomenally successful author while J K is now a Hollywood icon?

All I can say is, I love the name Zellweger. I could roll it around my tongue all day. Zellweger, Zellweger. A name to conjure with. A name to savour. Apparently zellweg means "path to a small monastery." If the current hysterical opinionising goes on much longer, a monastery would probably suit her nicely.

Pics: J K and Renee. Or possibly Renee and J K.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Unbearable loss

These three children - Evie, Mo and Otis Maslin - were all killed, together with their grandfather Nick, when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine.

The three children were flown back to Perth in Australia on Thursday to be returned to their parents.

I can't begin to imagine the bottomless grief their parents must be suffering as a result of this utterly stupid attack on a commercial plane whose passengers had nothing whatever to do with the conflict.

Anthony Maslin and Marite Norris say they are living in a hell beyond hell, that their pain is intense and relentless. "No one deserves what we are going through, not even the people who shot our whole family out of the sky."

The loss of one child is bad enough, but the loss of all three must be an unbearable agony. How can they ever recover from it? How can they have anything like a normal life ever again?

Do the fanatics who shot down the plane have even a flicker of guilt or remorse over what they did? Do they grasp in any way the massive suffering they've caused? Probably not. Probably they see the dead plane passengers as simply unfortunate casualties of war, not to be dwelt on.

Gaining territory is more important than broken hearts.

And in a related news item, an Australian company has developed a water-based alternative to cremation that avoids the 200 kilogrammes of greenhouse gas emissions from a traditional cremation. It simply speeds up the natural decomposition process, taking about four hours in all. Stew instead of roast, as one of my Facebook friends put it. Brilliant.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Squalid impulses

I'm not a hateful person. If there's something about someone that rubs me up the wrong way, I don't hate them for it. I adjust to it, I work around it, I try to understand it. I don't hate them any more than I would hate a rock for being jagged or a snake for being poisonous.

I don't understand people who seem to be a never-ending torrent of hatred. Everything sets them off - a noisy neighbour, a demanding boss, a rude sales assistant, a smarmy politician. Any excuse and they let rip, tearing everyone to shreds. Where does all this bile and venom come from?

I've only hated two people in my life, people who treated me so badly all positive feelings were crushed and loathing took over. I just wanted to be free of them so I could repair my battered self-respect.

Of course you're probably already thinking I'm too good to be true, too magnanimous by half. I'm obviously denying my real feelings, bottling things up, keeping a stiff upper lip. I'm an emotional snob pretending to be better than everyone else and immune to squalid human impulses.

Well, I can assure you there's nowt bottled up. The fact is that hatred just doesn't come naturally to me. Which is surprising since all my immediate family are (or were) more than capable of intense hatred. I could list a dozen things that set them off like Pavlov's dogs.

It's often said that people hate what they don't understand, or what they secretly envy. I think there's a lot of truth in that. But if you don't understand something, why not try to unravel it? If you envy something, why not join in? Why the need for such bitter hostility?

"Let no man pull you so low as to hate him" - Martin Luther King.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Crossed fingers

A lot of people are adamant they achieve things through their own efforts. Luck has nothing to do with it, they say. It's all hard work, determination and shrewdness.

I think they're kidding themselves. Yes, a bit of hard graft is needed. But so many things are down to luck. Being in the right place at the right time. Knowing the right people. Being first in the queue. Hearing something on the grapevine. There are plenty of people who work their asses off with nothing much to show for it.

I know how much luck I've had in my own life. So many things that could have gone horribly pear-shaped worked out surprisingly well. I benefited from the years of prosperity that were followed by recession and shrinking opportunities. Quite by chance I picked up skills that have come in useful ever since.

Other people have even greater luck. They inherit huge sums of money. They win the lottery. They're born to well-connected and multi-talented parents, or turn out to be prodigiously talented themselves. They happen to invent something that becomes a universal must-have.

Knowing as I do how much of my life has depended on good luck, I'm always a bit nervous about the future. Will this astonishing run of luck continue or will it abruptly hit the buffers? Will I suddenly find myself in dire straits, the rug pulled from underneath me? All I can do is cross my fingers, hope for the best and keep on truckin'.

So what will the future bring? Windfalls or pitfalls? Thrills or bills? Trick or treat?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Bêtes noires

Ten things I'd like to see the back of:

1) Ties. I don't care how many people think I look good in a tie. They're pointless anachronisms.
2) Religious imperialism. Trying to foist your religion onto the uninterested, the uncomprehending and the undressed and just going to bed.
3) Instant coffee. It's not coffee by any stretch of the imagination. It's sludge.
4) Lying and hypocritical politicians. That's around 99 per cent of them then.
5) Finger food that falls to pieces, leaves you all greasy and tastes of nothing.
6) Powerpoint presentations. If you have to swamp us with statistics, just put them in an easily disposable handout.
7) People who think they're fascinating but are actually so boring you want to shoot yourself.
8) Absurd excuses for rape. There are NO excuses for rape.
9) Poverty. It ruins people's lives. It's demeaning, depressing and utterly dehumanising.
10) Unbudging know-it-alls who view any alternative opinions as the jabberings of an idiot.

Oh and did I mention ties?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Spying fever

It seems that a lot of people are now so mistrustful of their partners that they're secretly spying on them to check on what they're doing and where they are. They're so suspicious of what their partners are telling them - or not telling them - that they're obsessively monitoring their activities.

They're looking at emails, texts, computer files, photos, GPS locations, bank accounts, call logs, calendars, website histories, Facebook accounts, you name it. There are now apps that can quietly track just about every aspect of your partner's life and give you any information you want at the touch of a button.

And apparently lots of people are doing just that. According to one technical surveillance firm, business is booming, especially among women trapped in abusive marriages who need to discredit their husbands in order to get a divorce.

Increasingly, people are no longer accepting what their partner tells them, or shrugging off the odd dubious explanation, but are bothered enough to find out just how truthful and trustworthy he or she actually is.

It must be dreadful when you lose trust in your partner and are sure they're hiding things they don't want you to know. But can you really justify such exhaustive snooping on everything they're doing? Is it necessary self-preservation or is it totally obnoxious?

Personally I've always trusted Jenny and I've never felt the need to spy on her every move. I often have no idea at all where she is but why should that make me suspicious? Why should I imagine she's secretly seducing someone or topping up a concealed bank account?

But the fact that such detailed surveillance is now so widespread and easy to use would make me think twice about bedding the next-door neighbour. If I knew that my supposedly private phone calls and texts could be instantly relayed to someone else, I think I'd keep my libidinous longings to myself.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Unnerving beauty

Beautiful women often say that one drawback of being beautiful is that men are too intimidated to approach them. Men feel more comfortable with a woman who's more "ordinary looking".

I've certainly found that myself. I can think of plenty of occasions where I've encountered a beautiful woman (beautiful to me, anyway) and found myself promptly tongue-tied, or stammering, or indeed hesitant to talk to her at all for fear of an instant brush-off.

I know I should be more confident and more blasé, and take the attitude that it makes no difference if she's beautiful or plain, all I'm doing is having a conversation and why on earth am I so flustered? But my psyche won't cooperate.

I think it's partly because I connect beauty with intelligence and assume that whatever I say will strike her as incredibly stupid. I know very well there's no necessary link between beauty and brains but nonetheless I'm convinced that this particular woman I'm speaking to has to be as smart as they come.

I'm not so intimidated by beautiful men. I'm not bothered by their beauty or their intelligence or anything else about them. I talk to them quite easily. So why I get so nervous in the presence of a beautiful woman is a mystery.

But just the other day I was chatting to a very pretty woman, and even though I've known her for a long while, I found myself unaccountably stammering and stuttering like an idiot. What is WRONG with me, I thought. Why am I behaving like a goofy ten-year-old?

Well, if I haven't yet grown out of this adolescent insecurity, I doubt if I ever will. Old habits die hard.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Not really poor

Linda Tirado of Washington DC, who had known a period of grinding poverty, wrote a piece for a website about what it's like being poor. The piece went viral and as usually happens, people started attacking her left right and centre.

And what were they attacking her for? For explaining poverty to people who were well-off and had no idea what it was really like. For telling people that poverty was real and not something invented by scrounging layabouts, journalists and lefties.

Of course they didn't say that. They just claimed she was never really poor because she came from a middle-class family. Or she wasn't really poor because it was only for a few years. Or she wasn't really poor because her wages were enough to live on.

They simply couldn't accept that someone can be genuinely poor, genuinely struggling to make ends meet, genuinely unable to get her rotten teeth or her clapped-out car fixed. They were convinced she was making it all up or wildly exaggerating.

As she puts it herself: "In America we have this myth that if you deserve it, you will have it. We're afraid to look at our downtrodden because it undercuts that myth. There is a fear of the poor that is uniquely American. It's especially hard to look at someone who could be one of their kids - someone like me who's white and intelligent - and see them as poor."

People lucky enough to have a good income and a comfortable life don't want to think about those who have neither. It makes them feel guilty, anxious, scared, vulnerable. They shy away from the possibility that a run of bad luck or some personal misfortune could see them sinking into poverty themselves.

The irony of Linda Tirado's story is that because of the huge readership her internet piece attracted she was able to raise over $60,000 to turn it into a book and quit her job as a night cook. She hasn't had her teeth fixed yet but she's using a better brand of shampoo.

Pic: Linda Tirado

Friday, 19 September 2014

Stressed out cats

Never mind the emotional stresses we humans have to contend with, it seems that cats are also increasingly stressed out. But we may not notice because unlike dogs they don't get aggressive when they're under stress, they just get withdrawn.

To me, cats always seem enviably placid and imperturbable, quite indifferent to what's going on around them and absorbed in their mysterious feline ruminations. But obviously I'm mistaken and they aren't nearly as placid as I imagine.

No doubt the cat-owners among you could easily have enlightened me (and will of course confirm what follows).

According to cat experts Pippa Hutchison and John Bradshaw, cats show their stress in subtle ways like sleeping under the bed, over-grooming and scratching.

Contrary to popular belief, many cats don't like going outdoors and feel much safer staying inside. They can be quite scared of sharing territory with the local cats, especially ones that don't want other cats on their patch. Unlike dogs and humans, they're not naturally sociable.

In the rest of Europe, where many people live in flats, cats are more commonly kept indoors and it doesn't seem to do them any harm.

Cats can find any number of things stressful - a new baby, a new home, the death of another pet, visitors, loud noises, traffic, travel, confinement, strange odours, or even a new type of cat litter. They may be spooked just by another cat looking at them from a neighbouring wall. The most "laid back" cats can become stressed, despite being outwardly calm.

Some experts recommend a special "cat room" or hiding place, out of bounds to dogs and children, where a cat can retreat if it feels the need.

I can understand the feline tendency to withdraw. My response to stress is much the same - I withdraw rather than getting aggressive, and wait for things to get calmer. I don't tend to over-groom or sleep under the bed though.

Sunday, 14 September 2014


One thing I really don't get is the extreme emotional misery some women go through when they find they're infertile. For them, it's not just bad luck, not just an unfortunate quirk of nature, it's something that tears them apart and makes life unbearable.

Tracey Richardson-Lyne, writing in the Observer today, says no one understands the sheer emotional pain of infertility - the feelings of grief, anger, jealousy, isolation, uselessness and failure.

She says that just walking around, seeing pregnant women, dads with pushchairs, or children looking for mummy or daddy, fills her with loneliness and dread.

She feels guilty that she can't reproduce like a "normal" woman, that she can't give her husband a child or her parents a grandchild.

To me, this seems like an oddly extreme reaction to something that should surely be no more than disappointing or frustrating. Can you not just accept the situation and find other things to do with your life? And surely a woman's identity shouldn't still be defined by whether she can reproduce or not? Or whether there's a toddler clutching at her?

But feelings are feelings, and just because I don't understand them, it doesn't mean they're invalid and she shouldn't be having them. If she's in emotional pain, then of course she needs help to deal with the pain and hopefully, one day, get pregnant.

Emotional pain is so much easier to bear if at least other people have been through something similar and can understand what you're feeling. It must be so much worse if you're bearing it alone amid widespread incomprehension.

I can't judge her. I can only wish her some relief from what she's going through, some respite from the suffocating misery.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Caught in the crush

I may be the grand old age of 67, but I still get crushes on people from time to time. Not as much as when I was younger, but they still happen.

Of course I'll never go to bed with them because (a) I'm happily married with no wish for extra-marital adventures; (b) they're usually a lot younger and wouldn't give me the time of day; (c) it would all get far too complicated. So it's never anything more than an entertaining secret fantasy.

I don't have any crushes on anyone right now, but I was very taken by one particular woman at the office block I work in. I looked forward to seeing her and chatting to her, and she probably wasn't aware that I saw her any differently from her workmates. After some months she moved to the States and rapidly faded from my mind.

I've written before about my huge crush on Elena (not her real name), a woman I worked with once in a bookshop when I was still single. Clearly she didn't have any special feelings towards me so absolutely nothing happened, but I would follow her every movement and utterance with heightened attention. I was obsessed with her for years until she also moved on and I never saw her again.

Long ago I had a passionate crush on a waitress at my lunch-time restaurant (that was when the working day still included a full lunch-hour). She had an incredibly sexy way of walking that always had me riveted. But as far as she knew, I was just the thin guy who ordered the omelette and chips and gave her a handsome tip. That time I moved on rather than her.

I've never actually dreamt about my crushes, except in Elena's case. It's usually strictly a daytime thing. And I would never flirt or stalk or do anything inappropriate. It's all in my mind and that's where it stays. Then again, did other people ever have crushes on me, I wonder? Was I ever crush-inducing material? If so, I never suspected and I shall never know.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

What a shame

Why are there so many things we're ashamed to talk about? So many things we'd rather not mention for fear of the conse-quences?

It seems that for each thing we lose our shame about, something else shameful pops up to take its place. And the list of shameful topics is frighteningly long, even in the supposedly tolerant and open-minded 21st century.

Some things have become, well, not totally shameless but much more widely acceptable than they used to be. Part of the scenery at least. Like being gay, being transgender, having an abortion, or being an unmarried mum (funny how unmarried dads have never attracted the same scorn).

On the other hand the number of things people feel ashamed of is as long as your arm - addictions, mental problems, fatal accidents, rare illnesses, affairs, suicide attempts, sexual assault, eating disorders. And I'm sure there are plenty of things I've missed there.

Yet these are all commonplace human events or weaknesses, shared by thousands of people. Why so much shame? Why can't they just be talked about freely? Why the chronic anxiety and fear about sharing them with others? Is society really that intolerant, that scathing, that uncomprehending?

There are not that many things I'm personally ashamed of. I'm happy to reveal most of my odd quirks and eccentricities. There are one or two things I keep to myself, not out of shame but because I know they're probably incomprehensible to others and there's no point in mentioning them.

One thing I feel slightly ashamed of is not being honest enough with other people, being polite and agreeable rather than voicing my true thoughts and feelings. But hell, don't we all do that? If we were totally honest all the time, life would become a nightmare of insults, rejections and wounded emotions. I wouldn't fancy that.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

My humble apologies

I'm good at apolog-ising. I'll happily apologise for anything if it oils the wheels of a relation-ship. Be it a misunder-standing, an unintended insult, an error of fact, or an unpopular opinion, I don't mind humbling myself and admitting that maybe I got it wrong. What's the big deal about that?

But there are so many people who'll do anything rather than apologise. Apologies are apparently a huge humiliation, a huge blow to their ego, something they have to avoid at all costs.

They'll deny doing anything wrong, or find some absurd excuse or justification, or say they were only joking, or say you're over-sensitive. Anything rather than drop their pose of infallibility and admit they're only human and sometimes they drop a clanger.

My father hated apologising. No matter how obviously wrong he was about something, he would never back down. He had to be right, his authority couldn't be challenged, he couldn't bear it that I might actually know more about something than him.

I can recall several workmates who were much the same. Apologising was out of the question. It was always someone else who was wrong, not them. Any attempt to extract an apology was met with anger and incredulity.

The one thing hospital patients always ask for when they've had shoddy treatment of some kind is an apology. "I just want them to admit they got it wrong and they have to do better" they'll say. And the one thing the hospital invariably won't do is apologise. They'll prevaricate and obfuscate and do anything to avoid simply saying "We're really sorry, we made a mess of this and it's not good enough."

And while I'm at it, I sincerely apologise for all those nonsensical, long-winded, infantile, pedantic blog posts I've churned out over the last seven years. If there's anything I can do to make amends, just say the word. You've no idea how ashamed and stupid and careless I feel. What a total dufus I've been. What a total toss-bucket. I promise to do much much better in the future.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The final step

It's easy to understand someone killing themself because of a serious physical illness, or the early signs of one. Obviously they don't want to suffer endlessly or rely on long-term care.*

But when it's suicide after mental distress, people often say they don't understand why the person did it. They wonder why they didn't ask for help or why they didn't respond to the help that was given. Surely there was no need for such a drastic step?

They may even be totally unsympathetic. They may say suicide is selfish, or weak, or melodramatic, or even callous. Did they realise the grief and guilt they were inflicting on their friends and relatives?

I find such lack of sympathy and understanding quite startling. I think it's a failure of imagination, of the ability to see the extremities of pain and distress and misery the person is enduring, pain so severe that any amount of advice, therapy, drugs, support and chivvying is never going to soothe or cure it. Their psyche is so fractured, their emotions so disordered, that life is just an intolerable burden they have to get rid of.

Jenny and I had a friend who was diagnosed schizophrenic for over 30 years. When we visited her she would put on a show of being cheerful and ebullient but sometimes the mask would slip and we would see just how unhappy she was underneath. Her future was obviously cruelly limited and stuck, and eventually she killed herself. Numerous people had tried to help her but her distress was too deep-rooted to be extinguished.

It's all too common to misinterpret severe despair or depression as "being a bit pissed off" or "being up against it" and not recognise the depth and breath of an overwhelming hopelessness. Even if you recognise it, the person may feel too ashamed or timid or paralysed to admit it.

Such suffocating and unyielding misery is all too understandable. The tragedy is that even if you understand, you may be powerless to put things right.

*This suicide note from Gillian Bennett, who was in the early stages of dementia, is astonishingly rational and clear-sighted. No way was "the balance of her mind disturbed", as the cliché has it.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014


It's a real double-think being in Berlin. As I strolled around the city, it looked much like any other comfort-able, prosperous city. People looked happy, stylishly dressed, well fed and watered, doing very nicely thank you.

It's only when we went to the historical museums and memorials that I was reminded abruptly of the horrifying events Berliners have had to endure in the not so distant past. It seemed like a parallel universe, another Berlin, a fanciful novel.

But it isn't. The Holocaust, the Berlin Wall, the Cold War. It all happened here and it was a terrifying contrast to the comfort and prosperity of today. Walking among all those contented people, it's hard to envisage all the wretched clusters of the Unwanted, dragged from their homes and bound for concentration camps. It's hard to envisage all the desperate East Berliners resorting to such extreme methods to escape to the West. And it's hard to imagine the anxiety of being so close to Soviet nuclear missiles.

For those Berliners of my generation, it must be a profound relief to finally be free of all that horror and mayhem and to enjoy a city that is once again at peace and tolerant of a wide range of religions, cultures, ethnicities and sexual tastes.

I have to say though that I was surprised at the lack of gay visibility. Although Berlin has a reputation as a gay Mecca, I saw very little sign of it. The Gay Holocaust Memorial is a pathetic nothing, just a concrete cube containing a video of gay men and women kissing. And in all my travels round the city, I saw only three gay couples openly holding hands, plus a gay men's art gallery and bookshop tucked away in the back streets of Charlottenburg, well away from the city centre. I got the distinct feeling that gays still leave a bad taste in many people's mouths and that discretion and secrecy are still the order of the day. Most disappointing.

But today's Berlin is a lovely city to visit - relaxed, civilised, reeking of good taste and sophistication. With fantastic views from the top of the Reichstag, now beautifully restored after the Nazis set fire to it in 1933. And behind the Reichstag, the sprawling parkland of the Tiergarten. What's not to like?

  • The Typography of Terror
  • The Holocaust Memorial
  • The Story of Berlin (museum)
  • The Berlin Wall Memorial
  • The Stasi Museum
  • The Käthe Kollwitz Museum
  • The Reichstag and Dome
Pic: The Berlin Wall Memorial. One of the remaining sections of the Wall.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014


Don't worry, Nick will be back in a few days.....

Friday, 8 August 2014

Beyond belief

I knew religious belief was common in the States, but I didn't realise it was so rife that atheists are routinely discrim-inated against. So much so that a lot of atheists don't even dare to reveal their non-belief and are forced to stay in the closet.

Atheists are often shunned by their parents and relatives, or showered with abuse, or ostracised by schoolmates. As they are only two per cent of US adults, the other 98 per cent know they can get away with such victimisation.

Now a lot of organisations are springing up to defend atheists and their right to opt out of religion. There's even a TV channel, Atheist TV. They encourage people to "come out" and say what they really think, so others can see just how many atheists there really are.

Religious belief is common in Northern Ireland too, but those who don't believe aren't continually persecuted and hounded and expected to share the same beliefs. In the 14 years I've lived in Northern Ireland, I can't recall a single person objecting to my atheism or expecting me to fall in with the majority.

Of course it might be they just assume I'm a believer; it simply never occurs to them that I'm not, as I never enlighten them. Unlike church-going folk, there's no visible sign of my non-belief, no atheist trappings or rituals.

So why isn't it the same in the States? Why can't they just live and let live? Why this frenzy to wipe out the non-believers, all two per cent of them? Why do they feel so threatened by difference?

As I've said before, I see religion as something private and personal, a sort of self-help programme people use to improve their lives. It has nothing to do with other people unless they freely show an interest in it.

Why is it such a sin to opt out of something?

Monday, 4 August 2014

Short of chums

It's curious how some people have a natural talent for friendship, making friends effortlessly wherever they go, while others just never get the hang of it and potential friends come and go like ships in the night.

Being one of the latter, I'm always bemused by the friend-makers. I study them carefully, trying to work out what they're doing right and what I'm doing wrong, but I'm none the wiser. They just have an instinctive way of connecting with others that I seem to have been born without.

There's been no shortage of possible friends-to-be, people who on first encounter I seem to hit it off with. But after a few promising chats, the initial spark flickers out and it goes no further. If a friendship lasts six months, it's a miracle. Is it their fault? Is it my fault? Who can say?

It still bothers me that I'm so crap at making friends*. In a society where virtually everyone seems to have an impressive retinue of devoted buddies, my visible lack of them is embarrassing. I could of course fake a gang of bosom pals I'm gossiping away with every night of the week, but I don't think I could keep up the pretence for long. Why would I want to anyway?

I can tell myself a lack of friends has its advantages. Plenty of peace and quiet. Nobody ringing me in a state of hysterical despair at 2 am. Not having to sympathise with some course of action I secretly find idiotic. Not being expected to explain every domestic row to a dozen people.

But it's not very convincing. The fact is I'd quite like to soothe someone's hysterical despair or share my latest marital upset. I'd quite like to be that close to someone. It's not going to happen though.

"There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate" - Linda Grayson.

*With the notable exception of my long-time partner, of course.