Monday, 27 July 2015

Moral panic

The media have ruthlessly ganged up on the hapless Lord Sewel for snorting coke and using prostitutes*, as if this is the most outrageous behaviour ever and he should obviously be hung, drawn and quartered and buried in an unmarked grave.

The stink of hypocrisy hangs over this weird vendetta. Since plenty of his fellow peers and MPs must have taken illegal drugs of some kind, or cheated on their womenfolk by visiting prostitutes or having affairs (or both), the singling out of one politician unlucky enough to be spied upon by the Sun surely deserves sympathy rather than vilification.

What's really outrageous is a newspaper secretly filming Lord Sewel in his own flat, doing things he assumed were entirely private, and then publishing what they had filmed with the quite deliberate and cynical aim of wrecking his political career.

What's equally outrageous is that his colleagues, rather than commiserating with him, condemning the sleazy tactics of journalists, and pointing out that what he does in his own flat is his own business and nobody else's, have castigated him for his "shocking", "unacceptable" and "disgraceful" behaviour and agreed with the media that his political career is over.

Why taking coke and using prostitutes (in his own home) should make him no longer fit to do his public job of overseeing the work of House of Lords committees is anyone's guess. As far as I know, nobody has ever suggested he's falling down on the job or was too strung out to grasp a piece of legislation.

The simple fact is that if the Sun hadn't intruded on his private life, he would still be happily doing the job he was asked to do, and his political competence would never have been questioned.

Don't get me wrong. I have no time for men who use prostitutes. It's an activity that does huge psychological and emotional damage to the women who're lured into it, and the pathetic creeps who keep it going should know better.

And goodness knows what his wife Jennifer makes of it all.

But the media have no right to splash Lord Sewel's private activities across front pages unless they're of genuine public concern - which in this case they blatantly aren't. It's a classic knee-jerk moral panic over something quite piffling.

* allegedly

Friday, 24 July 2015

Baseless rumours

For some years now the media have been suggesting that the supermodel Veronica Trinket and myself are an item. I keep denying this baseless rumour but they still spread it at every opportunity. Even stern legal warnings from Sue, Grabbit and Runne don't deter them.

Anyone with half a brain can see how absurd this idea is. Firstly, I'm very happily married to a red-hot spouse. Secondly, what on earth would a twenty something supermodel see in a crumbling oldie like myself? Thirdly, I suspect there's no such person as Veronica Trinket but the media haven't even bothered to check.

The willowy young blonde who frequently visits me while my partner is away from home is certainly not this Trinket person. She is simply the landscape gardener who tends to the shrubs and young trees when they need some attention. On occasion I offer her a cup of tea or a chocolate biscuit, but absolutely nothing else is offered or asked for. It's true that she bears a slight resemblance to Ms Trinket but that's obviously a mere visual coincidence.

The grainy photos of a smiling young girl, strongly implied to be the secret love-child of our clandestine relationship, are plainly faked by some enterprising newshound whose journalistic career is faltering. The missing left ear and the toeless right foot clearly suggest some rather clumsy fabrication.

As for those doddery old gits who stop me in the street and ask me what my secret is and how they can "grab a bit of the girlie action", I shoo them away with a contemptuous snort. All I'm grabbing at my age is blood pressure pills and reading glasses. They shouldn't believe everything they hear.

Pic: an alleged photo of the alleged Veronica Trinket

Friday, 17 July 2015

Shut up and kiss me

I was surprised to hear that kissing isn't nearly as universal as I thought. It's far from being the normal way of showing your affection for someone. In large swathes of the world, it's considered abnormal or even unpleasant.

A study of 168 cultures around the world shows that in only 46 per cent of them do couples kiss romantically, despite previous research that claimed kissing was habitual everywhere. Even in Europe there were several cultures where kissing was unusual.

I must say that if I lived in one of the non-kissing cultures, I would feel seriously deprived. I adore kissing and do it as often as possible. Women or men, it makes no difference, it's just as exciting. It's such a wonderfully sensual and intimate experience. There's nothing like it.

And how can people actually find it unpleasant? Is it the moistness? The mingling of oral fluids? The exchange of micro-organisms? The physical closeness? The risk of catching something?

Some people just object to public displays of affection full stop. They find them unnecessary or distasteful or narcissistic. They believe such effusive gestures should be kept private, and preferably kept in the bedroom.

Personally I enjoy seeing couples romantically entwined, freely showing their love and tenderness for each other. It's an uplifting sight in a world where many people feel alone and neglected.

Of course most British males still recoil from kissing each other, for fear of being thought effeminate or, shudder shudder, homosexual - or just plain weird. They still prefer a handshake or a playful slap on the shoulder to anything more pleasurable. The need to be "masculine" lingers on.

Come on, give us a kiss, mister. You might even like it.

"Shut up and kiss me" - a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Not so golden

I'm not a nostalgic person. I don't yearn for some long-gone period of my life that seemed more enjoyable and idyllic than the one I'm in now.

Whatever chunk of my life I look back on, I'm very aware that it had its boring, miserable and frustrating bits as well as the rewarding bits.

I certainly don't pine for the "Swinging Sixties" as some people do. Yes, it was a time of creative ferment and the loosening of stuffy conventions, but it also saw a lot of men exploiting women in the name of "sexual liberation" and a lot of people wrecking themselves with relentless drug consumption.

I don't pine for some supposed golden age of daily life before we were swamped by the trivial and venomous outpourings of social media. It wasn't much fun trudging to the public phone box in the pouring rain, or trudging to the library to check on some disputed fact. Thank heaven for mobiles and Google.

Neither do I have nostalgia for some blissful, happy-go-lucky childhood. As you all know, my childhood was a tale of bullying and emotional violence along with the magical seaside holidays and Sunday picnics. No way would I want to go through all that again.

I think the nearest I get to nostalgia is looking back fondly to the Harold Wilson era when the welfare state and public services were cherished, money and profit weren't the be-all and end-all, there was more respect for the old and vulnerable, and the young had a much easier start in life. But even that era had its downside - homophobia was still rife, sexual norms were still very straitlaced, society was still very authoritarian in many ways.

Nostalgia's not my thing. I must have left my rose-tinted spectacles on the bus.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Needy or what?

When does needy become over-needy? When does wanting emotional support become demanding and dependent?

It's easy to start relying on other people a bit too much, especially if sympathy comes naturally to them and they're reluctant to push people away when they're looking for help.

It's easy to think it's impossible to get through something on your own, that you just don't have the resources, and tempting to simply act helpless and wait for someone to give you a leg-up.

I hope I'm not over-needy myself. I do try to get through personal crises on my own without leaning too much on other people. I'm not one to rush for a shoulder to cry on or a soothing voice to tell me everything's going to be okay.

If anything, I'm probably not needy enough. I was brought up with the attitude that boys don't act fragile and vulnerable, they tough it out and fake gritty resilience even if they're secretly a barely functioning emotional wreck.

The fact is that we can't always deal with things on our own and even the strongest person may need a helping hand when everything's going pear-shaped.

But we probably all know someone who homes in on sympathy and wants more and more attention and support, until the friendly ear turns into growing impatience and wary avoidance.

Luckily I have a long-standing partner who by now is very attuned to my emotional state and knows when I need an "agony aunt" and when I need to work through something on my own. If she thinks I'm being over-needy, she won't hesitate to tell me. I'm not allowed to play the snivelling bag of nerves for too long.

Which is all to the good. I'd hate to be thought of as an emotional leech.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Spilling the beans

Therapist-cum-life-coach Tori Ufondu only works with men - because they're often reluctant to open up about themselves and it's more challenging to break down their inhibitions. She finds working with women less rewarding because "sessions with women feel more like talking to my girlfriends".

Interesting that she still finds men more tight-lipped and defensive, when there's a general impression that men are getting more open and happy to talk about what's going on inside. Personally I find the men I come across just as unforthcoming as ever and not at all good at spilling the personal stuff.

Tori finds that once she's helped a guy to open up, he reveals all sorts of hang-ups he's never been fully aware of, let alone shared with other guys (or women).

Like difficulties getting on with workmates, or being a slave to other people's expectations, or fear of failure, or sexual frustration, or not recognising his partner's changing identity. Big issues that are seriously affecting his life.

Clearly men's inability to share what's troubling them is doing harm. Seventy eight per cent of all UK suicides are male. A lot of those men must have been bottling up distressing thoughts and feelings that other people could have helped with.

I'm not brilliant at pouring out the personal stuff myself. I'm much more open than when I was young but it still doesn't come naturally. I still have to drive away those masculine inhibitions about "keeping it all to yourself" that were drummed into me as a boy.

But as my regulars know, over the years I've identified all sorts of personal quirks and phobias and anxieties and prejudices I used to be oblivious of, and my self-awareness has expanded dramatically.

I'm sure some of you will promptly tell me that my self-awareness is far from complete and remind me of numerous negative traits that annoy the hell out of you and are shamefully misanthropic. But I'm getting there.

However embarrassing or agonising it may be to spill the beans, letting it all fester and coagulate inside is asking for trouble.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The enigma of maturity

A theme I come back to over and over is maturity. What is maturity exactly? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Should we strive to be mature or not give a shit and just be ourselves?

If it means behaving responsibly, considering other people's needs, being as kind and generous as possible, not leaning on others, not picking fights or tearing people to pieces, then I'd go along with all that.

If it means constantly restraining yourself, giving things up or toning things down, not being too gushing or flamboyant, always being polite and inoffensive, doing what other people expect you to do, suppressing your natural tastes and responses, then phooey to all that, that's just crushing your real self in the name of social acceptance.

Oldies in particular are supposed to act in a mature way and not like reckless, hedonistic youngsters. We're supposed to "act our age", dress blandly and sedately, never rant or rave, never do anything alarming or unexpected, never inconvenience anybody, and generally try to fade into the background.

Well, phooey to all that as well. If I want to rant and rave, or dress in bright pink and purple, or do something that embarrasses all and sundry, I shall do so. I'm certainly not going to shut myself down because somebody or other thinks that's age-appropriate.

But I think most of us, however long we've lived, struggle to be mature in any sense at all. We act responsibly or considerately if we feel the need, and other people are demanding it, but the rest of the time it all goes pear-shaped and we're just blindly following our impulses and our engrained bad habits.

From time to time we do something quite shocking and disgraceful, and then we think "Jeez, that was childish. I really should behave like a mature adult". And 24 hours later we do something equally shocking and disgraceful.

Maturity? A concept that's as slippery as an eel.

"Maturity is a high price to pay for growing up" - Tom Stoppard

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Safe and sound

I really take for granted that as a British citizen, as a man, and as a white person, I can generally feel safe and unlikely to be attacked or discriminated against.

Apart from my childhood, which you've all heard about ad nauseam, I've been privileged compared to millions of people across the world who live in constant fear and insecurity, always about to be humiliated or victimised, about to lose their home or their job, or die in some incomprehensible war or religious crackdown.

I can go about my daily life with confidence and optimism, sure that on the whole I'll achieve what I want to achieve, that people will treat me fairly, that I'll be given respect and consideration.

I'm not going to be harassed and insulted by the opposite sex, I'm not going to be stopped for driving while black, I haven't been forced into the exhausting, badly-paid jobs that are reserved for immigrants. I won't be kicked around and exploited because my social status is zero.

When I stop to think about it, I count my blessings that I was born where I was, in the sex and skin that I was, into the family I was, into the neighbourhood I was, and not into totally different circumstances that would have doomed me to a hard, miserable, frantic existence.

I suppose what reminded me of all that is the way immigrants are being treated both in Britain and across the world. The desperation of all those wretched mobs at Calais. The asylum seekers treated with such contempt and cruelty by the Australian government. The torrent of refugees from the bedlam in the Middle East.

I can imagine only too well what they must be feeling, what they must be going through. It's a million miles from my own cushy experience.

I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I was certainly dealt a good hand of cards.

Pic: The Turkish Coast Guard stops a boatload of migrants trying to reach Greece.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Star-struck

I'm far too easily intimidated. There are so many things that instantly demolish my fragile self-confidence. Like people who're wealthy/ hyper intelligent/ posh/ famous/ naturally chatty/ beautiful.

Why oh why, you might ask. Why do all these things matter so much to you? Just be yourself and people will like you or not like you and that's it. And it won't matter a damn if they're wealthy or posh or whatever.

Easy to say but not so easy to do. And don't tell me you never feel the same way yourself. Don't tell me you're never unravelled by someone whose talents and abilities make you feel like the village idiot. Someone who makes you wish the ground would swallow you up.

I mean, most people are thrown by celebs. Someone meets their revered actor or footballer or guru and what happens? They're struck dumb. They've no idea what to say. They're paralysed by the aura that surrounds this household name. And they stand there, their mouth opening and shutting like a goldfish, and then the star moves on and they're kicking themselves for being so gormless.

If I ever came face to face with (say) Sarah Silverman, the conversation would probably go something like this:

Me: Wow, you're Sarah Silverman.
SS: That's correct. Well spotted.
Me: Wow, I just have to say, your stuff is brilliant. Totally brilliant. Really, it's so fucking brilliant. And did I say it was brilliant?
SS: Thank you so much. Now if you'll excuse me....
Me (mouth opening and shutting like a goldfish): Of course. Oh my God - Sarah Silverman. Jeez.

So don't anyone try and tell me you had this witty, scintillating, 30-minute convo with (say) Tina Fey. I won't believe you. I won't.

Admit it. You would be intimidated. You would feel like the village idiot. You would want the ground to swallow you up.

The trouble is, it never does.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Cold feet

It seems that a surprising number of those about to marry already doubt that the relationship will last. And quite a few of them consider leaving their spouse-to-be at the ceremony. But for one reason or another they go through with it - often only to confirm their original doubts and get divorced.

A survey of 1,600 divorcees found that 49 per cent were worried on their wedding day that the marriage was a big mistake, and two thirds thought about calling it off.

So why did they squash their doubts and carry on anyway? They thought their partner would change for the better. They thought "it would all work out". They were too embarrassed. They felt guilty letting their partner down. They succumbed to family pressure. Or they thought it was just "wedding nerves".

One woman who explains her numerous doubts says she only realised how empty her marriage was when a workmate got engaged and she burst into tears.

I wonder how many of the divorcees cohabited before they married. It seems to me that a period of cohabiting will make it very clear whether you're suited to each other and likely to stay together or whether it's just not going to work.

Jenny and I cohabited for 14 years before we married, and by then were confident we would stay together. Even though the marriage was basically for financial reasons (I would only inherit her occupational pension if I was a spouse), we had no doubts whatever as we did the necessary at the local register office.

But I can understand those with cold feet not having the nerve to stand up and say "No, I just can't do it". Especially if it's a mega-bucks white wedding with all the trimmings. Disappointing hundreds of people and throwing all that cash down the drain. Looking like a complete idiot for going along with huge preparations.

Who wants to be a party-pooper?

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Out of context

It's very odd when a judge excuses physical violence towards a child on the grounds that "cultural context" should be considered and many newcomers to Britain punish their children by hitting them.

There seems to be a growing trend for certain groups to insist that the law should adapt to their particular beliefs or practices, rather than the law being applied to everyone on the same basis.

There are demands for sharia law, or religious strictures about homosexuality, or FGM, or even honour killings, to be legally acceptable on the grounds of personal conscience or social tradition or whatever, as if people are entitled to modify the law to suit their own purposes.

High Court Judge Mrs Justice Pauffley (pictured), ruling on a case where a boy had been repeatedly hit by his Indian father, said allowance must be made for the family coming from another culture.

Many communities newly arrived in Britain slapped and hit their children for misbehaviour, and the "cultural context" should be considered, she said.

Needless to say, child protection experts were astonished by her remarks, saying that culture is irrelevant to child abuse and every child has the right to be safe and protected from violence.

Of course they're absolutely correct. If certain groups are allowed to be exempt from the laws the rest of us have to follow, solely on the grounds of their deeply-held beliefs, the law would soon lose all credibility and respect. It would become just something to be fiddled or finessed. And once again the lawyers would have a field day.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Give and take

What's the formula for an enduring relation-ship? How come Jenny and I have stuck together for 34 years and not 34 days? What's the glue that keeps it all going? Well, I can think of one or two things.

1) Respect the need for privacy. If the other person prefers to dress/undress in private, or use the bathroom in private, or just be on their own for a while, why not? Total sharing at all times doesn't suit everyone.

2) Accept those idiosyncracies. We all have odd obsessions and habits - hoovering every ten minutes, or scraping out the marmalade jar, or leaving dirty clothes everywhere - and there's no point in trying to change them. That's how we are.

3) Sharing the domestic chores. If one person is doing the lion's share of the chores, and feeling increasingly resentful, it's a recipe for disaster. It has to be even stevens.

4) Maintain the romance. If all the romance has gone out of the relationship, it's dead in the water. There have to be things that keep you a bit starry eyed, a bit soppy, and hopelessly enamoured.

5) Mutual self-expression. It's all a charade if one person is totally doing their thing, while the other is permanently suppressing themself and being what the other wants them to be. You both need to grow.

6) Shared perspectives. Seeing everyday issues in a similar way is important. How clean you expect the house to be, what to spend your money on, how much socialising you like to do. Total incompatibilities can be fatal.

7) Loving each other's bodies. Even as we get older, and wrinklier, and saggier, we still love what we see. We don't hanker after something younger and fresher. Whatever we look like, it's just fine.

8) Communication.* Whatever's going on inside, let the other person know. Too much secrecy and holding-back, too much image-control, will strangle the relationship.

Or to put all that in a nutshell - plenty of give and take. Oh, and plenty of sweet nothings.

* This one thanks to Dave Martin (see comments)

Monday, 1 June 2015

Parlez-vous Brit?

How often do you hear us Brits saying that we're embarr-assed by our ignorance of other languages? Over and over again. And how often do schools and politicians announce plans to improve language skills? Virtually never. Will we ever be a nation of multi-linguists?

There's still a general belief that there's no need to learn other languages because, after all, English is spoken so widely that wherever we go we can usually get by with our mother tongue. Why go to all that effort to learn another language that we probably won't speak very well anyway?

People from other countries, who often speak several languages fluently, are commonly astonished at the British inability to do the same. For one thing, their linguistic versatility makes them more employable while our ignorance makes us less so. And they can readily move to another country in search of a better job or lifestyle.

But language-learning is getting a lower and lower priority in British schools. It's not seen as an essential skill but as something fairly unimportant. And as far as I know, bilingual schools, where pupils have to speak a foreign language while they're in school, don't exist at all.

The language teaching was so bad at my teenage boarding school that after ten years of French lessons (I started at age eight), I failed my French A Level. It was only many years later, after a holiday in Italy, that I got the urge to learn Italian and now know the language quite well. I'm nowhere near fluent though.

I've met quite a few people from abroad who speak several languages perfectly and it pains me that their schools are so much better at the job than ours - contrary to our politicians' claims about the excellence of British schooling.

I would love to go to Italy or Spain or Germany and do the locals the courtesy of conversing in their own language fluently and adeptly, without expecting them to have learnt mine. But that's not going to happen any time soon.

É una situazione molto ridicola, molto assurda.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The curse

I find it extraordinary in this day and age that there are still so many taboos about menstruation. It's just a natural bodily function - so why all the embarrassment and squeamishness?

Women still feel obliged not to mention their periods, in some cases not even to their family or close friends. They have to hide tampons and pant-liners from work colleagues or acquaintances. Any visible sign such as blood on clothing is seen as utterly mortifying. The whole messy business has to be strictly hush-hush, as if it's something to be deeply ashamed of.

Even adverts have to be coy and euphemistic. Blood isn't red, it's blue. Periods are "the time of the month", while menstrual products become "feminine hygiene". In films and books, periods are seldom discussed - people don't want to know about about "that sort of thing".

Religions of course are even more censorious and puritanical. Menstruating women are seen as unclean and impure. They may be forbidden to pray or perform religious rituals. They may be excluded from normal daily life. They may have to refrain from sex. Otherwise they'll contaminate everyone around them.

Sometimes in the supermarket queue, I see women carefully shielding their tampon packets from view. Heaven forbid that a man might be alerted to their disgusting monthly leakage.

And from what I can gather, many men are still too sheepish to buy their girlfriend's tampons. They imagine the cashier will have them down as a screaming weirdo rather than a helpful, considerate bloke.

It's not just painful periods that are "the curse". It's all the prudishness and revulsion that turn them into something hideous.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Blind spot

When we don't understand someone's attitudes or behaviour, when they're outside our normal experience, what do we do? Do we ask them a few questions, try to understand how they see things? Or do we just lash out at them through fear of the unknown?

Personally I try to understand. If there's something about a person that makes no sense to me, I don't just hurl abuse at them or tell them they're crazy. I try to get under their skin and see things from their point of view.

If I still can't understand, I don't see it as their problem, but mine. I probably lack the insight, or empathy, or openness, to appreciate what's going through their mind. My own blinkered attitudes are maybe preventing me from understanding.

But many people's reaction to such bafflement is to go on the attack. To try and obliterate what they don't comprehend, push it away, get rid of it. And the level of abuse can be extraordinary, utterly extreme.

A friend of mine, who I've always seen as enviably liberal, open-minded, compassionate, turns out to have a surprising streak of prejudice.

Although in general she's very progressive about sexuality and sexual preference, and totally supports gay equality, when it comes to transgender men and women, she's relentlessly hostile. She absolutely doesn't get it, and doesn't want to.

Clearly a fan of Germaine Greer on this particular subject, she regards everyone transgender as self-deluded and perverse. She finds numerous ways of belittling and discrediting them - they're trapped in gender roles, they just want to dress up, there's no such thing as "feeling female" or "feeling male", they want to be castrated, they're attention-seekers. And so on.

Does she want to understand? Does she want to know their side of the story? Does she try to put herself in their shoes? No, no and no. She has her own reality-free interpretation of their behaviour, and she pursues it regardless.

I find her prejudice horrifying, shocking, perplexing, repugnant. I told her I couldn't agree with anything she said, but it had no effect. She's totally unaware of her blind spot and can't see past it. It's an odd and uncharacteristic quirk.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Unforgettable girls

The confusion over Cate Blanchett's "relation-ships" is a reminder that platonic friendships can be just as intense and rewarding as sexual couplings, even though the latter are usually seen as the real deal.

Many women say they've had female friendships just as important to them as sexual relationships - emotionally, mentally, and on every level - yet such friendships are often dismissed as trivial and superficial.

Journalist Daisy Buchanan writes "I barely remember the boys I went out with as a student, but the girls are unforgettable. They're the ones you'd have 72 hour 'dates' with and they're the times I feel nostalgia for.

"Modern female friendship - at least at the start - can be more like a love affair than an actual romance itself. Anxiety, jealousy, neediness; it's a lot like falling in love.

"It makes me wonder whether no relationship can be entirely platonic, and that you don't have to experience sexual feelings towards a person in order to feel romantic ones."

I'm not sure men could say the same about male friendships though. From what I know, they seldom have that intensity and richness. I've certainly never had a male friendship like that myself, either at school or in adult life.

As for sexual relationships being superior, quite often sex is the only thing that keeps them going, and the friendship aspect is minimal. Or conversely, there may be minimal sex and it's more like a tight and complex friendship.

But there's a general assumption that sex somehow enriches a relationship in a way that's lacking in an "ordinary" friendship. The logic is never quite explained but the cliché persists.

A curious cliché considering the high divorce rate and all the sexual relationships that collapse just as often as the platonic variety. Clearly they're going sour as much as they're being enriched.

Let's hear it for the infinite possibilities of friendship, in or out of bed.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Nooks and corners

I think it's about time I dredged up a few more random facts about myself. All those fascinating little quirks you're dying to hear about. All the obscure nooks and corners of my tangled personality.

1) I hate tomato ketchup, HP Sauce, mayonnaise and chutney. And most concocted sauces and condiments except for pesto, soy sauce and marmite.
2) Dogs are usually all over me, while cats tend to look wary and run away. But I like cats more than dogs.
3) I loathe boxer shorts, beards, comb-overs, hairy chests and crotch-hugging male cycle pants.
4) I never wear pyjamas - they're uncomfortable if I'm tossing and turning. I prefer nightshirts or sleeping naked.
5) I have virtually every birthday card Jenny has given me.
6) I never get jet lag, only tiredness after long journeys. I adjust very quickly to different time zones.
7) I can't sit for long on a stool, it gives me severe back ache.
8) I've worn glasses since I was 17, but I've never been called Four Eyes.
9) I've never had a nickname.
10) I've never heckled anyone.
11) My shoulder bag contains a filofax, a purse, a notebook, a Belfast streetfinder, an umbrella, some biros, door keys, car keys, an office key and some plastic bags.
12) I have some crooked teeth but I've never worn a brace.
13) I have a very poor sense of smell.
14) I love thunderstorms.
15) I'd absolutely hate to be bald.
16) I find shoelaces fiddly and annoying. Why not velcro?
17) I've never lost my voice.
18) I was once so drunk an entire evening was wiped from my memory. But I've only had four hangovers in my whole life.
19) I like watching gymnasts, but ballet leaves me cold.
20) I think kissing is way more fun than sex.

Pic: Melissa Ibbitson, from Lincoln, who is so addicted to tomato ketchup she gets through nearly 70 kilos a year.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Estranged

It must be really hard for a parent whose child develops views they simply can't understand or sympathise with, and who gradually severs all contact and wants nothing more to do with them.

Every parent must assume a life-long bond with their child, one that grows increasingly close and rewarding, and when instead that bond disintegrates, it must be immensely painful. Even more so if the child dies.

I thought of that when I was reading about Christianne Boudreau, the Canadian woman whose son Damian became a Muslim, joined Islamic State and died in Syria at the age of 22.

How does she come to terms with what became of him? How does she cope with such a profound loss?

One thing she does is to remember him as he used to be, before his conversion, before the estrangement. "To me he was a young man who was compassionate, caring, loving and protective. That was the boy I knew. I'll always remember him as that. Not for what everyone makes him out to be."

She also supports organisations that are working with families to stop a loved one embracing fundamentalism.

But it's a common dilemma for parents. I've read of wealthy couples whose child disowns them, scornful of their affluent lifestyles and shallow values. Or stiff and starchy, penny-pinching couples shunned by a child who prefers a more spontaneous, freewheeling way of life. Or a new step-parent rejected by a child who's loyal to their original parent and sees the newcomer as an unworthy chancer.

Once a gulf like that develops, it's very hard to bridge it again. Too often, both sides become set in their ways and the stand-off continues indefinitely. They say blood is thicker than water, but that's nonsense. Families can break as easily as friendships. And the fracture can cause unbelievable pain.

Pic: Christianne Boudreau

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Acting normal

We're all so good at acting normal, aren't we? I guess at least 50 per cent of the population are somehow screwed up but you wouldn't know it. We've all perfected the art of putting on an appropriate public persona and keeping whatever is festering away inside very carefully hidden.

Most of us have been messed-up by one unfortunate experience or another - drug abuse, alcoholism, violent partners, childhood bullying, workplace bullying, extreme mental health issues, stalking, strange obsessions and compulsions, you name it.

Yet to most people we seem quite mentally and emotionally healthy, going about our daily lives in an unassuming way, not showing any signs of inner turmoil or distress, apparently well able to cope with whatever life throws at us.

Only occasionally do we let slip some small clue, some oddity, that makes people wonder if we're as normal as we seem to be. Usually it's only our loved ones, or our closest friends, or a therapist, who are privy to some secret agony that's tearing us apart and which we're desperate to end.

Many of these hidden torments are things other people wouldn't understand or sympathise with. Or we're deeply embarrassed and ashamed of them. Or we don't want to expose how much pain and hurt they cause us. So we keep our lips sealed and deal with the anguish as best we can.

As you know, I have plenty of neuroses and hang-ups of my own. Some of them I've revealed but others I seldom confide to anyone. If people were more open-minded, more tolerant, more compassionate, I wouldn't need to be so secretive, but the fact is that prejudice and intolerance are widespread. Anyone revealing something a bit out of the ordinary can be vilified.

So like most people I'm adept at acting normal. Or so I believe. But more than likely my engrained eccentricities are all too obvious to everyone. Just don't probe them too deeply. There might be an alarming shriek of pain.

PS: After Ione Wells wrote about an experience of attempted rape, more than 50 people confessed on her website to similar experiences and said they were previously too afraid or ashamed to speak out. A number of students at her university confided similar experiences to her. And I bet that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Doubting donor

I have very mixed feelings about giving money to charity, and I know some of my blogmates are equally ambivalent.

On the one hand, I want to help people who've gone off the rails in one way or another - jobless, homeless, mentally or physically ill, victims of natural disasters and a hundred other desperate situations. I've had a lot of good luck in my life and I should help those who haven't been so lucky.

But then I read stories about charities that are badly run or waste money and I wonder if my donation will actually be put to good use. I hear about overpaid chief executives, expensive offices, or pointless projects, and I hesitate to hand over some of my hard-earned cash. I've worked for several charities myself, so I know that money isn't always best spent.

On top of that, I think of all the tax I pay to the government and ask why they can't look after people properly instead of expecting charities to fill all the gaps. Are my donations to charity merely encouraging that indifference?

If it's a cause dear to my heart, I'll brush away the doubts and give something anyway, just hoping the money (or the used books or used clothing) will end up helping someone in need.

Nowadays also there are so many charities fighting for attention, it's hard to decide which ones to respond to. New charities are popping up every minute. all making out that their particular cause is more urgent than anyone else's. They play on our emotions, on our sense of guilt and horror, and make us feel that ignoring them is an act of sheer heartlessness.

Who wouldn't want to help the victims of the Nepal earthquake, or a collapsed factory in Bangladesh, or a hurricane in Indonesia? Or for that matter all those in our own country who're sleeping rough or short of food or just finding life unbearable?

But I can't help everyone. Who do I care about the most? And will my donation be used wisely? I write my cheque and hope for the best.
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For those of you dying of curiosity about my three week absence, Jenny and I were in Washington DC and Chicago. Nothing much to blog about, but we had a fabulous time.