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

Childless

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

Berlin

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?

Recommended:
  • 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

Intermission

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.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Eat and be damned

Apparently it's quite routine for women's eating habits to be casually criticised by passing men - often complete strangers. Everyday Sexism gives numerous examples of women being told they should eat less, or eat more, or keep away from chips or ice cream, or watch their figures.

If it's not the choice of food that gets criticised, it's the way they're eating it. They're stuffing themselves, they're shamelessly gorging. They can't control their appetites.

A surprising number of men believe that what a woman is eating is yet another thing men have a right to comment on and control. It's just another way of making a woman feel inadequate and belittled.

It's bad enough that women often feel guilty about what they're eating in the first place. Blatant criticism by random strangers is the last thing they need. Yet how do they avoid it if they're obliged to eat in public?

How ironic that so many men feel entitled to eat and drink anything they like, at the cost of pot bellies and acres of flab, while at the same time ticking off women for every suspect mouthful. Of course they're well aware of the contradiction, but see nothing wrong with making a woman squirm.

Do they think women welcome this gratuitous advice? Do they think it's just amusing banter? Do they think it's their job to discipline careless females? Or are they just common-or-garden bullies?

It's encouraging that some women aren't intimidated and give as good as they get. This is Lindsay on Everyday Sexism: "Bloke: I find women who drink pints unattractive. Me: Great, I don't want to attract you. *buys another pint* "

I like her attitude.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

One night stands

So is the one night stand a good thing or a bad thing? Is it to be avoided at all costs or is it exciting and rejuv-enating? And what if you're already involved with someone but you're tempted by a bit on the side?

Caroline Kent in the Telegraph is all in favour of the ONS, at least if you're in between partners and it's an easy way of satisfying your raging libido. If you're feeling lonely and depressed, she says, "sometimes you just need to get the sad shagged out of you." Even her friends' warnings that she might be bedding a serial killer doesn't put her off.

When I was young the idea of a one night stand was universally condemned by polite society. Such reckless promiscuity was shameful. Sex was only allowable once you had fallen in love and got married. If it turned out you had no sexual experience and hadn't a clue what you were doing, too bad.

Naturally most people took no notice and had one night stands anyway. They kept quiet about them, pretended they were wide-eyed virgins and hoped there would be no sudden pregnancy to give them away.

If you're feeling horny, says Caroline, why not act on it? The only alternative is to sit around feeling sorry for yourself, cram your life with so many activities you forget about sex, or rely on a bit of DIY.

It's hard to find anyone these days who objects to casual sex, apart from religious hardliners. Where's the harm? You might find yourself with some rather odd characters, but it's better than enduring hermit-like celibacy.

Of course one night stands when you're already partnered are a different matter, and a lot more controversial. Some individuals turn a blind eye and aren't especially bothered. They don't see it as a threat or a betrayal or an insult, just as a natural desire for a bit of novelty and variety.

Others find such philandering deeply hurtful and humiliating, an implied criticism of their own inadequacy and undesirability, a desperate wish to find someone, anyone, who will be more satisfying.

As I've said before, I've never been tempted into any extra-marital shenanigans. I don't feel the need and I've never been that besotted with anyone. As for other people's behaviour, that's a matter for them. Judge not that ye be not judged.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Sometimes

Sometimes I feel as fragile as a soft-boiled egg.
Sometimes I feel as tough as old boots.
Sometimes I want to roll on the lawn like a puppy.
Sometimes I want to be as still as a statue.
Sometimes I want to talk complete gibberish and spout imaginary languages and laugh like an idiot and pull ridiculous faces.
Sometimes I want to hide behind a tree.
Sometimes I want to stick out like a sore thumb.
Sometimes I want to turn cartwheels on the beach.
Sometimes I want to be invisible.
Sometimes my brain is like sludge and I'm not at all sure who I am or what I'm doing or why I'm thinking of tractors or how I managed to cut my left thumb.
Sometimes it's all too much and I just want to crawl into a hole and die.
Sometimes I'm so happy I could just float away and I want the moment to go on forever.
Sometimes I feel like a bowl of custard.
Sometimes I feel like a turnip.
Sometimes I feel inside out and upside down.
Sometimes I feel I'm the wrong way round.
Sometimes I'm waiting for the punchline.
Sometimes I'm waiting for the trick question.
Sometimes I feel like a fish out of water.
Sometimes I feel like pie in the sky.
And sometimes there's a knock at the door and it's the Jehovah's Witnesses and they ask me if I'd like a copy of the Watchtower and I say no thanks I belong to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and they blink uncertainly like lost kittens and I tell them I can smell something burning and I close the door.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

All too much

You would think this painting is pretty unremarkable compared to the way women are now routinely depicted in the news media, art galleries, films and advertising. A bit of bare flesh, a bit of cleavage, not much clothing.

But it was all too much for the sheltered folk at the Mall Galleries in London, who took one look at it and decided it was "disgusting" and "pornographic". They removed it from the Society of Women Artists' Annual Exhibition and replaced it with something they thought was more suitable.

They explained that they had had a number of complaints and children who happened to be walking through the gallery on the way to other events might be disturbed by it.

Disturbed by what exactly? The modest patch of pubic hair? The partially-uncovered breasts? The unbuttoned culottes? The self-confident swagger? Is it in any way threatening or violent or deformed or sinister? Why would any child pay any particular attention to it, let alone be disturbed by it?

The artist, Leena McCall, was furious at the removal of the portrait. She said she was baffled as to how a painting with no intimate flesh apart from "the pelvic triangle" could be seen as pornographic.

Art galleries everywhere have copious nude portraits and sculptures of both sexes that attract no complaints whatever. Why the strange over-reaction to this slightly unusual painting?

The journalist Rowan Pelling suggests it's because the subject is not the normal passive, unassuming female but looks assertive and appraising - provocative even.

And she wonders "if the cross-legged Puritans responsible for defenestrating the portrait have ever seen Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde at the Musée d'Orsay, with its splendid sprawl of black-haired vulva." A painting which leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

All a bit of a whipped-up storm in a teacup, surely?

Pic: Ms Ruby May, Standing by Leena McCall

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Hard work

It's a well-worn cliché that only hard work will get you what you want in life. But it's also a load of bollocks. Hard work might get results, or it might get you precisely nothing.

There are plenty of people out there sweating away day after day with little to show for it. All the money's going to their bosses or their landlord or their season ticket and they struggle to make any real improvements in their life.

Other people lie on their yachts all day and do nothing but watch the money pour in from their various investments and property empires. Their only hard work is tying their shoelaces.

I must admit I've done very little hard work in my life. I've been lucky enough to have fairly leisurely jobs with plenty of time for chatting and fooling around. The only serious exertion was the start of the academic year at a university bookshop, humping hundreds of weighty textbooks into the shop and trying to keep up with the deluge of impatient students and their voluminous booklists (that was in the pre-internet, pre-Wikipedia days of course). It was pure bedlam.

What wealth and comfort I've acquired has been almost entirely through luck rather than hard work. Constantly rising property prices, especially in London, and an unexpected windfall from my mum. Or to put it another way, being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people.

I suppose you could also say I haven't squandered all my money on drink or drugs or gambling or hookers. If you have any kind of expensive addiction, then any amount of hard work, however well it's paid, won't bear much fruit.

I was reading only today that the average income for a writer is now about £11,000 a year. You can sit in front of your pc for decades, laboriously cranking out page after page of hard-won creativity, and have only a massive overdraft as your reward.

Listening to all these millionaire government ministers urging us all to solve our problems by working a bit harder is pretty sickening. I'd like to see them scrubbing a few floors on their hands and knees. That'll be the day.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The inner monster

It's fascinating (and shocking) when the parents of someone who's gone on a killing spree or some sort of horrific rampage say they had no idea their child was capable of such a thing, that he or she had always seemed like a decent, civilised person who would never hurt anyone.

This is what Peter Rodger says about his son Elliot, who killed six people in California and then killed himself. He says that his son's actions have haunted him day and night, that he never saw it coming and that he always thought his son couldn't harm a flea.

Every morning he wakes up to the fact that his son was a mass murderer and that on the inside he was very different from how he seemed on the outside. Clearly he's having a very hard time trying to come to terms with it.

How can someone not even have the smallest suspicion that their child has disturbing anti-social tendencies that need to be urgently addressed? How can their child hide these tendencies so successfully, so cunningly, that nobody suspects a thing? It's extraordinary.

On the one hand parents say they know their children so well they can be pretty certain of their thoughts or feelings on just about anything, and there are few surprises. They say they would notice straightaway if something worrying was going on.

On the other hand parents complain that once their children become teenagers they're more secretive, keep a lot of things to themselves and are often totally unfathomable. They develop a hidden, private identity their parents have little knowledge of.

I have no personal experience to offer as I don't have children. All I can say is that it must be unimaginably painful to know your child has done something so heinous and caused so much suffering and heartbreak to so many other people. And if they're also dead, you can't even ask them to explain. It's just a bottomless mystery you will never ever solve. A mystery that will probably haunt you till the day you die, and even make you question your decision to have a child. Peter Rodger's life will never be the same again.

Pic: Peter Rodger and Richard Martinez, father of victim Christopher Martinez

Sunday, 22 June 2014

British values

There's a big debate going on over the meaning of the term "British values". Should immigrants have to convince us they've adopted British values? Suppose they fail the test? And what on earth are British values anyway?

After following the debate closely, I have to say I'm not sure I'd pass the test myself, despite having lived in Britain for 67 years. If I had to prove my British credentials, I'd probably end up being deported.

When I look at all the things that are typically British, I find most of them so obnoxious I'd rather not be described as British at all. The word starts to give off a rather unpleasant stench.

Just a few of the British phenomena I'd rather not be associated with:

1) Pot noodle
2) Instant coffee
3) Football
4) Binge-drinking
5) Racism, homophobia and misogyny
6) Tuition fees
7) Greedy landlords
8) Attacks on welfare "scroungers"
9) Trolling
10) The war on drugs
11) Warmongering
12) The Royal Family

Most of the things I enjoy aren't typically British but a feature of societies all over the world, from Brooklyn to Brisbane. Like art, films, music, books, intelligent conversation, friendship, good food, good wine, sex, hill-walking and beautiful landscapes. Not to mention those essential human qualities of love, compassion, open-mindedness and curiosity.

Isn't the term "British values" just a sign of blinkered insularity, of a refusal to admit that other countries' values might be just as admirable as our own, maybe more so? Why be so dismissive of French values or German values? Might there be something to learn from people outside our own borders?

Personally I'd steer well clear of anyone who's passionate about British values. How about human values? How about just treating each other decently?

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Dashed hopes


People like to trumpet their successes, but they tend to keep their disappointments to themselves. Which gives a very false impression of effortlessly capable individuals who never put a foot wrong. Well, except for those misery memoirs where every possible indignity and trauma is given an airing, as that sells much better than a happy upbringing in staid suburbia.

So anyway, in the interests of balance and an accurate portrayal of my chequered life, here are a few of the most memorable disappointments.

(1) Six and a half years in a spartan, freezing bedsit in an inner London borough, owned by a slum landlord who never did any maintenance and let the rising damp creep up the building.
(2) Being far too staid and suburban to become a wild, drug-addled, out-of-control rock star, and settling for the more sedate occupation of bookselling.
(3) Various sexual let-downs with various attractive but incompatible women, which had the fortunate effect later on of steering me away from extra-marital flings.
(4) Not being born in Australia and spending my life in the sodden, chilly, gloomy British Isles, trying desperately to keep warm for six months of every year.
(5) Not travelling more when I was younger. I should have done the classic round-the-world backpacking thing but I was too unadventurous and unresourceful to do so.
(6) Discovering I wasn't a natural writer and I was never going to rattle off that stunning, award-winning literary novel I'd fantasised about for most of my childhood.

So there you are - the secret lows of Nick's existence. I could mention a few more but enough is enough. I don't want to detract too much from my carefully polished image as a debonair city-slicker. I have my pride, you know.