Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Name change

It's very strange that French courts can order parents to change their child's name if they think it could cause social embarr-assment - or as the law puts it "mockery or disobliging remarks".

Surely it's up to parents (or the child) to decide if a name might be a liability and drop it in favour of something less open to teasing. Why do the courts need to be involved in what's really just a matter of common sense?

French courts recently rejected the name Nutella, foreseeing silly references to the chocolate spread of the same name. They also rejected the name Fraise (Strawberry) as there are rude expressions that use the word - like "ramène ta fraise", meaning "get over here" or "butt in".

It seems that although the courts are able to ban a name, they only get involved if someone asks them to. Apparently the registrar who recorded Nutella's birth alerted the local prosecutor who called in a family court judge.

If the courts made a habit of judging people's names, they'd be at it all day every day. I'm not familiar with dodgy French names, but I can think of plenty of English names that could in theory be problems (though oddly enough in reality they may be no problem at all). And last names can be just as awkward as first names.

But names aren't set in stone. If a child gets ribbed over an unfortunate name, then all they need do is change it. If their parents won't let them, they can at least change it when they're older. My father's first name was Edward, but he hated it and always used his second name, Colin.

Who are the courts to decide what name is acceptable and what isn't? You and I might think that the names given to Bob Geldof's kids - Peaches, Pixie and Fifi Trixibelle - would invite endless ridicule, but as far I know they never tried to change them.

Likewise all the Smellies and Ramsbottoms of the world who don't feel the need to be something more prosaic but soldier on regardless.

I'm sure those judges have better things to do than to ban names that reflect popular sandwich fillings. Like dealing with criminals.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A faltering finale

A survey of people's biggest worries found that after number one (being overweight), the next two were getting old and their financial future.

I'm not surprised by those two. They're two of my worries as well, for the simple reason that I have no idea how long I'm going to live, no idea how much it'll cost me, and no idea if I'll run out of money. The future is largely unknowable and all sorts of unforeseen events could put a spanner in the works.

My worries also stem from the fact that we live in a very ageist society where vulnerable old people are often ignored or mistreated, and not given the help, support and respect they deserve after a lifetime of work, often in vital services like the NHS. I can't be confident that if I fall on hard times other people will come to my rescue and make sure I'm okay.

And I'm one of the more fortunate ones. I've benefited from a lifetime of rising property prices, I haven't had any children to pay for, I'm still fit enough to work, and I have no money-draining addictions.

Today's young people are in a much worse position when they contemplate the future. The state pension is being steadily eroded, but they have little money to put into a private pension. They have tuition fees to repay, they're stung for massive rents and mortgages, bringing up children is more and more costly (£230,000 a child at the last count), and wages are being ruthlessly slashed through zero-hour contracts, part-time work and a skinflint minimum wage.

Many young people can barely get through the week, let alone save anything. No wonder they often look totally blank when asked about pension plans.

Old age should be a a time of carefree enjoyment, not gnawing financial worries. Old age should be a joyous finale to a strenuous life.

Pic: Beatrix Ost, New York artist and writer

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Po-faced fanatics

The Charlie Hebdo massacre has prompted a lot of soul-searching and fierce debate about whether the magazine is right or wrong to poke fun at religion. Some people defend the magazine unconditionally while others say they are being deliberately provocative for no good reason.

It seems to me that Suzanne Moore in The Guardian makes the best point about the whole thing. "Why must I have respect for religions that have little respect for me?" she asks.

In her case she's talking about the widespread religious view that women are second-class citizens and should be treated as such. But of course many religions are equally intolerant of gays, transgender people, atheists, people with "inappropriate" clothing and appearance and so on.

Suzanne Moore goes on to say "Tolerance has to be reciprocal or it is not tolerance at all." Precisely. Tolerance can't be one-sided. If a religion wants to suppress what I do or believe, then why should I respect what they do or believe?

Of course there's a difference between not respecting repressive religions, but keeping that disrespect to yourself, and on the other hand publicly mocking and criticising those religions. Is public mockery acceptable or does it merely fan the flames of religious intolerance and make the situation worse?

I think people have to make up their own mind about that but personally I'm reluctant to mock another person's deeply held beliefs merely for the sake of it or merely to exercise my freedom of expression. I'm content for people to follow whatever beliefs they wish to, without comment, just as long as they're not attacking my own beliefs. In that case, they're fair game and I have every right to attack them back.

You could argue that Charlie Hebdo magazine went too far in deliberately lampooning a major religion. But then you could also argue that those who object, and those who think such disrespect deserves a bullet in the head, are simply self-righteous, po-faced fanatics with no sense of humour or perspective.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Come flirt with me

I was never very good at flirting, and never very good at sussing that I was being flirted with. Someone would have to flirt really blatantly for me to notice it.

Mind you, at my advanced age it's not often that anyone flirts with me, and I can't even remember the last time anyone did. Probably around the time the Spice Girls were in nappies.

Of course there may have been secret admirers who were too shy to flirt with me. They may have been nursing an unrequited crush they couldn't bring themselves to divulge. Sure, and there goes a flying pig.

It was a different story in my twenties. Quite a few women flirted with me so boldly I could hardly miss it. If I didn't fancy them, it was sometimes hard to fend them off.

Personally I think flirting is good clean fun, as long as it's just that and not a serious attempt to steal someone's mate. And as long as the flirtee is enjoying it and isn't feeling uncomfortable and invaded. But some people totally refuse to flirt on the grounds that it's immoral and dangerous.

It's embarrassing though to watch seedy, unattractive middle-aged men compulsively flirting with women who probably find them repulsive. Have they any idea how ridiculous they look? Presumably not or they wouldn't be doing it.

It's also embarrassing to watch people flirting simply to prove their physical attractiveness and desirability, which they're permanently unsure of. The desperate need for reassurance is sad.

But life would be dull without flirting. It adds a bit of spice to the everyday routine. So what the hell, come flirt with me....

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Jumping the gun

What struck me about the Lincolnshire couple whose baby was born 11 weeks early in New York was the amazing generosity shown to them by so many people.

Instead of a chorus of "Why on earth fly when you're heavily pregnant?", people were falling over themselves to help the unfortunate couple - Katie Amos and Lee Johnston - who were facing a £130,000 medical bill.

The hospital said the couple's travel insurance would cover the bill. A housing charity gave them somewhere to live. A nurse at the hospital gave Katie a pile of clothes. And thousands of pounds have been donated to help them with their living expenses - as their son Dax won't be fit enough to fly back until March.

Actually quite a few things struck me about this story:

1) The potentially ruinous cost of health care in the States. People are frequently bankrupted by astronomical bills.
2) Such a basic event as having a baby doesn't qualify for free assistance but is fully chargeable.
3) In the light of (1) and (2), they were wise not to skimp on travel insurance.
4) They'll have time to get to know New York very well on their enforced 10-week stay.
5) Is their son now entitled to American citizenship, having been born in the USA?
6) They'll probably be too embarrassed to set foot in the USA ever again.
7) Alternatively they'll make lots of new friends over there and be keen to keep in touch.
8) Dax's first words are likely to be "Give me some candy, dude".

Or in the light of his expensive birth, they might even be "Buddy, can you spare a dime?"

Pic: Lee Johnston and Katie Amos

Friday, 2 January 2015

Broken heart

Parents who refuse to accept their children for what they are, who want their children to have certain beliefs or interests, or worse still want them to be a carbon copy of themselves, are a menace. It's a shame they can't be prevented from having children in the first place, such is the distress and misery they cause.

Seventeen year old Leelah Alcorn of Kings Mill, Ohio, was a tragic victim of such parental dogmatism. Born a boy but having told her devoutly Christian parents she wanted to be a girl, they forced her to undergo conversion therapy to cure her transgender feelings.

Last Sunday she walked in front of a truck on Highway I-71 and was crushed to death. She left a suicide note saying her parents had broken her heart and made her hate herself.

This is hardly a unique case. So many parents won't accept their children's personal identity and try to push them in some direction they're not comfortable with, which simply screws them up. They find their children's independence deeply alarming and hard to adapt to.

Fathers want their sons to join the family business. They want them to be tough, unemotional high-fliers. Or they want them to be sporty outdoor types. Mothers want their daughters to go into traditional female jobs, or to be pretty and submissive, or to have lots of children. Religious parents want their children to share their beliefs. Socialist parents are terrified their children will become gung-ho capitalists.

There are children who are pushed to become champion swimmers or concert pianists or mathematical geniuses, but who eventually crack up under the strain and give it all up to become civil servants or baristas.

My own parents sent me to a school completely unsuited to my personality - emphasising sport and religion and regarding anything artistic or cultural as unimportant. Clearly I was unhappy but I wasn't allowed to switch to a more suitable school. The emotional fall-out still lingers.

Children need to be nurtured, not moulded.

Pic: Leelah Alcorn

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A bit cut up

Spurned lovers consumed with anger and jealousy often retaliate in amazingly extreme ways. It's not enough to vent their feelings, they sometimes resort to physical destruction on a grand scale.

Fifty nine year old Philip Gamble was so enraged at his wife of 38 years leaving him for another man that he broke into her flat and cut up all her clothes and furnishings, causing around £5,000 worth of damage.

He cut out the crotches of her bikinis, sliced the back of all her tops, slashed her trousers and cut the zips out of her boots. He sliced curtains and poured bleach on them, damaged a mattress and duvet, and turned off the fridge-freezer.

Then just for good measure he replaced all the slashed clothes neatly in wardrobes and cupboards as if nothing had happened. It was only when Jean Gamble took some clothes out of a wardrobe that she noticed the damage.

In court on Monday he was given a three months' suspended sentence for what the judge described as "silliness".

I think if I were Jean Gamble I would have seen it as a lot more than silliness. Deeply distressing and misogynistic violence, more like. It must have simply confirmed her decision to leave him.

So what would I do, I wonder, if Jenny walked out on me after 33 years to shack up with Mr Much-More-Appealing? Would I just wallow in private agony or do something more dramatic? Would I respect her decision and wish her well or go on a wild rampage and destroy her most precious possessions?

I like to think I would take the news in a civilised way - lick my wounds, drown my sorrows in chocolates and wine and start looking for someone else. But who knows how unhinged I might get over the wreck of such a long relationship? Who knows what crazy emotions might take over? I'm not sure I could guarantee decency and understanding.

Hell hath no fury like a lover scorned.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The wrong sort of pie

That's quite enough of all the intro-spective burblings. So now for something completely different. The wacky world of pie-eating champion-ships and the young lad on work experience who made a fatal blunder.

The Annual World Pie-Eating Championships in Wigan - now in their 22nd year - were reaching another gripping finale as the competitors chomped and chewed their way through the traditional meat and potato pie.

The winner - Barry Rigby, 37, from Wigan, a warehouse supervisor and part-time fitness instructor - was very pleased with himself for scoffing his pie in a lightning speed of 42.6 seconds.

But his moment of glory was short-lived when the contest was declared null and void because the pies were too big. Instead of being the required 12 centimetres across and 3½ centimetres deep, they were found to be twice the size.

The work-experience guy had mixed up his orders and delivered the 24 competition pies to a divorce party instead of the pie-eating contest.

It's not reported how Barry reacted to the devastating news. Did he take it philosophically, shrugging his shoulders and saying it was just one of those things? Or was he apoplectic with rage, smashing the furniture and vowing never to eat another meat and potato pie? We can only guess.

Tony Callaghan, owner of the contest venue Harry's Bar, says "Everyone took it in their stride and demonstrated the professionalism of pie-eating at this level." I suspect that was tongue in cheek - or even savoury pie in cheek.

Don't laugh. The world of competitive pie-eating is very serious. Very serious indeed. Last year pie-lovers from as far as Australia flocked to Wigan in the hope of taking home the coveted crown. Aspiring pie-eating champions spend the whole year whittling down their chewing times to a record-breaking minimum.

If you think you could do better than them - it's just pie in the sky.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Where there's a will....

People have often told me I have a lot of willpower - which I guess also means self-discipline. They're quite right. When I'm determined on something, I don't let minor obstacles stand in my way.

I'm not put off by strong emotions, or sudden impulses, or other people's nay-saying. I don't find excuses for not doing anything. I don't procrastinate. If I've made up my mind to do something, then I do it.

I'll go into work even if I'm feeling poorly, if there's a job that needs to be done.

I'll tackle something difficult despite all my neurotic fears and anxieties and doubts.

I'll plod through all those tedious job applications even if I'd rather be listening to Joni Mitchell.

I'll be polite and courteous to someone, even if their behaviour makes me want to strangle them.

I'll look at every room in that huge art gallery, despite my weary eyes and weary legs.

I'll get to the top of that mountain, however beautiful the view from halfway up.

Maybe sometimes my willpower gets the better of me and overpowers sensible thoughts and valid emotions. Maybe sometimes I'm set on doing something that doesn't need doing, just to prove that I can do it and not seem feeble or pathetic.

But it does mean I do things others wouldn't feel up to. It means I've tried my hardest to achieve something, and I won't later regret copping out. It means I've done what I wanted to do and not succumbed to other people's head-shaking.

I would never have been to Australia three times if I'd given in to my loathing of sleepless and mind-numbing long-haul flights. But I was determined to get there, and what an experience it was.

Grinning and bearing it can sometimes be amazingly rewarding.

PS: On reflection, I think this post is nonsense. By willpower and self-discipline, all I really mean is determination. In other words, if I'm determined to do something (for whatever reason), then I'll do it. I'm just complicating something very simple.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Shrinking violet

Carla Bruni may have a compulsive need to exhibit herself and be in the public eye, but I'm the exact opposite. I crave anonymity and invisibility and avoid public scrutiny wherever possible.

I know that if I come to other people's attention, sooner or later they'll be judging me and maybe finding me wanting. Simply by noticing me, they make me self-conscious, self-doubting and abruptly shy. Even being publicly thanked for something is mildly embarrassing.

I'd hate to have a job where I'm regularly exposed to large numbers of people, or even worse to have to make speeches or presentations to them. I'd hate to be a celebrity or someone suddenly thrust into the limelight by some newsworthy event.

But it's not fashionable, not "normal" to be so reticent. It's supposed to be natural to want attention, to want an audience, to want others to recognise you and appreciate you. We all love someone who's the "life and soul of the party". Or do we?

Some people (like Carla Bruni) don't feel they really exist unless others are acknowledging them and referring to them. Without that constant attention, they feel incomplete, insubstantial, vestigial.

I have no doubt at all that I exist. To me, my identity is as solid as a rock. I don't need others to convince me of the fact, or to turn me into flesh and blood. I see no need to display myself to the rest of the world. What I see in the mirror is good enough for me.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Way out of line

I don't think I could be "normal" if I tried. My thoughts and feelings are so way out of line with what passes as "normal", I'm reconciled to the idea that I'm thoroughly eccentric. Or at the very least "different".

I feel profoundly sad about things other people don't even notice. I feel totally unmoved by what utterly enrages them. I get absurdly anxious about supposedly routine events. I adore things that others find incomprehensible.

I've never wanted children, or wanted to live in the suburbs, or wanted a high-flying job, or wanted two weeks on a beach at Torremolinos.

I feel really peculiar wearing a suit and tie, or reading a mass-market tabloid. I haven't eaten meat for nearly 40 years. I hate fizzy drinks, instant coffee and beer. Fashions in clothing totally pass me by.

I've always been a socialist, even when half the population was besotted with Mrs Thatcher and socialists were seen as "the lunatic fringe", "the reds under the bed" and "the enemy within". I was abnormal with bells on.

Of course "normal" is impossible to define anyway. It means different things to different people,and every survey of "normal" behaviour comes up with a different formula. It's one of those nebulous ideas that keeps slithering out of your grasp like a bar of soap.

So I think I'll just carry on as usual, even if it makes other people feel uncomfortable. Or bemused. Or censorious. Better that than running round in circles chasing an ever-moving target. As Popeye said, I yam what I yam.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Dear Santa

Dear Santa

I hope you are well. I hope that your new diet is working and that Alcoholics Anonymous is keeping you off the booze.

Gosh, there are so many things I want for Christmas, I don't know where to start. Here are some of them anyway:

1) A perfect memory that actually remembers everything. Like the plots of books and TV dramas. Like people's names. Like whichever shop it was that had that brilliant potato peeler.

2) Super-fast legs so I can forget the car and walk the seven miles to work in ten minutes.

3) A maximum body-weight setting so that however much chocolate cake, trifle and ice cream I eat, I don't gain an ounce.

4) Fluency in several languages so I can read all those great books that have never been translated into English.

5) A female body for a month so I can wear all those fabulous clothes I can only drool over as a bloke.

6) A totally adjustable body temperature, so I'm always comfortable however cold or hot the climate, and I don't need central heating or air conditioning.

7) Telepathy, so I know whether someone is telling the truth or lying non-stop. Or whether they're just pretending to like me.

8) Infinite empathy. However extreme a person's emotions, I can understand them instantly. I can feel exactly what they're feeling.

9) The gift of the gab. Whoever the person, whatever their situation, I always have something to say, and it's always what they want to hear.

10) A magic wand that will melt all the pain in other people's hearts.

I think that's enough to be going on with. Don't worry if there's one or two you can't manage. I know you must be awfully busy!

I hope Mrs Claus has recovered from the flu and that the elves aren't dabbling with the crack cocaine again.

Big hugs, Nick

PS: You're my favourite person ever in all the world!

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Ghastly snobs

The fashionable insult right now is "snobbish". Any reference to anyone less well-off or less fortunate than yourself, however innocent or well-meaning, is likely to bring cries of snobbery raining down from all sides.

The most visible victim recently was Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP who tweeted a picture of a nondescript house with a white van outside and was widely vilified for her disgusting snobbery, even though she made no comment on the photo other than "Image from Rochester".

Big-name politicians are now terrified they'll be accused of snobbery, elitism and being "out of touch with the ordinary voter" - if there's any such thing as an "ordinary voter". They're falling over themselves to be seen quaffing a pint, scoffing a bacon sarnie or puffing on a furtive fag.

I've been accused of snobbery myself on occasion, which always baffles me as my awareness of poverty, disadvantage and crap jobs is prompted entirely by my loathing of inequality and injustice and in no way implies that I feel superior or conceited about my own more fortunate circumstances.

But dismissing someone as a snob is a handy quick-win, a way of slickly discrediting them and implying that everything they say is fed by some impure motive. It's also instantly intimidating, because nobody likes to be seen as a snob, even if they are.

The term snob should be aimed at genuinely snobbish behaviour, like being rude to shop assistants or sneering at someone's poor grasp of English, and not mindlessly lobbed at anyone with a few quid to spare.

Let's go for the real snobs, not the imaginary ones.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Lies and more lies

What do you do when someone publishes an unauthorised biography that's "trashy, vindictive and full of lies" about your life? How can you stop thousands of people reading what you regard as damaging tripe?

Aretha Franklin has let rip at the biography by David Ritz which reportedly claims she's jealous of other singers, fought alcoholism at the height of her fame, is delusional about her love life and was promiscuous from an early age.

She strongly contests what he's written. "As many of you are aware, there is a very trashy book out there full of lies and more lies about me. Clearly the writer has no class, no conscience or standards!

"His actions are obviously vindictive because I edited out some crazy statements he had the gall to try and put in my book written 15 years ago. Evidently, he has been carrying this hatred ever since."

Of course if the claims in a biography are unflattering, insulting and destructive, then the subject is highly likely to deny everything and accuse the writer of making it all up, peddling unverified rumours and gossip, and having some deep-seated grudge.

When the two are in such heated disagreement, who can possibly know if the book is telling it like it is or if, as she maintains, it's a pack of vicious lies?

In such situations, my immediate reaction is not to read the book at all, because if its truthfulness is doubtful, what's the point? I might as well be reading some muck-raking tabloid.

The obvious thing to do is sue for libel, but that's a costly business and the outcome might not be in her favour. So far she hasn't gone down that road as she's hoping her statement is enough to stop people reading it, or at least taking it seriously.

But I doubt her reputation will suffer, whatever the wild claims. Is anyone bothered that she's a flawed human being who might have behaved badly at times?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sadly misinformed

My father was a horribly self-righteous man. He always had to be correct, and he had to have the last word. Only he knew what he was talking about, the rest of us were sadly misinformed.

Luckily I don't take after him. When I voice my opinions, I expect other people to have different ones. I welcome argument and debate. If I hear a good enough counter-argument, I'll back down and change my opinion in a second.

My father hated it when I argued with him, when I challenged his sacred views. He hated me having opinions contrary to his own. I can't recall a single occasion when he agreed with something I said. He dismissed all my opinions as stupid, half-baked, ignorant or deliberately provocative.

I guess it was his extreme rigidity that drove me furiously in the opposite direction. From an early age I welcomed a plethora of views on every possible topic. The more varied the views the better. Only by exploring every possible line of thought could I be sure of arriving at a sensible, considered conclusion. To suppress opinions, however far-fetched or absurd, was to cripple my mind.

What annoys me isn't different opinions but people's reluctance to voice them. When people don't engage with my views at all but stay conspicuously silent, I wonder what they're thinking. Do they find my views so misconceived, so confused, there's no point in even acknowledging them? Do they simply dislike arguments? Do they dislike having to think? Whatever the reason, I feel frustrated by the lack of a good head-to-head.

But how kind I am to my critics, how lavishly easy-going. My father must be turning in his grave.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sour grapes

I'm always taken aback by those who begrudge other people's success. The extreme bitterness and jealousy that often goes with it is astonishing.

Sometimes it's understandable. If someone manages to get a promotion or a plum job or a glamorous assignment that you feel you should have been given yourself, then of course you're likely to feel royally pissed off for a while.

But a general tendency to trash other people's achievements, maybe something they're worked hard for over a long period - where does that come from? Why the need to put the boot in?

I'm really pleased for someone when they succeed at something they've long been aiming for. I'm happy they've finally got what they wanted after years of frustration or despair or self-doubt. I'm glad they've finally cleared all the hurdles and reached their goal. Why wouldn't I be?

I'm especially pleased when someone has managed to give up something that was badly harming them - alcohol or drugs or an abusive relationship or a stressful and unrewarding job. I love it when they've found the strength and self-confidence to move on and improve their life.

Even if someone's success isn't hard-fought-for but has just fallen into their lap - like a lottery win or a sudden inheritance - I still don't begrudge them their good luck. Okay, I'd enjoy having a huge pile of cash (who wouldn't?), but I'm doing okay as I am so why should I care?

I have no problem with someone who's successful - unless they're rubbing other people's noses in it. That's what really makes me mad.

PS: A classic case of begrudgery. The opening night of Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant was sabotaged by a rival making 100 fake bookings.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Bad sex

Having taken a quick look at the ten authors shortlisted for the annual Bad Sex In Fiction Award, I have to say the passages quoted are pretty excruciating. But then again, can any fictional description of sex ever do justice to the real thing? I think not.

Sex is such a personal and physical experience, I don't really think any writer, however brilliant, can capture it at all realistically. Their attempts are inevitably going to be leaden, bizarre or over-the-top.

Certainly I've never read any description of sex that accurately reflects my own experience. The images conjured up are quite laughable, like a non-swimmer trying to describe what it's like to swim.

So in a way the Bad Sex Award, however amusing it may be, is rather unfair on the poor embarrassed authors who're singled out for special attention. I'm sure their efforts are not much worse than all the authors who've been lucky enough to escape notice.

In fact I wonder why sex has to be described at such length in novels anyway. What's the point of these flowery renderings of a bit of nooky? We all know what it's like (well, those of us who actually engage in it), so why not just leave us to fill in the details? A lot of writers could save themselves a lot of creative torture and a lot of guffawing readers by putting the red pencil through the whole shebang.

But just to give you a taste of the Bad Sex offerings, here's a typical passage:

"Her hair was piled high, but when she shook her head it came cascading down in a glowing wave over her shoulders, and fell as far as her knees. The rippling curtain did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures. They were perfect rounds, white as mare's milk and tipped with ruby nipples that puckered as my gaze passed over them."

That's from Desert God by Wilbur Smith.

And now I have to go, I'm laughing so much it hurts.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Rough diamond

I'm a bit of rough diamond, I guess. I may think of myself as wise and sophist-icated, but in my actual dealings with other people I can be as gauche and clumsy as a confused adolescent.

I'm never very confident in social situations. I'm not sure what to say or what to do or what's expected of me. If in doubt, I tend to say nothing and retreat to a quiet corner where nobody will bother me.

If I meet someone I've always seen as especially intelligent or talented or inspirational, I can be so overcome with childish awe that it's all I can do to stammer out a few gormless platitudes before lapsing into an embarrassing silence.

Everyone else seems to be so at ease, chattering away effortlessly to complete strangers, baring their soul with no apparent qualms, never at a loss for words. Whatever the trick is, it seems to have passed me by.

In private though, alone with my thoughts, I don't feel at all hesitant or wrong-footed. I feel worldly-wise and experienced, ready for any crisis, equal to the challenges of daily life. I know I'm just as smart and practical and capable as the next person. But as soon as I'm with other people, the awkward me, the ham-fisted me, suddenly springs out of hiding and takes over.

I'm too self-conscious, I suppose. The legacy of a frightening and insecure childhood. Losing that self-consciousness and just letting everything flow is a knack I've never picked up. I envy those who've mastered it. It must make life a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.

Or maybe I just need that old Irish standby, the gift of the gab.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Off message

Father of two Bobby Smith is fuming with rage over a sculpture of two women and their children outside the Library of Birming-ham. To him it's not just a sculpture, it's a political statement that offends his delicate sensibilities.

He objects to the idea that this is a "normal" family and says "kids are always better off with both parents in their lives." He obviously thinks sculpture should convey an ideologically right-on message and has never grasped the strange notion of freedom of artistic expression. Presumably he believes the only "correct" sculpture would be one of Mr and Mrs Average of Acacia Avenue, Anytown.

He was so incensed that he travelled from Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire to Birmingham to make his protest. He stuck photos of himself and his two young daughters onto three of the figures and threw a sheet over the other one.

So does he feel better for his valiant protest on behalf of normal, properly-parented families? Hard to say. In the photos, he looks glum and wary rather than pleased with himself. In fact he looks as if he's just lost a fiver and found a penny.

The artist, Gillian Wearing, explained sensibly enough that "a nuclear family is one reality but it is one of many and this work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed."

There seems to be an increasing tendency to see works of art not as complete in themselves but supposedly "representing" some wider bunch of people who then complain they're being insulted or maligned in some way. The unsuspecting artist is said to be denigrating women, or men, or gays, or heterosexuals, or whichever group is dancing with rage.

Can they not accept that a work of art isn't a political manifesto but simply an aesthetic and emotional creation with nothing to say other than whatever the random onlooker takes from it?

As for the idea that the sculpture is making fathers invisible, you only have to walk down any busy street to see dozens of them with their children in tow. If Bobby Smith could tear his attention from "incorrect" art-work for a few minutes, he might actually notice some of them. Unless they're all covered with sheets, that is.

Pic: A Real Birmingham Family by Gillian Wearing

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....