Wednesday, 20 August 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 August 2014


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

Friday, 8 August 2014

Beyond belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 August 2014

Short of chums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Dine and whine

An eleven year legal battle over a scathing restaurant review has finally ended in Sydney with the restaurant getting £349,000 damages. But just how did the court come to its decision when the evidence in the case (the meal) has either been eaten or thrown in the trash?

In any case, I shudder to think what state the food would be in if it had actually survived for eleven years. Everyone in the court would need clothes pegs on their noses or gas masks to shut out the overpowering stink of rotten food.

Seriously though, how on earth did the court make their decision? In the end it boils down to one person's word against another's. The journalist who said the meal was crap from start to finish, against the restaurant that insisted their food was the finest haute cuisine. So who's right? Was it simply a question of who sounded most convincing?

Even if the journalist had called on other diners to confirm how disgusting the food was, it would still only have been an opinion, as their meal would also have been disposed of.

As it was, it was all so nebulous that the case went to two jury trials, a trial before a judge, two appeals, two special leave applications to the High Court, a full High Court hearing and a Supreme Court hearing before a final decision was reached.

I also wonder why the restaurant closed down six months later, supposedly because of this one appalling review. Are diners really put off by a single review, however vitriolic? There must have been other reviews (or just word-of-mouth) that were equally damning. Personally, I would regard one dreadful review as an unfortunate mishap - the reviewer was in a foul mood, the chef was having a bad day, whatever. It wouldn't put me off trying the restaurant.

Perhaps restaurant reviews should always have a disclaimer at the bottom - "This is merely one person's opinion on one particular day and may not truly represent the general quality of the restaurant's meals."

In other words, it might be the review that's three courses of crap and not the food.

Monday, 9 June 2014

English as she ain't spoke

I find most regional and foreign accents fascinating, but I'm surprised how many people find some of them so unpleasant or repulsive they'd like to get rid of them altogether.

My mum finds the London cockney accent or "Estuary English" very unattractive. She thinks people who speak like that should have elocution lessons and learn to talk proper Queen's English.

What an awful thought. Can you imagine if everyone in London spoke like those bland BBC newsreaders, all smoothed-out vowels and slightly toffee-nosed delivery? Spoke like me in other words, with my posh public-school diction. It would give me the heebie-jeebies. I love to hear an infinite range of accents and pronunciation, it's exciting and intriguing.

I love all the regional accents too - Northern English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish. In fact in Northern Ireland there are almost as many accents as there are towns, and you can usually tell which town someone comes from by the way they speak. But some people object to regional accents as being a weird perversion of standard English. As if there's only one "normal" way of speaking the language. Variety is the spice of life, I say. Why should everything be standardised?

Then there are all the foreign accents of people from other countries. English with an Italian or German lilt. English with an American or Aussie twang. For some people, a foreign accent is an instant cue for prejudice and a show of superiority. Such arrogance! We should be admiring those people who've taken the trouble to master another language, or even several languages. And we should be ashamed of the general British inability to be multilingual.

I think it's sad when someone with a strong regional accent feels obliged to fake "standard" English for job purposes, because they think their natural accent is a liability. Sometimes the result is embarrassingly false and exaggerated. But apparently some call centres prefer staff with regional accents, which are seen as warmer and friendlier than the flat, aloof-sounding London accent. Good for them.

The more accents the better. Ain't that the troof, guv?

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A step back

People are fond of saying that in a crisis you should "follow your instincts" or "do what feels right". I've long been a bit wary of that advice, as instincts can be as disastrous as they can be spot-on.

My habit has always been to reflect on what I'm about to say or do before I leap into it. Which makes me a slightly reticent and cautious person, but I'd rather that than make some colossal blunder simply because I didn't think first.

You only have to look at the torrents of abuse and spite unleashed on the internet to see that "following your instincts" can sometimes be pretty destructive, especially if your instincts are tangled up with heated emotions and it's actually the emotions that are holding sway.

I think instincts can be helpful in some situations but calamitous in others. Parents getting conflicting advice on how to bring up their children usually fall back on instinct, and since that instinct is guided by love and affection for their child, the result is usually positive.

But relying on instinct in fraught public arguments, where delicate sensitivities are at stake and it's all too easy to fan the flames and make everything worse, is a mug's game. So much tragedy and distress could be averted if those involved first took a step back and thought about the effects of their actions.

Following your instincts is not much help if it means bingeing on junk food or having 19 children or squeezing into your budgie smugglers. A pause for reflection might have led to a happier outcome.

Instead of "follow your instincts", how about "follow your thoughts" or "chew it over"? Or how about another old phrase "Look before you leap"?

Unless you're a bemused parent, that is.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Our bed

The famous artwork by Tracey Emin, "My Bed", is to be auctioned at an estimated price between £800,000 and £1.2 million. That's an impressive income from a bunch of tangled duvets and a heap of personal effects like vodka bottles, condoms, fag ends and tights.

Clearly this is the way to finance my retirement. Our bed is an equally important and ground-breaking work of art, and I'm prepared to sell it for a very modest £500,000. If that isn't the offer of a lifetime, what is?

That bargain price-tag includes:
  • Two duvets with slightly darned covers
  • Three pillows of various thicknesses
  • A nightshirt (mine)
  • Pyjamas (Jenny's)
  • A lot of crumbs (from breakfast in bed)
  • The odd grease stain (moisturiser? marmalade? ointment?)
  • A mislaid sock
  • Some crumpled tissues
  • A dead spider
  • Some toenail clippings*
The giveaway price reflects the lack of any vodka bottles, condoms, fag ends or tights. However, these can be added by the new owner as required.

The bed, with all its evidence of lives fully lived, of a relationship fully realised, will be a fascinating addition to any art-loving household. Hurry, before it's snapped up by a Chinese investor! Or set on fire by an envious rival artist!

NB: Batteries not included. Not to be used by children under five. Suitable for vegetarians.

*the above list might or might not be true.

Pic: Tracey Emin, "My Bed"

Monday, 26 May 2014

Mindless spleen

The journalist Robert Fisk has made a heartfelt plea for action to curb the rising tide of abusive and venomous comments on the internet. He says an increasing number of media sites are suspending or restricting online comments because mindless spleen is taking over from serious thinking.

He is disturbed that privacy and anonymity is becoming more important than responsibility, and instant reaction counts more than considered opinion.

He refers to the personal trauma that such vicious abuse can cause. He mentions the suicide of an Irish government minister. He could also have mentioned the many young people who have killed themselves as a result of relentless online bullying.

Personally, when I read the comments on media articles, I'm often shocked by how vitriolic and brutal they are. Under cover of anonymity, the writers simply lash out like brainless thugs.

These aren't comments in any normal sense. They don't come from a thorough and considered reading of an article. They don't show any respect or sympathy for other people's views or circumstances. They don't have any intelligent thoughts or fresh perspectives to offer. They are simply verbal kickings trying to harm some vulnerable, sensitive human being.

It's the ability to be anonymous that allows the commenters to be as malicious as they like, ignore all the usual conventions of decent behaviour, and not have any comeback. They can burst out of their hiding-places, lob a few online grenades, then disappear again, and nothing can be done to stop them except in very serious cases where the police are compelled to trace their identities.

It seems to me the media either have to ban anonymity or restrict online comments. The first may discourage some worthwhile comments, the second is a form of censorship, but surely either of those is preferable to people being scared that voicing their opinions will just unleash a sickening torrent of abuse.

Shrugging your shoulders and saying "Oh well, that's the internet for you" simply isn't good enough any more.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Anything but greed

With the exception of food, most people aren't willing to admit to greed. They'll produce any number of ingenious euphe-misms for their wild cravings, anything that avoids that embarrassing word, greedy.

There's always a good reason why someone has 32 pairs of shoes. Or such an enormous car. Or a TV in every room. Or three bathrooms. It's not greed. No no, it's just a question of comfort. Or practicality. Or convenience. Or enjoyment. What's the harm in that?

The idea of greed is so repulsive that most people are quick to deny such tendencies. We don't want to be thought of as mindlessly grabbing everything we can, pushing others aside to justify our own voracious lust. We don't want to be seen as addictive, out of control, frenzied.

When did you last hear someone described as greedy (well, apart from millionaires)? When did you last use the word yourself? We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than risk such an insult.

I mean, I'm not greedy. Good heavens, no. I may live in a very large house, but that's because I like plenty of space. I may have been to Australia a few times, but that's because it's exciting and beautiful, and because I have friends there. I may have a state-of-the-art computer, but only because the old one was obsolete. Me greedy? How very dare you.

What greed also implies is not just an untamed appetite but taking more than your fair share of something. Which is another good reason for glossing and tweaking what you're doing to avoid scorn. No no, I'm not depriving anyone else, there's plenty for everyone. Or if there isn't, then somebody should be providing more. It's not greed, it's just getting my slice of the cake.

Oh yes, there are plenty of people out there who're greedy. But don't ever say so. They won't thank you for it.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Count me out

When it comes to wild partying, I was always old before my time. I never quite saw the attraction, even as a rebellious teenager who was pretty wild in other ways.

I had a friend who would drag me along to these all-night parties in trendy Notting Hill. We would be there till the small hours, he enjoying himself immensely, me getting more and more bored and longing for my warm, cosy bed.

Everyone else would be getting sky-high on drugs or booze and raving about the latest fashionable gurus (R D Laing, Tim Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Huey Newton, Germaine Greer, Valerie Solanas). I wasn't keen on either mind-bending substances or personality cults so I felt a bit out of the loop. I would have preferred a searching one-to-one conversation to a roomful of lazy name-droppers so I was forever frustrated. I felt like a 70-year-old grandad who'd somehow stumbled into a kids' party.

Funny, because the rest of the time I was an instinctive rebel, disputing anything and everything from news values and dress codes at the local newspaper I worked for, to prejudice about gays, women, socialists and modern art, to parking restrictions and speed limits. There was virtually nothing I would happily accept, nothing I wouldn't promptly question and challenge and argue with. I drove my parents crazy with my endless scepticism and disagreement.

So you'd think wild parties would be right up my alley. But I suppose the truth is I found them distinctly unrebellious and predictable. Getting stoned? Getting drunk? Idolising a few alternative celebs? It was pretty tame stuff as far as boundary-breaking and tradition-smashing went. Hangovers never changed the world. Drugged stupors never put an end to poverty. Celebs get attention but seldom change the world either.

So if you fondly imagined I spent my teenage years in an addled stupor of non-stop partying - then think again.

R D Laing: radical psychiatrist who questioned definitions of madness
Tim Leary: psychologist and advocate of psychedelic drugs
Abbie Hoffman: one of the founders of the libertarian Yippies movement
Huey Newton: one of the founders of the Black Panthers
Germaine Greer: author of The Female Eunuch
Valerie Solanas: author of the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Boarding blues

As someone who spent five years at boarding school, I applaud the campaign by Boarding Concern to keep younger children out of such schools to avoid lasting mental and emotional damage.

Many psychologists are now convinced that children who are suddenly wrenched out of their customary family environment and left to fend for themselves among strangers with only a passing interest in them suffer emotional injury that hampers their entire adult life.

They can suffer a host of negative emotions that are never properly dealt with. They can feel abandoned, betrayed, neglected, demoralised, bewildered, shocked, angry, sad, vulnerable and distressed. But nobody takes any notice. They're just expected to bury their misery, toughen up and pretend everything's fine.

The family members who would normally validate their feelings and give them the support they need aren't around, and the school staff are unwilling or unable to step into their shoes.

The result is that many boarders leave school emotionally repressed, and permanently distrustful and insecure. All that leads to serious problems with relationships and personal growth. Over and over again, the spouses of such ex-boarders (usually wives) comment on their inadequate personalities and emotional illiteracy.

Personally I can vouch for that. Although I'm much more in touch with my own, and other people's, feelings than I used to be, I'm still far from emotionally fluent and I still have a lot of trouble expressing what's going on inside me.

The staff at my school never showed any interest in my emotional well-being and left me to sink or swim in an atmosphere of rugged masculinity.

I'm glad the psychological pain of boarding is finally being recognised and I hope fewer children will be exposed to it. But it's depressing to learn that right now boarding schools are as popular as ever and just as many thoughtless parents are dumping their children into these destructive institutions (around 74,000 at the last count). They seem to be wilfully blind to the emotional harm that's being done to innocent hearts and minds.