Saturday, 29 August 2015

Seriously scary

On the whole I'm a responsible person. I take things seriously, I do what needs to be done, I bite the bullet. I don't procras-tinate or deny or disappear. I don't create messes for others to clear up. I don't blame my mistakes on other people. I don't say "That's someone else's job".

I keep things ticking over. I get the car repaired. I go to the doctor. I pay the bills. I keep the house insured. I do the food-shopping. I don't sprawl on the sofa all day, slurping beer and watching reality TV.

I'm good at all that small-scale responsibility, looking after myself and my partner, keeping the household going. What I'm not good at, what totally terrifies me, is any large-scale responsibility - anything that involves not just me but large numbers of other people. I run from that as fast as I can. I'm sure it would end in colossal disaster.

I could never have been an airline pilot, or a hospital administrator, or a train driver, or a roller-coaster operator, or the manager of a vast public stadium. The stress of knowing I was personally responsible for the safety of hundreds or thousands of ordinary folk would make me a nervous wreck in weeks.

Even being responsible for a large number of staff - a shop or office manager, say - would freak me out. Knowing they depended on me for their income and job satisfaction. Knowing I depended on them to turn up, to do their jobs properly, to not rob the till or insult the customers. I had opportunities to be a bookshop manager but I always resisted them, preferring to be a humble but contented employee.

So yes, I'm good at responsibility chez nous. Good at oiling squeaky doors and unblocking sinks. But responsibility for hundreds of trusting, vulnerable human beings - that's seriously scary.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Fizzing furiously

Do we really live life more intensely when we're young? Is it really true that as children we feel everything more passion-ately, more vividly, but as we get older we're more phlegmatic, shrugging off with a brief flicker of interest things that once got us so aroused?

Of course it isn't. Oldies feel things just as acutely. We may not go rushing off to protest rallies or dance the night away (though some of us still do), but we're just as emotional and passionate as we ever were. Things can still stab us in the heart or knock us for six.

You only have to listen to a few oldies exclaiming about some pet grievance or some cherished political opinion to realise that they're not exactly burnt-out old cynics happy to let life drift past them with an indifferent "So what?"

I constantly amaze myself with my continuing passions about life's vicissitudes. In fact it's because I've lived so long, and know how little has been done to resolve problems I've been aware of since I was a small child, that I get so angry and forthright about the need to fix them. Often angrier than when I was young and thought these injustices would soon be put right.

And it's because I've lived so long, and can recall a more enlightened time of full employment, better working conditions, generous welfare benefits and cheaper housing, that I'm utterly distressed at the way we're hurtling back to a Victorian era of struggle and deprivation, and I'm incandescent with disbelief and outrage. How could anyone of any age not be passionate about this wilful political vandalism?

No, my emotions certainly haven't dried up with advancing years. On the contrary, they're fizzing as furiously as they were in my naive, pubescent self.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Object lesson

I think couples are often objectified in the same way as women are objectified. People make judgments on the basis of what the couple looks like, with little or no knowledge of what actually goes on "inside" the relationship.

A relationship dismissed as sterile, or unbalanced, or destructive, by casual observers might actually be a very happy and fulfilling relationship, but only the couple themselves know that, while the naysayers have got it entirely wrong.

But people do love to judge other people's relationships, seemingly quite oblivious that they're almost certainly misreading them and simply making an arse of themselves.

Celebrity couples in particular seem to attract this vacuous opinionising, but couples everywhere have been subjected to it at one time or another. I'm sure we all know couples whose friends or relatives have said "That'll never work. They'll have split up in six months", and then lo and behold, ten years later they're still going strong.

Apart from anything else, how people behave in public can be very different from how they behave in private, in the seclusion of their own household, where they can be completely natural and uninhibited. In public they may change their behaviour dramatically, putting on a show of politeness or generosity or open-mindedness (or for that matter naked aggression) that's totally false.

In which case making impassioned judgments on the basis of what couples are choosing to show you is not only superficial but gullible.

Even the smartest guesses can never plumb the infinite mystery of human pairings.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Baring all

Some couples claim there's nothing they wouldn't want their partners to see, that they just let it all hang out and they don't care what their partner thinks. Such openness is part of a genuine, honest relationship and why on earth would they want to hide things? What's to be shy about?

I've met couples who seem to do exactly that and not feel at all awkward about it. They share the bathroom, show each other their wobbly bits, hoover up cake and chocolates, plough through chicklit, and don't feel any furtive need to conceal anything.

I incline that way too. I might feel a bit embarrassed at times about having an audience, but seldom do I actually hide anything - unless I'm asked to. There are very few things I'd rather keep to myself.

I was checking through a list of activities that people commonly don't want their partner to witness, and personally I wouldn't be too bothered by any of them. For example:
  • Getting dressed or undressed
  • Trying on clothes
  • Weighing yourself
  • Eating something unhealthy or bingeing
  • Enjoying a trashy novel/music/film etc
  • Boozing
  • Smoking
  • Pleasuring yourself
  • Personal grooming
  • Crying/being seriously upset
  • Buying something expensive
  • Using pornography
Not that I've ever smoked or used porn, so those two can be ruled out. But as for the others, what's the big deal? Why would I want to keep them out of sight?

It's sad that someone feels so embarrassed or ashamed by their body or their behaviour, or so scared of a judgmental and censorious partner, that they simply can't stand to be seen. But such reticence is easily learnt, and hard to shake off once it's engrained.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Boringly moderate

I'm a remarkably un-obsessive and un-addictive person. I'm boringly moderate about virtually every-thing*. I have no habits so out-of-control that they soak up money, ruin my health, burden other people, or might get me sacked.

I've never smoked. I drink very little alcohol. I don't gamble. I don't visit prostitutes. I don't use porn. I don't have affairs. I don't crave junk food. I don't go in for plastic surgery. I don't self-harm. I've taken "fun" drugs just four times. As I say, boringly moderate. Yawningly restrained.

The things that blight other people's lives either don't interest me, actively repulse me or satisfy me in modest amounts. I don't feel the urge to grab more and more of something, to binge crazily on something well past the point of initial pleasure.

Many people would say I'm just afraid of living, letting my hair down, having a good time. I'm too self-controlled, too "sensible", too inhibited. Maybe that's true. But I feel I've had a great life and I'm not conscious of missing some vital experience by being so moderate.

In some people's eyes, this natural restraint makes me smug, or self-righteous, or censorious. I hope not. I really feel for people who're in the grip of some all-consuming addiction that's wrecking them and is the despair of of their helpless loved ones. Like the richly talented but so susceptible Amy Winehouse.

I suppose I've always believed in the saying "A little of what you fancy does you good." Too much of what you fancy and the pleasure will wear off rapidly, leaving you jaded and disappointed. For other people though "You can't have too much of a good thing" rules the day.

* Well, except politics. And religion. And meat-eating.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Big smack for Jack

Huge controversy over the opening of a Jack The Ripper Museum in East London. Those for it and those against it are slugging it out, abuse is being hurled in all directions, the museum windows have been smashed, and the owner is lying low.

Supporters say it's informative and sympathetic to the victims. Opponents say it's misogynist rubbish and local residents were hoodwinked about the nature of the museum.

Needless to say, most of the protesters haven't actually been round the museum, but they feel free to criticise it and demand its closure.

The critics maintain that when the museum was first announced to the locals, the idea was to "recognise and celebrate the women of the East End", showcasing 150 years of social history including the Match Girls Union, the Suffragettes, and the Bengali women who fought racism.

Residents say they were shocked to find the original plans had been scrapped in favour of a museum about an infamous 19th-century murderer of female prostitutes.

Well, I rather think the protesters are going a bit over the top. Yes, a museum about women of the East End, especially feminist women, would have been excellent. But is a museum about a woman-hating murderer such a dreadful alternative?

The museum's owner, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, denies it's celebrating or glorifying the murderer. He says it's very much from the point-of-view of the victims.

Since almost nobody has actually checked out the museum's content, who can say what angle it takes and whether the protesters have valid arguments or whether they're going ape-shit over a contrived outrage?

Surely anyone with any sense of fair play would at least properly investigate what they're fuming at before making such a public song-and-dance about it. But such scruples seem to be a thing of the past.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Safe and sound

As a straight white man living in a sedate area of a British city, I take my physical safety for granted. The chances of my being mugged or shot or raped or otherwise attacked are so miniscule I don't need to worry about it.

Not so for many, many other people who have to think about their physical safety all the time. Women wary of any unknown man on the street. Gays wary of anti-gay thugs. Black people wary of hostile whites. Atheists living in a religion-dominated society. Families living in the midst of civil war. Sexually abused children.

No society can call itself civilised when so many of its citizens feel physically unsafe and at risk from those around them. We should all feel safe and protected and unthreatened. But the reality is very different.

Luckily all I ever have to worry about is emotional safety - that there are people who care for me and respect me and that I'm not going to be constantly judged and appraised and found wanting. That people won't laugh if I do something wrong, or push me away if I feel lonely, or patronise me if I'm distressed. And by and large, in that way too I feel safe.

I hugely admire those people who're determined to be themselves and live their lives to the full despite huge threats to their physical and emotional safety. They refuse to be intimidated or scared and just carry on regardless in the face of widespread menace. I marvel at their strength and single-mindedness. I could never be that tough.

It's a sorry state of affairs when some women still feel the need to go out with a man or another woman, simply to ward off unwanted male attention. Even when we're well into the 21st century? It's scandalous.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Moral panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* allegedly

Friday, 24 July 2015

Baseless rumours

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

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

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

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

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

Pic: an alleged photo of the alleged Veronica Trinket

Friday, 17 July 2015

Shut up and kiss me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Not so golden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Needy or what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Spilling the beans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The enigma of maturity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Safe and sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Star-struck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trouble is, it never does.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Cold feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wants to be a party-pooper?

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Out of context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Give and take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* This one thanks to Dave Martin (see comments)

Monday, 1 June 2015

Parlez-vous Brit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

É una situazione molto ridicola, molto assurda.