Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Clean sweep

A good woman friend used to point out my habit of making sweeping general-isations about all sorts of people - men, women, politicians, right-wingers, religious believers, landlords, you name it. It was totally unfair, she told me, to all those people who didn't fit the description and were being grossly maligned.

We're all very different, she said, and very few people actually conform to the tired old stereotypes we love to fling around so recklessly.

She was right of course and now I'm careful not to generalise but always to qualify anything I say about a specific group of people. And preferably not to make any general statement at all but stick to those individuals I know personally.

I used to be scathing about men, thinking only of those men who hate women and treat them appallingly. I would forget all those decent, considerate men who treat women with respect and are horrified by the rapists and misogynists.

I used to be over-polite about women, assuming they were always kind and caring, when as we all know women can be just as bitchy and competitive and aggressive as men when it suits them.

And so on and so on.

After all, I don't like it when people generalise about me. I resent the tedious stereotypes about public sector workers, vegetarians, socialists, home-owners, non-parents and thin people.

I may be a public sector worker, but I don't have a fat salary. I don't have a pension (let alone a fat one), I don't hand people 40 page application forms, and I don't go on sick leave every other day. I do my job for a fairly meagre salary and I haven't gone off sick since I started the job over five years ago. So as far as I'm concerned, you can screw up the stereotype and chuck it in the rubbish bin.

So, yeah, I'm super-sensitive to sweeping statements now, I can sniff them a mile off and I studiously avoid them. Please feel free to alert me if you see me thoughtlessly uttering one. I didn't mean to, honest. It was the mouse's fault.

Friday, 29 January 2016

No change

It's commonly thought that as you get older your outlook on life changes dram-atically and you're a very different person from your charming twenty something self.

Supposedly you become a crusty old right-winger, you recoil from anything new, you shout grumpy abuse at anyone you come across, you become tight-fisted and mean, and so on.

Well, even if that's generally the case, which I doubt, I must say it doesn't apply to me. I don't feel I've changed very much from that shallow, naive youngster groping his way through life forty odd years ago.

I still feel shallow and naive, I still feel marginalised and insignificant, I still feel I'm groping through life, I'm still baffled by most of what goes on around me, I'm still shy and retiring, and I still feel judged and misunderstood.

I'm certainly not a crusty old right-winger; if anything I've become more radical and sympathetic to new social trends like gay marriage and the personal openness found on social media. I don't recoil from anything new; if it's something that's going to enhance and improve my life, I grab it eagerly. I'm habitually polite and never shout grumpy abuse, even at people who thoroughly deserve it. I'm not tight-fisted and mean but very happy to spend freely on holidays, books, good food, wine and anything that enriches my existence.

My inner identity has barely changed through the decades. The external things may have changed - I have more money, I own a house, I've changed jobs, I've moved to a different city, I have a long-term relationship, I've become a hill-walker. But what's going on inside is much the same and shows no signs of fossilising into some hard-bitten, intolerant replica of Basil Fawlty.

Now excuse me while I grope my way through the rest of the day, trying yet again to make sense of it all.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Spilling it out

I still contend that there's no such thing as over-sharing. Why not just spill it all out? What is there about our lives that needs to be kept from other people? Maybe if you're a serial bank robber, you might want to hide it, but otherwise, the more we tell others, the more they'll understand us, which surely is all to the good?

I'm happy to share virtually anything, however personal or weird or illegal or seedy. There's nothing I'm ashamed of, nothing I regret, nothing that makes me cringe. All I keep to myself are things that might jeopardise my job, or embarrass Jenny, or be totally misunderstood, or get a police officer ringing my doorbell. Other than that, why bottle it all up?

Of course what is "over-sharing" to one person is just routine chat to another. While one person might be fascinated by the details of my sex life or medical problems, someone else might be utterly repulsed and head for the door. There's no way of predicting people's sharing threshold, so if I don't know them, I'll feel my way quite cautiously until I get some helpful signals.

Obviously I don't just blurt out anything and everything to every passing stranger. If someone looks like the shy and reserved type, I'll stick to the usual small talk and harmless banter. If they look as if they want something deeper and more honest, I'll open up a bit and see how it goes. I'm not going to foist of load of possibly shocking revelations on someone unprepared for them.

Contrary-wise, I'm very happy for other people to be as open as they like about their inner lives. It's interesting and revealing and brings us closer. We may be facing the same personal problems. They may be dying to get something off their chest. They may be baffled by something I can make sense of. Where's the benefit in forever hiding yourself behind a mask of polite, platitudinous nonsense?

I'm not a sphinx. I'll give it to you straight.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

First impressions

I got to thinking about what I look for in someone I've just met. How do I sum them up? What are the important things to know? These are the questions I tend to ask:

1) Are they my sort of person? Do they share my views, my general outlook, my hang-ups, my tastes?
2) Are they trustworthy? Are they what they seem to be? Or are they two-faced and slippery?
3) Are they intelligent? Do they look at things critically, shrewdly? Or do they just take things at face value?
4) Do they respect me? Do they accept me for what I am? Do they take me seriously? Or do they look down on me?
5) Are they interesting? Do they have unusual views and quirks? Are they surprising and unpredictable?
6) Are they genuine? Do they tell it like it is, or do they pretend to be something they're not?

Of course this may be the only time I meet them and I may never see them again. But I still ask all these questions, just to get a grip on them, to see below the surface. It's an entrenched habit.

If it's someone I might work with, then I'll ask other questions. Are they reliable? Will they do what they say they'll do? Are they supportive? Will they help me or attack me behind my back? That sort of thing.

It seems unusual to assess others in such detail. A lot of people simply go by instinct. Either they feel comfortable with someone or they don't. Either they like the look of someone or they've got nasty eyes. Maybe that works, maybe it doesn't.

Sometimes that's all you've got time for. Sometimes you just know in a split second that someone's an arsehole. Sometimes all you notice is how drop-dead gorgeous they are. Sometimes all you want to know is where the booze is hiding. Life's funny like that.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Grooming fever

Apparently men's grooming is booming. Male beauty products are more and more popular, along with visits to beauty salons. Things like moisturisers are now seen as essentials rather than luxuries, and men are primping and preening like never before. Or so we're told.

Well, I wouldn't know if it's true or not. The men of my acquaintance aren't in the habit of confiding their beautifying regimes, if they have any. I have no idea if they merely rinse their face and comb their hair or if they spend hours moisturising, waxing, concealing their eye-bags or changing their hair-colour.

I suspect younger men are keener on grooming and looking good than older men, who're more likely to say, What the hell, people should accept me the way I am, and if they don't like it, tough. Older men with beer bellies, hairy nostrils and comb-overs are still all too common. But who knows in what unexpected places this sudden focus on personal appearance is taking root?

Personally I've always been a minimal groomer. I wash and I shower and I try to look presentable and that's about it. Oh, and I moisturise my inflammation-prone forehead. And I had some laser treatment to reduce my facial hair as I didn't like the permanent five o'clock shadow.

I've never been tempted to do anything else. I'm not bothered by my eye-bags, I still have plenty of hair (which isn't yet grey), I'm too lazy to purge any of my body hair, I don't care for perfume, and there's nothing else that needs moisturising. So I'm a bit of a dead loss to the beauty industry. I prefer to spend my cash on books, music, wine and good food.

So you won't find me semi-naked on a beauty salon couch any time soon. I'm more likely to be scanning the shelves at Waterstones for some tantalising prose.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Changing

Some people believe that as we get older we're incapable of change and we cling to the opinions and habits formed when we were young. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks", as the saying goes.

I think that's defeatist rubbish, trotted out by people who don't want to change, who cling to some supposed idyllic past and don't want to adjust to new demands and expectations.

They often justify this head-in-the-sand attitude by saying we're all "hard-wired" to think and behave in certain ways and that's that. Any attempts to think differently are doomed from the start.

I couldn't agree less. I know my thoughts and emotions have changed in numerous ways since I was young, and even since ten years ago. I couldn't be more different from the naive, submissive, muddled, careless schoolboy I once used to be. If the eight-year-old me met the 68-year-old me, we simply wouldn't recognise each other. We would seem like complete strangers.

As a youngster I was emotionally illiterate - barely aware of my emotions, let alone able to express them clearly. My opinions were sternly conservative, heavily influenced by my solidly conservative family. I was utterly naive about relationships, politics, sex, and the often desperate lives of those who didn't share my middle-class upbringing.

At what is now approaching a ripe old age, I'm all too informed about those things I used to be blithely ignorant of. Almost too well informed, to the point of weary cynicism. I'm more and more conscious of my emotions, and the depths of pain and suffering and joy and enthusiasm they involve. I don't have so many of the glib, know-it-all opinions about other people's relationships or behaviour or personal crises.

I think a person's readiness to change is boundless. All that's needed is an open mind and flexibility. Hard-wired, my arse.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Uncrushed

Self discipline seems to be out of fashion. It's a dirty word almost. The big thing right now is to go with the flow. Follow your instincts. Let it all hang out.

People all around me are doing exactly that and it's embarrassing. They get impossibly drunk. They shout at shop assistants. They jump queues. They chuck rubbish everywhere.

Supposedly self discipline crushes the life out of you, puts you in a psychological corset. It makes you a party-pooper.

What utter nonsense. I have huge self discipline and huge will power, and I think my life is much the better for it. I've achieved things I wouldn't have achieved otherwise. By controlling my behaviour, not going to extremes, making more of an effort, I've made the most of my abilities and the opportunities I've been given. I don't feel my life has been remotely crushed.

There are plenty of people moaning that they're not getting what they want out of life, that they've been short-changed, that others are leaping ahead of them. Well, okay, maybe they've just had a lot of bad luck. Maybe things simply haven't gone their way. Perhaps they had crap parents and crap schools. But I can't help feeling that somewhere along the line they might have achieved more if they'd taken themselves in hand and pushed themselves a bit.

But that's not a popular sentiment. "Let it all rip" is the preferred attitude these days. I fear it can only end in tears.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Bravado

I'm a veteran of bravado.
Pretending to be confident
when really I'm shitting myself.
It happens all the time.
I may look like a mature, poised, sophisti-cated adult
but underneath the suave exterior
is a terrified toddler
totally convinced
that anything that can go wrong will go wrong
because I'm really not up to the job
I'm floundering wildly.
Then I put on my old-stager's face
I've done this a million times, it says
I could do it in my sleep
do it standing on my head
it's child's play
hoping no one sees through me
hoping no one smells a rat
hamming it up for all I'm worth
as I stoically muddle through.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Sex symbols

It must be weird when the world sees you as a sex symbol.
Like George Clooney or Scarlett Johansson.
They must know very well they're no sexier than anyone else.
Who knows, they may even find sex utterly boring.
But people see them as some red-hot seducer.
Quite a reputation to live up to.
I'm rather glad I was never seen as anything resembling a sex symbol.
I'm the most ordinary person to look at.
If you saw me as a sex symbol, I'd just laugh like a drain.
I'd assume you needed new glasses.
People never gave me a second glance, even when young and wrinkle-free.
Nobody was ever panting to get me between the sheets.
Thank goodness for that.
I'm happy to be known for other, more essential qualities.
Like kindness or compassion or loyalty.
I'm happy to be the amused onlooker
sipping my glass of wine
as others flaunt their wares and seduce each other
with a shameless appetite.
I'm happy that what I think
is more interesting than what I look like.
Maybe I'm a red-hot, sultry thought symbol.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Things I enjoy

It being the season of goodwill and all that, today I shall desist from any sort of moaning and whinging and celebrate the positive - like things I enjoy. So here are a few random pleasures off the top of my head.
  • Murmurations
  • Squirrels and cats
  • Sunrises and sunsets
  • Weeping willows
  • Beautiful men and women
  • Oddballs and misfits
  • Acrobats and gymnasts
  • Stilt-walkers
  • Dresses (usually on other people)
  • Modern art
  • Music/books/films
  • Chess
  • White wine
  • Vegetarian and vegan food
  • Ice cream
  • Chocolate
  • The sea
  • Mountains
  • Thunderstorms
  • Fountains
  • Waterfalls
It only remains to say: Happy Christmas. May the Force be with you. And may traffic wardens stay away from your street.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Scars

I was asked if I had any scars.
No, no physical scars.
I've never had an operation.
I've never had a serious accident.
I've never been beaten up.
So the answer is no.
But I have plenty of emotional scars.
I've had a strange life.
Things haven't always gone according to plan.
I've had my share of pain and grief
along with fun and happiness.
I've had to confront some dark corners
of my own personality.
I've found things I'd rather not have found.
I've wrestled with demons.
But I've lived to tell the tale.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Parental blues

Who'd be a parent? Wherever you go, other people are privately (or publicly) judging your parenting skills. Neighbours, relatives, teachers, total strangers. Not to mention your own nagging self-criticism. And not to mention all those contradictory parenting guides.

There can't be many parents who're blithely confident that they're doing fine, that they know what's good for their kids, and aren't always looking over their shoulder at what other parents are doing.

I'll admit to a bit of censorious tut-tutting myself. Kids who run riot in restaurants. Kids who sit next to me on the bus and are jumping up and down for the next 20 minutes. Kids who drop chocolate wrappers in my front garden. But at least I keep my petty whinges to myself and don't load the parents with yet more guilt and self-blame.

So many people think they could do a better job than the parents themselves. Surely all that's needed is a bit more discipline, a bit less lazy indifference, and a few basic behavioural guidelines. How hard can it be?

Those who're doing the parenting could tell them exactly how hard it can be. Relentlessly truculent children, relentlessly hyper-active children, relentlessly destructive children. Just put yourself in our shoes, they might say, and you'll see what a constant struggle it can be to turn wayward children into civilised human beings.

How thankful parents must be if they're blessed with polite, considerate, diligent children who're a delight to have around and not a permanent embarrassment. And how sympathetic they must be to those whose children are an endless headache.

I've never had children, but I sometimes wonder if my own children would have been little horrors or little angels. In my worst nightmares, they would have been the offspring from hell. And the censorious tut-tutting would have been a deafening clamour.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Like for like

Should a character in a play or movie with a defining trait be played by an actor with the same trait? Should a disabled person always be played by a disabled actor, or a transgender woman by a transgender woman, or a lesbian by a lesbian?

There's been a lot of controversy over this question recently. Activists objected strongly to transgender roles being taken by non-transgender actors. Flynn in "Breaking Bad", however, who has cerebral palsy, was played by Roy Frank Mitte, who himself has cerebral palsy. Yet nobody thought it strange that the two lesbians in "Carol" were portrayed by heterosexual women.

On the one hand, it's argued that the whole point of acting is to depict someone different from yourself, and it's your acting ability that makes the person convincing. The opposing view says that however good an actor you are, you can never be as convincing or as natural as the real thing - someone who is actually disabled, lesbian, or whatever.

My thinking is that you should use actors with the same trait as the character, as they do tend to be more authentic. But how far do you take it? You could apply the principle so widely it becomes not only absurd but impractical. Should you insist on a an actor who's a genuine anorexic, or alcoholic, or rapist, or hit-and-run driver? The casting process would be a nightmare. And suppose you wanted someone who was anorexic and a hit-and-run driver? The mind boggles.

On second thoughts, maybe you should just ask actors to do what they're supposed to do - act. Why spoil their fun?

Pic: transgender actor Rebecca Root

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Wild emotions

I'm not known for expressing wild emotions. The wild emotions are there all right, I'm very aware of them churning away inside me somewhere, but I keep them to myself rather than hurling them at everyone else.

Others are less restrained. They shout abuse at the TV or the neighbours. They scream at other motorists who've annoyed them. They throw crockery or books. They send vitriolic emails. They slice up their cheating spouse's clothes.

Do they feel better for such extreme behaviour or worse? I've no idea. But I definitely feel better for keeping my more fevered emotions to myself. I don't want to end up doing something I bitterly regret 24 hours later but can't undo.

I find it embarrassing and disturbing when I'm present at such outbursts, and feel much relieved when things quieten down again. It's not that I don't sympathise. I know it's a natural response to utter frustration or distress. But I still find it acutely uncomfortable to watch.

I hate seeing parents shouting and screaming at their children. I hate seeing couples having violent arguments. I hate it when people let rip at hapless sales assistants, waiters or airline staff. I'm sure there must be less frenzied, less melodramatic ways of dealing with the problem.

On the odd occasion when I'm so consumed with rage that I express it openly and volubly, people are amazed. They're so used to me as the picture of calm and reasonableness. They're so used to me as the mediator, the one whose first instinct is to settle differences and patch things up.

Oh, and I cried freely at work once over the way I'd been treated by the boss. He must have been pretty vile, as I rarely cry, even in private.

But road rage? Chucking crockery? Cutting up clothes? About as likely as a lunar eclipse.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Lifestyle choice

The idea that those who don't fit in, who aren't like you and me, don't deserve any sympathy or support because their behaviour is merely "a lifestyle choice" astounds me.

Apparently to some people it's a "lifestyle choice" if you happen to be a refugee, a welfare claimant, a single mother, a homosexual, transgender, or even a rough sleeper. They've supposedly "decided" to be those things and therefore it's up to them to deal with whatever difficulties they face. The rest of us can happily ignore them.

From this weird viewpoint, a refugee isn't simply someone desperate to get away from unbearable violence and oppression. They woke up one day and decided it would be fun to live somewhere else for a change.

A welfare claimant isn't someone who's too disabled or mentally ill or frail (or just on a low wage) to pay their way. They woke up one day and decided to sting the welfare system for everything they could get.

Those fortunate enough to be able to choose what they do in life, and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, often fondly believe that other people have "chosen" a more difficult or unpleasant life and could easily make things better for themselves if they really wanted.

They don't like to admit that their privileged position is as much a matter of luck as it is of judgment, and that a different twist of fate could have thrown them into the same situations as the people they habitually scoff at.

There aren't many "lifestyle choices" if your country is being bombed month in and month out. The only choice is survival.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Shifting memories

It's curious how nostalgia often makes us glamorise experiences that at the time were actually pretty awful. I look back fondly at my childhood summer holidays, conveniently forgetting the pouring rain, the ghastly B&B meals and the lumpy, uncomfortable beds.

I look back equally fondly at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival in 1969, quietly overlooking the collapsing tents, the overwhelming crowds, the endless queues and being so far from the stage that Bob Dylan was barely visible.

But I guess that only works if the positives are as numerous as the negatives. Then it's quite easy to screen out the nasty bits. Once the negatives start to dominate, that's what sticks in my memory. Like the truly dreadful public school I attended.

Even some events that I know were a total shambles still seem glamorous later on, because after all isn't it a part of being young to stumble through everything, leaving one mess after another but having great fun in the process? Like my first sexual relationship, full of misunderstandings and disappointments but hey, it was another exciting initiation into the adult world.

Even encounters that seemed unpleasant at the time can be re-interpreted in a more favourable light. That obnoxious train passenger who insisted on telling me her life story while I was engrossed in a novel, in retrospect becomes an amusing eccentric who livened up a rather dreary journey.

In fact I have a natural urge to rewrite history in a more dramatic vein. My over-active imagination tires of the same old prosaic memories and stealthily turns them into something a bit more thrilling and surprising. Like the dull landlady who in my mind gradually becomes a neat-freak, constantly polishing the cutlery and disinfecting the worktops. It's only a matter of time before she was never dull at all, she was always the clean-freak of my fantasies.

How many of my memories are now glorious inventions?

"Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were" - Marcel Proust

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Absolutely nuts

Is it ever acceptable to use the idea of mental illness as a form of abuse, or is it always offensive - simply adding to the widespread stigma against those with mental health problems?

Ken Livingstone MP, who's usually very sensitive to any kind of discrimination, caused an outcry by suggesting his fellow MP Kevan Jones was "obviously very depressed and disturbed", "should pop off and see his GP", and "might need some psychiatric help". He claimed not to know his colleague confessed to having a major depression some years ago. He had to make a profuse public apology to the other MP.

Of course if you know very well someone has a psychological problem, you're not going to refer to it in an abusive way. But assuming that isn't the case, what harm does it actually do to suggest someone is "depressed and disturbed" or "might need psychiatric help"? It's not as if you're accusing them of being a serial killer or a paedophile. You're merely suggesting they're not mentally 100 per cent and maybe they should do something about it. And all the other person has to do is declare that they're quite all right, thanks, so shut your gob.

Does what Ken Livingstone said really add to the stigma against mental illness? Is he really going to stop people seeking help and prompt them to keep their problems secret? I can't honestly believe those rather mild phrases could have such a dramatic effect. I think there's an element of fashionable over-reaction here.

It seems even odder to me that simply describing someone as "nuts" or "crazy" is also seen as unacceptable. After all, you're not seriously saying the person is a deranged psychopath. They're just common terms for "a bit eccentric" or "not thinking straight". If someone calls me nuts, to me it's no more offensive than calling me lazy or greedy. It's just another harmless everyday insult.

The whole thing is surely a storm in a teacup. It's all a bit nuts, in fact.

Afterthought: Why is it thoroughly offensive to suggest someone needs psychiatric help, but not offensive at all to suggest they need to see a doctor?

Pic: Ken Livingstone MP

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Tit for tat

I amuse myself sometimes by imagining that the appearance of male public figures is criticised as relentlessly as women's. Just suppose men were told all the same things:

That jacket is hideous.
Those pants are too tight.
He has facial hair/ hairy legs.
He's not wearing heels.
He's not wearing make-up.
His shirt/ pants are too revealing.
He's fat/ too thin/ unattractive.
His hair is too long/ too short/ in a mess.
His clothes are too sexy/ not sexy enough.
You can see the outline of his underpants.

Not only are they spared all that ruthless criticism, they can get away with virtually anything because "that's what men are like".

They can sport massive beards, five o'clock shadow, dishevelled and badly-fitting clothing, hairy nostrils, beer bellies, over-tight suits, filthy fingernails, comb-overs, greasy and tangled hair, missing teeth, and nobody says a word - except maybe their wives and girlfriends in the privacy of their home. And the chances are they'll be ignored.

When it comes to appearance, men have it easy. While women are always ready for some catty comment, men can swan around confident that lips are tactfully sealed. A sort of diplomatic immunity.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Hate filled

So much hatred.
So many people overflowing with venom and spite and viciousness.
Hidden away in backrooms, spilling their hatred all over cyberspace. And any other space they can commandeer.
Usually anonymous. Too cowardly to identify themselves.
Hatred for anything they don't understand. Homosexuals, socialists, atheists, welfare claimants, the unemployed, immigrants, pacifists, fat people, transgender, abortions.
So many things they don't understand.
What horrible lives they must have had to get so addled with hatred.
Tyrannical fathers maybe. School bullies. Mean bosses. Nasty spouses. Greedy landlords. Inflexible officials.
Or maybe it's bred in the bone. A genetic flaw. A birth defect.
Who can say?
But so much hatred where there could be love. Compassion. Curiosity. Enjoyment.
So much hatred poisoning and souring society.
And poisoning and souring their own souls.
How can all that hatred be dissolved?
I wish I knew.
I wish I had some answers.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Me myself I

I do like my privacy. I like being able to think or emote or plan or just be totally vacant without other people intruding on me and obliging me to interact.

I want to be able to choose when I mingle with other people and when I don't. There are times when I love socialising and crave other people's company. But there are also times when I want to be on my own and the slightest hint of conversation makes me want to flee.

I would hate to live in a household so full of other people - children, grandchildren, parents, neighbours - that you never have a moment to yourself unless you actually leave the house and vanish for a while.

Luckily I've spent most of my adult life either on my own or with one other person (Jenny) who is often elsewhere and allows me plenty of privacy. I once spent a month in a shared flat that turned into a chaotic multi-person squat. That was enough communal living for a lifetime.

Some people appreciate the idea of social privacy, which is helpful.They understand that even if you're in a public place or in  a social gathering, you don't necessarily want to chat ad nauseam. If you look as if you're enjoying a moment of quiet reflection, they'll pass you by and approach someone else.

Of course the main downside of privacy is loneliness. Too much privacy can easily become chronic loneliness as thinking your own thoughts stops being a pleasure and turns into a tiresome albatross. Fortunately my thoughts are so sparky and so fertile that I seldom want to escape from them. The more the merrier in fact.

Oh, sorry if I've intruded on your privacy. I'll stop now and leave you alone....