Sunday, 30 December 2007

Ending paid sex

A British government minister wants to bring in a new law stopping men paying for sex. She thinks that's the best way to cut prostitution and sexual trafficking.

Harriet Harman, the Women's Minister, is to visit Sweden with other ministers to find out how a similar scheme works over there.

She says: "Unless you tackle the demand side of human trafficking which is fuelling this trade, we will not be able to protect women from it.

"Do we think it's right in the 21st century that women should be in a sex trade, or do we think it's exploitation and should be banned?"

It's estimated that up to 85% of the approximately 50,000 prostitutes in Britain are foreign, and large numbers of them are brought here illegally.

Many face appalling conditions, violently and brutally treated by the men who've smuggled them into the country and keep them in a state of virtual imprisonment.

I've written about prostitution before, putting the case for banning it and the case for legalising it. It's very difficult to decide which is the best course to follow.

Already Harriet Harman has her critics who don't think banning payment is the way to go. They say all that will do is push the business further underground, which in their opinion is what's happened in Sweden.

Some people favour the opposite approach of totally decriminalising buying and selling sex, as was done in New Zealand.

Others again say the legal position is beside the point, what prostitutes really need is practical help and support to give up prostitution and get into a more dignified and worthwhile occupation.

But it's encouraging that a government minister is concerned enough about the situation to look for new ways of dealing with it and ending the misery and degradation it so often involves.

PS: I'm off to London this afternoon to visit my 85-year-old mum. Back in a few days. I look forward to reading all your comments!

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Too much hatred

I find it almost impossible to hate people, to be jealous of them, or to hold grudges. I think I've only actively hated two people in my life, and then only while they actually had something to do with me.

My father was a terrible grudge-holder. He would remember objectionable things I had done indefinitely, and never failed to bring them up when he wanted to get the better of me.

I've known people who could happily rage all day about the umpteen people and things they loathed with a vengeance. Everything seemed to arouse their teeming enmity - work colleagues, flatmates, relatives, overdue buses, stray dogs. I just don't know how they kept up the non-stop vitriol.

But I seldom nurse resentments against people. Partly because it's a terrible waste of emotional energy and partly because I give them the benefit of the doubt. If someone's done something nasty to me, I assume it's not personal but just due to a character quirk or some private difficulty that's upsetting them.

Some people think I'm too charitable and that unpleasantness shouldn't be excused so easily, but I don't like rushing into harsh judgments. I know I'm capable of being unintentionally rude or insensitive myself if I'm under stress or just not thinking properly. Those who live in glass houses....

As for those who conceive festering hatreds for people they've never even met, like celebrities or politicians or civil servants, where does this well of venom come from? Why this desperate need to mentally tear someone to pieces? All that sour, bitter emotion must taint their whole personality.

And I won't even start on all the burning religious hatreds that destroy whole communities and countries and are practically impossible to quench once they let rip. It's frightening how the smallest seed of hatred can rapidly grow into something monstrous and uncontrollable. I'm just glad I'm not prone to this tempting vice.

Random and weird things

The lovely Diane, aka Queen of the Quotes, has challenged me to this meme. I couldn't think of any devious way to refuse, so here goes.

Seven random or weird things about Nick

1. I have only 26 teeth. The other six were removed because my jaws were too small.
2. I once had the same dream as my girlfriend, that we had accidentally left a suitcase behind at a train station.
3. Once when I was a journalist at an official function, I ran into the Queen and her aides, looking for the toilet, and I gave her directions.
4. I'm afraid of the dark, cockroaches, hospitals and confined spaces.
5. As a child I took piano lessons but my piano teacher quit saying I was impossible to teach.
6. I can do a perfect Australian accent.
7. I think Grayson Perry's dresses are adorable. And his pottery is sheer genius.

Sorry, Diane, but I'm not going to pass on the meme. I don't want anyone out there to feel pressured....

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Fruit picking hell

Once again the USA, which claims to be the most civilised nation on earth, is proved to be the exact opposite by the Florida fruit-pickers existing in conditions of near-slavery.

A group of them who were held captive and brutalised by their employer for almost a year have just escaped and told their story.

They were living in a lorry on a diet of rice and beans, and paying so much for rent, food and showers they were permanently in debt. They were paid so little for picking tomatoes (45 cents for a 32-pound bucket), they had to pick two and a half tons of them just to get the minimum wage.

If they said they were too sick to work, their employer would beat them and force them to work anyway. They often had to labour in blisteringly hot conditions seven days a week.

These conditions aren't new - they've been going on for decades. Many politicians and public figures have tried to improve the fruit-pickers' lot but they've been resolutely ignored by their employers.

Recently some of the big food chains like McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut agreed to pay the pickers more but Burger King is refusing and threatening the whole deal.

The fruit pickers aren't covered by employment law and aren't unionised. But they're now being represented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and 100 church groups have joined the protests.

It seems all the overweight families who demand a constant supply of super-cheap fruit and tomatoes couldn't care less how they're produced, just as long as they get them.

And this is the nation that invades countries all round the world to bring them "civilised values". They should try civilising their own backlands first.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

The obsession with E.

It's easy to get obsessive about the person you love, or even the person you'd like to love but can't have. It's easy to get carried away despite yourself by longing and lust.

Fortunately I've never been obsessed to anti-social extremes. I've never harassed or stalked a woman, or sent unwanted letters or gifts. I've always kept the obsession to myself, and hopefully the women never knew I was so besotted.

But I remember one woman I just couldn't get out of my head - a short, pensive brunette I once worked with*. Everything about E. mesmerised me - her movements, her speech, her laugh, her hair. I just couldn't ignore her, I was always aware of her, always thinking about her. And of course imagining a sexual relationship.

At least once a week I dreamt of her. Each time it was the same dream. She would be standing in front of a mirror, naked, endlessly brushing her hair, as I dropped ripe strawberries into her mouth. I always woke up as she swallowed the last strawberry.

Needless to say, E. didn't fancy me in the slightest. To her, I was just another workmate she asked for help or swopped shifts with. She would have been amazed to know how fascinating I found her.

Naturally I would tell myself my obsession was irrational and baseless, that E. was just an ordinary woman like a hundred others, that I was idealising and airbrushing her, but it made no difference. Still I wanted to drink in every little detail, every little gesture.

The obsession only ended when she left to work somewhere else and I never saw her again. But I've had other obsessions just as intense and unshakeable, for the most unlikely people.

What puzzles me is why one particular person arouses such passion while someone else leaves me indifferent. Is it an unconscious association, is it chemistry, is it some imagined flirtation? I've never got to the bottom of it, and probably never will.

* This was before I met Jenny. But she knows the person I'm referring to!

Photo: For a serious obsession, rose-tinted specs are essential.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Militant models

Many young girls aspire to be models, thinking they have luxurious, glamorous lives. The reality is so gruelling that a group of British models are joining a trade union to fight for better working conditions.

At the moment they're anonymous for fear of jeopardising their careers by speaking out openly. But they include some top household names who've had enough of being exploited.

They complain of long working hours without breaks, compulsory nude shoots, pressure to be ultra-thin, and much lower pay for male models.

They've been having talks with Equity, the union that usually represents actors and performers.

They get little sympathy from model agencies, who tell them if they don't do what's demanded of them, they won't get any more work and there are plenty more pretty bodies where they came from.

I think the idea of unionising models is long overdue. They often get badly treated because they're so keen to be famous faces they'll put up with extreme pressures rather than settle for a more humdrum job.

Some people sneer at them for wanting such an apparently vacuous existence in the first place, but what they do is no more vacuous than many other jobs. How about advertising, cosmetic surgery or car-valeting?

Anyone who works for a living is entitled to decent working conditions, and if they're not getting them that's exactly what trade unions are for - to confront employers and force them to treat their employees like human beings and not cash cows. Free the catwalks!

Update: The London Independent reports today (Dec 17) that trade unions are being deluged with applications from people in unusual jobs like members of the clergy, roadies, sex workers, reality TV stars and club doormen, and membership is rising steadily. Union membership worldwide has gone up by 20% in 20 years. Workers, particularly those not traditionally unionised, are getting increasingly intolerant of poor working conditions and are joining up.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

When the cat's away

Well, now that Jenny's away in Canada for a few days, it's all systems go Chez Nick. The wild parties are in full swing, my red-hot mistress is installed in the spare bedroom and the drugs are in plentiful supply.

I'm already exhausted from the non-stop hedonism and self-indulgence. I just haven't done enough of this to build up the necessary stamina and uninhibited abandon. I haven't hung around with enough tearaway celebs lately (of course I'm invited to all their parties but I'm a bit shy so I've missed a few).

The neighbours are already complaining about the noise and disturbance, what with the stretch limos parked all the way up the road, all the glass from the broken windows and the lakes of vomit everywhere. But what the hell, it's only once every six months, why can't the tight-arsed little curtain-twitchers loosen up a little? Jesus, get a life.

The quality of the gossip is first-rate. You wouldn't believe how many secret babies, lovers, drug overdoses, tax dodges and shady business deals I've been privy to. If I got on to the papers, I'd be a rich man. But of course my lips are sealed or my name will be mud and I'll never get invited to Madonna's fiftieth.

If only the paparazzi would restrain themselves a bit, we could really let our hair down. It's a real drag having to rein ourselves in because some cash-hungry snapper is pointing his greasy lens through the front windows. I have to keep the bondage gear and torture equipment well out of sight.

I'm getting through quite a lot of money what with all the booze, the recreational substances and Mick Jagger's private gig. Have you any idea what these people charge? It's a f**king liberty. Isn't his state pension enough?

And the sheer quantity of sexy smalls Ms Bit-On-The-Side goes through is unbelievable. She demands at least half a dozen camisoles a DAY, and even had the cheek to bill me for the new implants. Does she think I'm made of money? I'm not sure how I'm going to explain the eye-popping credit card bill to my dear lady wife.

Still, it'll all have to stop in a few days, and not before time. By then I'll be in a state of total exhaustion, out cold on the shag pile. It's all too much for a sexagenarian, I tell you.

(Some people are spreading vicious rumours that all I'm really doing is cooking chili risottos, reading pretentious books and playing Annie Lennox non-stop. This couldn't be further from the truth. My lawyers have been consulted)

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The greatest gesture of love

It must be terrible to see your partner in the throes of a terminal illness, but shooting them dead to end their suffering is astonishing.

That's what Vitangelo Bini did to his 82 year old wife Mara in a hospital ward in Prato, Italy. One newspaper called it "the greatest gesture of love" - il più grande gesto d'amore.

Mara had had Alzheimers for 12 years and Mr Bini had borne most of the burden of looking after her. She was no longer able to recognise her husband or anyone else, and had lost the power of speech.

Mr Bini, unable to see her suffering drag on, shot her three times in front of the other patients and medical staff, and then immediately gave himself up to police.

Over 900,000 Italians are afflicted with the disease, but the Catholic Church won't countenance mercy killing, however dreadful the circumstances.

It must be unbearable to watch your loved one wasting away from some corrosive illness, but not many of us would have the nerve for a mercy killing, never mind shooting.

I like to think that if it came to it, I would help someone die and put them out of their misery, but who knows if I could actually go through with it?

Would I risk other people's condemnation and hostility to have the courage of my convictions? It must be an excruciating decision to make.

But once the quality of life someone is accustomed to has all but drained away, and they've become little more than a helpless vegetable, how can it be right to let them linger on like that indefinitely?

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Nudity

I've never had any problem with personal nudity. I've never been so embarrassed by my body that I'm desperate to conceal it.

It's not a particularly attractive body, just a common-or-garden male body with the usual bits and pieces. But when occasion has demanded, I've been quite willing to strip off and reveal all.

When I first joined the Boy Scouts, the other boys wanted to have a good look at me naked so I obliged. They were apparently satisfied enough with my accessories not to break into wild guffaws.

At boarding school the boys used to swim nude every morning and I always joined them without a qualm. Likewise after games I would happily undress to take a shower the same as the others. And no, despite all the stereotypes, there was no homosexuality whatever (I can't recall whether I was relieved or disappointed by that discovery).

I was never bothered about exposing my run-of-the-mill body to women. After all, how many women have a perfect body themselves? I always assumed that what we did was more important than whether I had the ideal physique.

Nor am I phased by nudists. What's the big deal about groups of people going naked? As long as it's discreet and within sensible limits, I don't see the problem. Though I've never been tempted to join in. The only two nudist beaches I've ever stumbled on, in Sydney and Vancouver, were both for gays, so I thought it advisable to keep my clothes on.

But really, why are people so hung-up about nudity? It's just the human body after all, just the packaging for what we are. Why be ashamed of it?

(Thinks: Perhaps I could interest a few other oldies in a male version of Calendar Girls??)

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Angry young man

Some cheeky 26 year old* has written to the London Independent blaming us oldies for all the social backward steps that are now blighting young people's lives.

Like tuition fees at universities. Like the reduced value of pensions. Like cuts in welfare benefits. Like fewer rights for employees.

Well, excuse me, but I never agreed with any of the changes and I had nothing to do with their introduction. I'm not one of those people who enjoy my privileges and then pull up the drawbridge so the next generation don't get them.

So please don't tar us all with the same brush. A lot of spineless, selfish individuals lined up behind Mrs Thatcher and said nothing as she chipped away at the welfare benefits hard won by centuries of trade union and political militancy. But I wasn't one of them. Not in my name, as they say.

I think it's outrageous that young graduates are saddled with huge debts they'll spend years repaying. All education should be free as it's the essential tool to create a better society and a higher quality of life.

But I could ask what exactly these angry twenty somethings are doing to reverse the measures they object to? I don't see many of them marching on the streets or joining political parties or trade unions - as so many of us oldies did in our youth. Don't complain to me, complain to the government ministers who have the power to restore more enlightened policies.

And it's not just your pensions that are going down the Swanee, it's mine as well. Believe me, I feel your pain. So if you want to protest, I'm right behind you. Just name the day....

* Sebastian Crankshaw. With a name like that, he just has to be an upper-class twit....

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Affair assumption

At my grand old age, people must assume I've had several affairs, that at some time or another I must have been carrying on behind Jenny's back. But I never have.

It's partly because I'm just not devious or cunning enough to keep an affair secret. It's partly because I never had the energy to keep two women on the go at once. And it's partly because I've never been besotted enough with another woman to want a serious fling. I'm obviously an engrained monogamist.

Well, it's difficult enough keeping one relationship going, if you're serious about making it work and giving the other person the tender loving care they expect.

How people manage to do that twice over I don't know. I suspect they don't, that one or the other partner always gets short shrift, marginalised and neglected and frustrated.

But I'm amazed how affairs can be kept secret for so long. You hear of affairs that lasted five or ten years without the husband or wife ever knowing. How can anyone really close to their partner not pick up on suspicious behaviour pretty early on?

I'm sure I couldn't have had an affair for more than a week without leaving Jenny some fatal clue - a mysterious phone message or an unfamiliar fragrance or a dubious-sounding 'engagement'. I expect my face alone would give me away, as I'm not good at hiding my emotions.

Some people actually relish the danger, the frisson of a clandestine mate their regular squeeze is unaware of. But I couldn't stand the stress and strain myself, it would destroy all the pleasure.

No, I'm as clean as a whistle in that respect. Boringly loyal and devoted and dependable. Even though I'm a hopeless rebel in so many other ways.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Junk male

We all have a tendency to hoard stuff we don't really need. But the story of Welshman John Jones is a caution to us all to keep the hoarding instinct under control.

Mr Jones had squirrelled away so much rubbish over 20 years he could only move around his Aberystwyth house through a series of specially built tunnels.

And after he was found dead under bags of rubbish, the coroner concluded he had probably died of asphyxiation, crushed by all the junk.

As it was impossible to remove the body through the solid mass of garbage, he had to be brought out through a window by firefighters.

The rubbish was piled high not just in the house but in the garden shed, the garden and several garages rented from the local council.

Let that be a lesson to all you knick-knack collectors out there. Start clearing it all out before you meet a grisly end.

Hoarding is one of the most common obsessive compulsive disorders, alongside hygiene mania and irrational double checking (like returning home to check the gas is off).

Many sufferers go to great lengths to hide their obsessions for fear of social ridicule and ostracism. Fortunately I've never been one of them, though I do tend to double check things like plane tickets and flight times rather too often.

Mind you, my mum's a bit of a hoarder. But I think she's safe - she hasn't had to build any tunnels yet.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Vigilantes

What exactly are those baying mobs outside courtrooms trying to achieve? Do they think screaming abuse at offenders adds something useful to the situation?

I look at all those shrieking voices and maddened faces and raised fists and I wonder how they think all that hatred and raging emotion is helping anyone.

Especially if the person concerned hasn't even been found guilty of anything but is still awaiting a court hearing. Or even if they insist on their innocence and say it's all a big mistake.

I suspect that quite often it's also an embarrassment to the victims, who just want to see the offender dealt with by the court without all the self-appointed guardians of morality spoiling for a fight.

Given the prevalence of these instant lynch mobs that pop up wherever there's some controversial figure on trial, I'm very thankful mob rule was replaced by due legal process and that nowadays (in theory at least) you get a fair hearing with a proper weighing-up of the evidence.

Otherwise I shudder to think what these headstrong vigilantes would do to people before they were restrained or ran out of steam.

We all know the horrific blunders some of them have made when left to their own devices, like singling out a blameless paediatrician in the belief she was a paedophile. Or putting the boot into harmless Muslims they imagine to be terrorists.

But as long as the sensation-hungry media keep feeding lingering close-ups of these rabid zealots to their fascinated audiences, I'm afraid we're going to see many more of them on the streets.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Getting away with rape

There's been a lot of talk in the last few days about the tiny number of rape convictions in the UK and what can be done about it.

The blame is directed widely: at the police for not taking rape victims seriously; at lawyers for not presenting stronger evidence; at judges for finding excuses for rape; and at juries for giving people the benefit of the doubt.

But to my mind they're all missing the point. I think the real problem is that the evidence given by the victims doesn't point clearly enough to rape, to lack of consent, to coercion.

Too often it seems that instead of the expected struggle and resistance and non-cooperation the victim actually gave in to the other person quite easily and with barely a murmur of protest.

Well, says the victim, that's because I didn't want to make it worse. If I had put up too much of a struggle, I'd have been attacked more viciously and ended up seriously hurt. So I played it safe and did what I had to so it'd be over quicker.

Of course that's totally understandable. Who wants to finish up stabbed or strangled or dead? Who wants the rapist to get so furious they lash out wildly and whack you to bits?

But for a jury looking for clear-cut evidence of non-consent, the cautious, non-provocative approach creates too many doubts about what happened, and they don't know who to believe. So they end up acquitting.

I honestly don't know the answer to this. If the court wants resistance but the victim rejects it, then how do we get more convictions?

PS: The other obvious reason for the dearth of rape convictions is that many women don't even report it for fear of the consequences - humiliation, disbelief and further violence. The level of unreported rape uncovered in surveys is truly shocking.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Tough ambitious females

It's depressing how many working women feel they can't be themselves but can only prove their worth by being even more macho and ruthless than men.

It happens in so many jobs - estate agents, politicians, office workers, sales reps. Instead of bringing a bit more sensitivity and humanity into the workplace, they just switch themselves off and become as hard-bitten and go-getting as the men. They turn into soulless apparat-chicks.

Of course they don't necessarily want to be like that. In most cases they probably feel they have no alternative if they want to be taken seriously and climb up the career ladder.

Too many men still think a woman who treats her customers and workmates like human beings is some sort of pinko wimp who's just not up to the job - and is trying to undermine her male co-workers' credibility.

I've nothing against ambitious women, if that's their bag. If they want to be a company boss or a government minister, that's fine by me. As long as they don't morph into a hawk-eyed harridan on the way.

But I've had to deal with a few of these tough nuts in my time and it's no joke. Like Tracey of Floggem Estate Agents who regards any criticism of her perfect homes as a sign of insanity and acts as though I'm privileged to be invited to look at them.

Or Teresa Bullshit, MP, who tells me the health service is under colossal pressure and expecting prompt medical attention is simply unrealistic and irrational.

It's a strange irony. We applaud the fact that there are now so many women in the workforce, but if half of them are just trying to outdo the men in tight-arsed arrogance, what's the point?

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Wake the pilot

I've never been afraid of flying. So even the story about the pilots being asleep as the plane came into land didn't bother me.

Yes, you read that correctly. It's just emerged that a plane en route from Baltimore to Denver was getting frantic calls from air traffic control as it neared Denver Airport at twice the normal approach speed and well over the normal altitude.

They managed to arouse the pilot and co-pilot from their blissful slumber and the plane fortunately was landed safely.

The blame is put on long shifts and inadequate rest periods in-between. Plus the boredom of a routine flight.

Personally it only makes me more confident about flying when I hear that a plane can land okay despite snoozing pilots. Clearly the safety procedures are robust enough to allow for human errors like these.

In fact I'm far more nervous about hospitals than I am about planes. The death rate on scheduled flights is miniscule, while the death rate in hospitals from superbugs, blood clots, drug overdoses and surgical errors is alarmingly high.

As I've said before, the chances of coming out of hospital with an extra ailment you didn't have on arrival are pretty huge.

So if I get off a plane and someone tells me the pilots were fast asleep ten miles from the airport - no worries. I'll just head for baggage reclaim with the usual spring in my step.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Sicko

I've often criticised the National Health Service, but after seeing Michael Moore's film Sicko I'm bloody glad I have the NHS and not the horrific set-up that exists in America.

In the USA, 50 million people have no medical insurance whatever and those who do are frequently refused treatment for all sorts of bogus reasons, as the insurance companies make higher profits by denying as many claims as possible.

The idea of free universal health care is seen by the country's leaders as a communist conspiracy that threatens democratic freedoms and civilised values.

But what a payment-based system produces is thousands of people dying needlessly, a greatly increased risk of serious illness and shorter lifespans. Not to mention widespread debt, despair and destitution.

Moore interviews a middle-class couple who had high-earning jobs but ran up such heavy debts after heart attacks and cancer they had to sell their home and move into their daughter's spare room.

He shows video footage of a woman unable to pay for hospital treatment who was removed from the hospital by the insurance company and dumped on a city street.

A man who sliced off two fingertips on a circular saw was told an operation to sew back one fingertip would cost $60,000.

People with terminal illnesses needing vital treatments are refused payment on the grounds that the treatments are experimental, ineffective or inappropriate. Or that it was a pre-existing condition that invalidates the insurance.

Moore travels to Canada, the UK, France and Cuba, where he is gobsmacked by the high-quality care available to any citizen for free, simply to improve their quality of life.

You could describe the USA's health chaos as third-world standard, except that many third-world countries have far superior (and free) health services.

It's a shocking and shameful film, which I hope humiliates the USA right across the globe. Go see it.

Photo: Michael Moore interviews an NHS doctor

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Waits and pleasures

You never know what to expect at restaurants. A perfectly-cooked meal from a friendly, attentive waiter or a tasteless mess flung on the table by a harassed, po-faced second-jobber? Be prepared for anything.

Jenny and I had just been at an art gallery private view, sloshing down our free glasses of wine and salivating over dozens of stunning prints. As usual, we wandered up the road to our favourite pizzeria and ordered a couple of pizzas.

We chatted a bit as we waited for our food.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After 20 minutes, we asked what was happening. "Ah, there's a large group upstairs so there's a half-hour wait. But your pizzas are in the oven. Another two minutes." (A large group upstairs? So what?)

Two minutes came and went. We waited some more.

And waited.

And waited.

After 35 minutes, we asked to see the manager. "Ah, there's always a half-hour wait on Fridays. You should have been told. Another three minutes." Jenny asked if we could have a discount for the long delay. Yes that was possible, she said. (Five per cent? Ten per cent?)

After 40 minutes, the pizzas arrived. Mouth-wateringly delicious as always. Not wanting to ask for the bill, which might take another half-hour, we went straight to the cash desk.

"Oh, there's no charge" we were told "Your meals are free."

We walked out in a state of dazed disbelief. As I said, be prepared for anything.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Life expectancy

How lucky we all are! Average lifespans are going up all the time and before long there'll be centenarians galore, not to mention armies of ninety-year-olds.

But do we really want to live to 100? Do we really want to live so long we can hardly remember what we did for a living or who we once shacked up with, let alone our first love or our teenage rampages?

Why is length of life considered so much more important than quality of life? What's the point of reaching 101 if by that time you're half-blind, deaf, senile and stuck in a wheelchair?

Personally I'd prefer dropping dead at (say) 70, still in good health, mentally alert and savouring life to the full, to staggering on for another thirty years becoming more and more decrepit and an increasing burden to everyone else.

In fact I'd like to keel over in the middle of something I particularly enjoy like climbing Slieve Donard*, scoffing a huge bowl of ice cream or exploring some foreign city.

I certainly don't want to end up in a so-called care home, where the chances are instead of being cared for I'd be treated with casual indifference by underpaid, uncommitted staff.

No, I'm happy to stay alive as long as I'm firing on all cylinders and my brain is still fizzing with all the spectacle and novelty of the world around me.

Once the fun disappears and my body starts falling apart, I hope someone will do the decent thing and pop something nasty in my morning coffee to save me from a miserable fadeout.

Frankly I want to go out with a bang and not a whimper. And with my dignity still intact.

* Highest mountain in Northern Ireland, one of the Mourne Mountains.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Big fat scare

We're said to be in the midst of an obesity epidemic so unstoppable we're all going to get horrible fat-related diseases and die prematurely.

Except that an American health expert says it's all a pack of lies, actually there's no epidemic and we can all relax and give up the frantic dieting.

Professor Patrick Basham of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore says there's no evidence that overweight and obesity are significantly increasing. He says that in 1997 the definition of overweight was changed and millions more people were suddenly classed as overweight - although their weight hadn't altered.

In fact the average adult weighs only a pound or two more than a generation ago, and some surveys suggest child obesity is actually declining.

Nor is it true, he says, that being overweight or modestly obese leads to premature death. The increased risk is tiny, as is the number of early deaths.

He claims statistics have been distorted and misread to imply that body-weight has become a widespread problem.

In particular, there's a false assumption that overweight children become overweight adults and overweight adults become obese. But this is not necessarily so.

Furthermore, he says the new obsession with dieting and weight monitoring to control this so-called problem itself leads to serious health risks, eating disorders and body-image hang-ups.

Instead of a campaign against obesity, what we really need is a campaign against thinness and pointless dieting.

His opinions are an astonishing contradiction of the conventional wisdom that assails us from all sides. Can he be right? I hope so. Then we can all calm down and leave our bodies alone.

Size two-zero, anyone?

PS (November 8): Medical researchers in the USA have concluded that a bit of fat actually does you good. Slight overweight in fact makes you 40% less likely then normal weight people to die of a whole range of diseases and risks including cancer, heart disease, emphysema, pneumonia and Alzheimers. In 2004 in the USA there were 100,000 fewer deaths among the overweight than if they had been of normal weight. The researchers were from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Fear of the dark

I'm nervous of the dark. It makes me deeply uneasy. It's not just what it's hiding, it's the brooding, ominous quality it seems to have.

I know only children are supposed to be afraid of the dark, you're meant to grow out of it. But my nyctophobia seems to be increasing as the years go by.

I do my best to ignore it by keeping myself occupied and looking forward to daylight returning, but that unease is always there in the background, trying to insinuate itself into my consciousness.

Even going to sleep doesn't entirely remove it, as I always have disturbing, unsettling dreams I awake from in a state of mild distress and alarm. Dreams in which I'm being chased or I'm hopelessly lost or everything's disintegrating.

Am I completely unhinged, or is this actually quite a common experience? I've no idea. Certainly nobody's ever admitted to me that they share the same anxiety.

But the return of daylight always changes my mood dramatically as soon as it occurs. One minute I'm still deeply ill-at-ease, the next minute a surge of well-being is racing through me. The instant emotional reversal is as regular as clockwork. Who can explain it?

Psychotherapists would suggest I'm projecting some personal fear onto the darkness, or the residue of some unpleasant nighttime experience, but if that's the case I have no memory of anything that might be relevant.

I doubt if there's any cure. All I can do is come to terms with it, like a deranged aunt holed up in the attic. And be thankful it's nothing worse.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Chocs away

I was gripped by the story of the master chocolate-maker who saw red at the sight of a competitor's chocolates and impulsively crushed them all to pieces.

Barry Colenso, master chocolatier for Thornton's, left a "trail of destruction" at a display counter at Hotel Chocolat in Nottingham, after he laid into a pile of tantalising truffles and squashed them all with his thumb.

He apparently failed to see the CCTV that revealed his every move to the astonished shop staff.

Mr Colenso was forced to resign in disgrace from his prestigious job. Thornton's were too embarrassed to make any further comment.

But Peter Thornton, ex company chairman, said Mr Colenso "must have been under a tremendous amount of pressure to do something like this."

It's said that top chocolatiers are under the same stress as famous chefs. They have to keep coming up with winning recipes and if they don't, their reputation is on the line. If they can't produce the latest melt-in-the-mouth sensation, they're in trouble.

Under the circumstances, it's understandable that he saw a pile of someone else's lipsmacking truffles and just had to obliterate them. If he hadn't been on candid camera, he would have got away with it.

But what now? A period in rehab followed by the launch of his very own Colenso Truffle? An unexplained inferno at the Hotel Chocolat factory? Watch this space.

(Note to Peter Colenso's lawyer: the last paragraph is pure fantasy....)

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Hypochondria

I told my doctor I was sure I had all the symptoms of hypo-chondria but she said no, I was just imagining it. Honestly, these doctors, they just want to get you out of the surgery.

I've met people with raging hypochondria who know for a fact they're got terminal cancer but the doctors keep misdiagnosing it. I would point out they looked perfectly healthy, only to hear a catalogue of tell-tale symptoms like intermittent light-headedness. Only intermittent? You should be so lucky, says I.

Of course real hypochondriacs don't just imagine they're ill, like you and me reading the worst into a stubborn headache. They pester the doctors and consultants for every scan, blood test and investigation known to medicine, always hoping for something lethal.

Personally, I stay well away from doctors and hospitals if at all possible. You could end up sicker than when you started. Doctors? It's their business to find illnesses so give them half a chance and they'll find one. Your blood pressure's a tad high, Nick, you'd better take some of these little pink pills. Quick, run for it!

As for hospitals, it's a toss-up whether you come out cured of that chronic affliction or adding another one. Blood clots, anyone? Superbugs, fresh today. Oops, just whipped out the wrong kidney. Lucky you've got two, eh? Nowadays the nurses don't just check your pulse, they check your will and your life insurance. Just in case.

But hypochondria's on a roll. If you can't find an actual illness to lay claim to, there's a potential illness just round the corner. Every day the media reports something unexpectedly dangerous, something that'll make us all horribly ill in a few years' time. Mobile phones, lipstick, burning candles - they're all oozing health hazards.

I just know I'm almost ill. I've got all the symptoms. Tell me the truth, doc, I can take it.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Office stalwarts

Wherever you work, there are always certain types of people who pop up – some a joy to work with, some totally impossible. Every time you change job, you think “Thank God I’m shot of X” and then lo and behold, there they are again, just with a different name and gender.

A quick guide to those lovable characters:

1) The Idler. Comes in half an hour late blaming the traffic, a migraine or a sick cat. Whiles away the day looking at Facebook, having snacks, emailing jokes, fixing domestic crises and fiddling expenses. Always claims that that overdue work is “on its way”.

2) The Busy Bee. Works feverishly. Never misses deadlines, whizzes through piles of paperwork writing comments on every line, in and out of the boss’s office with suggestions and project outlines. Sees aimless chatting as a personality defect.

3) The Stickler. Everything has to be perfect. Constantly fuming over messy kitchens, misspelt reports, untidy desks, faulty photocopiers, staple shortages and meetings that start ten minutes late. Scrutinises everyone with a gimlet eye, waiting to pounce on the smallest mistake.

4) The Piss Artist. Has no standards at all. Treats work as a joke, hands in sloppy nonsense several weeks late. Expects workmates to cover for failings. Does the least they can get away with. Spends meetings doodling, checking mobile and saying “Does this really matter?”

5) The Gasbag. Talks non-stop about their family, what happened to them yesterday, their schedule for the next three weeks and their medical problems. If you don’t listen with rapt attention, they take offence and see you as an uncaring clod.

6) The Mute. Only speaks when strictly necessary, when approached by the boss or their pants are on fire. Impossible to find out anything about them except their name and national insurance number*. If you ask any personal questions, they glare as if you were asking about their mother’s sex life.

Of course none of these ludicrous stereotypes resembles myself in any way. Any contrary suggestion and I’ll consult my lawyers Sue Grabbit and Runne. I’m always diligent, sensible, capable and naturally a superb team-player and self-starter.

Except when I’m farting around googling Annie Lennox and the latest terminal disease I’m sure I’ve succumbed to (just joking, boss….)

* (or PPS number in southern Ireland)

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Trying to be female

Can a man ever really understand a woman? Even if he's the most sensitive, observant, imaginative and open-minded man of all time, I think the answer has to be....no.

It's often claimed that man X has an uncanny and astonishing insight into a woman's psyche, that he manages to transcend masculine limitations and get right under the skin of the opposite sex, but I don't believe it. It's just wishful thinking.

It's most often said in an artistic context, of a film director or novelist or playwright. And it's not just men who say it, women say it too. But do they honestly mean it, or are they really saying "Considering you're a bloke, you get pretty close, but the truth is you're still on the outside looking in."

Because let's face it, however much I as a man can empathise mentally and emotionally with a woman's view of the world, I'm not actually a woman, I'm not seeing things through a woman's eyes, I'm not being treated the way she is, and I'm not immersed in the female culture and subject to the same onslaught of male-defined expectations.

How can I really know what it's like to be relentlessly propositioned by an ugly, boorish male? Or told in a hundred ways that however smart and capable I might be, my contribution is always worth less than a man's? Or dismissed instantly by a man because my bum is too big, my tits are too small, or I don't look like a stick insect?

Or on the other hand what it's like to enjoy greater physical beauty, emotional sensitivity and articulacy?

I think the best I can do as a man is admit a woman's experience is often foreign to me, accept that it's just as valid as my own, and above all listen carefully when women explain that experience, so I can get as close to that reality as I can short of sprouting breasts and my willie dropping off.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Going to extremes

After writing about overworked women, I realised how easy it is to overdo things, for quite natural desires to turn into unhealthy obsessions. Like dieting that slides into anorexia and bulimia.

We've all been there, I'm sure. I guess most people see me as a fairly level-headed person who doesn't do extremes, but there are one or two skeletons in the closet.

When I was in my twenties, influenced by stories of Buddhist monks in mountain caves, I decided minimalism was the way to go and tried to simplify my life to the bare essentials. I rented a tiny bedsit, gave away my car, eschewed all luxuries and never took a holiday.

Outside of work, I lived like a hermit, talking to no one, ignoring the rest of the world, contemplating the meaning of the universe. This went on for some months until I fell for a stunningly beautiful woman who visited my spartan lair and threw up her hands in horror at my hairshirt lifestyle.

She took me back to her plushy, sumptuous flat and all my minimalist principles bit the dust. I realised a fanatical puritanism had taken over from pleasure and common sense.

It's easily done. And it's not just the headline addictions like eating disorders you have to guard against. There are plenty of damaging routines you can slip into without realising.

Things like excessive house-cleaning regimes, extreme dedication to work, a weakness for destructive relationships or a self-effacing devotion to an impossible parent.

I've known women who couldn't rest until dust was wiped off a table or a stain removed from the carpet, whose houses had to be pristine and spotless at all times. I've known men who would stay in the office till midnight finishing that vital presentation that would impress the boss and win promotion.

We could all name friends who've been in soul-destroying relationships with hopelessly unsuitable people, constantly denigrated and belittled till they're in pieces. And we've all seen tyrannical elderly parents making relentless demands on tearful offspring who can't bear to walk away.

It's easy to drift into unwitting self-sacrifice for the best of motives. Sometimes it's not other people who enslave us. We naively make our own treadmills.

PS: Grandad has nominated me for the colossally prestigious Break Out Blogger Award. What a sweetie!

................................................................................

I'm deeply shocked by the pictures of utter filth and squalor at the Kent hospitals where 90 patients died from the superbug Clostridium Difficile. There was such a shortage of nurses patients were told they couldn't be helped to the toilet, they had to relieve themselves in their beds. The beds were so close together the bug spread like wildfire, and there were body fluids and rubbish everywhere. And this is despite billions of pounds being poured into the NHS. What the hell was done with the money?

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Acts of kindness

Some people are so kind-hearted they just don't have it in them to ignore a hard luck story or a pleading face. I used to be that way but I've got a bit more thick-skinned over the years.

I think what altered me was a spell of unemployment in London, when I used to walk round Hyde Park every day and give my small change to the beggars and dossers.

As the weeks went by, the number of outstretched hands grew and my purse emptied faster and faster. Finally I called a halt and just walked past them all.

Nowadays I find it fairly easy to turn down the doorstep callers selling dishcloths, collecting for dubious charities or even offering cut-price paintings. Their "If you don't respond, you're obviously an insensitive brute" expression just doesn't cut any ice.

I'm not Mr Stone-Heart, but I'll only give when I feel a genuine desire to give, or when I'm passionate about a particular cause. I'm not going to give just because someone tries to guilt-trip me about refusing, or implies I'm a sick bastard for doubting their dreadful tale of woe.

I was once stopped in the street by a wild-eyed middle-aged man with an improbable story about a sick daughter, a stolen wallet and his urgent need for a taxi fare, which of course he would pay back the next day. He was most affronted when I turned him down, and even more affronted when I pointed out the strong smell of alcohol he was giving off.

It was quite different when a workmate really did have her purse stolen and we all chipped in to make up the loss. Or when Jenny and I gave away a hardly-used canteen of cutlery to a student setting up her first flat-share.

I'm a sucker for buskers too. I don't care what they want the cash for, some stirring music always brightens my day. Oh, and collections at political rallies. Does the cash go to the strike fund or the pub on the corner? I don't know and I don't ask.

.................................................................................

Update on the OzBus: I read in the Guardian today that the OzBus is facing mutiny after claims of breakdowns, itinerary changes and difficulty getting food. The passengers are currently stuck in Tehran waiting for a replacement bus. One of them, Lucy Allen, 22, says "The whole bus is up in arms. We are currently stuck in this hellhole. We are no longer seeing half the things we were promised. The only food we've had since Istanbul is from petrol stations." Can't say I'm surprised. Here's the link for the story.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

A woman's lot

A rather brave journalist called Jemima Lewis* has dared to say that if most women feel stressed and miserable, it's entirely their fault and nothing to do with men.

Instead of giving themselves impossible workloads and trying to do everything perfectly, they should follow men's example and lower their standards, do less and relax more.

She believes the reason women push themselves so hard is not to impress men but to compete with other women and satisfy their own vanity.

Men don't waste time wondering if the wallpaper is passé, if their thighs are too big or if their Christmas presents are thoughtful and personal enough. "They have more pressing matters to attend to, such as having a good time".

Well, I have to admit, at the risk of giving Medbh apoplexy, that I tend to agree with her.

I've known a lot of restless women who thought nothing in their life was quite good enough and were in a constant frenzy of upgrading and modernising. Home, job, friends, men, personal appearance - everything was ruthlessly evaluated and found wanting.

They always claimed that all they wanted to do was sprawl on the settee with a glass of champagne and a good book, but in practice they couldn't sit down for two minutes without wondering if the carpet needed hoovering or the spice jars needed refilling.

None of these details bothered me, but they were preoccupied with them. Of course like everyone else, I want to make my life more comfortable and more satisfying, but I'm not going to bust a gut in the process. I'll take it at a leisurely pace, thanks, and I'll take time to admire the scenery on the way. Including the slightly dated wallpaper.

* writing in the London Independent, 29.09.07

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Abortion uproar

Abortion is suddenly a burning issue again here in Northern Ireland, where the anti-abortion group Precious Life is organising a campaign against the new legal guidelines from the Department of Health.

They claim the new guidance on interpreting the abortion law amounts to "abortion on demand through the back door".

They're backing a motion due to be debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly, tabled by DUP* MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and Iris Robinson, that claims the new guidelines are flawed and opposes "any attempt to make abortion more widely available".

How exactly the new guidelines could possibly mean abortion on demand is a mystery, as neither the MPs or Precious Life have explained this extraordinary accusation.

Since the document runs to 40 pages, it's difficult to know whereabouts this scurrilous proposal is lurking. Give us a clue, Jeffrey!

In fact the guidelines are merely a response to a court case brought by the Family Planning Association asking for clarification of the current abortion law, which allows abortion only if there is a threat to the mother's life or her physical or mental health. The court didn't change the law in any way.

Just who started this absurd scare story and how many people will believe it? And why is no other politician brave enough to demolish it?

Footnote: Several Catholic schools in Belfast recently cut their links with Amnesty International after it supported abortion in certain circumstances such as rape. What a green light for male violence and female servitude! Thanks so much, boys and girls.

* The Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Green fatigue

"Oh no, not more melting glaciers and dying polar bears. We saw all that last week. Change the channel, sweetheart, that Keira Knightley film's just starting. I need something entertaining, I've had a bastard of a day."

There's more and more talk of green fatigue, the idea that global warming is too vast and too complex a problem for individuals to do much about. So we just get apathetic and stop thinking about it.

Even if we do everything we're supposed to do, from recycling rubbish to turning the heating down, becoming neurotic fussbags in the process, global temperatures just keep on rising and damage to the planet gets worse.

As scientist Susanne Moser puts it, it's like going on a strict diet for months, while other people eat as much as they like, and the only result is you don't gain weight quite as fast. Sooner or later, bang goes the diet.

It doesn't help to see the reeking hypocrisy of politicians and celebrities telling us to curb our extravagant lifestyles while they're jetting round the world and buying yet more luxury mansions. Move into a caravan, Mister, and we might do the same.

The other daunting thing is the neverendingness of it all. It's not a simple matter of sending a tenner and saving a starving child. Just when you think you're on top of the 101 daily routines that need to be made greener (and you're exhausted), some poxy environmentalist comes along with half a dozen more to think about. What about cruise ships? What about mobile phones? Aaarrgh!

No wonder people give up in despair. Stopping global warming has become a full-time job and we're not even getting paid for it. Of course I care as much as anybody - but isn't there a simpler way?

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Toxic islands

As you innocently unpeel a nice creamy banana, spare a thought for the banana-growers on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, which have been thoroughly poisoned by years of illegal pesticide-spraying.

A French cancer specialist says the 800,000 inhabitants of the islands face a health disaster from toxins that have wrecked the soil and water supplies for up to a century.

Such are the soaring rates of cancer, infertility and birth defects that complete evacuation of the islands would probably be the best course of action.

Chlordecone, a highly toxic pesticide, was sprayed illegally over the islands from 1993 to 2002, to kill weevils. Every child in Guadeloupe is contaminated with it and they will pass it on to their own children in turn.

As if that isn't enough, the residents are still trying to recover from the effects of Hurricane Dean, which ruined about three quarters of all the banana plantations. Many growers are unable to replant their crops because of the ravaged soil and water.

It's yet another graphic example of how capitalists will go to ruthless extremes to up their profits at the expense of people's health and quality of life. In this case however they've shat in their own beds and sabotaged future economic prospects for everyone. Thanks a bunch, you might say.

It's also a vivid reminder that all the health and safety regulations you can think of (whatever they might be on these two islands) are of no avail if one greedy bastard is determined to trample all over them. They may as well be soap bubbles.

(See the article in the London Independent 19.09.07)

NB: the bananas themselves are not affected by the poison (or so they say)

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Superspouses

Relationships* have certainly changed since my childhood, when rigid sex roles were so normal it was enough for my father and mother to be a typical male and female and ne'er the twain shall meet.

Nowadays as sex roles blur around the edges, couples expect each other to break out of these limited boxes and be capable of just about anything - to be Superspouses.

It's not enough for the man to be able to put up shelves or repair the car or get horny. Now he has to look after the baby, do some cooking, be emotionally sensitive and be a good socialiser. A Jack of all trades, infinitely adaptable.

Likewise the woman can't get by on looking sexy, getting the dinner on the table and changing nappies. She has to be good with money, do some heavy lifting, sort out minor repairs and be emotionally resilient. If she can't do all that, she's sadly lacking.

You'd think these increasing demands for mutual perfection would put an impossible strain on relationships and send the separation rate through the roof, but strangely enough that hasn't happened. People obviously like the idea of dumping the straitjackets and being a bit more versatile, they rise to the challenge rather than dragging their heels.

Though I must say that Jenny and I, despite both of us trailing years of anti-sexist conditioning, are not too hard on each other. Of course we want to show we're not slaves to laughable stereotypes, but we do recognise our natural limitations.

I don't seriously expect Jenny to retile the kitchen when I wouldn't dare to attempt it myself. Nor does she ask me to whip up a three-course dinner for twenty when women themselves would panic at the prospect. But wherever we can push the boundaries back and make our skills more interchangeable, we do.

We're not quite Superspouses but we're moving in the right direction. And our parents are already looking pretty prehistoric.

* Heterosexual relationships obviously. I can't speak for anyone of a different persuasion....

Sunday, 16 September 2007

To Sydney by bus

Being a bit of a greenie as you know, and concerned about the toxic effects of air travel, I was interested to hear of OzBus, which is running trips direct from London to Sydney overland, taking three months to complete the journey.

I also noticed the story because one third of the 38 passengers for today's departure are Irish (plus one third Australian and one third British).

The trip costs a whopping £3750, which is some seven times the price of a scheduled flight from London to Sydney, but of course allows you to see all the spectacular scenery rather than just flying over it.

However if you're imagining some luxury journey along the lines of a Mediterranean cruise or the Orient Express, think again. This is strictly a DIY, rough-and-ready enterprise where not much is laid on and you're expected to muck in and help organise it all.

When the bus comes to its overnight halt in Nepal or Laos, forget five star hotels or room service. It'll probably be a campsite where you have to put up your own tent (tent and sleeping equipment not provided, by the way), then help with food-shopping, cooking, washing-up and anything else that needs doing. Oh, and cleaning the bus as well.

It's all designed to encourage camaraderie and make the trip more fun, says OzBus owner and founder Mark Creasey. As he puts it, "Bush camping allows us to return to the great outdoors and really be at one with nature."

I'm not sure about that. Be at one with the frying pan and the sleeping bag perhaps, but nature's just as close to a holiday chalet in the Rockies. Still, if you want to avoid an identikit tourist package and have a more down-to-earth experience, this looks just the thing.

Oh, I forgot to mention, the bus doesn't look too comfortable either. It's hardly your state of the art touring coach, more one of those rather beaten-up old rural buses on its last tour of duty before the scrapyard. But maybe the picture gives a false impression....

Photo: a village in Nepal

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Baby blues

I really don't understand why some women are so desperate to have children they resort to round after round of gruelling and costly fertility treatments to get them.

Isn't it enough to have tried for pregnancy, failed, and made new plans that don't include children? For a startlingly large number of women (and men), it isn't.

Being childless seems to leave them with such a black hole, such a sense of something missing, they just can't accept the situation.

The average child-seeking couple spends £4782 on fertility treatments, even though only 47% of women end up with a baby*. Some couples take on mortgage-size debts to carry on with treatment to the bitter end, they are so unwilling to admit defeat and their physical failings.

I'm baffled as to what prompts this raging obsession. I suppose some women are still convinced they're not a real woman unless they've borne a child. Or it's a variation on plastic surgery - they just can't accept their 'flawed body' and have to put it right. Or else it's the men putting pressure on them to continue the family or they'll find another woman who can.

And surprise surprise, many women feel guilty that their hedonistic lifestyles may have jeopardised their ability to get pregnant, while most men don't think about that and still assume it must be the woman's fault - even though 30% of all fertility problems in Northern Ireland are due to male infertility*.

It also annoys me that 23% of infertility treatment is paid for by the NHS, when the UK is hardly under-populated in the first place. I could think of some much better uses for the money - improving hospital hygiene and wiping out superbugs, for a start. Cleaning not weaning!

* Red magazine survey, quoted in the Belfast Telegraph 5.9.07

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Old gold

As a fully paid-up sexagenarian, I'm glad ageism is a hot topic nowadays, with new laws recently passed on the subject. But there are still some hoary old stereotypes about oldies. To mention but a few:

(1) They can't do anything active any more, they're physically over the hill. Actually we're getting so adventurous doctors are seeing more and more sports injuries among oldies who just refuse to slow down.

(2) They're set in their ways, stuck in the past. But there are loads of Silver Surfers glued to their computers and grey-haired militants rooting for radical issues like global warming and third-world poverty.

(3) They're grumpy and cranky, all they do is moan. Tell that to the sprightly volunteers in the charity shop or the beaming grandma looking after her adored grandchildren.

(4) They never have sex, the vital juices have dried up. On the contrary, oldies are having so much sex with so many partners there's been a big increase in STIs in that age group. Viagra has a lot to answer for!

(5) They hate young people. Not if they have the charming grandchildren just mentioned. Not if they're going to evening classes full of youngsters. Not if they're avidly reading books by young authors.

(6) They're afraid of everything and everyone and scared to go out the front door. My 85 year old mother has just set off on a coach holiday to the South of France, on her own, and expects to have a whale of a time. There are oldies doing parachute jumps, climbing mountains and sailing around the world.

Certainly I surprise myself with my complete non-resemblance to any of the ageist clichés, feeling and acting much the same as I did ten or twenty years ago. I still work, I'm still healthy, my brain's still buzzing, I'm still insatiably curious about all sort of things. If I hear one more reference to doddery pensioners playing bingo, I think I might lash out with my razor-tipped zimmer frame. Clapped-out oldies? Harumph.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Going native

The Canadian authorities make a big thing of respecting the First Nations (i.e. the indigenous peoples) by appreciating their culture, upholding their human rights and not treating them as second-class citizens.

But this public stance seems to be at odds with the First Nations sections in museums and other tourist attractions which strike me not as respectful but as somewhat condescending and insulting.

I visited several of these displays in Vancouver and Victoria, expecting to find explanations of how sophisticated and intelligent these people really are and how they could teach us a thing or two about our supposedly superior 21st century culture.

But surprisingly all I found was collections of artefacts and tools and descriptions of traditional ceremonies and rituals, which to me suggested not sophisticated human beings but goofy dullards incapable of anything more than weaving rugs, carving totem poles and observing mindless superstitions about giant ravens and supernatural frogs.

Is this really the message I should be getting or am I missing something?

I kept wondering what they thought about the big questions - what is the meaning of life, why are we on this planet, how can we live together in peace and harmony? - but I didn't find any answers, or even any sign they thought about such things at all.

I couldn't help supposing that underneath the public honouring of the First Nations, there is a furtive counter-agenda to depict them as quaint and laughable rather than worthy of serious consideration and esteem. If so, it's succeeding brilliantly and misleading an awful lot of people.

Still, better keep an eye on them ravens, they might be up to something.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Rocky Mountaineer

We spent the last two days of our holiday on the Rocky Mountaineer train, which winds nearly 700 miles through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver to Calgary.

As you can imagine, it's just mile after mile of breathtaking scenery - soaring mountains, some topped with snow and glaciers; sprawling lakes rolling on endlessly; wild rivers tumbling between sheer rockfaces; and stretches of quasi-desert where trees and vegetation all but disappear.

I kept looking down or looking up to see landscapes so extraordinary I thought I must be dreaming. The train just climbs up and up until at one point it's 5,500 feet above sea level and still the mountains are streaking to 10,000 feet.

There're two levels of service on the train - Gold Leaf and Red Leaf. On Gold Leaf you get cordon bleu food, extra personal attention and higher windows so the scenery is more visible. We opted for Red Leaf, which was just fine - we still had delicious food in large quantities and didn't miss any of the scenery. And it costs about half as much.

The only weak link on the trip was the overnight stay at Kamloops, a hideously ugly town with second-rate hotels that made us glad to be back on the train in the morning. With some 2000 passengers from three trains all stopping overnight, the company needs to find much better accommodation, maybe by building its own deluxe hotel.

Some passengers think the train is too slow but I enjoyed the leisurely, laid-back crawl that gives you time to appreciate the most dazzling sights without feeling rushed.

Even on this idyllic ride, the effects of global warming are evident. Huge swathes of pine forest are being killed by the ubiquitous pine beetle, which up till now was largely wiped out by plummeting winter temperatures but is now thriving in the much warmer climate. If it can't be controlled, much of the forest cover will vanish in a few years and with it the massive timber industry.

It's a sobering thought that our flights to Canada and back contributed to this carnage. But what do we do instead - stay home and watch the telly? We may all be facing some hard choices before long.

PS: Have just read that the spruce bark beetle is also chomping its way through Alaska's Kenai Peninsula (south of Anchorage).

Friday, 31 August 2007

Vancouver

Yes, I'm finally back from my travels with Jenny in Western Canada. Mainly we were in Vancouver, which is every bit as spectacular as people told us. Definitely the equal of Sydney in terms of the setting - on a huge river estuary with four massive mountain ridges directly opposite. Not only that but the city has an enormous wooded park (Stanley Park) the size of the city centre on a peninsular jutting out into the estuary. We were just stunned by the unbelievable beauty of it all.

Of course there were one or two flies in the ointment - no city's that perfect - so here are the pros and cons. The pros: the sensational setting; a city centre small enough to walk around; the cultural diversity (a lot of Asians and gays in particular); a great sense of vitality and creativity; Starbucks' unbeatable coffee and pastries; a superb mega-bookstore, Chapters; Stanley Park; and the vertiginous cable car ride up Grouse Mountain.

The cons: limited eating-out possibilities - a complete lack of vegetarian or Italian restaurants, but plenty of junk food like hot dog stalls; a slight frostiness from the locals towards non-locals - maybe because we English are associated with the often detested Americans; and the way so many beautiful old traditional houses had been cleared for skyscrapers and apartment blocks. But that's not much to complain about.

We also spent a few days in Victoria on Vancouver Island, which we definitely wouldn't recommend - completely overwhelmed by tourists and decrepit oldies who could hardly stagger down the streets. A sort of giant old folks home with a seaview. The one unexpected highlight was a brilliant exhibition on (of all things!) the sinking of the Titanic at the British Columbia Museum.

To wind up, we spent two days on the train that goes right through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver to Calgary. Another amazing experience. But more about that in the next instalment....

PS: My suitcase got lost somewhere between Calgary and Belfast. Will I ever see it again? And it contained some lovely clothes Jenny bought in Calgary!! Fingers crossed it's not too far away....

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The Life of Riley

It so often seems that other people have much better lives than yourself, that they're gliding through everything effortlessly while you're struggling against the odds and meeting one obstacle after another.

Parents think couples without children have got it easy, workers think the bosses have got it easy, and Joe and Joanna Public think celebs have got it easy.

But what do we really know about other people's lives when usually all we see is the carefully crafted facade they present to the world? People go to amazing lengths to conceal the awkward truth and pretend they're coping brilliantly with life's difficulties.

They don't reveal the panic attacks or the mortgage arrears or the husband's porn stash or the son's pyromania. They don't reveal their constant fear that their job is beyond their abilities or their social skills are lacking or they're totally incompetent parents.

What's really tragic though is when someone is so convinced that other people have far superior lifestyles they go to desperate lengths to imitate them.

Like the bank clerk who embezzles thousands of pounds to get a swish house and a flashy car, or parents who bankrupt themselves in the belief that a £20,000 wedding outdoes a £2,000 one. Or teenage girls who spend meagre wages on extortionate designer clothes to feel like jetsetting supermodels.

And even when people know full well that the imagined Life of Riley is more like Dead End Gulch, they still pursue the dream regardless. We all know by now that many supermodels are on a gruelling treadmill of dieting, purging, exercising and plastic surgery, yet there are plenty of young girls aching to be in their shoes and hating what they see as the mediocrity and pointlessness of their existing lives. The golden images have a life of their own.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Bumptious tourists

In principle tourism is a good thing - visit new countries, find out how other people live, broaden our horizons. Unhappily some tourists behave so badly they just give tourism a bad name.

The boom in low-cost flights is a double-edged sword here. It means we can all travel around more easily, but it also means rowdy yobs descending on unsuspecting cities.

Places like Prague are being beseiged by out-of-control hen and stag parties that take over the streets and terrify the residents, leaving a trail of bottles, vomit and vandalism.

Too many tourists are blithely insensitive to the locals, ignoring their customs and culture, expecting everything to be just the way it is in Sheffield or Swansea and demanding instant service and attention.

They commonly regard the indigenous cuisine as repulsive and insist loudly on fish and chips or beefsteak, all the while making snide remarks about foreign tastes.

Then there are the giant coaches manoeuvring painfully down tiny streets to disgorge packs of edgy sightseers, frantically snapping everything in sight before rushing off to the next fashionable destination.

Personally when I'm a tourist somewhere I do my best to blend in with my new surroundings and be as unobtrusive as possible, rather than sticking out like a sore thumb, throwing my weight around and making absurd demands.

I also try to absorb as much of the local culture as I can - buying newspapers, watching TV, talking to residents, trying to understand what the big issues are, what preoccupies people, the typical lifestyles and aspirations.

If you're just going to breeze in and indulge yourself every which way, taking no interest at all in the place itself, why go there to begin with? You might as well have gone to Brighton. Or booked a fortnight at the travel agent's office. A bit more respect and a bit less arrogance wouldn't go amiss.

(Note for those of you who read wisewebwoman's excellent two posts on pornography - she has just posted the third part, which is deeply sad and sobering)

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The coy of sex

We like to think we're so sexually liberated nowadays, happy to talk about anything without a murmur. Gone is the old prudery of our strait-laced parents.

Well, not quite. A new report says over a third of Britons find talking with a new partner about condoms so embarrassing it puts them off using one. And over 40 per cent think mentioning them is a sexual turn-off.

The Family Planning Association, which did the research, is surprised at this reticence in the midst of a 'highly sexualised society'. It's also surprised that the young are just as inhibited as the old.

But there's a world of difference between the public flaunting of sex, with salacious stories and images in newspapers and on TV screens, and people's private lives, where dealing with anything outside the romantic norm of spontaneous orgasmic bliss can be perplexing and awkward.

Who wants to discuss their imperfect bodies or sexual infections or impotence? We feel like the party pooper at the sparkling soiree, sabotaging something precious. Easier just to get on with it, swallow our doubts and hope for the best.

We think that if we mention too many negatives, it might even frighten the other person away and snuff out the relationship before it started. Even if we feel bold enough to handle the stumbling blocks, can our partner do the same?

This sexual coyness is something we have to solve though. Among other things, it's feeding the rapid spread of sexual infections which blight so many lives. That lingering stiff upper lip needs to be loosened fast.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Holiday fibs

Holidays are now such a status symbol that people invariably lie about how things went, making out they were dream-perfect even if they were actually the holiday from hell.

Those typical conversations about what it was like are not all they seem. Sometimes you need a special phrase book to decode the rose-tinted accounts. For example:

"So how was the flight?"

"Brilliant. We only paid a fiver each and then we got an upgrade." (Diabolical. We had to pay £50 for excess baggage, we took off four hours late and my suitcase was stolen)

"So what was the hotel like?"

"Brilliant. Massive room overlooking the Bay of Whatsit. Cordon bleu food. Complimentary room service." (Appalling. They were still building it. The room was hamster-size. We had food poisoning for three days)

"Good weather?"

"Brilliant. Sunshine all the way. Almost too hot for comfort. And the week before it was torrential rain. Luck of the devil." (Horrendous. Permanent downpour. Whole area was flooded. We had to hire a boat. My new camera fell overboard)

Jenny and I are actually quite frank about our holidays. If they're disappointing, it's not our fault, after all, it's down to other people's cock-ups. And we don't see holidays as status symbols, just as a bit of fun and novelty. We happily admit to being let down by Verona, underwhelmed by Connemara and unimpressed by Amsterdam.

Other people are amazed by our honesty, as if it's a breach of etiquette or a mental aberration. But who are they fooling with their glittering fibs? They forget we've all been on the same boat, or should I say unhygienic cruise ship. Why not come clean?

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Gay relations

Gays in Derry are preparing for the Foyle Pride Festival from August 13, in a more tolerant atmosphere than a few years ago when homophobic attacks were appallingly common.

The photo shows the famous Free Derry Wall getting a bright pink makeover for the six-day festival, to recognise that the Civil Rights Movement also includes gays.

Says festival organiser David McCartney: "The last time the festival was in Derry, five years ago, there were 93 homophobic attacks in the city that year. This year there have been just two, which shows the change of attitudes towards the gay community."

But an article in the Belfast Telegraph says many gays in Northern Ireland still haven't come out to their parents for fear of the reaction. And many parents haven't told the truth about their gay children to anyone outside the family for the same reason.

Cathy Falconer, 49, who lives in Derry, has written a book 'Good As You' about 11 mothers' reactions to gay sons. She says she couldn't speak to fathers because they found the subject much harder to deal with and talk about.

She explains how her son Barry, 25, came out to her almost eight years ago, and how shocked and upset she was at the time, before she gradually accepted it. She still fears other people's reactions because the old myths about homosexuality are so strong.

So I hope the Festival is well supported, not just by gays but by the whole population of Derry, to show that the familiar stigma is finally lifting.

PS: Graffiti has been sprayed on the wall but it has now been repainted.

Photo courtesy of the Irish Times

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Dealing with drugs

When the media love to scare us all witless about the horrors of drugs, and how a few grams of skunk or cocaine will turn us into psychotic beasts, it takes a hardy soul to defy the shrieking headlines and say all drugs should be legalised.

But why not? It's been pointed out often that most drug-related tragedies actually stem from illegality, and many of the deaths, overdoses, collapses and addictions would not occur if drugs were openly available.

It's illegality that means drugs are taken furtively in unhygienic conditions that cause infections. It means dosage and quality are uncertain and drugs can be contaminated with serious poisons.

It means that in an emergency people are loathe to seek help because they're doing something forbidden. And it means accurate information about drugs and their physical effects is hard to obtain.

What's more, if it all went legal, the unscrupulous drug-dealers who sell polluted products at inflated prices would have to shut up shop or clean up their act, and they'd have to pay the government some tax instead of just lining their pockets.

But at the end of the day, drug use isn't a legal issue, it's a health issue. You can't stop people taking them, but what you can do is ensure they take them in conditions that safeguard their health and don't lead to illness, unhappiness and isolation. Conditions in which they aren't treated as pariahs and outcasts but given all the advice, support and information they need to indulge their tastes safely and not recklessly.

Most of the tough talk comes from ill-informed hotheads who've never tried the drugs in question and are swayed by rawcous hard-liners - even when they're happily consuming dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco themselves.

But draconian laws aren't stopping the explosion in drug use. We need a better remedy for pain and distress than law courts and jail cells.

(For the record, the only banned drugs I've taken are cannabis and LSD. I've never tried any others, mostly because I've never been offered them - what a sheltered life I lead)

PS: Very interesting programme on Channel 4 on August 3 by Dr Colin Froggatt arguing that heroin should be decriminalised and freely prescribed. He says this has been a big success in Switzerland. Thanks for the link, Bellulah.