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 G

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 G 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, G 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 G 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 piĆ¹ 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....