Friday, 31 July 2009


As buttons seem to be the red-hot blogging theme of the moment (see Leah and Baino), I thought I'd get in on the act. Buttons, after all, can be quite controversial.

Some people (like me) hate buttons. They're a nuisance to fasten and unfasten. They impede our romantic manoeuvres. They slow up doctors and paramedics. They make changing duvet covers a pain in the bum.

In fact it's amazing that such a clumsy idea as buttons has survived for 900 years* without being superceded by something more practical and efficient, something that enables us to dress and undress (and change duvet covers) with the minimum of fuss and bother.

Well, actually there are viable alternatives we can call on - like zips and velcro. They're much easier to use than fiddly, laborious buttons. They don't fall off and roll away under the sofa. Unfortunately they have negative overtones that limit their appeal.

They're seen as crude substitutes for the dainty, eye-catching tininess of buttons. They're seen as nasty, modern contraptions with as much frisson as a clothes peg. And velcro of course is still associated with numb-fingered oldies.

But as Leah has pointed out, the real reason buttons are still the favoured fastenings is their tantalising sex appeal. Let's face it, they're not just buttons, they're fetishistic delights.

Women soon discovered the seductive potential of buttons. They realised both undone buttons and tightly-fastened buttons set male hearts racing helplessly, and they adjusted their clothing accordingly. Female newsreaders with a loose blouse button too many get their viewers into such a lather they have to be taken off air for hasty rearrangement.

So I don't think buttons are going to disappear any time soon. Not if men have anything to do with it, anyway. Though personally I think the eroticism of zips is sadly under-rated. The endless temptation of a shiny zip fastener....

* Buttons have a long history as ornaments but it was only in Germany in the 13th century that they were first used to open and close clothing.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Poor lore

How often do you hear people wash their hands of poverty by saying "You'll never get rid of poverty, it's too big a problem. You just have to accept that some people are well-off and some aren't"?

Christian Aid is running some rather good adverts pointing out all the other big problems that people once dismissed as unsolvable - and were proved wrong. Ending poverty, says the ad, is no bigger than:

Eradicating smallpox
Liberating Europe from the Nazis
Putting a man on the moon
Bailing out the banks
Abolishing slavery
Ending apartheid
Bringing down the Berlin Wall
Creating the Internet
Digging a tunnel from England to France

"We're humans, we do big tasks" the ad ends. In other words, if we really want to achieve something, we can. It only takes the political will and the collective belief that the aim can be achieved. If we really think poverty is unacceptable in the 21st century, if we really want to wipe it out, then we can.

It's not a fact of life. It's not a fact of nature. It's a result of the way we organise our societies and it can be changed if we decide to organise things differently.

This isn't just a minor issue. Some 13 million people in the UK - 22 per cent of the population - are living in poverty*. That includes around 4 million children and 2½ million elderly people.

How can anybody simply shrug off these statistics as an unsolvable problem? How can anybody be blasé about people who can't afford to eat, heat their home, or buy new clothes? They wouldn't be so blasé if it was their own aunt counting the pennies and going without food.

I'll give my vote to the first politician who seriously reduces poverty instead of merely promising to do so. But it's funny how other things always get priority. What was that about bailing out the banks?

* Normally defined as 60 per cent or less of the average household income (or is that median?)

Jenny and I finally met up with John Self, who writes the wonderful book blog John Self's Shelves, and his wife and little boy. John is just as funny and perceptive in the flesh as he is on his blog, and Mrs S is lovely too. It's always fun meeting another blogger and seeing if they match up with the mental picture....

Monday, 27 July 2009

Mindless ban

As some of you know, my sister Heather, who is 60, has had motor neurone disease for six years. She's remarkably stoical about this dreadful illness, which rapidly destroys normal functions like walking and speaking. She just battles on and enjoys whatever she's still able to do.

The Motor Neurone Disease Association, which provides all kinds of support to those with the illness, has just produced a TV advert to make people more aware of MND and encourage donations and offers of help.

But the body that monitors TV adverts (Clearcast) has inexplicably decided that the ad is too graphic and shocking to be shown on TV.

It's no more shocking than the drink-driving and speeding ads that are shown constantly. It's no more shocking than the grisly sequences of violence, bloodshed and carnage that appear regularly on the news and in films. Yet this faceless body has seen fit to ban it and prevent the MNDA from promoting its work and helping those struggling with desperate circumstances.

The MNDA is trying to get the ban reversed and persuade Clearcast that their decision is irrational and illogical. In the meantime the ad can still be shown in cinemas, where it's getting an excellent response.

It beats me what's so extreme about the ad. A woman collapsing on the floor? A woman confined to a wheelchair? A woman feeling isolated and shunned? A woman in her underwear? The only thing that's shocking is her loss of independence and disrupted life. Which is exactly what MND involves. So why the ban?

If you want to watch the ad, it's here.

NB: Photo is not my sister but a model

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Scary pigs

Aren't you totally terrified of swine flu? According to the media, it might kill tens of thousands, devastate businesses and trigger countless miscarriages and birth defects. We should all be quaking in our boots.

Thank God for one intrepid soul ignoring the screaming headlines and asking what the fuss is all about. It's only flu, says columnist Simon Jenkins. If you get it, just take an aspirin and wait for it to go away again.

It's not even as debilitating as other types of flu, he reminds us. We'll hardly know we've got it. A sore throat, runny nose, aching muscles - hardly the end of the world. The only people dead so far are those with underlying medical conditions that make it hard to fight the infection. So why the panic?

But the tabloids are conjuring up lines of coffins and ravaged families, the government are diverting cash and staff from elsewhere in the health service, two thousand phone advisers have been recruited and reams of advice have been issued (much of it contradictory and confusing).

Pregnant women are scared they might lose their baby, but the risk is no greater than for any other flu. The woman who died after giving birth had used a wheelchair for 15 years and had serious medical problems.

We should all take a deep breath, turn our bullshit-detectors up a few notches and just laugh heartily at all the lurid headlines. Haven't these journalists got anything better to do, like asking why poverty and illiteracy are still so common in a highly developed country?

I sometimes think journalists get a sort of sadistic thrill from frightening us out of our wits and creating doomsday scenarios out of remote possibilities. Still, why let the truth stand in the way of a good story?

PS: Of course swine flu is child's play compared with the horrors of man flu....

PPS: Drug companies and retailers are making a killing out of swine flu hysteria, selling a gullible public everything from anti-bacterial hand wipes to thermometers and face masks. It's reported that internet sales of bogus Tamiflu are now higher than bogus Viagra....

Monday, 20 July 2009

Follies of age

How embarrassing it must be for young women who get brazen advances from ageing males they find utterly unattractive.

I can't imagine why balding, pot-bellied, flabby, wrinkled old guys think they have some sort of appeal to women decades younger who naturally gravitate to lean young men of a similar age.

I wouldn't think for a second that my 62-year-old body is of any interest to a twenty-something female, yet how many times have I seen lecherous old goats pestering some nubile partygoer as if they were in with a chance.

And often of course they have wives or partners who've been witnessing their inappropriate approaches for many years - that is, if they haven't experienced it once too often and called it a day.

Film-makers fuel this syndrome by depicting the most unlikely matches between gorgeous young women and raddled Casanovas long past their prime. The women could clearly snag any number of handsome young charmers with a click of their fingers, yet miraculously they've fallen for the older guy. Pull the other one, it's got bells on.

Some put it down to the male menopause - ageing blokes who are suddenly nostalgic for their horny youth and try to recreate it with the office temp. I don't think it's that at all. I think they honestly believe they're still dynamite between the sheets and will leave any bedmate gasping for more. They cling stubbornly to this absurd delusion despite all evidence to the contrary.

It's excruciating watching some squirming victim trying desperately to get away and indicate her total lack of interest. Just what does a woman have to do to explain the obvious to Mr Never-Gives-Up?

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Kid gloves

There's a big fuss going on about the widespread vetting of anyone coming into contact with children. There's a feeling it's all gone too far and turned into pervert-paranoia.

Even writers visiting schools to talk about books will be required by the government's new Vetting and Barring Scheme to pay £64 for confirmation that they are no known risk to children.

Several of them, including Philip Pullman and Anne Fine, say they will stop visiting schools in protest.

The VBS, which launches in October, will oblige millions of people in indirect contact with school children to register with them for a risk-assessment.

That includes caretakers, cleaners, cooks, electricians, plumbers and anyone who gives talks to pupils like firefighters, police and paramedics. Even if a teacher will be present throughout, they still have to be vetted.

There are vociferous complaints that this huge new bureaucracy is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, casting undeserved suspicions on thousands of people without necessarily preventing offences against children.

The VBS is a consequence of the awful murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by Ian Huntley, a school janitor. But Huntley didn't get the job because of a lack of vetting. On the contrary, he was already suspected of sexual offences but was employed nonetheless.

Oversights and negligence of this sort are bound to happen again, regardless of whether people's backgrounds have been checked. And surely the incidence of sexual assaults in schools is not enough to justify such a huge bureaucratic operation casting doubts on so many probably harmless people?

Once you start to see potential abusers on all sides, where do you stop? What about people who live close to a primary school (like me)? Or people who frequent sweetshops? or people who travel on buses with schoolkids? It won't be long before the entire population is under suspicion and every adult is seen as a lurking predator.

This isn't child protection, it's mindless hysteria.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009


I used to think I was a very patient person, always steeped in a sort of Zen Buddhist serenity, unphased by anything. But it ain't true, I'm actually very impatient about a lot of things.

I'm particularly impatient about having to wait for service. If I'm in a phone queue, or a cashdesk queue, or a bus queue, I get very exasperated. It's wasted time I can't use for anything else (unless I happen to have a book with me). Why can't they just employ more staff, provide more buses, speed up a bit?

I know it's not good for my blood pressure. I know I should be more philosophical about things I can't control. I know those concerned are probably doing their best under pressure. But something gets stirred up and irritation takes over.

I also get impatient (or more likely steaming mad) with people who do things wrong. I don't mean minor mistakes like burning the toast. I mean major things like delivering the wrong furniture or charging me twice for something. Why can't they simply check the details properly and take a bit more care? As someone who habitually double checks and makes sure I've "got it right", I don't understand such sloppiness.

But in other ways I have infinite, bottomless patience. Being pretty unconventional myself, I'm very sympathetic to other people's oddities - their strange quirks of behaviour, their outlandish opinions, their eccentric clothing. I'm always curious about why they do what they do, why they think in a certain way, why they defy the usual social norms. I have a huge appetite for human diversity and variety, it's what makes life so fascinating.

And of course I have plenty of patience for my partner, for her myriad little habits and peculiarities, all of which I find endlessly endearing and lovable. Well, I've got to say that, haven't I?

Sunday, 12 July 2009

A life cut short

What a nightmare it is when some innocent, everyday action turns into an endless disaster you can never be rid of. As happened to Denise Hendry when she tried to lose a bit of fat after giving birth.

In 2002 she booked a liposuction session, as thousands of women do every day, but in her case it all went horribly wrong. The surgeon damaged her bowel and colon, leading to multiple organ failure, her heart stopping for four minutes, and blood poisoning.

She had to have corrective surgery to repair the damage but that too was unsuccessful. A few months ago, she had further corrective surgery but contracted a meningitis-type infection, went into a coma and died 11 weeks later. She was just 42.

This dreadful saga of incompetence and misfortune certainly undermines belief in some benign creator watching over us and keeping us from harm. A novel this calamitous would be dismissed as incredible.

Not surprisingly Denise's experiences led her to campaign about the dangers of plastic surgery and the need to check out your surgeon's credentials thoroughly before they let rip on a vulnerable human body.

I've said before that I see no need for cosmetic surgery unless someone is seriously disfigured. Most of the imagined defects being remedied are invisible to everyone else and the real problem is the desire for a non-existent perfect body.

Unfortunately in Denise's case this desire meant not just a nice little earner for a greedy surgeon but a devastated and drastically shortened life.

People always play down the serious medical risks involved in a supposedly routine operation. But the fact is that any operation can go appallingly wrong, and when it does it's too late for second thoughts. Just say no!

Photo: Denise Hendry
Katie the cat has mysteriously reappeared after two weeks' absence. We did ask her where she had been all this time but she refused to say. I suspect a failed romance she'd rather not discuss.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

No squeeze, please

Women are constantly urged to have mammo-grams in order to spot cancer early and be more likely to survive. Seldom do they hear from doctors who think mammo-grams actually do more harm than good.

Many women who find the procedure horribly painful and unpleasant endure it only for the supposed health benefits. But Dr Iona Heath, a London GP, refuses to have a mammogram herself.

She maintains that often the only result is "overdiagnosis" and unnecessary treatment, increased anxiety for the patient and their family, and in some cases treatment for a cancer that would have resolved itself of its own accord.

Yet health authorities continue to promote mammograms and lead women to fear that if they don't have them they are tempting fate, being irresponsible and possibly heading for a premature death.

But according to one study*, the percentage of women surviving cancer for ten years is exactly the same whether or not they are screened. And screening can lead to unnecessary tumorectomies and mastectomies that cause serious psychological distress.

What really annoys Dr Heath is the lack of balanced information about the pros and cons of mammograms and the one-sided publicity that tries to hoodwink patients by suggesting they are 100% positive.

Well, good for her, cutting through the official consensus and pointing out that there's a different viewpoint that women are not being allowed to hear.

It's too often assumed that a certain medical procedure is the only correct one, when there are equally valid alternatives. When that procedure can lead to pain, distress and mutilation, it's particularly shocking that the alternatives are neither explained nor offered.

* Cochrane Review of Breast Cancer Screening

NB: This is based on an article by Dr Heath in the Independent on July 7, which is no longer publicly viewable. But there's more information here (thanks, Dave) and here.

Ethnic organisations in Belfast have had letters from Combat 18, a fascist group, demanding they leave Northern Ireland by July 12 or have their buildings blown up. The Belfast Islamic Centre, the Polish Association and the Indian Community Centre have been told "non-whites" are not welcome in Northern Ireland. The police have pledged to increase security around their premises.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Out to lunch

All those beleaguered companies out there are relying on their clear thinking and business acumen to get them through the recession, right? Er, not always - some of them are turning to psychics, mediums and astrologers.

They're so unsure of their own judgment, they're resorting to the supernatural to show them the way forward. Trade is booming for those who predict the future and what life has in store for you.

People like Russell Grant and the British Astrological and Psychic Society say consultations by business types like bankers and lawyers have jumped by up to 30 per cent since the recession started.

They want to know whether to make a major change to their business, whether a key decision is the right one, or even whether to sack their staff.

As one of the psychics says, instead of paying consultants £20,000 a month for often dubious advice, why not pay a lot less for a psychic who might actually be more help?

Well, it's certainly cheaper, but to imagine a psychic's advice is more reliable than your own conclusions is bizarre. Of course it must be nerve-racking trying to make vital business decisions in the midst of economic chaos, but to believe some smooth-talking soothsayer can magically point you in the right direction is bonkers.

I'd like to know how many of the psychics' clients have actually made the right decisions and kept their businesses afloat, and how many haven't. I suspect it would be roughly 50/50, much the same as if the psychics' special powers had never been called on.

And if all these hundreds of psychics were apparently unable to predict the recession in the first place, can we really have much faith that they can miraculously foresee what's coming next?

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Marriage guidance

When I said Jenny and I hadn't drawn up a pre-nuptial agreement, I was lying. We did in fact draft one, which went like this:

1) The following are strictly forbidden: instant coffee, linoleum, artex, sliced bread, referring to the living room as "the lounge", garden gnomes, doorbells that play tunes, leggings, any kind of sport, comb-overs, nasal hair, tattoos, leaving hairs in the basin, not changing the toilet roll, not cleaning the crumbs off the breadboard, floral wallpaper, net curtains, matching crockery, tarot cards, and lucky charms.

2) Neither partner may sulk, moan about work, be grumpy, pick their nose, gossip about celebrities, embarrass each other in company, wear over-tight clothing, worship a supreme being, believe in astrology, or talk to their imaginary friend.

3) Fancying, or flirting with, the opposite sex (or the same one) is perfectly natural. We can't help but acknowledge beauty and sexiness. But go any further, buddy, and you're toast.

4) Each partner must adore and relish the other's body, which is infinitely fascinating and delightful. There must be no mention of fat, weight, age, wrinkles, knock-knees or hairiness. Except of course comb-overs or nasal hair, which are beyond the pale.

5) Honesty and frankness is essential at all times. We will always discuss our thoughts, feelings and experiences freely and openly in order to have a complete and meaningful relationship. Of course reckless intimacies with aesthetically-pleasing dental nurses are excluded, not being "experiences" in the normal sense.

6) We will both do our fair share of domestic chores, regardless of so-called prior commitments, long-standing allergies, invisible dust syndrome, or arthritic fingers. Except of course when there's something really really unmissable on the telly.

7) Er, that's it.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Wedding vows

I didn't realise that up till now pre-nuptial agreements weren't legally binding in Britain. So if your spouse had agreed never to claim on your private fortune, or whatever, it would never have been upheld anyway.

But the English Court of Appeal has just ruled that such contracts are in fact legally valid, and German heiress Katrin Radmacher needn't give her ex-husband Nicolas Granatino a penny - as he had agreed before the wedding.

I think the idea of a marriage contract briefly flashed through my mind before I married Jenny, but of course in our case it was pretty pointless. Neither of us had a vast fortune, a stash of Old Masters or anything else of any great value.

But if there's a possibility of gold-digging or any other kind of unscrupulous go-getting, I guess such contracts are a sensible way of preventing it and ensuring the marriage is for genuine reasons.

Mr Granatino had previously been awarded £5.8 million of Katrin's £100 million fortune, but the court decided she didn't have to pay it.

The judges said a pre-nuptial agreement was realistic when divorce was commonplace and could lead to a lot of stress and expense if nothing had been agreed about dividing up assets.

Perhaps we missed a trick not drawing up a PNA. It could have laid down a few useful markers. I could have put strict limits on Jenny's sessions of retail therapy while she could have insisted I clean the house from top to bottom every week.

Although for those couples like us who stay together and aren't likely to divorce anyway, it would just be an extra cash cow for the lawyers as they cobble together all those unnecessary legal provisos. And if you do divorce, then they sting you twice - once when you tie the knot and once when you unravel it. So keep that cheque book handy....

NB: This is the situation in English law. But the law in Scotland and Northern Ireland could be different again!

Photo: Katrin Radmacher

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

City roulette

I'm always amused by those dubious surveys declaring that London (or New York or Stockholm) is the world's best city for something or other - quality of life, happiness, tourist potential etc.

The indicators used to measure these things are always quite arbitrary and seldom the ones ordinary folk like me would use.

It's all very well quoting household recycling, life expectancy and school success. All very worthy, I'm sure, but are they really the things that get you and I excited? I think not. In my case it's much more likely to be the accessibility of Belgian chocolate, a well-stocked bookshop or a flattering pair of jeans. Bugger life expectancy - what's the point of living for 80 years if you've been thoroughly miserable for half of them?

You can see how arbitrary it all is when every new survey contradicts the previous one. Tokyo's the world's greatest city? You must be joking, it's Berlin of course - it has more electric cars and hairdressers than any other city. Or was it espresso bars and cycle lanes? Good news for tourist chiefs in the chosen city, but for the losers - it probably just prompts a cynical snort of disbelief.

As for the things that can't be measured at all, like breathtaking scenery, a friendly atmosphere or an intellectual buzz - what happens to them in the midst of all these statistical calculations and pie charts? It's these intangibles the researchers overlook that make our own city such fun.

And what about the areas outside the cities that the number-crunchers don't even consider? Are they saying the Orkney Islands are a soul-destroying backwater? Or Nova Scotia is a God-forsaken wilderness? There's an underlying assumption that city living is better, even if your city's only number 21 in their roll-call. Many rural dwellers would beg to differ.

But personally, I'm absolutely certain Belfast's the greatest city on earth - and I've got the figures to prove it.

Photo: Donegall Square, Belfast

Katie, the sweet tortoiseshell cat from three doors up, one of our regular visitors, has been missing since the weekend. I do hope she hasn't come to a sticky end.