Friday, 28 August 2009

Not quite grown up

Does anyone ever feel properly grown-up, even on their death bed? I certainly don't. Even at my advanced age, there are any number of situations in life I don't feel confident about, or don't feel I'm handling them as well as I should.

There are still situations I have virtually no experience of, like dealing with someone's death, dealing with a terminal illness, looking after children, or coping with a serious financial setback. Even things I've experienced often can still leave me feeling inadequate and awkward, not quite sure if I'm meeting expectations or behaving correctly.

It's rarely that I'm comfortable enough with a situation to feel I'm handling it as a mature and grown-up person, someone who's fully in control of what's happening. More frequently I'm fumbling my way along, feeling more like a confused and ignorant child, hoping desperately that things will start to make sense and I'll know what I should be doing.

I'm sure most people feel like this from time to time, but it's not something we want to admit. We don't like people to think we're out of our depth - especially employers or tradespeople or for that matter our trusting children.

We've learnt to feign competence and authority and hide our hesitations and bewilderment. We project poise and nonchalance even when inside we're a bundle of nerves and looking frantically for an escape route.

Is it even possible to feel totally grown-up, or is that another myth, another illusion that doesn't actually apply in reality? Is there anyone who feels completely in command of their life, always knowing the right thing to do, always knowing what is required of them and feeling equal to the occasion? If they do, that's quite an achievement.

But me, I'm still an innocent abroad, Alice at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, forever hoping that tomorrow is the day I'll finally feel well and truly grown-up. It never is, though.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Eternal optimist

One of the challenges of being older is to stay optimistic about life when long experience of people's rampant nastiness and stupidity can easily lead to engrained cynicism.

After 62 years of watching relentless violence, carnage, greed and selfishness, it would be easy to conclude that humanity is doomed and expecting anything better is just self-delusion.

But despite everything I remain a stubborn optimist still convinced that if enough people saw the futility of their behaviour and changed course, the world could still turn into a better and more civilised place than it is right now.

It's completely irrational, I know, to think like this when every day the media are reporting new atrocities and depravities and millions are dying of preventable illnesses, but history is full of irrational people who believed in something that on the face of it was utterly impossible.

Yes, on the one hand I think of the tens of thousands who have died unnecessarily in Iraq. But five minutes later I think of the invention of antibiotics, the ending of apartheid in South Africa, or the arrival of electricity.

For every example of wanton destruction, there's another example of inspired creativity or selfless compassion, much of it hidden from view because the news headlines are dominated by tragedy and horror.

In my own life I can think of people who have unstintingly cared for those with disabling illnesses, people who have worked tirelessly to improve their local communities, or people who have battled fearlessly against prejudice and corruption.

I refuse to believe human beings are so degenerate they can only end up wiping themselves from the face of the planet. People have predicted that many times before but they were always wrong.

"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing" - Arundhati Roy

Friday, 21 August 2009


I'm fascinated by burkas. What their purpose is, what it's like wearing one, women who're forced into them, the controversies they cause.

Personally, I can't see the point of them at all. They just seem to be extremely impractical and cumbersome, making every daily activity more difficult, including communicating with other people.

Of course for those who believe in male dominance that's exactly the intention - to hamper women and stop them being too adventurous or independent. And to stop them inflaming male lust with their provocative female bodies.

Isn't it odd that there's no equivalent female lust that requires men also to hide behind decency-preserving burkas? How come the blokes are exempt?

But it must be a very weird experience being permanently shrouded from head to toe with nothing visible but your eyes. Rather than something to be appreciated and enjoyed, your body becomes a mere object, just a mechanism to do things with.

Burkas have stirred up plenty of controversy. The French object to them as conspicuous religious symbols in a highly secular society. One British government minister finds it disconcerting to talk to someone so depersonalised and anonymised, nothing but a voice and a pair of eyes.

Many feminists loathe burkas as blatant instruments of oppression, preventing women from being themselves and turning them into cocooned chattels.

Some wearers though deny this and maintain they find their burkas liberating, a way of preserving their privacy and modesty and not being seen first and foremost as male eye-candy.

I have to admit I just find them absurd and ridiculous, relics of a bygone age as quaint as Victorian bathing costumes and whalebone corsets.

Pic: Fiona, Rita, Mavis and Sharon (or was it Fatima, Tasneem....)

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Pricey advice

If you had any sneaking suspicion that private health care might be better than the state-run system, the way a worried Times journalist was fleeced should be a wake-up call.

Richard Kerbaj phoned a private doctor because he thought he might have swine flu. The doctor asked if he had any symptoms, pronounced him fit and well, gave him the number for the NHS helpline - and charged him £99.

But suppose he did actually catch swine flu, he asked? Stay in bed, said the doctor, ring the NHS helpline and if necessary they'll provide some medicine.

And the cost if he had got exactly the same advice from his NHS doctor - or from an online source? Precisely nothing.

Despite all the evidence, there's still a general assumption that private care is always superior to public provision, that paying huge sums of your own money guarantees something extra.

But apart from merely being told something you could have been told by the NHS, you're just as likely to experience medical errors. It's simply that they're easier to conceal in private clinics.

If a routine operation leads to a serious complication like cardiac arrest, a private clinic may not have the specialist equipment or staff to deal with it. If they can't get you to an NHS hospital fast, you could die.

Many private surgeons are the same surgeons who work for the NHS, and the chances of their making a mistake are much the same. They're equally likely to be overworked, stressed, tired or simply incompetent.

Yes, you can probably jump a queue for treatment and get an operation in a few days. But if the operation goes wrong, what have you gained?

If I ever have £99 burning a hole in my pocket, it won't be going to Dr Tell-You-The-Bleeding-Obvious, that's for sure.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Wicked adults

We seem to be fast reaching a point in Britain where adults won't be allowed to have any contact with children unless they're expressly authorised to do so.

We're turning into a totally paranoid society which sees children as permanently threatened by sinister adults intent on molesting or harming them.

Where this raging hysteria has come from, I don't know. Every so often there are dramatic stories of children being attacked, but are they really any more frequent than fifty years ago?

The change in attitudes is extraordinary. When I was a child, I played on the streets for hours every day without the slightest fear of adults, and nothing serious ever happened to me. The only incident I can recall was at the age of ten when a man approached me in a department store, wanting to see my willy. And that was it. So why this sudden widespread alarm?

Anyone having regular contact with children is now vetted for a possible criminal record, and this screening will soon become stricter still with the start of the Vetting and Barring Scheme. You will then need an official permit that confirms you aren't any known threat to children.

Seeing all these precautions, children themselves must be getting terrified of adults and assuming that any adult they don't know might be about to attack them. The reality of course is that the vast majority of adults have no such intentions and seek only to protect and nurture children, just as they did when I was growing up.

But like many adults, when I'm out on my own nowadays and there are children nearby, I take care to avoid them in case the parents start wondering about me. As it is, they often give me suspicious looks, seeing as I have no companion.

The irony is that most child abuse is committed not by total strangers, however heavily vetted they may be, but by people already known to them, including parents and relatives. Yet relatives are always assumed to be safe and benign and incapable of doing harm.

There's something seriously topsy-turvy here.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Unhealthy ravings

American Republicans out to sabotage President Obama's health reforms are spreading the most absurd lies and smears about the UK's National Health Service.

Their vicious campaign to portray Obama as a Nazi claims that his reforms are based on the NHS, a supposedly inhuman, uncaring organisation that writes off human lives.

According to them, it denies treatment to the elderly or anyone who's not "cost-effective", it has "death panels" that decide if people should live or not, it has endless waiting lists and expensive treatments are rationed.

This grotesque parody would be totally unrecognisable to most users of the NHS. They would be utterly bewildered by such a deranged travesty of a service that by and large works remarkably well and gives effective medical treatment to everyone and anyone.

I'm well aware of the NHS's flaws and failings, but the fact is that these flaws are trivial compared to its massive achievements. Far from writing off human lives, in general it goes to extraordinary lengths and spends extraordinary sums to relieve people's illnesses and maintain their quality of life.

The Republicans are not only telling breathtaking lies to prevent American citizens getting proper health care, they're insulting Britain and the million-plus NHS staff who are dedicated to their patients' well-being.

Yes, there are waiting lists for some high-demand procedures. Yes, a few expensive treatments are denied because they're of doubtful value. But anyone who needs urgent, life-or-death assistance gets it immediately with no questions asked and no expense spared - whether they're nine or ninety-nine.

Those in favour of Obama's health reforms should not imagine for one moment that the Republicans' deluded ravings are in any way based in reality.

They're just the desperate flailings of those who still want medicine to be the preserve of the rich, while the poor suffer and die helplessly.

PS: I read that the Twitter campaign #WeLoveTheNHS now has over a million followers

PPS: See Barack Obama's new webpage on the health reforms "Setting the record straight"

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Fruit and nuts

The British government has just spent £20,000 taking a man to court for allegedly stealing a banana worth 25p. Clearly the unauthorised handling of a banana is a particularly heinous crime that calls for the full force of the law to deter other banana-abusers.

Never mind such trivial misdemeanours as racist attacks, gay-bashing or sexual assault. They can wait. We're talking serious offences that have to be stamped on mercilessly. The heights of human depravity.

And forget any misguided leniency. When James Gallagher was challenged about the banana by the Birmingham deli, he promptly offered to pay for it. But of course the shopkeeper refused. The police could have simply warned him not to do it again. Naturally they didn't. No funny business, my son, you're nicked.

According to the Crown Prosecution Service, the cost of the item was irrelevant. The only question was whether there was good enough evidence for a court case and whether the case was "in the public interest".

I fail to see how subjecting Mr Gallagher to a meandering two-day trial and nit-picking arguments by lawyers could possibly be "in the public interest". And as for the evidence - he was acquitted!

It's not the first time huge sums of money, and court time, have been wasted on footling offences that could have been disposed of in ten minutes.

I'm sure the average member of the public, if asked, could think of any number of better responses to the errant banana, not involving bewigged judges and pompous courtrooms. They could also think of better ways of spending £20,000. Like locking up a few more drunken thugs.

It's the person who sanctioned the court case who really needs to be prosecuted - for wasting police time, wasting taxpayers' money and bringing the law into disrepute.

Photo: James Gallagher

Friday, 7 August 2009

Noisy eaters

For some people, social occasions can be completely ruined by noisy eaters. The sound of their companions munching, crunching, slurping and sucking drives them round the bend. They just want to flee somewhere where food is not being eaten and the dreadful background noise ceases.

There's a big difference between Jenny and me here. I've never been bothered by eating noises but some sounds make Jenny cringe with discomfort. She's been known to leave the room when I'm eating something particularly cacophonous.

It seems this horror of eating noises is surprisingly common. Many people have their pet aversions to the consumption of cornflakes or toast or crisps or apples. Or drinks being slurped or sucked through straws.

Whole households can have their private rules about what can or cannot be eaten, and in what way, in order to soothe the delicate sensibilities of one family member or another.

It's a particularly knotty problem in public places like offices or trains, when objecting to someone else's noisy eating might bring a very angry response and the charge of being a tight-arsed killjoy out to spoil other people's pleasure.

In any case, it may not be possible to mute the noise. If it's determined by the way you eat, the size of your jaw, or the shape of your teeth, there may be nothing you can do about it.

No, eating noises don't perturb me in the slightest. Food is meant to be eaten and enjoyed, every which way. What annoys me far more is the quantity of food-related debris dumped thoughtlessly on pavements - crisp packets, takeaway cartons, coffee cups, sandwich wrappers. Why can't the eaters just keep their rubbish to themselves?

Pic courtesy of Guardian/Getty Images

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The futility of ties

Ties, like buttons, should have disappeared years ago. They're a completely pointless waste of time, beloved by employers, dictators, bureaucrats, estate agents and similar odious characters. A tie-burning campaign is well overdue. I'm proud to say I haven't worn a tie myself since 1971. So here are twenty good reasons for not wearing ties:

1) They're ugly
2) They get caught in machinery
3) They get food stains on them
4) You only notice the stains when you take them off
5) They can strangle you
6) They're passion killers
7) Employers love them
8) They have no function whatever
9) They attract germs
10) They're hard to fasten
11) They can be grabbed by small children
12) Most dictators wear them
13) You get them as presents when you have a hundred already
14) You get them as presents when you really want champagne and chocolates
15) You can hardly breathe
16) They fall in your soup
17) They're boring
18) You feel like your father
19) Your mother keeps straightening them
20) Your mother thinks they're smart

Are there any reasons whatever in favour of wearing these absurd items? If you can think of any, please let me know.

Coming soon: All those other things that ought to be obsolete

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Debbie's breakthrough

After years of legal action, Debbie Purdy has won a court ruling that may make it easier for someone to help her commit suicide - in this case, her husband Omar.

At the moment the law on assisting suicide is so unclear that the helper risks being jailed for up to 14 years. Yet in practice such helpers are seldom prosecuted.

Debbie, who has multiple sclerosis and wants to end her life if it becomes unbearable, has gained a ruling that the government must clarify the law and explain when it would prosecute someone.

She was concerned that if Omar simply helped her to fly to the suicide centre Dignitas in Switzerland, as she couldn't manage the journey herself, he would end up in jail and his own life would be ruined.

On the face of it, a great victory for people like Debbie who feel legal obstacles are limiting their ability to manage their own life - and death.

However, there's now a lot of concern that whatever guidelines are issued may relax the law to such an extent that it will be abused and wealthy grannies will be casually got rid of by money-grabbing relatives.

But that's no reason to bring in ultra-strict guidelines that make assisted suicide as difficult as before. It just means there should be adequate safeguards against abuse - like two doctors having to give their okay.

Anything that makes it easier for someone facing agonising pain and suffering to end their life with dignity whenever they wish to should be welcomed, despite the risk of the law being abused.

Expecting people simply to put up with their lot as best they can, however traumatic it may be, is inhuman and uncivilised.

Photo: Debbie Purdy and her husband Omar Puente