Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Old and boring

Are all older men terminally boring? One journalist thinks so, and she's caused a bit of a row among other journos who happen to be older men. How dare she, they fume. What a cheek!

Personally, I don't know that many older men, so I couldn't say if she's right or not. But speaking for myself, I'm fizzing with wit and wisdom and I have fascinating opinions on every subject* - well, perhaps not negative entropy or mulching techniques.

But Liz Hodgkinson, who clearly has met a large number of older men, concludes that they are mostly humourless, tongue-tied, ill-at-ease, lifeless and dull as ditchwater. Older women on the other hand are firing on all cylinders and excellent company. And they're usually talking to the other women because it's much more fun.

"I often wish I could invite the female half of a couple to lunch and leave the husband at home" she says. What should be an enjoyable social occasion can easily become "excruciatingly painful" as the men have so little to say.

I find it hard to believe older men are so lacklustre. Do they not enjoy gossip? Or setting the world to rights? Or just recalling that crazy person in the supermarket? Or are they simply intimidated by all these confident, articulate women?

I can think of older men I know who are indeed monosyllabic and brain-dead. But I know others who are bundles of energy, talking nineteen to the dozen and taking a keen interest in everything around them.

I need some feedback here. What's your experience of older men? Are most of them spent forces or are they full of life? Is Liz Hodgkinson right or is she just man-bashing for the sake of a good story?

* No false modesty here....

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Boys only

My schooling was entirely single-sex, including five years at boarding school where my contact with girls was non-existent. Whether this was a good thing or a bad thing I've never quite decided.

It meant I was able to focus on my studies without the distraction of miniskirted females checking me out in the corridors and classrooms. It meant there was no feverish competition with the other boys to impress the girls.

But it also meant I had little experience of the opposite sex and how they differed from boys. It meant there was no encouragement to be emotionally sensitive or to be aware of things that boys traditionally reject as effeminate.

So was I deprived or didn't it really matter? Did I grow up unable to communicate properly with women, unable to understand them, permanently burdened with an arrogant, thick-skinned masculinity?

I must say when I started my first job on a local newspaper, I was very bemused by all the women, who were like some exotic species I'd never met before. It took me quite a while to get used to them and work out how they expected me to behave. It also took me a while to get up the self-confidence to acquire my first girlfriend.

Later I moved to London and was engulfed by the tsunami that was the Women's Liberation Movement. I was confronted in every direction by 57 varieties of feminist thinking and demands, and in a few months I learnt more about women than I'd discovered in my first 18 years. Relationships with women suddenly became much more straightforward and comprehensible and from then on I was always acutely aware of the female perspective in every situation.

So no, I don't think my single-sex schooling did me any lasting harm. I guess what really counts is not whether a school is mixed-sex but how intensely you're exposed to the opposite sex and their take on life once you've left school. And how willing you are to embrace it and benefit from it.

Ah yes, where was I? Jenny and I were on holiday in Dumfriesshire in Scotland. Not quite as scenic or cultural as we were expecting, but we had fun exploring a part of Scotland we'd never seen before.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Inner demons

We all have inner demons we spend our lives wrestling with. Either we find ways of taming them and coming to terms with them, or they become so powerful they drag us under and destroy us.

Most of my inner demons have been around since I was young, some have appeared more recently. But over the years I've managed to keep them corralled well enough for other people not to be too aware of them.

People often get the impression I'm a sanguine, unruffled, confident sort of guy, seldom agitated by anything. The truth is rather different.

I worry about all sorts of things: the future, old age, money, social events, not having a job, not having enough friends. Darkness disturbs and depresses me. Bad dreams send me into irrational panics.

I fret about my identity. I doubt myself. Am I over-sensitive? Am I not sensitive enough? Am I too feminine, too eccentric, too timid, too flippant, too stingy, too aloof? Am I opinionated or am I wishy-washy?

I fear my life is horribly precarious. I'm afraid it could collapse at any moment without careful planning and organising. Just neglect a few little details and it'll be like pulling at a loose thread. Everything will unravel in seconds.

At least I'm not an alcoholic or a drug addict or a helpless gambler. But nagging anxiety can turn into an equally ferocious demon if it's not dampened down and kept in its place.

Many of us don't like to discuss our private demons. We think, nobody will understand me, they'll think I'm a crazy neurotic, they'll just tell me to get a grip, they'll never speak to me again. Or we simply find it too embarrassing or daring or self-indulgent. We think we're the only person in the world with this peculiar tendency, we don't want everyone to know we're a total freak.

So we keep it strictly to ourselves, hide it away and hope nobody can spot any tell-tale signs, any behavioural twitches, the psychological equivalent of visible panty line.

Now if you'll excuse me, that's quite enough self-exposure for the time being. I must go and powder my nose.

I won't be blogging for a few days, but I'll be back soon and then all will be explained!

Monday, 13 September 2010

Handy hints

Okay girls, if you're going on a work trip for a few days, make sure your man is well looked-after while you're away. Or he may get jolly cross and give you a smack-bottom when he gets back!

A global health care company, AXA ICAS, gave out advice to its women employees on keeping the family happy while they deserted their domestic duties.

But it wasn't quite the success they hoped for. So many women complained it was patronising and ridiculous that they had to hurriedly withdraw it and apologise.

Some of the helpful tips:

- Cook and freeze all meals before departure
- Leave 'I love you' notes for your husband
- Hide some gifts before you go
- Record some bedtime stories for your children

The most typical response was "It's a business trip, not trekking the fucking Andes". Women were not impressed by the assumption that their menfolk, the poor helpless, vulnerable little darlings, needed some intensive hand-holding while they were busy closing deals in Frankfurt.

I imagine most women would instantly have drawn up a slightly different list of handy hints. For example:

- You can survive without me. You won't die of starvation or domesticity.
- If you want an evening meal, you know where the recipe books are. Or there's this great new invention, the takeaway.
- If you're feeling horny, you know where to find it. In your underpants.
- The washing machine is the large white thing located in the utility room.
- The carpet fairy will not magically remove the cake crumbs and cigarette ash. This requires what is known in the trade as a hoover.
- Don't bother with the woman next door. You may think she fancies you, but actually she thinks you're an ugly bastard.
- By the way, I've left you and I'm not coming back.

Or something along those lines. The only thing they would be happy to cook and freeze is probably the hapless AXA employee who thought he was being so helpful to all those clueless girls.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Mysteries of friendship

Even at my grand old age, friendship is still a big mystery. How is that we can click with some people instantly, while with others there's no spark whatever?

How remarkable it is when I've met someone and straightaway there's something flowing between us, some vigorous connection as if there are no personal barriers and we might have known each other for years.

Even if you don't meet for months, as soon as you do it's like you saw each other yesterday and conversation comes easily and naturally as if it never stopped. You simply pick up where you left off as if you merely paused for a cup of coffee.

With other people that psychic "ping" just never happens, however much I'd like it to. We can talk about the most intimate subjects without any actual intimacy. We can be utterly frank but there's still an invisible boundary between us, as if I'm talking to a doctor or a therapist.

I may know someone for 20 years, I may have shared all sorts of experiences with them, but still I don't feel close to them, there's a hovering sense of reserve and distance despite everything.

I can meet someone and think they would be a wonderful friend, they have some sort of quality that immediately attracts me. I do everything I can to ignite a friendship, to get something going between us, but somehow it never works. We meet up occasionally, we chat, we share things, but it never makes that final leap to long-term devotion.

How lucky you are if you have a handful of really close friends, a select few you get on with effortlessly, a seamless communication with no restraints. It's a rare thing in a world of distrust and caution.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The toll of 'honour'

How can a man kill a woman simply on the grounds that she has sullied the family's "honour"? And how can so many people condone it as a religious tradition that can't be interfered with?

It's worrying that even in Britain there are now regular cases of honour killings, a practice that has been imported from other countries where it is rife.

There are estimated to be up to 20,000 such killings every year around the world, and many more brutal punishments short of murder. The offences that amount to "dishonour" are shockingly varied. It would be hard for any independent woman to avoid them. They include:

- Being raped
- Having a relationship with an unsuitable person (wrong religion, tribe, caste)
- Unmarried pregnancy
- Befriending boys
- Adultery (even if your husband is dead)
- Choosing your own husband
- Claiming a man's inheritance
- Leaving your husband
- Sex before marriage
- Not marrying your dead husband's brother
- Alleged prostitution
- Inappropriate dress
- "Western" behaviour

We don't realise just how lucky we are in Britain that all these perfectly normal activities aren't seen as "dishonouring" families but are at the very most described as unwise, reckless or unfortunate.

How lucky we are too that the authorities take honour killings seriously and act against those involved, as opposed to other countries where a blind eye is routinely turned.

And how lucky again that unofficial punishments for dishonour like rape*, acid attacks, stonings, lashings, facial mutilation, forced suicide or being set on by dogs, are simply not tolerated but prompt contempt and disbelief.

Despite those blinkered folk who maintain feminism is no longer needed, honour killings make it abundantly clear that many women are still struggling for the most elementary freedoms.

* Yes, you can be raped for allowing yourself to be raped.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Unwelcome guests

Are you squeamish? Fastidious? Super-clean? Then look away now. Because bedbugs are on the rise across the world, infesting the most unlikely places.

Reports of bedbugs are increasing by around 28 per cent every year. They're plaguing many cities, the worst affected being New York.

In the Big Apple, prestigious office blocks, cinemas and shops have had to close while the bugs are routed. Even a branch of the lingerie chain Victoria's Secret had to shut.

Some British hotels are now using sniffer dogs to detect the intrepid insects. Dogs can find bedbugs in three minutes, much quicker than we humans.

Most people don't realise that they can appear not just in beds but in furniture generally, which means they're also being found in children's nurseries and schools. They often find their way into people's luggage.

They cause painful itching, nasty bites, allergic reactions and of course insomnia. And no doubt years of anxiety about strange beds.

Nobody's sure why they're suddenly proliferating. It could be resistance to pesticides, growing international travel, or just not dealing with outbreaks fast enough.

I've never been attacked by the horrible things, even though I've slept in plenty of strange beds in my time. But mosquitoes have had a good go at me.

It's yet another hazard if some casual sex is on the cards. Jump blissfully into bed with your new squeeze, and the bliss might rapidly turn into skin-scratching misery.

It's simple enough really. Just never go to bed. Stay up all night gambling, drinking and plotting revolution. Or sleep on a chair like Liz.

I can't stop listening to: Catching A Tiger by Lissie Maurus