Wednesday, 24 December 2014

A bit cut up

Spurned lovers consumed with anger and jealousy often retaliate in amazingly extreme ways. It's not enough to vent their feelings, they sometimes resort to physical destruction on a grand scale.

Fifty nine year old Philip Gamble was so enraged at his wife of 38 years leaving him for another man that he broke into her flat and cut up all her clothes and furnishings, causing around £5,000 worth of damage.

He cut out the crotches of her bikinis, sliced the back of all her tops, slashed her trousers and cut the zips out of her boots. He sliced curtains and poured bleach on them, damaged a mattress and duvet, and turned off the fridge-freezer.

Then just for good measure he replaced all the slashed clothes neatly in wardrobes and cupboards as if nothing had happened. It was only when Jean Gamble took some clothes out of a wardrobe that she noticed the damage.

In court on Monday he was given a three months' suspended sentence for what the judge described as "silliness".

I think if I were Jean Gamble I would have seen it as a lot more than silliness. Deeply distressing and misogynistic violence, more like. It must have simply confirmed her decision to leave him.

So what would I do, I wonder, if Jenny walked out on me after 33 years to shack up with Mr Much-More-Appealing? Would I just wallow in private agony or do something more dramatic? Would I respect her decision and wish her well or go on a wild rampage and destroy her most precious possessions?

I like to think I would take the news in a civilised way - lick my wounds, drown my sorrows in chocolates and wine and start looking for someone else. But who knows how unhinged I might get over the wreck of such a long relationship? Who knows what crazy emotions might take over? I'm not sure I could guarantee decency and understanding.

Hell hath no fury like a lover scorned.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The wrong sort of pie

That's quite enough of all the intro-spective burblings. So now for something completely different. The wacky world of pie-eating champion-ships and the young lad on work experience who made a fatal blunder.

The Annual World Pie-Eating Championships in Wigan - now in their 22nd year - were reaching another gripping finale as the competitors chomped and chewed their way through the traditional meat and potato pie.

The winner - Barry Rigby, 37, from Wigan, a warehouse supervisor and part-time fitness instructor - was very pleased with himself for scoffing his pie in a lightning speed of 42.6 seconds.

But his moment of glory was short-lived when the contest was declared null and void because the pies were too big. Instead of being the required 12 centimetres across and 3½ centimetres deep, they were found to be twice the size.

The work-experience guy had mixed up his orders and delivered the 24 competition pies to a divorce party instead of the pie-eating contest.

It's not reported how Barry reacted to the devastating news. Did he take it philosophically, shrugging his shoulders and saying it was just one of those things? Or was he apoplectic with rage, smashing the furniture and vowing never to eat another meat and potato pie? We can only guess.

Tony Callaghan, owner of the contest venue Harry's Bar, says "Everyone took it in their stride and demonstrated the professionalism of pie-eating at this level." I suspect that was tongue in cheek - or even savoury pie in cheek.

Don't laugh. The world of competitive pie-eating is very serious. Very serious indeed. Last year pie-lovers from as far as Australia flocked to Wigan in the hope of taking home the coveted crown. Aspiring pie-eating champions spend the whole year whittling down their chewing times to a record-breaking minimum.

If you think you could do better than them - it's just pie in the sky.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Where there's a will....

People have often told me I have a lot of willpower - which I guess also means self-discipline. They're quite right. When I'm determined on something, I don't let minor obstacles stand in my way.

I'm not put off by strong emotions, or sudden impulses, or other people's nay-saying. I don't find excuses for not doing anything. I don't procrastinate. If I've made up my mind to do something, then I do it.

I'll go into work even if I'm feeling poorly, if there's a job that needs to be done.

I'll tackle something difficult despite all my neurotic fears and anxieties and doubts.

I'll plod through all those tedious job applications even if I'd rather be listening to Joni Mitchell.

I'll be polite and courteous to someone, even if their behaviour makes me want to strangle them.

I'll look at every room in that huge art gallery, despite my weary eyes and weary legs.

I'll get to the top of that mountain, however beautiful the view from halfway up.

Maybe sometimes my willpower gets the better of me and overpowers sensible thoughts and valid emotions. Maybe sometimes I'm set on doing something that doesn't need doing, just to prove that I can do it and not seem feeble or pathetic.

But it does mean I do things others wouldn't feel up to. It means I've tried my hardest to achieve something, and I won't later regret copping out. It means I've done what I wanted to do and not succumbed to other people's head-shaking.

I would never have been to Australia three times if I'd given in to my loathing of sleepless and mind-numbing long-haul flights. But I was determined to get there, and what an experience it was.

Grinning and bearing it can sometimes be amazingly rewarding.

PS: On reflection, I think this post is nonsense. By willpower and self-discipline, all I really mean is determination. In other words, if I'm determined to do something (for whatever reason), then I'll do it. I'm just complicating something very simple.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Shrinking violet

Carla Bruni may have a compulsive need to exhibit herself and be in the public eye, but I'm the exact opposite. I crave anonymity and invisibility and avoid public scrutiny wherever possible.

I know that if I come to other people's attention, sooner or later they'll be judging me and maybe finding me wanting. Simply by noticing me, they make me self-conscious, self-doubting and abruptly shy. Even being publicly thanked for something is mildly embarrassing.

I'd hate to have a job where I'm regularly exposed to large numbers of people, or even worse to have to make speeches or presentations to them. I'd hate to be a celebrity or someone suddenly thrust into the limelight by some newsworthy event.

But it's not fashionable, not "normal" to be so reticent. It's supposed to be natural to want attention, to want an audience, to want others to recognise you and appreciate you. We all love someone who's the "life and soul of the party". Or do we?

Some people (like Carla Bruni) don't feel they really exist unless others are acknowledging them and referring to them. Without that constant attention, they feel incomplete, insubstantial, vestigial.

I have no doubt at all that I exist. To me, my identity is as solid as a rock. I don't need others to convince me of the fact, or to turn me into flesh and blood. I see no need to display myself to the rest of the world. What I see in the mirror is good enough for me.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Way out of line

I don't think I could be "normal" if I tried. My thoughts and feelings are so way out of line with what passes as "normal", I'm reconciled to the idea that I'm thoroughly eccentric. Or at the very least "different".

I feel profoundly sad about things other people don't even notice. I feel totally unmoved by what utterly enrages them. I get absurdly anxious about supposedly routine events. I adore things that others find incomprehensible.

I've never wanted children, or wanted to live in the suburbs, or wanted a high-flying job, or wanted two weeks on a beach at Torremolinos.

I feel really peculiar wearing a suit and tie, or reading a mass-market tabloid. I haven't eaten meat for nearly 40 years. I hate fizzy drinks, instant coffee and beer. Fashions in clothing totally pass me by.

I've always been a socialist, even when half the population was besotted with Mrs Thatcher and socialists were seen as "the lunatic fringe", "the reds under the bed" and "the enemy within". I was abnormal with bells on.

Of course "normal" is impossible to define anyway. It means different things to different people,and every survey of "normal" behaviour comes up with a different formula. It's one of those nebulous ideas that keeps slithering out of your grasp like a bar of soap.

So I think I'll just carry on as usual, even if it makes other people feel uncomfortable. Or bemused. Or censorious. Better that than running round in circles chasing an ever-moving target. As Popeye said, I yam what I yam.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Dear Santa

Dear Santa

I hope you are well. I hope that your new diet is working and that Alcoholics Anonymous is keeping you off the booze.

Gosh, there are so many things I want for Christmas, I don't know where to start. Here are some of them anyway:

1) A perfect memory that actually remembers everything. Like the plots of books and TV dramas. Like people's names. Like whichever shop it was that had that brilliant potato peeler.

2) Super-fast legs so I can forget the car and walk the seven miles to work in ten minutes.

3) A maximum body-weight setting so that however much chocolate cake, trifle and ice cream I eat, I don't gain an ounce.

4) Fluency in several languages so I can read all those great books that have never been translated into English.

5) A female body for a month so I can wear all those fabulous clothes I can only drool over as a bloke.

6) A totally adjustable body temperature, so I'm always comfortable however cold or hot the climate, and I don't need central heating or air conditioning.

7) Telepathy, so I know whether someone is telling the truth or lying non-stop. Or whether they're just pretending to like me.

8) Infinite empathy. However extreme a person's emotions, I can understand them instantly. I can feel exactly what they're feeling.

9) The gift of the gab. Whoever the person, whatever their situation, I always have something to say, and it's always what they want to hear.

10) A magic wand that will melt all the pain in other people's hearts.

I think that's enough to be going on with. Don't worry if there's one or two you can't manage. I know you must be awfully busy!

I hope Mrs Claus has recovered from the flu and that the elves aren't dabbling with the crack cocaine again.

Big hugs, Nick

PS: You're my favourite person ever in all the world!

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Ghastly snobs

The fashionable insult right now is "snobbish". Any reference to anyone less well-off or less fortunate than yourself, however innocent or well-meaning, is likely to bring cries of snobbery raining down from all sides.

The most visible victim recently was Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP who tweeted a picture of a nondescript house with a white van outside and was widely vilified for her disgusting snobbery, even though she made no comment on the photo other than "Image from Rochester".

Big-name politicians are now terrified they'll be accused of snobbery, elitism and being "out of touch with the ordinary voter" - if there's any such thing as an "ordinary voter". They're falling over themselves to be seen quaffing a pint, scoffing a bacon sarnie or puffing on a furtive fag.

I've been accused of snobbery myself on occasion, which always baffles me as my awareness of poverty, disadvantage and crap jobs is prompted entirely by my loathing of inequality and injustice and in no way implies that I feel superior or conceited about my own more fortunate circumstances.

But dismissing someone as a snob is a handy quick-win, a way of slickly discrediting them and implying that everything they say is fed by some impure motive. It's also instantly intimidating, because nobody likes to be seen as a snob, even if they are.

The term snob should be aimed at genuinely snobbish behaviour, like being rude to shop assistants or sneering at someone's poor grasp of English, and not mindlessly lobbed at anyone with a few quid to spare.

Let's go for the real snobs, not the imaginary ones.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Lies and more lies

What do you do when someone publishes an unauthorised biography that's "trashy, vindictive and full of lies" about your life? How can you stop thousands of people reading what you regard as damaging tripe?

Aretha Franklin has let rip at the biography by David Ritz which reportedly claims she's jealous of other singers, fought alcoholism at the height of her fame, is delusional about her love life and was promiscuous from an early age.

She strongly contests what he's written. "As many of you are aware, there is a very trashy book out there full of lies and more lies about me. Clearly the writer has no class, no conscience or standards!

"His actions are obviously vindictive because I edited out some crazy statements he had the gall to try and put in my book written 15 years ago. Evidently, he has been carrying this hatred ever since."

Of course if the claims in a biography are unflattering, insulting and destructive, then the subject is highly likely to deny everything and accuse the writer of making it all up, peddling unverified rumours and gossip, and having some deep-seated grudge.

When the two are in such heated disagreement, who can possibly know if the book is telling it like it is or if, as she maintains, it's a pack of vicious lies?

In such situations, my immediate reaction is not to read the book at all, because if its truthfulness is doubtful, what's the point? I might as well be reading some muck-raking tabloid.

The obvious thing to do is sue for libel, but that's a costly business and the outcome might not be in her favour. So far she hasn't gone down that road as she's hoping her statement is enough to stop people reading it, or at least taking it seriously.

But I doubt her reputation will suffer, whatever the wild claims. Is anyone bothered that she's a flawed human being who might have behaved badly at times?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sadly misinformed

My father was a horribly self-righteous man. He always had to be correct, and he had to have the last word. Only he knew what he was talking about, the rest of us were sadly misinformed.

Luckily I don't take after him. When I voice my opinions, I expect other people to have different ones. I welcome argument and debate. If I hear a good enough counter-argument, I'll back down and change my opinion in a second.

My father hated it when I argued with him, when I challenged his sacred views. He hated me having opinions contrary to his own. I can't recall a single occasion when he agreed with something I said. He dismissed all my opinions as stupid, half-baked, ignorant or deliberately provocative.

I guess it was his extreme rigidity that drove me furiously in the opposite direction. From an early age I welcomed a plethora of views on every possible topic. The more varied the views the better. Only by exploring every possible line of thought could I be sure of arriving at a sensible, considered conclusion. To suppress opinions, however far-fetched or absurd, was to cripple my mind.

What annoys me isn't different opinions but people's reluctance to voice them. When people don't engage with my views at all but stay conspicuously silent, I wonder what they're thinking. Do they find my views so misconceived, so confused, there's no point in even acknowledging them? Do they simply dislike arguments? Do they dislike having to think? Whatever the reason, I feel frustrated by the lack of a good head-to-head.

But how kind I am to my critics, how lavishly easy-going. My father must be turning in his grave.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sour grapes

I'm always taken aback by those who begrudge other people's success. The extreme bitterness and jealousy that often goes with it is astonishing.

Sometimes it's understandable. If someone manages to get a promotion or a plum job or a glamorous assignment that you feel you should have been given yourself, then of course you're likely to feel royally pissed off for a while.

But a general tendency to trash other people's achievements, maybe something they're worked hard for over a long period - where does that come from? Why the need to put the boot in?

I'm really pleased for someone when they succeed at something they've long been aiming for. I'm happy they've finally got what they wanted after years of frustration or despair or self-doubt. I'm glad they've finally cleared all the hurdles and reached their goal. Why wouldn't I be?

I'm especially pleased when someone has managed to give up something that was badly harming them - alcohol or drugs or an abusive relationship or a stressful and unrewarding job. I love it when they've found the strength and self-confidence to move on and improve their life.

Even if someone's success isn't hard-fought-for but has just fallen into their lap - like a lottery win or a sudden inheritance - I still don't begrudge them their good luck. Okay, I'd enjoy having a huge pile of cash (who wouldn't?), but I'm doing okay as I am so why should I care?

I have no problem with someone who's successful - unless they're rubbing other people's noses in it. That's what really makes me mad.

PS: A classic case of begrudgery. The opening night of Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant was sabotaged by a rival making 100 fake bookings.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Bad sex

Having taken a quick look at the ten authors shortlisted for the annual Bad Sex In Fiction Award, I have to say the passages quoted are pretty excruciating. But then again, can any fictional description of sex ever do justice to the real thing? I think not.

Sex is such a personal and physical experience, I don't really think any writer, however brilliant, can capture it at all realistically. Their attempts are inevitably going to be leaden, bizarre or over-the-top.

Certainly I've never read any description of sex that accurately reflects my own experience. The images conjured up are quite laughable, like a non-swimmer trying to describe what it's like to swim.

So in a way the Bad Sex Award, however amusing it may be, is rather unfair on the poor embarrassed authors who're singled out for special attention. I'm sure their efforts are not much worse than all the authors who've been lucky enough to escape notice.

In fact I wonder why sex has to be described at such length in novels anyway. What's the point of these flowery renderings of a bit of nooky? We all know what it's like (well, those of us who actually engage in it), so why not just leave us to fill in the details? A lot of writers could save themselves a lot of creative torture and a lot of guffawing readers by putting the red pencil through the whole shebang.

But just to give you a taste of the Bad Sex offerings, here's a typical passage:

"Her hair was piled high, but when she shook her head it came cascading down in a glowing wave over her shoulders, and fell as far as her knees. The rippling curtain did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures. They were perfect rounds, white as mare's milk and tipped with ruby nipples that puckered as my gaze passed over them."

That's from Desert God by Wilbur Smith.

And now I have to go, I'm laughing so much it hurts.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Rough diamond

I'm a bit of rough diamond, I guess. I may think of myself as wise and sophist-icated, but in my actual dealings with other people I can be as gauche and clumsy as a confused adolescent.

I'm never very confident in social situations. I'm not sure what to say or what to do or what's expected of me. If in doubt, I tend to say nothing and retreat to a quiet corner where nobody will bother me.

If I meet someone I've always seen as especially intelligent or talented or inspirational, I can be so overcome with childish awe that it's all I can do to stammer out a few gormless platitudes before lapsing into an embarrassing silence.

Everyone else seems to be so at ease, chattering away effortlessly to complete strangers, baring their soul with no apparent qualms, never at a loss for words. Whatever the trick is, it seems to have passed me by.

In private though, alone with my thoughts, I don't feel at all hesitant or wrong-footed. I feel worldly-wise and experienced, ready for any crisis, equal to the challenges of daily life. I know I'm just as smart and practical and capable as the next person. But as soon as I'm with other people, the awkward me, the ham-fisted me, suddenly springs out of hiding and takes over.

I'm too self-conscious, I suppose. The legacy of a frightening and insecure childhood. Losing that self-consciousness and just letting everything flow is a knack I've never picked up. I envy those who've mastered it. It must make life a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.

Or maybe I just need that old Irish standby, the gift of the gab.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Off message

Father of two Bobby Smith is fuming with rage over a sculpture of two women and their children outside the Library of Birming-ham. To him it's not just a sculpture, it's a political statement that offends his delicate sensibilities.

He objects to the idea that this is a "normal" family and says "kids are always better off with both parents in their lives." He obviously thinks sculpture should convey an ideologically right-on message and has never grasped the strange notion of freedom of artistic expression. Presumably he believes the only "correct" sculpture would be one of Mr and Mrs Average of Acacia Avenue, Anytown.

He was so incensed that he travelled from Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire to Birmingham to make his protest. He stuck photos of himself and his two young daughters onto three of the figures and threw a sheet over the other one.

So does he feel better for his valiant protest on behalf of normal, properly-parented families? Hard to say. In the photos, he looks glum and wary rather than pleased with himself. In fact he looks as if he's just lost a fiver and found a penny.

The artist, Gillian Wearing, explained sensibly enough that "a nuclear family is one reality but it is one of many and this work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed."

There seems to be an increasing tendency to see works of art not as complete in themselves but supposedly "representing" some wider bunch of people who then complain they're being insulted or maligned in some way. The unsuspecting artist is said to be denigrating women, or men, or gays, or heterosexuals, or whichever group is dancing with rage.

Can they not accept that a work of art isn't a political manifesto but simply an aesthetic and emotional creation with nothing to say other than whatever the random onlooker takes from it?

As for the idea that the sculpture is making fathers invisible, you only have to walk down any busy street to see dozens of them with their children in tow. If Bobby Smith could tear his attention from "incorrect" art-work for a few minutes, he might actually notice some of them. Unless they're all covered with sheets, that is.

Pic: A Real Birmingham Family by Gillian Wearing

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Groom or doom

Surveys keep telling us most women dislike their bodies and would like to change them. Well of course they dislike their bodies. Is that surprising when everyone around them says they're not attractive until they've been through a string of laborious grooming procedures? The obvious conclusion - their natural self without all the recommended beautifying and prettifying must be a hideous sight nobody wants to look at.

The message blares out endlessly from the mass media, from movies, from parents, even from friends - if you've missed out on make-up, skincare, body-hair removal, weekly hairdos, nail polish, push-up bras or shapewear, then you're simply not feminine or glamorous enough and nobody will give you a second glance.

The message for men is totally different, in fact almost the opposite. If they pay any undue attention to their appearance, they're just narcissistic - or maybe gay. Real men simply sling on a few nondescript clothes, comb their hair and that's that. Nobody cares two hoots about the condition of their skin, or when they last had a haircut, or all the hair carpeting their chest. Nobody suggests their natural self is something to be worked on obsessively to make it passably attractive.

In fact some men seem to revel so shamelessly in their wild and woolly appearance that I sometimes think a little pressure to beautify themselves female-style wouldn't come amiss.

Of course there's nothing wrong with prettifying yourself as such. It must be a lot of fun dolling yourself up occasionally. I'd quite like to doll myself up now and again but gender forbids. No, the problem is the implication that if women don't doll themselves up, they're ugly ducklings who'll never get to the ball.

Well, ducklings look pretty good to me, even without make-up....

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Prima donnas

I've worked with plenty of prima donnas in my time. Or should I say I did my best to work with them, as they're impossible to please however hard you try.

The tell-tale signs of a prima donna being:
  • Changing their opinion every ten minutes
  • Never being satisfied with anything
  • Wanting everything their own way
  • Puffed-up with self-importance
Trying to pin them down on anything at all is like nailing down a lump of blancmange. Trying to meet their ever-shifting demands is like wrestling with an octopus. They're endlessly evasive and enigmatic.

I could name someone I work with right now as a classic prima donna. But since another key feature is sensitivity to criticism, I think I'd better wait till I've moved on to pastures new.

The obvious prima donnas are of course those showbiz stars who insist on all sorts of special treatment to go with their elevated status - obscure dietary requests, new toilet seats, air purifiers, specific room temperatures, everything in their favourite colour, special toilet paper, you name it.

But prima donnas pop up in every walk of life - families, political campaigns, dinner parties. There's always one, driving everyone else nuts. They never notice how annoying their impulsive and erratic behaviour is to those around them.

There was a bookshop manager I once worked with who was never happy with my work. Whatever I did, he always wanted it done differently, and every day his diktats would change. However I defended my time-tested methods, he always thought his methods were better.

I've never been a prima donna. I'm good at working with other people. I may be neurotic, insecure, anxious and timid, but I'm at least consistent and pin-downable. No guessing games required.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Rush to judgment

Ursula suggested I write a more frivolous post. Well, given there's something utterly frivolous on my mind right now, what the hell, no sooner said than done....

I can't believe the fuss everyone's making about Renee Zellweger's changed appearance. Do they have too much time on their hands? Are they paid-up members of the Image Police? Do they never change their own appearance? Why this rabid Renee-trashing?

Personally I'm the old-fashioned type who believes a person's appearance is their own affair and nothing to do with me. I wouldn't be happy if everyone was zooming in on my own appearance and saying they didn't like the change, they preferred the old me, had I had plastic surgery etc etc. I'm amazed she's taking it so calmly and hasn't fled to some secret hideaway.

I couldn't care less if Renee Zellweger had piled on 10 stone, cut all her hair off and went everywhere in bright pink pajamas. It's none of my business. And the fact that she suddenly appeared in public after a long absence doesn't entitle every Tess, Debbie and Harriet to weigh in with their opinions (and yes, it does seem to be mainly women slagging off one of their own).

What does strike me though is that she now bears an uncanny resemblance to J K Rowling - the same face, the same expression, the same hairstyle. Has she turned into J K Rowling? Has J K Rowling turned into Renee Zellweger? Is this a weird double-case of identity theft? Is Renee now a phenomenally successful author while J K is now a Hollywood icon?

All I can say is, I love the name Zellweger. I could roll it around my tongue all day. Zellweger, Zellweger. A name to conjure with. A name to savour. Apparently zellweg means "path to a small monastery." If the current hysterical opinionising goes on much longer, a monastery would probably suit her nicely.

Pics: J K and Renee. Or possibly Renee and J K.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Unbearable loss

These three children - Evie, Mo and Otis Maslin - were all killed, together with their grandfather Nick, when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine.

The three children were flown back to Perth in Australia on Thursday to be returned to their parents.

I can't begin to imagine the bottomless grief their parents must be suffering as a result of this utterly stupid attack on a commercial plane whose passengers had nothing whatever to do with the conflict.

Anthony Maslin and Marite Norris say they are living in a hell beyond hell, that their pain is intense and relentless. "No one deserves what we are going through, not even the people who shot our whole family out of the sky."

The loss of one child is bad enough, but the loss of all three must be an unbearable agony. How can they ever recover from it? How can they have anything like a normal life ever again?

Do the fanatics who shot down the plane have even a flicker of guilt or remorse over what they did? Do they grasp in any way the massive suffering they've caused? Probably not. Probably they see the dead plane passengers as simply unfortunate casualties of war, not to be dwelt on.

Gaining territory is more important than broken hearts.
__________________________________________________________

And in a related news item, an Australian company has developed a water-based alternative to cremation that avoids the 200 kilogrammes of greenhouse gas emissions from a traditional cremation. It simply speeds up the natural decomposition process, taking about four hours in all. Stew instead of roast, as one of my Facebook friends put it. Brilliant.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Squalid impulses

I'm not a hateful person. If there's something about someone that rubs me up the wrong way, I don't hate them for it. I adjust to it, I work around it, I try to understand it. I don't hate them any more than I would hate a rock for being jagged or a snake for being poisonous.

I don't understand people who seem to be a never-ending torrent of hatred. Everything sets them off - a noisy neighbour, a demanding boss, a rude sales assistant, a smarmy politician. Any excuse and they let rip, tearing everyone to shreds. Where does all this bile and venom come from?

I've only hated two people in my life, people who treated me so badly all positive feelings were crushed and loathing took over. I just wanted to be free of them so I could repair my battered self-respect.

Of course you're probably already thinking I'm too good to be true, too magnanimous by half. I'm obviously denying my real feelings, bottling things up, keeping a stiff upper lip. I'm an emotional snob pretending to be better than everyone else and immune to squalid human impulses.

Well, I can assure you there's nowt bottled up. The fact is that hatred just doesn't come naturally to me. Which is surprising since all my immediate family are (or were) more than capable of intense hatred. I could list a dozen things that set them off like Pavlov's dogs.

It's often said that people hate what they don't understand, or what they secretly envy. I think there's a lot of truth in that. But if you don't understand something, why not try to unravel it? If you envy something, why not join in? Why the need for such bitter hostility?

"Let no man pull you so low as to hate him" - Martin Luther King.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Crossed fingers

A lot of people are adamant they achieve things through their own efforts. Luck has nothing to do with it, they say. It's all hard work, determination and shrewdness.

I think they're kidding themselves. Yes, a bit of hard graft is needed. But so many things are down to luck. Being in the right place at the right time. Knowing the right people. Being first in the queue. Hearing something on the grapevine. There are plenty of people who work their asses off with nothing much to show for it.

I know how much luck I've had in my own life. So many things that could have gone horribly pear-shaped worked out surprisingly well. I benefited from the years of prosperity that were followed by recession and shrinking opportunities. Quite by chance I picked up skills that have come in useful ever since.

Other people have even greater luck. They inherit huge sums of money. They win the lottery. They're born to well-connected and multi-talented parents, or turn out to be prodigiously talented themselves. They happen to invent something that becomes a universal must-have.

Knowing as I do how much of my life has depended on good luck, I'm always a bit nervous about the future. Will this astonishing run of luck continue or will it abruptly hit the buffers? Will I suddenly find myself in dire straits, the rug pulled from underneath me? All I can do is cross my fingers, hope for the best and keep on truckin'.

So what will the future bring? Windfalls or pitfalls? Thrills or bills? Trick or treat?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Bêtes noires

Ten things I'd like to see the back of:

1) Ties. I don't care how many people think I look good in a tie. They're pointless anachronisms.
2) Religious imperialism. Trying to foist your religion onto the uninterested, the uncomprehending and the undressed and just going to bed.
3) Instant coffee. It's not coffee by any stretch of the imagination. It's sludge.
4) Lying and hypocritical politicians. That's around 99 per cent of them then.
5) Finger food that falls to pieces, leaves you all greasy and tastes of nothing.
6) Powerpoint presentations. If you have to swamp us with statistics, just put them in an easily disposable handout.
7) People who think they're fascinating but are actually so boring you want to shoot yourself.
8) Absurd excuses for rape. There are NO excuses for rape.
9) Poverty. It ruins people's lives. It's demeaning, depressing and utterly dehumanising.
10) Unbudging know-it-alls who view any alternative opinions as the jabberings of an idiot.

Oh and did I mention ties?

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Spying fever

It seems that a lot of people are now so mistrustful of their partners that they're secretly spying on them to check on what they're doing and where they are. They're so suspicious of what their partners are telling them - or not telling them - that they're obsessively monitoring their activities.

They're looking at emails, texts, computer files, photos, GPS locations, bank accounts, call logs, calendars, website histories, Facebook accounts, you name it. There are now apps that can quietly track just about every aspect of your partner's life and give you any information you want at the touch of a button.

And apparently lots of people are doing just that. According to one technical surveillance firm, business is booming, especially among women trapped in abusive marriages who need to discredit their husbands in order to get a divorce.

Increasingly, people are no longer accepting what their partner tells them, or shrugging off the odd dubious explanation, but are bothered enough to find out just how truthful and trustworthy he or she actually is.

It must be dreadful when you lose trust in your partner and are sure they're hiding things they don't want you to know. But can you really justify such exhaustive snooping on everything they're doing? Is it necessary self-preservation or is it totally obnoxious?

Personally I've always trusted Jenny and I've never felt the need to spy on her every move. I often have no idea at all where she is but why should that make me suspicious? Why should I imagine she's secretly seducing someone or topping up a concealed bank account?

But the fact that such detailed surveillance is now so widespread and easy to use would make me think twice about bedding the next-door neighbour. If I knew that my supposedly private phone calls and texts could be instantly relayed to someone else, I think I'd keep my libidinous longings to myself.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Unnerving beauty

Beautiful women often say that one drawback of being beautiful is that men are too intimidated to approach them. Men feel more comfortable with a woman who's more "ordinary looking".

I've certainly found that myself. I can think of plenty of occasions where I've encountered a beautiful woman (beautiful to me, anyway) and found myself promptly tongue-tied, or stammering, or indeed hesitant to talk to her at all for fear of an instant brush-off.

I know I should be more confident and more blasé, and take the attitude that it makes no difference if she's beautiful or plain, all I'm doing is having a conversation and why on earth am I so flustered? But my psyche won't cooperate.

I think it's partly because I connect beauty with intelligence and assume that whatever I say will strike her as incredibly stupid. I know very well there's no necessary link between beauty and brains but nonetheless I'm convinced that this particular woman I'm speaking to has to be as smart as they come.

I'm not so intimidated by beautiful men. I'm not bothered by their beauty or their intelligence or anything else about them. I talk to them quite easily. So why I get so nervous in the presence of a beautiful woman is a mystery.

But just the other day I was chatting to a very pretty woman, and even though I've known her for a long while, I found myself unaccountably stammering and stuttering like an idiot. What is WRONG with me, I thought. Why am I behaving like a goofy ten-year-old?

Well, if I haven't yet grown out of this adolescent insecurity, I doubt if I ever will. Old habits die hard.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Not really poor

Linda Tirado of Washington DC, who had known a period of grinding poverty, wrote a piece for a website about what it's like being poor. The piece went viral and as usually happens, people started attacking her left right and centre.

And what were they attacking her for? For explaining poverty to people who were well-off and had no idea what it was really like. For telling people that poverty was real and not something invented by scrounging layabouts, journalists and lefties.

Of course they didn't say that. They just claimed she was never really poor because she came from a middle-class family. Or she wasn't really poor because it was only for a few years. Or she wasn't really poor because her wages were enough to live on.

They simply couldn't accept that someone can be genuinely poor, genuinely struggling to make ends meet, genuinely unable to get her rotten teeth or her clapped-out car fixed. They were convinced she was making it all up or wildly exaggerating.

As she puts it herself: "In America we have this myth that if you deserve it, you will have it. We're afraid to look at our downtrodden because it undercuts that myth. There is a fear of the poor that is uniquely American. It's especially hard to look at someone who could be one of their kids - someone like me who's white and intelligent - and see them as poor."

People lucky enough to have a good income and a comfortable life don't want to think about those who have neither. It makes them feel guilty, anxious, scared, vulnerable. They shy away from the possibility that a run of bad luck or some personal misfortune could see them sinking into poverty themselves.

The irony of Linda Tirado's story is that because of the huge readership her internet piece attracted she was able to raise over $60,000 to turn it into a book and quit her job as a night cook. She hasn't had her teeth fixed yet but she's using a better brand of shampoo.

Pic: Linda Tirado

Friday, 19 September 2014

Stressed out cats

Never mind the emotional stresses we humans have to contend with, it seems that cats are also increasingly stressed out. But we may not notice because unlike dogs they don't get aggressive when they're under stress, they just get withdrawn.

To me, cats always seem enviably placid and imperturbable, quite indifferent to what's going on around them and absorbed in their mysterious feline ruminations. But obviously I'm mistaken and they aren't nearly as placid as I imagine.

No doubt the cat-owners among you could easily have enlightened me (and will of course confirm what follows).

According to cat experts Pippa Hutchison and John Bradshaw, cats show their stress in subtle ways like sleeping under the bed, over-grooming and scratching.

Contrary to popular belief, many cats don't like going outdoors and feel much safer staying inside. They can be quite scared of sharing territory with the local cats, especially ones that don't want other cats on their patch. Unlike dogs and humans, they're not naturally sociable.

In the rest of Europe, where many people live in flats, cats are more commonly kept indoors and it doesn't seem to do them any harm.

Cats can find any number of things stressful - a new baby, a new home, the death of another pet, visitors, loud noises, traffic, travel, confinement, strange odours, or even a new type of cat litter. They may be spooked just by another cat looking at them from a neighbouring wall. The most "laid back" cats can become stressed, despite being outwardly calm.

Some experts recommend a special "cat room" or hiding place, out of bounds to dogs and children, where a cat can retreat if it feels the need.

I can understand the feline tendency to withdraw. My response to stress is much the same - I withdraw rather than getting aggressive, and wait for things to get calmer. I don't tend to over-groom or sleep under the bed though.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Childless

One thing I really don't get is the extreme emotional misery some women go through when they find they're infertile. For them, it's not just bad luck, not just an unfortunate quirk of nature, it's something that tears them apart and makes life unbearable.

Tracey Richardson-Lyne, writing in the Observer today, says no one understands the sheer emotional pain of infertility - the feelings of grief, anger, jealousy, isolation, uselessness and failure.

She says that just walking around, seeing pregnant women, dads with pushchairs, or children looking for mummy or daddy, fills her with loneliness and dread.

She feels guilty that she can't reproduce like a "normal" woman, that she can't give her husband a child or her parents a grandchild.

To me, this seems like an oddly extreme reaction to something that should surely be no more than disappointing or frustrating. Can you not just accept the situation and find other things to do with your life? And surely a woman's identity shouldn't still be defined by whether she can reproduce or not? Or whether there's a toddler clutching at her?

But feelings are feelings, and just because I don't understand them, it doesn't mean they're invalid and she shouldn't be having them. If she's in emotional pain, then of course she needs help to deal with the pain and hopefully, one day, get pregnant.

Emotional pain is so much easier to bear if at least other people have been through something similar and can understand what you're feeling. It must be so much worse if you're bearing it alone amid widespread incomprehension.

I can't judge her. I can only wish her some relief from what she's going through, some respite from the suffocating misery.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Caught in the crush

I may be the grand old age of 67, but I still get crushes on people from time to time. Not as much as when I was younger, but they still happen.

Of course I'll never go to bed with them because (a) I'm happily married with no wish for extra-marital adventures; (b) they're usually a lot younger and wouldn't give me the time of day; (c) it would all get far too complicated. So it's never anything more than an entertaining secret fantasy.

I don't have any crushes on anyone right now, but I was very taken by one particular woman at the office block I work in. I looked forward to seeing her and chatting to her, and she probably wasn't aware that I saw her any differently from her workmates. After some months she moved to the States and rapidly faded from my mind.

I've written before about my huge crush on Elena (not her real name), a woman I worked with once in a bookshop when I was still single. Clearly she didn't have any special feelings towards me so absolutely nothing happened, but I would follow her every movement and utterance with heightened attention. I was obsessed with her for years until she also moved on and I never saw her again.

Long ago I had a passionate crush on a waitress at my lunch-time restaurant (that was when the working day still included a full lunch-hour). She had an incredibly sexy way of walking that always had me riveted. But as far as she knew, I was just the thin guy who ordered the omelette and chips and gave her a handsome tip. That time I moved on rather than her.

I've never actually dreamt about my crushes, except in Elena's case. It's usually strictly a daytime thing. And I would never flirt or stalk or do anything inappropriate. It's all in my mind and that's where it stays. Then again, did other people ever have crushes on me, I wonder? Was I ever crush-inducing material? If so, I never suspected and I shall never know.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

What a shame

Why are there so many things we're ashamed to talk about? So many things we'd rather not mention for fear of the conse-quences?

It seems that for each thing we lose our shame about, something else shameful pops up to take its place. And the list of shameful topics is frighteningly long, even in the supposedly tolerant and open-minded 21st century.

Some things have become, well, not totally shameless but much more widely acceptable than they used to be. Part of the scenery at least. Like being gay, being transgender, having an abortion, or being an unmarried mum (funny how unmarried dads have never attracted the same scorn).

On the other hand the number of things people feel ashamed of is as long as your arm - addictions, mental problems, fatal accidents, rare illnesses, affairs, suicide attempts, sexual assault, eating disorders. And I'm sure there are plenty of things I've missed there.

Yet these are all commonplace human events or weaknesses, shared by thousands of people. Why so much shame? Why can't they just be talked about freely? Why the chronic anxiety and fear about sharing them with others? Is society really that intolerant, that scathing, that uncomprehending?

There are not that many things I'm personally ashamed of. I'm happy to reveal most of my odd quirks and eccentricities. There are one or two things I keep to myself, not out of shame but because I know they're probably incomprehensible to others and there's no point in mentioning them.

One thing I feel slightly ashamed of is not being honest enough with other people, being polite and agreeable rather than voicing my true thoughts and feelings. But hell, don't we all do that? If we were totally honest all the time, life would become a nightmare of insults, rejections and wounded emotions. I wouldn't fancy that.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

My humble apologies

I'm good at apolog-ising. I'll happily apologise for anything if it oils the wheels of a relation-ship. Be it a misunder-standing, an unintended insult, an error of fact, or an unpopular opinion, I don't mind humbling myself and admitting that maybe I got it wrong. What's the big deal about that?

But there are so many people who'll do anything rather than apologise. Apologies are apparently a huge humiliation, a huge blow to their ego, something they have to avoid at all costs.

They'll deny doing anything wrong, or find some absurd excuse or justification, or say they were only joking, or say you're over-sensitive. Anything rather than drop their pose of infallibility and admit they're only human and sometimes they drop a clanger.

My father hated apologising. No matter how obviously wrong he was about something, he would never back down. He had to be right, his authority couldn't be challenged, he couldn't bear it that I might actually know more about something than him.

I can recall several workmates who were much the same. Apologising was out of the question. It was always someone else who was wrong, not them. Any attempt to extract an apology was met with anger and incredulity.

The one thing hospital patients always ask for when they've had shoddy treatment of some kind is an apology. "I just want them to admit they got it wrong and they have to do better" they'll say. And the one thing the hospital invariably won't do is apologise. They'll prevaricate and obfuscate and do anything to avoid simply saying "We're really sorry, we made a mess of this and it's not good enough."

And while I'm at it, I sincerely apologise for all those nonsensical, long-winded, infantile, pedantic blog posts I've churned out over the last seven years. If there's anything I can do to make amends, just say the word. You've no idea how ashamed and stupid and careless I feel. What a total dufus I've been. What a total toss-bucket. I promise to do much much better in the future.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The final step

It's easy to understand someone killing themself because of a serious physical illness, or the early signs of one. Obviously they don't want to suffer endlessly or rely on long-term care.*

But when it's suicide after mental distress, people often say they don't understand why the person did it. They wonder why they didn't ask for help or why they didn't respond to the help that was given. Surely there was no need for such a drastic step?

They may even be totally unsympathetic. They may say suicide is selfish, or weak, or melodramatic, or even callous. Did they realise the grief and guilt they were inflicting on their friends and relatives?

I find such lack of sympathy and understanding quite startling. I think it's a failure of imagination, of the ability to see the extremities of pain and distress and misery the person is enduring, pain so severe that any amount of advice, therapy, drugs, support and chivvying is never going to soothe or cure it. Their psyche is so fractured, their emotions so disordered, that life is just an intolerable burden they have to get rid of.

Jenny and I had a friend who was diagnosed schizophrenic for over 30 years. When we visited her she would put on a show of being cheerful and ebullient but sometimes the mask would slip and we would see just how unhappy she was underneath. Her future was obviously cruelly limited and stuck, and eventually she killed herself. Numerous people had tried to help her but her distress was too deep-rooted to be extinguished.

It's all too common to misinterpret severe despair or depression as "being a bit pissed off" or "being up against it" and not recognise the depth and breath of an overwhelming hopelessness. Even if you recognise it, the person may feel too ashamed or timid or paralysed to admit it.

Such suffocating and unyielding misery is all too understandable. The tragedy is that even if you understand, you may be powerless to put things right.

*This suicide note from Gillian Bennett, who was in the early stages of dementia, is astonishingly rational and clear-sighted. No way was "the balance of her mind disturbed", as the cliché has it.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Berlin

It's a real double-think being in Berlin. As I strolled around the city, it looked much like any other comfort-able, prosperous city. People looked happy, stylishly dressed, well fed and watered, doing very nicely thank you.

It's only when we went to the historical museums and memorials that I was reminded abruptly of the horrifying events Berliners have had to endure in the not so distant past. It seemed like a parallel universe, another Berlin, a fanciful novel.

But it isn't. The Holocaust, the Berlin Wall, the Cold War. It all happened here and it was a terrifying contrast to the comfort and prosperity of today. Walking among all those contented people, it's hard to envisage all the wretched clusters of the Unwanted, dragged from their homes and bound for concentration camps. It's hard to envisage all the desperate East Berliners resorting to such extreme methods to escape to the West. And it's hard to imagine the anxiety of being so close to Soviet nuclear missiles.

For those Berliners of my generation, it must be a profound relief to finally be free of all that horror and mayhem and to enjoy a city that is once again at peace and tolerant of a wide range of religions, cultures, ethnicities and sexual tastes.

I have to say though that I was surprised at the lack of gay visibility. Although Berlin has a reputation as a gay Mecca, I saw very little sign of it. The Gay Holocaust Memorial is a pathetic nothing, just a concrete cube containing a video of gay men and women kissing. And in all my travels round the city, I saw only three gay couples openly holding hands, plus a gay men's art gallery and bookshop tucked away in the back streets of Charlottenburg, well away from the city centre. I got the distinct feeling that gays still leave a bad taste in many people's mouths and that discretion and secrecy are still the order of the day. Most disappointing.

But today's Berlin is a lovely city to visit - relaxed, civilised, reeking of good taste and sophistication. With fantastic views from the top of the Reichstag, now beautifully restored after the Nazis set fire to it in 1933. And behind the Reichstag, the sprawling parkland of the Tiergarten. What's not to like?

Recommended:
  • The Typography of Terror
  • The Holocaust Memorial
  • The Story of Berlin (museum)
  • The Berlin Wall Memorial
  • The Stasi Museum
  • The Käthe Kollwitz Museum
  • The Reichstag and Dome
Pic: The Berlin Wall Memorial. One of the remaining sections of the Wall.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Intermission

Don't worry, Nick will be back in a few days.....

Friday, 8 August 2014

Beyond belief

I knew religious belief was common in the States, but I didn't realise it was so rife that atheists are routinely discrim-inated against. So much so that a lot of atheists don't even dare to reveal their non-belief and are forced to stay in the closet.

Atheists are often shunned by their parents and relatives, or showered with abuse, or ostracised by schoolmates. As they are only two per cent of US adults, the other 98 per cent know they can get away with such victimisation.

Now a lot of organisations are springing up to defend atheists and their right to opt out of religion. There's even a TV channel, Atheist TV. They encourage people to "come out" and say what they really think, so others can see just how many atheists there really are.

Religious belief is common in Northern Ireland too, but those who don't believe aren't continually persecuted and hounded and expected to share the same beliefs. In the 14 years I've lived in Northern Ireland, I can't recall a single person objecting to my atheism or expecting me to fall in with the majority.

Of course it might be they just assume I'm a believer; it simply never occurs to them that I'm not, as I never enlighten them. Unlike church-going folk, there's no visible sign of my non-belief, no atheist trappings or rituals.

So why isn't it the same in the States? Why can't they just live and let live? Why this frenzy to wipe out the non-believers, all two per cent of them? Why do they feel so threatened by difference?

As I've said before, I see religion as something private and personal, a sort of self-help programme people use to improve their lives. It has nothing to do with other people unless they freely show an interest in it.

Why is it such a sin to opt out of something?

Monday, 4 August 2014

Short of chums

It's curious how some people have a natural talent for friendship, making friends effortlessly wherever they go, while others just never get the hang of it and potential friends come and go like ships in the night.

Being one of the latter, I'm always bemused by the friend-makers. I study them carefully, trying to work out what they're doing right and what I'm doing wrong, but I'm none the wiser. They just have an instinctive way of connecting with others that I seem to have been born without.

There's been no shortage of possible friends-to-be, people who on first encounter I seem to hit it off with. But after a few promising chats, the initial spark flickers out and it goes no further. If a friendship lasts six months, it's a miracle. Is it their fault? Is it my fault? Who can say?

It still bothers me that I'm so crap at making friends*. In a society where virtually everyone seems to have an impressive retinue of devoted buddies, my visible lack of them is embarrassing. I could of course fake a gang of bosom pals I'm gossiping away with every night of the week, but I don't think I could keep up the pretence for long. Why would I want to anyway?

I can tell myself a lack of friends has its advantages. Plenty of peace and quiet. Nobody ringing me in a state of hysterical despair at 2 am. Not having to sympathise with some course of action I secretly find idiotic. Not being expected to explain every domestic row to a dozen people.

But it's not very convincing. The fact is I'd quite like to soothe someone's hysterical despair or share my latest marital upset. I'd quite like to be that close to someone. It's not going to happen though.

"There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate" - Linda Grayson.

*With the notable exception of my long-time partner, of course.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Eat and be damned

Apparently it's quite routine for women's eating habits to be casually criticised by passing men - often complete strangers. Everyday Sexism gives numerous examples of women being told they should eat less, or eat more, or keep away from chips or ice cream, or watch their figures.

If it's not the choice of food that gets criticised, it's the way they're eating it. They're stuffing themselves, they're shamelessly gorging. They can't control their appetites.

A surprising number of men believe that what a woman is eating is yet another thing men have a right to comment on and control. It's just another way of making a woman feel inadequate and belittled.

It's bad enough that women often feel guilty about what they're eating in the first place. Blatant criticism by random strangers is the last thing they need. Yet how do they avoid it if they're obliged to eat in public?

How ironic that so many men feel entitled to eat and drink anything they like, at the cost of pot bellies and acres of flab, while at the same time ticking off women for every suspect mouthful. Of course they're well aware of the contradiction, but see nothing wrong with making a woman squirm.

Do they think women welcome this gratuitous advice? Do they think it's just amusing banter? Do they think it's their job to discipline careless females? Or are they just common-or-garden bullies?

It's encouraging that some women aren't intimidated and give as good as they get. This is Lindsay on Everyday Sexism: "Bloke: I find women who drink pints unattractive. Me: Great, I don't want to attract you. *buys another pint* "

I like her attitude.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

One night stands

So is the one night stand a good thing or a bad thing? Is it to be avoided at all costs or is it exciting and rejuv-enating? And what if you're already involved with someone but you're tempted by a bit on the side?

Caroline Kent in the Telegraph is all in favour of the ONS, at least if you're in between partners and it's an easy way of satisfying your raging libido. If you're feeling lonely and depressed, she says, "sometimes you just need to get the sad shagged out of you." Even her friends' warnings that she might be bedding a serial killer doesn't put her off.

When I was young the idea of a one night stand was universally condemned by polite society. Such reckless promiscuity was shameful. Sex was only allowable once you had fallen in love and got married. If it turned out you had no sexual experience and hadn't a clue what you were doing, too bad.

Naturally most people took no notice and had one night stands anyway. They kept quiet about them, pretended they were wide-eyed virgins and hoped there would be no sudden pregnancy to give them away.

If you're feeling horny, says Caroline, why not act on it? The only alternative is to sit around feeling sorry for yourself, cram your life with so many activities you forget about sex, or rely on a bit of DIY.

It's hard to find anyone these days who objects to casual sex, apart from religious hardliners. Where's the harm? You might find yourself with some rather odd characters, but it's better than enduring hermit-like celibacy.

Of course one night stands when you're already partnered are a different matter, and a lot more controversial. Some individuals turn a blind eye and aren't especially bothered. They don't see it as a threat or a betrayal or an insult, just as a natural desire for a bit of novelty and variety.

Others find such philandering deeply hurtful and humiliating, an implied criticism of their own inadequacy and undesirability, a desperate wish to find someone, anyone, who will be more satisfying.

As I've said before, I've never been tempted into any extra-marital shenanigans. I don't feel the need and I've never been that besotted with anyone. As for other people's behaviour, that's a matter for them. Judge not that ye be not judged.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Sometimes

Sometimes I feel as fragile as a soft-boiled egg.
Sometimes I feel as tough as old boots.
Sometimes I want to roll on the lawn like a puppy.
Sometimes I want to be as still as a statue.
Sometimes I want to talk complete gibberish and spout imaginary languages and laugh like an idiot and pull ridiculous faces.
Sometimes I want to hide behind a tree.
Sometimes I want to stick out like a sore thumb.
Sometimes I want to turn cartwheels on the beach.
Sometimes I want to be invisible.
Sometimes my brain is like sludge and I'm not at all sure who I am or what I'm doing or why I'm thinking of tractors or how I managed to cut my left thumb.
Sometimes it's all too much and I just want to crawl into a hole and die.
Sometimes I'm so happy I could just float away and I want the moment to go on forever.
Sometimes I feel like a bowl of custard.
Sometimes I feel like a turnip.
Sometimes I feel inside out and upside down.
Sometimes I feel I'm the wrong way round.
Sometimes I'm waiting for the punchline.
Sometimes I'm waiting for the trick question.
Sometimes I feel like a fish out of water.
Sometimes I feel like pie in the sky.
And sometimes there's a knock at the door and it's the Jehovah's Witnesses and they ask me if I'd like a copy of the Watchtower and I say no thanks I belong to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and they blink uncertainly like lost kittens and I tell them I can smell something burning and I close the door.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

All too much

You would think this painting is pretty unremarkable compared to the way women are now routinely depicted in the news media, art galleries, films and advertising. A bit of bare flesh, a bit of cleavage, not much clothing.

But it was all too much for the sheltered folk at the Mall Galleries in London, who took one look at it and decided it was "disgusting" and "pornographic". They removed it from the Society of Women Artists' Annual Exhibition and replaced it with something they thought was more suitable.

They explained that they had had a number of complaints and children who happened to be walking through the gallery on the way to other events might be disturbed by it.

Disturbed by what exactly? The modest patch of pubic hair? The partially-uncovered breasts? The unbuttoned culottes? The self-confident swagger? Is it in any way threatening or violent or deformed or sinister? Why would any child pay any particular attention to it, let alone be disturbed by it?

The artist, Leena McCall, was furious at the removal of the portrait. She said she was baffled as to how a painting with no intimate flesh apart from "the pelvic triangle" could be seen as pornographic.

Art galleries everywhere have copious nude portraits and sculptures of both sexes that attract no complaints whatever. Why the strange over-reaction to this slightly unusual painting?

The journalist Rowan Pelling suggests it's because the subject is not the normal passive, unassuming female but looks assertive and appraising - provocative even.

And she wonders "if the cross-legged Puritans responsible for defenestrating the portrait have ever seen Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde at the Musée d'Orsay, with its splendid sprawl of black-haired vulva." A painting which leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

All a bit of a whipped-up storm in a teacup, surely?

Pic: Ms Ruby May, Standing by Leena McCall

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Hard work

It's a well-worn cliché that only hard work will get you what you want in life. But it's also a load of bollocks. Hard work might get results, or it might get you precisely nothing.

There are plenty of people out there sweating away day after day with little to show for it. All the money's going to their bosses or their landlord or their season ticket and they struggle to make any real improvements in their life.

Other people lie on their yachts all day and do nothing but watch the money pour in from their various investments and property empires. Their only hard work is tying their shoelaces.

I must admit I've done very little hard work in my life. I've been lucky enough to have fairly leisurely jobs with plenty of time for chatting and fooling around. The only serious exertion was the start of the academic year at a university bookshop, humping hundreds of weighty textbooks into the shop and trying to keep up with the deluge of impatient students and their voluminous booklists (that was in the pre-internet, pre-Wikipedia days of course). It was pure bedlam.

What wealth and comfort I've acquired has been almost entirely through luck rather than hard work. Constantly rising property prices, especially in London, and an unexpected windfall from my mum. Or to put it another way, being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people.

I suppose you could also say I haven't squandered all my money on drink or drugs or gambling or hookers. If you have any kind of expensive addiction, then any amount of hard work, however well it's paid, won't bear much fruit.

I was reading only today that the average income for a writer is now about £11,000 a year. You can sit in front of your pc for decades, laboriously cranking out page after page of hard-won creativity, and have only a massive overdraft as your reward.

Listening to all these millionaire government ministers urging us all to solve our problems by working a bit harder is pretty sickening. I'd like to see them scrubbing a few floors on their hands and knees. That'll be the day.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The inner monster

It's fascinating (and shocking) when the parents of someone who's gone on a killing spree or some sort of horrific rampage say they had no idea their child was capable of such a thing, that he or she had always seemed like a decent, civilised person who would never hurt anyone.

This is what Peter Rodger says about his son Elliot, who killed six people in California and then killed himself. He says that his son's actions have haunted him day and night, that he never saw it coming and that he always thought his son couldn't harm a flea.

Every morning he wakes up to the fact that his son was a mass murderer and that on the inside he was very different from how he seemed on the outside. Clearly he's having a very hard time trying to come to terms with it.

How can someone not even have the smallest suspicion that their child has disturbing anti-social tendencies that need to be urgently addressed? How can their child hide these tendencies so successfully, so cunningly, that nobody suspects a thing? It's extraordinary.

On the one hand parents say they know their children so well they can be pretty certain of their thoughts or feelings on just about anything, and there are few surprises. They say they would notice straightaway if something worrying was going on.

On the other hand parents complain that once their children become teenagers they're more secretive, keep a lot of things to themselves and are often totally unfathomable. They develop a hidden, private identity their parents have little knowledge of.

I have no personal experience to offer as I don't have children. All I can say is that it must be unimaginably painful to know your child has done something so heinous and caused so much suffering and heartbreak to so many other people. And if they're also dead, you can't even ask them to explain. It's just a bottomless mystery you will never ever solve. A mystery that will probably haunt you till the day you die, and even make you question your decision to have a child. Peter Rodger's life will never be the same again.

Pic: Peter Rodger and Richard Martinez, father of victim Christopher Martinez

Sunday, 22 June 2014

British values

There's a big debate going on over the meaning of the term "British values". Should immigrants have to convince us they've adopted British values? Suppose they fail the test? And what on earth are British values anyway?

After following the debate closely, I have to say I'm not sure I'd pass the test myself, despite having lived in Britain for 67 years. If I had to prove my British credentials, I'd probably end up being deported.

When I look at all the things that are typically British, I find most of them so obnoxious I'd rather not be described as British at all. The word starts to give off a rather unpleasant stench.

Just a few of the British phenomena I'd rather not be associated with:

1) Pot noodle
2) Instant coffee
3) Football
4) Binge-drinking
5) Racism, homophobia and misogyny
6) Tuition fees
7) Greedy landlords
8) Attacks on welfare "scroungers"
9) Trolling
10) The war on drugs
11) Warmongering
12) The Royal Family

Most of the things I enjoy aren't typically British but a feature of societies all over the world, from Brooklyn to Brisbane. Like art, films, music, books, intelligent conversation, friendship, good food, good wine, sex, hill-walking and beautiful landscapes. Not to mention those essential human qualities of love, compassion, open-mindedness and curiosity.

Isn't the term "British values" just a sign of blinkered insularity, of a refusal to admit that other countries' values might be just as admirable as our own, maybe more so? Why be so dismissive of French values or German values? Might there be something to learn from people outside our own borders?

Personally I'd steer well clear of anyone who's passionate about British values. How about human values? How about just treating each other decently?

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Dashed hopes


People like to trumpet their successes, but they tend to keep their disappointments to themselves. Which gives a very false impression of effortlessly capable individuals who never put a foot wrong. Well, except for those misery memoirs where every possible indignity and trauma is given an airing, as that sells much better than a happy upbringing in staid suburbia.

So anyway, in the interests of balance and an accurate portrayal of my chequered life, here are a few of the most memorable disappointments.

(1) Six and a half years in a spartan, freezing bedsit in an inner London borough, owned by a slum landlord who never did any maintenance and let the rising damp creep up the building.
(2) Being far too staid and suburban to become a wild, drug-addled, out-of-control rock star, and settling for the more sedate occupation of bookselling.
(3) Various sexual let-downs with various attractive but incompatible women, which had the fortunate effect later on of steering me away from extra-marital flings.
(4) Not being born in Australia and spending my life in the sodden, chilly, gloomy British Isles, trying desperately to keep warm for six months of every year.
(5) Not travelling more when I was younger. I should have done the classic round-the-world backpacking thing but I was too unadventurous and unresourceful to do so.
(6) Discovering I wasn't a natural writer and I was never going to rattle off that stunning, award-winning literary novel I'd fantasised about for most of my childhood.

So there you are - the secret lows of Nick's existence. I could mention a few more but enough is enough. I don't want to detract too much from my carefully polished image as a debonair city-slicker. I have my pride, you know.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Dine and whine

An eleven year legal battle over a scathing restaurant review has finally ended in Sydney with the restaurant getting £349,000 damages. But just how did the court come to its decision when the evidence in the case (the meal) has either been eaten or thrown in the trash?

In any case, I shudder to think what state the food would be in if it had actually survived for eleven years. Everyone in the court would need clothes pegs on their noses or gas masks to shut out the overpowering stink of rotten food.

Seriously though, how on earth did the court make their decision? In the end it boils down to one person's word against another's. The journalist who said the meal was crap from start to finish, against the restaurant that insisted their food was the finest haute cuisine. So who's right? Was it simply a question of who sounded most convincing?

Even if the journalist had called on other diners to confirm how disgusting the food was, it would still only have been an opinion, as their meal would also have been disposed of.

As it was, it was all so nebulous that the case went to two jury trials, a trial before a judge, two appeals, two special leave applications to the High Court, a full High Court hearing and a Supreme Court hearing before a final decision was reached.

I also wonder why the restaurant closed down six months later, supposedly because of this one appalling review. Are diners really put off by a single review, however vitriolic? There must have been other reviews (or just word-of-mouth) that were equally damning. Personally, I would regard one dreadful review as an unfortunate mishap - the reviewer was in a foul mood, the chef was having a bad day, whatever. It wouldn't put me off trying the restaurant.

Perhaps restaurant reviews should always have a disclaimer at the bottom - "This is merely one person's opinion on one particular day and may not truly represent the general quality of the restaurant's meals."

In other words, it might be the review that's three courses of crap and not the food.

Monday, 9 June 2014

English as she ain't spoke

I find most regional and foreign accents fascinating, but I'm surprised how many people find some of them so unpleasant or repulsive they'd like to get rid of them altogether.

My mum finds the London cockney accent or "Estuary English" very unattractive. She thinks people who speak like that should have elocution lessons and learn to talk proper Queen's English.

What an awful thought. Can you imagine if everyone in London spoke like those bland BBC newsreaders, all smoothed-out vowels and slightly toffee-nosed delivery? Spoke like me in other words, with my posh public-school diction. It would give me the heebie-jeebies. I love to hear an infinite range of accents and pronunciation, it's exciting and intriguing.

I love all the regional accents too - Northern English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish. In fact in Northern Ireland there are almost as many accents as there are towns, and you can usually tell which town someone comes from by the way they speak. But some people object to regional accents as being a weird perversion of standard English. As if there's only one "normal" way of speaking the language. Variety is the spice of life, I say. Why should everything be standardised?

Then there are all the foreign accents of people from other countries. English with an Italian or German lilt. English with an American or Aussie twang. For some people, a foreign accent is an instant cue for prejudice and a show of superiority. Such arrogance! We should be admiring those people who've taken the trouble to master another language, or even several languages. And we should be ashamed of the general British inability to be multilingual.

I think it's sad when someone with a strong regional accent feels obliged to fake "standard" English for job purposes, because they think their natural accent is a liability. Sometimes the result is embarrassingly false and exaggerated. But apparently some call centres prefer staff with regional accents, which are seen as warmer and friendlier than the flat, aloof-sounding London accent. Good for them.

The more accents the better. Ain't that the troof, guv?