Friday, 28 February 2014

Muck averse

I'm not good with muck. Filth. Unpleasant substances in general. I don't want to get anywhere near them if I can help it.

I'm too fastidious. A typical white-collar worker, bourgeois neat-freak, afraid of disturbing the pristine features of my sanitised existence.

The thought of working on a farm, say, sloshing through mud and manure and bog every day, fills me with horror. Likewise working on a hospital ward, mopping up all the messy excretions of the human body. Or cleaning out sewers or dealing with oil spills.

Mucky domestic chores are okay. That's muck on a manageable scale, something I can handle without too much cringing. But serious, everywhere-you-look levels of muck - I avoid it at all costs.

Friends and loved ones are exempt of course. Whether it's hangover vomit or the effects of serious illness, dealing with mess goes without saying, be it psychological, emotional or physical.

Country dwellers must laugh at dainty townies like myself, as they routinely splatter themselves with muck and slime and think nothing of it. The sight of besuited government ministers delicately wading through the floods in their brand-new wellies must have amused them greatly.

At boarding school I played rugby and by the end of a game I was often plastered with mud from head to toe. Which wasn't too bad as I looked forward to a hot shower and leaving all my filthy clothes with the laundry service (no, we didn't even wash our own clothes - spoilt brats or what?). But if I could find a good excuse not to play, I jumped at it.

So - no muck please, I'm far too squeamish.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014


When I was younger, I used to say that nothing shocked me any more, that I'd seen and read so many horrifying things that nothing had the same impact as it used to.

But somewhere along the line something changed and now I find that an increasing number of things shock me profoundly. I don't know if it's because people's behaviour is genuinely becoming more extreme and outrageous, or because I've become more sensitive, or because I recoil from the sheer brutality and heartlessness of what's going on. But whatever it is, these are just some of the things that shock me:

1) Abusive social media campaigns. Like the one directed at Northern Ireland MLA* Anna Lo recently, thick with racism and sexism.
2) Extreme drunkenness in public, often requiring emergency hospital treatment and sometimes fatal.
3) Systematic bullying in workplaces, causing widespread stress and sickness.
4) Routine lying by politicians, leading to general disillusion with politics.
5) Withdrawal of welfare benefits to the poor and disabled, causing severe distress and hardship.
6) Mass shootings at schools, traumatising pupils and their families for years afterwards.
7) Female genital mutilation, on a huge scale in numerous countries.
8) Wholesale rape by soldiers as a military tactic and a display of power.

I'm getting used to being shocked. But I'm not getting used to the things I'm shocked by. And there seem to be more and more of them.

*MLA: Member of the Legislative Assembly. Our equivalent of an MP

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Pink peeve

Mr Pinkie (for it is he) is a little exasp-erated that he's seen as some sort of spokesbear for pink bears in general.*

"All pink bears are different. I'm not speaking for anyone but myself" he says. "Just because I'm a celebrity hairdresser doesn't mean every pink bear wants to fiddle with people's hair. Other pink bears may find the whole idea repulsive. Some pink bears may prefer to do nothing more than sprawl on the sofa all day munching sweet-potato brownies.

"But every goddam journalist asks me these dumb-ass questions like, So what do pink bears think about cycling helmets? What do pink bears think about vitamin supplements? I mean, how the hell do I know what other pink bears think? Am I supposed to be some kind of mind-reader? Is there supposed to be some mysterious essence of pink bear I'm somehow secreting about my person? What total arseholes they are.

"I'm Mr Pinkie and that's my sole area of expertise,okay? Just do me a favour and stop seeing me as the Voice of Pinkness.

"Now if you'll excuse me, I'm way behind with Julie's highlights. And if you want a haircut, you'll have to wait six months like everyone else. I don't care how many banknotes you wave at me, I shall ignore them. Just get out of my hair."

* or even for soft, pink, fluffiness

More about Mr Pinkie here

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Duty free

I have trouble with the idea of duty. To me it implies something compulsory, something I'm expected to do whether I like it or not because that's the custom. Whether I want to do it, whether I'll enjoy doing it, is irrelevant.

I'm sorry but I just refuse to do something I haven't freely chosen, simply because other people expect it of me. They can talk about "duty" as much as they like, but I prefer to decide for myself what's the right thing to do.

People talk about the "duty" to look after your elderly parents, fight for your country, report road accidents, pay taxes, give evidence in court, serve on a jury, or vote in elections. But is it always right to do these things? No, of course not. In many instances there are very good reasons for not doing them, and self-respect and the public interest demand that you refuse.

Should I look after my elderly parents if they never loved me, always behaved badly to me and were glad to see me gone? Should I fight for my country if I believe the war is pointless, brutal and unwinnable? Should I give evidence in court at the risk of facing hostile lawyers and reliving an emotional trauma?

The decision should be up to the person concerned. They shouldn't feel pushed into something they have deep reservations about. They shouldn't be doing it just to look good or to avoid public disapproval. They should be doing it because they genuinely believe it's the correct thing to do.

I've done jury service twice, but not because it was seen as my duty. I did it because I believe people should be tried by their peers, by people like them, and not by someone remote from their own lives. I did it because I wanted to see if the jury process was as fair and objective as it's made out to be (and the answer was yes). I felt I had done it for the right reasons and not the wrong ones.

Forget duty. How about passion and commitment?

"What destroys a man more quickly than to work, think and feel without inner necessity, without any deep personal desire, without pleasure - as a mere automaton of duty?" - Friedrich Nietzsche.

Pic: Witness Nicole Alvarez at the trial of Michael Jackson's physician.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Forever hurt

One of the saddest things is people who've been hurt so much in their life that feeling hurt becomes the default emotion, the one you sense constantly if you're with them for any length of time.

They've got into the habit of feeling hurt,and have lost the ability to be happy. They see everyone around them as potentially hurting them and are permanently on the defensive.

I remember one woman I worked with - let's call her Beth - who looked forever beaten-down and subdued, hurt leaking out of her like sweat, always waiting for the next wounding remark, always complaining about the way people treated her.

I never discovered why she felt so hurt, who had done what to her to fatally undermine her resilience and self-esteem. But the emotional damage, the crushed psyche, was plain to see.

It was hard to befriend her because she was so suspicious of people's intentions, so sure that sooner or later she would be treated badly yet again. All I could do was handle her as gently as possible and not do anything to confirm her suspicions.

I can recall several women who carried this strong sense of hurt, but I can't recall any such men. I'm sure there are men who have been hurt just as much but are conditioned to hide the hurt and not show any sign of it. They may be in acute emotional pain but they put on a sanguine demeanour that gives nothing away.

I'm sure my father was full of hurt, but he would never admit it. He thought it was okay to be angry, or jealous, or possessive - healthy masculine emotions - but hurt was strictly taboo. A feminine thing, something for cissies, something humiliating. He bottled it all up and thought we couldn't see it.

He went to his grave still hurting. Because he was too ashamed to tell us.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Cupid's arrow

Holy haddock! Jenny and I have been together for nearly 33 years. How did that happen? How come we're still so besotted, so enamoured, so captivated? How come we never derailed, how come the train never left the tracks and plunged down a cliff? How come Cupid's still cheering us on?

It's extraordinary really. Jenny's never left me for another man (or woman). I've never left her for another woman (or man). We haven't got bored with each other. We haven't had the mother and father of all blazing rows and split up the next morning. We haven't disappointed each other (much). We haven't decided the other is a waste of space. Neither of us have drunk ourselves to death or gone nuts or taken an overdose. We're still the best of pals, giggling behind the bike shed.

How come the usual pitfalls that other couples succumb to seem to have passed us by? What's the magic ingredient? What's our special formula for continued romantic bliss? Er, dunno really, I'll get back to you on that. I just have to consult my astrologer, my therapist, my relationship adviser and my feng-shui analyst. And then I'll feed all the results into my super-powered, algorhythmic, multi-permutational software app and get the definitive route map. Or possibly the perfect recipe for kidney bean chili if something screws up.

But wow, we've been round the block a few times. We've weathered so many crises together. Using the wrong toothbrush. Leaving the toilet seat up (or down). Running out of knickers. Finding a giant spider in the bath. Not finding the giant spider and hoping it's not hiding under the duvet. Wondering if that strange noise is a deranged burglar with a freshly-sharpened machete or a creaking floorboard. Telling the Jehovah's Witness we're both Druids. Somehow we've dealt with them all and lived to tell the tale.

So miraculously, incredibly, thrillingly, we're still together after all these years. How many more, I wonder?

Happy Valentine's Day to all my lovely blog buddies.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Hidden lives

We all know about Too Much Infor-mation. But what about Too Little Infor-mation? What about all those everyday things we'd love to ask people about but it's impossible to do so?

I'll see a woman in the street and I'll think, Does she have a boyfriend or a husband? Are they happy together? Are they unhappy? What do they love about each other? What do they dislike? Is she well-off? Is she broke? What's her favourite activity? What does she totally hate doing? What are her obsessions? What are her phobias?

I shall never know because I can't ask. She's a closed book, an enigma, just another person on the street I'll probably never even see again. The perpetual pang of unrequited curiosity.

Sometimes I feel other people are asking similar questions about me. They stare at me quizzically, appraisingly, as if there's something they're dying to know. I wonder what's going through their mind. But just as I can't question them, they can't question me.

Even when I'm alone with someone, they seldom tell me very much about themselves. Either they prefer to keep things private or they don't think I'm trustworthy or sympathetic enough. Unlike some people, who find that everywhere they go, they attract astonishingly intimate and heartfelt confessions. So much so, they start to think it might be less of a burden if they looked a bit more off-putting.

As it is, most of my information about other people comes from the media. I eagerly devour the agony columns, the gossipy interviews, the heartbreaking stories about refugees, flood victims, premature deaths. It's odd that I know more about all these complete strangers than I do about the next-door neighbour or the greengrocer. Or the sad, defeated-looking woman who just got off the bus.

PS: There's another explanation for people not confiding in me. They think I look over-sensitive and possibly easily upset by whatever harrowing story they might tell me. So they keep quiet.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

A yen for risk

I'm fascinated by the way people crave risk as much as they crave safety. Human nature demands this strange contra-diction.

On the one hand we want safety. We want a home, a job, friends and family, things that make us feel protected and secure, things that ward off the horrors and uncertainties of the outside world.

But at the same time we don't want to feel too staid and set in our ways, we want a bit of excitement in our lives, so we also want risk. We drink too much, eat too much, drive recklessly and take dangerous drugs, busily compromising the very same safety and security we're striving for the rest of the time.

Some people go farther. The reliable bank clerk and home-owner who also has a yen for rock climbing, sky diving, bungee jumping or surfing. Or even a fervent desire to work in war-torn countries where they face death every day. They can only take so much safety and security before they crave the exact opposite, something that is physically threatening but gets the adrenaline going like nothing else.

Personally I have a strong yearning for safety, and I steer away from risk. I'm a timid soul who seldom does anything riskier than exceeding the speed limit or standing on a cliff-edge.

If I feel any sense of risk in my life, it's only the vicarious danger oozing from the media, with its screaming headlines about cancer epidemics, plane crashes, multiple pile-ups and mass shootings.

I guess that's one reason we're all such avid news-consumers. It gives us that exhilarating whiff of looming peril that livens up our usually predictable existence. It persuades us we're taking constant risks when in fact we've never been safer.

But I think I'll pass on the bungee-jumping for now, if that's all right with you.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

True or false?

So - time for some fun. How well do you think you know Nick? Here are twenty statements about me. Which are true and which are false? If you want to make it easier, just name three things you think are correct. I'll give you the answers in due course....

And the answer is: I've been very mischievous. Every statement is false. There's not a shred of truth in any of them. As for number one, it didn't happen to me but it happened to my father. There were a lot of very sensible guesses though!

1) I was born with two thumbs on my left hand, and one of them was surgically removed.
2) I'm allergic to avocados.
3) I once shared a taxi with John Lennon.
4) I often dream of burning buildings.
5) I blush frequently.
6) I have a heart-shaped birthmark on my left thigh.
7) I'm prone to fainting.
8) I used to have a terrible stammer.
9) I swear profusely when I'm drunk.
10) I used to be anorexic.
11) I'm afraid of flying.
12) For my 40th birthday party, I wore a blue minidress, black tights and blue 3 inch heels.
13) I detest broccoli.
14) I once lost two stone in a month.
15) I've never had any pubic hair.
16) I used to sleepwalk.
17) I first had sex in a London tube train.
18) I once hiccupped non-stop for three hours.
19) I've read "Crime and Punishment" eleven times.
20) I bruise easily.