Thursday 31 May 2007

Green conundrum

I must admit I'm very two-faced about the idea of a looming global crisis. I see all the terrifying headlines about the imminent collapse of the planet, and I just don't take them as seriously as I'm supposed to.

I tell myself the scientists know what they're talking about, and I'm keen to do my bit to prevent catastrophe, but at the same time I want to continue the same comfortable lifestyle I'm used to.

I know flying is highly polluting, but it doesn't stop me jumping on planes. I find a dozen ways of justifying it, from the futility of personal boycotts to the much worse pollution of deforestation or farting cows.

Do I leave my equally toxic car to rust away in the garage? Of course not. I can't possibly rely on the vagaries of public transport to get me where I need to go. And I've frozen to death at bus stops once too often.

Much as I agree with slashing energy use, I'm not quite prepared to shiver through the winter or dump all my household appliances to stop the odd Arctic glacier melting.

I suppose deep down my problem is this - if the environmental crisis is so colossal and so desperate, then it can only be averted by lifestyle changes on a scale far exceeding the petty tweaks and gestures of well-meaning individuals.

However much I'm told that every little bit helps, we all have to pull together, it's a joint effort blah blah, I can't help feeling that everything I'm doing is a mere drop in the ocean that counts for little.

At the end of the day, a threat this big has to be confronted by national governments. Relying on individual goodwill is a bit like rearranging the deckchairs as the Titanic heads for the iceberg. Or fighting Hitler with Dad's Army. There's just too much at stake.

Monday 28 May 2007

Hate walls

Despite the peace process, there are still dozens of peace walls in Belfast keeping sectarian factions from laying into each other. And the number isn't going down, it's going up.

There's a big controversy around the plan for a brand-new 25-foot peace fence next to, of all places, an integrated* primary school. It seems thugs are going through the school grounds to attack nearby Catholic homes.

The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education is saying, hang on a minute, why a 25-foot fence? What attempts have been made to find a less drastic solution through negotiation, discussion and the involvement of the local community? Why is the only answer a crude physical barrier?

At this rate, North Belfast will finish up as one long peace wall from end to end, Berlin-style. Is this the best we can do?

The irony is that we in South Belfast never see the peace walls, unless we have reason to go through the north of the city. For us, they're as unreal as they are to the rest of the world, bizarre structures we only see on TV when there's a local flare-up.

One reason for the permanence of the peace walls (or should I say hate walls) is that the politicians find them a big embarrassment. They prefer to ignore them and pretend sectarianism has died and we're all saying a cheery hello to the neighbours over the freshly-trimmed privet.

They're unwilling to admit the walls are a continuing scandal and that some serious work is needed to get them all dismantled.

They may be a fashionable attraction for tourists who fancy a little frisson of ghoulish horror, but the long-suffering residents are desperate for a normal life that doesn't involve being in a Colditz-type compound 24 hours a day.

When are the warm handshakes at Stormont going to be matched by warm handshakes across the real-life sectarian divides?

* with both Catholic and Protestant pupils

Thursday 24 May 2007

The price of fame

Millions of people are pining desperately to be celebrities - to swap their dull, everyday lives for a spell in the global spotlight, their every move watched and remarked on by the teeming masses.

I can't think why. Myself, I couldn't imagine a more horrible fate than being scrutinised and dissected by every voyeuristic Tom, Dick and Harriet who feels like passing an idle moment with a bit of mindless celeb-gawping.

I'd be trapped in my own home, protected by state of the art security systems and unable to walk the local streets in case I'm attacked by a stalker, besieged by shrieking fans or simply stared at like a monkey in the zoo.

I'd have to watch my appearance like a hawk to check I was thin enough, glamorous enough, confident enough, youthful enough. A few surplus ounces or a crumpled jacket and the media would pounce, telling the world I was letting myself go and my career was on the skids.

Even if I sought refuge on some far-flung Pacific island, the pararazzi would follow and snatch illicit shots of me in the buff, smooching with some unknown beauty who would then have to go into hiding herself.

Worse still, I would be a sitting duck for every journalist and passing low-life to heap abuse and contempt on me whenever the urge took them, on the grounds that (a) if I put myself in the public eye then I'm inviting custard pies and (b) I have to pay the price for my privileged lifestyle.

Who needs it? Why would anyone want to put themselves through all that for the sake of banner headlines in the tabloids? And to those who say, ah but it would be worth all that to have shedloads of money and untold luxury, well sorry to buck the trend but I prefer being able to slouch down the street in my worn-out jeans muttering to myself without the entire British population sneering at my degenerate habits over tomorrow morning's cornflakes. Anonymity? It's just fine by me.

(see also Paparazzi no thanks)

PS: Talking of celebs, Happy Birthday to the gorgeous Julian Clary, a spiffing 48 tomorrow. Julian's columns in the New Statesman are just LMAO funny.

Saturday 19 May 2007

Lying politicians

I really want to believe in politicians. I really want to believe in their promises, their beaming smiles, their grand plans. I truly want to believe that once they're elected, the country will be a better place and all our lives will be happy and complete.

But I don't. I just don't. I've seen so many politicians over so many decades, and been betrayed and let down by so many of them, that I no longer have any faith they'll do what they say.

What else can I think when the new English Wonder Boy, the new Saviour, Flash Gordon himself, who on Thursday had promised us all genuine 'democratic accountability', had on Friday - the very next day - agreed that MPs should not be subject to the freedom of information provisions.

I can't say I'm surprised. I don't kid myself any more. Politicians lie. They lie all the time, day in and day out. They lie about everything. They lie about the small things, they lie about the big things. They lie about weapons of mass destruction, cash-for-peerages, ending poverty, ending sectarianism. The list is endless.

What's more, they know they lie and it doesn't bother them. The only important thing is gaining power and keeping it, and if that means lying shamelessly, so be it. I could cite one or two honourable refuseniks like Tony Benn and John McDonnell, but of course they're the exceptions that prove the rule.

Cynical, moi? Not at all, just clear-eyed and realistic. I've seen so many false dawns and rude awakenings in my time - from the insipid socialism of Harold Wilson to the mass unemployment and industrial carnage of Margaret Thatcher - that the harsh truth stares me in the eyes.

There's only so many times you can trust those grinning faces before you realise they're all different versions of Jekyll and Hyde. There's a good reason why the popularity ratings always put politicians at rock bottom, with estate agents and car salesmen.

So much as I would like to put my faith in one of those earnest, well-scrubbed faces pleading for my vote and promising me another great leap forward - sorry, guys, don't hold your breath.

Thursday 17 May 2007

Tipsy town

Is it insulting or flattering that a new survey finds Belfast to have the biggest boozers in the UK? Depends on your point of view, I guess, and your own partiality for the liver-eating liquid.

The survey by PCP of Luton, a company that rehabilitates hardened drinkers, found that people in Belfast spend an average of £47,568 on alcohol in their lifetime.

Leaving aside exactly how they arrived at that figure, which a trained statistician would probably rip to pieces (and actually it works out at only £2 a week more than the next booziest city, Cambridge), it certainly makes me think about Northern Ireland's astonishing capacity for boozing, on every possible occasion on the flimsiest of excuses ("Hey, I found the budgie - fancy a drink?")

That £47,000 is a hell of a sum. Just think what you could do with it instead - a hefty deposit on a house, a trip round the world, an incredible number of CDs, or a huge wardrobe of designer clothes.

Visitors from other countries are constantly dumbfounded by the British and Irish tendency for relentless drinking - not just a glass of wine to embellish a meal, but pint after pint of the stuff until they've literally taken leave of their senses.

It's not just recklessness or hedonism. Scientists say some people have a special metabolism that can digest rivers of alcohol without a serious physical reaction (apart from hangovers, that is). In other parts of the world, people simply can't process such an overload of booze so they drink very little.

Personally I take after the latter, as I've never been comfortable with more than a glass or two of alcohol, even as a wild teenager. More than that can bring an instant headache and almost complete incapacity the next day. I'm always amazed by the ability of other hangover-struck individuals to act completely normal and compus mentis.

It's ironic that with such widespread religious observance in these parts, there are so few teetotallers, or even light drinkers. Somehow people manage to square their insatiable urge for a brimming tankard with a God who teaches moderation in all things.

Is it possible that one day we'll learn to appreciate quality over quantity? I'll drink to that!

Sunday 13 May 2007

Interview pitfalls

I've done plenty of interviews in my life, but they never cease to be nerve-shredding occasions. However well-prepared I think I am, so often there's something unexpected to trip me up.

I might start off confidently enough, with fluent answers showing my obvious suitability for the job in question, but how easily it can all be derailed. Sooner or later, any of the following may occur:

1. One of the interviewers reminds me of Basil Fawlty and I spend the entire interview trying desperately not to laugh.
2. I'm asked a totally unexpected question ("So why did your grandmother leave Romania?"), my mind instantly goes blank and I'm left staring inanely at the panel.
3. One of the interviewers is so aggressive I have a mounting desire to pick up the water jug and empty the contents all over them.
4. I accidentally upset the water jug and it soaks everything in sight, including all the job applications.
5. I realise a box of condoms has fallen out of my trouser pocket (I can't even recall buying it).
6. One of the interviewers is sweating profusely, and my increasingly bizarre theories as to why this should be are hopelessly distracting me (I'm pretty sure they've just had a quickie with someone in Accounts).

If my guardian angel is on the ball, none of the above happens and the interview goes swimmingly. If my luck is firmly out, I'm assailed by every mishap possible and wish I was anywhere else in the world but there.

But the upshot can be surprising. What I perceived as a perfect interview, wowing the panel with my glittering personality and dazzling expertise, leads to a deafening silence and polite evasions when I pursue it a week later.

On the other hand, the seeming interview-from-hell, where everything went arse-upwards from minute one and I virtually crawled out on my hands and knees, is followed an hour after by a job offer and the revelation that I was "the outstanding candidate". Who can fathom it?

I think one reason I stay in a job for quite a stretch is simply the terrifying prospect of another round of anxiety-ridden interviews en route to my next perch. Never mind a cure for cancer, what I need is a miracle drug for interviews. Oh, and strawberry-flavour, please.

(see also Flirty's Embarrassing Interview Experience)

Thursday 10 May 2007

Far too thin

I've always been thin, especially when I was young and verging on the anorexic, so the women I know are always trying to fatten me up and make me 'healthy'.

Giant chocolate cookies, jam-smothered scones, chunky sandwiches and bowls of chips are pushed in my direction to stop me wasting away any further.

Actually my weight is perfect for my height, but the widespread prevalence of beer bellies and hefty hips makes me look like the oddity. I was actually asked the other day if I had ever been anorexic, so commonplace is it these days.

Even Jenny, who's well used to my body by now, still thinks I'm too skinny and ought to fill out a bit. But she just wants a comfier backrest, if you ask me.

Those who struggle constantly with their weight insist I must be naturally thin and able to stuff myself silly with calorie-rich titbits without gaining an ounce. Well, that was true once but nowadays I have to watch the pounds too.

It's ironic that if I were female I could savour my lucky conformity to the willowy stereotype of Ms Drop Dead Gorgeous. But physical size is fairly low-down on the Ideal Man checklist - what matters more is the size of his bank account and the size of his home. And possibly the size of something more personal.

I'm constantly amazed by the well-upholstered, ample-bellied males that women are happy to be seen with. The only arena in which male thinness is a definite plus seems to be the gay world - I certainly stirred a bit of interest there when I was younger (a lot younger).

For me though, the odd remark about my thinness is just amusing. But it's the thin celebs I feel sorry for. If there's no bulging flesh to be seen, anorexia is the word on everyone's lips - and a hundred denials mean nothing.

(see also Size Zero)

Wednesday 9 May 2007

Abortion limbo (2)

The embattled Miss D, the Irish 17 year old who sought an abortion but was doggedly obstructed by the Health Service Executive, has now thankfully been given the go-ahead by the Irish High Court.

The court says she is free to travel abroad to have the abortion (which the law forbids her in the Republic).

They've ruled that the HSE was acting quite improperly in preventing her from carrying out her decision, and confirmed that there is no statutory or constitutional bar to her leaving the country for this purpose.

The HSE is left with a large quantity of egg on its face, while Miss D can at last decide the future of her baby without outside interference.

I wish her well and hope she has the emotional and psychological strength to deal with the loss of her potential child.

Of course this whole legal wrangle wouldn't have occurred if it was easier to get an abortion in the Republic and the Church didn't still have such a stranglehold on all those in a position to change the situation.

The Church's censorious view on abortion doesn't even reflect the general feeling of the Irish people. Since 1967 an estimated 45,000 pregnant women have voted with their feet and travelled to Britain for terminations. They are prepared to defy the law and lie about their nationality to achieve their wishes. Just how long will this desperate exodus continue?

(see also Abortion Limbo)

Monday 7 May 2007

Digging for gold

Well, who'd have thought it? Under a soggy carpet of peat, heather and gorse near Omagh in County Tyrone, grazed by innocent sheep for generations, lie around 14 tonnes of gold, worth tens of millions of pounds. And there could be a lot more.

Farmer Sam McKinley was staggered when he heard the news. He thought the only benefit of the Cavanacaw bog was his glowing skin after tending the sheep on a summer's day.

But yes, there really is gold in them thar bogs. Enough to compete seriously in the global gold jewellery business, worth £3 billion. Enough to produce rings, earrings and pendants as good as those last made by Celtic goldsmiths in the Bronze Age.

The company running the new mine is called Galantas - Gaelic for "elegant thing". The sole jeweller in Omagh selling Galantas gold has been almost cleared out, such is the demand. They've had customers not just from Northern and Southern Ireland but as far away as Brazil. A price tag of £1,200 on some items is no deterrent.

Local residents still can't quite believe something so glamorous has emerged from Omagh, the town best-known up till now for the Real IRA car-bomb that killed 29 people in August 1998, the worst single atrocity of the Troubles. Now Omagh will be known for jewellery as beautiful as the pottery from Belleek, a few miles away on Lower Lough Erne, and the glassware from Tyrone Crystal at nearby Dungannon.

It's a well-deserved economic boost for this pretty and unassuming town, perhaps providing some compensation for the dreadful misery unleashed on it nine years ago.

And who knows what might be lying under all those other bogs? Has anyone got a spade?

(For more details, see today's story in the Independent)

Sunday 6 May 2007

Abortion limbo

The Republic of Ireland may be rushing into the future at breakneck speed and shedding its insular past with gusto, but when it comes to abortion, attitudes are still remarkably strait-laced.

Miss D, who is 17 and four months pregnant, is asking the Irish High Court to restrain the Health Service Executive from stopping her going to Britain for an abortion.

She has been told her baby has a medical condition which means it won't survive for more than three days after birth.

Her mother supports her wish for an abortion, but the HSE has opposed it, informed the Gardai (police) and actually prevented a passport being issued so she is unable to travel abroad.

The reason she wants to travel to Britain, like many other pregnant women before her, is because abortion is still illegal in the Republic, except when the mother's life is at risk or she is suicidal.

As Breda O'Brien writes in the Irish Times: "A police state where women suspected of being pregnant could be prevented from leaving the country would be utterly repugnant."

It is still not accepted in the Republic that it is up to women to decide whether they want to continue a pregnancy or not. The State and the Church still insist on getting involved, despite the widespread opposition of women who have increasing autonomy in virtually every other area of life but not in this one.

It may well be the case that some women who have had an abortion later regret the fact and feel profound grief and remorse. They may also suffer medical complications that mean they cannot conceive again. But the risk of traumatic consequences is no reason to take away a woman's right to control her own pregnancy and decide whether or not she wants her baby.

The High Court is due to make a decision sometime this week. I sincerely hope they decide in Miss D's favour. But how absurd that this issue is on their agenda in the first place.

PS: Here in Northern Ireland the law on abortion is so confused the Department of Health is about to issue detailed guidelines on provision for it. This follows pressure from the Family Planning Association which is working to increase women's reproductive rights.

Thursday 3 May 2007

Marriage vows

Jenny and I didn't intend to get married. We had been happily living together for 14 years and didn't see any point in doing the paperwork as we knew we were firmly committed to each other.

Then one day J was told that if she died her local authority pension could only go to her husband. Cohabitees of whatever vintage counted for nothing and wouldn't get a penny. We chewed this over for a while and wondered whether we should swallow our scruples and go legal or leave our future finances to chance.

We decided to get married strictly as a piece of creative accounting, with the simplest ceremony possible. No way was it going to escalate into a mortgage-size white wedding with all the trimmings, 200 guests, a five-course banquet and a fleet of limousines. We would just have felt consumed by something out of our control, like Jonah being swallowed by the whale.

Managing to keep our parents well out of it, we arranged a 10-minute hook-up at the local register office, with a couple of good friends to witness the magical moment when we gazed into each other's eyes and agreed to share our pension entitlements. Oh, and our passionate devotion.

Then, what better way to build up our strength for the nocturnal obligations of marriage than some sumptuous aphrodisiacs at our favourite eaterie, washed down by the best aphrodisiac of all, a few generous glasses of champagne. All in all, a very enjoyable and stress-free marriage which did the business without us feeling railroaded into some stifling extravaganza.

I know lots of people (like Flirty) will think I'm a hopeless spoilsport and party-pooper, pouring cold water on what for many couples is obviously an occasion for the biggest and most uninhibited celebration they can muster.

Well, if that's what works for them, I sincerely wish them every happiness, but personally I can't see how a £25,000 bash would have made our nuptial vows any more serious than a solemn promise in front of two valued friends. Different strokes for different folks, as they say.