Sunday 28 December 2008


As tourists, Jenny and I can afford to rent a swish apartment at Milson's Point, right next to the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. We can step outside and drink in the astonishing views across the river estuary, known as Port Jackson.

We're well aware that many Sydneysiders (including Baino and Gaye*) aren't so privileged and couldn't possibly run to a home anywhere on the waterfront with its eye-watering property prices. Instead of stunning river views, they have to settle for the suburbs and only come into central Sydney now and again.

At Milson's Point, even the tiny local theatre charges A$56 for a ticket (that's around 26 pounds). And the food shops aren't cheap either. You need a serious income to get by in this affluent enclave.

To the rest of the world, the bridge and the opera house symbolise Sydney and suggest the locals spend their time sailing their yachts along the river and swigging perfect wines from one of the nearby vineyards. Plus of course popping into the opera house for the odd bit of Mozart or Puccini.

The reality is very different. The locals are actually more likely to be crammed into commuter trains in sultry temperatures, wondering how to pay the mortgage or get little Brett into a decent school.

We're very conscious of our pampered tourist existence as we follow scenic paths around the leafy headlands, exclaim over amazing paintings in the art galleries, and then enjoy a leisurely Thai meal just below one of the most famous landmarks in the world.

Not only that, but we spent Christmas Day in our shirtsleeves as our home city of Belfast shivered in the usual wintry temperatures. Cushy or what?

No words can do justice to the overwhelming beauty of Sydney and its remarkable lagoon-like setting. I'm just glad I've been able to enjoy it twice over - and if my ageing body holds up, hopefully a third time.

* Finally met up with Baino and Gaye. Quite odd really, suddenly meeting the real-life creators of all those thousands of words. A bit like a real person stepping out of a dream - or stepping out of the pages of a book. Surely I'm hallucinating?

Wednesday 17 December 2008


Melbourne is one of those cities whose centre is so hard-edged, commercial-ised and tourist-ridden that your first reaction is totally negative and you think "What the hell did I come here for?"

Especially when it's pouring with rain - in Australia.

Then after a while you realise there's another city, a less visible city, that's actually full of unexpected delights and insights, and you set about discovering it through friends and acquaintances, through intuition, and through the less thumbed pages of your Lonely Planet guide.

You discover little precincts just outside the city centre that have a wonderful atmosphere to them - spacious, laid-back, slightly bohemian, full of interesting shops and people.

You discover the museums and galleries full of astonishing paintings, sculpture, historical relics and human stories. All the extraordinary individuals who've contributed to the life of the city. A wealth of aboriginal traditions and beliefs and artifacts.

You casually jump on and off the hundreds of trams that make up the biggest tram network in the world. You gawp at all the exotic plants in one of the world's greatest botanical gardens. And if you're a local, you can pick up mouth-watering delicacies at the massive central market.

And the sun's come out and it's just warm enough to feel nicely relaxed. Yes, it's Australia after all and not glacial Northern Ireland.

And finally I realise that the brash, hard-nosed city centre isn't the real Melbourne at all, just the unsightly carbuncle you notice first, the repulsive blemish that distracts you from the less obvious charms. Yes, there's a lot more to this place than meets the eye.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Heading for Oz

In a few hours I'm off to Adelaide, Australia to meet up with Jenny for a wee vacation. We'll be returning from Sydney at the beginning of January.

I might do some posts from Oz. On the other hand, I might not.

So take care of yourselves, have a fabulous Christmas and I'll have a few Down Under tales for you when I get back.

PS: Fortunately I'm flying out via Singapore and not Bangkok....

The image has nothing whatever to do with Australia - but I liked it.

Sunday 30 November 2008

Innocent victims

What always strikes me about terrorist assaults like the ones in Mumbai is the way those concerned are willing to attack completely innocent people to achieve their ends.

Whatever their cause (and so far it's not even clear what that is), it's utterly merciless and inhuman to hit at people who are not even involved in politics, let alone the fraught ideological battles that are being played out.

What purpose can it possibly serve to slaughter random tourists, hotel staff, hospital workers and train passengers who may know nothing at all about the terrorists' bone of contention and are merely going about their everyday lives?

What is the point for example of burning to death Niti Kang, wife of the Taj Mahal Hotel's general manager, and her two children Uday and Samar? All that has done is to leave her family devastated with grief and their lives wrecked.

No cause, however noble or important, can justify using ordinary individuals as pawns and negotiating chips. It's the last resort of ruthless fanatics unable to find more legitimate and non-violent ways of pursuing their objectives.

Here in Northern Ireland, people are all too aware of the pointlessness and barbarity of attacking the innocent for political ends. Practically everyone has faced the grief and suffering of their loved ones or someone they know being mown down in cold blood. And after 30 years of such sterile violence, progress is finally being made through peaceful negotiation.

I really can't begin to understand how some people can stop seeing others as precious human beings with rich and fulfilling lives, and reduce them to trivial objects to be casually obliterated in the name of some fashionable political goal. Their minds are twisted beyond belief.

It's reported on Monday (World Aids Day) that male circumcision reduces the risk of getting HIV by about 60 per cent. Universal circumcision across sub-Saharan Africa could prevent 300,000 deaths in the next 10 years and 3 million deaths in the next 20 years. In some areas demand for circumcision is already overwhelming clinics. What an amazing discovery.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Wandering minds

I'm extremely forgetful, but not because I'm old - I've been forgetful my whole life. And a new study says amnesia and scattiness are actually more common in young people.

We're all showing reduced attention and concentration spans and having more memory lapses, the reason being the sheer pressure and complexity of modern life.

A quarter of us regularly forget the names of close friends or relatives, and seven per cent even forget their own birthdays. Household accidents through carelessness are rising, and the average attention span has dropped to five minutes from twelve a decade ago.

But despite the stereotypes, the survey found the over-50s can concentrate better than young people, presumably because over the years they've learnt how to apply themselves and how to deal with pressure.

The decline is all due to the constant demands now being made on us - heavy workloads, urgent deadlines, endless emails, mobile phones, multi-tasking and new technology to name a few.

I certainly find myself that it's increasingly hard to concentrate on anything for any length of time without being distracted or my mind wandering to some essential task I need to do.

One cause of the growing distractedness is the nagging fear of "missing out" - that if we aren't constantly checking our emails, mobiles, TVs or our workmates' conversations, we might miss something vitally important or wildly exciting - or just someone's birthday. We don't want to be the gormless git who didn't know Britney had broken her leg.

I'm as prone to this anxiety as anyone else, being a news junkie, but it certainly doesn't do much for my peace of mind. Or my memory either, as I struggle to separate all the gossip from the shopping list and the bus timetable. What are we, human beings or sniffer dogs?

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Not enough fun

I'm not very good at self-indulgence, at enjoying myself freely and spontaneously. I always hold back, as if too much personal fun might be a bit decadent and immature.

I see other people letting themselves go - boozing, bingeing, joking, raiding the shops, cheering football teams - with so much enthusiasm I'm taken aback. I'm seldom that enthusiastic or uninhibited about even my biggest passions. A sort of quiet pleasure is the best I can manage.

I guess I come from that social background where too much obvious enjoyment was seen as "showing off" or "drawing attention to yourself". All horribly undignified and childish. Enjoyment was all very well up to a point, but not if it meant "making a spectacle of yourself". That would never do. I suppose it's all related to the stiff upper-lip tradition that used to riddle the English middle classes.

There's also a part of me that thinks too much enjoyment can only be a slippery slope to total debauchery and public humiliation. One drink too many and I'm bound to end up an alcoholic. Too much cheesecake and ice cream and naturally I'll be a 20-stone tub of lard in days. Just go a bit too far and in a trice I'll be out of control like a runaway car.

Maybe I'm influenced by past occasions when enjoyment turned sour. I can remember driving a girlfriend home when I was roaring drunk, lucky not to have killed us both. Another time, on a heavy dose of LSD, I was oblivious to traffic and almost killed myself again. I've played practical jokes and seriously upset the victims. Such memories make me wary of too much abandon.

But I do my best. When others around me are getting wilder and wilder, I tell myself to loosen up and get in the swing of it all. For pity's sake, Nick, throw away the rule book, forget all those childhood vetoes and let your natural impulses take over. And the result? Usually a bit like a lifelong virgin sampling a brothel. It's hard to change the habits of a lifetime.

Saturday 22 November 2008

Girls at risk

It's appalling that a Nigerian woman had to flee Nigeria and seek asylum in Ireland to prevent her two daughters suffering genital mutilation.

Now, having been in Ireland for three years, she's threatened with deportation but she's been given another three weeks to make her case for staying.

The genital mutilation of girls is still traditional in Nigeria and other countries, and her husband's family were insisting Pamela Izevbekhai's two daughters, Naomi and Jemima, should undergo it.

This was despite the fact that her first daughter Elizabeth bled to death from the procedure at the age of 18 months.

She was so determined this would not happen again that she abandoned her well-paid job, comfortable house and relaxed lifestyle and fled to Ireland, where she had to endure a spartan existence in a single room.

She now has just over two weeks left to persuade the European Court of Human Rights she should not be sent back to Nigeria to put the girls at risk once again.

I find the whole situation incredible. Even though her husband is now against the practice, his family feel they have the right to tell the couple what to do. The procedure can be carried out by an unqualified person in unhygienic surroundings. And it's seen as quite normal to damage or destroy someone's sexual organs.

This disgusting ritual is still rife all over the world - it even takes place furtively in the UK - despite years of struggle for women's independence and for control of their own bodies and sexuality.

Even when governments claim - as Nigeria does - that they're opposed to the practice, the law is not enforced and a blind eye is turned to what goes on behind closed doors.

What Pamela thinks is in the best interests of her two girls is irrelevant - she's expected to bow to social pressures and get them 'seen to' in the name of tradition and dogma.

I sincerely hope the European Court supports her.

PS: April 6 2009 - The truth of Pamela's story has been challenged. Elizabeth's death certificate is said to be a forgery and some journalists are questioning whether the child even existed. Her original lawyers have withdrawn from her case and replacement lawyers are being sought.

PPS: Male circumcision can be just as damaging, even though it's still widely practised in the UK.

Photo: Pamela Izevbekhai (right) with her daughters Naomi (7) and Jemima (6)

Thursday 20 November 2008

Misery memoirs

You must have noticed all those tales of childhood pain-and-suffering known to booksellers as misery memoirs (or to you and me as shit-lit). It seems people can't get enough of all this vicarious torment, and sales have gone through the roof.

There's so much demand for these shocking stories of vicious parents and damaged lives that publishers have raked in over £24 million. The best known are Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and Dave Pelzer's "A Child called It".

Personally I can't understand why so many people want to wallow at such length in harrowing accounts of personal distress. Surely they're more depressing than inspiring?

But more to the point, many are a pack of lies from start to finish, a cynical hoax on a gullible public who take them at face value. Which is one reason why this lucrative market is now flagging.

Margaret B Jones, who wrote about growing up in gangland Los Angeles, later admitted she had made it all up. The tale of a masochistic rent boy by J T Leroy also turned out to be pure invention. James Frey's account of his alcohol and drug saturated life was found to be full of fabrications and alterations.

A heart-rending book by Misha Defonseca about her survival during the Holocaust was translated into 18 languages and filmed before she admitted it was all bunkum. She hadn't in fact lived with wolves to evade the Nazis, hadn't trekked 3000 miles looking for her parents - and wasn't even Jewish.

A hunger for fame and fortune prompted a lot of unscrupulous individuals to jump on the shit-lit bandwagon and dish out their own portion of psychic mayhem.

Unfortunately they didn't bargain on the growing suspicions of a few hard-nosed readers that reality had been hastily abandoned on page one.

It's one thing to stir people's sympathy and horror at painful experiences no child should have to go through. It's quite another to loosen their tears with a whopping pile of porkies. The publishers' crock of gold has turned abruptly into scrap metal, and red faces are everywhere.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Pees and queues

Now don't laugh, this is a serious issue. The habitual rationing of women's toilets, and the constant queues of frustrated females outside them, has been taken up by British MPs.

Men may just chuckle at all the impatient faces as they make a lightning visit to the gents, but all the women who regularly have to put up with long waits are far from amused.

As far as they're concerned, they're being treated as second-class citizens yet again, their needs apparently still not as important as those of high-powered, overstretched males with not a second to waste.

Even brand-new buildings, and ones recently refurbished, still have inadequate female toilets, despite the obvious additional need.

So a committee of MPs are pressing for a duty on local authorities to improve toilet provision, with at least double the number of toilets for women - since they not only use them more often but usually for twice as long.

As one expert puts it, they take longer "thanks to a range of sartorial, biological and functional issues". Or in plain English, menstruation, layers of sexy underwear and dodgy bladders. Not as some men seem to think, perfecting their make-up and exposing more cleavage.

New York City and 16 US states have already recognised that women need double the toilet provision of men. And New Zealand requires that no woman should wait more than three minutes for a toilet.

Recent British gender legislation provides for "services of like quality" to men and women. A test case in relation to female toilets could bring a few long-overdue improvements. And who knows, maybe no more queues.

The British government is to make it illegal to use prostitutes who have been trafficked into the country or who work for pimps or drug traffickers. However a similar law in Finland has so far not brought any prosecutions.

Saturday 15 November 2008

Cut and run

If you think you're doing your bit to fight global warming, hang your head in shame at the thought of 67 year old Joan Pick, who is so abstemious her carbon footprint must be virtually zero.

She never heats her flat, she eats all her food raw, she never uses cars or buses, she doesn't have a TV, she uses no gas and minimal electricity, and she makes many of her clothes.

In 1972 she decided mass consumption was a mistake and began cutting back. She's been increasingly frugal ever since, aiming to use the fewest possible resources at her home in Croydon, London.

She lives on nuts, fruit and vegetables, she jogs twelve miles a day, and her car has been sitting in the garage unused for 36 years.

She also gave up on men, realising early on that no man would be prepared to share her spartan, luxury-free existence. "You can't have someone else to contradict you" she says.

All I can say is that I'm astounded at her ability to do without all those things the rest of us regard as essential to a normal lifestyle. There's no way I could give up all those domestic props that make my life more comfortable and convenient. I'm not ready to be a hermit in a mountain cave just yet.

I wonder if from time to time she hankers after a forbidden treat, imagining herself tucking into an M&S ready meal as she watches Coronation Street. No of course not, I'm sure she's overcome those wicked cravings many years ago. She's probably reached the point where she's as incapable of backsliding as a drunkard on a desert island.

But she's certainly a splendid example of how much we could do to stop squandering the earth's resources, if we were just willing to take a deep breath and stop pampering ourselves quite so freely.

PS: I've found two more articles (here and here) on this remarkable woman.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

In the closet

Gays may now be well accepted in many big cities but here in Belfast - and Northern Ireland generally - they still struggle against engrained prejudice.

It's extremely rare for anyone to be openly gay, while gay-bashing of one sort or another is still alarmingly common - physical violence, arson attacks, hostile politicians.

I don't know of a single 'out' public figure, although there are constant rumours about a number of them. And nobody dares dress in an overtly gay manner, though you can sometimes guess from a person's behaviour or way of speaking.

The Cathedral Quarter is Belfast's established gay district but outside that gays keep a very low profile. The annual Gay Pride festival is mainly enjoyed by gays, and doesn't attract the huge numbers of heterosexuals who take part in other cities.

Religious belief is still very strong here, and many people see homosexuality in very fundamentalist terms as an 'abomination' and an unnatural practice. The obvious counter-arguments - if God made the world, then surely he also made homosexuals? - are flatly ignored.

Supposedly we have some of the strongest equal opportunities laws in the world, but they have little influence against deep-rooted homophobic dogma, often endorsed by the very politicians who should be backing the legal guidelines.

So gays are still very wary of disclosure when so many people might rush to 'turn them in' and jeopardise their jobs, their homes and their partners. They are forced to blend in, pass as straight and watch what they say. In the year 2008, this country's still stuck in the strait-laced sexual culture of fifty years ago.

PS: Definition of homophobia - insecurity about being heterosexual (thanks to Gooner on Gaelick)

Sunday 9 November 2008

The child within

The older I get, the more I realise just how much of my character is directly linked to the way I was treated as a child. And I'm sure that's the same for most people.

I can see more and more clearly that both my weaknesses and my strengths reflect how my parents and teachers behaved towards me.

My nervousness about socialising goes right back to my diffident father, who seldom had visitors or visited other people. My lack of self-confidence stems from his regular disapproval of what I did and thought.

On the other hand, my wild sense of humour also comes from my father, who adored crazy comedy programmes like The Goon Show and Hancock's Half Hour. And my verbal skills owe much to my father's adeptness with words.

School bullying and a brilliant English teacher also contributed to the strange mix of self-doubt and articulacy.

However much I've tried in later life to correct the weaknesses and become more capable, I haven't got very far. Patterns laid down in childhood are remarkably durable and aren't easily changed once they've taken root.

All I can do is allow for my failings and try to ensure other people aren't upset or frustrated by them. And at the same time enjoy my strengths to the full, savouring the talents I do have and making the most of them.

I don't blame my parents or teachers for my faults. They were probably doing the best they could, limited by their own deficiencies and their own upbringings.

If I didn't have these particular faults, I would no doubt have other ones. None of us is perfect, and in any case so-called faults can sometimes be as interesting and endearing as the effortless virtues.

But that chain of cause and effect, of the early years determining the later years, seems more and more visible and far-reaching.

"Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man" said the Jesuit, Francis Xavier.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Titanic's chain of errors

A TV programme this week unravelled the amazing chain of errors that led to the supposedly unsinkable Titanic sinking.

It's still often assumed that the collision with the iceberg was just an unlucky accident that nobody could have prevented.

Far from it. A long string of entirely human cock-ups made the loss of the ship and 1517 lives on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912 inevitable. It was a typical tale of carelessness, incompetence, obstinacy and misunderstandings.

The list of failings is mind-boggling:

* Low-grade iron rivets were used instead of tougher ones.
* Iceberg warnings from other ships were either ignored or not seen by senior crew.
* Despite the iceberg warnings, on a poor-visibility, moonless night, the ship didn't stop but continued at its top speed of 21½ knots.
* This was because the captain was determined to reach New York in 6 days.
* The lookouts in the crow's nest had no binoculars.
* The radio operator told the nearest ship, the Californian, not to send any more messages as he was too busy sending messages for passengers.
* When the iceberg was spotted, the ship steered away from it and hit it side-on. If the collision had been head-on, the reinforced bow would have kept it afloat.
* The bulkhead (the height of the watertight lower compartments above the water line) was reduced by four feet to allow for a grander central staircase.

Further human failings led to the huge number of deaths:

* There were only 16 lifeboats because more than that were seen as "too much clutter".
* The lifeboat drill was cancelled so the captain could attend a religious service.
* The order "Women and children first" was misunderstood as "Women and children only".
* Lifeboats were launched although they weren't full.
* There were enough life jackets but they weren't all given out.
* Because of the loss of radio contact with the Californian, the closest ship, many more people died.

How vital it is, when so many human lives are at stake, to make sure everyone does their job properly and conscientiously. It only takes a few foolish mistakes to cause utter carnage.

PS: Sooner or later the Titanic would probably have sunk anyway.

The programme was "The Unsinkable Titanic", Channel 4, November 3 2008. It was repeated on Channel 4 on April 18 2009.

Tuesday 4 November 2008


It would be nice to say I'm always open and honest, but of course I'm not. I lie from time to time like everyone else.

Sometimes lies are unnecessary and deceitful and cause damage, but often they're essential to smoothe relationships, prevent catastrophes, get jobs or just to protect our well-being.

I can't recall any time when I've deliberately lied for no good reason, just to harm someone or to look impressive. But no doubt I have, I've just conveniently overlooked it.

Certainly I've lied to dodge unwanted invitations or demands, to avoid insulting or upsetting someone, to avoid embarrassing or humiliating myself, or to explain away neglected tasks.

But I've never blatantly lied about myself to impress a woman or an employer or a mortgage lender. Tweaked or glossed the truth maybe, but that's it. I've never posed next to someone else's BMW or invented a high-powered job or claimed I was at school with Mick Jagger. The reason is simple - if the lie was exposed, then I'd never be trusted again.

I don't understand people who lie flagrantly and constantly for no purpose except rampant self-interest, greed and face-saving. Politicians for one. Cheating spouses for another. And of course all those ordinary individuals who just want to seem bigger and better than they really are and hide all their human failings and weaknesses under a flawless facade.

Thou shalt not lie? I don't agree. Lies are sometimes just what's needed. But they should be a temporary lubricant, not a nasty habit.

Thanks to Nicole for the inspiration.

Wow, Obama made it! The first black American president - and by a thumping majority! It's stunning that so many ordinary Americans had such faith in him and voted for him in such huge numbers.

Saturday 1 November 2008

Veronica lets rip

No sooner was Jenny on the flight to Perth, Australia, than Veronica was on the phone inviting herself round. She wanted to cry on my shoulder.

The limo screeched to a halt and the flawless supermodel rushed inside, ignoring the shouts from the paparazzi.

"God, I hate being a model" she moaned, sprawling on the sofa in her skin-tight crimson minidress. "People see it as glamorous, but it's just f***ing hard work from start to finish. Everyone thinks they own you, you're just a money-spinning product they all want to get their sweaty hands on."

I opened the champagne and poured her a generous glass. She knocked it back and rested her tantalising feet on the Laura Ashley cushions.

"I work 15-hour shifts without a break, I have to be polite to those surly, impersonal photographers, I'm always being pushed for nude shoots, I'm expected to be a permanent size zero, I'm sent halfway round the world without a second to see the sights, I spend hours on end purging every last spot and pubic hair, and then I have to read all the lying gossip in the media. I've had it up to here, I can tell you."

"Give it a rest, sweetie" I said soothingly. "Would you really want to throw away all the fame and fortune and adulation just because it's a teensy bit gruelling?"

"You bet I would. Who needs fame? It's just a pain in the f***ing arse. And so's all the money. Do you know how many begging letters I get every day? So when are we going to bed?"

"V, how many times do I have to say it? I'm a happily married man and I'm also old enough to be your grandfather. Just calm down and have some more bubbly."

"Nicky, you know I'm into older men. My father never wanted me, he totally ignored me from day one. I'm always looking for the doting dad I never had. So come on, daddy, give me a good time."

Now I've locked myself in the study but Veronica's banging her fists on the door and shouting "I'm sad and blue. I'm hurting all over. Give me some loving, daddy-oh." For a moment I think, maybe it wouldn't do any harm....

Note: Jenny is on five weeks' academic business in Perth and Adelaide. I shall be joining her later!

Veronica's photo courtesy of Trinket Enterprises

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Mountain rescue

There's fierce controversy over the recent Mountain Marathon in the Lake District, which turned into near-lethal chaos after flash flooding and vicious gales.

More than 1700 of the 2500 participants were stranded by the atrocious weather conditions, and many of them had to be rescued in a massive operation by the police, mountain rescue and the RAF. Fourteen had to be hospitalised with head injuries, hypothermia and broken legs.

Now many people are saying the event should never have gone ahead given the weather forecast, although the organisers say there was no serious danger as all the participants were extremely experienced and had all the appropriate equipment.

That's as may be, but nevertheless the emergency services had their work cut out to rescue those who got into difficulties, and the tens of thousands of pounds spent on the rescue operation could have been put to better use.

If the organisers didn't make any advance payment for possible rescue services (and I don't know if they did), they should certainly be making a contribution now. If they take the risk of hazardous weather, then they should pick up some of the bill when it all goes horribly wrong.

At least they were responsible enough to vet all the participants for their ability to cope with appalling weather. If they had allowed any Tom, Dick and Harriet to pitch in, the consequences don't bear thinking about.

Though as fell-runner Richard Askwith says, the whole point of events like this is that the organisers don't take all the responsibility, that it's up to individuals to be responsible for themselves and assess whether or not they're up to the challenge.

But what if they're not?

Sienna Miller has launched a legal action for harassment against paparazzi photographers who have made her life "intolerable", subjecting her to physical and verbal abuse, dangerous car chases and invasions of privacy. I hope she wins. It's about time these predatory vultures who leech off the famous were put in their place.

Monday 27 October 2008

Who's for the chop?

There's serious concern that the rising unemployment caused by the banking meltdown will mean further discrimination against groups of people already treated badly by employers.

Despite recent British anti-ageism laws, it's feared that firms cutting jobs will look first at the oldies and start muttering about "early retirement". They might find ways of not hiring older people and favouring younger applicants "with growing families and big mortgages".

Women, already getting a raw deal from many employers, may be painted even more as liabilities, about to get pregnant and demand maternity leave, wanting flexible hours to fit in with their children's needs, and not tough enough at the negotiating table. They'll be edged out in favour of "more reliable" males.

Likewise the disabled may be seen as "not up to the job" and "not productive enough" while the able-bodied are given priority.

Bosses who're naturally averse to certain types of employee will use the pretext of disastrous trading conditions and looming insolvency to say that while they reluctantly conform to equality laws when the economy's booming, in the midst of a recession they have to take tough decisions and not take on the "burden" of "less capable" staff. You can easily predict all the spurious excuses and red herrings they'll come up with.

Which is why it's so vital for the government to help businesses to cut their costs in ways that don't involve dumping so-called "underperforming" workers. If they could cut overheads like rent, taxes and utility bills, which are rising dramatically, then a lot of sackings could be avoided.

But Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, has already suggested a cutback in flexible working (which is particularly helpful to women) in preference to other measures. Women have reacted furiously to his suggestion.

So if you're old, or female, or disabled (or black), don't be too optimistic as the recession starts to bite.

Friday 24 October 2008

Off sick

Some moralistic twat at The Times has launched a scathing attack on 'bogus' sick leave, saying that too many employees are pulling a fast one at other people's expense.

These attacks are made regularly, usually in the right-wing, "workers are all lazy gits" section of the media. But few people put the case for the so-called "sickie-pulling" workers who're so routinely scapegoated.

The Times writer moans that civil servants rack up an average of 11.7 sick days a year while private sector workers only average 7.2. Ergo, goes the hare-brained conclusion, the former are all chronic idlers who're taking the piss.

Well, firstly, who says all these workers are not genuinely sick? Maybe there's something about public sector work that makes you less healthy? Mind-numbing paperwork perhaps, or constant complaints from the public? The wear and tear of the emergency services, or lifting heavy patients in the NHS? It's not always the cushy number others fondly imagine.

Secondly, suppose private sector workers get ill just as often but may feel forced to go to work? If they don't get sick pay, or they're paid daily, or other people are after their job, or there's a vital contract they have to clinch, or it's a family business that relies on their being there, then they may drag themselves in even if they're at death's door for fear of the consequences if they don't.

And thirdly, even if people are throwing a sickie (and haven't we all?), there may be good reasons for such apparent sloth. If your working conditions are poor, if you're overworked or bullied or bored witless or stuck in a basement, then of course there are days when you think "I just can't face going in today, it's doing my frigging head in."

Or maybe you need time to sort out an urgent domestic crisis but you know your boss won't give you the time off. So you cough and sneeze into the phone, make your excuses, and stay at home.

I sympathise totally. Why shouldn't you protect your wellbeing against indifferent bosses? If employers are concerned about sky-high sick leave, perhaps they should take a good look at the working conditions and whether people are actually enjoying their jobs.

I worked at a charity for 5½ years without taking a single day's sick leave. The reason? I thoroughly enjoyed what I did, I had a great bunch of workmates, and the conditions were excellent. Even if I had a nasty cold, I still wanted to go to work and catch up with the gossip.

The resident ignoramus at The Times should have a proper look at the real-life workplace before pontificating so glibly from a well-padded executive swivel-chair.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Shrink rap

It's time for therapy. Time to get professional help to sort out the tangled morass that is Nick's brain before it's too late. If it wasn't too late several years ago....

So here I am in the luxurious Malone* consulting rooms of Dr Melissa F, the doyenne of Belfast shrinks, the saviour of a thousand tortured souls, and the bestselling author of "Freeing the Self".

Dr Melissa: So why are you seeking therapy?

Nick: Well, among other things, I'm accused of being introverted, effeminate, anxious, sex-obsessed, cynical, unadventurous and defensive. Oh, and afraid of the dark. I need to get rid of all these undesirable, anti-social traits and become a mature, generous human being capable of infinite love and compassion.

Dr M: I'm sorry, I can't help you. You're obviously a hopeless case. The rot is too far advanced. You just have to resign yourself to a shrunken and shrivelled existence.

Nick: But I thought you could cure me. I thought you could cleanse my soul. You're the last chance I've got. Don't tell me there's nothing you can do.

Dr M: There's nothing I can do.

Nick: But don't you therapists like a challenge? A totally addled mind you can really get your teeth into? A seething vortex of neuroses, phobias and obsessions?

Dr M: Oh no, I'm all for the easy life. A straightforward nail-biter, a simple shopaholic.

Nick: I could get you some tickets for the Bruce Springsteen gig.

Dr M: On second thoughts, I'm getting interested. Maybe we can crack this thing. Which seats?

Nick: Front row.

Dr M: Fabulous. Same time next week then?

Nick: Absolutely. I'm saved, I'm saved!

Dr M: And I'm a banana.

I skipped down her front steps, happy as a lark. Yes, there's light at the end of the tunnel! Dr Melissa will purge the demons! My psyche will be born anew! Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds! But can I stop waxing my bikini line?

* Malone: the most prestigious and expensive part of Belfast. Home of lawyers, chief executives, more lawyers etc.

PS: My deadpan humour is clearly too convincing. Any resemblance between this post and tangible reality is entirely coincidental.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Bedtime stories

The story of the 105 year old virgin got me thinking. Just how believable are surveys on sex when we have no way of checking people's unlikely replies?

The newspapers are full of breathless headlines about how often, or how little, we're getting our end away. Or how many affairs we've had or which unconventional form of sex. But is it really true?

People are probably more likely to lie about sex than just about anything else. Of course we all want others to think we're having an ecstatic time in bed, that our partners are irresistible sex bombshells, that we can't get enough of it. Who wants to be thought of as a frustrated loner resorting to guilty fumblings in a shabby bedsit?

So when a survey says that 37 year old Jack is at it every night, has had 91 lovers and his wife is insatiable, is it any more credible than Pinnochio giving birth to triplets? Where's the evidence? Especially if he's anonymous and there's nobody out there to say "Him? Are you joking? The only thing that gets him going is the football results."

Survey after survey claims men have had a lot more affairs than women. So exactly who are they having the surplus affairs with? The dogs? A series of Romanian women? Amnesiacs? Other men?

And with sexual frequency, we're obviously relying more on personal memory and estimation than a tangible record of what happened when. How many times in the last month? Ooer, let me think. Choose a number, any number, then double it....

But there again, how many people take any notice of sex surveys, whether bogus or genuine? Sex is such a personal business and preferences so unique, why should we care what other people do? Somehow I think knowing your own loved one's hot spots is more useful than knowing the climax rate in Huddersfield.

Nicole has a really perceptive and thought-provoking post about lying and deception. Go have a look.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Blood disorder

Over the years I've given 29 blood donations, pleased that in this simple way I could help save a few lives. Now it turns out I may have been killing people.

New research shows that blood transfusions actually increase the risk of a patient dying or having a post-operative illness. Many surgeons are now reluctant to given any blood transfusions unless it's an emergency.

The reason for the increased risk, it seems, is toxic chemicals produced in stored blood when red blood cells die.

When these chemicals are produced in the human body, the body can process or excrete them so they're harmless. But in stored blood, the toxins simply accumulate and endanger whoever gets the blood.

They can cause widespread inflammation, damage vital organs, and trigger heart attacks and strokes.

Good grief! Why did we not know this earlier? How come me and other donors have given millions of donations in blissful ignorance of the possible lethal effects?

Of course, transfusions are still necessary in emergencies, where they're the only way of keeping someone alive. Then obviously the risk is worth taking.

But if it wasn't an emergency and my blood was merrily poisoning someone, how tragic is that? Am I an unwitting NHS serial killer?

Don't worry, I'm not having a nervous breakdown from this shocking discovery. After all, I was ignorant. But it shows that good intentions are not enough. And that medicine is still fallible.

PS: So maybe the Jehovah's Witnesses aren't that crazy after all?

Monday 13 October 2008


How can we all improve our quality of life? Well, 105 year old Clara Meadmore has the answer - stay a virgin and don't waste your time thinking about sex.

"I imagine there's a lot of hassle involved and I've always been busy doing other things" she says. "I made up my mind at the age of 12 never to marry and I've never gone back on that."

The Cornish centenarian insists she's never even tried it. And why should I doubt her? She maintains gardening, cooking and listening to the radio are pleasure enough.

She may have a point. Just think of all the time we fritter away satisfying our carnal lusts. Not to mention all the texts, emails, phone calls and feverish daydreams hoping for more of the same.

Without all that, office productivity would rocket, we would pay more attention to the world's problems, we would remember that upcoming wedding anniversary, and we would finally get to grips with Marcel Proust.

There'd be no more squeezing into overtight dresses, teetering on painful heels, or stuffing socks down Y-fronts. Oh, and I wouldn't have wasted hundreds of hours obsessing over my totally unreciprocated longings for the gorgeous Elena*.

Actually, remarkable as it may seem, sex hardly crossed my mind until my early twenties. Even at boarding school, I never joined the other boys in their furtive fumblings under the bedclothes. But once I discovered this age-old pursuit, there was no looking back. Clara Meadmore I was not.

But if we'd all been virgins our entire life, would we actually have missed all those sweaty couplings? Or would we just wonder why other people were so fixated on fleeting orgasms and why they spent so much time chasing after them?

How much of our sexual appetite is fed by outside influences and how much is a natural impulse? The two are so entangled, it's impossible to say.

* The name has been changed to avoid marital disharmony

Friday 10 October 2008

Housing sharks

In the midst of economic turmoil, the sharks are still circling, waiting to get their teeth into vulnerable people desperate for a lifeline.

The latest group to be stung is hard-up householders threatened with repossession. Smooth operators are offering to buy their houses and rent them back.

Sounds ideal, doesn't it? Except that all sorts of traps are lurking in the small print.

You might be paid only 50% of the house's real value. The agreement might only last a year. The rent might be as much as the mortgage - and might go up. You might be charged an 'arrangement fee'. And you might still be repossessed by the new owners.

There are now 2000 sale-to-rent schemes in the UK, and they're totally unregulated. The government is looking at the problem but they've yet to do anything concrete. Why?

One couple, Jane and Richard Hudson of Basildon, Essex, have lost their home of 13 years and they and their five children are now squeezed into cramped emergency housing.

Jane says of the company that conned them "They've robbed me, they've robbed my kids and they've knocked my confidence."

How predictable that there's always someone ready to take advantage of a catastrophe and milk those who're floundering. These people have the morals of an alleycat.

And the lesson? If some silver-tongued charmer offers you the perfect answer to your problems, ask a shed-load of awkward questions and go through the contract with a fine tooth-comb. Or you could rue the day.

NB: That's not the Hudsons in the pic, btw.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Scrimping and saving

The credit crunch is really exposing our divided society once again. The haves and the have-nots are visible for all to see.

On the one hand, the well-heeled minority are scarcely affected. They have plenty of money to absorb dearer mortgages, food and fuel without batting an eyelid. Their only concern is whether their savings are still secure, so they're busy moving their money around from rickety banks to safer ones.

Everyone else, on the other hand, either barely solvent or heavily in debt, is frantically juggling their inadequate incomes to pay all the bills and working out what they can cut back on. With no spare cash to save, wobbling banks are the least of their problems.

The government naturally is focussing on the well-padded and their savings dilemma, pumping fortunes into ailing institutions and reassuring the worried wealthy that they won't lose a penny.

But I don't see the same fortunes being put at the disposal of the barely solvent to help them break even and get rid of some debt. There's no chance of ruinous mortgages being paid off or fuel prices being cut.

The government feels your pain, buddy, but there are really no practical measures they can take. You'll just have to hang on until better times come round. Quite frankly, you shouldn't have overstretched yourself in the first place.

And what really pisses me off is the TV newsreaders grinning like Cheshire cats after every dire economic bulletin. I suppose on their luxurious salaries they can afford to grin. They won't be tightening THEIR belts any time soon.

Friday 3 October 2008

Asking for it

After so much censure of rape and the men who do it, I can't believe 46% of Northern Irish students still think a woman who flirts is partly responsible for being raped.

And 30% think a woman is partly to blame if she wears revealing clothing.

These extraordinary figures are from a survey by Amnesty International. Not from 50 years ago but right now, when supposedly attitudes have moved forward a bit.

Sorry, but as I see it men are 100% responsible for raping a woman, whatever her behaviour beforehand. If she doesn't want sex, that's her choice, and all a man has to do is keep his pants zipped up. What's so hard about that?

Men still think they have a right to sex and if the woman complains they still blame the victim. Well, obviously she was "being provocative", she was "asking for it", she was "desperate for a good seeing-to."

I'm surprised the excuses stop at flirting. Why don't men just say "But she had breasts, what did she expect?" or "She had long hair, it could only mean one thing."

Funnily enough, the opposite doesn't apply. If a man gets attacked, nobody blames him. Nobody points to the beer, the tight shirt, the bare flesh or the look in his eyes. Or his inappropriate behaviour. Oh no, he was attacked for no reason at all, right out of the blue, by a complete lunatic. What do you mean it was his fault? Come outside and say that....

So much for feminism being obsolete.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Gift of the gab

The Irish are famous for their gift of the gab, but it's not a trait I share. I can be embarr-assingly inarticulate in company, struck dumb while everyone else is rabbiting away non-stop.

I'm just too self-conscious, too aware of what I'm saying and of how it might be received. Might I offend someone? Might I say something inappropriate? Might I blurt out something utterly stupid?

Other people can blather away effortlessly about anything under the sun, the words pouring out like water from a tap, totally confident they'll say the right thing. Nothing seems to put them off.

How I envy that remarkable ability when I'm standing awkwardly next to some total stranger (or even someone I know well) wondering what to say next and filling the silence with nervous ear-tugging or head-scratching.

Of course I'm aware that being tongue-tied can be just as off-putting as saying the wrong thing, but that doesn't seem to help. I only have to realise I'm tongue-tied to become even more so.

I can't see off that little policeman in the back of my brain watching my every word like a hawk, waiting to nick me for some petty social offence. Why won't he just go away?

They say as you get older you get less shy, because you simply don't care any more what other people think. Well, I keep waiting for this magical quality to kick in, but there's no sign of it yet.

Perhaps I should just make a virtue of my failings and become a Trappist.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Con job

I’ve just resigned a job which the most extraordinary bit of deception persuaded me to accept. In a nutshell, I was interviewed for a job that didn’t actually exist – or at least only part of it existed.

The advert in the paper was for an admin officer cum PA. The job description was similar. The questions I was asked at the interview were based on the job as advertised.

But when I started work, I discovered the admin officer job didn’t exist. It was all a funding scam. There was funding available for an admin officer so that’s what they advertised for. In reality I was doing little more than answer the phone and greet visitors.

The two senior staff who had recruited me acted as though this was entirely normal and nothing unusual had happened. They assumed I would be quite happy doing very little and they could leave me to my own devices the rest of the time.

Well, spending my time checking blogs, reading the papers and watching Barack Obama’s speeches was fun for a while, but then it palled. I wasn’t learning anything and I wasn’t using my existing skills. I was in danger of completely vegetating. So I decided enough was enough.

Now this is a charity we’re talking about here. Somebody funded them in good faith to create a phantom job. Somebody funded me to sit on my arse all day indulging myself in whatever way I wished.

I’ve written before about charities wasting money and this is a classic example. If the money’s available, grab it fast. Who cares what it’s used for? Just produce a phoney purpose for the cash and stuff your pockets. I’m sure it happens all the time (along with the perfectly valid spending, I hasten to add).

The next time I’m interviewed to be an admin officer, I shall ask a few searching questions. Like, is this on the level or is it all smoke and mirrors? Is this job any more real than Tinkerbell?

Thursday 25 September 2008

Gender bender

Controversy is raging over the beautiful model Isis Tsunami who appears in the TV reality series America’s Next Top Model. Not because she swore or criticised the Pope. But because she’s a transsexual.

Some of the other contestants say she's merely a drag queen who shouldn’t be on the show. One TV presenter openly laughed at her and discussed her genitalia. Others have talked about an audience-grabbing publicity stunt. But many are lauding her inclusion on the show as a sign of enlightened attitudes.

Many years after the first transsexuals appeared, they're still the subject of heated debate and have never been totally accepted as ordinary men or women. They're regarded by many as a strange mixture of the two.

I must admit to being politically incorrect on this issue. While I have no problem with men adopting a female identity and behaviour (or vice versa), or even becoming buxom supermodels, I’m bemused by someone wanting to be treated as a genuine woman on the same basis as a person actually born a woman.

The fact is that a man is always anatomically and biologically a man however much his body has been changed to resemble the opposite sex. He may look like a totally convincing woman but he is not. Which is why a lot of women have trouble accepting a transsexual as one of them, or are even overtly hostile*.

I’m even more bemused by the increasing legal recognition of a new sexual identity, with the issuing of new birth certificates, passports, marriage certificates etc. Of course it makes life easier for the person concerned but at the end of the day it’s a denial of physical facts.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally accept the reality of transsexual feelings, the conviction that despite your physical sex you’ve always felt yourself to be the opposite sex and as the cliché has it, you’re trapped in the wrong body. That fundamental sense of mis-identity seems undeniable. But it’s another thing entirely to want the world to accept that you ARE the opposite sex.

I don’t see any obvious answer to this dilemma. A transsexual doesn’t want to be seen as a drag queen or a mock-female, she wants to be taken as the real thing. But if she ISN’T the real thing, then what?

And now I expect a hail of criticism to rain down on me….

* See in particular “The Transsexual Empire” by Janice Raymond

Monday 22 September 2008

Men's liberation

According to a new Irish Times survey, Irish men are shedding the old masculine stereotypes fast. And far from being confused and demoralised by feminist demands, the vast majority are content with their life.

The survey says 53% show their feelings easily, 58% think it's okay to cry, 51% are very sentimental, 48% get annoyed by men who stress 'manliness', and 79% are content with their lot.

That puts paid to the conventional wisdom that men feel they're being pushed around by bossy females and just can't be themselves any more. Or the idea that men are still so strait-laced they can't express tenderness or warmth or any emotions other than rage.

Or does it? People don't always tell the truth in surveys, they often say what they think is expected of them, or what will make them look normal or likeable. If the men's partners were asked about their answers, would they agree?

I have a strong suspicion there's some glossing going on here, and the women in their lives might very well say "Mark expresses his feelings? You're joking. He's like a bloody sphinx." Or maybe "Pete's content? But he moans about everything non-stop. He's the original grumpy old man."

But perhaps I'm being too cynical and men really have changed dramatically. That's what my male readers tell me, anyway. It's certainly encouraging to think that despite all the 'backlash' propaganda about shell-shocked men clinging to their masculine comfort blankets, many of them have no problem with opening up and showing their real selves a bit more.

In fact in all sounds so positive I think I'm going to cry.

Friday 19 September 2008

Slumming it

Every so often some journalist or politician looking for attention decides to see what it’s like living on welfare. You know the kind of thing – “My life on a fiver a day” by Terry Twatt.

It’s always completely bogus. They’re not really living on a fiver a day because they’ve got a nice stock of Armani togs and all their hi-tech gizmos back at their real home in some fashionable urban neighbourhood.

They know they’ve only got to survive a week of low-life grot before they can race back thankfully to their normal life and resume shagging their sleek, perfectly-honed bedmate.

They don’t even have to keep it up 24/7 because they can always sneak home for a few hours and make up some plausible diary entry about the Tesco budget loaf being eaten by giant rats.

They know full well that one week in a grubby hovel is not the same as a life-sentence of poverty, dead-end jobs, greedy landlords and constantly struggling to make ends meet.

They don’t have the crippling back story of mountainous debts to loan sharks, four children to feed, a winter’s worth of fuel bills, and windows being broken by the local yobs.

A week of slumming it is about as realistic as having a few pints and pretending you’re an alcoholic.

Instead of grabbing their flea-ridden fleeces and pretending to be poor, Terry Twatt and his ilk would do better to tell us just why poverty is so entrenched and why a long string of British politicians have failed to give the residents of one of the world’s wealthiest countries a decent standard of living.

And why the fat cats running our big companies are paying themselves more and more while the wages of their overworked employees are steadily shrinking.

But that would be far too controversial. And not nearly so entertaining as a bit of down-in-the-gutter make-believe.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Suffragette mayhem

I had no idea the Suffragettes were so active in Northern Ireland until Jenny and I went on a tour of Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol and discovered that many suffragettes were sent there for bombings and arson attacks.

The gaol is no longer in use, but in the early 19th century militant women campaigning for the right to vote were often inmates.

There were the same moderate and militant factions that existed in the movement generally. It was the more forceful women who planted bombs, set fire to buildings, destroyed mail in post boxes and smashed windows.

They included Dorothy Evans and Madge Muir who were arrested for possessing explosive materials.

During the court hearing, Dorothy Evans put up so much resistance she had to be restrained by six constables and the hearing had to be reconvened in Crumlin Road Gaol.

Remanded in custody, they promptly went on hunger strike and were released.

Then they hired a car, decorated it with suffragette flags and drove defiantly round Belfast before being rearrested.

Thanks to the persistence of women like them, in January 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to certain women, and in 1928 the Equal Franchise Act granted the vote to all women over 21.

And now huge numbers of people entitled to vote don't bother to do so - but that's another story.

(Information from leaflets available at Crumlin Road Gaol)

Saturday 13 September 2008

A dignified end

Under English law, if you help someone else to die because they are suffering from an unbearable terminal illness, you can be prosecuted for assisted suicide and jailed for up to 14 years.

Although people aren’t usually prosecuted and the authorities generally turn a blind eye, the law still exists and relatives who help in this way always risk this draconian penalty.

Now 45 year old Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis and wants to end her life with her Cuban-born husband Omar by her side, is taking legal action to force the Director of Public Prosecutions to state his policy on prosecuting assisted suicide.

She is planning to visit Dignitas, the Zurich clinic that helps terminally ill patients end their lives in comfort and dignity abroad.

But the legal uncertainty is causing her great anxiety. "I can't let Omar travel with me to Switzerland because that might be construed as assisting me in my death," she said. "But he says he is prepared to face jail if he could do something to stop my life being unbearable."

I think it’s quite wrong that people who seek to die because of their wretched quality of life, and want a loved one to help them, are still triggering a so-called crime that could put someone in a prison cell for a lengthy period.

I certainly wouldn’t want to spend years in pain and suffering, unable to enjoy life as I had in the past, and feeling increasingly despondent and hopeless. I would much rather end what’s left of my life. I don’t see why the law should deem anyone helping me to be a criminal in the same way as a murderer or a rapist.

People always raise the ugly spectre of relatives being got rid of for some malicious purpose like inheriting their money or moving into their house, but I’m sure safeguards could be arranged to avoid that sort of abuse. This remote risk shouldn’t prevent people ending intolerable suffering.

I hope the DPP recommends scrapping this insensitive law as soon as possible.

Photo: Debbie Purdy and Omar Puente

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Touching up men

I see Yves Saint Laurent has launched a version of Touche Eclat for men, so we too can conceal those dark, under-eye circles that result from our reckless round-the-clock lifestyles and lack of sleep.

Now we too can look fresh and sparkling after a quick application of the wonder potion our womenfolk have been surreptitiously dabbing on for years. All in a discreet “pewter tube that’s easy to stow in your man-bag”.

Well, not me, you understand, I no longer lead a reckless round-the-clock lifestyle. In fact I never did, I always preferred the comforts of my duvet to drunken chatter in the small hours.

But aren’t we rather missing the point here? Instead of plastering ourselves with miracle repair creams, shouldn’t we be reining in the lifestyle a bit to something less gruelling? Anyway, what’s wrong with signs of wear and tear? It just shows we’re normal human beings.

One newspaper interviews a few likely users. Gerald, 27, admits he works 10 to 12 hours a day and likes late nights. Clement, 21, says he works up to 12 hours a shift and sometimes gets only four hours’ sleep. Hey, how about slowing down the treadmill, lads, and taking it a bit easier? What exactly are you getting out of those 12-hour-a-day jobs?

But some of them admit they might use the stuff if they’re looking a bit dishevelled. That is, if they can figure out how to apply it without getting it everywhere except under their eyes. “How the heck do women do this?” wails one of them plaintively after several abortive attempts to get it in the right place.

Personally, at my venerable age (“Approaching sixty from the wrong direction” as Dame Edna once put it) I need rather more than a quick smear of Touche Eclat to refresh my disintegrating features. I think a full restoration by a master builder would be more effective. Not that I have any problem with wrinkles. Each wrinkle is a trace of fun, as they say.

So, girls, if your beau beats a hasty retreat to the restaurant toilet in the middle of that Italian meal, he’s not necessarily stocking up on condoms. He might just be reviving his weary eyes in case you doubt his nocturnal vigour. That is, if you aren’t in the toilet doing the same thing.

Photo: Stuart Pilkington from Big Brother

Sunday 7 September 2008

Back from the dead

Just imagine cremating someone you think is your father, and then five years later you see him alive and well on TV. First you'd think it must be his double. Then you’d think, Jeez that IS my father - so who the hell got cremated?

A Manchester man found out that the father he thought was dead and gone was actually living in a care home but had lost his memory and didn’t know who he was.

The man earlier named as his father was a body found outside a hospital wearing clothes like his father’s. He had lain undiscovered for so long (I’m putting it politely) he was difficult to identify.

The police had issued an appeal with photos of the real John Delaney but when he was found wandering round central Manchester in a confused state, with bruises and amnesia, social workers didn’t make the connection and gave him a new name.

They couldn’t appeal for information about him because under the law at that time they had to have consent from a relative first.

So he languished in the care home until quite by chance his son (also John) happened to switch on a TV programme about missing people and there was the familiar face. It must have been quite a shock.

Well, I guess you’d be ecstatic (as his son was) if you’d loved your dad to bits and suddenly there he was back from the dead. On the other hand, if you’d loathed your dad and you were only too glad to see the back of him, what a nasty jolt if he turned up again! I suppose you could always turn off the TV sharpish and forget you ever saw him.

But for five years, the son must have been agonising about how his father’s body came to be undiscovered for so long and what dreadful circumstances had led to his death. He must have been thinking that if he’d kept a closer eye on him he’d still be alive. While all the time he WAS alive and had all the care he needed.

And what about the other family, the family of the cremated man? They’ll never know what happened to their own missing relative. He’ll always be just a huge question mark.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

Down in the mouth

The tooth fairy who’s so shamefully neglected Heart has been neglecting me too. I have a raging tooth abscess that makes eating or drinking virtually anything extremely painful. It’s the first time I’ve had an abscess and I sincerely hope it’s the last.

Clearly that feckless tooth fairy has been down the Wand and Tutu with her hedonistic Fairyland mates, happily supping the fairy nectar and forgetting all those mere mortals relying on her diligent protection. I’ve already sent a furious email to the Fairyland Directorate.

I went to the dentist because of a persistent toothache. Liz couldn’t see anything wrong so she took an x-ray and then showed me the nasty little shadow creeping around the root of my molar. That’s an abscess, she explained in her most professional, seen-it-all-before, nothing-to-worry-about tones.

There are two options, she added. Either extract the tooth or suck out the toxins and do a root filling. I looked round for the tooth fairy to ask her advice but she still wasn’t there. There weren’t even any lingering traces of fairy dust on the windowsill. She had obviously gone on a week-long binge without a care in the world and I was on my own here.

Well, since as some of you know I’ve only got 26 teeth anyway, I decided to defend my poor little molar and prevent it being sacrificed to the forces of bacterial darkness. I shall endure the rigours of the dental chair to save my frail, embattled chopper.

I’m sure it won’t be that bad. It can’t be worse than waxing, surely? Or maybe it can. I hope Liz has the epidural organised. And maybe a few bottles of whisky, just to be on the safe side.

In the meantime, I’m taking a course of high-dose antibiotics to clear the infection and hopefully the pain. At the moment chewing my favourite foods is more like chewing a rose bush. Jenny’s culinary expertise is wasted on my failing machinery.

If I ever catch up with that wretched, indolent tooth fairy, she’ll get a piece of my mind. And I’ll confiscate her magic wand for a week. That’ll wipe the grin off her face.

PS: It’ll all cost me an arm and a leg because the whole surgery’s just gone private and I carelessly hadn’t got round to signing up with a new NHS dentist. Rats.

Good grief! Jesus with an erection! Whatever next?

Monday 1 September 2008

One of the lads

Men sometimes try to befriend me thinking we can establish some kind of masculine matiness, nipping down to the pub for a pint and having a good barney about women, football, cars and gadgets.

Sadly I have to disappoint them as I just don't share their blokey obsessions. Or their assumption that we have to get together to preserve our masculinity against the constant threat of creeping feminisation.

I wouldn't mind talking about women, except that their take on the opposite sex is likely to be more defensive and critical than appreciative. Women as liability, women as shopaholics, women as over-emotional fusspots etc. Sorry, lads, I just don't see them that way and never have.

The one thing I'd love to discuss is the male experience and its problems and dilemmas, but that's just what men usually don't want to bring up. That would open such a huge can of worms, so many hidden anxieties and insecurities, that they avoid it all costs and stick firmly to the well-trodden conversational footpaths.

When women get together they discuss the female experience in exhaustive detail but for men it's still often the unmentionable elephant in the room.

If a friendly chat with a guy got to the bottom of why I find it so hard to show I'm upset or sad or demoralised, or why I don't always pick up the emotional nuances of what a woman is saying, or why I'm so bad at multi-tasking, or how I feel about my partner earning a lot more than me, that would be time well-spent. But it's much more likely he'll ask me which team I'm supporting in Saturday's big match.

Men still think anything too personal or intimate is girly stuff, okay for women to fret over but too trivial for men. There are more important things to sort out. Like Saturday's big match. And anyway, it's only gay guys who like that personal stuff.

One day men will get together not to build up masculine defences against the feminist hordes but to let down those defences and share all the things they still clutch to themselves like secret hoards of treasure.

In the meantime, my apologies, guys, but I can't spare an evening eyeing up the ladies, analysing that disputed goal, comparing rival sat navs, swilling beer, and generally proving I'm one of the lads. Because I'm not one of the lads, I'm just an average bloke looking for some like-minded souls.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Real men

What the hell is a real man? There are still plenty of men out there raging against feminists they claim have emasculated ‘real men’ and turned them into pathetic shadows of their former selves, trailing helplessly in the wake of powerful, castrating amazons.

Phew, what a negative, self-hating attitude they do have. And there was I thinking men’s lives have been hugely enriched by all these loud-mouth feminists urging us to express our emotions, be more sociable, listen more, show more sensitivity to others and be generally more civilised.

Journalist Sarah Churchwell wonders why these old-style men still see heterosexuality as ‘a zero-sum game, in which any gain made by women entails a loss to men (a loss always located around their testicles, for some reason), instead of just, well, happier women.’ Exactly.

When men talk about being real men, she says, what they really mean is upholding the traditional, unchallenged stereotype – ‘hirsute, drunken and boorish’ and ‘a selfish jerk’. And they’re not going to take any advice from women, no sirree.

Of course there’s no such thing as a ‘real’ man any more than there’s a ‘real’ woman or a ‘real’ teenager. Men are just what they turn out to be which surprisingly enough is pretty varied and unpindownable.

The lauding of ‘real men’ is invariably an attempt to bring back a male-dominated society in which men rule the roost and women do what they’re told, preferably in the kitchen, the bedroom and the cosmetic surgery clinic.

As regular readers know, I’m not even sure what masculinity means, if anything. I’ve never felt masculine in my life. I may look like a man and act like a man but that’s only what I’ve been taught to do. The real me is something much subtler and deeper.

The concept of a ‘real man’ needs to be dumped in the dustbin where it belongs, along with ‘the good old days’, ‘Britishness’, ‘the generation gap’ and all those other meaningless phrases people trot out to justify some reactionary, narrow-minded rant. I’ve never doubted my reality, thanks.

Monday 25 August 2008


Don't we all hate busybodies who poke their nose into things that don't concern them and aren't doing them any harm? Shouldn't they just mind their own business and butt out?

Well, yes and no. Busybodies who tell us we should get married, or have children, or earn more money, or get more exercise, are a pain in the arse. Who asked for their opinion?

But busybodies who're concerned about some blatant injustice and want to put it right are a different matter. Without them, all sorts of social scandals would never have been tackled.

It was busybodies who got steamed up about slavery, sweatshops, industrial accidents, child labour, slums and chain gangs, while others looked the other way.

If the do-gooders (as they're often snidely described) hadn't raised their voices in protest, these things would just have continued unabated. Many more people would have suffered.

And if it wasn't for today's busybodies (i.e. people with a conscience) complaining about domestic violence, people trafficking, mistreated immigrants or filthy hospitals, nothing much would be done about those either.

Sometimes poking your nose into unexpected places and passing judgment on what you find can be a good thing, even if those alighted on bristle and try to shut you up.

As long as it's something genuinely abhorrent and pernicious, why not? No, I don't want to be lectured on my dress sense or my dust bunnies. But yes, I do want to be told about sex slavery in Soho. There is a difference.