Sunday 30 March 2008

No offence meant

How easy it is to unwittingly cause offence. It doesn't take much to say or do the wrong thing and get right up someone's nostrils.

It's odd though - despite knowing from my own experience how easily people can be offended, my personal quirks still lead me into unexpected foot-in-mouth situations.

Oh yes, I learnt about being offended very early on. My father was given to torrents of abuse in which he accused me of everything from idleness and stupidity to wasting his hard-earned money. At school I was bullied and teased by the other boys for being too different and too independent. Because of that I'm very aware that people have private sensitivities and traumas that can be quickly aroused.

But it doesn't stop me upsetting someone without meaning to. Firstly because face-to-face I'm not articulate enough and can easily put things in a way that gets misinterpreted. Secondly because my typical male upbringing means I'm not as emotionally literate as I should be, and I miss subtle signals and messages.

Someone tells me I've implied they're insincere and cynical. Or that they're naive and gullible. And I think, goodness that's not what I meant, how did they get that impression?

But at least I set out not to cause offence, unlike some who seem to take a delight in causing as much offence as possible. They believe self-expression is sacrosanct and if someone is offended by what they've said, that's too bad. People shouldn't be so thin-skinned and over-sensitive.

And if someone does complain of being offended, instead of apologising they take it as a green light to offend them some more and get them really steamed-up*.

One can only wonder at the elements in their own upbringing that have inspired such casual disregard for other people's feelings.

* Journalists of course being the prime example, witness the endless moralising diatribes against 'misbehaving' celebs and politicians.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Hair piece

One advantage of being a guy is that I don't have to bother about my body hair - except in the facial area. It must drive women nuts having to remove it all.

Men can go around with forests of the stuff sprouting from every conceivable surface and that's just fine. In fact for some women, the hairier the better - for them hair quantity denotes masculinity rating.

It may be fashionable now for certain types of men to remove their body hair - gays, sportsmen, models - but for many women absence of male body hair is still deeply suspicious and a bit of a turn-off.

Women however are expected to be totally devoid of body hair, even though many women are naturally quite hairy - a fact that remains a big conversational taboo. I've known women desperate to get rid of vast thickets of hair they laboriously concealed from their menfolk.

But men demand total hairlessness and smooth, silky skin, regardless of the reality. The sight of hairy armpits or hairy nipples is enough for some of them to come over queasy and walk out the door. A woman has to conform to the pin-up stereotype, however artificial it may be.

Many men are blissfully unaware that those satin-skinned supermodels have to wax, shave and pluck meticulously to get like that. Unlike Barbie dolls, they don't just emerge from the box that way.

For a short, brave period, radical feminists refused to depilate and flaunted their natural hair growth. But male distaste and female loss of nerve ended the experiment.

Now that genetic modification is getting into its stride, I suppose one day women will be able to rejig their genes to eliminate body hair growth altogether. That'll save a lot of time (and pain). Just as long as they don't go bald....

PS: Wikipedia suggests several reasons for hair removal, apart from aesthetics and gender stereotypes, going back to Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome: to prevent infestation by lice, fleas and other parasites; to prevent body odour from odour-causing micro-organisms; and among Ancient Egyptian priests, to present a pure body to the gods. In Ancient Greece and Rome, both men and women removed body hair.

PPS: The infinitely wise and excellent K8 the GR8 has also done a post on hairiness and hair removal. Very funny and very informative. Go take a peep at her hair-removal trials and tribulations.

See also Hirsutism

Having spent a few days pondering all this, I've concluded that the fairest way forward is for men to remove all their body hair as well as women - and share the pain and the effort and the pleasure. Respect for women means equal use of epilators, strip wax and tweezers. Are you ready, guys?

Monday 24 March 2008

Break-up gossips

People so often jump to knee-jerk conclusions about why a relationship failed and whether it was A's fault or B's fault. In fact the truth is usually a lot more complex than such simplistic name-calling.

Obviously I'm thinking of a certain well-publicised divorce* where one individual is getting pilloried ruthlessly by the media while the other is being help up as a saintly icon who's been taken to the cleaners.

The fact is that nobody outside a relationship can truly understand how it works, or doesn't work, and glib judgments about fault and misbehaviour are usually based on false assumptions and prejudices that have little to do with reality.

While everyone else claims to know exactly what caused the break-up, the couple themselves may be completely mystified. They may have genuinely wanted the relationship to work and been baffled that their best efforts and noblest intentions came to nothing.

It's easy to side with one person, particularly if they're a personal friend, and blame their partner for all the problems and failures. But the real-life cocktail of personalities, expectations and emotions that decides the fate of a relationship defies such black-and-white loyalties.

Sure, some break-ups can be pinned fairly and squarely on one person - the alcoholic husband who beats his wife or the wife who discovers she's gay. But I think they're the exceptions that prove the rule.

And might I suggest that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones? Those who delight in picking over the entrails of other people's wrecked relationships should maybe take a closer look at their own and see if their behaviour meets the exalted standards they apply elsewhere. Or sooner or later the wagging tongues could be fastened on them.

* Oh all right, then, Heather and Paul.

The postcard mentioned in Red's comment. Nice one! It was posted on

Friday 21 March 2008

Candid camera

I really don't understand the widespread fuss about CCTV cameras. The claim that they are invading our privacy and creating a Big Brother society seems to me rather hysterical and over-the-top.

So what if a camera at the top of a building somewhere can see me blowing my nose or watching an attractive woman or wrestling with an over-stuffed sandwich? Where's the threat?

Critics say the ubiquitous CCTV cameras (the UK has one of the highest concentrations in the world) are intimidating us and putting us all under suspicion. They are the sign of an authoritarian society that wants to monitor its citizens' every movement.

I think that's farfetched nonsense. I don't feel in the least intimidated by the odd camera. No one's going to see anything particularly revealing or illicit, unless I'm fixing a drugs deal or handing over a bribe. And who in their right mind would do that in full public view anyway?

We don't mind hundreds of other passers-by watching our movements so why are we so worried about cameras seeing exactly the same thing?

They're only in public places after all, where we're expected to behave ourselves. It's not as if they're in our living rooms or bedrooms recording our private vices and eccentricities.

What's more, CCTV has caught quite a number of genuine criminals red-handed and led to convictions that wouldn't have happened without them. And that includes rapists* and muggers who seriously jeopardise street safety. If we can catch a few more of them, CCTV's just fine by me.

* An estimated 47,000 women are raped every year in Britain.

Oh dear! The ever-popular Grandad, usually brilliantly funny, has done a spectacularly unfunny post condemning political correctness. He says we should be free to call people anything we like, no matter how offensive, and stop being so over-sensitive. Micks, Paddies, golliwogs, what does it matter? Sorry, grandad, I couldn't agree less. The point of so-called political correctness is simply to have respect for other people. Of course it can be overdone but so can anything. And most of the extremist scare stories are tabloid inventions in any case. Is it so hard to call black people blacks and not niggers?

NB: In the interests of fairness, please also read Grandad's reply in Comments.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Nick meets Veronica

On the occasion of his sixty-first birthday*, Nick agreed to a rare interview with the world-renowned supermodel Veronica Trinket. They met in the luxurious surroundings of the Lagan Plaza Hotel, Belfast.

VT: So, Nick, what are your feelings at this momentous time?

Nick: I'm deeply moved and touched by the outpouring of affection from my fans around the world. Several of them are still in my bed as I speak.

VT: Still the same old Nick, eh? Always in the middle of one scandal or another?

Nick: I can't think what you mean. Everyone knows I'm a leading role model for confused and impressionable young people.

VT: But you've just been charged with embezzling £5 million from a certain well-known charity that you left under mysterious circumstances.

Nick: My lawyers are contesting all charges. I'd like to talk about my tireless work for the starving peasants of Bolivia.

VT: You've never set foot in Bolivia. And what about the sex-change operation that was going to turn you into gorgeous, pouting Lavinia Loveheart?

Nick: Totally untrue. I was just wearing a dress for a short time for medical reasons. You haven't mentioned my longstanding commitment to the Sacred Order of Divine Bliss.

VT: Yes, weren't you linked to the mass suicides and extreme sexual fetishes at St Benedict's Monastery?

Nick: Not on my watch. I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro at the time with an old school friend. And another thing, my passion for environmental protection and fighting global warming is second to none.

VT: I believe you've recycled the odd baked bean tin. And there was your six-month incarceration in the Leafy Glades Psychiatric Unit.

Nick: It was only six days. The shooting spree was entirely due to Emilia's heartless comments on my virility. (Mobile rings) Ah, it's Natalie. She's wondering when I'm coming back to bed. Girls, eh? I'm sorry, I really must be off. It's lovely to see you again, Veronica.

VT: You too, my darling. Happy Birthday!

* On March 20. And these were Nick's thoughts on being 60.

(Photo of Veronica Trinket courtesy of Trinket Management)

Saturday 15 March 2008

Battle of wills

How unseemly and unedifying it is when family members fight tooth and nail over a dead relative's will, disputing what it says and trying to grab a bit more money for themselves.

I see the latest family row is over the will left by Australian actor Heath Ledger. The will was written in 2003 before his partner Michelle and baby Matilda came on the scene.

Now everyone's squabbling over who should get what and how much (if any) should go to his new family. His father Kim has appealed for dignity at a time of grief.

I suppose the fewer relatives there are, and the more straightforward the will, the less trouble there's likely to be. And the more money there is at stake, and the more bizarre the will's provisions, the greater the prospect of a battle royal and insults flying thick and fast.

There are regular reports of huge sums of money being left to a pet cat or a faithful gardener or the preservation of endangered molluscs.

Relatives frequently argue that poor old Gladys wasn't of sound mind at the time and couldn't possibly have intended such absurd legacies. It was the influence of those strange pills the GP had prescribed, or the insidious charisma of some new acquaintance who wormed his way into her affections.

But at the end of the day, if that's what Gladys wanted, what right has anyone to dispute it and argue otherwise, just because they're greedy and feel cheated out of their rightful inheritance?

My family is very small, so hopefully there won't be any unsavoury quarrels when the next will gets opened. We'll just grab the money and run!!

Tuesday 11 March 2008

A woman's honour

Whatever next? Italian judges have ruled that it's okay for a wife to lie about her adultery in order to 'protect her honour'. And that includes lying to the police.

Having a lover, said the highest appeal court in the land*, could damage the person's honour among family and friends. It's therefore quite reasonable to deny it.

A 48 year old Tuscany woman, known only as Carla, had denied lending her mobile phone to her lover Giovanni so he could make threatening phone calls to her estranged husband.

This peculiar decision raises so many questions I don't know where to start. Adultery damages the person's honour? Surely what really damages your honour is being blindly loyal to your husband however inadequate and disappointing he is? And doesn't it damage your honour again to lie about something that's so important to you?

But no, the judges' definition of 'honour' is some old-fashioned concept of slavish devotion to your man and propping up his reputation as a virile, masculine breadwinner. Doing anything that undermines that shiny image and suggests he is falling short is unfeminine and disloyal - and 'dishonourable'. So it should be hushed up.

I suspect what it's really about is not the woman's honour but the man's. How can a man hold his head up among his peers if his wife is blatantly giving him the brush-off and running around with someone else? Can't he keep his woman in line?

And of course Italian males are particularly hung-up on their masculine image and particularly put out by anything that compromises it. But they can't admit it's their problem, so as usual it's women who carry the can. And naturally they enjoy the 'honour' of doing so.

* The Court of Cassation, La Corte di Cassazione

Victims of domestic violence in Northern Ireland are abused on average 35 times before they contact police. The Police Service is currently campaigning for women to complain and get help as soon as possible and not let the violence continue. Good for them.

Saturday 8 March 2008

Teeming beaches

Holiday bliss for many people is soaking up the sun on a foreign beach absolutely jam-packed with other holiday-makers. But for me that would be unmitigated hell.

My idea of fun is categorically not being in the middle of a seething mass of humanity, dropping their ice cream on me and tripping over my legs.

If I want hordes of people, I can pop down to the local shopping centre any day of the week. I don't need to seek them out on some exotic stretch of sand.

My image of an ideal holiday is peace and quiet and stunning scenery. I want to go somewhere where I can purge my mind of the everyday hurly burly and the bustling crowds. I don't want more of the same.

What is it about a beach that's so magnetic anyway? It's only a pile of sand with water washing over it. Yes, very pretty but so are lots of other beauty spots. And you don't see much of the sand when it's covered by human bodies.

I think the attraction is a sort of unconscious territoriality. Historically it's beaches that are often invaded by enemy forces, so we like to swamp them with people now and again as a symbolic act of ownership and defiance.

Unfortunately the popularity of beaches has led to hundreds of hideous identikit resorts with their soulless promenades and high-rise hotels. You have to check the plane ticket to remind yourself where you are.

No, forget the beaches, or at least the crowded ones. My idea of rapture is just me and my shadow on a deserted mountain top somewhere. Jenny's welcome too, of course, but that's quite enough company, thanks.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Think before you give

One thing that shocked me while working for charity XYZ was how much of the innocently-donated cash didn't go where it was meant to go but was carelessly wasted and frittered away.

Hard-up pensioners would dip into their savings and send us ten-pound notes. Ordinary families would hold fundraising events and send us nice fat cheques. And where did all that money go?

It went on senior managers flying across Britain for inconsequential meetings. Or prestigious suites of office furniture. Or pointless job restructuring schemes. Or new computer databases that never worked properly.

The staff rarely asked if money was being spent wisely. I soon learnt that such awkward questions weren't appreciated and it was better to keep my mouth shut. The managers knew best and ours not to reason why.

Of course I'm not suggesting our entire income was squandered. Most of the money did indeed go on worthwhile projects and helped the people it was meant to help. But the amount that was flung at totally self-indulgent and unproductive activities was extraordinary.

Unfortunately, even if it's a charity helping those in desperate need, people are never as careful with other people's money as they are with their own. They chuck it around casually as if there's an endless supply and lots more where that came from.

Perhaps the public should be more critical of the organisations that solicit their cash and ask for more information about exactly what it's spent on.

We assume too easily that charities are full of principled, scrupulous individuals who would never knowingly waste a penny. But that belief is naive. Charity workers are much like any other workers - some are conscientious, some are just in it for what they can get.

So if you insist on donating to charity, do it sceptically and in the full knowledge that your money might be paying for an executive team-building exercise at a luxury spa in the Cotswolds.

Saturday 1 March 2008

Head healing

Therapy is still scoffed at by people who can't see the benefit of airing their problems to complete strangers. Aren't they just a bunch of charlatans out to profit from your hang-ups?

Well, it's true the jury's still out on the benefits. Yes, people who bare their soul to Dr Tell-Me-More do often emerge happier, more self-aware and better able to cope with the difficulties in their lives.

But then those who just think things through on their own are equally likely to find some answers and shake off the depression and confusion they started with.

I spent a few months in therapy myself once, when I'd just been rejected by a woman I was sweet on and felt hopelessly muddled about my future.

It was a very liberating experience. Unlike most people I encounter, Laura gave me the space and security to talk about absolutely anything I wanted, no matter how abnormal, embarrassing, vulgar or unfashionable, and to keep talking about it until perplexity slowly turned into clarity and understanding.

As the weeks went by I stumbled on all sorts of unexpected insights into love, sex, relationships and human needs. And I started to see paths through the mental fog.

Laura gave me the help that my friends and acquaintances, however well-meaning, couldn't give me. Their instant opinions and cheery platitudes simply didn't get to the root of the problem. She was the essential catalyst I needed.

PS: My mind turned to therapy when I heard the British government are to train 3600 new psychotherapists as an alternative to doling out drugs. A new report says most anti-depressants have no effect whatever.

"Each year, more than twenty thousand workers are fired or lose wages simply for trying to organise and join unions. That needs to change." Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope


Out of work: I no longer work for (insert major British charity here). I accepted voluntary redundancy and am now job-hunting once again. Which lucky employer shall I choose??