Tuesday 29 April 2008

Dodgy builder

My 86 year old mum, highly alert though she is, has been taken for a ride by a dodgy builder. She was thoroughly fooled by his plausibility and charm.

She lives in this big old house in the London suburbs and has constant problems finding competent tradespeople to do odd bits of maintenance.

So when this pleasant middle-aged chap rang her doorbell one day saying he knew a friend of hers and wondered if she needed any work done, she jumped at the chance.

He was ready to do all those fiddly little things other people weren't interested in, at a reasonable price, and straightaway. My mum was suitably impressed.

To begin with, he seemed to be doing exactly what she wanted, to a high standard, and he turned up precisely when he said he would.

Not only that but he brought her little snacks, gave her lifts to the shops and changed her inaccessible light bulbs. He was all kindness and consideration.

However slowly but surely this promising start turned into something less satisfactory.

He became unreliable. He would turn up at any old time then suddenly disappear again. The standard of work slipped and he started to use shoddy materials. Garden tools went missing and he refused to give invoices or receipts. He never answered the phone and got more and more evasive.

Mum was losing sleep worrying about it all and wondering what to do. She felt increasingly at the mercy of this unpredictable man she seemed to have little control over.

I was alarmed myself at the way he had taken advantage and betrayed her trust. Okay, just get rid of him, I said, and if there's any trouble call the police. Don't indulge him a moment longer, he's simply after a nice stream of ready cash.

Hopefully she's done the necessary.

Even wise old birds like my mum can still fall for these smooth-talking shysters.

PS: Partly because of this unfortunate experience, mum has finally decided to sell the house and move into a sheltered flat. I'm sure she'll be glad to drop the burden of maintenance and let other people do the worrying.

I'm awarding the Excellent Blog Award to Fate's Granddaughter for a brilliant blog I just have to read regularly. She's always interesting, honest, revealing and thought-provoking. She's a caring, compassionate soul trying to better her life - and other people's - in the face of all the usual obstacles and setbacks. Go take a look.

Saturday 26 April 2008

Operation blues

Countless cancelled operations in the UK's health service are prolonging misery and pain for thousands of people. The latest cause is cock-ups over surgical instruments.

Surgeons say they are more and more likely to be broken, missing or dirty. In which case an entire surgical team, ready to operate, has to down tools and tell the patient to go home again.

Yet again the government has handed over a job to private businesses which are failing to do the work properly. Ward cleaning was farmed out and still isn't up to standard. Many nursing posts were farmed out to agencies, again causing lots of complaints. Now it's providing and decontaminating surgical instruments that's being screwed up.

The politicians are still besotted with the idea that private firms can do the job better than their own NHS staff, even though they've been proved wrong repeatedly.

So people like Helen R. in Leeds, whose hip operation has been postponed twice because the surgeon didn't have the right instruments, is angry and upset at such elementary blunders.

"This is supposed to be the 21st century. We're supposed to have sorted these things out" she said.

There are already tens of thousands of cancelled operations because of sick staff, vacant posts, funding problems or emergencies taking priority. A lot of operating theatres aren't even used in the evenings or at weekends.

Now even more people are finding they have to put up with that excruciating pain or disabling condition for longer than they thought because of the results of political dogma.

Clearly the politicians could do with a bit of emergency brain surgery themselves.

The BBC reports today (Sunday) that there are 10 times more deaths across the UK from the superbug clostridium difficile among over 65-year-olds than in any other country in the world. And one person dies every hour in our hospitals from this deadly infection.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Ungrateful patients

I sound like an old fogey when I bemoan the lack of personal responsibility, but the way people treat nurses and paramedics simply trying to do their job disgusts me.

They get punched and kicked, threatened with weapons, insulted and abused, and even have cigarettes stubbed out on them.

There are an estimated 75,000 attacks on NHS medical staff every year in the UK, mostly caused by binge-drinking and drug use. But only a minute number of people are convicted of an offence.

We're talking about health professionals doing the absolutely vital job of treating the sick and injured, yet there are thousands of people out there who think the best reward for that is a punch in the face or a menacing knife blade.

For them, gone are the days when you respected medical staff and courteously accepted treatment. Let alone not getting so high on drink or drugs that you are no longer in control of your actions and violence is inevitable.

The idea of personal responsibility, that you act sensibly and considerately and behave to others as you expect them to behave to you, is lost on them. Their needs come first and nobody else matters.

The problem is that nurses and doctors are reluctant to refuse treatment, even if a person is being totally uncooperative. They are committed to doing their work even when their personal safety is at risk.

We're lucky so many NHS staff are willing to continue working in such conditions and don't just walk out in favour of a more civilised workplace. But they are determined to provide a crucial service despite being permanently under seige. They all deserve medals.

Tuesday 22 April 2008


I seldom cry. Even at times when I feel I ought to cry, or want to cry, the tears don't come. I can appear totally unemotional when I'm anything but.

Even when I'm deeply upset by something, even when I'm at someone's grave, even when I've been told some dreadful news, my eyes are dry. It's one bit of my male upbringing I just can't shake off.

I envy women who can cry easily when the occasion calls for it, who weep naturally and shamelessly when they've been emotionally shattered by some situation. It's such a basic and necessary human reaction, but one I'm rarely capable of.

People often don't realise just how upset I am about something because the obvious sign, bursting into tears, is absent. Merely saying I'm upset can sound hollow and unconvincing.

I know women sometimes cry for effect when they're not really upset, because they know it gets a reaction, but nonetheless they're fortunate they were never forbidden to cry. Nobody told them they were crybabies or wimps or weaklings. Nobody told them they shouldn't be so emotional or fragile or girly.

It's still the case though that women aren't supposed to cry at work - where it's all too easy to be upset. In the macho culture of the workplace, women who cry are still seen as buckling under pressure, unreliable, not tough enough. They have to cry in private or not at all.

When crying is a response to someone else's misfortune, it also helps you to empathise with their experience, to understand the pain and misery they're going through. If you can't cry, it's harder to feel that empathy - it freezes your emotions and your imagination.

When you think about it, telling half the human race they should never cry is actually a shocking act of cruelty.

Saturday 19 April 2008

Weight crime

Up till now the horror of anorexia has been tackled through model agencies, magazines, TV companies and businesses agreeing not to promote stick-thin, underweight women. But now France is going a stage farther and making such quasi-anorexic images illegal.

The new law, currently going through parliament, will make it a criminal offence to encourage extreme thinness that could lead to ill-health or death. The penalty is two years' jail or a £24,000 fine.

Up to 40,000 people in France could be anorexic, and the cult of super-slimness is widespread. Pro-anorexia websites give young girls advice on lying to their doctors, foods that are easy to vomit, and punishing themselves for eating. Clearly action is needed.

But my question is, will this new law achieve its aims? It sounds all right in theory, but actually proving an offence could be tricky. Just how do you distinguish between a photo of a naturally thin woman, used because it appeals to readers, and the active encouragement of pro-starvation lifestyles?

Fairly straightforward with explicitly pro-anorexia websites, but less so with the ambiguous, run-of-the-mill images the media are full of. Are they just examples of fetching prettiness or are they supporting something more unhealthy? It's hard to say.

I'm reminded of the now discredited English law against 'promoting' homosexuality, which rapidly collapsed because it was impossible to define what was meant by promotion. Did school textbooks featuring gay heroes come under this heading or did you have to be busily seducing young Johnny behind the bike sheds? Confusion reigned and teachers became paranoid.

I suspect this well-intentioned measure could soon turn into a tangled morass. Which would be a shame when it's aimed at such a truly alarming phenomenon.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Confidence trick

It's a truism that many apparently confident people are hiding a swarm of uncertainties, anxieties and even phobias under the cool facade. And it frustrates them that no one can see they're as vulnerable as everyone else.

It certainly applies to me sometimes. I may look confident enough when I'm throwing ideas into a meeting at work, or holding forth on a book I've just read, or briskly hanging the new curtains, but underneath I'm wondering just how long this fragile poise can last. How soon will I reveal my natural blundering, dithering self?

Therapists talk a lot about the impostor syndrome, where a person is actually quite competent at something but forever thinking they're just muddling through under false pretences and will be found out at any moment.

I think my whole life's a bit like the impostor syndrome. How long can it be before everyone realises I'm just an overgrown child whose sense of adult responsibility is wafer-thin, and that I'm barely capable of brushing my teeth let alone holding down a demanding job or maintaining a home?

Deep down I'm riddled with insecurities - about the future, money, old age, friendship, socialising, upsetting people, disappointing people, lack of generosity, you name it.

My relationships with other people are always fraught with doubts and hesitations about what they expect of me, how false or genuine I'm being, how normal or weird I appear, and whether they like me or loathe me. I find it hard to just be myself.

Then add to that my endless difficulties with masculinity. I've never felt masculine in my life but every day people expect me to behave like a man, so I have to fake it as best I can. Either that or some very puzzled faces of the 'So which gender is he?' variety.

The fact is that inside every confident person there's a panic-stricken nail-biter trying to get out - or just trying not be noticed.

Monday 14 April 2008

In denial

I'm always aghast at those people who steadfastly deny appalling human tragedies and scandals and insist they're fabricated by scaremongerers and fantasists. So often they just perpetuate misery and prevent effective help.

The list of things denied is endless - the Holocaust, repressive dictatorships, torture, police brutality, tribal violence, slavery, apartheid, global warming. There's always someone with a vested interest in saying, everything's just fine, your imagination's running away with you.

The latest scandal to get the three blind monkeys treatment is people trafficking. Although numerous agencies insist thousands of men, women and children are being lured to other countries to do low status, low paid jobs, with their lives totally controlled by traffickers, the deniers maintain that nothing of the kind is happening and we are all being deceived.

According to them, all these so-called trafficking victims travel to other countries of their own free will and in most cases end up in decent, respectable jobs. Even if they become prostitutes this is because they like being admired and sought-after and stirring sexual desire.

They aren't passive victims desperate for help but free agents shaping their own lives. Their attempted saviours are just liberal do-gooders infantilising those in question in order to further their own careers and the 'rescue industry'.

This 'phoney' concern is even painted as colonialist and xenophobic, keeping those truculent foreigners in their place. The reality of widespread degradation and exploitation is obviously too much for them to admit.

You can present these ostriches with enough damning evidence to fill a pantechnicon, but still they won't accept it, still they go their own sweet way. There's nowt so queer as folk.

See for example: Sex At The Margins by Laura María Agustín

I didn't get the second job - damn! Oh well, the hunt for the ideal job continues....

Friday 11 April 2008

Body blow

So, guys, how often have you heard those plaintive words from the woman in your life? "God, I'm so fat!" "My bum is just huge!" "I really hate my nose!" And no amount of denial or reassurance make any difference.

Even if she's dazzlingly pretty and men - and women - say so all the time, still she's convinced there are a dozen things wrong with her perfect (or at least perfectly okay) body.

She'll scrutinise herself constantly in the mirror, checking out this bit and that bit and pronouncing them all inadequate. No matter how much you say she's just fine as she is, that she's being too hypercritical and comparing herself too much with all the airbrushed media images, she's not persuaded.

(By the way, I'm not necessarily referring to Jenny here. Most women I've known have had the same unsparing attitude to their bodies)

There's something seriously wrong with the way women are brought up, that they acquire such a negative view of themselves instead of accepting what they're blessed with. It doesn't help that so many mothers are themselves furiously dieting or botoxing.

I'm horrified by the continuing rise and rise of plastic surgery and the soaring demand from women for every variety of so-called enhancement and improvement, no matter what the cost.

Like many men, I've always been quite happy with my body, despite it being a long way from George Clooney or Johnny Depp, and I've never had even a fleeting desire to change any of it.

I'm sure anyone else giving it the once-over could find plenty of things wrong with it, but I couldn't care less. It's mine and I like it, so back off! It's sad that women aren't so self-accepting.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Panel game

So anyway I went for this interview. And you know what it's like when you just don't click with the interview panel but it seems a bit melodramatic to walk out so you dutifully go through the motions?

Question, answer, question, answer, and you really don't care any more because you know you don't want to work there, so you recite the answers in a sort of Dalek monotone, slotting the words together like bits of Lego.

You know exactly what I mean, don't you? That's how it was when I shot up to the ninth floor of a swish office block with an eye-popping view across the city of Belfast.

It was a government quango called, shall we say, the Monitoring and Supervisory Agency. You don't need to know what it actually does, but I'm sure it's frightfully useful.

So for starters there was the interview by numbers routine. It also didn't help that one of the female interviewers reminded me uncannily of a woman I once worked with who (allegedly) was heavily into bondage.

I looked disbelievingly at the blonde hair, the thin lips and the beady eyes and it was a supreme effort of will not to imagine her in a pair of handcuffs or tied to a bed post. People who start these unforgettable rumours should be horsewhipped.

If that wasn't distraction enough, all the interviewers were scribbling like people possessed, their red-hot biros scratching away feverishly as if I was confiding the meaning of the universe. I mean, how much information do you need to decide if candidate number six is a little treasure or a total goofball?

So anyway I stoically did my bit, everyone thanked everyone else and I rushed out into a biting Arctic wind that practically stripped off my clothes, my body hair and my eyeballs. What I have to go through to earn an honest crust.

PS (Thursday afternoon): Would you believe, I've been offered the job! But I have another interview next week for a job I really want, so I'm still going to turn this one down and take my chances. Brave or what?

Monday 7 April 2008

Lethal plastic

It saddens me that our massive amounts of plastic waste are harming and killing so many animals. But it's hard to see how the waste can be significantly reduced.

Plastic products like beach toys, toothbrushes and used condoms are suffocating and poisoning birds and sea creatures and clogging their intestines.

The deaths and injuries often happen far from land or built-up areas so we're blissfully unaware of what's happening unless we read about it.

Some 250 species are affected from albatrosses to whales, many of them simply unable to distinguish between plastic and bona fide food.

It's horrible to think that the empty shampoo bottle I'm casually discarding could end up slaughtering some unsuspecting turtle or seal, but what can I do?

We use so many plastic-based products and so much plastic packaging that there's not much scope for cutting down.

I try not to buy plastic items unless I have to. I try to avoid things with ludicrous amounts of wrapping. I refuse plastic bags wherever possible. I do my best to recycle. But that's a drop in a bucket compared to what's needed.

The tide of waste is swollen by our phenomenal consumption levels and our insatiable desire for new gadgets, make-overs and 101 items that come swaddled in plastic.

But how many people are prepared to say, okay, I'm happy with what I've got, I don't really need to replace it or update it? We're all tempted by fashion and other people's enthusiasms to add to our Most Wanted list.

Meanwhile yet another innocent creature is fighting for its life, not knowing what it is that's stopping it breathing or flying or eating. And unlike us, it can't just dial 999.

It's reported that 2000 police officers were protecting the Olympic torch relay from pro-Tibet protests as it travelled through London from Wembley to Greenwich yesterday. Why do we need a symbolic Olympic torch or a torch relay anyway? Isn't the Olympics enough?

In fact the Olympic torch relay was started by the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany. It was an attempt to turn the Games into a glorification of the Third Reich by using 3000 Aryan (i.e. non-Jewish) relay runners. In other words the relay has thoroughly despicable origins.

Friday 4 April 2008

Unsung heroines (2)

Children psychologically damaged by inadequate parents and carers often get little help and are left to grow up into seriously maladjusted adults.

It's thanks to Camila Batmanghelidjh that some 32,000 British children a year are now getting the help they desperately need through the two charities she set up - The Place To Be and Kids' Company.

She had to cope with severe childhood trauma herself after her wealthy Iranian father was arrested during the Iranian Revolution in the late seventies and had all his assets seized.

Then Camila's sister killed herself and all Camila's personal possessions were burnt by the Revolutionary Guard. She has never been able to return home.

She decided to devote her life to helping children similarly traumatised and disturbed by providing counselling, education, art therapy and other forms of support.

The children have experienced every possible crisis from physical abuse to mental health problems, substance abuse and homelessness.

Camila has remortgaged her North London flat twice as well as defaulting on mortgage payments in order to fund her two charities.

Now in her mid forties, she chose not to have children of her own so as to devote herself totally to other needy children. She works practically non-stop and is said to have not taken a holiday for 11 years.

Coming from an entrepreneurial family, she says she could have made a fortune from a commercial business but was only interested in working with less fortunate children.

I'm just astonished by her unwavering passion for those who have had such a raw deal in life when like many others she could have said "It's a terrible tragedy but there's nothing I can do about it." She thought differently and decided firmly that she could do something.

NB: All facts and figures are from Wikipedia and the BBC. They may not be completely accurate.

See also: Unsung heroines (1): human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce

Wednesday 2 April 2008

Tall women

Why are so many short men still unwilling to date taller women? How come they're so lacking in confidence and so old-fashioned they find a taller woman intimidating and emasculating?

Does a few inches height difference really imply the man is inadequate and inferior? Or that he runs around doing her bidding like a faithful lapdog? These tired old stereotypes really should have had a decent burial by now.

But a six-foot-tall woman called Penny, writing in the London Independent, complains about the snide comments directed at Jamie Cullum and Sophie Dahl* and says little has changed since her American childhood in the 50s and 60s when boys "did not look twice at females taller than they were."

She longed to be short and cute and acceptable so she could actually date someone.

Even now, she says, the sniping about her height still goes on.
"I am filled with admiration for the men with the cojones to date taller women and for those women who are self-confident enough even to consider them."

And apparently the height hang-up doesn't stop with men wanting to be as tall as women. Even men of similar height can be discomforted if the woman adds extra inches.

One American blogger reports that her second husband, the same height as herself (5'9") freaked out when she wore high heels in public and became taller. She had to give up wearing heels in his presence. After the divorce (surprise!), the first thing she did was buy some new heels.

So be careful with your footwear, girls, it could seriously damage a few male egos!

Oh and since you ask, I'm six foot and Jenny's five six. I would happily have dated taller women but there aren't many taller than me!

* Who are 5'4" and 5'11" respectively