Saturday 31 May 2008

Unsung heroines (3)

When Salome Mbugua first arrived in southern Ireland in 1994 from Africa, she got a friendly welcome as black people were rare. But when she came back four years later people were more hostile.
There were a lot more immigrants and she was told "Go home, nigger." She met other black women who were meeting similar prejudice and having trouble finding suitable jobs.

With the support of Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic religious order, she set up AkiDwa, the African Women's Network, to provide support for black women and find out what their needs were.

Now the network, which expanded to help other women arriving from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Romania, has 2075 members and five permanent groups and is transforming the lives of previously marginalised newcomers.

They have had problems with racism, vandalism, domestic violence and even people saying they shouldn't have children. Around 60 per cent of them have had to take jobs that didn't match their skills. Overseas qualifications were often not recognised in the Republic.

AkiDwa advises them on how to improve their employment prospects and how to deal with discrimination, domestic violence and other problems that are holding them back.

Salome, a qualified social worker with a Master's degree from University College Dublin, originally wanted to work with the United Nations but now says she is too passionate about her work with AkiDwa to consider anything else. It has become her big mission and has been a much needed lifeline for thousands of vulnerable and victimised women.
NB: I can't give a link to the recent Irish Times article as it's subscription-only. But here's another piece from the Irish Independent.
See also: Unsung heroines 1: Gareth Peirce
Unsung heroines 2: Camila Batmanghelidjh

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Naked fury

How would you feel if your ex-lover had taken photos of you naked (or worse) and was holding onto the photos against your wishes? Or even circulating them to other people or putting them on the net?

This was the query on a newspaper problem page this week. An embarrassed woman wants her ex to return or delete the photos but he's refusing. Or rather, he's saying "Come and get them" and she's nervous about what will happen if she does.

It's not unusual these days for lovers to take intimate photos of each other - particularly when it's so easy with a digital camera. And such photos have often been sent into cyberspace, particularly if the ex feels bitter and wants some sort of malicious revenge.

Personally, I wouldn't be too bothered by my naked body gracing the net. As if anyone would want to see such an unpromising physique anyway. But I would be furious if it was accompanied by belittling and snide comments from someone out to stick the knife in.

Mind you, I wonder why people take nude pics of each other anyway. It's hardly necessary if you see your bedmate every day. What are you recording it all for?

You'r hardly going to stick them in the photo album to show your parents. "And this is Tracy in the buff. Look at those knockers, eh?" You're hardly going to line them up with the family snaps on your office desk. So what's the point? My mind wanders to frankly obscene and scurrilous motives....

And now I'm wondering what photos Jenny's been taking of me while I've been naked and fast asleep. I'd better take a closer look at that camera she's been so furtive about....

Saturday 24 May 2008

Distant memories

If there's one part of my body I'd like to improve, it's not my nose or biceps or bum, it's my dreadful memory - and the constant embarrassment it causes.

My father had a photographic memory, he could recall every detail of something that happened twenty years ago (quite mortifying when I desperately wanted him to forget some reckless or nasty action of mine). But I'm the exact opposite - if you asked me about a conversation I had last week, it would already be a hazy blur.

So I'm constantly forgetting people's names and jobs, whether they have children, where they live, that problem they asked me about a few days back, that difficult medical condition. I'm surprised I manage to retain all the thousand and one vital details of my own life, like bank accounts and holiday bookings.

It's not just early senility. I've always had a bad memory, even as a child. My mum would reel off all the little incidents from a seaside outing, and all that came to me was a vague image of sun, sea and sand.

So I rely heavily on bits of paper as memory back-up. Lists of Things To Do, notes of important conversations, downloaded news stories and reports, Notes To Self left in strategic places, and Questions To Ask when I talk to the doctor or podiatrist.

Which sounds pathetically gormless, but it's better than being totally flummoxed when Jenny asks me how much our hotel room's going to cost, if it has a bath or shower, and if it's air-conditioned. If I didn't have a Note, the details would have fluttered away like autumn leaves.

I really admire people with jobs that call for a prodigious memory - actors, singers, doctors, pilots. I'm always amazed that they can instantly recall exactly what they need so effortlessly.

I can just imagine the scene if I were a doctor. "That's a nasty-looking lump, Mrs O'Reilly. It could be a symptom of er, let me think for a few seconds. Would you like a cup of tea while we're waiting?" (That is, if I could remember how to boil the kettle)

I don't think Mrs O'Reilly would be long for this world.

We all love bananas, don't we, boys and girls? Well, I read that we won't be enjoying them much longer, as they're being rapidly killed off by a lethal fungus - Panama Disease.

In five to thirty years' time, that delicious creamy taste could be a thing of the past. There are disease-resistant bananas that could be grown instead but they have a completely different taste - like lemons or apples. Perhaps we could readjust our taste buds?

Thursday 22 May 2008

Distressed nurses

The vast majority of NHS nurses say they sometimes or always leave work in distress because they can't give patients the dignity and quality of care they would like to give.

They say they are hampered not just by lack of time and staff shortages but by management failures that mean patients have to put up with embarrassing and dehumanising stays.

Patients are often denied single-sex wards, adequate washing and toilet facilities, help with eating and complete privacy when required.

In a Royal College of Nursing poll, 81% said there times when they left work feeling patients had been let down. Some 86% said dignity should be a higher priority.

Surely such issues as appropriate privacy and being able to wash properly are so basic they should be automatically guaranteed without nurses having to complain and make do and apologise to angry patients.

If we wouldn't accept these shortcomings in our own homes, why are they considered acceptable in hospitals, particularly when they just cause further stress to patients already suffering the stress of being hospitalised?

The feeble assurances by government ministers that patients' dignity is a top priority are not convincing when the everday reality is that this is clearly not the case and there is no sign of any radical improvements.

As in so many areas, the government is again fanatically penny-pinching with a vital public service that needs to be urgently upgraded.

There are shedloads of cash available for a new generation of nuclear missiles and a hugely ambitious ID card project, but the tottering NHS is apparently not so deserving. So nurses are left frustrated and despairing.

Monday 19 May 2008

Was he a voyeur?

When is voyeurism not voyeurism? Is taking photos of man boobs as offensive as taking similar photos of female breasts? Or doesn't it count?

The English Court of Appeal had to grapple with this tricky issue last week after a care worker appealed against a court verdict that his secret photos of another man's chest made him a voyeur.

The law* says it's voyeurism if a person's breasts are involved, but it doesn't specify if it applies equally to men and women.

So Kevin Bassett, 44, was convicted after he snapped a male swimmer's torso at a swimming pool with a video camera hidden in a plastic bag.

He appealed on the grounds that male breasts don't count and the law applies only to women. The three Appeal Court judges agreed that only female breasts could be seen in a sexual light and therefore no offence had occurred.

Well, it seems to me there's something wrong here, as clearly there was an offence of some sort, in that the targetted swimmer's privacy was invaded and the other man was taking an undue physical interest in him.

If it's not forbidden under this particular law, there should be some other law that prevents it, or it's a green light for all men to be sexually spied on. On the other hand, maybe most men would just be amused by such absurd interest in their unexciting chests. I certainly would.

But the really sad part of the story is that the man boob-fancying Mr Bassett is a Christian who has hidden his homosexuality for many years as he just "wanted to be like everyone else".

After his conviction he received counselling and support from his friends and family. I only hope they persuaded him there's nothing wrong with homosexuality and he should embrace his true leanings and enjoy them.

PS: Perhaps men with sizeable boobs should do the decent thing and wear a bra??

* The 2003 Sexual Offences Act

It's about time I awarded Hullaballoo the Rockin' Girl Blogger Award for a blog that's always witty, romantic, optimistic, full of life and often screamingly funny. One of my favourite must-visits!

Friday 16 May 2008

Resisting Veronica

Well, Jenny's in London for a while, so to mitigate the appalling loneliness (especially now I'm jobless), my dear friend Veronica is hanging out with me and keeping me up to date with all the celeb gossip.

But she's such an awful tease. She will insist on showing me her new enlarged bosom and her pink lacy underwear, and I have to keep telling her it really isn't appropriate, I'm a happily married man and I have to resist temptation.

I'm forced to keep the bedroom permanently locked to prevent her draping herself provocatively on the four-poster bed and eyeing certain parts of my body suggestively. If this goes on, I might be compelled to end a beautiful friendship and show her the door.

The last time Jenny returned from one of her trips, she discovered several intimate items of Veronica's and dreadful scenes ensued. I was confined to the garden shed for a week and allowed only bread and water. She simply didn't believe I was going through one of my transvestite phases. The lipstick just isn't your colour, she said.

So now I really have to watch my step and resist Veronica's delectable body, or there'll be hell to pay. I'll find my bags have been packed and thrown into the front garden.

V and I are sticking to strictly respectable activities, mainly involving lines of white powder and extensive online gambling. Fortunately she's agreed to foot the bill to celebrate her lucrative modelling contract with New U Beauty Salons.

This shameless hedonism will as usual have to be followed up with a week's retreat at the Sacred Order of Divine Bliss to unscramble my delirious brain. Luckily the nuns know just what I need.

Photo: Veronica is suddenly camera-shy.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Hidden emotions

Sometimes I think I control my emotions too much. I'm seldom spontaneously happy or enthusiastic or angry or jealous or admiring. The emotions are there all right but I don't often show them.

Add to this the fact that my emotions tend to be slow-burning anyway, and may only bubble up some time after the event, and I know I sometimes seem to be emotionless. But that isn't so.

It always puzzles those people who voice their feelings loud and clear. They wonder why I'm so cool about something I ought to be really excited about - holiday plans, or moving house, or a sudden windfall or a great new job. Or they wonder why I’m not distraught and tearful over some personal catastrophe or someone’s death. Well, I am excited or distraught but I just don't pour it in all directions.

I suppose I'm a bit suspicious of people who splurge their emotions so easily and so openly. Are they genuine or are they only putting it on because that's what people expect? They're probably totally genuine and I'm just perversely cynical.

I must say at times I find emotionally uninhibited people rather hard to take - it's tiring being assailed by a constant flood of passion and spleen on every conceivable subject. Though maybe they're just being human and I'm a repressed tight-arse.

But I think expressing my emotions too impulsively and thoughtlessly can have unintended consequences, not always positive. I might easily say something that embarrasses other people (or myself). I might be unwittingly offensive or insensitive or shocking. It seems better to keep my emotions to myself unless there's a good reason for blurting them out. Or at least let them settle for a while.

Am I that unusual or are there plenty like me? Come on, tell me honestly. Am I sensibly cautious or am I just a cold fish?

Friday 9 May 2008

Pretty ain't enough

So many men are naturally highly sexed, you'd think women wouldn't need to go to such lengths to make themselves look sexy. Yet men still demand a perfect female body to make love to. They want to have their cake and eat it.

It's not enough for the woman to be female, or pretty, or likeable, or just willing. If she doesn't conform to his mental image of sultry sexiness, she's somehow spoiling his pleasure.

So she has to spend her time primping and preening, depilating and dieting, slapping on cosmetics and enduring plastic surgery, so her man can feel suitably chuffed while he's getting his rocks off. This extreme male selfishness is euphemistically passed off as "looking after your man".

A woman I once knew said her ex-husband insisted on the full female regalia - padded bra, girdle, tight skirt, high heels and thick make-up - or he would dismiss her as plain and unfeminine. She always felt like a deranged drag queen. Needless to say, the marriage didn't last very long.

If women expected men to behave the same way, to doll themselves up like some theatrical dandy, men would simply laugh and take themselves off. But they reserve the right to impose laborious and arbitrary beauty regimes on women.

Unfortunately the media happily collude in this oppressive behaviour and give women relentless advice on how to turn themselves into male fantasies, complete with doctored photos of impossibly perfect women for them to aspire to.

The utter madness of this sexual straitjacket only becomes clear when some unlucky woman who's opted for plastic surgery once too often dies on the operating table and goes to an early grave - all in the name of giving her man an extra bedtime thrill.

PS: There have been several stories recently about women who sought permanent hair removal by laser, only to have their skin irreversibly disfigured by over-powerful lasers.

PPS: Virtually all the comments have disagreed with me - the pressure for women to be physically perfect comes not from men but from their own self-criticism, from other women and from advertising that plays on women's insecurities. How wrong can one be!

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Feckless oldies

Several months ago I laid into a 26 year old called Sebastian Crankshaw who had written to the London Independent saying the older generation were responsible for a series of social reforms that had ruined the country.

They had done very nicely themselves from increased civil liberties, militant trade unions and tax breaks, but then they had brought in measures to roll back the welfare state and make life much harsher for the young 'uns.

Tuition fees were brought in. The value of pensions was slashed. State benefits were chopped. And employment rights were whittled away. So youngsters like him will never enjoy the same quality of life.

Well, it was quite a surprise when Sebastian himself stumbled on my blog a few days ago and introduced himself. And said he stood by his original argument.

He had been objecting to Janet Street-Porter* boasting that oldies like her were spending all their money, largely on luxuries, and leaving their children with no inheritance. Didn't that strike me as a selfish attitude, he asked.

Well, my answer is yes and no. No in that people should be entitled to spend their money as they wish (except for taxes of course). Yes in that any responsible parent whose children were hard-up would give them a financial boost.

But going back to the 'Oldies have wrecked our country' theme, I suppose he's right in that it's today's oldies who drove through all the regressive measures that are hampering those just starting out in the world.

It's also true though that many soon-to-be-oldies like myself objected strongly to all those measures at the time and did everything we could to stop them. But our voices were simply not influential enough.

And we're still objecting to similar backward steps being taken by the so-called Labour government, particularly its doubling of the 10p tax rate, which penalises over 5 million low-earners.

My heart bleeds for young people struggling to make a decent life for themselves in the current punitive political climate. I really wish they had an easier time of it.

* Prominent journalist and ex-editor of the Independent on Sunday

Friday 2 May 2008

Luck of the draw

Why is it some people have endless bad luck, hit by one disaster after another, while others are blessed by constant good fortune? Is it purely the whim of fate or is it their own attitude to life?

People who've done well for themselves are fond of saying it's due entirely to their own effort and single-mindedness, that anyone who wants to succeed can do so if their really want to. They're where they are because they deserve it.

But it simply isn't true. There are millions of people languishing in dead-end jobs and crime-ridden estates who're just as hard-working and intelligent but are perpetually held back by forces beyond their control.

We're more at the mercy of luck than we like to think. So much depends on our personality and our circumstances, what we were landed with when we came into this world and what happened to us as we grew up and came to grips with the adult world and its challenges.

If you have parents who're alcoholics or criminals or are mentally disturbed, who have no idea how to bring up children and treat you as a nuisance and a liability, what chance do you have of a fruitful life unless you're uncannily resilient and self-motivated? Not very much.

But if you have sober, responsible parents who love you and cherish you, who help you to develop your abilities and talents, who give you self-confidence and determination, your life is immeasurably different and you have a real prospect of achieving your hopes and dreams.

Even when we're grown up, so much hinges on random events we can't control. What our bosses are like, what area we live in, who we happen to meet, how healthy we are. Or whether we're struck by natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis. Our destiny can change overnight from prosperous to broke, from despair to joy.

But it's still often said that those who are poor deserve to be poor, that the wealthy and successful have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. It's a wicked lie that keeps countless people trapped in wretched and unfulfilling lives.