Monday 30 June 2008

No regrets

Some people are weighed down with regrets about their life. They shouldn't have done this or that, they should have had a different job, a different man, a different personality.

But I can honestly say I've never regretted anything in my life. It's taken strange twists and turns, some fortunate and some less fortunate, some happy and some miserable, but all in all my life has turned out well and I can't recall anything so disastrous I would want to rewrite it.

It must be heartbreaking to have serious regrets, to believe that some fatal decision you made decades ago has ruined your life, and to wish fervently that you could go back and do something quite different.

It amuses me sometimes to imagine parallel scenarios, how my life might have turned out if I'd made other choices or been another sort of person. Suppose I'd been a woman, or been more self-confident or gregarious or virile or gifted.

Yes, my life would have been rearranged. But I'm not convinced it would have been more rewarding or more enjoyable. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

Maybe I'm just very lucky. I've never known anything so catastrophic that I've desperately wanted to undo it. I've never caused anyone's death. I've never lost a child. I've never been tortured or raped. Whatever's happened to me has always been reversible or repairable.

Like anyone else, I've had plenty of negative experiences. I've been jilted, betrayed, ostracised, humiliated. But I've always bounced back, always learnt something, always moved forward to new joys and new achievements. So what's to regret?

Wednesday 25 June 2008

It's only a kiss

No apologies for returning to a gay theme, since this is just as extraordinary as the Iris Robinson outburst. An ad for mayonnaise has been withdrawn because it shows two men kissing. Shock horror outrage!!

The food company Heinz made an ad in which a man is leaving the house with a sandwich, saying goodbye not to the usual devoted wife but to a second man in a chef's hat and apron.

The two men kiss and the "chef" says "Love you. Come straight home from work, sweet cheeks."

After this sinful scene brought over 200 complaints, in what some say was an organised campaign, Heinz pulled the ad saying it had "failed in its intent to amuse" and apologising if they had offended anyone.

I'm glad to know the gay rights group Stonewall has responded to this cowardly ban by urging the public to stop buying Heinz products.

The group said "We're shocked that an innocuous ad should have been withdrawn in this way." They have had a flood of phone calls from deeply upset supporters.

It's ridiculous that in 2008 a company should wilt in panic and give way to a few hysterical loudmouths who still think same-sex kissing is scandalous and outrageous.

I wouldn't mind betting that these homophobic hotheads stay completely silent about anything genuinely offensive like mass rape by soldiers or the escalating reign of terror in Zimbabwe.

PS: It struck me that the basic message here - gay kisses bad, mayonnaise good - is upside down. The sane equation surely is gay kisses (happiness-promoting) good, mayonnaise (up to 85% fat) bad.

Saturday 21 June 2008

Rape as weapon

Mass rape as a deliberate tactic of war is something not often spoken about. But it happens in many countries and wrecks the lives of many thousands of women - and girls.

Military commanders know systematic rape can be more intimidating and destructive than conventional weapons. It terrorises whole communities, wiping out resistance and support for combatants.

It also attracts less attention because there is no pile of bodies and the victims are often too ashamed to say anything about it.

Up till now world leaders have done disgracefully little about it, treating it simply as a side-effect of war, as petty crime, or as typical male behaviour they can't control.

But the United Nations Security Council has now voted unanimously to classify rape as a weapon of war. And it is setting up an inquiry into how widespread it is and how to tackle it.

Attempts are being made to get the US Senate to take the issue seriously too. It needs to be recognised universally as a war crime and dealt with accordingly.

Military mass rape is common in African countries but has also occurred in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The rape capital of the world is said to be eastern Congo, where in some areas three quarters of women have been raped.

It can do far more damage than weapons, producing rejected children, widespread disease, and individual and communal trauma. And the assailants avoid the potential death and injury of traditional warfare.

The victims are not even combatants but innocent civilians who may want nothing to do with local conflicts. They are simply pawns in a battle for power.

Now that world leaders are recognising this routine brutality, there is hope it can be reduced and with it the appalling human toll.

Thanks to Nicole for flagging this up on her own blog.

Photo: Anti-rape protest in Liberia, West Africa. The message reads: "Do not give in to fear, sadness and danger. Do not give up. Report violence cases"


I start a new job on Tuesday - at another charity which I'd better not identify. So posting and commenting may be a bit erratic until I've got the new routine sorted out. But I'll be visiting you all just as often as I can!

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Living with danger

I'm always humbled by people whose partners have incredibly risky jobs or hobbies but somehow have the resilience to accept the risk without being permanently worried stiff about them.

If your loved one is a police officer, firefighter, racing driver or rock-climber, you can never be sure they're going to return home in one piece - or even alive.

You must be often wondering how you would cope if you had that awful knock on the door to bring you the worst possible news. Or do you eventually get quite philosophical about it and just think "If it happens, it happens"?

Some people must face the prospect of their new love being constantly in danger and decide they simply can't face it, they'll settle for someone whose only occupational risk is a scalding from the coffee machine.

Two Northern Ireland motorcycling champions, brothers Joey and Robert Dunlop, were both killed while racing, and their grieving relatives have had to accept that they died doing something they loved and just wouldn't have been so happy doing something else.

Some people argue that it's irresponsible to choose such dangerous activities when you have a family who love you and depend on you and will be devastated if you come to harm. But if that's what you enjoy, if you're good at it, if it enriches your life, should you back off solely to be risk-free? And end up a bored, frustrated pen-pusher?

If you're the one at home though, it must be quite a relief every time your partner rings to say "I'm on my way now, sweetheart. How have the kids been today?" And for a few blissful hours, you can relax and stop worrying.

Monday 16 June 2008

Political maverick

As you know, I'm pretty cynical about politicians, so I'm amazed and impressed that a leading English politician is taking a stand of high principle on the erosion of civil liberties.

After the Labour government won (just!) agreement to a possible detention period of 42 days for suspected terrorists, Conservative MP David Davis said he would resign and fight a by-election* on the issue.

Because he believes so strongly that the 42 days provision is draconian, and because he thinks the government is steadily undermining civil liberties in one area after another, he is going to ask the voters to re-endorse him and his stand for basic freedoms.

Naturally the Labour Party have poured scorn on him. So have the Conservatives. But the general public are right behind him, by a big majority.

He has been scathing not only about the detention increase, but the huge number of CCTV cameras, the new ID card project, restrictions on public protests, attempts to reduce jury trials and mislaid confidential personal data.

He will no doubt raise all these issues at length during his by-election campaign.

When so many politicians toe the line and do what they're told to do, usually lying outrageously in the process, it's refreshing when one of them sticks his neck out to emphasise his deeply-held convictions.

I don't often support a Tory, but his tactic is inspired.

PS: An example of the misuse of terrorist laws. Three pensioners joining a demonstration at Heathrow Airport on May 31 were questioned and escorted from the airport by police for wearing T-shirts that read "Stop Airport Expansion". Police took their names, addresses and descriptions and followed them out, warning they would be arrested if they returned within 24 hours.

* When a seat becomes vacant through death or resignation, there is a by-election to elect a new MP.

Jenny has a very different opinion on David Davis. She believes his typically Tory views on other subjects make him unworthy of support.

Friday 13 June 2008

I see no sickness

We all know men have shorter lifespans than women. But why? One reason is that men put off going to the doctor if they have an unusual physical symptom.

They often don't like to admit to weakness, or to needing help, so they ignore the symptom and hope it'll go away. A bit of blood? A strange lump? Probably nothing to worry about.

Frequently it's a woman who pesters the man to seek medical advice and tells him he should take his health seriously.

Dr Marianne Legato, author of "Why Men Die First", says men are told from an early age not to make a fuss but just "suck it up" and get on with life.

Her father died of cancer, partly because he ignored blood-tinged urine for two years before asking questions. Her son is now seriously ill, having delayed getting medical help.

Men are more prone to just about every major, life-threatening illness than women. So they should be more concerned about their health, not less.

My father had a stroke at 55, because he was unaware he had soaring blood pressure and had never thought of getting it checked. Many men still have no idea their blood pressure is way too high.

If I had a serious-looking symptom like blood in my pee or crippling headaches, I would be off to see Dr Julie like a shot. I certainly wouldn't assume it would magically go away and take no notice of it.

Why do men still think it's embarrassing to ask for help? Why do they risk not only dying but leaving grief-stricken partners and children? It's not just stubborn but irresponsible. Wise up, guys, and stop being a slave to masculine "toughness".

Monday 9 June 2008

Gay cure

You'd think people would have got the message by now that homosexuality is not a disease to be cured but a sexual preference to be enjoyed.

But Northern Ireland Assembly member Iris Robinson* begs to differ. She thinks that with professional help gays can be "turned around" and steered away from "what they are engaged in".

She claims to know a number of people who have changed course and become heterosexuals.

Well, that would be news to many gays who know their preference is just what they are and isn't something that can be changed at will like a set of clothes.

If someone has "become" heterosexual the chances are that's what they were all along and they weren't gay in the first place.

But Mrs Robinson holds stubbornly to the idea that homosexuals have somehow drifted into a thoroughly unsatisfying activity and just need to be shown the error of their ways. With the help of the Good Lord of course.

Her attitude was discredited sometime in the 1950s when gays began to resist the conventional psychiatric dogma that homosexuality was a medical disorder and a mental illness.

Clearly the cultural change of heart has passed Iris by. She only listens to a higher, other-worldly source she regards as more reliable.

David McCartney from Northern Ireland's Rainbow Project says there is no evidence to support gays being "converted" and he was seeking a meeting with Mrs Robinson.

I somehow don't think he'll change her mind. Her opinions are not affected by such mundane considerations as everyday reality.

* Wife of Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson. Represents Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.

Responses so far

Her remarks have been referred to the police as incitement to hatred by Andrew Muir, gay activist and member of the Alliance Party, and John O'Doherty of the South Belfast District Policing Partnership. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has confirmed it is launching an investigation.

On Tuesday evening Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister, said her remarks were "harmful and distressing" to gay people and she should reflect on the impact her comments were having on the gay community.

The Northern Ireland Assembly's Commissioner for Standards has been urged to investigate her comments.

Stephen Scott, who was recently attacked by three gay-bashers, has called her remarks disgusting and
said she should resign.

Robert Toner, a gay Belfast man, is planning legal action against Mrs Robinson under the Public Order Act and has asked the Equality Commission to support him.

The online petition to the British Prime Minister protesting at her anti-gay remarks has now closed with 15,670 signatures (Aug 10).

See also: Jenny's take on the Mrs Robinson affair

Thursday 5 June 2008

Drink problem

Regular readers will know I'm baffled by people who habitually drink huge quantities of alcohol and habitually get appalling hangovers. Where's the attraction, I ask myself. Why is ten pints better than half a pint?

Keen drinkers on the other hand are equally baffled by me. Why is Nick such an abstemious tight-arse? Doesn't he know how to let his hair down and enjoy himself? Doesn't he want to lose his inhibitions and anxieties for a while?

I don't think the two factions will ever understand each other. Especially here in Ireland, where heavy drinking is regarded as absolutely normal and (13%) proof you're a paid-up member of the human race.

Alcohol comes to mind as I watch with interest England's latest attempts to curb the huge social, medical and financial costs of binge-drinking.

Boris Johnson, the new Mayor of London, has banned alcohol on the entire London Transport network. The British government has announced that young children found drunk by police will be ordered into rehab and teenagers frequently caught with alcohol will be given ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) imposing curfews and alcohol bans. Parents may be sent on parenting courses and may be prosecuted if their children are still misbehaving.

Well, these measures are a well-meaning response to an increasingly ugly problem, but they don't tackle the root cause of alcohol mayhem. Which is the increasing belief that a night out can't be properly enjoyed without a tsunami of alcohol, plenty of broken glass, pools of vomit and a mangled brain.

Somebody explain to me why a few like-minded people with sharp brains, a crazy sense of humour and some juicy gossip aren't more than enough for an entertaining evening, with or without fermented grapes.

Tuesday 3 June 2008


Friendship and trust are so closely linked. If you find it hard to trust people, it's going to be hard to make friends.

You have to believe the other person's basically good-natured and caring, that they'll treat you decently and won't hurt you or betray you. If you've had a lot of bad experiences with people and that confidence has been undermined, making friends becomes harder.

My trust in people was badly damaged as a child. I had a belligerent, cantankerous father who constantly criticised me and seldom encouraged me. Later I was sent to a boarding school where I was regularly bullied and made to feel I didn't fit in and was somehow odd.

By my late teens I had lost much of my trust in people and I no longer assumed they would treat me well. They had to do a lot to convince me they were well-meaning and not going to belittle me or look down on me. The slightest sign of condescension and I would withdraw. Opening up and being myself no longer came naturally.

You might think such distrust would gradually disappear, that I would meet people who would restore my trust and I could start to make normal friendships like anyone else. But that never really happened and my distrust stubbornly lingered. Occasionally I meet people so transparently warm-hearted my suspicions melt for a while, but sooner or later they return.

The fact is I've never fully revealed myself to anyone except Jenny. Large parts of me are forever hidden, like the dark side of the moon. And it's too late now to expect any radical change.

Unfortunately there are plenty of parents and schools out there still damaging children's sense of trust without realising the long-term consequences - possibly an entire lifetime of struggling to make the sort of relationships that luckier people just take for granted. We need to take the emotional well-being of children a lot more seriously.