Wednesday 30 July 2008

Home truths

I'm always curious about other people's homes - how they furnish them, what they keep in them, what gadgets they have, how spartan or cluttered they are. I love it when I'm invited into a home I've never seen before. And I'm always peeping into people's windows as I walk along the street.

The most spartan house I ever saw belonged to a friend's aunt in Liverpool. Aunt Dolly was deeply religious and refused to own anything that wasn't strictly essential. Every room was totally basic - just tables, chairs, beds and cupboards. There were no carpets, no ornaments, no pictures, no books. It would have given me the creeps if it wasn't a rather refreshing contrast to the mountainous clutter of my parents' house.

I've seen plenty of cluttered homes, with so many bits and pieces stacked everywhere I have to step carefully through the remaining spaces to avoid toppling huge piles of books, crushing the kids' toys or stepping on a pot plant. The occupants always apologise for the mess and vow to tidy up but the next visit usually reveals even more jumble and disorder.

There are homes where just about everything is faulty and needs attention but the faults are seen as a charming part of the domestic ambience. Ah yes, that door always sticks. Oh yes, that radiator has an awful rattle. And don't worry about the leak, I'll just put a bucket under it.

Some houses exude sex. The main bedroom is full of nude pictures, the bed coverings are silky and sensuous, and a titillating erotic memoir lies on the bedside table. No doubt there are drawers full of sexy underwear and vibrators but I wouldn't be that nosy.

Householders can be so obsessively houseproud you're nervous of touching anything at all in case you leave a fingerprint or a dirty mark or any trace whatever of human contact. Every pristine object looks as if it were bought yesterday and I feel like I'm in a museum. I keep expecting a security alarm to go off or a po-faced attendant to say I'm too close to something.

People's houses are full of fascinating insights into their private lives. And sometimes repulsive ones. I'll never forget the elderly London woman who kept hundreds of cats in her four-bedroom house - the overpowering stink had to be smelt to be believed. She was probably so used to it she never even noticed.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Tipping point

I've known for some time that restaurant tips added to the bill may never reach the waiter or waitress, so nowadays I either leave the tip on the table or give it to the server personally. I want my money to go to the underpaid toilers and not a well-heeled boss.

Even if the tips don't go to the boss they're increasingly treated as part of the staff salaries, and the basic untipped wage is reduced accordingly. Sometimes they're deliberately withheld as compensation for breakages or customers who leave without paying.

So I'm pleased to see the campaign by the London Independent for decent basic salaries for waiting staff and an end to the practice of tips being secretly filched by the restaurant. And I'm glad to see trade unions lining up in support.

It's about time these undercover fiddles were given more publicity and time the thousands of diners still blissfully unaware of where their tips are really going learnt the unpleasant truth.

Naturally the restaurant staff affected are reluctant to say anything for fear they'll be penalised or sacked by their employers, so often all they can do is stand by and watch diners and themselves being conned.

Not only do I always do my best to get a tip to the server, I invariably give one unless the service was atrocious. I think it's mean to find petty excuses for not giving a tip, like a dirty knife or insufficient smiling or bland coffee.

It's not necessarily the server's fault and after all, none of us are perfect. Would we accept a cut in our own wages because we didn't smile enough or we made a typo in a letter? I think not. Waiting staff are employees the same as us and deserve similar treatment.

So let's hear it for those restaurant staff like Manuel and let's stop being so sanctimonious over the crumpled napkin or the wobbly table.

PS: When Jenny and I were in the States, we always made sure to tip the going rate of 20 per cent, unlike other stingy Brits.

PPS: British government ministers have now said they will outlaw the use of tips or service charges to top up low basic wages. They made a formal pledge on the 10th anniversary of the Minimum Wage Act (July 31).

Thursday 24 July 2008

Creaking city

Although New York thinks of itself as a five-star city with a reputation for high-class services and superb hospitality, I beg to differ. Just about everything Jenny and I did ran into some unexpected glitch.

* At the Whitney Museum we went through a door marked Exit which set off an ear-splitting security alarm. There was no warning the door was alarmed.

* There was a one-hour queue in scorching heat for the Ellis Island ferry, as it goes via the Statue of Liberty. They don't have a ferry for each island.

* My plane from New York to Chicago touched down 3¼ hours late. This was put down to thunderstorms and air traffic control problems.

* The water only ran hot in our hotel room after 8 am. Before that it was cold. According to the hotel, we weren't running the taps for long enough.

* One pizzeria menu included a personal pie, a regular pie and a large pie. When we asked the waitress what sizes these were, she didn't know and recommended slices instead. It's only my second day, she pleaded.

* Virtually all the museums and galleries were closed on Monday, as opposed to Chicago where most of them opened on Monday.

* The signage to tourist venues was so poor we were forever asking people for directions. Even the Ground Zero Visitors Centre was hard to find.

* The key cards for our hotel room kept failing and we were constantly getting them reprogrammed. The hotel blamed over-sensitive locks and cards.

I could go on, but I think I've made the point. So many things weren't properly thought through, had technical faults, or were badly planned. It seems to me that New Yorkers are too complacent (or easy-going) about their malfunctioning city, and ought to be a lot more assertive and demanding.

Pretending everything is fine and making out we're just nit-picking tourists is an odd attitude to say the least. My answer is, Long Live Chicago!

Photo: The Whitney Museum of American Art

Monday 21 July 2008

New York

So here we are in New York, which Jenny and I haven't seen for 12 years but which seems much the same. Skyscrapers hustle and bustle, tiny hotel rooms, pizza, art galore, baseball, skinny women in weeny shorts, overpaid city slickers and underpaid grafters.

The major change is of course the huge vacant lot where the World Trade Center used to be - and whose roof we stood on the last time we visited. Construction of the new buildings is now well under way.

Like Chicago, people from all over the world are mingling and working together. We went to the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island to learn how immigrants once applied for citizenship, the restrictions and prejudice they faced, and how they got by in this unfamiliar country. There are many sad and tragic stories. Some didn't even survive the dreadful conditions on the overcrowded boats.

To complement that, we revisited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which shows how typical families lived in an Orchard Street tenement at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. They had to contend with grasping landlords, contaminated food, lethal infections and uncleared refuse.

Naturally we looked in at the revamped Museum of Modern Art and the brilliant Dali exhibition, complete with some of his movies. We also had a peek at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Pawel Althamer's strange human figures.

But my conclusion after several days here - I prefer Chicago. It seems to be going places while New York is standing still or even going backwards. The gap between rich and poor is very visible, with ragged hobos outside opulent office blocks. Air pollution is severe as is traffic congestion. The sewers always overflow after heavy rain. It feels like a city struggling to cope with limited resources. Still a Big Apple, but a Bruised one.

Photo: Ellis Island, just south of Manhattan, where more than 12 million immigrants entered the USA.

Tuesday 15 July 2008


Okay, secrecy over, I'm actually in Chicago, the city of skyscrapers and the El (the elevated subway tracks). And of course diversity.

The people of Chicago originate from all over the world. They've been coming here from other countries literally for centuries, since Chicago has always been one of the most prosperous American cities.

It feels great to wander the (very hot) streets with such a global pot-pourri, all energetically making their way in this bustling city. Every other person seems to be speaking Spanish, and a hundred cultures make themselves felt.

Most of the time this eclectic mix of people have co-existed quite harmoniously. There have been occasional flare-ups, like the burning and looting of white-owned businesses by angry blacks after Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. But in general there's a feeling of acceptance, goodwill and openness.

Chicago is also an inventive city. It created zippers, mail-order, TV remote-control, the birth-control pill, nuclear fission, the Ferris Wheel, and of course bigger and better skyscrapers.

It's always attracted people with unconventional minds who could see better ways of doing things and were given the chance to try them out.

Though some things seem to have escaped their attention. The subway system is still run-down and exasperatingly slow. It took me a good hour to get from O'Hare Airport to the city centre, a journey of about 12 miles. And naturally I had to contend with the customary lunatic screaming inanely about black bitches.

But one thing they do well is local history. The Chicago History Museum in Lincoln Park is a mine of information on how the city began, how it developed, the disasters it had to cope with (like the Great Fire of 1871 that destroyed 17000 buildings), and how it has constantly reinvented itself.

Its citizens certainly seem proud of their adventurous and exuberant city.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Sex trap

Can you imagine what it's like to be lured to Britain with the promise of a lucrative job, only to find yourself in thrall to a pimp who forces you to have sex with 15 men a day and pays you nothing at all?

And if you even think of running away, he'll threaten to kill your family, beat you and keep you permanently locked up?

Police say the number of women trapped like this is nearly five times more than previously thought - anything between six and eighteen thousand.

They could be working next door to you in an ordinary suburban house that's been taken over by gangsters and filled with coerced women.

While they're paid nothing for their humiliating labours, their owners bank colossal sums from what is now one of the highest-earning crime rackets in the world.

Operation Pentameter 2, run by police forces across the UK, has just finished its biggest ever crackdown, releasing 154 women and 13 girls, arresting 528 suspected traffickers and closing 822 brothels and other premises.

Most of the women are foreign but British women are also being lured away from their home towns and put to work hundreds of miles away.

It seems there's an endless supply of men keen to prove their masculinity by having sex with a complete stranger in the most squalid conditions, no doubt well aware of the misery behind the scenes but only interested in satisfying their physical cravings.

And unfortunately there's also an endless supply of gullible women falling for enticing job offers that turn into something hideously different from what they were promised.

Jenny and I have been invited to Veronica Trinket's sumptuous New York hideaway in the Hamptons. If the weather's good, we'll be on the yacht. If not, we'll be pampering ourselves in her private beauty salon. See you all soon. Behave yourselves while we're away. I'll be keeping an eye on you via Veronica's laptop!

Sunday 6 July 2008

Butt in or butt out?

After several horrific fatal stabbings in London, people are asking themselves what they would do if they saw something dreadful happening as they walked down the street.

What would I do? If I saw a man attacking a woman or threatening someone with a knife, if I saw a woman wrecking her ex's car or hitting her child, would I intervene or would I hurry past telling myself it was dangerous to interfere?

I've often seen mildly disturbing scenes like a man and woman screaming at each other or a woman swearing at her little boy, but I've never seen anything so violent or sickening that I've thought seriously of trying to stop it and protect the victim.

It's hard to predict what I would do if I suddenly found myself in that situation. I like to think I would do the altruistic thing and intervene but I might simply be too scared to act. Especially if the attacker looked really vicious or was brandishing a weapon.

I do remember though an occasion many years ago when Jenny and I were in a London supermarket and saw the manager knock to the ground a frail elderly man who was walking out with a stolen packet of cheese.

We were so disgusted we complained heatedly to the cashier and abandoned the basket of groceries we had been about to buy. Afterwards we both felt very public-spirited and glad we had made our anger known.

But when I hear about people who've tried to stop some act of violence, and ended up seriously injured or even dead, it does make me think twice about being a Good Samaritan. When it came to it, would I just cut and run?

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Fatal vanity

The tragic consequences of unnecessary plastic surgery have been shown yet again with the death of a 33 year old Dublin man who was afraid his wife would leave him for a better-looking man.

After extensive cosmetic surgery in Colombia, which his 23 year old wife begged him not to have, he died of a heart attack. She said she had lost “the most beautiful thing” in her life, and had been left to look after a new baby.

But Pierre Lawlor was convinced he was "fat and ugly and had big ears" and was terrified his young Venezuelan wife Andrea would leave him for one of his friends. So he arranged for liposuction plus work on his eyes, cheekbones, nose and neck.

The surgery proved disastrous and the Dublin coroner concluded that the physical strain of the lengthy procedures had led to a cardiac arrest.

Andrea had told him he was "foolish" to get the surgery. "I didn't think he needed it," she said. "He was paranoid all the time about his looks and getting old and what people would think when they see us together."

The huge risks of plastic surgery, even for fit and healthy people, are constantly trivialised but are very real. It’s crazy to embark on it if it’s purely for reasons of vanity and insecurity.

Even if he thought he was not too attractive and was maybe disappointing his wife, he should have accepted the risk of her going off with someone else rather than having himself ‘improved’. Who knows, she might not have liked the so-called ‘improvements’ anyway. We all know how false and unnatural such surgery can make people look.

It seems he had the same problem of distorted body image that many women have. He was convinced he was ugly even though his wife denied it, and he just refused to listen to her. What he really needed wasn’t surgery but some serious counselling on his abnormal view of himself.