Wednesday 27 August 2008

Real men

What the hell is a real man? There are still plenty of men out there raging against feminists they claim have emasculated ‘real men’ and turned them into pathetic shadows of their former selves, trailing helplessly in the wake of powerful, castrating amazons.

Phew, what a negative, self-hating attitude they do have. And there was I thinking men’s lives have been hugely enriched by all these loud-mouth feminists urging us to express our emotions, be more sociable, listen more, show more sensitivity to others and be generally more civilised.

Journalist Sarah Churchwell wonders why these old-style men still see heterosexuality as ‘a zero-sum game, in which any gain made by women entails a loss to men (a loss always located around their testicles, for some reason), instead of just, well, happier women.’ Exactly.

When men talk about being real men, she says, what they really mean is upholding the traditional, unchallenged stereotype – ‘hirsute, drunken and boorish’ and ‘a selfish jerk’. And they’re not going to take any advice from women, no sirree.

Of course there’s no such thing as a ‘real’ man any more than there’s a ‘real’ woman or a ‘real’ teenager. Men are just what they turn out to be which surprisingly enough is pretty varied and unpindownable.

The lauding of ‘real men’ is invariably an attempt to bring back a male-dominated society in which men rule the roost and women do what they’re told, preferably in the kitchen, the bedroom and the cosmetic surgery clinic.

As regular readers know, I’m not even sure what masculinity means, if anything. I’ve never felt masculine in my life. I may look like a man and act like a man but that’s only what I’ve been taught to do. The real me is something much subtler and deeper.

The concept of a ‘real man’ needs to be dumped in the dustbin where it belongs, along with ‘the good old days’, ‘Britishness’, ‘the generation gap’ and all those other meaningless phrases people trot out to justify some reactionary, narrow-minded rant. I’ve never doubted my reality, thanks.

Monday 25 August 2008


Don't we all hate busybodies who poke their nose into things that don't concern them and aren't doing them any harm? Shouldn't they just mind their own business and butt out?

Well, yes and no. Busybodies who tell us we should get married, or have children, or earn more money, or get more exercise, are a pain in the arse. Who asked for their opinion?

But busybodies who're concerned about some blatant injustice and want to put it right are a different matter. Without them, all sorts of social scandals would never have been tackled.

It was busybodies who got steamed up about slavery, sweatshops, industrial accidents, child labour, slums and chain gangs, while others looked the other way.

If the do-gooders (as they're often snidely described) hadn't raised their voices in protest, these things would just have continued unabated. Many more people would have suffered.

And if it wasn't for today's busybodies (i.e. people with a conscience) complaining about domestic violence, people trafficking, mistreated immigrants or filthy hospitals, nothing much would be done about those either.

Sometimes poking your nose into unexpected places and passing judgment on what you find can be a good thing, even if those alighted on bristle and try to shut you up.

As long as it's something genuinely abhorrent and pernicious, why not? No, I don't want to be lectured on my dress sense or my dust bunnies. But yes, I do want to be told about sex slavery in Soho. There is a difference.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Mistrial by jury

Hugely-expensive court cases are collapsing in Britain because jurors are doing their own private research - including trawling the internet for information on the person accused. This is despite the judges warning them not to.

The person on trial, who has gone through months of anxiety and nail-biting waiting for the case to start, has to wait all over again after the judge is forced to end the case and order a retrial at a later date.

The case against an 18 year old man charged with murdering a 71 year old cabbie had to be abandoned at Newcastle. And in London the trial of a celebrity's nanny accused of child cruelty was also abruptly dropped.

In Newcastle the juror had actually gone to the death scene, taken photos and done research into his own theories about what happened on the night in question. And then discussed his ideas with other jurors.

I can understand a juror's temptation to make their own inquiries into things they're not clear about. I did jury service twice in London and there were often things that were puzzling or confusing, or even totally unbelievable.

But the whole point of a court case is that the jury makes a decision based on what they've been told in court - which hopefully is rigorously tested for bias or lies. If jurors start doing their own digging, they'll come across all sorts of dubious rumours and anecdotes which can seriously slant their decision.

If I was accused of something and I thought the jurors were busy sniffing around on their own I'd be horrified.

Unfortunately the internet makes it all too easy to find information about people at the click of a mouse. And nobody even knows you're doing it unless you're careless enough to tell someone.

In the end, you can only trust people to take the job of deciding a person's guilt or innocence seriously and not deliberately put a spanner in the works. Happily from my own experience, most jurors seem extremely conscientious about holding someone else's fate in their hands.

Monday 18 August 2008

But is it art?

Popped over to London to see my 86 year old mum's new sheltered flat (well, more like bedsit), which is very cosy and much less trouble than the four-bedroom house she had before.

We went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in Piccadilly which rather bemused my mum. The large number of abstract and semi-abstract paintings left her scratching her head, as she prefers the more realistic stuff - landscapes, portraits, still lives, that sort of thing.

Me: That's a brilliant painting (i.e. colourful abstract)
Mum: There's nothing to it. I could have done that.
Me: I doubt if you could.
Mum: And that one's got paint dripping off the bottom.
Me: Yes, that's the Jackson Pollock drip technique, mum.
Mum: I see (i.e. what the hell's he talking about?)
Me: And I love this one.
Mum: But what does it mean?
Me: Whatever you want it to mean, mum. That's the whole point of abstracts.
Mum: Well, I can't say I like it (i.e. it's a load of bollocks)

She was also fascinated by the little red Sold stickers.

Mum: Goodness, that one's got a lot of stickers.
Me: I think it's the painting we're meant to be looking at, not the stickers.
Mum: But I can't see why they all like it so much.
Me: Well, it must be to their taste, mum.

I hasten to add that my mum has many admirable qualities - including a fierce desire to hang on to her independence for as long as possible. But her appreciation of art is strictly limited and anything under the heading of "contemporary" or "modern" blows every fuse instantly.

I think she's missing out on a vast swathe of artistic culture. She probably thinks I'm a pretentious poseur taken in by talentless charlatans. I can't see a meeting of minds anytime soon. Or in the next decade, come to that.

I got back to Belfast to find our brand-new multi-million pound city centre underpass had been completely flooded by torrential rain and had to be closed and pumped out. An urgent inquiry is under way by red-faced politicians.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Home help

I was moved by the generosity of a 93 year old North Devon woman who has used the proceeds of her first published novel to buy a house where her friends can stay instead of ending up in lifeless nursing homes.

Lorna Page thinks most nursing homes are so awful (“You sit there all day staring out of the window”) she wants to provide something better that will be life-enhancing rather than stultifying.

“I started asking people if they wanted to move out of their care homes and live with me and I’ve had dozens of offers. They are queuing up” she said.

It’s equally impressive that she’s become a published author in her nineties. She didn’t even think the book (A Dangerous Weakness) was much good but her daughter-in-law persuaded her to send it to a publisher.

Personally I’d hate to end up in a nursing home. I’ve visited quite a few and they always seem desperately soul-destroying. The residents sit around like zombies looking bored to death and stupefied by a barrage of powerful drugs.

Last year Jenny and I visited an aunt who was in a Belfast nursing home temporarily while she recovered from an operation. The sight of the several dozen permanent residents slumped speechless in their armchairs doing absolutely nothing was so terrifying I couldn’t get out of the building fast enough.

I would rather be roasted slowly on hot coals than end up in a place like that. I hope to hell I just die quickly of a heart attack or a rapid cancer rather than spend years incarcerated in a nursing home not in full possession of my faculties but still dragging out my life.

Other people see it differently. They believe a lot of those apparently comatose nursing home residents are actually quite content, their minds meandering happily through old memories and experiences and conjuring up all manner of fabulous interior landscapes.

I wish I could believe that, but I think hopeless despair seems more likely. Count me out.

I'm pleased to read that Dr Paul Miller, the psychiatrist who Northern Ireland MP Iris Robinson claimed could "cure" homosexuals has severed his connection with her. He has also been suspended from his psychiatric job at the Mater Hospital in Belfast. Unfortunately he is being made the scapegoat for the controversy, while Iris still refuses to resign over her description of homosexuality as an "abomination" and a practice "as bad as child sex abuse".

Sunday 10 August 2008

Ideal workmates

My new workmates are a lovely bunch. They made me feel at home right away. They happily help me out when I'm floundering. And best of all, they haven't yet brought up any of those irritating topics I'm sick to death of talking about. Mainly because whatever I say no one ever understands. I simply don't compute. For example:

1. "Goodness, you're so thin. You need fattening up. Have a scone. In fact, have two scones."

2. "So why are you vegetarian? What's wrong with meat? Doesn't veggie food get boring?"

3. "Why do you have a blog, then? Isn't it just a substitute for a proper social life?"

4. "What, you're not interested in sport? No sport at all? Not even the Olympics? Not even Tom Daley?"

5. "You never wanted children then? Wouldn't you like to be a Grandad? I just adore my kids."

6. "So why did you come to Belfast? Do you like it here? Do you ever think of going back to London?"

7. "How come you quit journalism? But it's so glamorous, so exciting. Hobnobbing with all those celebs."

8. "What, you never watched The Apprentice? I couldn't drag myself away. I was really rooting for X." (actually one person did ask me this)

9. "You don't like getting drunk? But this is Ireland, mate. Everyone gets wrecked. How else can you enjoy life?"

10. "You're so bloody healthy, how do you do it? What's your secret? It must be genetic."

But they have talked to me about whether the office needs a trade union, the best holiday spots, what changes the new chief executive might make, and the war in Iraq. Now that's more like it. Things we can have a sensible conversation about. Things we might even agree on. Where my own position might actually be understood. It makes a nice change.

Am I really that perplexing or is it just that imagination is in short supply?

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Back in the kitchen?

A new study says people increasingly believe that family life suffers if a woman works full-time. Both men and women have changed their views on the issue. But why is the criticism aimed only at women and not at men?

Family life can suffer just as much if the man is away at work. But that possibility is seldom commented on. This carries more than a whiff of new attempts to force women out of the workplace and back into the kitchen (or nursery) where they belong.

The study says that in the mid-1990s 51 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women agreed a woman working full-time wouldn't damage family life. Now the figures are 42 per cent of men and 46 per cent of women.

Likewise only 54 per cent of women now think a job adds to their financial and social independence, as opposed to 65 per cent in 1991. But is that their genuine belief or are they coming under mounting pressure to stay at home and give more attention to little Emily or the dirty washing?

Considering workplaces make more and more provision for people's family lives, and that other employees are increasingly sympathetic to the problems of sick children, doing the school-run or other domestic emergencies, it seems odd that women increasingly think family life is being damaged. I can't help thinking there are other factors involved.

On the other hand, many women are genuinely disillusioned with the potential of the workplace for their personal fulfillment. Long hours, heavy workloads, monotonous routines and unpleasant colleagues are making them think twice about their commitment to paid work. If an opportunity arises to quit, they often grab it with relief.

It seems to me that what's really damaging family life is not women (or men) in full-time work but the rising cost of living - particularly housing costs - that means couples are both forced into the workplace to make ends meet. Family life is bound to suffer from this mutual inability both to look after children properly and to have enough health-preserving downtime.

Sorry, a rather skimpy reply to Quickroute's tag on the Film-Of-Your-Life meme - but food for thought anyway! Let's see now. To play the world-weary but mischievous Nick - who else but Bill Nighy? To be the simultaneously sexy and brainy Jenny - Jennifer Saunders (Janis Joplin would have been good too!). To be my ailing but plucky sister Heather - Meryl Streep. And to be my elderly but combative mum Audrey - it has to be Patricia Routledge (from Keeping Up Appearances). A blockbuster in the making, don't you think? I won't tag anyone else, but if you want to share your own cast list, feel free! Now who could play Baino, I wonder?

Ah, Baino has given us the answer - Dawn French. Nice one!

Sunday 3 August 2008

Young and fragile

It's disturbing that there are internet sites inciting young people to take their own lives and advising them on how to do it. Experts say they know of at least 30 suicides in which the internet has played a major role - not to mention attempted suicides.

But what should be done about these sites if anything? Should we respect free speech whatever the subject and whatever the possible results? Should such sites be closed down? Should they be forced to include links to organisations with a different point of view?

The British government are so concerned they are urging internet service providers to veto "harmful or distasteful" suicide sites, and to provide automatic links to bodies like the Samaritans or ChildLine giving advice on depression and emotional problems.

They're also looking at the existing laws to see if they're strong enough or if they need to be updated.

It's a thorny issue. Once you start interfering in the content of websites and saying what is or isn't acceptable, where do you stop? Even if some young people are impressionable or emotionally fragile, it is right to block off anything that might influence them for the worse and say they're not even allowed to see it?

Just about any website can have a bad influence on people if they are susceptible and interpret what it says in an unintended way. If only a very small number of people might be vulnerable, is it justified to take such draconian action? And if someone wants to commit suicide, shouldn't they have the right to do that anyway?

But I'm not happy with this classic liberal free-speech argument, the idea that anything goes and it's up to the individual to take responsibility for their feelings and actions. A caring society has to protect people at risk and ensure their safety and well-being, rather than leaving them to their fate.

There are already thousands of measures protecting young people from harm and exploitation, and a good job too. I think the government is right to urge safeguards and precautions.

We shouldn't freely allow people to encourage those in emotional difficulties to take an extreme solution, if there are other courses of action that might enable them to sort out those problems and turn their life around.

Iris rejected

Yesterday saw the Belfast Gay Pride Parade 2008 in the city centre. Loads of gorgeous transvestites and exuberant gay couples stunning the shoppers and tourists. Participants again attacked Northern Ireland Assembly member Iris Robinson for saying homosexuality was an abomination and that therapy could turn gays into healthy heterosexuals. She is still unrepentant and refuses to resign.