Wednesday 29 October 2008

Mountain rescue

There's fierce controversy over the recent Mountain Marathon in the Lake District, which turned into near-lethal chaos after flash flooding and vicious gales.

More than 1700 of the 2500 participants were stranded by the atrocious weather conditions, and many of them had to be rescued in a massive operation by the police, mountain rescue and the RAF. Fourteen had to be hospitalised with head injuries, hypothermia and broken legs.

Now many people are saying the event should never have gone ahead given the weather forecast, although the organisers say there was no serious danger as all the participants were extremely experienced and had all the appropriate equipment.

That's as may be, but nevertheless the emergency services had their work cut out to rescue those who got into difficulties, and the tens of thousands of pounds spent on the rescue operation could have been put to better use.

If the organisers didn't make any advance payment for possible rescue services (and I don't know if they did), they should certainly be making a contribution now. If they take the risk of hazardous weather, then they should pick up some of the bill when it all goes horribly wrong.

At least they were responsible enough to vet all the participants for their ability to cope with appalling weather. If they had allowed any Tom, Dick and Harriet to pitch in, the consequences don't bear thinking about.

Though as fell-runner Richard Askwith says, the whole point of events like this is that the organisers don't take all the responsibility, that it's up to individuals to be responsible for themselves and assess whether or not they're up to the challenge.

But what if they're not?

Sienna Miller has launched a legal action for harassment against paparazzi photographers who have made her life "intolerable", subjecting her to physical and verbal abuse, dangerous car chases and invasions of privacy. I hope she wins. It's about time these predatory vultures who leech off the famous were put in their place.

Monday 27 October 2008

Who's for the chop?

There's serious concern that the rising unemployment caused by the banking meltdown will mean further discrimination against groups of people already treated badly by employers.

Despite recent British anti-ageism laws, it's feared that firms cutting jobs will look first at the oldies and start muttering about "early retirement". They might find ways of not hiring older people and favouring younger applicants "with growing families and big mortgages".

Women, already getting a raw deal from many employers, may be painted even more as liabilities, about to get pregnant and demand maternity leave, wanting flexible hours to fit in with their children's needs, and not tough enough at the negotiating table. They'll be edged out in favour of "more reliable" males.

Likewise the disabled may be seen as "not up to the job" and "not productive enough" while the able-bodied are given priority.

Bosses who're naturally averse to certain types of employee will use the pretext of disastrous trading conditions and looming insolvency to say that while they reluctantly conform to equality laws when the economy's booming, in the midst of a recession they have to take tough decisions and not take on the "burden" of "less capable" staff. You can easily predict all the spurious excuses and red herrings they'll come up with.

Which is why it's so vital for the government to help businesses to cut their costs in ways that don't involve dumping so-called "underperforming" workers. If they could cut overheads like rent, taxes and utility bills, which are rising dramatically, then a lot of sackings could be avoided.

But Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, has already suggested a cutback in flexible working (which is particularly helpful to women) in preference to other measures. Women have reacted furiously to his suggestion.

So if you're old, or female, or disabled (or black), don't be too optimistic as the recession starts to bite.

Friday 24 October 2008

Off sick

Some moralistic twat at The Times has launched a scathing attack on 'bogus' sick leave, saying that too many employees are pulling a fast one at other people's expense.

These attacks are made regularly, usually in the right-wing, "workers are all lazy gits" section of the media. But few people put the case for the so-called "sickie-pulling" workers who're so routinely scapegoated.

The Times writer moans that civil servants rack up an average of 11.7 sick days a year while private sector workers only average 7.2. Ergo, goes the hare-brained conclusion, the former are all chronic idlers who're taking the piss.

Well, firstly, who says all these workers are not genuinely sick? Maybe there's something about public sector work that makes you less healthy? Mind-numbing paperwork perhaps, or constant complaints from the public? The wear and tear of the emergency services, or lifting heavy patients in the NHS? It's not always the cushy number others fondly imagine.

Secondly, suppose private sector workers get ill just as often but may feel forced to go to work? If they don't get sick pay, or they're paid daily, or other people are after their job, or there's a vital contract they have to clinch, or it's a family business that relies on their being there, then they may drag themselves in even if they're at death's door for fear of the consequences if they don't.

And thirdly, even if people are throwing a sickie (and haven't we all?), there may be good reasons for such apparent sloth. If your working conditions are poor, if you're overworked or bullied or bored witless or stuck in a basement, then of course there are days when you think "I just can't face going in today, it's doing my frigging head in."

Or maybe you need time to sort out an urgent domestic crisis but you know your boss won't give you the time off. So you cough and sneeze into the phone, make your excuses, and stay at home.

I sympathise totally. Why shouldn't you protect your wellbeing against indifferent bosses? If employers are concerned about sky-high sick leave, perhaps they should take a good look at the working conditions and whether people are actually enjoying their jobs.

I worked at a charity for 5½ years without taking a single day's sick leave. The reason? I thoroughly enjoyed what I did, I had a great bunch of workmates, and the conditions were excellent. Even if I had a nasty cold, I still wanted to go to work and catch up with the gossip.

The resident ignoramus at The Times should have a proper look at the real-life workplace before pontificating so glibly from a well-padded executive swivel-chair.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Shrink rap

It's time for therapy. Time to get professional help to sort out the tangled morass that is Nick's brain before it's too late. If it wasn't too late several years ago....

So here I am in the luxurious Malone* consulting rooms of Dr Melissa F, the doyenne of Belfast shrinks, the saviour of a thousand tortured souls, and the bestselling author of "Freeing the Self".

Dr Melissa: So why are you seeking therapy?

Nick: Well, among other things, I'm accused of being introverted, effeminate, anxious, sex-obsessed, cynical, unadventurous and defensive. Oh, and afraid of the dark. I need to get rid of all these undesirable, anti-social traits and become a mature, generous human being capable of infinite love and compassion.

Dr M: I'm sorry, I can't help you. You're obviously a hopeless case. The rot is too far advanced. You just have to resign yourself to a shrunken and shrivelled existence.

Nick: But I thought you could cure me. I thought you could cleanse my soul. You're the last chance I've got. Don't tell me there's nothing you can do.

Dr M: There's nothing I can do.

Nick: But don't you therapists like a challenge? A totally addled mind you can really get your teeth into? A seething vortex of neuroses, phobias and obsessions?

Dr M: Oh no, I'm all for the easy life. A straightforward nail-biter, a simple shopaholic.

Nick: I could get you some tickets for the Bruce Springsteen gig.

Dr M: On second thoughts, I'm getting interested. Maybe we can crack this thing. Which seats?

Nick: Front row.

Dr M: Fabulous. Same time next week then?

Nick: Absolutely. I'm saved, I'm saved!

Dr M: And I'm a banana.

I skipped down her front steps, happy as a lark. Yes, there's light at the end of the tunnel! Dr Melissa will purge the demons! My psyche will be born anew! Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds! But can I stop waxing my bikini line?

* Malone: the most prestigious and expensive part of Belfast. Home of lawyers, chief executives, more lawyers etc.

PS: My deadpan humour is clearly too convincing. Any resemblance between this post and tangible reality is entirely coincidental.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Bedtime stories

The story of the 105 year old virgin got me thinking. Just how believable are surveys on sex when we have no way of checking people's unlikely replies?

The newspapers are full of breathless headlines about how often, or how little, we're getting our end away. Or how many affairs we've had or which unconventional form of sex. But is it really true?

People are probably more likely to lie about sex than just about anything else. Of course we all want others to think we're having an ecstatic time in bed, that our partners are irresistible sex bombshells, that we can't get enough of it. Who wants to be thought of as a frustrated loner resorting to guilty fumblings in a shabby bedsit?

So when a survey says that 37 year old Jack is at it every night, has had 91 lovers and his wife is insatiable, is it any more credible than Pinnochio giving birth to triplets? Where's the evidence? Especially if he's anonymous and there's nobody out there to say "Him? Are you joking? The only thing that gets him going is the football results."

Survey after survey claims men have had a lot more affairs than women. So exactly who are they having the surplus affairs with? The dogs? A series of Romanian women? Amnesiacs? Other men?

And with sexual frequency, we're obviously relying more on personal memory and estimation than a tangible record of what happened when. How many times in the last month? Ooer, let me think. Choose a number, any number, then double it....

But there again, how many people take any notice of sex surveys, whether bogus or genuine? Sex is such a personal business and preferences so unique, why should we care what other people do? Somehow I think knowing your own loved one's hot spots is more useful than knowing the climax rate in Huddersfield.

Nicole has a really perceptive and thought-provoking post about lying and deception. Go have a look.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Blood disorder

Over the years I've given 29 blood donations, pleased that in this simple way I could help save a few lives. Now it turns out I may have been killing people.

New research shows that blood transfusions actually increase the risk of a patient dying or having a post-operative illness. Many surgeons are now reluctant to given any blood transfusions unless it's an emergency.

The reason for the increased risk, it seems, is toxic chemicals produced in stored blood when red blood cells die.

When these chemicals are produced in the human body, the body can process or excrete them so they're harmless. But in stored blood, the toxins simply accumulate and endanger whoever gets the blood.

They can cause widespread inflammation, damage vital organs, and trigger heart attacks and strokes.

Good grief! Why did we not know this earlier? How come me and other donors have given millions of donations in blissful ignorance of the possible lethal effects?

Of course, transfusions are still necessary in emergencies, where they're the only way of keeping someone alive. Then obviously the risk is worth taking.

But if it wasn't an emergency and my blood was merrily poisoning someone, how tragic is that? Am I an unwitting NHS serial killer?

Don't worry, I'm not having a nervous breakdown from this shocking discovery. After all, I was ignorant. But it shows that good intentions are not enough. And that medicine is still fallible.

PS: So maybe the Jehovah's Witnesses aren't that crazy after all?

Monday 13 October 2008


How can we all improve our quality of life? Well, 105 year old Clara Meadmore has the answer - stay a virgin and don't waste your time thinking about sex.

"I imagine there's a lot of hassle involved and I've always been busy doing other things" she says. "I made up my mind at the age of 12 never to marry and I've never gone back on that."

The Cornish centenarian insists she's never even tried it. And why should I doubt her? She maintains gardening, cooking and listening to the radio are pleasure enough.

She may have a point. Just think of all the time we fritter away satisfying our carnal lusts. Not to mention all the texts, emails, phone calls and feverish daydreams hoping for more of the same.

Without all that, office productivity would rocket, we would pay more attention to the world's problems, we would remember that upcoming wedding anniversary, and we would finally get to grips with Marcel Proust.

There'd be no more squeezing into overtight dresses, teetering on painful heels, or stuffing socks down Y-fronts. Oh, and I wouldn't have wasted hundreds of hours obsessing over my totally unreciprocated longings for the gorgeous Elena*.

Actually, remarkable as it may seem, sex hardly crossed my mind until my early twenties. Even at boarding school, I never joined the other boys in their furtive fumblings under the bedclothes. But once I discovered this age-old pursuit, there was no looking back. Clara Meadmore I was not.

But if we'd all been virgins our entire life, would we actually have missed all those sweaty couplings? Or would we just wonder why other people were so fixated on fleeting orgasms and why they spent so much time chasing after them?

How much of our sexual appetite is fed by outside influences and how much is a natural impulse? The two are so entangled, it's impossible to say.

* The name has been changed to avoid marital disharmony

Friday 10 October 2008

Housing sharks

In the midst of economic turmoil, the sharks are still circling, waiting to get their teeth into vulnerable people desperate for a lifeline.

The latest group to be stung is hard-up householders threatened with repossession. Smooth operators are offering to buy their houses and rent them back.

Sounds ideal, doesn't it? Except that all sorts of traps are lurking in the small print.

You might be paid only 50% of the house's real value. The agreement might only last a year. The rent might be as much as the mortgage - and might go up. You might be charged an 'arrangement fee'. And you might still be repossessed by the new owners.

There are now 2000 sale-to-rent schemes in the UK, and they're totally unregulated. The government is looking at the problem but they've yet to do anything concrete. Why?

One couple, Jane and Richard Hudson of Basildon, Essex, have lost their home of 13 years and they and their five children are now squeezed into cramped emergency housing.

Jane says of the company that conned them "They've robbed me, they've robbed my kids and they've knocked my confidence."

How predictable that there's always someone ready to take advantage of a catastrophe and milk those who're floundering. These people have the morals of an alleycat.

And the lesson? If some silver-tongued charmer offers you the perfect answer to your problems, ask a shed-load of awkward questions and go through the contract with a fine tooth-comb. Or you could rue the day.

NB: That's not the Hudsons in the pic, btw.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Scrimping and saving

The credit crunch is really exposing our divided society once again. The haves and the have-nots are visible for all to see.

On the one hand, the well-heeled minority are scarcely affected. They have plenty of money to absorb dearer mortgages, food and fuel without batting an eyelid. Their only concern is whether their savings are still secure, so they're busy moving their money around from rickety banks to safer ones.

Everyone else, on the other hand, either barely solvent or heavily in debt, is frantically juggling their inadequate incomes to pay all the bills and working out what they can cut back on. With no spare cash to save, wobbling banks are the least of their problems.

The government naturally is focussing on the well-padded and their savings dilemma, pumping fortunes into ailing institutions and reassuring the worried wealthy that they won't lose a penny.

But I don't see the same fortunes being put at the disposal of the barely solvent to help them break even and get rid of some debt. There's no chance of ruinous mortgages being paid off or fuel prices being cut.

The government feels your pain, buddy, but there are really no practical measures they can take. You'll just have to hang on until better times come round. Quite frankly, you shouldn't have overstretched yourself in the first place.

And what really pisses me off is the TV newsreaders grinning like Cheshire cats after every dire economic bulletin. I suppose on their luxurious salaries they can afford to grin. They won't be tightening THEIR belts any time soon.

Friday 3 October 2008

Asking for it

After so much censure of rape and the men who do it, I can't believe 46% of Northern Irish students still think a woman who flirts is partly responsible for being raped.

And 30% think a woman is partly to blame if she wears revealing clothing.

These extraordinary figures are from a survey by Amnesty International. Not from 50 years ago but right now, when supposedly attitudes have moved forward a bit.

Sorry, but as I see it men are 100% responsible for raping a woman, whatever her behaviour beforehand. If she doesn't want sex, that's her choice, and all a man has to do is keep his pants zipped up. What's so hard about that?

Men still think they have a right to sex and if the woman complains they still blame the victim. Well, obviously she was "being provocative", she was "asking for it", she was "desperate for a good seeing-to."

I'm surprised the excuses stop at flirting. Why don't men just say "But she had breasts, what did she expect?" or "She had long hair, it could only mean one thing."

Funnily enough, the opposite doesn't apply. If a man gets attacked, nobody blames him. Nobody points to the beer, the tight shirt, the bare flesh or the look in his eyes. Or his inappropriate behaviour. Oh no, he was attacked for no reason at all, right out of the blue, by a complete lunatic. What do you mean it was his fault? Come outside and say that....

So much for feminism being obsolete.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Gift of the gab

The Irish are famous for their gift of the gab, but it's not a trait I share. I can be embarr-assingly inarticulate in company, struck dumb while everyone else is rabbiting away non-stop.

I'm just too self-conscious, too aware of what I'm saying and of how it might be received. Might I offend someone? Might I say something inappropriate? Might I blurt out something utterly stupid?

Other people can blather away effortlessly about anything under the sun, the words pouring out like water from a tap, totally confident they'll say the right thing. Nothing seems to put them off.

How I envy that remarkable ability when I'm standing awkwardly next to some total stranger (or even someone I know well) wondering what to say next and filling the silence with nervous ear-tugging or head-scratching.

Of course I'm aware that being tongue-tied can be just as off-putting as saying the wrong thing, but that doesn't seem to help. I only have to realise I'm tongue-tied to become even more so.

I can't see off that little policeman in the back of my brain watching my every word like a hawk, waiting to nick me for some petty social offence. Why won't he just go away?

They say as you get older you get less shy, because you simply don't care any more what other people think. Well, I keep waiting for this magical quality to kick in, but there's no sign of it yet.

Perhaps I should just make a virtue of my failings and become a Trappist.