Sunday 30 November 2008

Innocent victims

What always strikes me about terrorist assaults like the ones in Mumbai is the way those concerned are willing to attack completely innocent people to achieve their ends.

Whatever their cause (and so far it's not even clear what that is), it's utterly merciless and inhuman to hit at people who are not even involved in politics, let alone the fraught ideological battles that are being played out.

What purpose can it possibly serve to slaughter random tourists, hotel staff, hospital workers and train passengers who may know nothing at all about the terrorists' bone of contention and are merely going about their everyday lives?

What is the point for example of burning to death Niti Kang, wife of the Taj Mahal Hotel's general manager, and her two children Uday and Samar? All that has done is to leave her family devastated with grief and their lives wrecked.

No cause, however noble or important, can justify using ordinary individuals as pawns and negotiating chips. It's the last resort of ruthless fanatics unable to find more legitimate and non-violent ways of pursuing their objectives.

Here in Northern Ireland, people are all too aware of the pointlessness and barbarity of attacking the innocent for political ends. Practically everyone has faced the grief and suffering of their loved ones or someone they know being mown down in cold blood. And after 30 years of such sterile violence, progress is finally being made through peaceful negotiation.

I really can't begin to understand how some people can stop seeing others as precious human beings with rich and fulfilling lives, and reduce them to trivial objects to be casually obliterated in the name of some fashionable political goal. Their minds are twisted beyond belief.

It's reported on Monday (World Aids Day) that male circumcision reduces the risk of getting HIV by about 60 per cent. Universal circumcision across sub-Saharan Africa could prevent 300,000 deaths in the next 10 years and 3 million deaths in the next 20 years. In some areas demand for circumcision is already overwhelming clinics. What an amazing discovery.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Wandering minds

I'm extremely forgetful, but not because I'm old - I've been forgetful my whole life. And a new study says amnesia and scattiness are actually more common in young people.

We're all showing reduced attention and concentration spans and having more memory lapses, the reason being the sheer pressure and complexity of modern life.

A quarter of us regularly forget the names of close friends or relatives, and seven per cent even forget their own birthdays. Household accidents through carelessness are rising, and the average attention span has dropped to five minutes from twelve a decade ago.

But despite the stereotypes, the survey found the over-50s can concentrate better than young people, presumably because over the years they've learnt how to apply themselves and how to deal with pressure.

The decline is all due to the constant demands now being made on us - heavy workloads, urgent deadlines, endless emails, mobile phones, multi-tasking and new technology to name a few.

I certainly find myself that it's increasingly hard to concentrate on anything for any length of time without being distracted or my mind wandering to some essential task I need to do.

One cause of the growing distractedness is the nagging fear of "missing out" - that if we aren't constantly checking our emails, mobiles, TVs or our workmates' conversations, we might miss something vitally important or wildly exciting - or just someone's birthday. We don't want to be the gormless git who didn't know Britney had broken her leg.

I'm as prone to this anxiety as anyone else, being a news junkie, but it certainly doesn't do much for my peace of mind. Or my memory either, as I struggle to separate all the gossip from the shopping list and the bus timetable. What are we, human beings or sniffer dogs?

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Not enough fun

I'm not very good at self-indulgence, at enjoying myself freely and spontaneously. I always hold back, as if too much personal fun might be a bit decadent and immature.

I see other people letting themselves go - boozing, bingeing, joking, raiding the shops, cheering football teams - with so much enthusiasm I'm taken aback. I'm seldom that enthusiastic or uninhibited about even my biggest passions. A sort of quiet pleasure is the best I can manage.

I guess I come from that social background where too much obvious enjoyment was seen as "showing off" or "drawing attention to yourself". All horribly undignified and childish. Enjoyment was all very well up to a point, but not if it meant "making a spectacle of yourself". That would never do. I suppose it's all related to the stiff upper-lip tradition that used to riddle the English middle classes.

There's also a part of me that thinks too much enjoyment can only be a slippery slope to total debauchery and public humiliation. One drink too many and I'm bound to end up an alcoholic. Too much cheesecake and ice cream and naturally I'll be a 20-stone tub of lard in days. Just go a bit too far and in a trice I'll be out of control like a runaway car.

Maybe I'm influenced by past occasions when enjoyment turned sour. I can remember driving a girlfriend home when I was roaring drunk, lucky not to have killed us both. Another time, on a heavy dose of LSD, I was oblivious to traffic and almost killed myself again. I've played practical jokes and seriously upset the victims. Such memories make me wary of too much abandon.

But I do my best. When others around me are getting wilder and wilder, I tell myself to loosen up and get in the swing of it all. For pity's sake, Nick, throw away the rule book, forget all those childhood vetoes and let your natural impulses take over. And the result? Usually a bit like a lifelong virgin sampling a brothel. It's hard to change the habits of a lifetime.

Saturday 22 November 2008

Girls at risk

It's appalling that a Nigerian woman had to flee Nigeria and seek asylum in Ireland to prevent her two daughters suffering genital mutilation.

Now, having been in Ireland for three years, she's threatened with deportation but she's been given another three weeks to make her case for staying.

The genital mutilation of girls is still traditional in Nigeria and other countries, and her husband's family were insisting Pamela Izevbekhai's two daughters, Naomi and Jemima, should undergo it.

This was despite the fact that her first daughter Elizabeth bled to death from the procedure at the age of 18 months.

She was so determined this would not happen again that she abandoned her well-paid job, comfortable house and relaxed lifestyle and fled to Ireland, where she had to endure a spartan existence in a single room.

She now has just over two weeks left to persuade the European Court of Human Rights she should not be sent back to Nigeria to put the girls at risk once again.

I find the whole situation incredible. Even though her husband is now against the practice, his family feel they have the right to tell the couple what to do. The procedure can be carried out by an unqualified person in unhygienic surroundings. And it's seen as quite normal to damage or destroy someone's sexual organs.

This disgusting ritual is still rife all over the world - it even takes place furtively in the UK - despite years of struggle for women's independence and for control of their own bodies and sexuality.

Even when governments claim - as Nigeria does - that they're opposed to the practice, the law is not enforced and a blind eye is turned to what goes on behind closed doors.

What Pamela thinks is in the best interests of her two girls is irrelevant - she's expected to bow to social pressures and get them 'seen to' in the name of tradition and dogma.

I sincerely hope the European Court supports her.

PS: April 6 2009 - The truth of Pamela's story has been challenged. Elizabeth's death certificate is said to be a forgery and some journalists are questioning whether the child even existed. Her original lawyers have withdrawn from her case and replacement lawyers are being sought.

PPS: Male circumcision can be just as damaging, even though it's still widely practised in the UK.

Photo: Pamela Izevbekhai (right) with her daughters Naomi (7) and Jemima (6)

Thursday 20 November 2008

Misery memoirs

You must have noticed all those tales of childhood pain-and-suffering known to booksellers as misery memoirs (or to you and me as shit-lit). It seems people can't get enough of all this vicarious torment, and sales have gone through the roof.

There's so much demand for these shocking stories of vicious parents and damaged lives that publishers have raked in over £24 million. The best known are Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and Dave Pelzer's "A Child called It".

Personally I can't understand why so many people want to wallow at such length in harrowing accounts of personal distress. Surely they're more depressing than inspiring?

But more to the point, many are a pack of lies from start to finish, a cynical hoax on a gullible public who take them at face value. Which is one reason why this lucrative market is now flagging.

Margaret B Jones, who wrote about growing up in gangland Los Angeles, later admitted she had made it all up. The tale of a masochistic rent boy by J T Leroy also turned out to be pure invention. James Frey's account of his alcohol and drug saturated life was found to be full of fabrications and alterations.

A heart-rending book by Misha Defonseca about her survival during the Holocaust was translated into 18 languages and filmed before she admitted it was all bunkum. She hadn't in fact lived with wolves to evade the Nazis, hadn't trekked 3000 miles looking for her parents - and wasn't even Jewish.

A hunger for fame and fortune prompted a lot of unscrupulous individuals to jump on the shit-lit bandwagon and dish out their own portion of psychic mayhem.

Unfortunately they didn't bargain on the growing suspicions of a few hard-nosed readers that reality had been hastily abandoned on page one.

It's one thing to stir people's sympathy and horror at painful experiences no child should have to go through. It's quite another to loosen their tears with a whopping pile of porkies. The publishers' crock of gold has turned abruptly into scrap metal, and red faces are everywhere.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Pees and queues

Now don't laugh, this is a serious issue. The habitual rationing of women's toilets, and the constant queues of frustrated females outside them, has been taken up by British MPs.

Men may just chuckle at all the impatient faces as they make a lightning visit to the gents, but all the women who regularly have to put up with long waits are far from amused.

As far as they're concerned, they're being treated as second-class citizens yet again, their needs apparently still not as important as those of high-powered, overstretched males with not a second to waste.

Even brand-new buildings, and ones recently refurbished, still have inadequate female toilets, despite the obvious additional need.

So a committee of MPs are pressing for a duty on local authorities to improve toilet provision, with at least double the number of toilets for women - since they not only use them more often but usually for twice as long.

As one expert puts it, they take longer "thanks to a range of sartorial, biological and functional issues". Or in plain English, menstruation, layers of sexy underwear and dodgy bladders. Not as some men seem to think, perfecting their make-up and exposing more cleavage.

New York City and 16 US states have already recognised that women need double the toilet provision of men. And New Zealand requires that no woman should wait more than three minutes for a toilet.

Recent British gender legislation provides for "services of like quality" to men and women. A test case in relation to female toilets could bring a few long-overdue improvements. And who knows, maybe no more queues.

The British government is to make it illegal to use prostitutes who have been trafficked into the country or who work for pimps or drug traffickers. However a similar law in Finland has so far not brought any prosecutions.

Saturday 15 November 2008

Cut and run

If you think you're doing your bit to fight global warming, hang your head in shame at the thought of 67 year old Joan Pick, who is so abstemious her carbon footprint must be virtually zero.

She never heats her flat, she eats all her food raw, she never uses cars or buses, she doesn't have a TV, she uses no gas and minimal electricity, and she makes many of her clothes.

In 1972 she decided mass consumption was a mistake and began cutting back. She's been increasingly frugal ever since, aiming to use the fewest possible resources at her home in Croydon, London.

She lives on nuts, fruit and vegetables, she jogs twelve miles a day, and her car has been sitting in the garage unused for 36 years.

She also gave up on men, realising early on that no man would be prepared to share her spartan, luxury-free existence. "You can't have someone else to contradict you" she says.

All I can say is that I'm astounded at her ability to do without all those things the rest of us regard as essential to a normal lifestyle. There's no way I could give up all those domestic props that make my life more comfortable and convenient. I'm not ready to be a hermit in a mountain cave just yet.

I wonder if from time to time she hankers after a forbidden treat, imagining herself tucking into an M&S ready meal as she watches Coronation Street. No of course not, I'm sure she's overcome those wicked cravings many years ago. She's probably reached the point where she's as incapable of backsliding as a drunkard on a desert island.

But she's certainly a splendid example of how much we could do to stop squandering the earth's resources, if we were just willing to take a deep breath and stop pampering ourselves quite so freely.

PS: I've found two more articles (here and here) on this remarkable woman.

Wednesday 12 November 2008

In the closet

Gays may now be well accepted in many big cities but here in Belfast - and Northern Ireland generally - they still struggle against engrained prejudice.

It's extremely rare for anyone to be openly gay, while gay-bashing of one sort or another is still alarmingly common - physical violence, arson attacks, hostile politicians.

I don't know of a single 'out' public figure, although there are constant rumours about a number of them. And nobody dares dress in an overtly gay manner, though you can sometimes guess from a person's behaviour or way of speaking.

The Cathedral Quarter is Belfast's established gay district but outside that gays keep a very low profile. The annual Gay Pride festival is mainly enjoyed by gays, and doesn't attract the huge numbers of heterosexuals who take part in other cities.

Religious belief is still very strong here, and many people see homosexuality in very fundamentalist terms as an 'abomination' and an unnatural practice. The obvious counter-arguments - if God made the world, then surely he also made homosexuals? - are flatly ignored.

Supposedly we have some of the strongest equal opportunities laws in the world, but they have little influence against deep-rooted homophobic dogma, often endorsed by the very politicians who should be backing the legal guidelines.

So gays are still very wary of disclosure when so many people might rush to 'turn them in' and jeopardise their jobs, their homes and their partners. They are forced to blend in, pass as straight and watch what they say. In the year 2008, this country's still stuck in the strait-laced sexual culture of fifty years ago.

PS: Definition of homophobia - insecurity about being heterosexual (thanks to Gooner on Gaelick)

Sunday 9 November 2008

The child within

The older I get, the more I realise just how much of my character is directly linked to the way I was treated as a child. And I'm sure that's the same for most people.

I can see more and more clearly that both my weaknesses and my strengths reflect how my parents and teachers behaved towards me.

My nervousness about socialising goes right back to my diffident father, who seldom had visitors or visited other people. My lack of self-confidence stems from his regular disapproval of what I did and thought.

On the other hand, my wild sense of humour also comes from my father, who adored crazy comedy programmes like The Goon Show and Hancock's Half Hour. And my verbal skills owe much to my father's adeptness with words.

School bullying and a brilliant English teacher also contributed to the strange mix of self-doubt and articulacy.

However much I've tried in later life to correct the weaknesses and become more capable, I haven't got very far. Patterns laid down in childhood are remarkably durable and aren't easily changed once they've taken root.

All I can do is allow for my failings and try to ensure other people aren't upset or frustrated by them. And at the same time enjoy my strengths to the full, savouring the talents I do have and making the most of them.

I don't blame my parents or teachers for my faults. They were probably doing the best they could, limited by their own deficiencies and their own upbringings.

If I didn't have these particular faults, I would no doubt have other ones. None of us is perfect, and in any case so-called faults can sometimes be as interesting and endearing as the effortless virtues.

But that chain of cause and effect, of the early years determining the later years, seems more and more visible and far-reaching.

"Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man" said the Jesuit, Francis Xavier.

Thursday 6 November 2008

Titanic's chain of errors

A TV programme this week unravelled the amazing chain of errors that led to the supposedly unsinkable Titanic sinking.

It's still often assumed that the collision with the iceberg was just an unlucky accident that nobody could have prevented.

Far from it. A long string of entirely human cock-ups made the loss of the ship and 1517 lives on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912 inevitable. It was a typical tale of carelessness, incompetence, obstinacy and misunderstandings.

The list of failings is mind-boggling:

* Low-grade iron rivets were used instead of tougher ones.
* Iceberg warnings from other ships were either ignored or not seen by senior crew.
* Despite the iceberg warnings, on a poor-visibility, moonless night, the ship didn't stop but continued at its top speed of 21½ knots.
* This was because the captain was determined to reach New York in 6 days.
* The lookouts in the crow's nest had no binoculars.
* The radio operator told the nearest ship, the Californian, not to send any more messages as he was too busy sending messages for passengers.
* When the iceberg was spotted, the ship steered away from it and hit it side-on. If the collision had been head-on, the reinforced bow would have kept it afloat.
* The bulkhead (the height of the watertight lower compartments above the water line) was reduced by four feet to allow for a grander central staircase.

Further human failings led to the huge number of deaths:

* There were only 16 lifeboats because more than that were seen as "too much clutter".
* The lifeboat drill was cancelled so the captain could attend a religious service.
* The order "Women and children first" was misunderstood as "Women and children only".
* Lifeboats were launched although they weren't full.
* There were enough life jackets but they weren't all given out.
* Because of the loss of radio contact with the Californian, the closest ship, many more people died.

How vital it is, when so many human lives are at stake, to make sure everyone does their job properly and conscientiously. It only takes a few foolish mistakes to cause utter carnage.

PS: Sooner or later the Titanic would probably have sunk anyway.

The programme was "The Unsinkable Titanic", Channel 4, November 3 2008. It was repeated on Channel 4 on April 18 2009.

Tuesday 4 November 2008


It would be nice to say I'm always open and honest, but of course I'm not. I lie from time to time like everyone else.

Sometimes lies are unnecessary and deceitful and cause damage, but often they're essential to smoothe relationships, prevent catastrophes, get jobs or just to protect our well-being.

I can't recall any time when I've deliberately lied for no good reason, just to harm someone or to look impressive. But no doubt I have, I've just conveniently overlooked it.

Certainly I've lied to dodge unwanted invitations or demands, to avoid insulting or upsetting someone, to avoid embarrassing or humiliating myself, or to explain away neglected tasks.

But I've never blatantly lied about myself to impress a woman or an employer or a mortgage lender. Tweaked or glossed the truth maybe, but that's it. I've never posed next to someone else's BMW or invented a high-powered job or claimed I was at school with Mick Jagger. The reason is simple - if the lie was exposed, then I'd never be trusted again.

I don't understand people who lie flagrantly and constantly for no purpose except rampant self-interest, greed and face-saving. Politicians for one. Cheating spouses for another. And of course all those ordinary individuals who just want to seem bigger and better than they really are and hide all their human failings and weaknesses under a flawless facade.

Thou shalt not lie? I don't agree. Lies are sometimes just what's needed. But they should be a temporary lubricant, not a nasty habit.

Thanks to Nicole for the inspiration.

Wow, Obama made it! The first black American president - and by a thumping majority! It's stunning that so many ordinary Americans had such faith in him and voted for him in such huge numbers.

Saturday 1 November 2008

Veronica lets rip

No sooner was Jenny on the flight to Perth, Australia, than Veronica was on the phone inviting herself round. She wanted to cry on my shoulder.

The limo screeched to a halt and the flawless supermodel rushed inside, ignoring the shouts from the paparazzi.

"God, I hate being a model" she moaned, sprawling on the sofa in her skin-tight crimson minidress. "People see it as glamorous, but it's just f***ing hard work from start to finish. Everyone thinks they own you, you're just a money-spinning product they all want to get their sweaty hands on."

I opened the champagne and poured her a generous glass. She knocked it back and rested her tantalising feet on the Laura Ashley cushions.

"I work 15-hour shifts without a break, I have to be polite to those surly, impersonal photographers, I'm always being pushed for nude shoots, I'm expected to be a permanent size zero, I'm sent halfway round the world without a second to see the sights, I spend hours on end purging every last spot and pubic hair, and then I have to read all the lying gossip in the media. I've had it up to here, I can tell you."

"Give it a rest, sweetie" I said soothingly. "Would you really want to throw away all the fame and fortune and adulation just because it's a teensy bit gruelling?"

"You bet I would. Who needs fame? It's just a pain in the f***ing arse. And so's all the money. Do you know how many begging letters I get every day? So when are we going to bed?"

"V, how many times do I have to say it? I'm a happily married man and I'm also old enough to be your grandfather. Just calm down and have some more bubbly."

"Nicky, you know I'm into older men. My father never wanted me, he totally ignored me from day one. I'm always looking for the doting dad I never had. So come on, daddy, give me a good time."

Now I've locked myself in the study but Veronica's banging her fists on the door and shouting "I'm sad and blue. I'm hurting all over. Give me some loving, daddy-oh." For a moment I think, maybe it wouldn't do any harm....

Note: Jenny is on five weeks' academic business in Perth and Adelaide. I shall be joining her later!

Veronica's photo courtesy of Trinket Enterprises