Wednesday 30 December 2009

Tell me the future

I don't like the uncertainty of the future, it niggles at me. But a lot of people enjoy it. They relish not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow or next month or next year, and they would hate to know exactly what the future holds.

I would love to know what it holds. How long I'm going to live, whether I'm going to get a serious illness, how long Jenny and my mother and sister are going to live, how much money I'm going to have, whether we're all doomed by global warming.

If I knew the answers to all these imponderables I'd be better able to plan ahead and prevent a lot of sudden crises and bad decisions. I'd know what and whom I should pay more attention to and what I could happily ignore.

But the uncertainty bugs me. I want clarity, I want parameters. I sometimes wake in the middle of the night, pondering all these unknowns yet again and wondering how they will all pan out. I'll lie there for an hour mulling them over and obviously getting no answers, just losing some precious sleep.

Other people are equally adamant they don't want to know what's coming. If they're about to get a windfall, or a plum job, or meet the love of their life, they want it to be a wonderful surprise. Or if some disaster is going to befall them, they'd rather not know until it actually confronts them. Wouldn't it be rather depressing, they say, if you knew a whole string of tragedies was coming your way?

Well, maybe or maybe not. If you knew they were coming, perhaps you could avert them. Or if they were inevitable, you could make the most of your present opportunities. If you knew your loved one was going to die, you could take that holiday of a lifetime or buy them that stunning £1000 dress/ suit before they went.

I need to know my destiny. I need a Tardis.

Monday 28 December 2009

Passion killer

It must be quite a shock for a woman who jumps into bed with her boyfriend, looking forward to a night of pleasure and passion, only to find she has an unexpected problem - she's allergic to sperm*.

Apparently up to 10,000 British women have the allergy. Any contact with the stuff and their body rebels - itching, stinging, swelling, blistering, hives and breathing difficulties are the possible effects. Not quite what they had in mind.

Julie Boyde of Ambridge, Pennsylvania, only discovered the problem on her wedding night. Previously she and husband Mike had used condoms so she was unaware there was anything wrong. Then suddenly the pleasure disappeared.

Doctors tried to cure the allergy with a special serum but it made no difference. As the couple want to have children, and she objects to IVF, now the only thing they can do is adopt. A big disappointment for both of them, I'm sure.

It must rather spoil your sex life if you have to tell every new boyfriend that you're ahem, allergic to you-know-what. Guys who're proud of their masculine virility must find it a bit of a let-down that certain options are strictly out of bounds and tamer substitutes are required.

I wonder if some guys can't quite believe what they're hearing and think it's just another female excuse like having a headache or time-of-the-month. Or if they even find it insulting - "What do you mean I'll bring you out in a rash? Nobody else has ever complained...."

It must be a tricky situation to handle. I suppose the best course is to find a man who understands and then stick with him. Or become a lesbian....

* The medical term is Seminal Plasma Hypersensitivity

Thursday 24 December 2009

Sozzled Santa

It's the end of the road for Santa. Retirement beckons. He's been condemned as a shockingly unhealthy role model for children, encouraging all the worst possible lifestyle habits.

Dr Nathan Grills, an Australian public health doctor, has accused him of obesity, drink-driving, speeding, lack of exercise and spreading disease.

The lovable red-suited old beardie is denounced as a thoroughly bad influence in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal.

Dr Grills points out that Santa is extremely fat, goes everywhere by sleigh rather than walking, drinks numerous brandies left by householders, ignores speed limits to get all his presents delivered, and has children on his lap even when he has flu.

Other critics have asked if he has been checked by Criminal Records for his suitability to work with children. And then there's his cruelty to reindeer, pushing them to the point of exhaustion with his punishing Christmas Eve schedule.

All in all, not the sort of person you would want your impressionable offspring to take after. The sooner he's pensioned off and put out of harm's way, the better.

However, a spokesperson for Santa responded angrily to Dr Grills' comments. "It's just sour grapes" she said. "He would love to be as popular as Santa, adored by children everywhere for his charm and generosity. Instead he's just a sour old academic nobody's ever heard of, trapped in some musty office. Who needs him?"

When asked for Santa's exact weight, height and body mass index, she threatened legal action and abruptly hung up.

Still, at least Santa doesn't smoke. Or does he?

A very happy Christmas to all my wonderful blogmates around the world. Forget all your everyday worries and let the festivities commence!

Monday 21 December 2009

Barbaric cuts

While we're scoffing our Christmas dinners, refilling our wine glasses and generally having a good time, let's spare a thought for the hundreds of little girls whose Christmas will be one of fear and pain.

Female genital mutilation is thriving in Britain, despite it being illegal and despite the appalling health risks. And Christmas is the time when many young girls are "seen to" by the "cutters" who do it for a living.

An estimated 70,000 women in the UK have had it done and some 20,000 girls are still in line for it. The victims can die of bleeding or tetanus, and later may develop urinary incontinence, recurrent infections and chronic pain. It can also cause major problems with childbirth and psychological disorders.

The British government has done scandalously little to stop it. Their attitude seems to be that it's a cultural tradition they shouldn't interfere with. So, unbelievably, not one person has been prosecuted in 25 years.

The Somali model Waris Dirie, who was mutilated when she was five, says "No one can undo the trauma that is caused by this horrible crime. It stays in your head for ever."

A government that's vetting some 15 million people for their possible paedophile tendencies, but turns a blind eye to the mass amputation of young girls' clitorises, is a very odd one indeed. Clearly their own daughters aren't at risk, so they don't really care.

The idea that because something is a long-standing cultural ritual from elsewhere, we should respect it and not intrude, even if it involves monstrous cruelty and suffering, is ridiculous. Cruelty is cruelty and should be prevented, whatever the perpetrator's background.

It's about time the government stopped sitting on its hands, stopped ignoring this barbaric practice and put the "cutters" in jail where they belong.

Friday 18 December 2009

Art nouveau

When is art not art? A tricky question. Edinburgh sculptor Kevin Harman thought that heaving a metal pole through an art gallery window was an artistic tour de force. The director of the gallery didn't agree - she took him to court for breaching the peace.

Kevin's sponsor Richard Demarco was outraged. "There has obviously been a profound level of misunderstanding of the raison d'être of Kevin's work. His whole ethos is about making things which are negative into things that are positive."

Many others, including those with a wide knowledge of art such as myself, might say the misunderstanding is Kevin's. He has failed to grasp that smashing a window is not a work of art, it's merely a safety hazard to passing pedestrians.

Of course a sign saying "Ce n'est pas une fenêtre brisée" might have added an artistic dimension*. But presumably that was too passé for our Kev.

Kate Gray, Director of the Collective Gallery, certainly failed to see her shattered window as a ground-breaking oeuvre d'art. She thought petty crime was a more accurate description.

Admittedly, whether something is a work of art or not is often a matter of opinion rather than a self-evident fact. Kevin has his admirers who would stoutly defend his moment de folie as a pièce de résistance.

Try as I may, I can't see it as anything but une dêbacle monumentale.

* René Magritte, anyone? And we can all throw in a bit of pretentious French....

Pic: not the actual window but a similar "work of art". For the real thing, go to the link.

Can you believe it? Five Eurostar trains (yes, five) broke down in the Channel Tunnel and 2000 passengers were stranded overnight. The official explanation? The trains couldn't handle the change from cold air outside the tunnel to warm air inside. You couldn't make it up.

Update, Saturday evening: A sixth Eurostar train has broken down in Kent, and the train towing it has also broken down.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Distorted self

Our self-image is alarmingly unreliable. The way we see ourselves can be very different from how we actually are, and very different from how others see us.

What do you mean I'm beautiful? I'm just a dumpy housewife who's let herself go. A good organiser, me? I leave everything to the last minute and then trust to luck.

How illuminating it would be if we could step outside our own skins for a day and see ourselves as others see us. We might be in for a surprise or two. A lot of self-delusion and a lot of false modesty might be stripped away.

I think most of us tend either to over-estimate or under-estimate ourselves. We all know the two types - the vain, pompous individuals who're convinced they know it all and the shy, apologetic ones who imagine all they ever do is make mistakes.

I'd say I'm one of the under-estimators. I constantly play down my intelligence, my practical skills, my likeability, my financial resources, my emotional resilience and my enjoyment of life.

People are always contradicting my unassuming descriptions of myself, telling me I'm more capable than I make out. But whenever I compare myself with others, I invariably conclude that they tick all the boxes while I'm obviously lacking.

It doesn't seem possible to have a completely accurate picture of one's identity, everything gets slightly distorted by some preconceived notion of what we'd like to be, or what we feel comfortable with, or what excites us.

The most bizarre example must be the woman who's adamant she's revoltingly fat when in reality her size is completely normal. Or on the other hand, the man who thinks he's Adonis despite his beer belly, hairy nostrils and combover.

In fact our capacity for self-delusion is virtually infinite. You only have to look at some of those strutting politicians and talentless celebs. How our minds do merrily mislead us.

Sunday 13 December 2009


I'm all in favour of wind farms, if they help prevent global warming. But it seems they're so noisy that people living close to them are going through hell.

The constant swishing and beating of the turbines is not only disturbing and distracting but prevents people sleeping. They're said to be as loud as helicopters, planes or express trains - and all day every day.

Jane Davis and her husband Julian have had to move out of their Lincolnshire home because of the racket. "On a bad night it's like three or four helicopters circling round" said Jane. She was getting only three hours sleep a night.

Ron Williams in Cumbria has to take sleeping pills and describes the turbine noise as "like a Chinese torture." Lynn Hancock in Cambridgeshire says it's like "a seven-ton lorry left running on the drive all night."

The government seems blithely unconcerned about the turbines' effect on people's health and well-being. They just want to get as many running as possible to increase their green credentials.

According to one report, they actually ignored a recommendation that the maximum decibel limit should be 33 and allowed a higher limit of 43.

How many MPs live near wind turbines and have first-hand experience of what they're like? I suspect none of them, which is why they're so indifferent. Perhaps some of them should visit the affected homes and see why the residents are so angry.

People living near airports already have to put up with worsening noise disturbance as the airports expand to allow more and more flights. Belfast City Airport is a case in point.

If people living close to wind turbines are now expected to put up with the same sort of daily background din, this is complacent officialdom at its worst. Either the noise-battered residents should be helped to relocate or the turbines themselves should be quietened down. Otherwise the whole idea of wind farms will take another hammering.

Pic: Jane and Julian Davis

Friday 11 December 2009

Doctor M's breakthrough

After over a year of intensive therapy with the venerated Dr Melissa Flinch (Shrink of the Year 2007, Mind Mender Award 2008), it seemed we were getting nowhere. I was the same tangled, confused Nick as the day I started.

I lay gloomily on the couch, gazing at the faded portrait of Sigmund Freud. Melissa sat gloomily on her cane chair, examining a chipped fingernail. Suddenly her eyes lit up.

"Of course, of course" she exclaimed. "How stupid of me, it's all so obvious, it's been staring me in the face all this time."

"What has?"

"There's nothing wrong with you at all. All these neuroses and phobias and obsessions you claim to have. All these crippling hang-ups and complexes. They don't exist. They never did."

"Come again?"

"You're actually completely sane, your psyche is 100% healthy. But you pretend to have all these afflictions because you think it makes you more interesting. You think lots of gorgeous women will see your tortured soul as an exciting challenge."

"No no, you're way off track there."

"Well, I've got news for you, Mr Screwball. Nobody enjoys a loonie. They run a mile. People want normal, conventional, reliable. They don't want some Psycho Simon with a hatchet in his pants. So why don't you just drop the act and show me your real self?"

I thought now wasn't the time to reveal the sharpened hatchet in my Armani man-bag. I played for time.

"You're barking up the wrong tree, Melissa. I really am thoroughly dysfunctional. I hardly know if I'm coming or going. I could flip at any time. I need help desperately."

"Okay, Nick, your time's up. See you next week. You don't have any nail restorer, do you?"

"Sorry. I've got some rather splendid magenta nail polish though."

"That'll do nicely."

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Non-British citizen

I have no national loyalty whatever. It makes little difference to me whether I'm British, Swedish, Namibian or Nepalese, as long as my life's going well. So I'm rather pleased I failed the Practice UK Citizenship Test by getting a mere 50%.

Hardly surprising since the questions are so obscure and so irrelevant to what you might think Britishness is actually all about - democracy, equality, fairness, decency etc.

I mean, what is one to make of esoteric questions such as:

Name two places where the European Parliament meets
Give the number of children and young people under 19
Give the percentage of people who are Muslims
Give the number of MPs' constituencies

These aren't questions about Britishness, they're questions about Europe, age groups, religion and parliament. They're questions about official statistics. They have virtually nothing to do with the everyday life of the ordinary citizen.

Of course the alternative questions, the ones actually to do with such concepts as democracy, would be far too embarrassing to ask. For example:

Why do the police stop people taking photographs on the grounds of terrorism?
Why are there so many CCTV cameras?
Why are so many black people in prison?
Why do so many old people die of hypothermia?

Now that type of question would sort the desirable British citizen from the undesirable, deferential forelock-tugger we could do without. Toadies go home, I say.

PS: I'm jolly partial to tea, marmalade, boiled eggs and chips. Dash it, how can I not be British?

Sunday 6 December 2009

Smell check

Public libraries have always had their quota of malodorous visitors, shuffling in to scour the papers. Now a library has actually banned someone with a particularly pungent aroma.

Apparently Stuart Penman of Wigston near Leicester had such a noxious niff that when he entered the library other users would leave. So he's been barred from the library for six months.

After numerous complaints, the staff had talked to him about his personal hygiene. Did he wash, did he use deodorant, did he change his clothes regularly?

Stuart maintains he has a bath every day and is perfectly clean. But the staff continued to get complaints so they issued the ban.

A tricky situation to deal with. People's personal hygiene is generally a taboo subject, to be carefully ignored even if the person's body odour is enough to kill a herd of elephants.

The member of staff chosen to bring the subject up must have been pretty embarrassed. I certainly would be if I had to ask someone if they were actually acquainted with soap and water.

But there's only so much other library users can overlook. Trying to select your reading matter for the next week as an unsavoury reek assails your nostrils must be somewhat challenging. It's bad enough dealing with the mutterers, sniffers, fidgeters and other random eccentrics who frequent such places.

Oh and before you ask, yes, Stuart has a girlfriend. And yes, she admits "he does have a bit of a problem sometimes." That's one way of putting it....

PS: I thought about not using Stuart's name, to save him some embarrassment, but hell, his name is all over the media anyway.

Pic: Stuart Penman outside the library

Friday 4 December 2009

Selfish cad

I didn't treat some of my early girlfriends very well. At that time I was a typical hard, selfish male with little insight into other people's inner lives. It took me quite a while to wise up.

It didn't help that I'd been to all-male schools where I never met any girls and was utterly perplexed when my first job brought me into close contact with the opposite sex.

I treated one particular woman very shoddily. She was a warm, generous person, what in the sixties we would have called a flower child - she wore floaty, wispy clothes, put flowers in her hair, read Lord of the Rings and listened to Donovan.

She fancied me enough to abandon a university course in Birmingham, move in with me in London and then take up a hideously mind-numbing job to pay the rent when my existing job suddenly ended.

I liberated her a few months later when I found another job, but by then our relationship was going downhill, or so I believed. Sex was a flop, culturally we had very different tastes, our bedsit was crummy, and I couldn't cope with her extrovert personality and messiness.

But in those days I simply didn't know how to express my thoughts and feelings. So instead of voicing my frustrations and talking them through with her, I bottled them up and said nothing. And decided that I would simply end the relationship and move on.

Which is what I did, with no explanation and no discussion. I told her it wasn't working out, that we had to split up, and that was that. Of course she was hurt, baffled, crushed, but she agreed to break up and move out.

I saw her a short while later, now going out with a lovely, gentle, thoughtful guy who seemed very good for her. So hopefully the sad experience of our own relationship was soon put behind her.

But ever since, I've pondered over how incredibly immature and insensitive I was then, and how things might have gone if I'd been more open and more aware. A lot of unnecessary heartache could have been avoided.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Identity crisis

It was sad to read about the awful tragedy of Los Angeles sportswriter Mike Penner, who started living as a woman, then regretted it and went back to being a man, and finally killed himself (or so it seems).

He was found dead at the age of 52, but left no note or warning of his intentions. Why he committed suicide is a mystery that will probably never be solved.

About 5% of transsexuals regret changing their gender and change back (as far as they're able to after genital surgery). The rest say they are happy to have made the change.

Mike lived as a woman for around 18 months, but it seems that he had not yet had any surgery.

Regrets can set in for a number of reasons. Aspiring women are daunted by the time and effort required to maintain a perfect female appearance. Or they get disheartened by constant discrimination and harassment. Or they never quite feel like a real woman even if they're accepted as one.

It's known that Mike went through a "very painful" divorce from his wife, and he may have wondered whether it was worth that trauma to become Christine. He may have decided he could never really shed almost 50 years of masculine history. Who knows?

But it's tragic when someone who has taken the dramatic step of changing his gender and all that goes with it then decides he has made a big mistake and wants to turn the clock back. And even when he tries to do that, he's still unhappy and confused.

Certainly the process of turning yourself into a convincing and confident woman without the intensive conditioning that girls normally go through must be incredibly difficult.

It seems that Mike found it impossible and from then on he could no longer make sense of his life. So he ended it.

Pic: Mike's female self, Christine Daniels

Monday 30 November 2009

Women on the march

For years it's been fashionable for women to deny they're feminists and say they don't need that sort of militancy any more, they're getting on fine without it.

I always wondered how they could be so blasé about the obvious fact that women are still second-class citizens in so many different ways.

Now it seems feminists are coming out of the woodwork again and women are no longer making light of the numerous burdens and disadvantages they have to labour under.

They are joining women's groups, going on marches, visiting feminist blogs, and are generally less willing to stay silent and pretend everything's okay.

Membership of the Fawcett Society has risen by 25% in a year, over 2000 women took part in a Reclaim the Night march in London, and the website The F-Word is getting over 110,000 hits a month. University women's groups are thriving again and half those declaring themselves feminists are under 25.

Apart from the widespread frustration that men still get the upper hand in so many areas, women are said to be increasingly sickened by the growing sexualisation of everyday life and by women's bodies once again becoming more important than their skills and abilities.

If you ask me, not before time. The only result of women scoffing at feminism has been rising complacency and arrogance among many men, who conclude that they can still happily put the little woman in her place and grab all the goodies for themselves. If they're about to be seriously challenged again by seething females, I for one can't wait.

Pic courtesy of the Fawcett Society

Friday 27 November 2009

The complainer

It puzzles me when someone complains constantly about their partner but never seriously tackles the problems - or ends the relationship

I had a workmate once who moaned at every opportunity about her husband's intolerable behaviour. He did things without consulting her, he was always coming home drunk, he spent too much time working, he bottled up his emotions, and on and on.

The rest of us would listen patiently and sympathise, and then ask her what she was doing to resolve the drunkenness, overwork or whatever. Invariably she would say it was pointless to confront him because he wouldn't listen or that was just the way he was or he had his faults but he had his virtues too.

We would hear her out politely, then give her advice on how to change his behaviour. Tell him what he's doing is seriously distressing her, tell him he's immature and inconsiderate, or even tell him to shape up or ship out.

But no matter what we said to her, she took no notice and simply let him carry on as before, upsetting her again and again and prompting more complaints whenever she had an available ear to express them to.

Why was she so passive? I could never work it out. Maybe she had a masochistic streak and liked being badly treated. Or she was too timid to stand up to him effectively. Or she couldn't stand the aggression of a serious row. Or she was afraid of his violent retaliation. Or maybe she just liked playing the aggrieved victim and getting everyone's sympathy.

Whatever the cause, she let this flawed relationship drift on month after month and left the rest of us feeling exasperated and bemused by her feebleness. We wanted to wade in on her behalf and tell her useless husband exactly what we thought of him.

Whether she ever did end the relationship I don't know as I changed jobs and never saw her again. But I hope she eventually found the courage to break this sterile cycle.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Veronica's thin skin

My dear friend Veronica, the ravishing supermodel, is in hot water with the media again. They say she's encouraging teenage girls to become anorexic.

Jenny's strutting her stuff at some alleged conference in London, so V is keeping me company as usual. She managed to get into the house only after telling the paparazzi the Prime Minister had been caught in his Soho love nest.

"For f***'s sake" she fumed as she reclined teasingly on the chaise longue. "All I said was that skinny is the biggest high. So frigging what? I can't help it if thousands of warped schoolgirls take that as a green light to eat two lettuce leaves a day and jog themselves to death. It's a free country. Predatory tabloid bastards. They're just jealous because they're all fat as f*** and their wives puke at the sight of them."

"Just chill, sweetie", I said, casually caressing her left thigh. "They're not worth the aggravation. It'll all blow over in a few days when they find someone else to persecute. Just how skinny are you, anyway? I hope you're eating properly, I know what you models are like. Living on fags and adrenalin. I bet you haven't had a meal for days."

"Of course I'm eating properly, mind your own business, you" she replied, guiding my hand further up her delicious flesh. "And I suppose you expect the usual reward for putting me up in your grubby establishment?"

"That's entirely up to you, my darling" I murmured. "I'm a new man, I have no hidden agenda."

"Like f*** you haven't" she snorted. "I hope the bed linen's clean, you old slob. Are you sure Jenny's still in the dark about us? She really doesn't suspect anything?"

"Not a thing. She's totally convinced I'm deep in meditation and tantric chanting at the Sacred Order of Divine Bliss."

"What a trusting soul. So shall we meditate?"

"Ready when you are."

Pic: Veronica in playful mood. © Trinket Enterprises 2009

Sunday 22 November 2009

One of those things

Yet again thousands of people are having their lives wrecked by flooding, and yet again nothing much is being done to stop more flooding misery in the future.

The Lake District and Cumbria have had the heaviest rainfall in living memory, with several towns and huge swathes of farmland under water. Houses and businesses have been swamped, families evacuated, and services like gas, electricity and water cut off.

It's a similar story across County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, where the level of Lough Erne is the highest on record, and across the Republic. Cork was under water for the first time in over 50 years.

Each time an area is flooded, everyone wrings their hands in despair, expensive repairs are needed, and insurance companies pay out millions of pounds (or euro). Sooner or later there'll be serious flooding again, but little thought is given to how it can be prevented or how householders can be protected.

There are plenty of possible solutions. People in houses could move to the upper floors. Houses could be built on stilts. River beds could be deepened. Vulnerable areas near rivers could be permanently evacuated.

But few people seem to be addressing the problem with any urgency. There's a sort of deep-rooted fatalism and stoicism, as if flooding is just one of those things, just a bit of bad luck, and all we can do is pick up the pieces and hope it doesn't happen again.

The authorities invariably say that the rainfall was exceptionally heavy, it couldn't have been predicted, the infrastructure simply couldn't cope etc. Which is all true, but it does nothing to prevent lives being regularly shattered by these calamities.

People don't pay heavy taxes just to be told that the rainfall was extraordinary, they can see that for themselves. They want some concrete help and a sense of security about the future. In short, less stiff upper lip, more elbow grease.

PS: There's an account of the aftermath in Cockermouth here. Some families have been flooded 3 times in 4 years and can no longer get insurance.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

One sex or two?

Now and again for a bit of fun I suggest to people that life would be a hell of a lot simpler with one sex instead of two. All those endless tensions and aggravations and misunderstandings would disappear and it would be so much easier to get on with each other.

But it's surprising how many people don't like the idea at all and are very keen to keep the two sexes just as they are. Despite all the negatives, they enjoy the frisson and the enigma of this unfamiliar Other who plays by different rules and is always hard to understand.

They also enjoy acting out their particular gender role and seeing it appreciated by the other lot, be it flouncing around in dresses and high heels or fixing a dodgy carburettor. They just love to be told "God, you're beautiful" or "I could never have fixed that myself."

Seriously though, are all those rather superficial thrills and benefits really enough compensation for the never-ending battle of the sexes as we keep squabbling over the perennial bugbears - sharing the household chores, sharing the childcare, workaholic males, shopaholic females, football mania, dieting mania, sex obsession, beer bellies.

For most people, the astonishing answer is yes, we're prepared to put up with all that for the excitement of jumping into bed with the opposite sex, watching our bloke build a garden shed or watching our wife breastfeeding. The idea of us all being the same sex fills people with horror and incredulity. Wouldn't it take all the fun out of life? Wouldn't we all be drearily similar?

Well, of course we wouldn't, we'd still have very different personalities, tastes and habits. There just wouldn't be this massive gender gap blocking communication the whole time. There'd be a lot more common ground and shared assumptions. Or so it seems to me.

And no prizes for guessing which sex I'd like to preserve. I adore those flawless double-X chromosomes. Who needs those second-rate XYs? There'd just be the small problem of perfecting virgin birth....

Monday 16 November 2009

Surgical free-for-all

Once again there's a call for better regulation of plastic surgery* to prevent tragic botch-ups and stop inexperienced medics from doing risky procedures.

Demand for cosmetic surgery jumped again last year, but there are no controls on it apart from a voluntary code of practice that's easily ignored.

In France all advertising of cosmetic procedures is banned, and only registered specialists can do them. Quite right too when most of the operations are medically unnecessary and can ruin people's lives if they go wrong.

The London Independent mentions Jill Saward, ex lead singer of Shakatak, who almost died during a facelift after complications caused by high blood pressure. "I was an idiot, I should have thought much more carefully about it" she says.

One solution would be to ban cosmetic surgery altogether, but I think people should be able to make up their own minds about it, as long as they are made fully aware of the serious risks involved.

An estimated 100,000 procedures are done in Britain every year, many by doctors with no specialist training. Things like Botox injections and laser peels are often done by staff with no medical qualifications at all. How can this be allowed?

If only women (and a growing number of men) could accept the way they look as perfectly okay, without comparing themselves with digitally enhanced models and finding a long list of imaginary defects. Then plastic surgery wouldn't be such a boom industry and the sacrifice of innocent flesh to finance someone's millionaire lifestyle might lose its attraction.

But if misguided souls will insist on putting themselves under the knife, at least the surgeon's competence should be properly vouched for.

* Surgery done privately that is. There are of course very strict controls on cosmetic surgery done by the NHS.

Friday 13 November 2009

Picking a fight

Everyone knows it's not always sweetness and light even in the most compatible families. Now the time we spend arguing with each other has been pinned down - around 91 hours a year.

A survey by Uinvue, the family website, says the most common arguments are over household chores, children "treating the house like a hotel", couples taking each other for granted, choice of TV viewing, and children's excessive phone bills.

Well, since I don't have children, I've been spared that particular source of friction, but there are plenty of others I could name - like what we spend our money on (or not wanting to spend anything), those irritating personal habits like noisy eating, and arranging that outstanding repair job.

Mothers supposedly start most of the disagreements while fathers and children are less volatile. Does this mean mothers have higher standards (of politeness, cleanliness, tidiness, kindness) and are more likely to complain if those standards aren't met?

In my own family it was my father who started most of the arguments, my mother being more conciliatory and easygoing, so I'm surprised at that finding. Maybe women are more willing to admit they argue?

Of course the 91 hours only applies to the immediate family. If in laws were included, that figure would shoot up dramatically. Getting on with relatives we've only acquired through trails of confetti can sometimes be an uphill struggle.

In fact the tensions can be so bad that one in ten family members aren't even on speaking terms with another member. I can easily believe that. My father and I hardly spoke to each other for the best part of 20 years. We were chalk and cheese the moment I hit adolescence, and that never changed.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Secret fears

People don't usually talk about their phobias. They're too embarrassing and peculiar. They're kept firmly under personal lock and key.

I don't think I have any phobias, or not in the sense of things that physically and emotionally I simply can't deal with. There are plenty of things that disturb me and scare me, like cockroaches, confined spaces, darkness, dreams*, maggots and cellars, but I can handle them. I would just rather not experience them.

But no wonder people don't want to admit their phobias when they're unhinged by such seemingly ordinary objects as cuddly toys, buttons, cupcakes and taps. How can you explain such an odd aversion? How can you prevent the inevitable raised eyebrows and stifled giggles?

A fear of flying or injections is normal enough, but a fear of cuddly toys? How can something so innocent become frightening and weird?

I do admire those people with phobias over very common everyday situations - a fear of lifts, socialising, making speeches or eating in public - who find ways to overcome those phobias and stop them limiting their lives. We don't know what hell they go through simply trying to calm themselves and act normally, struggling against the panic and horror that threatens to overwhelm them.

Many a public figure who seems effortlessly confident and poised is secretly fighting inner demons that dog them at the most crucial moments.

Come to think of it, I suppose my aversion to too much attention is a kind of phobia, though I don't know if there's a word for it (spectophobia?). Presumably there's a corresponding fear of invisibility, or not being noticed at all.

Which might explain all those desperate fame-seekers.

* Practically all my dreams are nightmares. What goes on in this tangled brain?

Sunday 8 November 2009

A shattered life

I know it's a cliché to say something symbolises what's wrong with Britain, but in this case I think it's true. It's the story of a 74 year old man called Vincent Adcock.

Vincent was a confident, independent soul who lived on his own in Manchester. He had several good friends and a devoted Alsatian, Prince.

Then his house was burgled. Not once but five times, relentlessly. After the fifth burglary, having lost cash, various valuables, an £800 watch, a coat and hundreds of CDs and DVDs, his confidence and well-being were shattered.

He had reported all the burglaries to the police but nothing came of it.

Vincent told his close friend Margaret Boswell, "I give up. I just can't take any more. I've not done any harm to anybody, so why are they doing that to me?"

He locked himself in his house, stopped eating and died a few days later from malnutrition and kidney failure. Prince was so distressed he had to be put down.

This story just says so much about the state of the country. Not just that he could be burgled five times, that he couldn't feel safe in his own home, that the police were no help to him.

Nobody else helped him either, or so it seems. Not the neighbours, not the social services, not victim support schemes, not the Samaritans, not pensioners' groups. This vulnerable man, battered and defeated by other people's cruelty and ruthlessness, could depend on nobody to come to his aid, punish those responsible and restore his well-being.

He was left to himself, as so many similar victims are, to pick up the pieces and carry on with the wreckage of his life.

But it was all too much for him and he decided he'd had enough. Our supposedly civilised, enlightened society had failed him miserably.

May you now rest in peace, Vincent Adcock.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Out of bounds

Diehard sexism is alive and well in the Irish Republic. A court has ruled that a Dublin golf club can continue to ban women because the club "caters only for men's needs".

Well, who can argue with that? Obviously golf is a necessity to hairy, beer-bellied, balding males in a way that doesn't apply to women.

Apart from the fact that women, as we know, don't possess arms or legs or a need for leisure pursuits or exercise, they clearly wouldn't know what to do with a little white ball a few yards away from a hole.

Seeing that it wasn't a piece of jewellery or a lipstick tube or a vacuum cleaner, they would be utterly baffled, throw it away, and get back to filing their nails.

This is all plain enough to the Irish Supreme Court, who decided by a 3-2 majority that the club's "principal purpose is to cater only for the needs of persons of a particular gender".

Those needs, they explained, included "social fraternisation". Fair enough. It's well known that women never socially fraternise, it's a conspicuous genetic failing.

Women everywhere keep themselves to themselves, shunning company and never answering the front door. They hate gossip or conversation of any kind and often retreat to caves on remote Himalayan peaks. The idea of playing golf would fill them with palpitating horror.

The Irish Supreme Court judges understood all that perfectly. Except for the dissenting judge Susan Denham who declared that golf was no more a need for men than for women. Good Lord, what an eye-wateringly peculiar statement. Is she mad?

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Drugs furore

Should leisure drugs be legal or illegal? The debate is raging yet again after the sacking of David Nutt, a government adviser on drugs policy.

This journalist is urging complete legalisation of leisure drugs on the basis that adults should be free to consume whatever they want, at their own risk.

It's a tricky argument, mainly because nobody knows exactly what the effects of going legal would be. Would it make little difference, or would there be many more people taking drugs and possibly ruining their lives?

It seems to me that the prediction of lots more druggies and lots more social decline is probably half-baked scaremongering. Yes, we would replace the existing problems with some new ones, but the new ones would be much easier to manage and not so damaging.

All the harmful effects of illegality - contaminated drugs, unintentional overdoses, unhygienic consumption and gang warfare - would be drastically reduced. But it's also true that going legal might encourage more people to take leisure drugs, and health and social problems may increase.

Hang on, though. Yes, consumption might increase, but under much safer conditions, so the chance of coming to harm would be much less. It would be more like taking prescription drugs, with all the rigorous controls that apply to them.

And the argument that adults should be free to ingest whatever's on offer is a strong one. If we're free to eat junk food or slimming pills or herbal remedies, why shouldn't leisure drugs be on the menu?

Intelligent adults are capable of assessing the pros and cons of the drugs in question and deciding whether to accept the risks or not. Why should the state make the choices for us?

But leisure drugs won't be legalised any time soon. The government is terrified of what it might unleash. They prefer the status quo with all its stink of crime and trickery.

Sunday 1 November 2009

Attention avoider

Some people love to be the centre of attention, surrounded by a phalanx of admirers. I'm quite the opposite, I prefer to be somewhere in the background chatting to one or two people at the most.

If I do happen to be at the centre of things, I usually find it very embarrassing. Seeing so many people waiting on my every word is sure to stop me in my tracks and render me speechless. Whatever I have to say will never be witty and sparkling enough for all those expectant faces.

I don't understand why so many people want to be famous, relishing the prospect of their slightest move being followed by the media and the gawping millions, their every minor mistake flashed instantly around the world. How can anyone enjoy that sort of goldfish bowl existence?

I tend to think the attention-seekers just have huge egos that need to be constantly fed, but that's probably unfair. More likely they're just natural extroverts who enjoy sharing their vibrant personalities with as many people as possible. And I have to admit such gregarious souls are a necessary balance to hesitant shrinking violets like myself. If you want a party to go with a swing, a room full of ruminating introverts isn't going to help.

When extroverts encounter retiring corner-huggers like me, they always want to sort me out, to give me a taste for the limelight. You enjoy an audience really, they say, everyone does, and all these people are just dying to know more about you.

Maybe they are, I reply, but the thought of a dozen razor-sharp brains weighing up my every sentence and deducing heaven knows what makes me want to run for the hills. That level of scrutiny is way too scary.

I'll just keep hovering in the wings, if you don't mind.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Warped priorities

Somalia is a country in the grip of famine and administrative chaos. So what is the powerful Islamic al Shabaab movement concerned about? Whether women are wearing bras, naturally.

According to them, women shouldn't wear such heretical garments as they are instruments of fraud and deception. They are tricking men by altering the natural shape and mobility of their breasts. Anyone found in one is therefore severely punished.

So sorry, ladies, if you thought your underwear and visible contours were a matter of personal choice, then think again. Religious purity demands that such issues are vetted and approved by those who are privy to the divine vision.

Several bra-wearing women in Mogadishu were recently arrested and publicly whipped for their disobedience. Though how exactly their bras were discovered is not entirely clear.

Of course you might think, but hang on, at one time all those radical feminists in the West were throwing out their bras too, so what's the difference? The difference is that the feminists chose to chuck them out, and they did so as a protest against male ideas of attractiveness. There was no coercion involved and no divine intervention.

When Somalia is in a state of virtual anarchy, with almost half the population malnourished, the government in disarray and hundreds of thousands relying on international aid, you would think religious leaders would have higher priorities than confiscating bras. But you would think wrong.

PS: And do the bra suppliers also get flogged?

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Not so bright

Intelligence takes many forms. It's not just a question of doing well in IQ tests or being good at reading, writing and arithmetic.

We all know people who have high IQs or brilliant Oxbridge degrees or glittering careers but are also total halfwits when it comes to socialising, making friends or helping someone who's emotionally distraught.

What use is a mastery of quadratic equations or existential philosophy if you offend and patronise everyone you meet, never listen to anyone properly or can't grasp a person's very different background or personality? You might as well still be a bawling infant.

What's called social or emotional intelligence is just as important as the sorts of intelligence the textbooks concentrate on.

I remember one woman I worked with whose husband had a dazzling academic record and a phenomenal IQ but she complained constantly that as a spouse he was sorely lacking.

He was incapable of comforting or supporting her when she was distressed over some work or family problem. He was embarrassed by showy displays of happiness, sadness or enthusiasm. He never commented on her achievements, only her failures.

He may have had an encyclopaedic knowledge of South American dictatorships, but she divorced him and moved in with a plumber who gave her the appreciation and emotional empathy she was desperate for.

That type of intelligence isn't taught in schools, it isn't recognised as a vital life skill. If you're lucky you pick it up from parents and friends. If not, you blunder through life alienating one person after another and wondering why.

Understanding algebra is good. But understanding the human heart is better.

Saturday 24 October 2009


When I'm in a restaurant, I never cease to be amazed at the amount of food some people leave on their plate. I see servers lifting dishes that are still almost full and barely nibbled at.

When I was young, I was conditioned to eat every morsel of food and not waste what starving African children would be glad of. It was almost a crime to leave the smallest particle of edible matter.

So I'm always mystified by those virtually untouched piles of food. Did the diner not like it? Did they not feel hungry? Could they not eat because they were upset about something? Did they not want to look greedy? Do they have anorexia?

I'm fascinated by why someone ordered what they thought was a tasty, mouth-watering meal and then when it arrived at the table they lost all interest and let it sit there congealing.

Does the chef puzzle about it too, wondering whether their cuisine was so disgusting the recipient simply couldn't force it through their lips? Or do they just shrug their shoulders and say for the umpteenth time: "Customers, eh? A total mystery, the lot of them."

If I'm especially hungry, or if my own meal has been seriously skimpy, I'm often tempted to sneak up to the other diner's table and start eating the neglected food myself. I cast longing glances at their loaded plates and have to restrain myself from acting on behalf of ravenous Ethiopians and malnourished Eritreans.

Without fail my own plate is scrupulously cleared of every last titbit. I'd probably lick off the remaining juice if it weren't for the social outrage I'd cause.

The truth of it is I'm just too greedy to leave anything. And anyway, a clean plate is only fair to the washer-upper.

PS: Around 30% of British food ends up being thrown away, one of the highest figures in the world.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Love's labours lost

If one thing has changed dramatically over the years, it's the freedom people now have in pursuing sexual relationships. When I was young, suffocating restrictions made it very hard to follow your natural desires.

It all sounds absurdly draconian now, but in those days parents monitored their children's behaviour very closely. You couldn't simply fancy someone and let things take their course. That was unheard of.

Parents would have very strong opinions on the person you fancied and would strenuously resist any "unsuitable" match. Sexual activity, or even what was called "heavy petting", was strictly prohibited until you were married.

You were expected to "go steady" for a suitable period, then get engaged for another year or so, after which you would get married (that is, if your parents still approved of the spouse-to-be).

The fiancé would of course have to ask the fianceé's father for her hand in marriage, while the alternative of cohabitation was still unthinkable.

Once married, sexual activity was strictly confined to the missionary position, and any kind of "kinky" or non-vaginal sex was considered abnormal. The only natural relationship was the heterosexual one, homosexuality being firmly in the closet and preferably never spoken of.

Nowadays, after the steady erosion of one quaint restriction after another, the situation has changed out of all recognition, with the young having almost complete freedom to form whatever relationships they like and let them follow their natural path.

Parents have been relegated to their proper position, interested bystanders who will only give advice if it's asked for and will always try to support their children's choice of partners.

Youngsters today are incredibly lucky to have such freedom, and not knowing what previous generations had to contend with, they mostly take it for granted. Which is not surprising.

Of course some of them take these new freedoms too far and make a mess of their lives. But better that than being bound hand and foot.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Out of control

I'm reminded all too frequently that I'm more of a control freak than I like to think I am. I'm nervous of things getting out of control, unpredictable, over the edge. So I'm always furtively trying to keep a grip, keep everything within safe limits.

Well, I think it's furtive, but no doubt everyone else can see what I'm doing all too clearly. I'm the only one who imagines my attempts to put boundaries on every bit of spontaneous, impulsive behaviour have somehow gone unnoticed.

I do it with money. Even though I've been solvent my entire life, with no outstanding debts to anyone, I still imagine that too much thoughtless spending will lead me rapidly to financial ruin. So I monitor my spending far too closely and don't often splash out on something wildly expensive.

When I socialise, I'm wary of being too uninhibited, of saying too much or revealing too many personal secrets. I stick to safe subjects, I avoid things that might be too embarrassing or puzzling or deep. I drink cautiously for fear of loosening my tongue too much (not that I like getting drunk anyway).

Even when I read, I rarely devour an entire book at one sitting. I read in bite-size chunks, definable one-hour or one-chapter sessions. I'm almost incapable of getting so engrossed in a book, so carried away by an imaginary reality, that I forget everything else and just let myself be swept along.

Personal appearance too. I've never had the urge for spiky orange hair, psychedelic shirts, tattoos or a foot-long beard*. I've done my share of cross-dressing, but strictly in private and many years ago. Like most men, my public facade is studiously dull - dark colours, sober styles, nothing too conspicuous.

Actually when it comes to clothing, most men are control freaks. They stick firmly to conventional attire, and the very thought of displaying themselves in anything too gawdy or dainty or "feminine" frightens the wits out of them.

And now I'd better stop before I get too carried away. Before the bite-sized chunks become vast platefuls of uncontrolled revelations....

* except once in my hippie incarnation.

Thursday 15 October 2009

The end is nigh

It's a funny old thing, this climate change. There's precious little sign of it in my everyday life. I carry on eating, drinking, sleeping, driving, socialising as if nothing unusual is happening.

Yet the scientists tell us all the time that the world's climate is drastically changing and if we don't take radical action our normal lifestyles will collapse.

Well, I have to believe that many scientists must be right. So I alter my habits wherever I can to do my bit to prevent armageddon. It remains to be seen if armageddon really is upon us.

The biggest problem, we are told, is that we all (in the West at least) consume far too much. We're forever rushing after the latest fashionable accessory or car or bit of furniture, and we never stop to think how many of the world's resources are being squandered and how much it's polluting the environment.

And all that's fed by the modern idea of shopping-as-leisure-activity which has somehow replaced shopping-for-what-you-need. Once upon a time if we needed something we went out and bought it. End of story.

Nowadays there are flashy shopping malls everywhere we go and we're encouraged to go shopping as a pastime in itself, something to do on a rainy day, somewhere to take the kids and have a meal while we're at it.

Of course while we're there we find ourselves picking up all sorts of bits and pieces, some of which we need and some we never even thought of until we saw them beckoning from a shop window.

So - more plundered resources, more pollution. And then when we have a periodic clearout, if the junked items can't be recycled they create yet more unwanted, festering landfill*.

But if you still believe in shopping-as-necessity, you're regarded as a bit of a crank who's still living in a bygone age.

So there's the question for climate scientists. How do we put a brake on the shop-till-you-drop culture? How do we take the shine off those tempting malls?

* The UK still dumps 54% of its waste in landfill. The German figure is 1%

This post is part of Blog Action Day which this year looks at climate change. Over 13,000 blogs in 155 countries took part, including Baino in Sydney.

Monday 12 October 2009

Feeling the pinch

If you thought nobody would have the nerve to steal from a charity shop, you'd be wrong. In fact right now thefts are rocketing because crowded shops make it easy.

The recession has tempted more and more hard-up people into charity outlets, and it's hard for the staff (often elderly volunteers) to keep a close eye on what's going on.

Usually there's no security equipment and volunteers have no specialised security training. So things like clothes, DVDs and books are disappearing in droves.

Whether the thieves are taking things for their own use or to sell on to others isn't clear, but it's certainly making a big dent in charity income.

The British Heart Foundation estimates they're losing up to £2.5 million a year - money urgently needed for medical research and improved treatments. And that's just one charity.

Do the thieves believe their own needs are more important than those with heart disease? Or do they simply not care and just see charity shops as easy pickings?

If people really are desperate enough to steal, you'd think they would at least choose big commercial companies that can afford to lose some of their fat profits rather than organisations trying to help the sick and vulnerable. Have they absolutely no conscience? Or shame?

It might also deter people from donating to charity shops if they think their offerings will simply be ripped off for nothing. Donations are slowing as it is, with hard-pressed households hanging on to things rather than replacing them.

It's depressing to see how many people have the morals of a turnip.

How about that? Scientists have discovered the world's first known vegetarian spider. Bagheera kiplingi, which was found in South America, lives almost exclusively on the leaf buds of wild acacia plants. All the other 40,000 species of spider are thought to be carnivorous. Let's hear it for those ground-breaking arachnids!

Friday 9 October 2009

Size matters

Should a transsexual be entitled to breast enlargement on the NHS, just because it makes her feel better about herself? Couldn't you say the same of a £5000 dress or a facelift?

A transsexual known only as "C" has had her request for the operation turned down by West Berkshire Primary Care Trust and is now suing them in the High Court.

Among other things she is claiming her rights under the Sex Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Convention.

She says that as a transsexual, her flat-chestedness causes her psychiatric distress because she doesn't feel sufficiently like a woman. The operation would relieve this distress.

But surely natural women come in all shapes and sizes and bust dimensions and if you think flat-chestedness makes you less of a woman that's purely a subjective opinion. So why should the NHS cater for personal opinions?

If she feels so strongly about it, she should find the money and get the operation done privately - as thousands of women do every year. It isn't a medical need by any stretch of the imagination.

Of course transsexuals are coping with a unique psychological dilemma which is different from those of other men and women. I understand that. But there's nothing unique about wanting bigger breasts. If you want them, go out and buy them.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Belt tightening

The British government threw billions of pounds at the banks to keep them afloat. So how are they going to get the money back? Why, by clobbering the already hard-up citizens naturally.

Has a single politician pledged to get the cash back solely from the wealthy, from those in a position to fork out painlessly without it affecting their daily lives?

Er no, not to my knowledge. The political parties are now competing ruthlessly to announce the biggest and most punitive round of public spending cuts and tax increases, should they win the next general election.

And in the main they'll be hitting the poor and struggling, those who're already reeling from job losses, repossessions and huge debts.

Already the politicians are talking of freezing civil servants' pay, raising the state pension age, cutting welfare benefits, trimming health services and upping university fees.

I'm sure that's just for starters. Once one lot or the other has won the election, they'll be hacking away at every benefit and allowance in sight, be it for pensioners, children, the sick, the disabled, or deaf, dumb and blind paraplegics. No one will be sacred.

What was it the former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock once said? "I warn you not to be ordinary, not to be young, not to fall ill, not to get old." He could have said the same today.

The senior Conservative politician George Osborne declares "We're all in this together." Really? Including the millions of people who had nothing whatever to do with the banking meltdown? Why should they have to pay?

Meanwhile the wealthiest in society - who are still worth billions despite the economic collapse - carry on jetting round the world and snapping up £50,000 trinkets as if nothing much has changed. They can rest assured the politicians won't be requiring them to tighten their belts any time soon.

PS: See this excellent article by Johann Hari in the London Independent on why huge cuts to public spending will only bring economic disaster, and why the high level of public debt is not a problem anyway.

Sunday 4 October 2009

Lethal lipstick

Oh dear, oh dear. It seems that women touching-up their make-up while driving cause up to half a million road accidents a year.

They just can't resist sorting out that smudged mascara or refreshing their lipstick as they cruise along the nation's roads. Sometimes with calamitous results.

Or so says a survey of 4000 women drivers by a car insurer, in which 3% admitted to having a collision while applying cosmetics. And 27% confessed they regularly put on make-up while on the move.

The biggest culprits were women aged 17 to 21, while the least guilty, not surprisingly, were women of 56 or older, who practically never crashed for that reason.

Well, that's awful. What are you thinking of, ladies, have you no sense of social responsibility, no concern about the lethal vehicle you're flinging along the tarmac? How many innocent people are you putting in danger?

Hold on, though. Why are women getting all the blame here, as if they're the only ones doing crazy things at the wheel and threatening carnage?

There're plenty of men out there fiddling with the radio, lighting fags, checking maps and sending texts. Not to mention doing their own form of preening by combing their hair, putting on ties, having a shave and dabbing on moisturiser. I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of crashes they've caused by indulging their fleeting impulses.

The fact is we're all prone to do a dozen other things while we're meant to be concentrating on the road and making sure we don't mow anyone down. It's hardly the failing of one particular sex. We're all fidgety and easily distracted (and want to look hot) and get bored by the endless flow of vehicles and asphalt. We do our best but hey, we're none of us perfect.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Something extra

A new law applies in England today, stopping employers from filching tips to pay their staff. From now on, the bosses can't touch them. Quite right too, but why do we need this demeaning practice at all?

In the 21st century, restaurant staff, hotel staff, cabbies, hairdressers and the like should be earning a decent wage and shouldn't have to fawn over customers for a few extra quid (or worse, just expect to get it anyway).

I always give tips, unless there's a very good reason not to, as I assume the person is probably shockingly underpaid and in urgent need of any additional cash I can put their way. But it's an unreliable income, as many people withhold tips for trivial reasons, or refuse to tip on principle.

And it's a bloody nuisance having to think ahead about possible tipping situations and make sure I have a supply of appropriate notes or coins. It's acutely embarrassing when a tip is expected but I simply don't have the readies.

Servers, chambermaids or whoever shouldn't have to be artificially polite and grovelling because they're desperate to pay the gas bill. They should be able to relax and just do the job as they see fit, knowing their pay packet will cover their needs.

Tipping always feels like some absurd colonial hangover, like giving beads to the natives or rice to refugees. It's not in any way an exchange between equals, it's always a patronising favour.

Oh, and if you still add the tip to the restaurant bill - don't! The server might never see a penny of it. Always leave it on the table or give it to the server directly.

Monday 28 September 2009

Rude boy

The rudest person I've ever met was someone I used to work with in a London bookshop some twenty years ago. He believed in saying exactly what he thought, however offensive it might be.

P. regularly reduced his workmates to tears or had them huddled in corners bemoaning his upsetting remarks. But he couldn't be sacked because he was good at his job and was never rude to customers. So all we could do was put up with him and hope his withering comments wouldn't be aimed in our direction.

Like other obnoxious characters, he could sometimes be disarmingly sensitive and generous, which took the edge off people's desire to be rid of him. But mostly he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in goading and teasing, just to see the explosive reaction.

He had no qualms about telling people they had put on weight, or were wearing hideous clothes, or had peculiar tastes in food, or had a huge arse. He would tell you quite frankly what he thought was wrong with you, or laugh merrily at some unfortunate mistake you'd made.

He would do his best to catch you out over something, or criticise your friends or spouse. He would suggest your political opinions were naive and your leisure activities a waste of time.

We all fantasised about his coming to a sticky end through various grotesque and painful means. We were finally freed from his repellent behaviour when a bunch of us, including him, were made redundant and he found a new job. No doubt his new workmates soon learnt to avoid him and keep some tissues handy.

Not surprisingly he had no wife or steady girlfriend. No woman could have tolerated him for long, her self-esteem would have plummeted.

I just hope that somewhere along the line he met his match, someone so equally offensive he finally got a taste of his own medicine.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Bullying condoned

Another whistleblower who's being victimised. Carol Hill, a school dinner lady, told the parents of seven year old Chloe David that she had been tied up and whipped by a group of boys at playtime.

And her reward for revealing this shocking incident? She's been sacked for "breaching pupil confidentiality". In other words, if a pupil is being mistreated, the important thing is not to tell her parents but to cover it up and preserve the school's good image.

Mrs Hill has already spent over £4000 in legal fees defending herself, and is preparing further action against the school. Her conscientiousness has led to nothing but trouble.

I'm sure every parent in the land would take her side in wanting to know their child was being viciously bullied. But the school seems to be taking the bullies' side and making light of their behaviour.

Angry parents have demanded the resignation of Deborah Crabb, the headmistress of Great Tey Primary School in Essex, and the board of governors. Mr and Mrs David have withdrawn their two children from the school, and other parents are threatening to do the same.

The good image of an organisation now seems to be so sacrosanct that any employee who tarnishes it, even to expose the corruption, criminality or incompetence of other staff, is routinely pounced on, treated as the guilty party, and got rid of by fair means or foul.

Instead of being grateful that they've been alerted to something alarming, those in charge act as though they've been mugged and relieved of their valuables. All I can say is, it would make me think long and hard about blowing the whistle myself.

PS: Officials from the trade union Unison have promised her full support even though she isn't a union member. The BBC reports that an anonymous businessman who says the sacking is "ludicrous" has offered to pay all her legal costs. She has received many other offers of financial help.

Pic: Mr and Mrs David, Chloe and Carol Hill

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Eating out

Jenny and I eat out at restaurants quite a lot, and I think I've finally worked out the essentials of an eating-out success - exceptional food and pampering.

The meal has to be special, a cut above home cooking with an extra indefinable something we can't create ourselves. And ideally with unique dishes we couldn't find anywhere else. Since Jenny's cooking already sets a high standard, that's asking a lot.

I also expect to be pampered - to be treated like a valued guest with friendliness, attentiveness, flexibility, a touch of style in the furnishings and decor - and generous portions. I don't want to feel like just another customer to be got rid of as quickly as possible.

Every niggle and annoyance about eating out really boils down to those two things, the basic yardsticks that divide the good, the bad and the ugly. And my, how swiftly good turns to bad when the staff don't follow those simple principles.

If those two qualities are lacking, what's the point of going to a fancy restaurant at all? If the food and service are unexceptional, why pay a premium? You might as well go down the road to the local takeaway and pick up some unexceptional pizza or curry.

Jenny and I have tried a wide range of restaurants in South and East Belfast and it's frustrating how often they disappoint. You would think it was easy enough to meet those basic requirements, but so often carelessness and brusqueness strike the wrong note.

Why run a restaurant at all if you're not prepared to put your heart and soul into it and give every diner an experience to remember, where every detail of the meal is a pleasure and a delight? Is that so hard?

And is it so hard to provide a few tasty vegetarian options? With hundreds of meatless ingredients to choose from, why am I offered such bland and predictable fare? Why such a lack of imagination?

PS: See Jenny's comments on three popular East Belfast restaurants

Sunday 20 September 2009

Halting the axe

I fear the public spending cuts following hard on the heels of the massive banks bail-out are going to hit the weak and vulnerable as much as the well-padded.

So a round of applause to one woman who's determined to stop that happening and is being witch-hunted by local council leaders out to save cash by closing care homes.

Yvonne Hossack, a 53 year old solicitor, has saved at least 80 care homes for the elderly and disabled. So thwarted local councils tried to get her struck off the solicitors' roll for unprofessional conduct such as misusing confidential information.

She was very anxious they might succeed and care home residents would no longer have a sympathetic lawyer to fight for their rights. Fortunately all the most serious charges were dismissed and Yvonne is free to continue her vital work.

Good for her, taking on these controversial cases that other solicitors would shy away from in favour of something more routine. She wanted to use her legal skills to defend those who were being mistreated and victimised, and was prepared to face the wrath of the axe-wielding councils.

It's yet another example of whistleblowers being hounded while the wrongdoers who've been caught out neglecting the vulnerable, committing fraud or otherwise abusing their positions so often just carry on regardless.

Too many politicians seem to lose whatever social conscience they had as soon they've got their hands on the levers of power, and some of them are actively competing with each other to slash public services to the bone.

If the recipients are too old and frail to make any effective protest, so much the better. Thank God there are more ethical souls like Yvonne to stop them in their tracks.

Pic: Yvonne Hossack. Her website is at