Monday 30 March 2009

Home truths

Why is moving house such a messy and frustrating business? We were all set to move to what looked like a lovely house a few streets away, until the surveyor pointed out rather too many faults and defects for our liking.

The owners offered to put right most of the defects at their own expense, but we still weren't happy about the general condition of the house and spent several weeks asking them awkward questions and wondering whether to pull out or not.

Today we went back to the house and took a really searching look at it, only to find even more flaws that the surveyor hadn't noticed. So we reluctantly gave up on buying it and we're house-hunting once again.

Moving is always a fraught business one way or another. When we moved to Belfast from London, the woman buying our flat (who was from Belfast, funnily enough) kept procrastinating for so long we wondered if she was really serious about buying. We practically had to force her to go ahead at gunpoint.

When we moved into that flat, having spent virtually our last penny on it, we immediately discovered that our neighbours downstairs were totally anti-social and held all-night parties several times a week. It took us nine months to get them out, Environmental Health having taken them to court.

The very first flat we bought in London turned out to be badly insulated and freezing cold because the heating system was inadequate. In the depths of winter we would get ice and rivers of condensation on the windows. We were mighty relieved to get into somewhere warmer.

So my advice is - don't move at all unless there's some really big benefit at the end of all that upheaval. The problems are enough to give you a few grey hairs and sleepless nights. If you like where you're living - just stay put and enjoy.

PS: We've had a furious email from one of the house's owners, berating us for pulling out. I hope I don't bump into him on the street, he might give me a kicking....

Friday 27 March 2009

Male loyalty

I'm sometimes asked why I'm not more loyal to men, and why I so often defend the opposite sex when a man is under attack.

Well, I can only ask why I should defend a man simply because he's the same sex as me, even if he's behaving badly. I'll support a man if I think he's right, if I think he's being unfairly pilloried over something, but not otherwise. Why should I condone misconduct?

Nobody would expect me to defend people on the basis that they're also six foot, or in their sixties, or thin, or short-sighted, so why is being male any different? Why should we have anything in common apart from our reproductive organs?

So when I see a man being blatantly insulting to a woman, or getting some perk a woman isn't getting, I'm baffled when people expect me to root for the man and give the woman the brush-off. We blokes should stick together, I'm told. Mustn't let the side down. Says who?

It's exactly this kind of blind loyalty that perpetuates male mistreatment of women, that permits rape and domestic violence and stunted lives. Instead of speaking out, instead of demanding justice, men stay silent and let it all continue.

After all, women are always saying that there's not much loyalty between women, that unlike men they don't feel obliged to stick up for each other regardless. In fact women can bitch something rotten about other women on the flimsiest of grounds - a short skirt, too much cleavage, a grimy kitchen, a dented car. No feelings are spared. At least men are more forgiving about each other's petty failings.

But if I'm expected to forgive a drunken lout forcing himself on some unsuspecting women who invited him in for coffee, no way. Tarring and feathering would be more like it.

Thanks to Thriftcriminal (wherever he's got to) for the idea.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Cars and bras

Are women really shallower than men? A Welsh academic says yes - because they prefer a handsome man in a £70,000 Bentley to the same man in a clapped-out Ford Fiesta.

Dr Michael Dunn of the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff has done a survey of male and female reactions to the opposite sex and cars.

He found women generally opted for the man in the expensive car, whereas men were unimpressed by a flashy car and were only interested in the woman's looks.

According to Dr Dunn, this showed women were shallower than men because their heads were turned by a bit of high-powered machinery, while the men put the person first.

Well, excuse me, Dr Dunn, but I would turn that shallow argument inside out and say that makes men the superficial ones because they value mere physical appearance over what's inside the package. All they really care about is glossy hair and big tits.

Women on the other hand are more sensible because they look at a man's personal capabilities - including the ability to earn money and get on in life. Signs of self-confidence and success are more important than a firm jaw line and melting blue eyes.

Of course, speaking as a man who once owned an ageing Ford Fiesta, we do have a certain appeal to the more discerning female. There's a distinctive quality that money simply can't buy. Nevertheless, it's still true that a man's car might say more about him than the shape of his nose.

Dr Dunn also concludes that a man who owns an expensive car is seen as more likely to rear healthy offspring. Come again? How does that work exactly? Not the hoary old cliché about cars proving virility, surely? Dr Dunn, I have some advice for you. When you're in a hole - stop digging.

I can't stop listening to: "Extraordinary Machine" by Fiona Apple

Saturday 21 March 2009

Burden of youth

I just don't know how today's youngsters manage to make their way in the world, with one burden after another being thrown at them.

Now British universities want to more than double tuition fees to £6,500 "to protect teaching standards". If they get their way, the average graduate debt could go up from £17,500 to £32,000.

As a result of acquiring skills that will benefit not just themselves but the whole society, they're stuck with a massive debt that could take years to pay off - if they can even find a job with a decent salary.

How lucky I was as an undergraduate to have all my expenses paid for me - not just tuition fees but subsistence costs and even travel costs from London to Buckinghamshire where I was studying. And I had no need to jeopardise my studies by taking a paid job.

Then if these debt-laden twenty somethings want to buy a flat or a house, they have to find further unbelievable sums of money, including the huge deposit that mortgage lenders now require.

If they also want children, more headaches. When I was young and relatives often lived close by, they helped with childcare and domestic chores and made life a lot easier for parents. Now new parents frequently have to fend for themselves and the extra burden takes its toll.

I look at youngsters grappling with all these modern pressures and I wonder how on earth they manage to survive without going under. Certainly bosses have little sympathy, and just expect their employees' difficult private lives not to affect their work.

I can only admire the resilience and determination that keeps young people going and set on getting what they want out of life, despite all the obstacles and boobytraps. I'm just glad I'm 62 and not 22 right now.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Veronica loses it

As usual, my dear friend Veronica, the supermodel, has flown in for my birthday*, bringing exotic gifts and scandalous gossip.

Once again her luggage went missing at Heathrow, and she was hopping mad. "My Manolo Blahniks are gone, and my divine Gucci handbag. Not to mention my Rampant Rabbit. They're probably in the hands of some Mumbai slum-dweller."

"But sweetie, you're always saying you want to help the poor. Now you have. I bet your Rampant Rabbit is giving someone enormous pleasure at this very moment."

"Huh" she snorted. "Why don't they just get off their bums and make another blockbuster like Slumdog Millionaire? They should stop wallowing in poverty."

Sometimes V is so politically incorrect, it's excruciating. I thought of showing her the door, but I was simply dying to hear all that celebrity gossip. She goes to the same gym as Madonna, so she knows absolutely everything.

"Well, happy six-two, you old rascal" she said, handing me a huge beribboned package. Inside was a giant carton of Viagra. She kissed me extravagantly and whispered in my ear "That should keep you going all night, lover boy."

"You're too good to me, sweetie I said. "You know just what an old man needs."

"Of course I do. I'll tell you what I need, a new chauffeur. Sam's taking too many liberties. He can't keep his hands on the steering wheel. And he's gabbing to the tabloids."

"Poor you. Just get rid of him."

"I can't. Then he'll tell the tabloids every f***ing thing. Including the business with Amy and Kylie."

"Oh God, that must never come out. How about a tragic accident?"

"Good idea. Talking of tragic accidents, don't you dare get me pregnant again."

"Shush, I'm meant to have heroically fought off your advances umpteen times."

"Of course you have, my darling."

Photo of Veronica Trinket courtesy of Trinket Offshore Investments

* March 20

Monday 16 March 2009

Dummy run

Airline pilots train on simulators, one reason why flying is so safe. Surgeons hardly ever train on simulators, one reason why a hospital patient has a 1 in 300 chance of dying or being seriously harmed.

No wonder I'd have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a hospital if the need arose. That statistic is seriously scary. I'd probably have a higher chance of survival in crocodile creek.

Britain's Chief Medical Officer says that if all surgeons trained on simulators, or plastic dummies, there would be a big drop in the number of mistakes and mishaps, and surgical expertise would be greatly improved.

It would avoid cases like Elaine Bromley, who suffered irreversible brain damage during a minor operation because doctors weren't sure how to do a tracheotomy (an incision in the windpipe).

Airline pilots do regular simulator training to help them deal with emergencies. That's why a plane can be successfully landed on New York's Hudson River by an ice-cool pilot who knows exactly what he's doing.

Apparently Israel leads the world in training surgeons and health workers on simulators. They use sophisticated dummies that can bleed, breathe, be anaesthetised, be resuscitated, and show tell-tale medical signs.

If they're so beneficial and they could reduce the shocking toll of medical cock-ups, why on earth aren't Britain's surgeons making more use of them? Perhaps when people go into hospital, they should ask if their surgeon's been trained on a simulator. If not - find one who has.

The abysmal standard of patient care at Stafford Hospital in England, which has caused up to 1200 unnecessary deaths, is quite shocking. It seems the hospital management was more interested in meeting performance targets than in looking after its patients. Thirsty patients were drinking out of flower vases and others were screaming in agony for lack of pain relief. Unbelievable.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Mother and son

Jenny and I have spent a lot of time discussing the Julie Myerson book and whether she was right to tell the world about her poor relationship with her son.

It makes me think of my own teenage relationship with my father - a very upsetting one - and how I would have felt if he had written a book about me. Without doubt I would have been incandescent.

I was angry enough with him as it was. Like Julie Myerson, he threw me out of the house because he could no longer cope with what he saw as my anti-social and inconsiderate behaviour.

As far as I was concerned, I was just a normal rebellious teenager, forming my own views, following my own interests, and no longer doing and saying what he expected, i.e. being a replica of him.

I would come home in the early hours and disturb him, I would invite round friends he considered disreputable and degenerate, I would engage him in long political arguments he saw as naive and absurd. He finally decided "enough was enough" and told me to leave. I was 22 at the time.

Yes, maybe I WAS inconsiderate and selfish, as he said. But I was furious that he was so unloving, so intolerant, so lacking in understanding, so ruthless, so high-handed. He was treating me not as his son but like some wayward lodger who had breached the tenancy agreement.

Our relationship continued to be stormy and distant for many years, right up to his death in 1988. It was bad enough that he wrote me hateful letters attacking everything about me and dismissing me as immature and irresponsible.

If he had actually put all his one-sided and heartless views into a book for thousands of complete strangers to read, I would have gone through the roof. I would have retaliated in any way I could to get my own back. I imagine Julie Myerson's son Jake must feel something similar.

She defends her book by saying bad relationships should be talked about and not hidden to preserve the image of a "happy family". So, talk about them to friends, relatives, therapists, vicars, whoever. But why is it necessary to vilify your son to the whole world?

Photo: Julie Myerson

I can't stop listening to: "Keep 'Er Lit" by Cara Robinson

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Alphabet soup: A

I'm not going to comment on the dissident republicans and their deranged shootings. Too much has been said already, to the point that tourists are starting to wonder if it's still safe to come here (well, of course it is). So I'm going to boil up some alphabet soup instead:

Abstract art: I love it, the more abstract the better. I adore Miro, Klee, Rothko, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley and Fiona Rae.

Acupuncture: Lots of people swear by it but I've never tried it. Maybe because I've never been in such pain that I'll try anything.

Affair: I've never had one, and that's the honest truth. No woman has ever been tempting enough for me to betray my partner.

Aerobics: I take a brisk walk most days. I mow the lawn and trim the hedges. I climb the Mourne Mountains in the summer. But I would be bored stiff at a gym or exercise class.

Akasha: A supposed etheric field in which past events are imprinted. I don't believe in it. I don't believe I'll be reincarnated as a beetle, either.

Ale: Can't stand the stuff. I like cider though. But a couple of glasses is enough, alcohol and I don't really see eye to eye.

Also-ran: The story of my life. Can't say I've ever been exceptional at anything, except smart-ass remarks on subjects I know nothing about.

Ambulance: Hope I never need one. I dread having to go into hospital, with all the medical cock-ups and infections I'd probably come out in a box.

Anorexia: I'm asked occasionally if I've ever suffered from it. Hey, I'm thin but not that thin. There's plenty of flesh on these here bones.

Apotropaic: Having the power to avert evil or bad luck. Perhaps I am, I haven't had too many disasters in my life, in fact I sometimes feel like an innocent abroad, never truly tested.

Autodidact: That's me all right, on a whole range of subjects. My formal education never got further than undergraduacy.

Coming soon: the letter after A. If you all behave yourselves and pay attention....

Wednesday lunchtime: Jenny and I have just come back from the pro-peace rally outside Belfast City Hall. There were thousands of people there and it was extremely moving. I felt a lot of sadness around me, I guess there must have been many with painful personal memories of the Troubles, thankful that they were now over.

Saturday 7 March 2009

The cruellest cut

If there's one thing that needs to be exposed on International Women's Day (March 8), it's the appalling global toll of female genital mutilation.

It's thought that 2 million girls a year, mainly in Africa, are forced into this degrading and agonising procedure, and have to live with the distressing results for the rest of their lives.

They may be prone to painful intercourse, menstrual problems, infertility and birth complications. Their essential womanhood has been routinely attacked and damaged in what is seen as a totally acceptable cultural practice.

It's not just women who suffer the consequences, it's men too. FGM doubles the risk of a woman dying in childbirth and makes it three to four times more likely she will have a stillborn child.

There are no valid reasons for it whatever, except cultural tradition. It isn't justified on any medical, hygienic, aesthetic or sexual basis. It's driven by pure sadism, cruelty and men's desire to dominate women and keep them under control.

There are many organisations working to stamp out the practice and persuade families and communities that it's a senseless and barbaric custom, but the huge weight of historic observance is hard to shift. Much more pressure is needed from governments and community leaders.

Here in Ireland, Pamela Izevbekhai is still battling to avoid being deported to Nigeria, where her first daughter Elizabeth died after genital mutilation and her other two daughters would be at similar risk. I sincerely hope she's allowed to stay here.

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.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Unsuitable images

How embarrassing it is when some unorthodox image of somebody pops into my mind and I then have to meet them face to face and try not to be distracted by it.

For men of course the obvious example is some inappropriate sexual scenario that imposes itself. Instead of the prim, po-faced work colleague in her sober suit, I find myself imagining a semi-naked siren luring me into her bed.

I try desperately to keep a straight face as the woman in question asks me about income statistics, performance targets or brand awareness. I attempt to push the scurrilous image to the back of my mind and focus instead on office furniture and stationery supplies. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's like trying not to think of ice cream.

Then there's the 'grisly end' fantasy. I'm picturing that noisy neighbour falling under a ten-tonne truck or perishing in a plane crash, and there he is walking down the street towards me. We exchange polite remarks as ever more gruesome finales flood into my mind.

I'm sure my lurid imaginings must be written all over my face, but he shows no sign of it. Unfortunately there's no sign of any ten-tonne truck either.

Sometimes I can't help envisaging someone in their twilight years, stooping and wrinkled, trudging along hesitantly with their zimmer frame. Why I should suddenly conjure up such an unflattering image of someone still in the full flush of youth, I don't know. Certainly they would be horrified if they knew how I was secretly painting them. If they did have a zimmer, they'd clout me with it.

What's really intriguing is that other people must sometimes be hiding equally inappropriate images of me. Somewhere out there some unlikely, innocent-faced person is privately hoping I get stabbed to death in a dark alley. Though at my age, I can't see many people picturing me in a semi-naked bedroom romp.

PS: I fantasise about all sorts of things, but I also find it easy to accept reality. An unusual combination, it seems.

Monday 2 March 2009

Political disbelief

There are two schools of thought about politicians. One is that they genuinely care about us, they're doing their best for us, they're basically upright, decent people who put in long hours on a gruelling job.

The other view is that, with a few notable exceptions, they're devious, dishonest rogues who're only interested in winning votes, feathering their own nests and clawing their way to high office.

I tend towards the second view, as I've said before. Jenny tends towards the first view (particularly as she spent four years as a local councillor in London and I have to say was an extremely conscientious and hard-working one).

But having lived through umpteen governments from Clement Attlee onwards, and having been constantly disappointed by broken promises, the yawning chasm between rich and poor, shoddy public services, and inability to confront vested interests, it's hard to give any politician the benefit of the doubt.

What makes it worse is that when challenged on their failures, they usually refuse to admit them and maintain everything is going fine, spouting a load of carefully-chosen statistics to prove it. Oh for a few Obama-style politicians with the courage to say honestly and frankly "Yes, I screwed up."

This trail of incompetence and slipperiness is exemplified by the furore over banker Sir Fred Goodwin's £700,000 a year pension at the age of 50. The pension was signed off by government minister Lord Myners, who apparently hadn't consulted any of his colleagues.

Now the whole country wants the pension cancelled, but it's a contractual agreement that can't be touched. And this deal was okayed not by a bunch of elitist Tories but by a minister in a supposedly egalitarian Labour government. It makes me want to weep and beat my chest with utter disbelief.