Tuesday 28 April 2009

Nothing to say

Not many people are capable of staying silent for long periods of time. Most people are afraid of too much silence, it makes them feel uneasy, insecure, vulnerable. So they chatter aimlessly to fill the void.

I once knew a young Indian woman who was as near to silent as you could find. Her name was Kalpana and she worked in the same bookshop as me.

We would go out to a coffee shop and she would be quite comfortable for long stretches simply observing me and her surroundings. Occasionally she would ask me a question such as "Why did you shave off your beard?" or "When did you last feel sad?"

Or she would point out something she had seen. "Look at that guy with the amazing ginger hair" or "That waitress has a tattoo on her left shoulder". And I would see things I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

She seldom said anything about herself. If I asked her why, she would say "I can't be bothered. And anyway, who really wants to know?" Well, I do, I would reply, but she wasn't to be budged. It took me many months simply to find out where she lived, how many siblings she had, what her parents did. "I prefer just looking and listening" she said.

This was at a time when I was having therapy. When I told her how much it cost, she smiled and said "I could listen to you, and I'd only charge a fiver an hour."

You might think she was too reticent, too self-effacing, too willing to be an audience for others. But she was always visibly happy, even when everyone else in the bookshop was scowling and disgruntled. She had some inner spiritual flame that illuminated her whole being and was never extinguished by anything.

She was a beautiful person and I was privileged to have crossed her path.

Cartoon shamelessly stolen from Eclectica

Saturday 25 April 2009

Bullies ignored

Tom Daley, the 14 year old diver due to compete in the 2012 Olympics, has been bullied so badly at school that he may have to move to another school.

He has been relentlessly taunted by the other pupils, who have called him names, thrown things at him, made him look stupid, and threatened to break his legs.

The Principal of the Plymouth school has tried to end the bullying, but it seems she hasn't tried very hard. She says some pupils have been "sanctioned" but still the bullying has continued.

Apart from wondering why the other pupils are so jealous of his success and so mean-spirited, I have to ask yet again why schools are so hopeless at dealing with bullying problems.

Time after time pupils are severely bullied but school staff are unable or unwilling to stop it. All too often they seem to take the attitude that the victims should simply "stand up for themselves". So why is the victim being blamed and not the bullies?

There are regular instances of bullied pupils killing themselves but still those in authority take only half-hearted action, or none at all.

I was bullied myself for four years at boarding school and it was never stopped. Many people must have known what was happening but they simply turned a blind eye to it or thought "Ah well, boys will be boys".

Bullying is still regarded by many as just a routine part of our culture and social life, something so deep-rooted and "inevitable" that you can't do anything about it. I think that's a shockingly fatalistic and defeatist stance.

If someone is persistently bullied over a long period, the psychological consequences can be severely damaging and, if not properly dealt with, can last a lifetime. When are schools going to take their pupils' emotional well-being more seriously?

PS: Tom has been offered a full scholarship by the privately-run Plymouth College (former pupils: Dawn French and Michael Foot). His parents are discussing the offer.

Photo: Tom Daley

Thursday 23 April 2009

Men in suits

Why is it that men in positions of authority are always expected to wear suits? Do we really believe they're more knowledgeable and responsible if they're wearing a matching jacket and pants, usually rumpled and ill-fitting, usually from a cut-price chain store?

I'm forever bemused by those line-ups of politicians, every one of them in their obligatory suits, except for the more informally dressed women. The chance of their all being honest, principled and conscientious is practically zero, yet there they are in their mandatory uniforms, trying to convince us otherwise.

Like most people, I imagine, I judge others by what they say and do, not by whether they're wearing a suit or some kind of official dress. I would draw the line at visible unkemptness, but why should casual clothing make me suddenly doubt someone's ability to draw up a will or give me a bank account or sell me insurance?

Even male newsreaders wear suits, as if an earthquake will turn out to be a giant hoax if they give us the news wearing a T shirt and chinos. Even hotel receptionists wear suits, as if that will magically turn a scruffy flea-box into a de-luxe, penthouse suite. Who are they kidding?

I'm proud to say I've only possessed one suit in my entire life, strictly for the more pompous occasions when I was a local journalist. I just don't see the point. They obliterate your true identity and turn you into a featureless clone.

I envy women's freedom to dress more flexibly, in clothes that reflect their personality and are much more fun. The male suit is a curious anachronism that should be consigned to history.

Monday 20 April 2009

Whistleblower's error

How tragic that a whistleblowing nurse who exposed the ill treatment of elderly patients has been struck off the nursing register for misconduct.

In a TV film, she showed patients at a Brighton hospital not getting help with eating, afraid to ask to go to the toilet, and screaming with agony without pain relief.

I say the outcome is tragic rather than outrageous because unfortunately the nurse, 58 year old Margaret Haywood, spoilt her case by not getting the patients' consent before she secretly filmed them.

That's why the Nursing and Midwifery Council decided, despite her shocking revelations about standards of care, to strike her off for misconduct.

Clearly if patients are going to be filmed they need to be asked for permission and told what the film will be about. They might well have eagerly consented, but she never asked.

What I would like to know however is, were the patients asked after the film was shown, whether they consented to appearing? If they did, then surely the NMC's decision is unnecessarily draconian and vindictive. The son of patient Hilda Burnham, who has now died, says he has no problem with the filming and has called for Ms Haywood's reinstatement.

The NMC also said she could have taken other actions to address the failings rather than making a TV film. But we all know what happens when you complain "through the usual channels". Often the complaint is ignored or trivialised and the organisation claims everything is just fine. In fact she did report the failings to hospital managers but nothing was done.

It's tragic indeed that someone who does care about how patients are treated is no longer able to nurse and will have to take a quite different job.

PS: I've now read several times that permission to use footage was given by either patients or relatives after filming and before the TV programme. In which case the NMC should reconsider their decision.

Margy was the subject of the Panorama TV programme on April 27 2009. Her absolute dedication to the best possible patient care was clear to see, but the NMC obviously took no account of that. She is now unemployed with big debts she can't pay off.

Photo: Margaret Haywood

A woman in the West Midlands has been forced to put T shirts on her naked garden gnomes after a neighbour complained they were not fit for her young children to look at. The gnomes' owner says the three gnomes (one male, two female) have been there for 15 years without causing offence and her own grandchildren love them. Nowt so queer as folk.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Health bribes

Would you give up an unhealthy habit if you were paid to do so? That's what the NHS believes, and they're running some trials to see if the lure of cash will persuade people to give up smoking or lose weight.

In Kent fatties are being offered £425 to slim down by 50 pounds and keep it off for six months. Pregnant women in Essex can get £100 in food vouchers if they give up smoking for a year.

The idea is that a financial incentive will have more effect on people than merely telling them they're damaging their health - or their child's health. We're all tempted by a bit of filthy lucre.

I very much doubt if this is the case. Unhealthy habits are so deeply engrained, so much a part of your whole personality and even your social life, that I can't see money being persuasive for very long. For a month or two maybe but not permanently.

If I was a couch potato and I was offered some cash to take regular exercise, would I succumb? I might do for a while, but sooner or later the familiar mindset would take over and I'd think "God, this walking business is boring. Plodding around looking at grass and trees. I'd rather be watching a good movie." And that would be that.

In fact research has already shown that paying people not to smoke only works as long as the money's being paid. The same is true of weight loss. So I'm not sure why the NHS is pursuing what seems to be a failed idea.

It could be expensive too. If they paid every heavy drinker to cut down on alcohol, the bill would be ruinous. And suppose the boozers just spent the money on fags instead?

At the end of the day, the only thing that promotes good health is healthy role models. Perhaps some of those gluttonous, overweight politicians could show us the way?

Monday 13 April 2009

Art denied

If a work of art is impressive, does it really matter that it was created by a child sex killer? Does a serious character defect invalidate everything else the person does?

London's Royal Festival Hall has been forced to stop exhibiting a sculpture by Colin Pitchfork, currently in jail for raping and killing two 15 year old girls.

The mother of one of the girls fears that such positive acknowledgement of his creative skills might lead to his 30 year sentence being reduced. But surely he will only be released early if he is considered no longer a danger to other people, and his artistic talents will be irrelevant?

I can't see how offenders can ever be rehabilitated if their offences mean they can never be given credit for anything they do, however mature or responsible or inspirational. They have no incentive to better themselves or atone for what they did.

Many brilliant works of art, including literature and music, would be lost to us if we rejected them because of the creator's personal vices. Anything by an alcoholic, drug addict, wife-beater, homophobe, racist or womaniser would have to be thrown out for a start.

Writing off a person's entire life with no attempt to distinguish between good and bad is absurd and blinkered. Even the most barbaric historic figures have had their virtues along with the horrors.

I read that many of the original entries for the Oxford English Dictionary were submitted by a murderer, Dr W C Minor. Should we remove all these entries because of his criminal record? The idea would be laughable.

Photo: "Bringing Music To Life" by Colin Pitchfork.

Friday 10 April 2009

Alphabet soup: B

Number two in the award-winning, ground-breaking series "Nick As Alphabet". B amazed. B very amazed....

Backbiting: Not my thing. I seldom attack people behind their back, unless they've attacked me first.

Bibliophile: I've always been a keen (but slow) reader. Which is probably why I have such a wild imagination.

Boozer: Absolutely not. A few colossal hangovers in my early twenties were enough to make me a very light drinker.

Bruxism: Teeth-grinding. Never been prone to that. I used to chew my lower lip though.

Butcher: I never set foot in one, being a vegetarian. But as a kid, I was fascinated by the mincing machines.

Bon viveur: Sort of. I enjoy life and I appreciate quality and good taste. But I'm not a carefree, over-the-top partygoer.

Baby boomer: Yes, I'm one of the generation that's supposed to have screwed everything up for the young. Not me. I opposed all the backward steps. But what influence do I have?

Beard: In the sixties I had a luxuriant Lennon-type beard. But it didn't survive my androgynous inclinations.

Big-head: No way. I'm very modest about my (fairly limited) achievements and I have no conspicuous talents to shout about.

Bigot: I really dislike bigots and anyone who prefers brainless prejudice to seeing the world with an open mind and open heart.

Boarder: My five years at boarding school were pretty miserable. I was constantly bullied and there was a rigid daily routine.

Buddhism: Half religion, half philosophy, it stresses self-determination and non-material values and has no God. Fine by me.

Bleeding heart: Definitely not. I'm always sympathetic to the underdog but I'm no softie and I'm always wary of hard luck stories.

Brawn: Don't have any. I'm an effete intellectual with a feeble physique that intimidates nobody.

Blow-in: An immigrant. I blew into Belfast nine years ago but for the locals I'll always be a foreigner, so I will.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Gimmee chocolate

It's not all doom and gloom and businesses going to the wall. Like sex toys, luxury chocolates are enjoying a sales boom as people look for little treats and put that long-haul holiday on ice.

London's now said to be the chocolate capital of the world, full of famous names like Rococo, Prestat and William Curley. Everyone's snapping up their truffles, pralines and fondants as if there's no tomorrow.

There's even a wine-type vocabulary developing to enhance your taste experience. As William Curley puts it "Good chocolate always has length. If there's an immediate burst and then it dies on you, it isn't made with the best beans."

Always has length? Well, I must say I prefer six inches of chocolate to one inch. A richer sensation in every way. Size definitely matters, I say.

My usual comment of "Good stuff, that" is clearly hopelessly vulgar and proletarian. I should of course be remarking on the superior width and depth and overall dimensions of truffle flavour. While casually running my tape measure over it, naturally.

Not that I eat chocolate for pure hedonistic ecstasy, needless to say. I eat it solely for the health benefits of lower blood pressure, mood enhancement, reduced cholesterol and increased longevity. A large bar of Toblerone is obviously reducing the burden on the hard-pressed NHS.

And how lucky that we humans can enjoy a taste paradise animals can't. Apparently chocolate is toxic to animals because they find it hard to digest the substance theobromine. They could suffer seizures or even death. Cats and dogs included. So keep that king-size Mars Bar well away from Fido.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Thorntons for some essential medical supplies. Gift-wrapped of course.

And now the journos are getting all excited about Michelle Obama wearing Dusty Springfield-style false eyelashes. How much more of this tripe?

Friday 3 April 2009

Street smarting

I'm finding Google Street View incredibly useful for checking out a particular area we might move to. But some folk are complaining that it's invading their privacy and encouraging crime.

Angry residents of Broughton in Buckinghamshire formed a human chain to stop the Google camera-car driving through their village.

Paul Jacobs objected that his house was being photographed without his permission, and that pictures would help burglars to identify likely houses. The village had had three burglaries in the last six weeks, he said.

Oh, come now. What would be the harm in his house being publicly viewable? You couldn't see inside it, and you couldn't see the street as it is right now because it's a one-off image.

The likelihood of a burglar scanning his particular village, out of the countless thousands of villages across the country, is minute. In any case, a burglar could drive around the village and check it out that way.

All Mr Jacobs has achieved is precisely to publicise his village, which otherwise we would never have heard of.

I think Street View is fabulous. I can see if an area is smart or scruffy, leafy or built-up, quiet or busy. I can see if there are any local shops or services. That saves me all the trouble of physically visiting the neighbourhood and walking around it to get the same information. Surely that's a brilliant innovation?

Come on, Mr Jacobs, stop being so paranoid and let Google do their stuff. You know you want to really.

(Oh and before you ask - yes, our house IS on Street View. Fortunately I wasn't outside doing anything scandalous at the time)

Note to burglars: Broughton is just outside the town of Aylesbury, easily accessible from several major roads. What are you waiting for?

Isn't it depressing that the media's only interest in Michelle Obama's British visit is the clothes she's wearing and whether they're more glamorous than Carla's? Excuse me, she was actually DOING a few things....

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Nosy bosses

How much prying into your private life is an employer entitled to do in the name of protecting their reputation? How far can they go before you tell them to mind their own business?

Some employers routinely monitor their workers' drinking, smoking and drug use, check their criminal records, vet their emails and favoured websites, or ban controversial activities like political protests. Is all this personal surveillance really justified?

I suspect a lot of this nosiness is just a way of showing who's boss and has little to with the firm's reputation.

I shouldn't think their customers care a jot who has a cocaine habit or who wants to smash capitalism as long as they do their job properly.

But this very week a teacher in Cambridge was reprimanded by her Principal for posing in her underwear on a website. She had jeopardised the school's reputation, he said, and acted inappropriately. He ordered the immediate removal of the photos from the website and was consulting his superiors about further action.

Do the pupils or parents really think these risqué photos have affected her teaching? I doubt it. More likely, they were just intrigued and amused.

Of course some personal monitoring is necessary. Making sure that anyone working with children has no history of child abuse is important. Likewise ensuring that pilots aren't drunk in the cockpit. But beyond these basic safeguards, your private life should be your concern and nobody else's.

Objecting to employees who wear crosses, wear earrings, sport tattoos, or dye their hair a strange colour, is ridiculous. All those sartorially-correct bankers still managed to screw up the economy big-time. Maybe a few purple-haired, multi-pierced ones would have done a better job?

If you ask me, the people who really deserve close scrutiny are not ordinary employees but all those sneaky politicians busy lining their pockets at our expense. As far as they're concerned, the more prying the better.

Question: Would it be equally "inappropriate" if the teacher had posted her holiday snaps, lying on the beach in her bikini? Would it be inappropriate that a pupil might have seen her semi-naked on the sand? Someone's seriously over-reacting here.