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

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Heel appeal

Many women are expected to wear high heels at work, despite the damage they do to the wearers' feet, knees and backs. Shouldn't women have the choice to wear something healthier and more comfortable?

The British Trades Union Congress says yes, of course they should. They've just passed overwhelmingly a motion that employers should carry out risk assessments on women wearing high heels.

They say high heels result in two million working days being lost every year through permanent physical damage, and women should be free to wear more sensible shoes that don't cause injury.

Yet shop workers, office staff, airline crew, hotel employees and others are required to wear high heels as part of their dress code. Ubiquitous health and safety regulations apparently don't apply to harmful footwear.

Not surprisingly the TUC motion hasn't been universally welcomed. Those women who're addicted to high heels can't see what all the fuss is about. As far as they're concerned, heels are glamorous and intimidating and get them more respect in the workplace, particularly from male colleagues*.

Union delegate Loraine Monk said women shouldn't be lectured to about what to wear. "This well-meant motion will see the union movement portrayed in the media as the killjoy fashion police."

Come again? If you point out the damage high heels can do you're being a killjoy? So if you point out that long hair can get caught in machinery, or bare flesh may lead to skin cancer, does that make you a killjoy too? If there's anything that kills joy, it's a bad back and painful feet.

I frequently see women clumping across offices or shopfloors in obviously uncomfortable shoes they must be dying to remove, yet traditional workplace dress codes say a woman doesn't look professional or authoritative unless she's wearing them. So how come men are instantly endorsed without having to teeter three inches off the ground?

Stilts belong in the circus, not in the office.

*See for example the outraged protest against the "shoe police" by Flic Everett in the Daily Mail

Johann Hari of the London Independent has a superb article today about the relentless cult of the stick-thin female body and its destructive effects on ordinary women.

Friday 11 September 2009

A lover's dues

If someone you'd had a relationship with for 33 years died and left you nothing, would you feel hard done-by and sue their estate for what you thought you deserved?

Anne Mulholland did just that and was awarded £250,000 by Belfast High Court. Now she's gone into hiding because of the controversy she's stirred up.

She met sheep farmer Seamus Kane when she was 16 and he was in his early forties. A veil was drawn over the relationship because the locals disapproved of people "living in sin".

When her lover died in 2004 without a will the whole £800,000 estate passed to his siblings. She was offered only a "paltry" sum in recognition of her long-standing devotion to Mr Kane so felt compelled to take legal action.

Would I have done the same, I wonder? I suppose it would depend on how desperate I was for money, whether I could face the wrath of the relatives, whether I thought I deserved something in return for my commitment, whether my life was nearing its end anyway, and whether I had someone to support me emotionally.

It would certainly take a lot of courage to take on relatives who thought I deserved nothing and would fight me tooth-and-nail through the several years it might take to reach the courtroom. If I had nobody to lean on when the struggle got too much, I don't think I would have the nerve.

But if I'd given most of my life to someone else and wasn't equipped to earn my own living after they died, wouldn't a large bequest be only fair? Or should I just get off my arse and work out how to make a new life for myself?

I think on balance I'd prefer the dignity of shifting my arse to the embarrassment of holding out my begging bowl.

Wednesday 9 September 2009


You might think we all have a similar idea of what's dishonest and what's not. But new research shows that what's dishonest to one person is quite okay to someone else.

Only 31% think it's wrong to keep money found in the street while only 43% think it's wrong to get an elderly person to leave you something in their will. And only 49% think they shouldn't buy a pirate DVD.

On the other hand 86% would disapprove of wearing a dress and then returning it to the shop and 82% would disapprove of taking stationery from work (although two thirds have done so!).

Whether you see something as dishonest depends a lot on how you see the situation. It seems women are more likely to see an action as dishonest. But they're also more likely to excuse it because of the person's circumstances or their character.

I'm somewhat flexible about the meaning of dishonesty myself, because circumstances do shed a different light on things.

Suppose you steal a few things from work in retaliation for your boss treating you badly? Suppose you conceal a sexual fling from your spouse because you suspect they do the same? Is that dishonest or is it legitimate?

Poverty and need can drive people to be dishonest by stealing clothes or food or money. Are they truly dishonest or are they just desperately trying to survive in any way possible?

Making huge profits by overcharging people, or buying a cut-price repossessed home, are seen as perfectly normal. But are they in fact acts of dishonesty? It all depends how you look at it.

Of course I've been dishonest plenty of times myself. Who hasn't? But I'm not spilling the beans in such a public domain. I don't want PC Plod on my doorstep in half an hour's time. So I'll just let your fertile imaginations run riot.

PS: It strikes me that the question of dishonesty, like all ethical issues, really boils down to the question of am I doing any harm to someone else?

PPS: A report today says five executives of the failed car firm MG Rover milked it of pay and pensions worth £42 million while 6500 employees lost their jobs. So will the executives be prosecuted for dishonesty? Somehow I think not.

Sunday 6 September 2009

Look before you leap

Over-zealous, interfering busybodies who get the wrong end of the stick can cause so much trouble for their unfortunate victims. Especially if it's the red-hot issue of child abuse.

A couple sitting on the beach at Fortaleza in north west Brazil decided that a middle-aged Italian tourist was acting inappropriately by being "over-affectionate" to a young girl.

Mindful of the strict new anti-paedophilia laws, they promptly reported him to the police. He was arrested, kept in custody and now faces 15 years in jail for child molestation.

Except that the situation wasn't quite as it seemed to the vigilante couple. The girl was actually the man's eight year old daughter and he was giving her an affectionate kiss, as he has doubtless done hundreds of times before.

His daughter and his Brazilian wife both insisted vigorously that he'd done nothing wrong and that the arrest was ridiculous, but the police were unmoved. His wife said the allegations could destroy her family.

The story doesn't tell us if the over-reacting couple were informed of what was actually happening, and if so whether they were apologetic. But they certainly turned someone's pleasant holiday into a sudden nightmare.

And ironically, the child they were trying to protect must have been distressed and worried by her father's disappearance.

It's all too easy to jump into a situation with the best of motives but completely misunderstanding what's going on. Especially when the global hysteria about child abuse is making people absurdly over-sensitive to quite normal behaviour.

Look before you leap is a very wise old saying.

PS: According to the BBC, a fresh attempt to release the man failed at the weekend and a new attempt will be made on Tuesday. Apparently child sex abuse is a big problem in Brazil, particularly in the north east, which may be why the Brazilian couple were so quick to report the incident. Another report said the little girl told the police that parents often kiss their children on the lips in Italy.

According to the Guardian on Tuesday, the man has now been rushed to hospital with high blood pressure and is under police guard. The initial police inquiry should be completed by Thursday.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Thoughts of posterity

Some people as they get older start thinking about "leaving something for posterity", something of permanent benefit to others after they've died. They don't want to just leave future generations to get on with it.

It's a very laudable aim, better than simply enjoying your life and then clocking off, and who cares what comes next? The desire to add something to the world rather than leaving it the way it is, or worse, is admirable.

The result is new charities, new museums, major inventions and wonderful pieces of literature that leave the world a richer and more fulfilling place. So many everyday experiences that we take for granted are owed to such benefactors.

I'd like to pass something on in the same generous way, but of course we don't all have the skills or the cash to do so. We mostly content ourselves with trying to improve the life we're living and having some fun on the way. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Unfortunately some people's idea of leaving something for posterity is not quite so positive. All those armies and guerilla fighters who believe that years of carnage and violence will lead to a bright new era are in general sadly mistaken. What they usually leave behind after their exertions are shattered societies.

Neither does leaving something for posterity mean all that worthless junk that politicians and VIPs like to dump on us - pointless memorials, plaques, statues and monuments that do nothing for anyone but simply rust and rot.

Of course the best thing to leave the next generation is the knowledge and wisdom that will help them too to improve the world. Who knows, I might be doing a bit of that.

Pic: The Peggy Guggenheim Museum of Art in Venice, opened in 1951

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Veronica's wrinkles

By a lucky coincidence, as Jenny was flying off to an academic conference in Glasgow, my dear friend Veronica, the dazzling supermodel, was jetting in from an assignment in Dubai.

I had the champagne ready as her limo purred up the road. As soon as she'd dismissed the chauffeur and rushed inside to escape the leering paparazzi, she was giving me the low-down on THAT story.

"That f***ing tabloid said I had wrinkles. What shit-faced bastards they all are" she fumed, sprawling seductively across the Cath Kidston cushions. "I don't have any wrinkles, do I, darling?"

"Of course you don't, sweetie" I lied. "Still as smooth as a baby's bottom. Don't take any notice of those vicious toerags. They're just sick with jealousy. How do you keep those fabulous looks, anyway?"

"It's meditation, Nicky. I've discovered this wonderful place, the Order of the Ninth Beatitude. It's run by this fantastic guy called Swami Kevin. He's sooo sexy, that soft, soothing voice like a mountain stream, it turns me to jelly. Anyway, he has this sensational meditation method, it really really works. Ten minutes and I'm so relaxed I'm practically floating. All the stress just melts away. And all those horrid wrinkles. They're all doing it now. Madonna, Kate, Amy, Lily. He's a miracle worker."

"Funny, I heard you'd had a bit of work done, sweetie. A smidge of botox, a discreet nip and tuck."

Veronica stiffened and ran her razor-sharp fingernails down my cheek. "Wash your mouth out, Nicky, that's a very hurtful thing to say. No way would I hand over my precious, God-given body to one of those hack-and-stitch merchants. I swear on my granny's grave, meditation is all I need. Thirty minutes in the morning, thirty minutes in the evening."

"And the odd thirty minutes in Swami Kevin's bedroom?"

"Nicky, you're so mean. His spiritual perfection excludes all forms of physical and carnal lust. He's in a state of permanent bliss that makes such things meaningless."

"Sure, and I'm a pineapple. Those boobs are as tantalising as ever, by the way."

"And your mind's as filthy as ever. Any chance of some booze?"

Pic of the new-look Veronica courtesy of Trinket Holdings