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.