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.