Wednesday 30 December 2009

Tell me the future

I don't like the uncertainty of the future, it niggles at me. But a lot of people enjoy it. They relish not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow or next month or next year, and they would hate to know exactly what the future holds.

I would love to know what it holds. How long I'm going to live, whether I'm going to get a serious illness, how long Jenny and my mother and sister are going to live, how much money I'm going to have, whether we're all doomed by global warming.

If I knew the answers to all these imponderables I'd be better able to plan ahead and prevent a lot of sudden crises and bad decisions. I'd know what and whom I should pay more attention to and what I could happily ignore.

But the uncertainty bugs me. I want clarity, I want parameters. I sometimes wake in the middle of the night, pondering all these unknowns yet again and wondering how they will all pan out. I'll lie there for an hour mulling them over and obviously getting no answers, just losing some precious sleep.

Other people are equally adamant they don't want to know what's coming. If they're about to get a windfall, or a plum job, or meet the love of their life, they want it to be a wonderful surprise. Or if some disaster is going to befall them, they'd rather not know until it actually confronts them. Wouldn't it be rather depressing, they say, if you knew a whole string of tragedies was coming your way?

Well, maybe or maybe not. If you knew they were coming, perhaps you could avert them. Or if they were inevitable, you could make the most of your present opportunities. If you knew your loved one was going to die, you could take that holiday of a lifetime or buy them that stunning £1000 dress/ suit before they went.

I need to know my destiny. I need a Tardis.

Monday 28 December 2009

Passion killer

It must be quite a shock for a woman who jumps into bed with her boyfriend, looking forward to a night of pleasure and passion, only to find she has an unexpected problem - she's allergic to sperm*.

Apparently up to 10,000 British women have the allergy. Any contact with the stuff and their body rebels - itching, stinging, swelling, blistering, hives and breathing difficulties are the possible effects. Not quite what they had in mind.

Julie Boyde of Ambridge, Pennsylvania, only discovered the problem on her wedding night. Previously she and husband Mike had used condoms so she was unaware there was anything wrong. Then suddenly the pleasure disappeared.

Doctors tried to cure the allergy with a special serum but it made no difference. As the couple want to have children, and she objects to IVF, now the only thing they can do is adopt. A big disappointment for both of them, I'm sure.

It must rather spoil your sex life if you have to tell every new boyfriend that you're ahem, allergic to you-know-what. Guys who're proud of their masculine virility must find it a bit of a let-down that certain options are strictly out of bounds and tamer substitutes are required.

I wonder if some guys can't quite believe what they're hearing and think it's just another female excuse like having a headache or time-of-the-month. Or if they even find it insulting - "What do you mean I'll bring you out in a rash? Nobody else has ever complained...."

It must be a tricky situation to handle. I suppose the best course is to find a man who understands and then stick with him. Or become a lesbian....

* The medical term is Seminal Plasma Hypersensitivity

Thursday 24 December 2009

Sozzled Santa

It's the end of the road for Santa. Retirement beckons. He's been condemned as a shockingly unhealthy role model for children, encouraging all the worst possible lifestyle habits.

Dr Nathan Grills, an Australian public health doctor, has accused him of obesity, drink-driving, speeding, lack of exercise and spreading disease.

The lovable red-suited old beardie is denounced as a thoroughly bad influence in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal.

Dr Grills points out that Santa is extremely fat, goes everywhere by sleigh rather than walking, drinks numerous brandies left by householders, ignores speed limits to get all his presents delivered, and has children on his lap even when he has flu.

Other critics have asked if he has been checked by Criminal Records for his suitability to work with children. And then there's his cruelty to reindeer, pushing them to the point of exhaustion with his punishing Christmas Eve schedule.

All in all, not the sort of person you would want your impressionable offspring to take after. The sooner he's pensioned off and put out of harm's way, the better.

However, a spokesperson for Santa responded angrily to Dr Grills' comments. "It's just sour grapes" she said. "He would love to be as popular as Santa, adored by children everywhere for his charm and generosity. Instead he's just a sour old academic nobody's ever heard of, trapped in some musty office. Who needs him?"

When asked for Santa's exact weight, height and body mass index, she threatened legal action and abruptly hung up.

Still, at least Santa doesn't smoke. Or does he?

A very happy Christmas to all my wonderful blogmates around the world. Forget all your everyday worries and let the festivities commence!

Monday 21 December 2009

Barbaric cuts

While we're scoffing our Christmas dinners, refilling our wine glasses and generally having a good time, let's spare a thought for the hundreds of little girls whose Christmas will be one of fear and pain.

Female genital mutilation is thriving in Britain, despite it being illegal and despite the appalling health risks. And Christmas is the time when many young girls are "seen to" by the "cutters" who do it for a living.

An estimated 70,000 women in the UK have had it done and some 20,000 girls are still in line for it. The victims can die of bleeding or tetanus, and later may develop urinary incontinence, recurrent infections and chronic pain. It can also cause major problems with childbirth and psychological disorders.

The British government has done scandalously little to stop it. Their attitude seems to be that it's a cultural tradition they shouldn't interfere with. So, unbelievably, not one person has been prosecuted in 25 years.

The Somali model Waris Dirie, who was mutilated when she was five, says "No one can undo the trauma that is caused by this horrible crime. It stays in your head for ever."

A government that's vetting some 15 million people for their possible paedophile tendencies, but turns a blind eye to the mass amputation of young girls' clitorises, is a very odd one indeed. Clearly their own daughters aren't at risk, so they don't really care.

The idea that because something is a long-standing cultural ritual from elsewhere, we should respect it and not intrude, even if it involves monstrous cruelty and suffering, is ridiculous. Cruelty is cruelty and should be prevented, whatever the perpetrator's background.

It's about time the government stopped sitting on its hands, stopped ignoring this barbaric practice and put the "cutters" in jail where they belong.

Friday 18 December 2009

Art nouveau

When is art not art? A tricky question. Edinburgh sculptor Kevin Harman thought that heaving a metal pole through an art gallery window was an artistic tour de force. The director of the gallery didn't agree - she took him to court for breaching the peace.

Kevin's sponsor Richard Demarco was outraged. "There has obviously been a profound level of misunderstanding of the raison d'être of Kevin's work. His whole ethos is about making things which are negative into things that are positive."

Many others, including those with a wide knowledge of art such as myself, might say the misunderstanding is Kevin's. He has failed to grasp that smashing a window is not a work of art, it's merely a safety hazard to passing pedestrians.

Of course a sign saying "Ce n'est pas une fenêtre brisée" might have added an artistic dimension*. But presumably that was too passé for our Kev.

Kate Gray, Director of the Collective Gallery, certainly failed to see her shattered window as a ground-breaking oeuvre d'art. She thought petty crime was a more accurate description.

Admittedly, whether something is a work of art or not is often a matter of opinion rather than a self-evident fact. Kevin has his admirers who would stoutly defend his moment de folie as a pièce de résistance.

Try as I may, I can't see it as anything but une dêbacle monumentale.

* René Magritte, anyone? And we can all throw in a bit of pretentious French....

Pic: not the actual window but a similar "work of art". For the real thing, go to the link.

Can you believe it? Five Eurostar trains (yes, five) broke down in the Channel Tunnel and 2000 passengers were stranded overnight. The official explanation? The trains couldn't handle the change from cold air outside the tunnel to warm air inside. You couldn't make it up.

Update, Saturday evening: A sixth Eurostar train has broken down in Kent, and the train towing it has also broken down.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Distorted self

Our self-image is alarmingly unreliable. The way we see ourselves can be very different from how we actually are, and very different from how others see us.

What do you mean I'm beautiful? I'm just a dumpy housewife who's let herself go. A good organiser, me? I leave everything to the last minute and then trust to luck.

How illuminating it would be if we could step outside our own skins for a day and see ourselves as others see us. We might be in for a surprise or two. A lot of self-delusion and a lot of false modesty might be stripped away.

I think most of us tend either to over-estimate or under-estimate ourselves. We all know the two types - the vain, pompous individuals who're convinced they know it all and the shy, apologetic ones who imagine all they ever do is make mistakes.

I'd say I'm one of the under-estimators. I constantly play down my intelligence, my practical skills, my likeability, my financial resources, my emotional resilience and my enjoyment of life.

People are always contradicting my unassuming descriptions of myself, telling me I'm more capable than I make out. But whenever I compare myself with others, I invariably conclude that they tick all the boxes while I'm obviously lacking.

It doesn't seem possible to have a completely accurate picture of one's identity, everything gets slightly distorted by some preconceived notion of what we'd like to be, or what we feel comfortable with, or what excites us.

The most bizarre example must be the woman who's adamant she's revoltingly fat when in reality her size is completely normal. Or on the other hand, the man who thinks he's Adonis despite his beer belly, hairy nostrils and combover.

In fact our capacity for self-delusion is virtually infinite. You only have to look at some of those strutting politicians and talentless celebs. How our minds do merrily mislead us.

Sunday 13 December 2009


I'm all in favour of wind farms, if they help prevent global warming. But it seems they're so noisy that people living close to them are going through hell.

The constant swishing and beating of the turbines is not only disturbing and distracting but prevents people sleeping. They're said to be as loud as helicopters, planes or express trains - and all day every day.

Jane Davis and her husband Julian have had to move out of their Lincolnshire home because of the racket. "On a bad night it's like three or four helicopters circling round" said Jane. She was getting only three hours sleep a night.

Ron Williams in Cumbria has to take sleeping pills and describes the turbine noise as "like a Chinese torture." Lynn Hancock in Cambridgeshire says it's like "a seven-ton lorry left running on the drive all night."

The government seems blithely unconcerned about the turbines' effect on people's health and well-being. They just want to get as many running as possible to increase their green credentials.

According to one report, they actually ignored a recommendation that the maximum decibel limit should be 33 and allowed a higher limit of 43.

How many MPs live near wind turbines and have first-hand experience of what they're like? I suspect none of them, which is why they're so indifferent. Perhaps some of them should visit the affected homes and see why the residents are so angry.

People living near airports already have to put up with worsening noise disturbance as the airports expand to allow more and more flights. Belfast City Airport is a case in point.

If people living close to wind turbines are now expected to put up with the same sort of daily background din, this is complacent officialdom at its worst. Either the noise-battered residents should be helped to relocate or the turbines themselves should be quietened down. Otherwise the whole idea of wind farms will take another hammering.

Pic: Jane and Julian Davis

Friday 11 December 2009

Doctor M's breakthrough

After over a year of intensive therapy with the venerated Dr Melissa Flinch (Shrink of the Year 2007, Mind Mender Award 2008), it seemed we were getting nowhere. I was the same tangled, confused Nick as the day I started.

I lay gloomily on the couch, gazing at the faded portrait of Sigmund Freud. Melissa sat gloomily on her cane chair, examining a chipped fingernail. Suddenly her eyes lit up.

"Of course, of course" she exclaimed. "How stupid of me, it's all so obvious, it's been staring me in the face all this time."

"What has?"

"There's nothing wrong with you at all. All these neuroses and phobias and obsessions you claim to have. All these crippling hang-ups and complexes. They don't exist. They never did."

"Come again?"

"You're actually completely sane, your psyche is 100% healthy. But you pretend to have all these afflictions because you think it makes you more interesting. You think lots of gorgeous women will see your tortured soul as an exciting challenge."

"No no, you're way off track there."

"Well, I've got news for you, Mr Screwball. Nobody enjoys a loonie. They run a mile. People want normal, conventional, reliable. They don't want some Psycho Simon with a hatchet in his pants. So why don't you just drop the act and show me your real self?"

I thought now wasn't the time to reveal the sharpened hatchet in my Armani man-bag. I played for time.

"You're barking up the wrong tree, Melissa. I really am thoroughly dysfunctional. I hardly know if I'm coming or going. I could flip at any time. I need help desperately."

"Okay, Nick, your time's up. See you next week. You don't have any nail restorer, do you?"

"Sorry. I've got some rather splendid magenta nail polish though."

"That'll do nicely."

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Non-British citizen

I have no national loyalty whatever. It makes little difference to me whether I'm British, Swedish, Namibian or Nepalese, as long as my life's going well. So I'm rather pleased I failed the Practice UK Citizenship Test by getting a mere 50%.

Hardly surprising since the questions are so obscure and so irrelevant to what you might think Britishness is actually all about - democracy, equality, fairness, decency etc.

I mean, what is one to make of esoteric questions such as:

Name two places where the European Parliament meets
Give the number of children and young people under 19
Give the percentage of people who are Muslims
Give the number of MPs' constituencies

These aren't questions about Britishness, they're questions about Europe, age groups, religion and parliament. They're questions about official statistics. They have virtually nothing to do with the everyday life of the ordinary citizen.

Of course the alternative questions, the ones actually to do with such concepts as democracy, would be far too embarrassing to ask. For example:

Why do the police stop people taking photographs on the grounds of terrorism?
Why are there so many CCTV cameras?
Why are so many black people in prison?
Why do so many old people die of hypothermia?

Now that type of question would sort the desirable British citizen from the undesirable, deferential forelock-tugger we could do without. Toadies go home, I say.

PS: I'm jolly partial to tea, marmalade, boiled eggs and chips. Dash it, how can I not be British?

Sunday 6 December 2009

Smell check

Public libraries have always had their quota of malodorous visitors, shuffling in to scour the papers. Now a library has actually banned someone with a particularly pungent aroma.

Apparently Stuart Penman of Wigston near Leicester had such a noxious niff that when he entered the library other users would leave. So he's been barred from the library for six months.

After numerous complaints, the staff had talked to him about his personal hygiene. Did he wash, did he use deodorant, did he change his clothes regularly?

Stuart maintains he has a bath every day and is perfectly clean. But the staff continued to get complaints so they issued the ban.

A tricky situation to deal with. People's personal hygiene is generally a taboo subject, to be carefully ignored even if the person's body odour is enough to kill a herd of elephants.

The member of staff chosen to bring the subject up must have been pretty embarrassed. I certainly would be if I had to ask someone if they were actually acquainted with soap and water.

But there's only so much other library users can overlook. Trying to select your reading matter for the next week as an unsavoury reek assails your nostrils must be somewhat challenging. It's bad enough dealing with the mutterers, sniffers, fidgeters and other random eccentrics who frequent such places.

Oh and before you ask, yes, Stuart has a girlfriend. And yes, she admits "he does have a bit of a problem sometimes." That's one way of putting it....

PS: I thought about not using Stuart's name, to save him some embarrassment, but hell, his name is all over the media anyway.

Pic: Stuart Penman outside the library

Friday 4 December 2009

Selfish cad

I didn't treat some of my early girlfriends very well. At that time I was a typical hard, selfish male with little insight into other people's inner lives. It took me quite a while to wise up.

It didn't help that I'd been to all-male schools where I never met any girls and was utterly perplexed when my first job brought me into close contact with the opposite sex.

I treated one particular woman very shoddily. She was a warm, generous person, what in the sixties we would have called a flower child - she wore floaty, wispy clothes, put flowers in her hair, read Lord of the Rings and listened to Donovan.

She fancied me enough to abandon a university course in Birmingham, move in with me in London and then take up a hideously mind-numbing job to pay the rent when my existing job suddenly ended.

I liberated her a few months later when I found another job, but by then our relationship was going downhill, or so I believed. Sex was a flop, culturally we had very different tastes, our bedsit was crummy, and I couldn't cope with her extrovert personality and messiness.

But in those days I simply didn't know how to express my thoughts and feelings. So instead of voicing my frustrations and talking them through with her, I bottled them up and said nothing. And decided that I would simply end the relationship and move on.

Which is what I did, with no explanation and no discussion. I told her it wasn't working out, that we had to split up, and that was that. Of course she was hurt, baffled, crushed, but she agreed to break up and move out.

I saw her a short while later, now going out with a lovely, gentle, thoughtful guy who seemed very good for her. So hopefully the sad experience of our own relationship was soon put behind her.

But ever since, I've pondered over how incredibly immature and insensitive I was then, and how things might have gone if I'd been more open and more aware. A lot of unnecessary heartache could have been avoided.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Identity crisis

It was sad to read about the awful tragedy of Los Angeles sportswriter Mike Penner, who started living as a woman, then regretted it and went back to being a man, and finally killed himself (or so it seems).

He was found dead at the age of 52, but left no note or warning of his intentions. Why he committed suicide is a mystery that will probably never be solved.

About 5% of transsexuals regret changing their gender and change back (as far as they're able to after genital surgery). The rest say they are happy to have made the change.

Mike lived as a woman for around 18 months, but it seems that he had not yet had any surgery.

Regrets can set in for a number of reasons. Aspiring women are daunted by the time and effort required to maintain a perfect female appearance. Or they get disheartened by constant discrimination and harassment. Or they never quite feel like a real woman even if they're accepted as one.

It's known that Mike went through a "very painful" divorce from his wife, and he may have wondered whether it was worth that trauma to become Christine. He may have decided he could never really shed almost 50 years of masculine history. Who knows?

But it's tragic when someone who has taken the dramatic step of changing his gender and all that goes with it then decides he has made a big mistake and wants to turn the clock back. And even when he tries to do that, he's still unhappy and confused.

Certainly the process of turning yourself into a convincing and confident woman without the intensive conditioning that girls normally go through must be incredibly difficult.

It seems that Mike found it impossible and from then on he could no longer make sense of his life. So he ended it.

Pic: Mike's female self, Christine Daniels