Thursday 30 December 2010

Love derailed

I'm always fascinated by marriages that fall apart in a matter of months. How did this amorous couple become disillusioned with each other so quickly?

What did one of them find out about their partner that was so shocking, so disappointing, so repulsive that they just had to call it a day and walk out?

Sometimes you find out, sometimes you don't. Sometimes the aggrieved spouse is only too keen to dish the dirt on their other half and demolish their glossy image. Sometimes they're just too embarrassed to explain, too stunned by their own inability to see their partner's weaknesses before they tied the knot.

They may discover that Mr Right is a chronic womaniser, an alcoholic, a bully, or a closet gay. Ms Perfect may turn out to be a spendthrift, a neat freak, a self-pitying whinger, or a kleptomaniac.

Of course we all uncover unsavoury characteristics in our loved ones sooner or later. Nobody can keep up a phoney facade of rectitude forever, particularly if you're living with someone day in and day out. Eventually the cleverly-constructed mask will slip.

Most of these peculiarities we can adjust to as a minor aspect of our partner's rich and varied identity. But sometimes something emerges that is so alien, so extreme that we simply can't stomach it. Then the relationship dies overnight.

I scratch my head at the self-delusion of individuals who're well aware of some serious personal failing but get involved with someone else in the hope either that their unattractive defect will stay miraculously hidden or that the other person will be infinitely understanding and indulgent. Not surprisingly, their wishful thinking generally ends in tears, and the house of cards collapses in a startling heap.

Monday 27 December 2010

The lure of heels

One of the most enduring clichés about female beauty is that a woman always looks more attractive, more sexy and more sophisticated in high heels. I don't buy that at all, I think it's nonsense.

Women clumping around in heels that are both uncomfortable and hard to walk in are anything but attractive. And quite often the discomfort only makes them rude and grumpy.

There's nothing less appealing than a woman discreetly slipping off her painful footwear and relieving her aching feet.

As for those career women who're expected to wear heels to look "professional" (and how does that square with being sexy exactly?), why do three wobbly inches make them better at their jobs?

It just makes them feel superior to anyone not similarly shod, and entitled to browbeat and intimidate them.

Most high heels are of course designed by men who never wear them and are confident they themselves look ravishing without the need for such routine hobbling.

If men were obliged to teeter around in three-inch heels all day, they'd soon change their view of how "attractive" they were.

Heels are just a big liability if you're being pursued by an unwanted male, or trying to run for the bus, or doing anything physically demanding. They're only practical as long as you're moreorless stationary and doing nothing more taxing than light office work.

It's really not attractive seeing a woman staggering clumsily towards a bus stop as the bus accelerates away without her. Or sinking helplessly into a soggy lawn and having to be pulled out by a sniggering male.

But for some women it's the very impracticality of high heels, and the traditional feminine "vulnerability" they suggest, that tempts them into buying.

And they'll pay ridiculous sums to get into heels with the right designer label, even if they're crippled for days afterwards. Mr Blahnik* must be laughing all the way to the bank.

* Manolo Blahnik, shoe designer. He has made a fortune out of his fashionable high heels. How about the new jewelled satin pump at a mere £749?

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Here be aliens

The tiny village of Bugarach in southern France used to be a quiet, tranquil spot. Not any more. It's being overrun by UFO watchers who think extraterrestrials are living under the nearby mountain.

They think that come Doomsday on December 21, 2012 the aliens will emerge and take a handful of surviving humans to another planet. Naturally they want to be one of the lucky few.

Now the 189 locals, instead of enjoying calm country walks, are being confronted by New Agers meditating and praying, taking courses in mysticism and planting sacred objects on the mountainside.

The visitors are also buying up houses at inflated prices the villagers themselves can't afford. They want to be first in the queue when the rescue craft flee Armageddon.

It's amazing how an utterly dotty idea, tossed out by some nutcase in an obscure corner of cyberspace or the media, is taken up by thousands of people to become a bona fide belief that displaces sober reality.

One man claims he "heard the humming of their spacecraft under the mountain." There again, it might just have been an acute case of tinnitus. Or too many recreational drugs. Or the local choir rehearsing.

Perhaps the villagers should invent some stories of their own to take the heat off Bugarach. Extraterrestrials in Bugarach? Whatever gave you that idea? No no, they all live at Campradón, 50 miles to the south. Mind you, I heard they'd already gone back to Planet Zog, they thought Doomsday was too scary.

If you repeat a bit of gobbledegook often enough, people will start to believe it, however outlandish or nonsensical. Didn't you know the moon is made of green cheese? I had a piece the other day, totally delicious, like camembert with a hint of toenail and a trace of woodworm....

Pic: The mayor of Bugarach, Jean-Pierre Delord, on the outskirts of the village

Sunday 19 December 2010

Just imagine

What an advantage it must be to have a really fertile imagination, one that endlessly throws up new ideas without any conscious effort.

My imagination is very sluggish. It comes in random fits and starts. It can be bubbling away furiously for a while and then suddenly it stops dead and refuses to yield anything for hours on end.

This is why I couldn't be a full-time writer. I've tried to write a novel but got total writer's block after around 100 pages. Despite every attempt to get the flow going again, my imagination obstinately failed to cooperate.

Without a constantly freewheeling imagination, I'm often stuck firmly in the prosaic everyday reality, getting bored with the familiar routine but unable to transcend it, unable to drift into a parallel consciousness of tantalising images and scenarios.

I like to think that if I had a fizzing imagination, my life would taken all sorts of spectacular twists and turns that would have transformed it from a fairly predictable middle-class lifestyle to something much more extraordinary.

Not that I'm complaining about how my life has gone, far from it, but I'm sure the strength of our imagination can make a big difference to the richness and vitality of our lives.

Of course imagination has also been responsible for some of the worst horrors of human existence - nuclear bombs, Nazism, torture, slavery - but if we had no imagination at all, the world would be a grim and oppressive place indeed. Change would be impossible. We would be frozen in a permanent Stone Age.

Imagine that.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Santa's troubles

Santa's trying to keep it quiet, but there's growing unrest in the Grotto. The elves are demanding a pay rise and better working conditions.

They say the toy-production targets are impossible to keep up with, and dangerous machinery is causing serious injuries. They also want a few female toymakers to increase job satisfaction.

Not only that but the reindeer are demanding strict mileage limits on the distribution run, after several reindeer died from exhaustion during last year's deliveries. And they want in-flight entertainment instead of having to stare into space all night. "It's so fucking boring" said one disgruntled reindeer, who didn't want to be named.

An angry Santa has hit back at the rebels, threatening mass sackings and blaming outside troublemakers working for rival toymakers Here Comes Santa. Inside sources say the stressed-out super-hero is drinking heavily, chain-smoking and running up massive gambling debts.

Santa is already under pressure from consumers complaining of the declining quality of his festive gifts. Said Jason, 10, of Croydon, "It was a load of rubbish last year. Everything fell to bits or wouldn't work. The clothes were embarrassing, I couldn't possibly wear them. The senile old git should have been pensioned off years ago."

On top of all that, Santa's wife of 19 years, the astonishing Pixie Ambrosia Angeldust, is seeking a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. "I mean nothing to him. All he cares about is his bloody workshop. It's toys, toys, toys, morning noon and night. I might as well not exist. I'm not hanging around like a spare bogroll any longer."

Santa was not available for comment.

Pic: Santa and Pixie

Monday 13 December 2010

Empty plates

More and more Britons are now so hard-up they're resorting to charity food handouts to avoid starving. Often embarr-assed and apologetic, having tried desperately to fend for themselves, they ask for the handouts to feed themselves and their children.

The number of people getting emergency food boxes has risen from 25,000 two years ago to 60,000, which includes 20,000 children. If the trend continues, by 2015 there'll be half a million people being fed.

The handouts are provided by the Trussell Trust, a charity that manages over 70 food banks around the UK.

Despite what the government says, this is a wealthy country crawling with billionaires and multi-millionaires, yet the gap between rich and poor is still widening and Rolls-Royces glide past those who don't know where the next meal's coming from.

It's no longer just the homeless who need food handouts. Now it's also working people whose incomes are so low they simply can't pay all the bills. Increasingly they're having to choose between heat, light, food and clothing because they can't afford all of them.

Parents are skipping meals to feed their children. Tiny portions are the norm, if there are any portions at all. Whether food is cheap and filling is more important than whether it's nourishing.

It's a shocking situation. And what's worse is the fact that people are less and less sympathetic to the plight of the badly-off. Just 27 per cent think the government should spend more on welfare benefits and only half think it should provide a decent standard of living for everyone.

The rest presumably think it's your own fault if you're poor and struggling to survive. You're probably poor because you've been feckless, reckless and bone-idle, so why should anyone else help you?

I despair of the selfish, hard-hearted, indifferent society I live in, where comfort and good fortune is taken for granted and the problems of the less fortunate are pushed out of sight. So few people recall that wise old saying "There but for the grace of God go I."

Friday 10 December 2010

What's in a name?

Changing your name is increasingly popular. This year more than 90,000 Britons have used deed poll services to do just that, a rise of over 30 per cent on 2009.

People are keener to alter a name they dislike and avoid the related embarrassment, prejudice or ridicule. They're not going to put up with a cringe-inducing name just because their parents gave it to them or because changing it is too laborious.

They make the change for all sorts of reasons, not just because their name is Sidebottom or Smellie. Divorcees want their old name back. Job applicants with foreign names want something more indigenous. People want a name that's more suited to their personality, or is easier to spell and pronounce, or disconnects them from past crimes or shameful activities.

You can't change your name to just anything though. Deed poll services reject unsuitable names like Osama bin Laden or Jesus Christ or swear words. Or presumably overtly sexual words.

Apparently it's common for people committing suicide to change their names beforehand, a sign of the identity crisis they're going through. People may take on the name of someone they admire or someone they're obsessed with, like stalkers taking their victim's name.

I've never had any desire to change my surname, it's a very ordinary and unremarkable name. It doesn't reflect my personality at all, but what name would? It's not a liability in any way, be it employment, social occasions or anything else. So I'll hang on to it, thanks.

But I do wonder why Bob Geldof's daughters - Peaches Honeyblossom, Fifi Trixibelle and Pixie - don't change their names. I suppose if nothing else, they're memorable and distinctive. But don't they cringe every time they hear them?

Pic: Peaches Honeyblossom Geldof

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Little monsters

It's a common belief that some children are born nasty and vicious and they'll never change. I don't accept that, I'm convinced any child will be just great as long as they're brought up properly.

What produces monsters is parents who don't love their children and don't know how to bring out their innate goodness and sensitivity. If they're aided and abetted by teachers who write off children's potential and assume they'll never achieve much, then naturally those children will be messed up.

Look at any child who's developed a mean streak and become "impossible" and I'm sure you'll find these negative factors at the root of it. There are many many parents out there who really have little idea of the right way to bring up a child.

Of course parents will say "Ah, but you don't have children. You don't know what they can be like. Some children are trouble from the word go and there's nothing you can do about it. You can bust a gut trying to sort them out and you'll get nowhere. Some kids are simply beyond the pale."

But there are plenty of people working with children who say that's not the case. They maintain adamantly that difficult children can be turned around if you just treat them the right way, if you understand why they've become so wayward.

I'm sure we can all think of mature, responsible adults who at one time were complete tearaways. It's not a predestined path, young hoodlums don't have to be hoodlums for the rest of their life.

Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids' Company for one has helped hundreds of children to shake off their dysfunctional past and become the positive individuals they were meant to be. People used to call her a crazy idealist but not any longer. They've seen the practical results of her work and they know she's wiser than all the defeatists and cynics. For her, writing people off is just not an option.

Friday 3 December 2010

Mind the biscuit

Can it really be true that 25 million Britons have been injured while eating biscuits? And that the worst offenders are those innocent-looking custard creams?

A new survey claims biscuits are pretty dangerous objects. You could be hit by flying fragments, scald yourself while dunking them, poke yourself in the eye, or fall off your chair getting them from a shelf.

Is this really credible? Have you personally ever been injured by a biscuit? Do you know anyone who has? Do you know anyone who's ever heard of anyone who has? Or is your life mysteriously free of biscuit-related catastrophes?

I suspect the whole unlikely scenario was invented by a bored teenager on work experience, munching a particularly unexciting and nondescript custard cream.

The research company however insists its results are absolutely genuine and painstakingly gathered. "We tested the physical properties of 15 popular types of biscuit, along with aspects of their consumption such as dunkability and crumb dispersal."

So there you have it. How thorough is that? So thorough that no doubt several researchers were themselves injured as they tested dunkability and fragmentation-potential. Some of them are probably still in intensive care right now, martyrs to exhaustive scientific inquiry.

Oh, and I haven't even listed all the possible dangers of biscuit-handling. You could also break a tooth or filling, be bitten by a pet competing for the biscuit, choke on the crumbs, or slip on a crushed digestive. Believe me, it's lethal out there.

Next up from this diligent research team: the mounting death toll from pot noodle. Hospitals overwhelmed as popular snack proves fatal. Could you be at risk?

Wednesday 1 December 2010

So neurotic

"Neurotic" is one of those vague terms we sling at people, more as an insult than a description. "Natalie's so bloody neurotic, it's impossible to work with her."

It's pretty damning because it can mean all sorts of unflattering things. The person's obsessive, they worry too much, they complicate things, they dither, they're over-emotional.

It's not a word we welcome. It implies we're pretty useless at dealing with everyday life. Everything is too much for us, the tiniest thing makes us panic, we fumble our way along like a halfwit.

Once someone has attached the term to you, it's hard to shake off, even it turns out to be quite mistaken. I remember a workmate called Jane who had a deceptively ditzy style. She always looked dazed and ineffectual, with a hesitant voice, a deferential manner and a constant air of timidity.

She was instantly summed up as neurotic, yet this was far from the truth. Underneath the quavery exterior was a steely core, and she did her work brilliantly. She was actually smarter, more efficient and more reliable than many of her workmates, but the "neurotic" tag clung to her obstinately.

It doesn't help either that it's one of those common psychiatric terms that implies the person's a bit deranged and in urgent need of professional treatment.

You don't have to be as considerate and helpful as you would to any normal person because their problems are too complex, too tangled, you'll just get sucked into their hopelessly dysfunctional psyche. Best to give them a wide berth and leave them to it.

All in all, a juicy term of abuse. It isn't often aimed at me but when it is I'm startled enough to take a good hard look at myself. Am I really that loopy? Am I really out to lunch? Or was it just a throwaway remark?

Saturday 27 November 2010

Breaking muse

People often ask me, what is the secret of your consistently brilliant blog? Where do you write such dazzling posts? What are the surroundings that inspire you to such dizzy heights of eloquence?

Well, I've taken a deep breath and revealed this candid picture of my blogging room. It is in fact the Marilyn Monroe Memorial Library in the East Wing, overlooking the Boating Lake.

It may look quiet and sedate but unfortunately my creative endeavours have often been interrupted by disturbing and gruesome tragedies.

My half-sister Sophie, in a state of hopeless depression after the death of her beloved chihuahua, jumped from the window and was killed instantly as she hit the granite flagstones by the statue of Oscar Wilde.

Uncle Bernard, the incorrigible womaniser, was seriously injured when the massive light fitting fell from the ceiling and fractured his skull. He was in a coma for seven weeks, which came as a great relief to the 15 women he was actively pursuing.

My cherubic niece Tiffany was overcome by fumes from the fresh varnish on the writing desk and was found in a deranged state by the housekeeper. She had torn hundreds of pages out of my priceless first editions.

Still, never mind these depressing memories. What of the creative secrets hidden in this innocent-looking room?

In a special compartment under the floorboards there's a stash of banknotes to persuade rival bloggers to abandon their pointless outpourings. If that doesn't work, there's also a shotgun and a phial of arsenic.

In the writing desk drawer are the computer codes that lace my posts with subliminal messages compelling visitors to keep reading. Mostly they refer to sex, chocolate cake and designer dresses.

But that's enough of my fearless candour. I shall now lock the door, draw the curtains and wait for the Muse to let rip. If she's gone off in a huff, I'll just have to paint my nails and finish off the marzipan cupcakes.

With thanks to Catalog Living

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Unsavoury kilts

It seems the old Scottish custom of not wearing anything under your kilt is no longer sacred. It's being attacked as unhygienic, childish and offensive.

Firms that hire out kilts are complaining that because of the no-underwear tradition, kilts are being returned to them in a disgusting state that upsets their staff, and they have to be thoroughly cleaned before they can be reused*. Some firms are now demanding underwear as a condition of hire.

Regular kilt-wearers however are having none of it. They say insisting on underwear is namby-pamby nonsense and undermines an age-old custom. Kilt-wearers like fresh air and freedom of movement around their intimate areas, and they can't see what all the fuss is about.

But I daresay their women folk aren't entirely happy with the scantily-clad tradition, and aren't too keen on the possibility of accidental exposure.

Personally I've never seen the attraction of kilts anyway. Rather ungainly, old-fashioned things, surely? Why hordes of women find them so exciting and dashing escapes me. If men fancy wearing a skirt (and why not, for heaven's sake?), how about something subtler and prettier?

I must say I'm seeing kilt-wearers in a different light after those squalid revelations from the hirers. I think I'll keep well away from anyone in a kilt in future for fear of unsavoury goings-on. Me, I'm definitely in the compulsory underwear camp. Good grief, lads, have you no sense of personal decency?

* That's the kilts, not the staff

Sunday 21 November 2010

Be my guest

Even if we were desperate for money, Jenny and I would be very reluctant to take in a lodger. We could so easily end up with the lodger from hell, taking advantage every which way and driving us nuts.

But the number of people taking in lodgers to make ends meet is rising dramatically in the current economic downturn.

More than 200,000 British households now have a lodger - that's a rise of 15 per cent in three years and a level not seen since the sixties. The typical lodger-landlords are middle-class thirty-something couples.

Some of them have had their fingers burnt though. They've had lodgers who keep stinking food in the fridge, cook meals at all hours of the night, take umpteen showers a day and monopolise the washing machine. Then when they ask the lodger to leave, they dig their heels in and refuse to go.

Jenny and I simply wouldn't want to take that risk. Because however carefully you try to vet someone and predict how reliable and well-behaved they're going to be, you can always be fooled by someone who knows how to fake it and present themselves as the ideal lodger.

It's simply not worth the possibility that our cosy and comfortable domestic routine would be hit for six for someone who couldn't care less about our wishes or our well-being.

In my twenties I shared a few places with other people and sometimes it was a nightmare. They would invite all their friends round for wild parties, never do any housework, play loud music at any hour and leave food to fester and rot. I would have to move out rapidly and with a huge sigh of relief.

If all lodgers respected their landlords and behaved with sensitivity and courtesy, the idea of taking them in would be more appealing. Unfortunately too many lodgers turn out to be a law unto themselves.

PS: Okay, be honest, am I just mean and selfish and uncharitable?

PPS: Jenny points out that even if lodgers are a pain in the arse, they may be paying the landlord's mortgage. In which case complaints ring a bit hollow....

Thursday 18 November 2010

Binge and run

Have you ever been tempted to walk out of a restaur-ant without paying when you notice the exorbitant prices on the menu?

A couple who were arrested in London are suspected of doing a runner from a string of posh restaurants, clocking up unpaid bills amounting to £2500.

The bills included bottles of vintage champagne, repeat orders of foie gras, hare, venison, mille-feuille and other exotic items.

I must say when I see the phenomenal prices some eateries charge for very basic dishes, simply because the venue is fashionable and luxurious, and the obscene levels of profit involved, the idea of stuffing oneself and then scarpering is very appealing.

I do wonder whether these affluent diners are simply savouring their over-priced titbits or whether their real aim is to feel superior to all the impoverished grafters peering enviously through the windows.

I'm sure most people would love to dine out in style every night rather than cobbling up another makeshift meal in a poky kitchen. Unfortunately they don't have bank accounts hefty enough to finance such casual extravagance.

Mind you, on the odd occasion when I've found myself in some fancy restaurant renowned for its haute cuisine, the servers have an unnervingly supercilious attitude, as if they know far more about culinary nuances than you, the uneducated punter, could possibly know. They give the impression you're gracing their tables on sufferance, only tolerated for the sake of financial gain. They'll wash their hands of you at the earliest opportunity.

When I recall occasions of that sort, I think maybe there's something to be said for a makeshift meal in a poky kitchen.

Monday 15 November 2010


I'm an intensely curious person. I'm never satisfied with the obvious. I'm never satisfied with glib platitudes. I want to know more, I want the facts behind the facts, I want the hidden story.

So you have marital squabbles? Medical problems? Financial headaches? Tell me the details, the sheer awfulness, the whole desperate mess. Don't fob me off with vague hints, lay it all on the table.

The trouble is that most people don't want to tell me the full story. They're suspicious of my curiosity. They think I'll criticise them, or laugh at them, or lecture them. They're embarrassed by their own foolishness or vulnerability or incompetence. They can't believe I'm simply interested in what they're going through, what they're having to contend with.

So most of the time my curiosity is frustrated. I have to make do with imagining the missing pieces in the jigsaw, imagining what they're not telling me. And quite possibly conjuring up something far more lurid and catastrophic than is actually the case.

Someone will hint at marital tensions, and immediately I'm assuming sexual infidelity, domestic violence or seedy obsessions, when the reality may be nothing more than persistent snoring.

I don't mind other people's curiosity about me. I don't have anything to hide (well, very little). People can ask away as much as they like, I'm happy to tell them whatever they want to know. I'm a fallible human being like anyone else, I make mistakes, I get into tight spots. I don't feel any need to cover things up and pretend I'm perfect. I don't expect criticism or ridicule, and actually I seldom get it.

There's nothing wrong with curiosity. It shows a healthy interest in life. What does disturb me is people with no curiosity at all, people who respond blankly to anything and everything, be it trite, odd or utterly insane. That's what really sends shivers up my spine.

Thursday 11 November 2010

A warm welcome

What a wonderful way to welcome new women employees to your office. Circulate pictures of them to the male employees and ask for a rating of the top ten most attractive recruits.

Wouldn't that make you feel good? It wouldn't? What's the matter, lost your sense of humour, love?

Unluckily for the 17 men who did exactly that at an Irish branch of Price Waterhouse Coopers, a journalist discovered their jolly jape and alerted their managers. But only after the pictures were forwarded to other firms and then flooded the internet.

The company is now promising a full investigation and say they will "take all necessary steps and actions."

Apart from wondering how the 17 men had the time for such concentrated ogling, it baffles me how they could possibly see such an exercise as a welcoming gesture. The answer presumably is that their intention was never to be welcoming but to put the women in their places as bits of totty whose specialist skills are of no importance.

I can only imagine what the 13 women felt, as none of them has had the courage to speak out. Shock, horror and embarrassment probably don't begin to describe their feelings at being turned into a global public spectacle for the amusement and sexual frisson of countless horny males.

They joined the company expecting to be seen as productive and valued employees, only to be relegated to pin-up status in a leering beauty contest.

They rapidly discovered that their male colleagues may look polished and professional in their crisp little suits, but underneath lurks the same old swamp of misogynist crudity.

PS: Incredibly, many of the media stories include all 13 pictures, which only encourages further circulation. My link is now to the story in the Irish Times, which doesn't include the pictures.

PPS: And when are we going to see pictures of all the 17 men, with their names and personal details? Somehow I think their identities will be carefully hushed up....

Pic: Fiona and Sharon check out the Top Ten Ugliest Male Employees at Soddit and Halfwit Ltd

Tuesday 9 November 2010


Guilt is an ambiguous thing. It can be a healthy feeling of regret and the need to put something right. Or it can be a hopeless neurosis, a constant brooding over past mistakes.

Men are assumed to be low on guilt, just ploughing ahead regardless and not too worried about the consequences of what they do. Anyone who objects is seen as an oversensitive fuss-butt, unable to deal with real life.

Women are thought to be guilt-ridden, forever wondering if they've caused offence or not been generous enough or treated someone badly. They're always ready to apologise, declare their own shortcomings and make frantic amends.

I have to say I follow the male pattern here. I seldom feel guilty and I tend to think that if something I do causes some unexpected disaster or distresses someone, it's really just bad luck. Of course I'll do what I can to put things right, but I don't lose any sleep over it and I don't beat myself up over my miscalculations.

It occurs to me though that if men were a bit more prone to guilt, a lot of the horrendous massacres and barbarities they've carried out across the world wouldn't have happened. If they could feel a shred of human empathy with the victims of their atrocities, they wouldn't be capable of them.

But too much guilt can paralyse a person and make them so timid and hesitant their whole life stalls. They blame themselves for everything and can't accept that shit happens despite the best of intentions.

A smattering of guilt helps us to be civilised. But too much of it can be a millstone.

PS: Is there a difference between regret (feeling you did something wrong) and guilt (feeling bad about it)?

Saturday 6 November 2010

Old and past it

I'm devastated to have to tell you that I'm being replaced as the presenter of nickhereandnow on account of being "too old and wrinkled and generally past it."

The new presenter will be gorgeous, pouting Veronica Trinket, aged 25, the glamorous supermodel and fashionista. "I'm looking forward to this exciting new opportunity" she gushed. "I don't know anything about blogging but I'm keen to learn."

I had an unexpected phone call from Simon Hatchett, Human Resources Director of the British Blogging Corporation, on Friday morning.

"I don't like to say it, Nick," he said, "but someone has to. There's a general feeling that you're a bit over the hill and due for retirement. To be frank, your face looks like a mountain path and your eyebags are bigger than my wife's tits. A bit of botox and plastic surgery might do the trick, but I hear you believe in natural ageing."

"I certainly do" I spluttered. "You heartless monster. You moronic crowd-pleaser. Don't you realise I'm the one who creates the unique flavour, the special ambience of nickhereandnow? How can that possibly be left in the hands of some gormless anorexic coat-hanger? Are you insane?"

Needless to say, my protests fell on deaf ears. I'm dispensible, I'm yesterday's cheeseburger, I'm a laddered pair of tights. I've got to go, the sooner the better.

But I'm not taking this lying down. I shall join the sacked BBC Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly (53) who is suing the BBC for sex and age discrimination, and sue the pants off Mr Hatchett.

And don't be surprised if gorgeous, pouting Veronica is involved in a very nasty accident.

Pic: starving but wrinkle-free Veronica Trinket

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Smoke alarm

I haven't much sympathy with workplace smokers, but the new tendency to make them clock out and clock in whenever they take a fag break does seem a bit over the top.

Apparently a number of local authorities are now asking smokers either to clock out while they smoke or work overtime to compensate.

Not surprisingly smokers are objecting to being singled out for penalties. What about non-smokers who waste their time on the internet or Facebook? Or make themselves a cup of coffee? Or spend ten minutes gossiping with a workmate? Or spin out that out-of-office trip to do a bit of shopping? Shouldn't they be penalised as well?

The truth is we all sneak little breaks from work to give ourselves a boost or fend off a heavy workload for a while. Either we should all be sanctioned or nobody should. It's hardly fair to jump on smokers and nobody else. I'm with the smokers here.

Those non-smokers who claim to feel resentful about 'privileged' smokers should look more honestly at their own personal indulgences and the little work-avoidance tricks they themselves get up to. If they aren't careful, they could find themselves hoist by their own petard.

We all have our dodges, especially if we've had decades of work-experience to suss them all out and refine them into barely-noticeable spells of truancy. One of the vital skills to pick up on your first job is the art of ingenious skiving. But still, that's another subject altogether.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Still together

Curious as we are, there are questions we hesitate to ask long-established couples, because there's always a sub-text that's a bit dodgy.

Like "So how come you're still together after 17 years?" which translates as "But you're like chalk and cheese. You squabble all the time. You like completely different things. Surely you should have split up ages ago?"

Secretly you keep wondering how they continue to rub along after so many years. Surely they've both changed so much they must now irritate the hell out of each other? But you just can't ask. It implies all the wrong things.

Even less can you ask "So how's your sex life? Still going strong?" because there's always the awful possibility they gave up on it long ago, or one of them has bizarre sexual tastes the other finds repulsive.

Asking if they're the same fiery political radicals they used to be can be hazardous too. You might find one of them's done a stealthy U-turn and become a crusty old bigot railing at the feckless and the workshy.

It may be that that old-established couple is just as compatible and besotted as they were on day one. They may still get on like a house on fire. But asking too many leading questions is inviting disaster.

Instead of a cheerful confirmation that they've never been closer, you might suddenly get frosty stares, shifty evasions and elaborate lies. Or even a bitter rant about how their other half doesn't understand them, is an obsessive control freak, or is emotionally paralysed.

Wiser just to enjoy their company and their apparently still viable relationship than to broach those delicate questions you're dying to ask. They could backfire dramatically.

And naturally Jenny and I remain as compatible and besotted after 29 years. How could you suggest anything different? What do you mean, how's our sex life? What do you mean, are we still fiery political radicals? How dare you, what a cheek. What is this, the Gestapo? Kindly leave the premises immediately....

No, the pic's not me and Jenny, just a happy-looking couple!

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Meat rage

Just why do meat-eaters have to be so viciously abusive to vegetar-ians? I mean, what is their problem?

Harriet Walker in the Independent directs a tirade of insults against us meat refuseniks as if we were some alarming social menace. So what did we ever do to her except decide to eat differently?

Referring to the PETA* ad in which a scantily dressed Pamela Anderson is marked with the sort of prime cuts you see in a butcher, she says " Let's face it, there's nothing sexy about vegetarianism. As the thousands of beardy, socks-and-sandals wearing diehards will attest, this advert is the raciest thing to have happened to the movement since Linda McCartney."

Well now, Harriet, let me point out a few things:

1) Why should vegetarianism be sexy? It's a diet choice, not a miniskirt. If I want sexy, I'll watch a Penelope Cruz movie.

2) I don't have a beard and don't wear sandals. I do wear socks though, since tights might raise a few eyebrows.

3) Oddly enough, women vegetarians don't have beards.

4) I'm no more a diehard than those who insist on eating meat and dismiss vegetarianism as rabbit food. I simply dislike the unnecessary killing of animals.

5) The advert is only racy if you think a bikini-clad Pamela Anderson is cutting-edge erotica. In this day and age, I think not. And again, why do stuffed peppers and pumpkin risotto have to be racy? Is there nothing free of sexual innuendo?

Still, perhaps we should be more sympathetic. Such irrational torrents of abuse are of course a typical side-effect of eating large quantities of meat. She really can't help herself, she's the victim of an uncontrollable addiction. I do hope she gets better soon.

*PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Friday 22 October 2010

Naked fury

Nude protests are catching on. Those intrepid souls who don't mind baring all their physical imperfect-ions are doing so to oppose a wide range of injustices.

The latest campaigners to shed their clothes are those angered by high apartment rents in Berlin. They visit apartments on offer, strip off and dance.

The protests are organised by a group called Hedonist International, which has also stormed a neo-Nazi pub.

Some estate agents called the police while others were more laid-back and laughed it off as a harmless amusement. But Berlin's socialist mayor was rattled enough to announce rent-capping in newly-gentrified districts.

There have been many other nude protests - against the fur trade in Dublin and Barcelona, office dress codes and airport full-body scanners in Berlin, political reforms in Mexico City, animal cruelty in Sydney, bullfighting in Pamplona and tree felling in Los Angeles.

Naked campaigning isn't favoured in Britain though. I guess people are either too embarrassed by their wobbly bits, they don't think anyone will take any notice (except dirty old men), or they don't want to die of frostbite.

I wouldn't mind stripping off myself if the cause was right. I couldn't care less about my wobbly bits, we all succumb to gravity sooner or later. I stripped off often enough in front of my fellow pupils at boarding school to lose any sense of awkwardness.

Maybe the traditional British stiff upper lip is more than a match for mass nudity. We'd just survey a line of bare buttocks while sipping our Starbucks latté and mutter casually "Some rather enticing curves. Work-outs or anorexia, I wonder?"

Pic: Protest against the fur trade in Barcelona. The placard reads: "How many lives for a coat?" Couldn't find a decent pic of the apartment protest.

Monday 18 October 2010

Too outspoken

Should a teacher who thinks schools are appallingly run speak out in public or should she be quiet and keep her frustration and rage to herself?

Katharine Birbalsingh, Deputy Head of St Michael's Academy in South London, gave a scathing speech to the Tory Conference, saying state schools were badly run, bureaucratic, dumbed-down and tolerant of unruly behaviour.

Fairly common opinions, you would think, shared by thousands of teachers and parents across the country. Not exactly controversial. Even Ofsted, the schools supervisory body, condemned her own school as "inadequate".

But she has now been sacked after the Head and school managers decided her speech was unacceptable and she should have kept her mouth shut and pretended school standards were just fine.

She has taught in state schools for over a decade, so she knows what she's talking about. She thought it was about time someone spoke up and told the truth.

"British education is not just broken, it is fundamentally broken. Teachers are too scared to speak out because they think they'll lose their job" she says.

Regardless of whether you think the Conservative Conference was the right place to speak out (she's a Conservative supporter), the question is whether she has a right to voice her revealing and thought-provoking opinions about a schools system that virtually everyone is dissatisfied with.

If her speech helps bring about some much-needed changes, then why should she be penalised for it?

She says she worked a 70 hour week "because I love children and I like making life better for them." I fail to see how sacking her helps either the children she's dedicated to or the "inadequate" school which clearly needs a good kick up the administrative arse.

Pic: Katharine Birbalsingh

Thursday 14 October 2010

Lost masterpiece

So I thought I'd say something about the meaning of life, the history of the universe and the global epidemic of existential angst.

- Ssh. Time for some silence.

- What do you mean?

- Silence is very therapeutic. It cleanses your inner being.

- That's as may be. Who're you anyway? Who said you could take over my brain?

- Oh, I've been running your brain for a long time. You were making such a mess of it, I was asked to step in.

- That's outrageous. You can't just jump into my brain. Bugger off right now.

- I'm only doing my job. You'll thank me for it later.

- You'd better be gone in five minutes. Now as I was saying, the meaning of life in a nutshell, stripped down to its basic essence, is this....

- There're huge parts of your brain you're not even using. Did you know that?

- Don't be ridiculous. My brain is as busy as a beehive. The level of activity is breathtaking.

- There's a bit here that's completely dormant. The bit that contains the literary masterpiece of the 21st century.

- Good grief. How do I activate it?

- It needs a special password. Do you know it?

- No. Fuckity fuck fuck. Buggery bollocks. So I'll never write it. It's lost in a neurological black hole. I could have been another Dostoevsky.

- Too bad. At least you enjoy pink frocks and six-inch stilettos. Goodness, is that the time? Must rush, I've got another ninety brains to fix before lunch.

- As I was saying, the meaning of life....

Monday 11 October 2010

Unsightly smalls

You'd think a humble clothes line in someone's back garden would be pretty uncontro-versial. Well, think again, because in the States it's becoming a serious bone of contention.

Many householders hate the things. They think they're ugly, vulgar, over-intimate and spoil the look of the neighbourhood. They want to get rid of them completely.

But other people are all in favour. They see them as a natural and sensible way of drying clothes that's also environmentally-friendly. They want everyone to use them.

Temperatures are rising, and not just in the tumble-driers. Line-lovers are deliberately flouting their landlords and neighbours and hanging out their clothes to dry anyway. So take us to court, they say. It won't stop us.

They point out that tumble-driers use about 10 per cent of household electricity, second only to fridges and freezers. This is a colossal waste of energy when energy consumption is going through the roof. And what's so ugly about a clothes line anyway?

Jenny and I always use a clothes line in good weather. Or drying racks inside when it isn't. We've never used a tumble-drier and don't intend to start now. We know that clothes dried outside always smell fresher and cleaner when we bring them in.

Nobody gets steamed up about clothes lines round our way. You can see them in every other garden, even draped with lacy underwear. Nobody thinks they're unsightly or unseemly.

Okay, so our clothes line doesn't sport many fashionable designer labels. Some of the clothes may be past their best. Some may be ten years old. We don't care and nor do the neighbours. There are more serious things to get our knickers in a twist about.

Friday 8 October 2010

Drawing a line

A cruise entrepren-eur visiting a new terminal at Portsmouth was shocked to discover that passengers on his five-star cruises might come across smelly, shirtless, unshaven lorry drivers. This would ruin the luxury ambience, he said.

As well as whiffy lorry drivers there would be young people lying around and customers might trip over them. Lord Sterling of Swan Hellenic wants the cruise passengers to be segregated from the unsavoury hoi polloi to "create a certain atmosphere".

I presume that means an atmosphere of snobbery and elitism well away from the unwashed minions who drive their caviar and oysters across Europe.

Actually segregation might be a good idea. Then the lorry drivers and fun-loving youngsters wouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable and awkward by the sneering glances of the well-to-do as they embark on their exclusive £8000 cruises.

They could take off their sweaty shirts and sprawl around without feeling inhibited. They could even play loud music and flaunt their tattoos without anyone cramping their style.

The cruise passengers could have a special deluxe lounge where they can enjoy each other's fully-dressed fragrance, properly seated in well-padded chairs, and aren't forced to endure the trauma of irregular behaviour and uncouth habits.

Lord Sterling is quite right to be concerned. If you just had any old person mixing with any old person, who knows what unpleasantness it could cause? One's tolerance is limited, dontcha know? One has certain expectations and too much lowering of standards does rather strain one's fortitude. One has to draw a line somewhere, dammit.

Now where's that steward with my G and T?

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Off the boil

I don't understand anger. I'm a pretty placid, patient person, and when I see other people fuming and raging about something I wonder where all that boiling energy comes from.

My father was an extremely angry person. Not half an hour would go by without him raging about something or other - the government, my mother's messiness, my own messiness, his boss, other people's bad manners, young people, you name it.

It wasn't altogether surprising when he suffered a stroke and discovered his blood pressure was way too high. But that didn't stop him flaring up about one thing after another. He seemed to see everything and everyone as a personal affront, out to annoy him and make his life difficult.

When I was ten, my lovely grandma took me aside and advised me not to grow up full of anger like my father. It would only make me unhappy, she said. For some reason I was so struck by what she said that I resolved from that moment not to be an angry person but to be more philosophical.

And so I have been. All my life I've found it difficult to get angry about anything. People who know me are always flabbergasted if I get seriously angry, they assume something enormously traumatic must have occurred.

I just don't see the point in getting angry. To my mind, it seldom achieves anything except to make a difficult situation worse and to alienate people. Decisions taken in the heat of anger tend to be either disastrous or badly flawed. The energy it consumes leaves me drained and battered.

I know that if I take a deep breath, stay cool, and assess the situation calmly and carefully, I'll react far more sensibly than if I explode in anger. Other people will also react more sensibly, not being cowed and intimidated by a violent outburst.

Some people think that by not getting angry I'm repressing some vital part of myself, something healthy and life-enhancing. I don't think so. I see it as taming a rather primitive and destructive emotion that tends to cause more harm than good. I have no time for it.

PS: If it's repressive to avoid anger, then isn't it also repressive to modify any kind of unpleasant behaviour, like rudeness or malice? That would be absurd.

Finally met up with the wonderful Grannymar, who's been a blogmate for around three years now. I thought I knew all about her but there was plenty more to find out. We were amazed to discover how long we'd been chatting....

Saturday 2 October 2010

Loss of libido

On top of everything else expected of today's women, they're assumed to be hot for sex at any time of the day or night. If they aren't, they're obviously suffering from Female Sexual Dysfunction, and they need a few pills to gee them up again.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom. Which Ray Moynihan, an Australian lecturer, demolishes in his latest book.

There's no such thing as Female Sexual Dysfunction*, he says. It's a pseudo-medical disorder promoted by drugs companies to market drugs that supposedly put it right. Except that they don't because it doesn't exist.

Yes, some women aren't very interested in sex, or their interest has declined. But that's perfectly natural. They may be too busy, other things may be more enjoyable, men's behaviour may be offputting. That's not necessarily a problem. Even if they think it is, it's really a psychological or relationship problem, and counselling is more suitable than a bunch of chemicals.

How come it's "normal" for women to be hot for sex, or somehow defective if they aren't? And it's not just men who say that. It's also the agony aunts and lingerie boutiques. Nobody dares stick their neck out and say "Actually sex is no big deal. So what if you're not panting for it?"

One female journalist compares sex with shopping. You may have been crazy about shopping when you were young, but twenty years on it's just a bit of a chore. Should the doctor give you pills to make you shop more often? How ridiculous.

Women are often afraid, she says, that if they aren't interested enough in sex, their man may leave them for a woman who is. So what they're really concerned about isn't loss of libido but loss of security and status.

And if there's anything guaranteed to make you less interested in sex, it's the endless onslaught of sexual images and references in the media. We feel permanently surfeited by it, even without doing it. No wonder there are still so many women who say "Not tonight, darling, I've got a bit of a headache."

* Of course this is just a modern version of the discredited idea of frigidity

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Old and boring

Are all older men terminally boring? One journalist thinks so, and she's caused a bit of a row among other journos who happen to be older men. How dare she, they fume. What a cheek!

Personally, I don't know that many older men, so I couldn't say if she's right or not. But speaking for myself, I'm fizzing with wit and wisdom and I have fascinating opinions on every subject* - well, perhaps not negative entropy or mulching techniques.

But Liz Hodgkinson, who clearly has met a large number of older men, concludes that they are mostly humourless, tongue-tied, ill-at-ease, lifeless and dull as ditchwater. Older women on the other hand are firing on all cylinders and excellent company. And they're usually talking to the other women because it's much more fun.

"I often wish I could invite the female half of a couple to lunch and leave the husband at home" she says. What should be an enjoyable social occasion can easily become "excruciatingly painful" as the men have so little to say.

I find it hard to believe older men are so lacklustre. Do they not enjoy gossip? Or setting the world to rights? Or just recalling that crazy person in the supermarket? Or are they simply intimidated by all these confident, articulate women?

I can think of older men I know who are indeed monosyllabic and brain-dead. But I know others who are bundles of energy, talking nineteen to the dozen and taking a keen interest in everything around them.

I need some feedback here. What's your experience of older men? Are most of them spent forces or are they full of life? Is Liz Hodgkinson right or is she just man-bashing for the sake of a good story?

* No false modesty here....

Sunday 26 September 2010

Boys only

My schooling was entirely single-sex, including five years at boarding school where my contact with girls was non-existent. Whether this was a good thing or a bad thing I've never quite decided.

It meant I was able to focus on my studies without the distraction of miniskirted females checking me out in the corridors and classrooms. It meant there was no feverish competition with the other boys to impress the girls.

But it also meant I had little experience of the opposite sex and how they differed from boys. It meant there was no encouragement to be emotionally sensitive or to be aware of things that boys traditionally reject as effeminate.

So was I deprived or didn't it really matter? Did I grow up unable to communicate properly with women, unable to understand them, permanently burdened with an arrogant, thick-skinned masculinity?

I must say when I started my first job on a local newspaper, I was very bemused by all the women, who were like some exotic species I'd never met before. It took me quite a while to get used to them and work out how they expected me to behave. It also took me a while to get up the self-confidence to acquire my first girlfriend.

Later I moved to London and was engulfed by the tsunami that was the Women's Liberation Movement. I was confronted in every direction by 57 varieties of feminist thinking and demands, and in a few months I learnt more about women than I'd discovered in my first 18 years. Relationships with women suddenly became much more straightforward and comprehensible and from then on I was always acutely aware of the female perspective in every situation.

So no, I don't think my single-sex schooling did me any lasting harm. I guess what really counts is not whether a school is mixed-sex but how intensely you're exposed to the opposite sex and their take on life once you've left school. And how willing you are to embrace it and benefit from it.

Ah yes, where was I? Jenny and I were on holiday in Dumfriesshire in Scotland. Not quite as scenic or cultural as we were expecting, but we had fun exploring a part of Scotland we'd never seen before.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Inner demons

We all have inner demons we spend our lives wrestling with. Either we find ways of taming them and coming to terms with them, or they become so powerful they drag us under and destroy us.

Most of my inner demons have been around since I was young, some have appeared more recently. But over the years I've managed to keep them corralled well enough for other people not to be too aware of them.

People often get the impression I'm a sanguine, unruffled, confident sort of guy, seldom agitated by anything. The truth is rather different.

I worry about all sorts of things: the future, old age, money, social events, not having a job, not having enough friends. Darkness disturbs and depresses me. Bad dreams send me into irrational panics.

I fret about my identity. I doubt myself. Am I over-sensitive? Am I not sensitive enough? Am I too feminine, too eccentric, too timid, too flippant, too stingy, too aloof? Am I opinionated or am I wishy-washy?

I fear my life is horribly precarious. I'm afraid it could collapse at any moment without careful planning and organising. Just neglect a few little details and it'll be like pulling at a loose thread. Everything will unravel in seconds.

At least I'm not an alcoholic or a drug addict or a helpless gambler. But nagging anxiety can turn into an equally ferocious demon if it's not dampened down and kept in its place.

Many of us don't like to discuss our private demons. We think, nobody will understand me, they'll think I'm a crazy neurotic, they'll just tell me to get a grip, they'll never speak to me again. Or we simply find it too embarrassing or daring or self-indulgent. We think we're the only person in the world with this peculiar tendency, we don't want everyone to know we're a total freak.

So we keep it strictly to ourselves, hide it away and hope nobody can spot any tell-tale signs, any behavioural twitches, the psychological equivalent of visible panty line.

Now if you'll excuse me, that's quite enough self-exposure for the time being. I must go and powder my nose.

I won't be blogging for a few days, but I'll be back soon and then all will be explained!

Monday 13 September 2010

Handy hints

Okay girls, if you're going on a work trip for a few days, make sure your man is well looked-after while you're away. Or he may get jolly cross and give you a smack-bottom when he gets back!

A global health care company, AXA ICAS, gave out advice to its women employees on keeping the family happy while they deserted their domestic duties.

But it wasn't quite the success they hoped for. So many women complained it was patronising and ridiculous that they had to hurriedly withdraw it and apologise.

Some of the helpful tips:

- Cook and freeze all meals before departure
- Leave 'I love you' notes for your husband
- Hide some gifts before you go
- Record some bedtime stories for your children

The most typical response was "It's a business trip, not trekking the fucking Andes". Women were not impressed by the assumption that their menfolk, the poor helpless, vulnerable little darlings, needed some intensive hand-holding while they were busy closing deals in Frankfurt.

I imagine most women would instantly have drawn up a slightly different list of handy hints. For example:

- You can survive without me. You won't die of starvation or domesticity.
- If you want an evening meal, you know where the recipe books are. Or there's this great new invention, the takeaway.
- If you're feeling horny, you know where to find it. In your underpants.
- The washing machine is the large white thing located in the utility room.
- The carpet fairy will not magically remove the cake crumbs and cigarette ash. This requires what is known in the trade as a hoover.
- Don't bother with the woman next door. You may think she fancies you, but actually she thinks you're an ugly bastard.
- By the way, I've left you and I'm not coming back.

Or something along those lines. The only thing they would be happy to cook and freeze is probably the hapless AXA employee who thought he was being so helpful to all those clueless girls.

Friday 10 September 2010

Mysteries of friendship

Even at my grand old age, friendship is still a big mystery. How is that we can click with some people instantly, while with others there's no spark whatever?

How remarkable it is when I've met someone and straightaway there's something flowing between us, some vigorous connection as if there are no personal barriers and we might have known each other for years.

Even if you don't meet for months, as soon as you do it's like you saw each other yesterday and conversation comes easily and naturally as if it never stopped. You simply pick up where you left off as if you merely paused for a cup of coffee.

With other people that psychic "ping" just never happens, however much I'd like it to. We can talk about the most intimate subjects without any actual intimacy. We can be utterly frank but there's still an invisible boundary between us, as if I'm talking to a doctor or a therapist.

I may know someone for 20 years, I may have shared all sorts of experiences with them, but still I don't feel close to them, there's a hovering sense of reserve and distance despite everything.

I can meet someone and think they would be a wonderful friend, they have some sort of quality that immediately attracts me. I do everything I can to ignite a friendship, to get something going between us, but somehow it never works. We meet up occasionally, we chat, we share things, but it never makes that final leap to long-term devotion.

How lucky you are if you have a handful of really close friends, a select few you get on with effortlessly, a seamless communication with no restraints. It's a rare thing in a world of distrust and caution.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

The toll of 'honour'

How can a man kill a woman simply on the grounds that she has sullied the family's "honour"? And how can so many people condone it as a religious tradition that can't be interfered with?

It's worrying that even in Britain there are now regular cases of honour killings, a practice that has been imported from other countries where it is rife.

There are estimated to be up to 20,000 such killings every year around the world, and many more brutal punishments short of murder. The offences that amount to "dishonour" are shockingly varied. It would be hard for any independent woman to avoid them. They include:

- Being raped
- Having a relationship with an unsuitable person (wrong religion, tribe, caste)
- Unmarried pregnancy
- Befriending boys
- Adultery (even if your husband is dead)
- Choosing your own husband
- Claiming a man's inheritance
- Leaving your husband
- Sex before marriage
- Not marrying your dead husband's brother
- Alleged prostitution
- Inappropriate dress
- "Western" behaviour

We don't realise just how lucky we are in Britain that all these perfectly normal activities aren't seen as "dishonouring" families but are at the very most described as unwise, reckless or unfortunate.

How lucky we are too that the authorities take honour killings seriously and act against those involved, as opposed to other countries where a blind eye is routinely turned.

And how lucky again that unofficial punishments for dishonour like rape*, acid attacks, stonings, lashings, facial mutilation, forced suicide or being set on by dogs, are simply not tolerated but prompt contempt and disbelief.

Despite those blinkered folk who maintain feminism is no longer needed, honour killings make it abundantly clear that many women are still struggling for the most elementary freedoms.

* Yes, you can be raped for allowing yourself to be raped.

Friday 3 September 2010

Unwelcome guests

Are you squeamish? Fastidious? Super-clean? Then look away now. Because bedbugs are on the rise across the world, infesting the most unlikely places.

Reports of bedbugs are increasing by around 28 per cent every year. They're plaguing many cities, the worst affected being New York.

In the Big Apple, prestigious office blocks, cinemas and shops have had to close while the bugs are routed. Even a branch of the lingerie chain Victoria's Secret had to shut.

Some British hotels are now using sniffer dogs to detect the intrepid insects. Dogs can find bedbugs in three minutes, much quicker than we humans.

Most people don't realise that they can appear not just in beds but in furniture generally, which means they're also being found in children's nurseries and schools. They often find their way into people's luggage.

They cause painful itching, nasty bites, allergic reactions and of course insomnia. And no doubt years of anxiety about strange beds.

Nobody's sure why they're suddenly proliferating. It could be resistance to pesticides, growing international travel, or just not dealing with outbreaks fast enough.

I've never been attacked by the horrible things, even though I've slept in plenty of strange beds in my time. But mosquitoes have had a good go at me.

It's yet another hazard if some casual sex is on the cards. Jump blissfully into bed with your new squeeze, and the bliss might rapidly turn into skin-scratching misery.

It's simple enough really. Just never go to bed. Stay up all night gambling, drinking and plotting revolution. Or sleep on a chair like Liz.

I can't stop listening to: Catching A Tiger by Lissie Maurus

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Wight trashed

Britain is today stunned and alarmed by the mysterious disappear-ance of the Isle of Wight and its 130,000 residents. Where the island should be, there is now only open sea.

The captain of the Southampton to Cowes ferry noticed at 8.13 am that the island was no longer there. "I couldn't believe my eyes" he said. "it was simply gone. I thought we must be sailing in the wrong direction but no, we were right on course. I tell you, I was knocked for six."

Relatives phoning island residents get an unobtainable signal. Brenda Pargeter of Leicester said "I'm desperately worried about my sister Betty. I've no idea whether she's alive or dead. How can an island just vanish?"

It seems there are no witnesses to the disappearance. It happened with no warning, in a matter of minutes. Police and Coastguard officers have mounted a massive search operation around the coasts of Britain, Ireland and France.

Already several theories have been put forward to explain the missing island.

* A sudden explosion ripped through it. But no debris has yet been found.
* It has drifted to another location. But this would happen slowly enough to be noticed.
* Collapsing foundations submerged it. But again, no debris or dead bodies have appeared.
* A powerful underwater vortex has sucked the island to the bottom of the sea.
* A colossal atmospheric force sucked it into the sky. It is now orbiting the earth.

The Association of British Travel Agents has advised holidaymakers with bookings on the island that in the event of it not reappearing in the next few days, full refunds will be made.

Anyone with information about the missing island is asked to contact Southampton Police urgently on 023 1010 2121.

Pic: where the island used to be

Saturday 28 August 2010

Hormone havoc

I've never experienced anything resembling the male menopause, and I'm dubious about its existence. But some doctors claim that 20 per cent of men will suffer from it eventually.

Not surprisingly, that rather astonishing figure comes from a doctor who makes his living from treating menopausal (andropausal?) men. Other doctors suggest a much lower figure of 2 per cent.

Given that the symptoms (fatigue, scattiness, insomnia etc) are supposed to result from lack of testosterone, and given that men's testosterone levels keep falling after the age of 40, surely if there really was such a condition practically every ageing male would have it?

Also, given that women have virtually no testosterone, shouldn't they be even more incapacitated and barely able to function? Or do women's hormones work differently?

But one man, Dan Hegarty (a doctor himself) claims his life was falling apart. He was nodding off at work, he was unable to read the paper, his marriage was failing. After topping up his testosterone levels, he says he got a new lease of life and all the signs of physical decline were rapidly reversed.

Well, it's hard to argue with that miraculous recovery. But how come I've never gone through any such physical collapse and at the grand old age of 63 my body still seems to be functioning pretty efficiently?

Is my body mysteriously compensating for my depleted male hormones or was Dr Hegarty really suffering from some sort of psychological loss of confidence and inertia which then righted itself?

All I know is that some doctors seem to be making an impressive income from identifying the andropause and treating men who've succumbed to it. Did I catch a whiff of snake oil?

A Northern Ireland man applying for a nursing post in Australia was told he had to take an English language test. After protests from the Australian Nurses Federation, the test was waived. So what language did they think was spoken here? Irish? Welsh? Swahili?

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Wild card

Female admirer: So what's your next post about, Nick?

Nick: I've got nothing more to say. I've said it all. Everything. I've covered all angles. Peeked in every window.

FA: Don't be silly. There must be hundreds of exciting and important things you've never even thought about.

Nick: Nope. They've all been aired. All my absurd neuroses, from A to Z. All my political dogmas, in mind-numbing detail. All my sexual fetishes, complete with lurid graphics.

FA: I don't remember anything about sexual fetishes. Are you sure about that? Give me some examples.

Nick: I'm sorry, but on legal grounds, for health and safety reasons, and to protect the privacy of individuals who're now in very prominent positions in public life, I can't make any further comments.

FA: How disappointing. You could have given us some fascinating insights into the dark corners of your tangled personality, the seamy undercurrents of your complex inner life.

Nick: I doubt it. I'm quite ordinary, really. I'm just your bog-standard bloke in the street, the man on the Clapham omnibus, the guy with the pie. Well, apart from the cross-dressing and the chicken impersonations, obviously.

FA: Obviously. But all these horrifying world events. The floods in Pakistan. The dwindling helium reserves. The sudden popularity of padded bras. You must have something to say about these extraordinary developments?

Nick: Nah, it's all been said much better by a thousand overpaid hacks. Why say it all again? You're not wearing a padded bra, I hope?

FA: Jeez, what do you take me for? I'm 100 per cent natural from top to bottom.

Nick: Sure, and the Pope's a Buddhist. Now if you'll excuse me, I think the guinea pig's eating my mascara.

Saturday 21 August 2010

Eye for an eye

If someone had attacked you so violently you ended up paralysed, would it be a fitting punishment for the attacker to be paralysed in return? An eye for an eye, as it were?

A man who was left crippled after being hit with a meat cleaver asked a Saudi judge to sentence his assailant to surgical paralysis. The judge is now getting medical advice on whether this would be possible, before he decides what sentence to pass.

The paralysis could be induced by severing the man's spinal cord.

Apart from the question of whether any criminal, however serious the offence, should be subjected to such a gruesome and debilitating punishment, it is extraordinary that the victim should have a say in what punishment is meted out.

In most countries this would be a matter strictly for the judge, precisely because the victim might demand something utterly barbaric.

It is extraordinary too that the traditional "eye for an eye" attitude is still seen as a sensible legal principle. If the real cause of the attack is a fit of uncontrolled anger, how is physical paralysis the solution? Surely it can only breed bitterness and more anger?

I also wonder what surgeon with any conscience or humanity could possibly agree to deliberately paralyse a presumably fit and healthy man, simply because a judge decides it is an appropriate punishment. How could he live with himself afterwards?