Saturday 30 January 2010

Who's got more?

Why are we so keen on "success" and what does it mean anyway? Does it mean anything other than simply having more of everything?

If all it says is that someone has more money, more houses, more friends, more awards, more businesses, or more admirers - so what?

Is having more of something really the most important thing in life? Does that make us happier or smarter or a nicer person? Does that improve our relationships or our well-being? If not, why do we place so much value on it?

More to the point, does it mean that those of us who have less of all those things are therefore "failures" and we've seriously screwed up our life and squandered our potential?

If so, then everyone who isn't super-rich and perpetually jetting around the world from one luxury mansion to another is a failure. Practically everyone in places like Africa or India or Mongolia must be a failure. What kind of disparaging nonsense is that?

Having more of everything also means spending more, which is good news for big business though not such good news for those who are already struggling financially but feel under pressure to push the boat out a bit farther.

Shouldn't success simply mean that you're doing something positive with your life, that you're giving it meaning and substance, that you wake up feeling that your day is going to be fulfilling and interesting?

I've known quite a few people who've been "successful" in the conventional sense - highly-paid jobs, moving in prestigious social circles, exuding luxury and privilege - but not so successful in terms of their personal poise and self-esteem.

Perhaps we should look a bit more closely before we label someone a "failure" or a "loser". They might have something the much-applauded successes have lost sight of.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Hooked on faces

Men are supposed to think about sex more than anything else - once every six minutes according to some sources. But I don't believe that. Men must think just as often about other things - like money or coffee, or even the human face.

We think about the human face an awful lot. Our own faces, our partners' faces, our friends' faces. Faces that are young, old, beautiful, ugly, deformed, wrinkled, smooth, black, white, happy, sad. We see new faces all the time, in the flesh and in the media, and they linger in our minds.

We admire and remember faces that are beautiful. We note peculiarities like huge noses, scars, crooked teeth and dimples. We look for the nuances of feeling that words are hiding. We guess at age from the degree of visible wear and tear.

Particular faces can have a potent emotional effect on us. They can be uplifting or intimidating. Which is why political leaders like Saddam Hussein and Mao Tse Tung put their images in so many public places to reinforce their power.

Familiar and trusted celebrities are used to sell products, to suggest that only the very best of everything would cross their threshold.

An ex-lover's face can haunt us for years. Everywhere we go we think we see them, only to find it's not them at all. We seek out new partners with similar looks, sometimes not even realising the uncanny resemblance.

Whether we like it or not, we form instant reactions to people based on their appearance. It's said that interview panels do that so routinely they find it hard to disregard their first impressions and make a more rational judgment.

My mind is awash with sex? Decidedly not. I'm much more likely to be recalling a beautiful face I've just seen, or wondering why someone looks so exhausted, or watching a politician's forced smile, than I am to be contemplating a carnal workout.

In fact I could study people's faces all day. Every face is a human epic, an emotional symphony, a soul unveiled. Every face is a revelation.

Monday 25 January 2010

Living the dream

The allure of the "dream" purchase or the "dream" lifestyle is still very potent. We all like to think that just round the corner is something so perfect, so tailor-made to our personal wishes, that we'll be happy ever after.

Doesn't quite work out like that though, does it? After the first flush of excitement, of starry-eyed euphoria, sooner or later reality takes over and we find that the apparent dream job, dream car, dream partner or dream house has its less than perfect side, those irritating or inconvenient things that come with the package and just have to be accommodated.

But however many dreams fall short of our hopes, we still keep chasing after them, quite certain that next time our desires will be met and everything will fall into place.

I suppose my earliest experience of such disappointment was being a local newspaper journalist. I fondly assumed I would be covering dramatic, life-changing stories, but my actual daily fare was golden weddings, church fetes, excruciating amateur drama and cats stuck up trees.

I thought bookselling might be my dream job until I realised abusive customers, low salaries, penniless "browsers" and talentless books were all part of the deal. But I spent many happy years selling books despite the less glamorous reality.

And does any dream partner ever turn out to be perfect? I doubt it. The fact is that even the most attractive, charming, intelligent, practical individual will eventually display plenty of embarrassing and infuriating weaknesses. You soon realise that you have to love someone for what they are, not what you want them to be.

As for dream houses, I've lived in enough different homes to know they all have their failings, however stunning they seem at first glance. The estate agent's glossy brochures, like fresh paint and plaster, can hide as much as they reveal.

But the idea of a "dream" opportunity still casts its spell over us, despite all our experience and common sense. You can't open a magazine or switch on the telly without seeing blissfully happy people with effortless, silky-smooth lifestyles. Surely we could have that too, it's out there somewhere, we just have to find it. And pigs will fly.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Useful coppers

Reading about Leah's whole-hearted support for the police reminded me that I support the police pretty strongly myself, a view people might not expect from a fervent socialist.

Well, socialist I may be, but I also believe that if we don't let the police deal firmly with crime and anti-social behaviour, we would quickly decline into an anarchist, anything-goes nightmare.

In the sixties when it was very fashionable among the young to criticise not just police excesses but the police themselves, I can remember me and my friends cheerfully screaming "Pigs, pigs" every time we passed a copper, and thinking we were being deliciously rebellious and right-on.

As the years rolled by, however, I came to realise that there are an awful lot of vicious, heartless, ruthless people out there who need to be kept under control not just to protect everyone else but to protect them from their own self-destructiveness. If the police don't do it, who will?

I'd be the first to admit that the police often make big mistakes and go wildly over the top in their actions. There's a long list of people who've been wrongly arrested, secretly beaten, jumped on for utterly trivial offences, or fitted up. That sort of behaviour seriously discredits the police and needs to be stopped.

But the fact remains that most of the time police are doing an absolutely essential job in keeping criminals in check and enabling the rest of us to feel safer and less vulnerable.

I would like to ask anyone who really thinks the police are unnecessary or useless - what would you put in their place? Vigilantes? Paramilitaries? Private security forces? Lynch mobs? Whatever the alternative, it would be a lot less pleasant than a few bent coppers who get carried away and forget their professional ethics. It would be rough justice indeed.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Horse on a hill

How about another art conundrum? Namely, is a giant white horse a talented work of art - or is it just a giant horse?

Mark Wallinger, a Turner Prize-winning artist, wants to put his 164 foot sculpture, which would be visible from 20 miles away, on a hill in Kent.

But the locals are far from impressed. They fail to see either the artistic merit or the sculpture's relevance to Kent. Why a giant horse, they ask? What has a giant horse to do with anything?

As one baffled resident said "I don't call looking out of my window at a horse's backside a thing of beauty."

But the sculptor and his sponsors, Eurostar and a property company, are pushing ahead with the project, saying "We hope people will learn to love it over time."

Well, er, unfortunately they don't seem to. And I have to ask, along with the locals, how exactly this is a work of art. Something isn't art simply because it's 33 times the size of a real horse. It has to offer something more than that, some sort of aesthetic or conceptual or emotional novelty.

If it was half horse, half cheetah maybe. If it was purple maybe. If it was a horse with a dwarf on top maybe. But just a horse?

Mark Wallinger says "The horse is the work of continuous collaboration between man and nature." It is? But there's no human being anywhere. And nothing that symbolises "collaboration". The only collaboration I can see is between a sculptor and big business.

It's the giant horse I feel sorry for. He'll be stuck there on top of a hill, no other gee-gees to keep him company, no entertainment. Nothing to do except gaze sorrowfully across the surrounding countryside, wondering what the hell he's doing there.

I have a message for Mr Wallinger - Neddy says No.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Whorish habits

Why on earth do men use prostitutes? Having never been to one, I'm bemused as to why so many men seek such an obviously shallow, unsatisfying experience.

An international research project has asked 700 men why they pay for sex and what they get out of it. The answers are fascinating.

Many of them feel intense guilt and shame about what they're doing and find their encounters unfulfilling and empty. They know the women themselves probably feel disgusted, miserable, dirty and scared. Yet still they visit prostitutes to satisfy some deep-seated need they have to respond to.

Some who are shy say it gives them intimate contact with women. Some use a prostitute to avoid thoughts of committing rape. Some have sexual tastes their regular partners object to. And some just want total control of the sexual act. The reasons they come up with are numerous and often bizarre.

Many say the habit of seeing prostitutes is so strong the only thing that would stop them is strict enforcement of the relevant laws and a high chance of embarrassing public exposure.

But whatever the reasons they give, I still don't accept that such men are unable to find less sordid ways of dealing with their sexual needs and frustrations.

Surely it's melodramatic nonsense for any man to claim that his sexual urges are so uncontrollable and so powerful he has no choice but to make use of some unhappy, dehumanised woman desperate for an income. It's even more repugnant that he probably already has a wife or girlfriend who is blissfully ignorant of his squalid backstreet activities.

Men have insisted since way back when that one of women's essential roles is to satisfy men's sexual impulses. It's about time that ludicrous and oppressive idea was laid to rest.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Who'd be a mummy?

A TV company is planning to mummify someone recently dead on-screen and then exhibit the mummy. To which I can only ask, who on earth would want to be mummified?

Certainly not me. I wouldn't want a bunch of gung-ho embalmers ripping out my innards, shoving strange chemicals into me, drying me out and wrapping me in bandages. We're put through quite enough undignified procedures while we're alive, thanks very much.

What's the point anyway except some gruesomely watchable TV that'll be a feather in some producer's cap? Or the chance for someone to tear off the bandages in a thousand years' time and say "Blimey, she was in a bad way all right. Just look at that cellulite."

A good job mummifying isn't routine. If I died, Jenny would have to find a place for my pickled body in the living room. She'd have to explain who it was under all the bandages. "Oh that's Nick, by the way. Take no notice, he's quite harmless." Every morning she'd give me a once-over with the feather duster.

And what a strange word that is, mummified. Meaning lifeless, inert, inanimate. Not many real-life mummies, run off their feet trying to do a dozen things at once, would feel remotely "mummified". Horrified maybe at all the stuff still on the to-do list.

The correct word for lying there doing nothing for a very long time is of course "daddified".

Monday 11 January 2010

Something amiss

Have you ever met someone whose experiences are so weird and outlandish you're never sure they're telling the truth? You wonder whether anything they say can be relied on or whether they're making it all up from start to finish.

I knew a woman like that once. She should tell me these stories with complete conviction, stories full of quite plausible details and incidents, and yet I would always be thinking "She's lying. I just know she's lying."

She would tell me about the umpteen men she had slept with, and their odd habits and obsessions. Not a single one was normal, she said, they were all screwballs under the surface.

She had been fired countless times from jobs for absurd reasons. Her bosses were all cranks who would sack her on a whim, just because she never smiled or her clothes weren't smart enough.

She was once thrown out of a car in a horrific smash. It was touch-and-go whether she would survive. She was in hospital for months having one operation after another but she eventually recovered.

I just couldn't believe her though. Everything she said seemed too extraordinary, too far-fetched. Nothing routine ever happened to her, her life was one long, uninterrupted drama. It simply didn't add up.

I asked a friend of hers about some of these stories, but she insisted they were true. She had known H for years, she said, she was just one of those people who attracted oddity and sensation.

I never did find out if she was inventing it all. But what I do know is that there are plenty of very convincing liars out there, so fluent with their pretences that they can fool practically everyone.

After all, why let the truth stand in the way of a good story?

At the last count, well over 2000 people had visited my old post Gay Cure, which concerns the beleaguered Northern Irish MP Iris Robinson and her belief that homosexuality can be cured by psychiatric treatment. All I can say about this phenomenal interest is - thanks for visiting, guys!

Friday 8 January 2010

Bent coppers

One of the British cultural icons I'm very fond of is the TV detective drama. It always contains those classic ingredients that add up to a uniquely offbeat experience.

1)The brilliant but flawed detective. Usually a bloke, who is either terminally depressed, a hopeless alcoholic, a chronic womaniser or a dishevelled slob. Or all four.
2) The loyal and long-suffering colleagues who carry out his brusque commands and never dare to question his eccentric genius. A dazzling, nubile female is generally first in line.
3) A series of grotesquely mutilated and dismembered corpses, treated with blasé detachment and idle curiosity by the hard-bitten team.
4) Surly, uncooperative suspects who are bludgeoned into confessing by the brilliant detective's whispered threats to cut off their balls, beat them to a pulp or rip out their fingernails.
5) The dazzling female's rejection of this macho bullying in favour of a more compassionate, sensitive, beguiling approach. This tends to get better results.
6) A charismatic charmer, much loved by the local community, who turns out to be a perverted sicko enthusiastically mutilating and dismembering much loved local barmaids and beauticians.
7) A murder victim from a decent, respectable family who is tragically swallowed up by prostitution, drug addiction, anorexia or psychosis. Or all four.
8) A baffling string of crimes that is swiftly and effortlessly solved, unlike the thousands that the real police force can't make head or tail of. The brilliant detective and his loyal team then bugger off down the pub to get rat-arsed.

Could any other country have dreamt up such an inspired concoction? I can't wait for the next twist in the formula. How about a brilliant detective who's stalking the local beautician....

Pic: My personal favourite, Detective Inspector John Rebus, created by Ian Rankin. Rebus is a womaniser, a heavy drinker, a scruffy loner and has had a nervous breakdown.

Wednesday 6 January 2010


When Britain is suffering its worst winter for 30 years, and roads everywhere are treacherous, I do wonder at the idiocy and selfishness of people making totally avoidable car journeys and then getting stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Up to 1000 vehicles were stuck on the A3 in Hampshire last night. Some people were evacuated to rescue centres while others had to stay in their vehicles all night in plummeting temperatures.

A 23 year old woman, eight months pregnant, her 13 month old daughter and a male friend, were marooned overnight in the snow, also in Hampshire. She complained that there was nobody to help her and no sign of the police or army.

Journalists don't seem to have asked any of these beleaguered motorists "Is your journey really necessary?" There have been endless warnings not to travel unless you absolutely have to, yet people are still heading off into the snow and ice regardless.

Then they expect instant rescue if they get stuck, no matter how expensive or difficult the rescue operation. The breakdown and emergency services are run off their feet with calls for help, yet still motorists expect every snowbound Tom, Dick and Harriet to be bailed out immediately.

Where on earth were those 1000 motorists going on a freezing winter's evening? Work is unlikely, or any routine daily chores. If they were visiting friends or relatives, or having an evening out, how exactly is that necessary? Can it not wait until the weather improves?

I especially wonder at the apparent foolishness of the eight months pregnant woman. Why was she making that obviously risky 50-mile journey? Did she not realise how dangerous it was?

Clearly the most vital motoring accessory is not a jack or a torch but a dictionary that includes the word "necessary".

Sunday 3 January 2010

Trophy jeans

A surprisingly large number of women still think that having stunning looks is worth more than just about any other achievement.

Some 29% of women say that slimming enough to get into an old pair of jeans would be more satisfying than sex or getting a promotion. And around 20% say it would be better than a lottery win or a best friend's wedding.

The guilty secret of a good 35% of women is a pair of "trophy" jeans that used to fit and which they're trying to slim back into.

Well, I can totally understand that. I mean, at the end of the day, what really boosts your self-confidence? Knowing you look good or getting more money? Liking what you see in the mirror or a quick bit of nookie? Come on, be honest here....

Actually I used to have a pair of "trophy" jeans myself. They had a 30 inch waist and they were obscenely tight-fitting. When I was brave enough, or rash enough, to go out in them gay men were unusually friendly. And the ruthless fit was doing me a serious injury.

In the end I saw sense, admitted my true size, and reluctantly threw them out (I hasten to add that this was before Jenny came on the scene. She would have saved me from myself before I even stepped out the front door).

But we value looks more than we like to let on. Even if I never passed as a Hollywood heart-throb, I'm glad I'm still thin, I haven't lost my hair, and I'm not racked by a smoker's cough. But I'll leave the trophy jeans to the twenty somethings who still have a chance of slithering into them.