Wednesday 31 March 2010

Unwanted words

Some people get very hot under the collar about their language being "corrupted" by words from other languages. They think it's the thin end of the wedge, that if it goes on it'll lead to a tsunami of alien words and their whole language will vanish down the plughole.

Italians love English words and use hundreds of them (il weekend, il snack bar, il taxi). We Brits love foreign words and sprinkle them everywhere to show how cosmopolitan and well-travelled we are.

But the French aren't so welcoming. They turn up their noses at dubious unFrench interlopers and try to stamp them out le plus tôt possible. They regularly round up the nasty little intruders and find respectable, upstanding French words to replace them.

The Académie Française has just run another competition to create substitutes for such ghastly arrivals as "le buzz" (an internet craze), "le tuning" (hotting up a car) and "le newsletter". They eventually decided on "le ramdam", "le bolidage" and "l'infolettre". Phew, that's more of the pesky little critturs wiped out.

Personally I don't know why they're so fussed. Foreign words add variety to a language, they enrich and refresh it. Every language is choc-a-bloc with foreign words that were introduced by travellers, translators and traders. Usually the words change naturally into something more like the host language, so eventually they seem like the real thing anyway (medicine, anyone?)

What are these language purists so afraid of? It's like cooking a meal and rejecting any foreign ingredients as polluting the taste. But all our languages have been polluted and contaminated by other languages from the start, that's what gives them their unique flavour and texture. The more foreign muck the better, I say.

Sunday 28 March 2010

Soft, pink and fluffy

As promised, something soft, pink and fluffy.

Mr Pinkie has some self-esteem issues as all his friends are yellow or brown and he feels a bit out of place. But his sessions with therapist Dr Melissa Flinch are helping a lot and he thinks he will soon be proud to be pink.

He enjoys being soft and fluffy as this means he has a heart of gold and all the girls adore him. They tell him their deepest secrets and he gives them wonderful advice without ever betraying their confidence.

Little bears everywhere long to be as sweet as Mr Pinkie.

Today's the day all the clocks go forward.
I've put them all forward by 24 hours.
Which means it's now Monday.
That's got rid of dreary old Sunday.
And I can enjoy everything a day earlier than anyone else.
Who's a clever boy, then?

Thursday 25 March 2010

Paying the price

No apologies for returning to the rather depressing subject of prostitution. I'd like to pretend it doesn't exist, but it does. And I've just stumbled on a shocking statistic that makes me think this whole seedy business simply has to stop.

For a while I've believed that the real problem is not prostitution itself but what goes with it - the violent pimps, the violent customers, the health risks, the public hostility. If the trade was covered by the same regulations and laws as other occupations, all that would disappear.

But now I discover the appalling fact that 68% of prostitutes have symptoms* of post traumatic stress disorder. In other words, psychological damage so severe it could utterly ruin the rest of their lives (that is, if they aren't murdered by a customer first).

An activity that causes that level of mental destruction while not contributing anything vital to people's daily lives can't be justified, however you look at it. It is simply systematic cruelty and brutality.

In which case, to maintain, as many people still do, that prostitution is the free choice of the women concerned, is merely a job of work like any other, and is only condemned by prudes and bigots, seems entirely mistaken.

If that level of PTSD existed in any mainstream occupation like teaching or health care, it would be wholly unacceptable and urgent action would be taken. So why does it not matter at all when it's prostitutes who're affected? Why is their well-being so studiously ignored?

* Research by Melissa Farley and others, San Francisco 1998. Quoted in The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard.

PS: Iceland is well on the way to shutting down its entire sex industry. Having already banned the purchase of sex, they have now banned businesses from profiting out of their employees' nudity. The ban on paid sex is supported by 82% of women and 57% of men. It must have helped that almost half the country's MPs are female, as opposed to under a fifth in the UK.

(Next up: something soft, pink and fluffy....)

Tuesday 23 March 2010


Sometimes it's tricky pinning down people's boundaries and knowing if it's okay to say something or if you're just about to overstep the mark and get them fuming.

Some people's boundaries are very flexible. You can be as controversial or teasing or flippant as you like and they'll take it on the chin and respond in kind. I guess they're self-confident enough not to feel too threatened by something "excessive".

Other people have such tight boundaries it's very easy to cross them with a chance remark and find you've somehow gone too far, broken some unstated expectation and caused sudden offence. Often they won't tell you what you said wrong, they just quietly rage and seethe and you wonder what's going on.

They discreetly rebuff you and distance you and you keep rerunning the sequence of events wondering what it was exactly that triggered the negative reaction. Was it that criticism of their favourite author? Was it that coolness about their job? Was it some impression of over-familiarity? The more you think about it, the more puzzled you get.

My father's boundaries were very rigid, and I was forever incurring his abrupt wrath. Sometimes he would point out the offending remark, and usually I was mystified. The remarks seemed harmless enough to me. So harmless I can't for the life of me recall any of them. Maybe I was enthusing about socialism, or lambasting one of my teachers, or being sniffy about some TV programme. Who knows?

But it's always odd when an apparently cordial relationship inexplicably turns frosty. You just think "So what was all that about? Was it me? Was it them? Was it something in the air? Was it global warming?"

Who put the fly in the ointment?

Saturday 20 March 2010

Shameful legs

For my entire life I've believed the myth that the Victorians covered up furniture legs for the sake of decency. Now it turns out this is a total fantasy dreamt up by some 19th century writers.

In fact the Victorians weren't particularly prudish and enjoyed sex as much as we do today. Not that prudery ever went away of course, as shown by all those tampon ads that daren't use the word "vagina" or even the words "down there".

If piano legs and the like were covered at all, more likely it was to protect them against cats. Cats were common in Victorian homes to control rats and mice, and a cat constantly sharpening its claws on a table leg can easily reduce it to half its original size.

There's no historical evidence whatever that the Victorians blushingly hid their furniture legs. The myth was fostered by two writers, Frederic Marryat and Frances Trollope, as a casual practical joke that somehow lived on despite the denials.

But we 21st century folk can be pretty coy about sex ourselves. How else to explain the obsession with wardrobe malfunctions, excessive cleavage and visible knickers? We also have our strict informal rules about what is permissible and what is shamefully risqué.

We may boisterously enjoy sex in our own bedrooms, but we still tut-tut furiously at any public figures who seem to be flaunting their sexuality. And many young couples are still too embarrassed to discuss condoms, or even their particular sexual tastes.

We might not cover up piano legs, but we still hide that vibrator that threatens our boyfriend's masculinity. Or that book of nudes our visitors might look askance at. No visible sex please, we're British.

PS: By the way, did I mention, today's my 63rd birthday. Jeez, how did I get to be that ancient?

PPS: Shucks, I didn't make it to the Irish Blog Award Finals. For some reason, the judges were shocked when I offered them bribes....

Thursday 18 March 2010

A touch of class

Do any of us still seriously think of ourselves as this class or that, as middle class or working class (or even upper class)? I suppose we do, when for some reason we're forced to.

If you push me, I would describe myself as middle class, though that's more a knee-jerk response than a reality. What does it actually mean apart from fairly well-off, respectable, an office worker, a law-abiding citizen?

And if you look closely, that label's a bit bogus anyway. I have relatives who were once shop assistants or machinists, or lived in seedy neighbourhoods, or were stony broke. In short who definitely came from the wrong side of the tracks. So can I really claim middle class status?

A lot of the time we only use these labels to make ourselves feel good. If I'm a sweat-soaked manual worker, I can complain about the la-di-da middle classes who never did a proper day's work in their lives. If I'm a target-driven office manager, I can moan about the feckless working classes who live on benefits at the taxpayers' expense. At least I'm a cut above the other lot.

Supposedly everyone aspires to a middle class lifestyle. But do they really or is that just another bit of advertising bollocks? What's so wonderful about a suburban semi, a crippling mortgage, a chock-full pending tray and business plans?

My aspirations are rather different. Some interesting people to hang out with, a comfortable chair to ruminate in, some tasty food and some intelligent books are quite enough to keep me happy. The des res in a leafy cul de sac is a nice fringe benefit, but only after the rest is catered for.

Middle class or working class, does it really matter?

PS: Yes, I know, there's also the Marxist option of ruling class or working class, but that doesn't make much sense nowadays either.

PIC: Jon Hamm and January Jones in Mad Men. Taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair.

Monday 15 March 2010

Rape dilemma

A new government report says a lot of rape victims are still treated shoddily and unsympath-etically by the police and the law and this must change to encourage more women to act on sexual violence.

Lady Stern's report says rape victims may still find they aren't taken seriously and not enough is done to catch the rapist. Often the case doesn't go to court because it's thought the evidence isn't strong enough. And if a quick conviction is unlikely, the police may lose interest altogether.

The report says many people still think a woman is partly responsible if for example she's drunk or wears risqué clothing. Or if she's already in a relationship with the man, then it doesn't count as rape.

So far so good, but it seems to me that one of the big problems in convicting rapists is that there may be no obvious signs of struggle or refusal.

Quite understandably, a woman may decide to submit rather than struggling because she's afraid of provoking something worse, of being beaten or killed. But if a jury has any reasonable doubt about whether consent has been given, they can't convict.

The other problem is that the court case may cause further trauma and distress as the woman is forced to relive what happened, and the rapist's lawyer challenges her version of events or even claims she was leading him on. Not surprisingly, some women refuse to go to court and face such added anguish.

It's hard to see how these difficulties can be overcome. Taking rape claims more seriously and ensuring the police are sympathetic are laudable aims but it's what happens in court that can still prevent justice being done.

A tragic but nowadays very predictable hospital disaster. Ena Dickinson, a former NHS volunteer, died two months after a botched hip operation. The surgeon removed too much bone and severed a major artery. She was only saved from bleeding to death on the operating table by a hospital consultant.

Friday 12 March 2010

Flimsy memories

Memories are so slippery. We think we remember an event so clearly, so accurately, yet someone else who was there will tell us we got it all wrong and it wasn't like that at all.

The police know all too well how fallible our memory is. If you talk to ten witnesses of a car accident, they'll all say something different. They can't agree on the car's speed, what happened, the weather, even the driver's gender.

My memory of an event often clashes with Jenny's, or one of us doesn't recall it at all. Do you remember that blonde in the miniskirt who pinched our taxi, I ask? She was dark-haired and wearing trousers, says Jenny. And she didn't pinch our taxi, she shared it. Okay, so something's got scrambled somewhere.

Sometimes I wonder just how reliable any of my memories are. How much of my life is a complete myth based on decades of gradually mangled recollections and how much is the truth? Did that wild night of sex with Caroline at the age of 19 actually happen or did she push me out of the door and say she never wanted to see me again?

People can nurse grievances for years over the way someone treated them, when their memory may be getting it all wrong. One reason I never breed grievances is that I can't be sure those abusive remarks or that hostile brush-off really happened. I may have dreamt the whole thing.

And at my age I think some memories have started to merge with things I've read or seen on TV. I remember so vividly that nightmare drive through torrential rain to visit an ailing girlfriend. Or is that just a classic episode from an early Ian McEwan novel?

I've learnt to treat my memories with caution, and bear in mind they may be no more reliable than a drunkard's hard luck story.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Keeping up appearances

We all like to think that we tell it like it is, that we show ourselves as we really are. But the truth is that we spend an awful lot of time "keeping up appearances".

All too often we want to hide the fact that we're feeling embarrassed, or terrified, or guilty, or envious. We want to cover up that colossal mistake, that mounting debt, that weird obsession.

There are things we just can't bring ourselves to divulge, for fear of other people's reactions. So we keep shtum and pretend everything's normal and plain-sailing, nothing untoward could possibly be happening.

Many's the time I've hidden my fright over a work interview, a social event, an expensive repair job, or some situation where I feel hopelessly out of my depth. I conjure up what I assume is a calm, competent exterior, one that says "I'm totally in control, I can handle this effortlessly" and hope the inner terror is safely out of view.

I conceal those dodgy activities that others might find reprehensible or mystifying. Why reveal that wasted £500, that fetish for high heels or those deranged emails if they're only going to ruin someone's good opinion of me? I'll sweep them hastily under the carpet and leave my warmly appealing persona intact.

It's hard to explain why I so often feel the urge to keep up appearances when I know very well that most people will probably be sympathetic. After all, they may be just as terrified and gaffe-prone as me, so how censorious can they be?

Unfortunately there are always some who despite their own fallibilities still take a delight in crowing over other people's. They're the ones I'm nervous about. If there's any prospect of crowing, I'd rather play safe.

Much as I'd love to be totally open, I can't quite manage it. The fact is, some parts of me just aren't flattering enough.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Indecent snow

People's hangups about sex never cease to amaze me. To certain eyes the most innocent things become symbols of wanton depravity. And if the depravity is particularly vile, there's nothing for it but to summon the police to quench the raging fires of lasciviousness.

In Rahway, New Jersey, Elisa Gonzalez and her family spent hours crafting a nude sculpture in the front garden of their home - their version of the celebrated Greek statue Venus de Milo. And very accomplished it was, so much so that several neighbours admired it.

But another neighbour was not so keen. The bare breasts and visible pubic area were too much for delicate sensibilities and a complaint was made to the local police about the "naked snow woman".

The police officer who paid a visit thought the snow lady and her assets were very impressive. But rather apologetically he insisted she would have to be covered up for the sake of public decency.

So she was given a green bikini top and some blue fabric to conceal the offending parts and restore the dignity of the neighbourhood.

Whether this achieved the desired aim is debatable. As Mrs Gonzalez said "I thought she looked more objectified and sexualised after I put the bikini on."

I assume that all snowmen will now be required to wear Y fronts to avoid similar complaints about their shameful lewdness. The fact is, people have got away with these obscene displays for too long. They have to stop.

Thursday 4 March 2010


Once again there are dramatic headlines about a clampdown on post-disaster looting, this time in Chile. But isn't a lot of this so-called looting simply taking what you need to survive?

Sure, if someone's walking out of a shop with a computer, that's looting. You can survive without a piece of electronics. But if they're grabbing food, water, clothing or bedding, maybe it's because they urgently need them.

Shopkeepers may condemn it, but what's more important - keeping people alive or keeping your stock intact? Suppose you or I were starving hungry and right in front of us was a supermarket heaving with food? Would we just stroll past or would we take a few things?

The only problem is that if you turn a blind eye to "necessary looting", you encourage looting generally, and if people see easy pickings they pile in and take everything they can lay their hands on.

They stagger out not with a few loaves of bread but with trolley loads of saleable goods and blatant crime takes over.

It's hard to see how you can allow justified looting without opening the floodgates to unprincipled opportunists. When it comes down to it, despite urgent human need, you have to protect people's property against those who are out for their own ends and ready to exploit a chaotic situation.

But those in need of life's essentials shouldn't be forced into looting, they should be getting the help they need from elsewhere. If the authorities were doing their job and organising emergency supplies of necessities, people wouldn't be so desperate.

PS: It's reported that looters in Chile have handed back £1.3 million ($2 million) of stolen goods including hundreds of TVs, washing machines and other electronic and furniture items.

Thanks to Los Angelista, who also wrote about looting a while back.

Monday 1 March 2010

Go treat yourself

Every so often some bright spark suggests that the NHS shouldn't treat people with "self-inflicted" ailments. Things like alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, anorexia.

It sounds good on paper, for about five minutes. It would save the NHS millions of pounds, we would all pay less tax, and it would encourage people to take more care of their health.

But in reality the idea just doesn't stack up. For a start, how do you decide that something is self-inflicted? If someone is overweight, they may be over-eating or they might have faulty genes or a hormone imbalance. They might say they've genuinely tried to lose weight but nothing has worked.

If you refuse to treat a "self-inflicted" illness it could get worse, meaning far more expense farther down the line as the illness becomes terminal or the person loses their job or becomes a burden on others.

Also, any ailment can be seen as self-inflicted if you so choose. The hill-walker who breaks a leg on a mountain-top. The gym enthusiast who has a heart attack during a workout. The rock musician with hearing loss. If they hadn't been doing those things in the first place, they would be fine....

And who exactly would make the fateful decision? A doctor? A petty official? Your right to medical treatment would be subject either to someone's personal whim or some baffling set of guidelines. You sometimes use the lift and not the stairs? Sorry, mate, we can't help you.

Not to mention the awful choice for someone who's hard-up whether to scrape the money together for private treatment or somehow live with the illness.

In the end, it's just an attempt to blame the victim for their problem instead of giving them what they need. Of course we all try to avoid getting ill. Nobody wants to be swallowing a load of medicines or languishing in a hospital ward. But despite our best efforts, we can still succumb to ill health and it's up to the NHS to help us.

This half-baked idea belongs in the dustbin.