Friday 30 April 2010


I can't begin to understand stalkers. I fail to see what warped sense of enjoyment there could be in harassing someone day in and day out until they're terrified out of their wits.

But stalking seems to be increasing*, so much so that a new national helpline, Stalking Helpline, has been set up for those on the receiving end.

Who can explain it? Sometimes it's a romantic delusion, with the stalker seeing someone as so perfect, so unique, so special that they become obsessed with them. They also imagine that sooner or later the person will see the stalker as equally perfect and special and a wonderful relationship will result.

If onlt they send enough letters and gifts, and wait outside their heart-throb's home often enough, eventually all the attention will pay off.

Then again it may be all about power. The stalker's aim is to gain total control over the person's life and make them feel trapped and helpless. They want the victim to be aware of nothing but the stalker and what he (and it's usually he) will do next to disrupt their life. An extreme form of bullying in other words.

Some people still don't take it seriously. They say a woman should be flattered or amused by all the attention, or that the stalker is just some passionate admirer who's going too far. They fail to recognise the sheer distress and humiliation the victim is going through.

Yes, to begin with, the unwanted pestering is simply annoying and puzzling, but as it continues relentlessly day after day, sapping energy and making normal life impossible, it becomes a hideous nightmare.

One of the new helpline's founders is Tricia Bernal, whose 22 year old daughter Clare was shot dead by her ex-boyfriend after months of harassment and threats.

Flattering? Amusing? I don't think so.

* It is estimated that over a million women in the UK are victims of stalking every year.

See also: The Network for Surviving Stalking

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Sharing the spoils

Nasty disputes over wills are always riveting. And this is a juicy one. After an Australian millionaire left her ex-husband and three daughters just 90 pence each*, the daughters have gone to court to dispute the will.

They're claiming that 81 year old Valmai Roche was delusional when she drafted the will and falsely believed they had plotted to kill her own mother.

Ms Roche, from Adelaide, left the bulk of her A$3.5 million estate to a Catholic charity, the Knights of the Southern Cross. She claimed her daughters didn't need the money because they "have been adequately provided for".

One daughter, Fiona Roche, is indeed far from penniless, heading the hugely successful Roche Group of companies. The position of the other two daughters, Shauna Roche and Deborah Hamilton, has not been disclosed.

Ms Roche's mother died in a nursing home but it's not revealed exactly how she died or whether the circumstances were suspicious.

Further details will emerge when the case comes back to court in May.

Valmai Roche looks to me like a wise old bird who knew exactly what she was doing when she made her will, but who can tell?

I do wonder why Fiona Roche is contesting the will if she's already extremely well-off and doesn't need the money. Is it just greed? Some sort of grudge? A publicity stunt?

Was their mother really delusional or are the daughters just dragging her name through the mud and painting themselves as avaricious schemers?

Once again the invisible beneficiaries are the lawyers, who will no doubt make a tidy sum by the time the case draws to its venomous conclusion. There's no fury like three women scorned....

*A$1.49 or US$1.39. The will actually refers to "thirty pieces of silver", the price for which Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. The reference to betrayal is intriguing.

Pic: Valmai Roche with a portrait of herself

PS: See the comment from someone who "knows the family very well" and says Valmai Roche made a later will leaving everything to her two granddaughters Alexandra and Airlie. The will was never finalised or signed, which is why her daughters have gone to court. The implication is that the daughters want the money to go to her granddaughters rather than to a charity.

Friday 23 April 2010

Asking the voters

I do sometimes wonder about the intelligence levels of the Great British Public, especially during an election campaign*. Asked for their opinion on the different offerings, the best they can come up with is "Well, they're all the same really, aren't they?" or "I like that Mr Clegg, he's got an honest face."

Of course if someone's jumped on in the street by a journo as they're off to the supermarket, they don't have time to think carefully about the questions they're asked. Even so, you assume they'd have some considered views about how the country's governed and how the politicians deal with such basic things as poverty and unemployment.

I'm always waiting for someone to say "Well, anyone earning under £10,000 shouldn't have to pay tax" or "If everyone worked part-time, there'd be more jobs." Or something that actually amounts to an interesting idea rather than a vacuous comment.

But no, it's like trying to get blood out of a stone. An alarming number of people give the impression their political awareness goes no farther than whether their wheelie bin's been emptied. No wonder the MPs managed to get away with such rampant expenses-fiddling for so long.

It may be that in private people are more intelligent than they seem in public. Maybe in their own houses they wax eloquent on the finer points of asylum-seeking or maternity benefits or medical treatment, but outside they keep their trenchant views to themselves.

Mind you, when so many politicians are habitually evasive and dishonest about their intentions, and seldom tell you the truth about anything, whether it's the cost of nuclear missiles or their receding hairlines, it's not surprising if people are too sickened to take more interest in politics and form mature opinions about the issues.

Sometimes I have to sympathise with those who can't switch off the party political broadcasts fast enough in favour of something more life-enhancing like a box of chocolates or a blast of Lady Gaga.

*The UK general election is on May 6. The three biggest parties are Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. Right now they are equally popular and the result could be a hung parliament. One or two Green MPs may be elected for the first time.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Hunting happiness

Millions of gloomy souls follow French psychiatrist François Lelord for his advice on how to be happy. But can you really teach people happiness?

Some lucky people do manage to turn terrible misery into sunny contentment. But it seems to me that in general miserable people stay that way and happy people likewise. It's hard to manufacture happiness when it isn't there to start with.

There are people who find fault with everything and spend the whole day moaning and groaning with a sour face. And there are others who see delights and wonders wherever they go, shrugging off hardships and enthusiastically grabbing at life. That's simply the way people are and trying to "switch on" happiness is unlikely to work.

There just isn't any slick formula. Money doesn't guarantee happiness. Nor does marriage, sex, hard work, physical beauty or lots of friends. Striving and straining won't summon it, it has to bubble up of its own accord.

Miserable people are often so used to being miserable that the prospect of being happy is actually threatening. Their whole familiar view of the world would collapse. So they have a dozen ways of keeping joy safely out of reach.

But happy people somehow attract happiness like a magnet, drawing it out from their unconscious and everything around them so the sheer force of their enjoyment washes away any miserable impulse. Their happiness multiplies and expands like ink on blotting paper. How can you learn a talent like that at an afternoon seminar?

Monsieur Lelord may be a very charming and entertaining man. But I wonder how many of his devoted admirers have magically attained happiness from his copious advice.

PS: And what about me, you may ask? I'd say I'm a pretty happy person, I find it hard to be miserable for long. I soon find something to cheer me up again, however grim the circumstances.

Yes! Jenny is finally home from York after being stranded for six days and we're catching up on all the gossip....

Sunday 18 April 2010

Pressing the flesh

Apparently increasing numbers of men neurotic about their appearance are clamouring for secret shapewear to give them a trimmer, sharper figure.

In particular they want something to flatten their expanding bellies so they don't have to keep sucking them in to impress the ladies.

Quite a few companies already offer special flab-controlling garments for men and now even Spanx is introducing a range of male shapewear - including a high-power T shirt that can shrink your waist and belly by several inches.

Men who've tried them seem surprisingly matter-of-fact about submitting to the same squeeze and squash regime women have been putting up with for centuries.

What's up with these guys? Are they really so alarmingly vain, so mortified by a few unwanted inches that they're prepared to join their womenfolk and spend all day in flesh-constricting garments?

If their increasing girth really disgusts them so much, wouldn't eating and boozing less be more natural than elasticated discomfort?

I can't see their partners being too keen either. If there's anything guaranteed to kill sexual passion stone dead, it's the sight of heavy-duty, keep-it-all-hidden underwear.

I'm glad my own belly is small enough that I don't have to consider such drastic options. I don't need to wrestle with anything trickier than a pair of knickers.

At this rate women will soon be as confused as men when it comes to the real-or-fake question. Is that belly genuinely flat? Is that bum genuinely compact? What exactly will be revealed as Mr Slimline sheds his outer layers? A lot of women could be as disappointed as men when the Wonderbra is slipped off.

So no devious shapewear for me. What you see is what you get.

Spanx? No thanks.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Out on a limb

I'll let you in on a secret. Although, as you know, I'm a conspicuous oddball guaranteed to have quirky opinions on just about everything, there's a little part of me that hankers to be 100 per cent normal and conventional.

I'm quite used to being different. I've been out on a limb my entire life. I've never fitted easily into any familiar category - the tough guy or the doting father or the sex maniac or the sports fan. I have a natural tendency to veer off down a side street, leaving everyone else behind.

But I'm never entirely comfortable with my maverick mind, partly because I come from an extremely conservative family where unorthodox opinions were always regarded with suspicion and bemusement. I still sometimes wonder if my opinions are genuinely held or whether I assume them just to be the fly in the ointment or the devil's advocate.

So there are times when I think life would be a lot smoother, and my relationships with other people a lot easier, if I were as normal as fish and chips and as easy to understand as Mr Average. Or even Ms Average.

I wouldn't have to exhaust myself trying to explain why I'm a vegetarian or a socialist or a Buddhist or why I'm masculinity-phobic. I could happily trot out my mainstream, run-of-the-mill opinions and people's eyes would light up with eager recognition.

Of course I know it's not as simple as that. I know that in reality there's no such thing as Mr Average or a "normal" opinion and that other people can feel out on a limb as often as I do, even if they seem utterly conventional. But it doesn't stop me, in moments of desperation, trying on the clothes of Mr Regular Guy. And thinking they might even fit.

Eeek! Jenny is still stuck at York trying to get back to Belfast, grounded for a fourth day by the volcanic ash from Iceland. Her trip to Barcelona has been cancelled. The ferries are now booked solid. How will she get home? Watch for the next gripping instalment....

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Veronica's brainpower

Once again my dear friend Veronica, the dazzling supermodel, is keeping me company while Jenny gads off to York and Barcelona on academic business.

And once again she's fuming at the hacks. "The arseholes still think all models are airheads. They make me sick. For f***'s sake, I've got a degree in modern languages, I'm a member of Mensa and I've got a private pilot's licence. What more do they want?"

She was striding up and down the sweltering conservatory in her four inch stilettoes, leaving a trail of crumbs from her blueberry and cinnamon muffin.

"And what am I reading? 'Positionality in the postcolonial African narrative.' I ask you, does that make me an airhead?"

"No, just pretentious, sweetie. Anyway, who cares about these media morons? They wouldn't recognise an original idea if it flew into them. They just love a string of clichés, the longer the better."

But Veronica was miles away. She was consumed with rage, tearing the menu for Pronto Takeaway Pizzas into smaller and smaller pieces. I couldn't take my eyes off her astonishingly tight T shirt.

"And now the politicos are stalking me as well. They all want to be seen with me. They think they'll look cool and trendy if they're hobnobbing with a famous supermodel. Pathetic. As if I'd be seen dead with those lying, egocentric careerists. They don't give a toss about ordinary people, they just want to line their own pockets. But they won't leave me alone. Gordon would love to meet you. David has always admired you. Give me a break."

Her tantalising breasts were heaving seductively under her T shirt. I did my best to concentrate on what she was saying. My head was spinning and my heart was racing.

"Nicky darling, are you listening to me? You look a bit distracted."

"I was just envying your exceptional intelligence, sweetie."

"Of course you were."

Pic: Veronica pretending to be camera-shy

Thursday update: All British flights are cancelled today because of the volcanic ash from Iceland. Jenny has rebooked her return flight from Manchester for tomorrow. Lucky me, another night of fun-filled frolics with Ms Veronica....

Sunday 11 April 2010

A secret stash

People hide all sorts of things from their partners. Phobias, wild crushes, midnight binges, body hair. And quite often, it seems, secret savings accounts.

A new study says that one in five men and one in ten women have private stashes they don't reveal, averaging £2000 but sometimes a lot more.

They have all sorts of reasons for squirrelling it away. In case the relationship fails, because it's none of their partner's business, because it gives them some financial independence, and for men because a stash of cash makes them feel more masculine.

Those high-earning bankers in the City of London are said to be particularly prone to hiding large chunks of their earnings from their partners. It must be pretty easy, with such astronomical sums flying in all directions.

There's no way Jenny or I would have secret accounts. We've had joint accounts for many years and whatever's in them belongs quite clearly to both of us. When we first met I had my own bank account with quite a sizeable sum in it (which Jenny knew about) but we eventually pooled all our money.

I suppose if you genuinely think your relationship might collapse, then having some private savings is a sensible precaution, to enable you to start afresh. But I can't see any other good reason for salting away money your partner doesn't know about.

To me it suggests terrible deceit and lack of trust, keeping something very important from them because they might not approve. And if you're hiding something so significant, what else might you be hiding that they ought to know about? A taste for secrecy can spread into umpteen areas, like a virus, until deceit becomes routine.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Looking one's best

"When she lives independently of Bill, she forgets how much time she has to spend pretending to be better or prettier or nicer than she really is. She had waxed her legs, shaved her armpits, tweezered her face, and is now so stiff with foundation, powder, blusher and lipstick she feels that if she smiles too much half her face may fall off. Polly, whose normal appearance is that of a small woman who has had an unfortunate encounter with a tornado, has even had her hair done, and is also wearing the kind of reinforced underpants that women who have had babies tend to resort to." (Amanda Craig, Hearts and Minds)

Of course if you ask a man, he'll say he's quite happy with his partner as she is, and actually it's other women she's trying to impress, not him. To which the woman will reply that he may say that but he thinks differently. In reality he wants her to be slimmer and sexier than all the other women he meets and he'll go off her pretty fast if she isn't.

I think there are both types of men, some more accepting of women as they really are than others. Hopefully I fall into the first camp and I don't expect women to go to those ridiculous lengths to fit some artificial glossy stereotype.

Mind you, it works the other way round as well. Some women don't mind men in the raw, men who make no effort at all to be what women want them to be. But other women recoil from such selfishness and want their guy to be attractive, emotionally sensitive, solvent, domesticated, sociable and generous. They can be equally critical of men who don't meet their exacting high standards.

If that means expecting men to be civilised and considerate and act like mature human beings, fair enough. If it means expecting them to be supermen who'll rescue them from every disaster and cater for their every need, that's asking the impossible. Nobody's that perfect.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

The loner

In the house behind ours lived a middle-aged man called, shall we say, Derek. He was a confirmed loner who seldom ventured on to the streets. In the ten months we've lived here I only saw him two or three times.

What information I have about him comes from another neighbour and is pretty sparse. It seems he was a retired civil servant with no other interests apart from drinking and watching TV. He wasn't very healthy and several times I saw an ambulance outside.

His parents and his wife had all died and he had no other living relatives except a distant uncle. He appeared to have no friends, and not much contact with his other neighbours. The social services had been in touch with him but whatever help they gave him clearly didn't go far enough.

One evening he rang our doorbell and asked for advice about his TV, which wasn't getting a proper picture. I gave him what tips I could and off he went again.

In hindsight I thought maybe I should have invited him in for a chat, but his rather reserved manner deterred me from doing so.

A couple of weeks ago a policewoman appeared at the door and told me Derek had been found dead. He had probably been dead several days and she wondered when I had last seen him alive. I could only say it was some time ago.

It's very tragic when someone becomes that isolated and cuts himself off so methodically. Something in his personality, some chronic lack of confidence, always prevented him reaching out to others. And in every street there's probably someone similar, crying out for human affection but unable to reach it.

Friday 2 April 2010

Just keep talking

I'm not a very talkative person. Which doesn't really matter most of the time. I just say what I need to say, or if I'm silent someone more garrulous will happily babble away to fill the void.

But there's one situation where not talking is a definite negative. Namely, the job interview. If there's one thing that's called for here, it's plenty of words. And fast.

You know how it is. They ask you all those appallingly open-ended questions like "How good are you at acting on your own initiative/ working as part of a team/ meeting tight deadlines/ advanced brain surgery?" and you're expected to prattle away effortlessly about all the impressive things you've done, the extraordinary skills you possess, your boundless versatility and ingenuity, and your willingness to commute 100 miles to their flea-ridden office next to the landfill site.

So I trot out a few likely things and they dutifully scribble them down in their alarmingly empty notepads that they hope to fill with my dazzling and pertinent replies.

At this point I dry up, my mind goes blank, but they're still gazing at me expectantly as if I must have lots more to say. I rack my brain feverishly for inspiration but nothing emerges. My work with baby elephants? My stint in the funeral parlour? Perhaps not quite what they're looking for. Surely I've said enough? Haven't I convinced them yet? What more do they need to know?

This is where the naturally loquacious just carry on spouting, as if every experience in their entire life clearly equips them for the job, starting with conception and leaving the womb. They could go on all day if the interviewers didn't frantically call a halt and move on to the next question.

How do they do it? How do they find so much to talk about? It would be handy to have a little switch somewhere that made me talkative on demand. For when quietness is a vice and not a virtue.

Yes, I had a job interview. And no, I didn't get the job. Ah well, c'est la vie....

See also: Interview pitfalls, Panel game