Monday 31 May 2010

Straight talking

It's absurd that David Laws, the Cabinet Minister who has just resigned after 18 days in the job, felt he still had to conceal his homosexuality at the age of 44.

He resigned over expenses-fiddling, but in the process he was outed as gay and having a quasi-secret relationship with another man.

We don't know exactly why he was so defensive about his sexuality. Presumably from fear of other people's reactions - his parents, his friends, his work colleagues, the media, the public. Who knows?

But it's extraordinary, and sad, that a middle-aged man, a successful, well-connected, well-heeled millionaire, should feel it necessary to hide a major aspect of his personal life and go to such lengths to fabricate a heterosexual facade that falsified his real self.

Asked about his domestic situation a week ago, he declared himself to be "single". Asked whether he was paying rent to a sexual partner, he implied the relationship was not sexual but purely platonic. The constant wriggling and evasiveness must have been an agonising ordeal, yet he had been doing it for decades.

I should imagine that after he has got over the initial shock and dismay of being unexpectedly outed, he will be relieved that the truth has finally emerged and he can freely admit his sexuality and drop the endless, excruciating pretence.

It's ridiculous that so many years after homosexuality was decriminalised, when so many gay men and lesbians have no reservations about revealing their sexuality to the world, there are still many people like David Laws who feel compelled for one reason or another to keep their gayness under wraps like some tawdry, squalid obsession.

Will this sense of shame never disappear?

Pic: David Laws

Thursday 27 May 2010

Damaged soul

We all have a few grievances about the way our parents brought us up. But a 32 year old County Durham man* has a grievance so strong he's suing his mother - for not protecting him from his father's beatings.

He claims that between the ages of five and nineteen his father hit him several times a day with various implements or tried to throttle him.

He says his mother had a duty as a parent to take reasonable steps to protect her children from the violence, but instead she aided and abetted his father.

She should have got an injunction against him or divorced him. She shouldn't have let him remain in the house.

The son is seeking over £50,000 damages for pain and suffering, the cost of therapy, and his subsequent inability to complete his education, form relationships or hold down a job.

His mother denies liability for the assaults and says her son is exaggerating what happened to him.

It's shocking he feels so traumatised that he has to seek closure by resorting to the high drama of a court case, with all the emotion and stress and hostility that can involve.

Most of us, even if we had endured severe brutality or neglect from our parents, would try to resolve it in a less spectacular way, confining ourself to therapy or some other method of putting it behind us and getting on with our lives.

The law can be a very blunt and heavy-handed way of dealing with a problem, often making it worse or leaving a sense of injustice still festering.

I can't see how a financial settlement, however large, can be any substitute for the emotional catharsis that is surely what he really needs.

The courts can do a lot of things, but fixing damaged souls isn't one of them.

* He can't be identified for legal reasons

Monday 24 May 2010

Kiss and tell

How do you fancy kissing someone new every day for a year? And recording how you felt about it - and how the other person felt about it? Fun or not fun?

Philip Thiel is doing just that during 2010, and telling us all about it in his Melbourne-based blog. It's fascinating reading.

Every year since 2005, he has devoted the year to daily activities around an offbeat theme. One year he gave someone a flower each day. Another year he followed someone each day. He has also written daily poetry, written about saints, and done 365 different things with lemons.

His partner Julien calls him a blog artist, which is about right. The idea of using your blog to elaborate artistic concepts is an interesting variation on the usual themes.

03 May 2010: "Bonjour, bonjour!" Our standard greeting was given with its usual level of campness. Was it this banterish Frenchness that allowed for my spontaneous request? "Kiss me!" I suggested, leaning over the desk and puckering grotesquely. Kay fluttered nearer, I leant further, and - after a few unbalanced seconds - we brushed lips. Sensing that an explanation was in order, I said "I just won a poetry competition!"

29 April 2010: Ka Fam was raving about the kiss, seemingly surprised that someone as pale as me could generate such hotness. To Julien he said "Your boyfriend is such a good kisser! I'm still trying to oxygenate myself!" The priceless look on my husband's face.

Curiously, it seems nobody has yet refused point blank to be kissed. Nobody has said "Kiss me? Are you insane? Get away from me, you nasty creature." Nobody has slapped him or struck him with a handbag. Everybody has been amused and intrigued by his invitation.

Of course it helps that he's a very personable young man and not some alcoholic old lecher. He can kiss me any time he likes, though that might be a bit tricky when there's 10,000 miles between us.

Pic: Philip Thiel

Friday 21 May 2010

Off with his beard

If you were a bearded British civil servant and members of the public complained that dealing with bearded public officials was "unpleasant", you'd just laugh and fondly stroke the impugned item.

But it's not so simple in Isesaki in Japan, where male officials have been told to shave off all facial hair, including beards, moustaches and designer stubble, to avoid offending the public.

They've been told that "public servants should look like public servants" and the measure will "improve decorum".

One wonders what other "unpleasant" features might be next for the chop. Earrings? Over-long hair? Orange ties? Sunglasses? The good citizens of Isesaki must be a sensitive bunch. Maybe they see the beards as germ-infested. Or they're convinced beard equals terrorist.

I hope it doesn't catch on here. I mean, I rather like a clean-shaven guy myself, but I wouldn't give a bearded official the evil eye. I'm sure he has his reasons for encouraging follicular lushness. It may hide that alarming scar or signal his anarchist sympathies.

And suppose the partner of the depilated official was quite fond of the beard or the moustache? Suppose they even found it erotic? Would a false beard do the job instead?

If I were one of the wayward functionaries, I would be tempted to come in next day immaculately clean-shaven, but with scarlet lipstick and magenta eye shadow. And hoop earrings the size of saucers.

Now what could be more pleasant?

Wednesday 19 May 2010

What a whopper

By a strange coincidence, another survey on lying. It reveals our most common lies, and when we think it's okay to tell them. Women, it seems, are better liars than men.

Some 84% of us think certain lies are acceptable - if you're trying to spare someone's feelings, or protect someone, or pretend you liked a present.

According to 55%, women are better liars, even though they claim to lie less often (but are they telling the truth?).

The most frequent lie by men is "I didn't have that much to drink" while women are more likely to say "Nothing's wrong, I'm fine." And there are the usual lies about being stuck in traffic, bums that don't look too big, dresses that were in the sale, and blinding headaches that suddenly come on at bedtime.

Probably my most frequent lie is "No, that's really interesting, tell me more" when I'm actually bored to death by some interminable ramble about the price of groceries or a pregnant celebrity or the mating habits of kangaroos. Somehow I never have the courage to say "For God's sake, shut up before I do you an injury."

Another culprit is "Oh no, I would have reacted the same way, that's quite understandable" when I'm really wondering how on earth someone could get so worked up over something so trivial. Or so predictable. Or so obviously bonkers. The words "Frankly you're a hysterical old bat" don't come easily to my lips.

And I think lying by omission still counts as lying, if you're creating a false impression. If someone says there's nothing wrong with having affairs, and I stay silent, they'll assume I agree even if in reality I think affairs are selfish and cruel.

No, I only lie if it's really necessary. And that's the honest truth.

PS: I've just discovered the woman in the pic may be prone to steatopygia

Sunday 16 May 2010

It's good to lie

Obviously we should encourage children to be honest at all times and not lie. Or should we? New research has found that children who learn to lie at an early age have better developed brains.

Apparently lying stimulates your thinking and reasoning skills, means you use information more creatively, and forges leadership abilities.

I suppose if you look at what's involved when little Jessica tells you, Oh no of course she wasn't playing with matches, she was combing her dollies' hair, you can deduce she's also using her imagination, ingenuity and acting ability, as well as a sense of coherent explanation and plausibility. Clearly her brain's firing on all cylinders.

According to the Canadian research*, one fifth of children learn to lie by the age of two, and by the age of 12 they're all at it, trying to pull the wool over adult eyes whenever they stand to gain from it.

But even if lying is good for the brain, do we really want to encourage it? Should we really be suggesting to children that fibbing is okay, there's no need to be honest all the time?

Most people find the idea of children lying rather shocking, and actively discourage it, but the reality is that adults lie constantly about all sorts of things and often for good reasons. We don't tell the whole truth about ourselves to employers, or parents, or strangers, or police officers. If we think we'll lose out, we readily alter the facts to our advantage.

So isn't it hypocrisy to expect children to behave differently and never ever make things up? Maybe it is.

And think what it'll do for their future career prospects. If they can learn to lie effortlessly and shamelessly, with a completely straight face, well, crikey, they'll be a top politician in no time.

PS: The major message of the study seems to be that children in general don't get enough mental stimulus and end up getting it from undesirable activities like lying. Which doesn't say much for parenting or schooling.

* The Institute of Child Study at Toronto University tested 1200 children aged from 2 to 16

Thursday 13 May 2010

Hit where it hurts

Some insults are more hurtful than others. It rather depends on your particular sensitivities, and what sort of person you want to be seen as. I'm always stabbed by certain words.

"Mean". Who wants to be known as mean, keeping everything to yourself and never giving anything away, piling up your cash and never using it to help others? Not me. Generosity is much more attractive. And it spreads happiness.

"Cowardly". I like to think that if someone was in trouble and needed help, I would step in even it was a bit dangerous. And I like to have the courage of my convictions, saying what I really think and not what's polite or convenient.

"Bad-tempered". My father flew into colossal rages, terrifying me and my mother and sister, and I vowed never to be the same way. To this day I seldom get angry, and I'm very patient with other people's failings and idiocies (and even their insults!)

"Stupid". Stupid I am not. I may be slow to react, I may consider things carefully, I may see things from a strange viewpoint, but that's not stupidity, any more than the obvious, predictable response shows intelligence.

"Lazy". I don't know how to be lazy. Not interested, maybe, or having better things to do, or not seeing the point, or not wanting to be a dogsbody. But not lazy. If I'm really committed to something, I'll put my heart and soul into it, I'll do whatever it takes.

"Anti-social". I like my own company, I like to sit and think, but I also enjoy being with others if they're funny, intelligent, open-minded and compassionate. Unfortunately a lot of people are dull and narrow-minded, and I avoid them for my own sanity.

Now if people call me a leftie, or a nutcase, or ungodly, or effeminate, that's just fine. I freely admit to being all those things - in a big way. What's to object to? But some words are thorns. They pierce me easily, and it can be hard to pull them out. They can get lodged pretty deep.

So what insults hit you where it hurts?

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Wheels within wheels

As a dyed-in-the wool socialist, I'm dismayed by the new Tory government and even more dismayed that the Lib Dems have jumped into bed with them.

The last Tory government, dominated by Margaret Thatcher, led to massive unemployment, the rapid decline of manufacturing industry, the fettering of trade unions, a worsening of working conditions, a growing split between rich and poor, and crumbling public services.

Unfortunately the Labour government, which came to power pledging to reverse all those trends, ended up continuing them and in some cases accelerating them. They also brought social mobility to a halt. This is the main reason why Labour did so badly in the election, despite widespread distrust of the Tories.

But the Lib Dems' gung-ho love-in with the supposedly new-look Conservatives and supposedly egalitarian David Cameron is really extraordinary. This is the party that painted itself as well to the left of Labour and wanting a clean break from the two "old parties" stuck in out-of-date thinking. And now here they are hand-in-hand strolling to the altar as if this is a marriage made in heaven and a new age of enlightenment is upon us.

Are they more perceptive than we realise, or are they hopelessly naive about the cosmetically-enhanced Tories who've just been hiding all their elitist diehards while they pile up the votes? I suspect the latter, and I also suspect the Lib Dems will get a nasty shock when the Tories start stealthily reverting to their old attitudes, kicking the Lib Dems out of the way, and ignoring the poor and vulnerable just as they were doing 13 years ago.

This is an excellent analysis of the prospects for the coalition

Thursday 6 May 2010

One track mind

I'm absurdly unmasculine most of the time, but in one way I'm typically male. I'm complete shite at multi-tasking.

Give me two things to do at the same time and I'm guaranteed to mess them both up. Cook a meal and read the paper? You can be sure I'll end up burning the pasta and not taking in anything I'm reading. If I try to split my mind between two things, each half seizes up and confusion sets in.

Jenny however is typically female here and can multi-task easily. She'll do the ironing, listen to the radio, plan an academic article and check her emails - and do it all competently. She switches from one to the other effortlessly, somehow keeping everything in focus.

That's all very well, says the average bloke, but attending to one thing at a time just has to produce better results than spreading your brain all over the shop. How can you possibly do four things at once and do them all properly?

It's galling to admit, but actually women probably do do all four things properly. Homing in on one thing doesn't necessarily pay. You can get stuck in a mental rut, going round and round in circles. Whereas hopping between different things keeps the brain flexible and stimulated, keeps the creative juices circulating.

But I'm hopeless at it. I can't even have a conversation and do something else at the same time. If I don't concentrate totally on what I'm saying, the words stop flowing, I get confused, and I end up stuttering like a lunatic.

Jenny knows not to talk too much when I'm driving in case my attention wanders and the next thing you know I'll be hurtling through red traffic lights, knocking down innocent old ladies and skidding into shop windows.

I suspect it's not a natural male trait, it's the way I was brought up. Multi-tasking was simply not expected of me because "boys just can't do it, can they?" So surprise surprise, I became as incapable as they assumed. And a one-track mind is the consequence.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Voting fraud

There is serious concern that some of Thursday's election results could be affected by voting fraud. Police are investigat-ing over 50 complaints of irregularities including many suspicious postal votes.

In two highly marginal East London seats, thousands of requests for postal votes arrived too late to check if they are genuine or not.

In some cases, amazingly high numbers of voters are supposedly living in tiny flats only suitable for a small family. An Independent journalist looking into the fraud claims was viciously beaten up by local teenagers in Bow, East London. Police have questioned three Labour candidates about the claims.

There were numerous fraud inquiries in the previous general election, some of which led to convictions.

Postal votes are especially vulnerable to abuse as it's difficult to check both the voter's identity and the validity of the vote cast.

There have been many instances of postal votes being sent via political parties which can register a phoney vote for their own party. There are also cases of confused elderly people being tricked into voting for a party they don't support.

The whole postal vote system needs a thorough overhaul to prevent wholesale deception, particularly when the sudden popularity of the Liberal Democrats means that in this election many more seats are likely to change hands.

I predict a big increase in fraud investigations after the election, as candidates up and down the country cheated of victory query the results and suspect something fishy. A once highly-respected voting system is unfortunately being corrupted and not enough is being done to prevent the corruption.

And today's poser: What are rumbledethumps? (a) a small Australian shrub (b) a poor-sighted American rodent (c) a Scottish delicacy