Wednesday 30 June 2010

Unputdownable or unreadable?

When is a book a good book? Is it only the literary critics who're expert enough to decide? Or is the ordinary reader's opinion just as valid?

I get constantly annoyed by the lingering belief that there's some kind of literary elite who know better than you and I what's a talented, well-crafted book and what's ham-fisted rubbish.

There's a continual assumption that only those who've studied literature at some fancy university, or hung out with famous authors, or are themselves authors, have enough discernment to tell the wheat from the chaff, the humdingers from the penny-dreadfuls.

I say this having just sampled two novels heaped with praise by the self-proclaimed experts, which seemed to me anything but praiseworthy. Everything from the plot to the characters to the writing itself seemed sadly lacking.

The cognoscenti of the book world would no doubt regard my opinions as worthless and uninformed. Yet I studied literature at school, I've read thousands of books and for many years I was a bookseller. Why would my opinions be any less valid than those of the literati?

Nobody would suggest that ordinary football fans are incapable of worthwhile opinions about football. Or that ordinary music-lovers can't have sensible opinions about music. Yet there's still this sniffy elitism about books.

So let's hear it for all those anonymous readers, Jo and Joanna Page-Turner, who're as entitled as anyone to proclaim the Booker Prize Winner a load of pretentious twaddle, or that well-known "literary giant" an overrated, long-winded dwarf.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Gender unknown

How do you stop people treating your child in a gender-related way? Easy - you refuse to tell them whether the child is a boy or a girl.

This is what a Swedish couple have been doing for two years. Their offspring, referred to only as Pop, sometimes wears trousers and sometimes dresses, and his/her hairstyle is regularly changed to avoid gender assumptions.

They deflect all inquiries about gender and studiously present him/her in a neutral, category-free manner. Pink may not mean what you think, ditto blue. All conclusions are pure guesswork.

"We want Pop to grow up freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset" says Pop's mother. "It's cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead."

It's a fascinating experiment, trying to subvert the well-established tendency for children to be genderised, and to absorb the expected gender role, from the moment they're born.

But there are so many questions begging to be asked:

1) How do the parents avoid using a gender?
2) How do they avoid accidental giveaway remarks?
3) When will they reveal Pop's gender?
4) Is Pop happy about keeping his/her gender secret?
5) How do the parents stop him/her blurting it out?
6) Will Pop become gendered as soon as it's revealed?

Needless to say, some people have already accused the couple of child abuse for suppressing Pop's identity. But isn't it also a form of child abuse to force a child into a gender role they might not be comfortable with?

So? Nasty little boy or sweet little girl? Watch this space.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Sorry, no baldies

A bald man without much body hair was told he couldn't join the Northern Ireland Police Service. Why? Because he couldn't provide enough hair for a drugs test.

There are of course other sources of DNA for a drugs test - blood, skin, mouthwash, fingerprints, and amniotic fluid if you're female. Surprisingly, the police seemed to be unaware of this.

He* had to go to the High Court to get his application reconsidered, on the rather obvious grounds that the rejection was irrational and discriminatory. An entirely unnecessary legal detour.

Apart from the intriguing idea that serving police officers are likely to be high as a kite, and therefore have regular drug tests (well, I suppose they need something to cope with the stress and strain of the job), I'm struck by the sheer daftness of the reason for turning him away.

If the police don't know all the sources of DNA, you wonder what else they don't know. Do they know how to arrest someone? Do they know how to solve a crime? I'm getting a bit worried. I thought the police were highly-trained professionals, giving the criminals a run for their money. But maybe not. Maybe the next time I see a burglar, I'll call Miss Marple instead.

PS: It's been pointed out to me that hair contains drug traces for several months, while blood, skin etc only contain drug traces for a couple of days. This is why hair is the best source for random drug tests. But it still means ideal applicants can be refused for a comparatively trivial reason.

*His name has been withheld for security reasons.

Monday 21 June 2010

Beware of the car

Don't you love those absurd scare stories designed to make us terrified of some aspect of daily life we were never worried about before?

There's another splendid example here. Cars, we are told, are seething with dangerous germs that could cause food poisoning, vomiting and skin infections.

Swabs taken from a well-used family car were found to be crawling with nasties like staphylococcus and bacillus cereus, lurking on the steering wheel, gearstick, door handles and floor mats.

A microbiologist was wheeled out to point to the "horrifying" fact that eating off a dashboard could be as toxic as eating off a toilet seat. Your car, he said, "should maintain the same level of hygiene as your dining room."

Well, I don't know about you, but I don't recall ever falling sick after using the car, even when I was driving it every day. If I did vomit after leaving it, it was probably the result of drinkus alcoholicus and not bacillus cereus.

Did they quote any actual statistical connection between car use and illness? Of course not, it was all just a theoretical, you-never-know bit of nonsense. They may be commonplace bugs, guys, but don't under-estimate them! They could cause havoc! They could turn your life upside down!

I was waiting for the article to plug some expensive, state-of-the-art hygiene product that would cleanse and purify my beloved vehicle, but strangely that never appeared.

Yes, my car may well be germ-laden, but like other human beings I have that wonderful thing, an immune system. I think I'll survive.

Friday 18 June 2010

All alone am I

It seems there has been a big rise in the number of people feeling lonely. Despite all the media images of happy families and wild parties, many of us often feel cut off and isolated.

In 1982, 76 per cent of those asked said they never felt lonely. But in 2010, only 32 per cent can say that. Is there something drastically wrong with society or are people just less self-sufficient, less able to enjoy their own company?

Maybe it's people in general being less friendly. We're so busy coping with the demands of modern life - with our work, our families, our hobbies - that we pay less attention to others. We don't notice if they're lonely, or even if we do, we don't give them the real affection and appreciation they're looking for.

Or maybe it's a personal failing, an inability to get so engrossed in things that the presence or absence of others is irrelevant. We've lost that knack that children have of utter absorption in what they're doing, to the exclusion of all else. We keep thinking that somehow we'd be enjoying ourselves more if someone else was around.

Or when people say they're lonely, do they really mean they feel bored, or afraid, or confused, and they just want someone to tell them what to do or make them feel better? Not so much loneliness as helplessness.

I don't often feel lonely myself, even though I spend long periods alone. I'm very happy with my own company, and I do find it easy to get totally immersed in something, be it books, music, gardening or just freewheeling ruminations. I'm seldom desperate for a chat.

For me aloneness is not a misfortune. It's something to savour.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Bloody Sunday

On January 30 1972, 14 people on a civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, were gunned down by British Paratroopers. Yesterday, 38 years later, Prime Minister David Cameron apologised unreservedly for the shocking, unprovoked killings.

The Saville Report, released after 12 years at a cost of almost £200 million, finally confirms what the marchers always knew - that the shootings were gratuitous and arbitrary. None of the marchers had done anything to prompt the gunfire.

Relatives and friends were utterly traumatised by the events of that day, and their pain was worsened by the earlier Widgery Report that concluded the marchers had been firing weapons and had provoked answering shots from the soldiers.

For 38 years they have been campaigning for justice, for an official admission that the marchers were blameless when the confused and panic-stricken Paratroopers opened fire randomly at the crowds.

Why did it take so long for the government to admit the truth? Why couldn't they just own up to it straightaway and try to heal the wounds before they turned into such a bitter and deep-rooted sense of grievance? What was to be gained by lying and prevaricating for so many years?

Even now, even after this exhaustive inquiry, those responsible for the carnage are still making excuses, still claiming that those in charge at the time made perfectly sensible and understandable decisions and that the bloody consequences were just an unfortunate tragedy.

I was both astonished and relieved to see the Prime Minister taking the blame fairly and squarely and apologising sincerely for what happened. I can only applaud him for his directness.

Friday 11 June 2010

Unrequited love

Unrequited love is a painful business. You pine away secretly (or not so secretly) while the desired person shows no interest in you whatever.

I didn't meet Jenny till I was 34, so I had had plenty of time to yearn in vain. Fortunately the yearning usually fizzled out harmlessly, but it did become obsessive once or twice - notably with G.

It was worse when I was working with someone, and every day they were churning up waves of desire. Just a friendly greeting or a passing remark would get me so steamed up it was all I could do to concentrate on my work.

I would keep on hoping that sooner or later this dazzling woman would be equally smitten with me, but I was constantly disappointed. I would ask myself what she didn't like about me. Were my clothes unfashionable? Was I too gloomy? Was I boring? Was I a noisy eater? I never found out of course. It could have been anything.

What I was always afraid of was that some mischief-maker would divulge my private passion to the person concerned, who would be convulsed with hilarity at the idea she could possibly fancy ME. "Nick? You must be joking? He's so eccentric."

I would keep telling myself that such fruitless longing was absurd and I should be looking for other, more responsive women. But I would still be drawn inexorably to the woman who ignored me, the one with that indefinable attraction.

It was a great relief when eventually my love was reciprocated and I could put those frustrating cravings behind me. And I could stop making a fool of myself.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

The road to bliss

I'm just back from the remote Cairngorms retreat of the Sacred Order of Divine Bliss. As you know, I go there periodically for spiritual refreshment and to cleanse my mind of worldly impurities.

The Head of the Sacred Order is the illustrious Swami Korianda Arjibarji Kolostomi Roshi, whose seven million devotees regard him as the earthly incarnation of Zu, the supreme cosmic life-force.

He is known for the astonishingly gruelling regime he imposes, designed to break through the accumulations of bad karma that prevent everlasting bliss.

The typical day involves a punishing schedule of chastisement, self-mortification, torture, rock-breaking and ritual humiliations. Light meals of organic gruel and seaweed fritters are included, along with a bed of nails for overnight stays.

Swami Korianda himself, having long ago reached a permanent state of pure, transcendent ecstasy, has no further need of such rigorous discipline and instead spends his days with a bevy of nubile lovelies, quaffing champagne and oysters and cruising the countryside in one of his luxurious fleet of customised Rolls-Royces.

He makes light of the 17 people who have died from the traumatic after-effects of his strenuous curriculum. They are the lucky ones, he says, who have reached the state of nirvana unexpectedly, avoiding years of agonising spiritual struggle.

I have to confess I spent the third night not on a bed of nails but in a five star hotel in Inverness with another devotee, the very appealing Felicity Hopgrass. This also led to an unexpected state of nirvana, which unfortunately came to an end when Felicity had to return home urgently after her pet alsatian ate the neighbour's budgie.

I'm now back home myself, fully revitalised and with renewed admiration for the celebrated Swami whose surly critics are simply jealous of his infinite oriental wisdom.

# A week at the retreat costs £973. Bring your own pliers and first aid kit.

Pic: the venerable Swami Korianda

Saturday 5 June 2010

Submissive women

When I was young and dating women, I ran into some who seemed alarmingly submissive. As I always saw women as equals, I quietly stopped dating them.

There are still a lot of men who either openly or secretly hanker after submissive women. Women who will do what they want and not challenge them. Women who stick to the traditional roles and don't get too uppity.

That sort of woman wasn't for me. I thought a submissive woman could only encourage me to dominate, and before too long I'd be bossing her around like the conventional unyielding male. I wanted a woman who was strong, independent and assertive enough to stand up to me when necessary.

Zoe* invariably deferred to me on any decision. Where to go, what to do, what to eat, even what to wear. If I seemed too cool about her new dress or her make-up, she would rush to change them. If I questioned her opinion on something she would promptly backpedal rather than stand her ground. She seemed terrified of being herself and creating any conflict.

Trudy* fooled me for a while. Time after time she would make out that by an amazing coincidence she shared my opinions and tastes on any number of things. "We're like twins, Nicky" she would say. "We must be astrologically similar." It slowly dawned on me that the common opinions were a pretence and her real opinions were quite different. She was being submissive but more deviously.

There are still plenty of submissive women out there. They'll drink themselves under the table to impress a hard-drinking man. Or satisfy bizarre sexual requests that privately disgust them. Or spend tedious evenings with his detestable friends. Anything to have a bloke in tow rather than be unattached but true to themselves.

Me, I ended up with a woman who was indeed strong, independent and assertive and won't stand for any nonsense. It was the best decision I ever made.

* Not their real names

Thursday 3 June 2010

Asking for it

The legendary Scarlet Blue has challenged me to answer some unusual questions that will bare my soul like never before. After checking with my lawyer, my agent, my therapist, my life advisor, my ghost writer and my make-up artist, I've decided I can safely respond. So here goes:

1: Do you prefer asking questions or answering them?
I like both. I want to get under people's skin and I want them to get under mine.
2: What is your favourite joke (or favourite one-liner)?
A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.
3: Have you ever fantasised about being on Big Brother?
Being on Big Brother would be my worst nightmare - a complete dearth of witty, sparkling repartee.
4: Have you ever wanted to enter a talent show?
I have no interesting talents. And I hate any kind of competitive environment.
5: Is Simon Cowell really necessary?
Most celebs are as necessary as an ingrowing toenail. A select few are life-enriching. They don't include Simon Cowell.
6: Tea or coffee?
Either. Two good friends with different personalities. Both of them are excellent company.
7: What is your favourite perfume? Or smell?
The sweet smell of success. And anything by Jo Malone.
8: What is the quickest route to Wales from where you live?
As the crow flies and the wind blows. As a mere human, I would have to take the plane.
9: What does the word 'Wales' conjure to your mind?
Leeks, a funny language, eistedfodds and politicians with a bit of common sense.
10: Are you dreading dreaming up ten questions to ask six bloggers?
Of course not. Unflappable, me. Cool as a cucumber. Steady as a rock. Mad as a hatter.

Ten new questions for other people, eh? Is five enough, miss? Give us a break, miss.

1: Do you believe in life after death?
2: Do you believe in fate?
3: Do you ever have dejà vu?
4: Have you ever read someone's mind?
5: Have you ever had a premonition?

I'm not sure which of my blogmates would fancy answering - and posing more questions. But Kylie might like to. Or Baino. Or e. Or Grannymar.