Thursday 30 December 2010

Love derailed

I'm always fascinated by marriages that fall apart in a matter of months. How did this amorous couple become disillusioned with each other so quickly?

What did one of them find out about their partner that was so shocking, so disappointing, so repulsive that they just had to call it a day and walk out?

Sometimes you find out, sometimes you don't. Sometimes the aggrieved spouse is only too keen to dish the dirt on their other half and demolish their glossy image. Sometimes they're just too embarrassed to explain, too stunned by their own inability to see their partner's weaknesses before they tied the knot.

They may discover that Mr Right is a chronic womaniser, an alcoholic, a bully, or a closet gay. Ms Perfect may turn out to be a spendthrift, a neat freak, a self-pitying whinger, or a kleptomaniac.

Of course we all uncover unsavoury characteristics in our loved ones sooner or later. Nobody can keep up a phoney facade of rectitude forever, particularly if you're living with someone day in and day out. Eventually the cleverly-constructed mask will slip.

Most of these peculiarities we can adjust to as a minor aspect of our partner's rich and varied identity. But sometimes something emerges that is so alien, so extreme that we simply can't stomach it. Then the relationship dies overnight.

I scratch my head at the self-delusion of individuals who're well aware of some serious personal failing but get involved with someone else in the hope either that their unattractive defect will stay miraculously hidden or that the other person will be infinitely understanding and indulgent. Not surprisingly, their wishful thinking generally ends in tears, and the house of cards collapses in a startling heap.

Monday 27 December 2010

The lure of heels

One of the most enduring clichés about female beauty is that a woman always looks more attractive, more sexy and more sophisticated in high heels. I don't buy that at all, I think it's nonsense.

Women clumping around in heels that are both uncomfortable and hard to walk in are anything but attractive. And quite often the discomfort only makes them rude and grumpy.

There's nothing less appealing than a woman discreetly slipping off her painful footwear and relieving her aching feet.

As for those career women who're expected to wear heels to look "professional" (and how does that square with being sexy exactly?), why do three wobbly inches make them better at their jobs?

It just makes them feel superior to anyone not similarly shod, and entitled to browbeat and intimidate them.

Most high heels are of course designed by men who never wear them and are confident they themselves look ravishing without the need for such routine hobbling.

If men were obliged to teeter around in three-inch heels all day, they'd soon change their view of how "attractive" they were.

Heels are just a big liability if you're being pursued by an unwanted male, or trying to run for the bus, or doing anything physically demanding. They're only practical as long as you're moreorless stationary and doing nothing more taxing than light office work.

It's really not attractive seeing a woman staggering clumsily towards a bus stop as the bus accelerates away without her. Or sinking helplessly into a soggy lawn and having to be pulled out by a sniggering male.

But for some women it's the very impracticality of high heels, and the traditional feminine "vulnerability" they suggest, that tempts them into buying.

And they'll pay ridiculous sums to get into heels with the right designer label, even if they're crippled for days afterwards. Mr Blahnik* must be laughing all the way to the bank.

* Manolo Blahnik, shoe designer. He has made a fortune out of his fashionable high heels. How about the new jewelled satin pump at a mere £749?

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Here be aliens

The tiny village of Bugarach in southern France used to be a quiet, tranquil spot. Not any more. It's being overrun by UFO watchers who think extraterrestrials are living under the nearby mountain.

They think that come Doomsday on December 21, 2012 the aliens will emerge and take a handful of surviving humans to another planet. Naturally they want to be one of the lucky few.

Now the 189 locals, instead of enjoying calm country walks, are being confronted by New Agers meditating and praying, taking courses in mysticism and planting sacred objects on the mountainside.

The visitors are also buying up houses at inflated prices the villagers themselves can't afford. They want to be first in the queue when the rescue craft flee Armageddon.

It's amazing how an utterly dotty idea, tossed out by some nutcase in an obscure corner of cyberspace or the media, is taken up by thousands of people to become a bona fide belief that displaces sober reality.

One man claims he "heard the humming of their spacecraft under the mountain." There again, it might just have been an acute case of tinnitus. Or too many recreational drugs. Or the local choir rehearsing.

Perhaps the villagers should invent some stories of their own to take the heat off Bugarach. Extraterrestrials in Bugarach? Whatever gave you that idea? No no, they all live at Campradón, 50 miles to the south. Mind you, I heard they'd already gone back to Planet Zog, they thought Doomsday was too scary.

If you repeat a bit of gobbledegook often enough, people will start to believe it, however outlandish or nonsensical. Didn't you know the moon is made of green cheese? I had a piece the other day, totally delicious, like camembert with a hint of toenail and a trace of woodworm....

Pic: The mayor of Bugarach, Jean-Pierre Delord, on the outskirts of the village

Sunday 19 December 2010

Just imagine

What an advantage it must be to have a really fertile imagination, one that endlessly throws up new ideas without any conscious effort.

My imagination is very sluggish. It comes in random fits and starts. It can be bubbling away furiously for a while and then suddenly it stops dead and refuses to yield anything for hours on end.

This is why I couldn't be a full-time writer. I've tried to write a novel but got total writer's block after around 100 pages. Despite every attempt to get the flow going again, my imagination obstinately failed to cooperate.

Without a constantly freewheeling imagination, I'm often stuck firmly in the prosaic everyday reality, getting bored with the familiar routine but unable to transcend it, unable to drift into a parallel consciousness of tantalising images and scenarios.

I like to think that if I had a fizzing imagination, my life would taken all sorts of spectacular twists and turns that would have transformed it from a fairly predictable middle-class lifestyle to something much more extraordinary.

Not that I'm complaining about how my life has gone, far from it, but I'm sure the strength of our imagination can make a big difference to the richness and vitality of our lives.

Of course imagination has also been responsible for some of the worst horrors of human existence - nuclear bombs, Nazism, torture, slavery - but if we had no imagination at all, the world would be a grim and oppressive place indeed. Change would be impossible. We would be frozen in a permanent Stone Age.

Imagine that.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Santa's troubles

Santa's trying to keep it quiet, but there's growing unrest in the Grotto. The elves are demanding a pay rise and better working conditions.

They say the toy-production targets are impossible to keep up with, and dangerous machinery is causing serious injuries. They also want a few female toymakers to increase job satisfaction.

Not only that but the reindeer are demanding strict mileage limits on the distribution run, after several reindeer died from exhaustion during last year's deliveries. And they want in-flight entertainment instead of having to stare into space all night. "It's so fucking boring" said one disgruntled reindeer, who didn't want to be named.

An angry Santa has hit back at the rebels, threatening mass sackings and blaming outside troublemakers working for rival toymakers Here Comes Santa. Inside sources say the stressed-out super-hero is drinking heavily, chain-smoking and running up massive gambling debts.

Santa is already under pressure from consumers complaining of the declining quality of his festive gifts. Said Jason, 10, of Croydon, "It was a load of rubbish last year. Everything fell to bits or wouldn't work. The clothes were embarrassing, I couldn't possibly wear them. The senile old git should have been pensioned off years ago."

On top of all that, Santa's wife of 19 years, the astonishing Pixie Ambrosia Angeldust, is seeking a divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. "I mean nothing to him. All he cares about is his bloody workshop. It's toys, toys, toys, morning noon and night. I might as well not exist. I'm not hanging around like a spare bogroll any longer."

Santa was not available for comment.

Pic: Santa and Pixie

Monday 13 December 2010

Empty plates

More and more Britons are now so hard-up they're resorting to charity food handouts to avoid starving. Often embarr-assed and apologetic, having tried desperately to fend for themselves, they ask for the handouts to feed themselves and their children.

The number of people getting emergency food boxes has risen from 25,000 two years ago to 60,000, which includes 20,000 children. If the trend continues, by 2015 there'll be half a million people being fed.

The handouts are provided by the Trussell Trust, a charity that manages over 70 food banks around the UK.

Despite what the government says, this is a wealthy country crawling with billionaires and multi-millionaires, yet the gap between rich and poor is still widening and Rolls-Royces glide past those who don't know where the next meal's coming from.

It's no longer just the homeless who need food handouts. Now it's also working people whose incomes are so low they simply can't pay all the bills. Increasingly they're having to choose between heat, light, food and clothing because they can't afford all of them.

Parents are skipping meals to feed their children. Tiny portions are the norm, if there are any portions at all. Whether food is cheap and filling is more important than whether it's nourishing.

It's a shocking situation. And what's worse is the fact that people are less and less sympathetic to the plight of the badly-off. Just 27 per cent think the government should spend more on welfare benefits and only half think it should provide a decent standard of living for everyone.

The rest presumably think it's your own fault if you're poor and struggling to survive. You're probably poor because you've been feckless, reckless and bone-idle, so why should anyone else help you?

I despair of the selfish, hard-hearted, indifferent society I live in, where comfort and good fortune is taken for granted and the problems of the less fortunate are pushed out of sight. So few people recall that wise old saying "There but for the grace of God go I."

Friday 10 December 2010

What's in a name?

Changing your name is increasingly popular. This year more than 90,000 Britons have used deed poll services to do just that, a rise of over 30 per cent on 2009.

People are keener to alter a name they dislike and avoid the related embarrassment, prejudice or ridicule. They're not going to put up with a cringe-inducing name just because their parents gave it to them or because changing it is too laborious.

They make the change for all sorts of reasons, not just because their name is Sidebottom or Smellie. Divorcees want their old name back. Job applicants with foreign names want something more indigenous. People want a name that's more suited to their personality, or is easier to spell and pronounce, or disconnects them from past crimes or shameful activities.

You can't change your name to just anything though. Deed poll services reject unsuitable names like Osama bin Laden or Jesus Christ or swear words. Or presumably overtly sexual words.

Apparently it's common for people committing suicide to change their names beforehand, a sign of the identity crisis they're going through. People may take on the name of someone they admire or someone they're obsessed with, like stalkers taking their victim's name.

I've never had any desire to change my surname, it's a very ordinary and unremarkable name. It doesn't reflect my personality at all, but what name would? It's not a liability in any way, be it employment, social occasions or anything else. So I'll hang on to it, thanks.

But I do wonder why Bob Geldof's daughters - Peaches Honeyblossom, Fifi Trixibelle and Pixie - don't change their names. I suppose if nothing else, they're memorable and distinctive. But don't they cringe every time they hear them?

Pic: Peaches Honeyblossom Geldof

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Little monsters

It's a common belief that some children are born nasty and vicious and they'll never change. I don't accept that, I'm convinced any child will be just great as long as they're brought up properly.

What produces monsters is parents who don't love their children and don't know how to bring out their innate goodness and sensitivity. If they're aided and abetted by teachers who write off children's potential and assume they'll never achieve much, then naturally those children will be messed up.

Look at any child who's developed a mean streak and become "impossible" and I'm sure you'll find these negative factors at the root of it. There are many many parents out there who really have little idea of the right way to bring up a child.

Of course parents will say "Ah, but you don't have children. You don't know what they can be like. Some children are trouble from the word go and there's nothing you can do about it. You can bust a gut trying to sort them out and you'll get nowhere. Some kids are simply beyond the pale."

But there are plenty of people working with children who say that's not the case. They maintain adamantly that difficult children can be turned around if you just treat them the right way, if you understand why they've become so wayward.

I'm sure we can all think of mature, responsible adults who at one time were complete tearaways. It's not a predestined path, young hoodlums don't have to be hoodlums for the rest of their life.

Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids' Company for one has helped hundreds of children to shake off their dysfunctional past and become the positive individuals they were meant to be. People used to call her a crazy idealist but not any longer. They've seen the practical results of her work and they know she's wiser than all the defeatists and cynics. For her, writing people off is just not an option.

Friday 3 December 2010

Mind the biscuit

Can it really be true that 25 million Britons have been injured while eating biscuits? And that the worst offenders are those innocent-looking custard creams?

A new survey claims biscuits are pretty dangerous objects. You could be hit by flying fragments, scald yourself while dunking them, poke yourself in the eye, or fall off your chair getting them from a shelf.

Is this really credible? Have you personally ever been injured by a biscuit? Do you know anyone who has? Do you know anyone who's ever heard of anyone who has? Or is your life mysteriously free of biscuit-related catastrophes?

I suspect the whole unlikely scenario was invented by a bored teenager on work experience, munching a particularly unexciting and nondescript custard cream.

The research company however insists its results are absolutely genuine and painstakingly gathered. "We tested the physical properties of 15 popular types of biscuit, along with aspects of their consumption such as dunkability and crumb dispersal."

So there you have it. How thorough is that? So thorough that no doubt several researchers were themselves injured as they tested dunkability and fragmentation-potential. Some of them are probably still in intensive care right now, martyrs to exhaustive scientific inquiry.

Oh, and I haven't even listed all the possible dangers of biscuit-handling. You could also break a tooth or filling, be bitten by a pet competing for the biscuit, choke on the crumbs, or slip on a crushed digestive. Believe me, it's lethal out there.

Next up from this diligent research team: the mounting death toll from pot noodle. Hospitals overwhelmed as popular snack proves fatal. Could you be at risk?

Wednesday 1 December 2010

So neurotic

"Neurotic" is one of those vague terms we sling at people, more as an insult than a description. "Natalie's so bloody neurotic, it's impossible to work with her."

It's pretty damning because it can mean all sorts of unflattering things. The person's obsessive, they worry too much, they complicate things, they dither, they're over-emotional.

It's not a word we welcome. It implies we're pretty useless at dealing with everyday life. Everything is too much for us, the tiniest thing makes us panic, we fumble our way along like a halfwit.

Once someone has attached the term to you, it's hard to shake off, even it turns out to be quite mistaken. I remember a workmate called Jane who had a deceptively ditzy style. She always looked dazed and ineffectual, with a hesitant voice, a deferential manner and a constant air of timidity.

She was instantly summed up as neurotic, yet this was far from the truth. Underneath the quavery exterior was a steely core, and she did her work brilliantly. She was actually smarter, more efficient and more reliable than many of her workmates, but the "neurotic" tag clung to her obstinately.

It doesn't help either that it's one of those common psychiatric terms that implies the person's a bit deranged and in urgent need of professional treatment.

You don't have to be as considerate and helpful as you would to any normal person because their problems are too complex, too tangled, you'll just get sucked into their hopelessly dysfunctional psyche. Best to give them a wide berth and leave them to it.

All in all, a juicy term of abuse. It isn't often aimed at me but when it is I'm startled enough to take a good hard look at myself. Am I really that loopy? Am I really out to lunch? Or was it just a throwaway remark?