Sunday 11 December 2011


Do you ever contemplate all those things that should never have been invented, never seen the light of day? Here's my very own list of ten things the world could do without....

1) Ties. Utterly pointless and unattractive. Politicians and car salesmen are no more plausible in a knotted thing.
2) Shoelaces. Come undone when you're out walking. Get knotted when you're trying to undo them.
3) Binge-drinking. What's the big attraction of drinking yourself senseless and getting liver disease?
4) Powerpoint presentations. Telling you what you already know, or don't need to know, in a soporific visual format.
5) Chat shows. Thinly disguised advertising in which evasive celebrities trot out predictable personal clichés.
6) Plastic surgery. Self-mutilation as the answer to self-loathing. How weird is that?*
7) Starters. Two or three expensive mouthfuls of some trifling little "delicacy". I'd rather get stuck into a proper plateful of food.
8) The colour orange. Hideous on just about anything except the fruit. Orange means "I have no taste."
9) Musak. Shops that play mind-numbing background music. I'm straight out of the shop before my brain turns to mush.
10) Family trees. I couldn't care less about my great great grandfather or my second cousin twice removed. I don't care if they were millionaires or tramps. It's what's happening now that interests me.

Okay, don't tell me, you like nothing better than binge-drinking after your plastic surgery, wearing your bright orange pants and your bright orange kipper tie. If that's the case, I don't like you any more and I shall have to exclude you from my inner circle of suave and enlightened intimates. Please don't darken my doors again.

* I should add that I have nothing against plastic surgery for sound medical reasons like correcting disfigurements.

I won't be blogging for a while. Nothing to worry about, in fact something very very exciting! Will tell you all about it later....

Thursday 8 December 2011

Deathbed regrets

If you're on your deathbed, the chances are you'll be reflecting on your life and how well or badly it went. And in many cases, you'll be regretting something or other you didn't do, or didn't do whole-heartedly enough.

An Australian woman* who spent many years looking after dying patients and listening to what they said about their lives has come up with a fascinating list of the five major regrets they mentioned most often.

1) "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
2) "I wish I hadn't worked so hard."
3) "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings."
4) "I wish I'd stayed in touch with my friends."
5) "I wish I'd let myself be happier."

How sad that so many people feel their life was a false one and they repressed their real self, hid their feelings and stifled their happiness. We still think far too much about other people's expectations, or imagined expectations, and feel we have to change our own behaviour accordingly. It's very hard to just be yourself, however bizarre or outrageous or inappropriate this might seem to others.

How common too that people wish they hadn't worked so hard and spent more of their time enjoying their own personal pleasures, or doing things with their partners or children. Sometimes this is our own fault, chasing after perfection and unachievable goals. Sometimes it's the nature of the job and long hours are necessary simply to get the work done. But either way, it's not healthy.

And how difficult it can be to stay in touch with friends when we're all leading such busy lives. When we're rushing from one urgent task to another, friendships can easily be neglected for so long they lapse altogether. Then a few years down the line we discover all those bosom buddies we used to have such fun with have somehow vanished. And our psychological well-being suffers.

What a shame we don't take a good look at what we're getting out of life while there's still time to do things better. Once you're on your deathbed and heading for oblivion, it's too late.

* Bronnie Ware is a writer and singer/songwriter from New South Wales.

Monday 5 December 2011

Losing your looks

How withering it is to say of someone "Of course she's losing her looks." So many awful implications packed into one short sentence! So many sexist and ageist assumptions so blandly expressed!

What does it actually mean? First, that the person is no longer attractive or sexy and no longer so appealing to potential boyfriends or girlfriends, or their spouse. They'll be struggling to date anyone or stir their partner's passions.

Second, that your looks naturally change from a positive feature to a negative one as you age. As soon as a few wrinkles or a bit of sagging flesh appear, this can't be anything but a turn-off to other people.

Third, that you've lost something rather than gained something. You've been depleted, belittled, made less significant.

Fourth, that you've passed your peak and are now generally going downhill. You're declining, deteriorating, falling apart.

No wonder many women who're told they're losing their looks (or who think it as they gaze critically into the mirror) feel somewhat depressed and alarmed. With the battery of confidence-shattering assumptions the phrase conjures up, it's hardly surprising. They feel they're heading for a dismal future of being ignored and downgraded which they can do little about given the inevitability of the ageing process. The desperate rush to plastic surgeons for a make-over is grotesque.

And how unfair that men are much less likely to be damned with the same phrase. It seems men don't so much lose their looks as become more distinguished and venerable, or even charmingly avuncular. Even if there's hair sprouting from every orifice, they have a pot belly the size of a cauldron and skin like a farmtrack, nobody seems to notice and criticism is strangely muffled.

How refreshing it would be if people were seen as changing their looks rather than losing them, and if a much-wrinkled face was considered no worse or better than a wrinkle-free one. How uplifting if wrinkles were seen as a sign of wisdom and experience and not as some sort of personal disability. How heartening if taut-skinned teenagers weren't so absurdly over-rated and idolised and were given their proper value in the scheme of things.

And pigs might fly.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Just a joke

Blistering outrage as the famous petrol-head and loudmouth Jeremy Clarkson says public-sector strikers should be executed. So far over 22,000 complaints have been received by the BBC.

Some people insist it was just a stupid joke. Others believe he was being deliberately inflammatory and offensive.

Whatever your opinion, it once again raises the tangled question of whether to allow total free speech, however outrageous and vicious, or whether to restrain people with a battery of legislation.

The UK has a mass of laws forbidding discrimination and hate-crimes, and promoting equal treatment for all citizens. But it's often asked firstly if such draconian laws are necessary and secondly if they actually work.

There seem to be remarkably few court cases relating to any of the equality laws, even though scandalous examples of homophobia, misogyny, racism and workplace favouritism and bullying go on day after day.

The legal constraints may act as a deterrent in more formal and public settings where prejudice will be immediately visible and acted on, but in more private situations many people are still happy to mouth off and ostracise as freely as they like.

Okay, so laws will always be flouted if people can get away with it. They may be only a limited restraint on inflammatory behaviour. But without them all hell would break loose and we'd see the sort of mass-hatred that in other countries leads to routine beatings, lynchings and executions.

The local equivalents of Jeremy Clarkson aren't just making mindless "jokes", they're running amok with machetes and machine guns. I don't want to go down that road.

Pic: Jeremy Clarkson

Jenny has a related post on living with diversity in Northern Ireland

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Love lies bleeding

Which is worse, I wonder, having never fallen in love or having fallen in love but been rebuffed? Not having had either experience, I can only conjecture, but I imagine the second would be much more painful.

I find it hard to believe someone could never have fallen in love, but such people do exist. Do they just not have the inclination, or have they never met the particular person who gets their mojo working?

Whatever the reason, if you've never known love, I guess you don't know what you're missing so it's no big deal. On the other hand, if you've fallen for someone but they feel nothing at all for you, that must be very distressing.

But then again, do people who've never fallen in love not know what they're missing? Everywhere they look there are besotted lovers who can't get enough of each other and seem totally blissed out. Don't they think they're being deprived of some vital pleasure in life? Or do they simply think these starstruck lovers are suffering from some psychic delusion? Just seeing a very flawed and ordinary person through rose-tinted glasses?

And is unreciprocated love necessarily distressing? Okay, so the other person doesn't feel the same way, but isn't it fun fancying someone and imagining a red-hot night of passion, even if it never happens? How can what is merely a personal fantasy be distressing if there's not the slightest chance of it turning into reality? Even if there's an element of masochism, an unreal substitute for something more attainable, that's hardly an emotional knifing.

I would have thought love that has actually been reciprocated, even for a short time, would cause a lot more pain than love that's never reciprocated at all. For a while there is that heady prospect that you both feel the same way, that there is that magical symbiosis of affection and understanding that connects your two identities and creates something bigger and better than your individual existence. And then your growing hopes are cruelly dashed as the other person makes it clear they don't feel that subtle communion after all.

All I know is that one way or another love can cause deep anguish as well as profound joy. It's an emotion not to be trifled with, not to be taken lightly.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

The media squirms

How wonderful to see the media on the defensive for a change, forced to admit their sadistic and illegal hounding of anyone they don't like the look of or who isn't "normal" enough. Or just happens to be a celebrity.

For years they've been able to get away with their relentless bullying, lying and smearing not only through the usual journalistic methods but through phone-hacking, the use of private detectives, searching people's refuse and permanently watching their homes.

They've got away with it because usually the victims don't have the time or energy to pursue complaints, because they're afraid of prompting even worse treatment, or because the damage has already been done.

Now however, with the start of the Leveson Inquiry into UK press standards, the spotlight is being shone firmly onto the media's behaviour, one appalling revelation after another is coming to light, and the media instigators are squirming with embarrassment and furious that all of a sudden they aren't calling the shots.

Hugh Grant said the only way certain information about his relationships with women could have been known (like the woman with the "plummy" voice) was through the Mail on Sunday hacking into his mobile phone.

Now Steve Coogan has explained how the Sun and the News of the World tried to trick him into revealing "lurid" details of his sexual relationships, and how reporters and photographers beseiged his home, searched his rubbish bins, blamed him for an actor friend's overdose and offered his friends cash for juicy stories.

A whole string of high-profile witnesses is lined up to give a barrage of damning evidence against the media, to the daily chagrin of the usually unrestrained hacks, who are feebly requesting their "right to reply".

After it has finished hearing evidence, the Leveson Inquiry is expected to come up with some radical and far-reaching measures for muzzling the media's increasingly intrusive behaviour.

The Press Complaints Commission, which is meant to regulate the press, has been endlessly criticised as toothless and ineffectual, frequently watering down complaints or making excuses for the media. Time and again victims have had to do the job themselves, taking legal action or demanding retractions.

It's sheer delight to see the media cringing for a change instead of their hapless targets. They might just begin to understand the misery they so casually inflict on others.

Pic: Steve Coogan at the Leveson Inquiry

Saturday 19 November 2011

Cambridge cameo

I'd always thought of Cambridge as a rather glitzy, glamorous town, full of witty intellectuals oozing pithy insights into the vicissitudes of life. But the reality is more humdrum.

I went there on Thursday with my 89 year old mum (she and my sister Heather live 15 miles north in St Ives). We traipsed around the town centre doing our best to soak up the unique atmosphere, but actually it wasn't that unique.

There were all the expected ingredients: breathtakingly beautiful students, shambling white-haired academics, map-clutching tourists, crumbling old buildings, punts on the river Cam, quaint little teashops, wobbling cyclists.

But it wasn't glamorous, in fact it was all a bit shabby and tired-looking. Here and there I saw hideous sixties-style buildings slotted in among the older architecture. On every railing there were scruffy leaflets and posters which suggested impulsive mess rather than creative ferment. The passers-by looked more weary and preoccupied than fizzing with groundbreaking ideas.

The only noticeable glamour came from something quite jarring and anomalous - a swish shopping centre nestling in the heart of the academic enclave, complete with a massive John Lewis and all the other over-familiar High Street chains. How it got planning permission I can't imagine. The prospect of a hefty rates income for the council, presumably.

The only other touch of glamour was an unexpected exhibition of Bridget Riley's abstract paintings at one of the art galleries. I love her work so I was chuffed to come across the gallery.

But I could think of dozens of towns and cities with more charisma than Cambridge. Like Liverpool, which I visited in July. Or Edinburgh. Or York. Or Belfast. There may be lots of exciting things going on in the lecture theatres and seminar rooms, but there wasn't much sign of them on the public streets. I guess you have to be a Cambridge insider to have your finger on the creative pulse. So I doubt if I'll be going back any time soon.

And how are my mum and sister*, you might be wondering. Both rather frail but still enjoying life as much as they can. I hadn't met up with my sister for many years, so that was a great reunion. Luckily she's not on her own but has her husband Mike to support her. I think one day at a time is the motto.

* Heather has Motor Neurone Disease

Pic: King's Parade, Cambridge

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Pristine psyches

It's easy to assume that if someone's doing all right materially - nice house, big car, exotic holidays and all the rest - then they must be doing all right psychologically as well. I mean, would they have got all that if they were mentally screwed-up? They must be well-adjusted, emotionally secure, productive individuals.

Despite all the well-known examples of people who had a glittering lifestyle but were in inner turmoil - like Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain - we still imagine material success goes hand in hand with personal serenity. It's hard to picture these apparently privileged souls secretly struggling with feelings of anxiety, worthlessness, despair, grief or addiction.

We all know friends or relatives who wrestle with inner demons of one kind or another. We know those seemingly capable, confident people may be very different in private, when they put aside their well-rehearsed public persona and reveal what's underneath. Yet we still believe that worldly success is some sort of magic psychic cure-all.

Even if we know Ms Doing-Very-Nicely has the odd phobia or panic attack, we just see it as a curious quirk in a basically problem-free person. We don't want to think of her as a hopeless psychological wreck, barely staggering from one day to the next. We want her to be a role model, someone we can look up to, someone inspiring.

We like to believe there are people out there with pristine psyches, perfectly attuned to life, free of all the mundane mental hang-ups. Which is why all these charismatic gurus and preachers are so popular. But nobody is that angelic. Even these supposedly saintly figures are regularly unmasked as fallible mortals, prone to groping young women or defrauding their devotees.

Show me a hang-up free person, and I'll show you a corpse.

What are my inner demons, I hear you ask? Oh, surely you know by now. Anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, fear of the dark. Need I go on?

Thursday 10 November 2011

Stroke surprise

I know very strange things can happen to people who've had strokes. But this really is extra-ordinary - a 19 stone rugby-playing bank clerk who turned into a slimline gay hairdresser passionate about his appearance*.

After an unlucky training accident that broke his neck and caused a stroke, Chris Birch of South Wales gave up his weekend drinking sessions with his hetero mates, gave up his girlfriend and started to date men. Now he lives with his partner Jack.

He also lost interest in his banking job and retrained to be a hairdresser.

"Suddenly I hated everything about my old life. I didn't get on with my friends, I hated sport and I found my job boring. I'm nothing like the old Chris now but I wouldn't change a thing. I think I'm happier than ever."

What this confirms to me is that being gay is definitely not, as some would say, the result of brainwashing, a temporary phase, being too close to your mum, or any of those other idiotic ideas. It's all down to something in your brain that makes you the way you are.

But it must be quite weird when your old personality, that you assumed was fixed and permanent, suddenly mutates into something quite different. A bit like acting someone in a play and then finding you ARE that person, for good. I'm surprised he's so matter-of-fact about it, as if it's all completely natural.

Other equally astonishing things have happened to stroke victims. Alan Brown from Worcestershire found he was able to paint and draw with great skill, despite no previous training. Others have developed regional accents or started speaking in another language.

It makes you wonder what unsuspected talents are lurking in our brains, ready to be triggered by a drastic medical trauma. Are we all secret Einsteins?

* Some sceptics have suggested Chris simply discovered his true sexuality and the stroke had little to do with it other than causing him to rethink his life.

Pic: Chris Birch

Sunday 6 November 2011

Inner child

One reason I've never wanted children is that I'm already busy enough dealing with my truculent inner child. You know, the part of me that never does what he's told and insists on going his own way.

Psychologists talk a lot about "getting in touch with your inner child" as if that's something inherently positive and creative and life-enhancing, but in fact it's equally likely that your inner child is one long pain in the butt.

I mean of course the inner child who wakes me up at 2 am fretting about some upcoming task, convinced that it'll all go horribly wrong, I won't be able to cope, I'll let everyone else down etc. The inner child who's plagued by anxiety, hysteria, panic. The inner child who takes no notice when I tell him to go back to sleep, that everything'll work out fine, that there's nothing I can do about it right now anyway.

It's the same inner child who doesn't want to do things because he's too scared, or cynical, or lazy, or indifferent. Doesn't want to see that new film because he's seen some bad reviews. Doesn't want to go to that social event because he'll be tongue-tied with all those strange people. Doesn't want to drive to somewhere new because he'll get lost and confused and find the place he's looking for doesn't exist.

Like a real-life obstinate child, I can cajole and coax and tempt until I'm blue in the face, but half the time I get nowhere, the resistance simply increases. Why do I have so little control over a part of my own psyche, my own being? Shouldn't I be able to bring him into line and get some simple cooperation? But no, that's too much to ask. The inner child is like someone who's been dumped on my doorstep and I just have to do what I can with this wayward entity.

And unlike a real child, he's never grown up and started his own life. He's still hanging around like some feckless teenager, annoying the hell out of me. How can I discreetly strangle him?

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Up for grabs

Being one of the female crew on a long-haul flight has always been seen as dazzlingly glamorous and exciting, and the new TV series Pan Am is being trailed as capturing that aura of glamour. But the reality is and was rather less rose-tinted.

Female flight attendants have had to endure sexist and abusive attitudes ever since the job was invented. That was true in the Pan Am days in the sixties and it's just as true now. Their biggest union, the ITF*, has hundreds of horror stories of cabin crew who've been molested, insulted and propositioned.

Some airlines support them and warn passengers to treat cabin crew with respect, but other airlines see the prevailing sexy image as just something passengers expect and turn a blind eye to it. Their attitude is "If you don't like it, you're in the wrong job."

Many airlines also have a strict dress code for female staff that stresses a sexy appearance. They stipulate make-up, short skirts or high heels, and sometimes even how often their hair should be trimmed or what shampoo they should use.

As they're expected to smile and simper at all times, you may not be aware of what they're having to put up with, but the behaviour of passengers is regularly outrageous. Unfortunately, unlike women workers on the ground, they don't have the option of deciding they've had enough and walking out.

I've never seen any truly appalling behaviour when I've been flying, but clearly some passengers think it's quite normal to fondle an attendant's breasts, simulate sex, or just persistently ogle her.

Airline advertising, far from discouraging such harassment, blatantly promotes it. Virgin Atlantic's parade of "red hotties" and Ryanair's pin-up calendar have been loudly complained about but the airline reaction is a wall of indifference.

And any female cabin crew approaching middle-age are liable to be nudged out of the job by the suggestion that they're too old or too plump or too stony-faced. Heaven forbid they might look too much like the life-worn travellers slumped in their planes.

So what does little Rebecca want to be when she grows up? I sincerely hope Flight Attendant is the last thing she thinks of.

* the International Transport Workers' Federation

Friday 28 October 2011

Humpty's damages

The colourful nursery rhyme character Humpty Dumpty has won £500,000 in damages for the serious injuries he incurred after falling off a defective wall.

Mr Dumpty was shattered into several pieces in the accident, and was only put together again after a series of painstaking operations by the country's leading surgeons.

The controversial egg-shaped celebrity, beloved by children everywhere, sued Bodgit Builders for the loose bricks that caused the fall and Topnotch Properties for not placing warning signs about the state of the wall.

Barrister Olive Oyl, representing Mr Dumpty, said her client had innocently climbed the wall and sat on the top in order to watch a display of Morris Dancing.

Imagine his horror, continued Ms Oyl, when the wall began to collapse and Mr Dumpty tumbled unexpectedly to the pavement. The combined trauma of the fall and the gruelling remedial surgery had left her client profoundly traumatised as well as permanently frightened by brick walls and other brick structures such as houses and garages.

Her client would never regain a normal sense of psychic security and would be regularly troubled by feelings of deja vu, flashbacks and crippling panic attacks.

Barristers for the two companies claimed that Mr Dumpty was in perfect mental health and far from being traumatised had welcomed the unexpected fall as a valuable boost for his previously flagging career.

Judge Percy Popeye said it was quite clear Mr Dumpty was now a tormented and unsettled individual who would need therapeutic help for the rest of his life. He had no hesitation in awarding the popular entertainer substantial damages.

An ecstatic Mr Dumpty left the court hand in hand with his long-time boyfriend, Fred Flintstone.

Pic: Humpty Dumpty seen in Mesa, Arizona

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Tent city

The 300 protesters camped outside St Paul's Cathedral in London seem rather confused. What exactly are they trying to achieve?

They're supposed to be taking a stand against nasty old capitalism and all its works, but all they seem to be doing at the moment is disrupting a place of worship which has more or less closed down because of the tent city.

St Paul's says it's losing about £20,000 in income a day, so maybe the protesters think they're taking a swipe at religious capitalists if not at capitalists proper.

But surely they should be joining the other encampment at Finsbury Square, which is heaving with blatant capitalist bastions like banks? Not that that protest is exactly rocking capitalism to its foundations either.

Just how are a few tents going to stop vast accumulations of wealth flowing into the coffers of a few greedy individuals and capitalists? All the refuseniks are doing right now is putting more cash into the bank accounts of tent manufacturers and primus stove suppliers.

It all seems astonishingly naive and historically ignorant. If anyone is going to challenge capitalism with any sort of clout, it's the trade unions who fight for a better deal for employees and restrain the wilder excesses of profit-grabbing companies.

They have at least forced a few millionaires and grasping shareholders to hand back some of their ill-gotten gains. Can the campaigning campers do any such thing before they get bored, pack up their tents and go back home?

Friday 21 October 2011

Stranded alien

So Helen feels she's in the wrong time, place, century and country. I think a lot of us feel like that. I certainly do. I sometimes feel so profoundly estranged from this dysfunctional world, I think I must be an alien from the Planet Zog who's landed here by mistake.

I was probably just nipping down to the shops in Zog City for some more nectar, as you do, and I drove down the wrong street, as you do, and found myself swept into another dimension and heading straight for Planet Earth.

My arrival was doubtless so traumatic that I've totally repressed the memory, but I expect my reactions were something like this:

"Holy Zog, what the fuck's with this place? Are they all insane or what? Nothing but wars, poverty, brutality, pollution, slums, and half of them drugged to the eyeballs. Don't they know how to live sensibly? Don't they know how to help each other? These people are mad."

And now I can't get back to Planet Zog because I can't remember where I parked the car and my mobile phone's not working and I've forgotten how to fly through space. So it looks like I'm stuck here for a while, enduring the dismal weather and the dismal headlines.

There's one thing that really puzzles me. What's this stuff called money? And what's profit? Whatever it is, it only seems to screw people up. These earthlings are just doing everything wrong. Pea-sized brains, I guess.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Just tuck in

When I was young, there were endless rules about how to eat and drink, and how to do it politely rather than rudely. Thank goodness most of these pointless rules have now been binned and we can be more relaxed about what should, after all, be an enjoyable experience rather than a nerve-racking test of good breeding.

As a child, I was constantly admonished for speaking with my mouth full, slurping my drinks, eating with my fingers, eating too fast or too slowly, putting too much in my mouth, playing with my food, and countless other shocking habits. No wonder not many people actively enjoyed their meals in those days, seeing them more as fuelling stops than sources of pleasure.

I suppose one of the few advantages of my boarding school years was that teenage boys ignore every rule about eating and just shamelessly stuff their faces in whatever manner suits them. The school staff had clearly long given up trying to instil more suitable behaviour, so mealtimes were always wonderful uninhibited binges free of the petty criticisms of home.

Nowadays the emphasis on enjoying your food rather than showing off your table manners means that most of the old dos and donts have bitten the dust and we eat and drink in whatever way we're comfortable with, and we're happy for our eating companions to do the same. And if someone else has cooked the food, wholehearted appreciation of what they've provided is more important than exactly how you're eating it.

Obviously I'm not saying you should shovel your food into your mouth like a pig at a trough, but what's wrong with emptying your plate enthusiastically if the contents are mouth-wateringly tasty? Why take dainty little portions when you could take a good hearty mouthful?

I guess the increasingly relaxed attitude to how we eat stems largely from the surge in foreign travel and our discovery that people in other countries actually see food as a feast for the tastebuds rather than an etiquette check. And if you're picking delicately at what's on your plate rather than eagerly tucking in, they don't think you're being polite, they think you don't like the food. Mamma mia, non hai appetito?*

* Mamma mia, don't you have an appetite?

Thursday 13 October 2011

Not running amok

Jenny being away in England for a couple of days, you might think I'm seizing the chance to do all those wild masculine things that men normally keep in check for the sake of domestic harmony.

You might imagine, for instance, that I'm:

(1) Going down the pub with me mates
(2) Getting drunk as a skunk
(3) Watching crap TV
(4) Downloading porn
(5) Lying in bed till lunchtime
(6) Living on baked beans
(7) Checking out all the yummy mummies as they bring little Jemima and little Jamie to the school round the corner
(8) Spending an hour or two with that very attractive widow next door
(9) Snorting cocaine
(10) Trying on my Speedos

But you'd be wrong. All those classic male syndromes hold absolutely no appeal for me. I'm very happy just as I am and have no desire to adopt such asinine behaviour. I prefer a good book to a bottle of beer (I detest the stuff) and a good CD to Match of the Day (as I also detest football). I'm incapable of lying in bed after 8 am and I can cook a few tasty meals, thank you very much.

I have no sense whatever of my natural identity being horribly repressed by the chafing restrictions of monogamy. On the contrary, I would say my identity is positively enhanced by it.

I must shamefully admit however that there's an element of truth in number 7. I mean, good grief, have you seen the young mums who live round here? There's some serious primping and preening going on, not to mention gym workouts and strict dieting. Dawn French they are not.

But number 7 aside, I have to disappoint all those who think I'm letting my suppressed masculinity run amok. I don't actually have a masculine bone in my body. All I really need is a cup of tea and a choccy biscuit.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Love in a mist

Have I ever been infatuated with anyone? Depends what you mean by infatuation, doesn't it? The dictionary says "an intense, short-lived passion", but I wouldn't describe it that way at all.

I think the point about infatuation is that (a) it involves a completely false, rose-tinted picture of the person concerned and (b) far from being short-lived it can go on for quite a while, long enough in fact for you to cohabit or marry before you realise how deluded you've been.

I guess on the whole I'm too level-headed a person to have been infatuated with anyone for long, but I was absurdly besotted with one particular woman for a year or two, despite all the evidence that she wasn't nearly as special (or compatible, or even available) as I thought.

Fortunately for me it was an entirely unreciprocated besotting, so it never got to the stage of living together or tying any legal knots, and I never faced the humiliating final stage of seeing my perfect partner turn into a mere mortal who just got on my nerves rather than inspiring me.

Even if I'm not prone to infatuation, I've often idealised someone to the extent that infatuation wasn't far away. I've exaggerated their virtues and overlooked their faults to a ridiculous degree, I suppose for the usual pathetic reason that I'm beguiled by their beauty and assume they must have a beautiful brain to match. Which of course absolutely doesn't follow.

I'm also easily taken in by confidence and poise, which I carelessly equate with exceptional wisdom. While in reality it may only mean they've always had it easy.

But at my advanced age I've met enough people with bird brains and feet of clay to make me look long and hard at anyone who comes trailing a saintly aura. The saintly aura might just be a cloud of cobwebs.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

No room for doubt

It alarms me that people are so ready to make instant judgments on people in court cases when all they know about the case is whatever sensational bits and pieces the media choose to report.

For months every ill-informed Tom, Daphne and Hermione have been holding forth on the innocence or guilt of Amanda Knox, the American woman accused of murdering her roommate.

Either she's totally innocent, a crucified victim of the corrupt Italian legal system, or she's thoroughly guilty, an evil witch who's trying to wriggle out of well-deserved incarceration.

It doesn't matter if your grasp of the facts is woefully small. It doesn't matter if you've never met her and have no personal knowledge of what happened on that fateful day.

However ignorant you are, you're entitled to your knee-jerk reaction and your scornful dismissal of anyone who, heaven forbid, might keep an open mind on the subject.

Personally, I have no opinion on Amanda Knox's innocence or guilt. How could I possibly know the truth? Even the lawyers and the judges can't decide. Three years ago she was convicted, now she's been acquitted, but the case will trundle on to the Supreme Court for yet another decision.

But such uncertainty doesn't impress those whose minds are firmly made up on the basis of some mysterious personal insight, some sort of sixth sense that tells them what others aren't privileged to know. I just hope they never end up in the same position as Amanda, persecuted day in and day out by such self-righteous know-it-alls.

Pic: Amanda Knox

Friday 30 September 2011

All about pyjamas

Okay, you're all so totally sickened by politicians, you couldn't be arsed to even comment on them. Fair enough. In which case why don't I give you all a break and turn to a much lighter subject.


It's often assumed that pyjamas are an English invention, dreamed up by some shivering aristocrat in a draughty, iced-up castle somewhere near Chipping Norton.

Not so. The original paijama were actually loose-fitting pants with a drawstring waist, commonly worn by Asian men and women. The word pyjama comes from a Persian word that found its way into English.

You might think pyjamas are thoroughly mundane garments. Not at all. Heated controversy surrounds them. Opting for pyjamas as daywear is seen by many as the height of vulgarity and indecency. Some schools and supermarkets have banned them from the premises. But for some Chinese, wearing pyjamas in public shows they're well-off enough not to sleep in long-johns and string vests.

Are pyjamas sexy or are they passion-killers? Depends on the person - and the pyjamas. Jennifer Lopez was once spotted in some very exciting white satin pyjamas. But the truth is lesser mortals tend to look dowdy and slovenly rather than hot to trot.

Opinion is equally divided over whether they're the most comfortable garments ever or a cumbersome nuisance. Personally I would say the latter. I only wear pyjamas when I'm away from home, so as not to frighten the horses. Normally I wear a nightshirt to let my boy bits breathe.

I could go on. The strange idea of pyjama parties. That curious term, "the cat's pyjamas." The pros and cons of ironing pyjamas. Celebrities caught in their pyjamas. But life's too short.

Next week: face flannels.

Note to Jenny Woolf and Cinnamon: I keep trying to post comments on your blogs but they just disappear without trace and I get Google error messages. I don't know your email addresses so I can't contact you directly.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Too many soundbites

Some people (Jenny included) seem to have the impression that I loathe all politicians. Not true. I don't loathe all politicians. Only the ones who don't do their job properly and lie their way out of admitting it.

Of course we need politicians. And we need governments and local councils and all the other public bodies. How else would we organise our society efficiently and fairly and stop it descending into chaos?

I'm full of admiration for many of the politicians of the past who genuinely improved society and the lot of ordinary people whose living conditions were appalling. The politicians who founded the welfare state and created the NHS, old age pensions and child benefits. The ones who slapped new taxes on the wealthy and used the money to help the poorest.

I'm full of admiration for more recent politicians who legalised abortion, legalised homosexuality, encouraged equal pay for women, opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fought racism and sexism.

Unfortunately there are still too many politicians who seem more concerned with lining their own pockets and ego-tripping than creating a fairer society and helping those who're struggling to survive and have a decent existence.

Too many politicians live in a cossetted bubble far removed from the miserable lives of those at the bottom of the heap. They're full of smooth soundbites about protecting the vulnerable and deprived, but in reality nothing much changes. How can a cabinet stuffed with millionaires seriously care about a debt-ridden office cleaner? They don't.

I don't loathe the politicians who sincerely want a better society and do something to achieve it. On the contrary. But the others - they should be booted out and told the gravy train is over.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Ostrich tendency

It's hard not to feel depressed by the exceptionally sorry state of the world. Just about anywhere you live, the prospects right now are pretty bleak. The world is like a large bear licking its wounds after some unexpected attack, and hoping tomorrow will be an improvement.

The relentlessly doom-laden headlines about economic ruin make me want to turn and run for the hills, or bury my head in the sand, ostrich-like*. I feel like chucking out the TV, not reading the newspapers, and generally shutting out the rest of the world until things start to get better.

I feel like narrowing my attention to my own little microcosm of friends and loved ones, making sure they're safe and sound, getting whatever pleasure I can and doing my best to preserve my sanity.

The problem is that we've all got used to expensive and comfortable lifestyles that rely on sizeable salaries, affordable outgoings and plenty of jobs. As soon as the world's economies go pear-shaped and all those underpinnings look precarious, life gets very scary indeed.

Sometimes I think those religious hermits who spent their lives in a Himalayan cave, devoting their days to meditation and contemplating the snowy peaks, needing nothing more than a few modest gifts from their admirers, had the right idea.

They never had to worry about the imminent collapse of the banking system, or the price of electricity, or government borrowing, or loopy politicians. They just sat there serenely in the lotus position, pondering the sound of one hand clapping, and smiling benignly as their latest visitor cringed at plummeting share prices on their iPhone.

So let me know when the world is back on track. In the meantime, I'll turn off my mind, relax and float downstream.

* In reality of course ostriches never bury their head in the sand. If they did, they'd suffocate.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Crystal balls

Just what will my future bring? I really want some clarity here, I don't like being in the dark about the rest of my life. So I decided to consult the renowned Esme Plunge, clairvoyant and palmist, the oracle all the celebs swear by. Well, Harry Potter anyway.

I sidled warily into her gawdy consulting room, with its oriental knicknacks, flocked wallpaper and red-tinted lighting. Why do psychics always go in for such aesthetic vulgarity?

Her androgynous appearance, consisting of a heavy, muscular physique in a frilly blouse, a long floral skirt and three inch heels, made me wonder if she was a transvestite or a trainee transexual. I tried to concentrate on the matter in hand.

She peered intently into her crystal ball. "Ah, I see a wonderful future for you, dear. You will win three million pounds in the lottery, marry a famous actress and become a dog-breeder. I'm so pleased for you, darling."

"But I never do the lottery" I said. "I'm already happily married to the world's sexiest woman and I can't stand dogs - boisterous, slobbering, yapping, half-witted creatures. I'm afraid your crystal ball must be out for lunch."

"Oh no, dear, that's where you're wrong. You may think your life is fixed but the next twelve months will bring big changes, very big indeed. Hold on to your clutch bag, you're in for a bumpy ride."

I fixed her with a steely glare. "I've never heard such 24-carat bollocks" I said. "If you're a clairvoyant, I'm a rattlesnake. Be warned, I shall report you to Trading Standards in the morning. Good day."

As I made good my escape, I heard a volley of foul-mouthed expletives from her consulting room. This is going straight onto Facebook, I thought. Oracle to the stars, my arse. More like Tiffany's epiphanies.

Pic: The extraordinary Esme Plunge.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Poison pens

I'm constantly baffled by the army of people who dedicate themselves to making other people's lives more painful. Not just criticising them or looking down on them but actively doing everything they can to wound and torment them.

If you're a celebrity, or just someone temporarily in the headlines, as well as the normal personal problems you have to deal with there's an endless barrage of venom and abuse from complete strangers who seem to have nothing better to do than to stick a knife into someone else.

It used to be just newspaper and TV journalists who went in for gratuitous vilification. Now it's all those ordinary Joes and Julies who've taken to the internet to slag off anyone they disapprove of, often under a cowardly cloak of anonymity that makes it virtually impossible for the victim to retaliate.

I've always recoiled from such poisonous filth, and most of the time I follow a strict rule of never making a comment about public figures unless it's supportive. Groups of people, like politicians and journalists themselves, I regard as fair game because I'm not attacking anyone personally.

But what have people like Kate and Gerry McCann ever done to deserve all the rabid denigration they've received from the media and the public? All the accusations that they were irresponsible parents, that they did away with their own child, that they're just attention-seekers, and so on and so forth. What sort of cheap thrill and sick pleasure do people obtain from spewing out all this shit?

Why don't these twisted individuals concentrate on sorting out their own lives rather than poking their nasty noses into someone else's - someone they've probably never even met and have a totally false picture of? How many skeletons are hiding in their own squalid little closets?

Friday 16 September 2011

Afro massive

And now for something completely different. Once upon a time Aevin Dugas, a 36 year old social worker from New Orleans, decided she was fed up with "chemically relaxing" her hair, i.e. artificially straightening it to satisfy the white folks.

So she went back to a natural afro, and just let it grow. And grow. And grow. And now, 12 years later, she has the biggest afro in the world, with a circumference of 4 feet 4 inches.

"I love it. I would never go back to chemically relaxed hair" she says.

Big hair like that is not without its problems though. Of course everyone wants to touch it, often without asking, as Los Angelista also found out when she went natural. It annoys her but she allows touching as long as people don't pull it or "smash" it.

It catches in things like doors and trees. It picks up straws from people's drinks. She can't see properly when she's driving. In the summer heat, her hair gets so hot it starts steaming, and sometimes she thinks she's going to pass out.

So she doesn't wear her hair loose all the time. Often she bundles it up into a doughnut or a braid. She says wearing it loose all the time would damage it because it would get too tangled.

And when she washes it she uses up to five conditioners at once to keep it looking good.

But she doesn't seem too bothered by all these little glitches and snags. If anything she seems to find them amusing and intriguing. She certainly isn't tempted to go back to a "normal" hairstyle.

Good for her. She's a cool cookie. And afros rock!

PS: I always loved Angela Davis's afro. She was one of my sixties heroes.

Pic: Aevin Dugas

Watch an interview with Aevin here.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Set in my ways

The popular stereotype of oldies is that they're set in their ways, resistant to change. But there's another way of looking at it - they have opinions and habits they've developed over a lifetime, thought about constantly and come to regard as thoroughly sound and sensible. So why give them up in a hurry in favour of the latest fashionable idea?

When you're young, your opinions and habits are young also. You may not have had them for long, they may not be firmly held, and if something more attractive presents itself you may easily be tempted to buy into it. Your convictions may be shallow and swept away by a strong wind.

When I was young, I changed my beliefs frequently. I hadn't thought about them very deeply, and there were always opinions that seemed wiser or more convincing or just more exciting. I was an anarchist, a socialist, a communist, a libertarian, you name it. I shifted my position every month. At one point I declared I was a radical feminist and all mainstream politics was a waste of time.

I'd be in favour of living alone, then cohabiting, then communal living. I'd be rooting for celibacy, then monogamy, then free love. I'd be passionate about renting, then owning a house, then squatting. I just wasn't able to sift the ideological wheat from the chaff, to come to a mature judgment about which beliefs stood the test of time and which were built on sand.

As I grew older, certain ideas stood out as well grounded in reality while others seemed based on delusion and wishful thinking. So yes, I've got a bit set in my ways. For many years now, I've been backing socialism, monogamy, home-ownership and sexual equality. Not forgetting of course rock music, ice cream and lacy dresses.

It's true, I'm more resistant to change than I used to be. If you want me to adopt your beliefs rather than mine, you'll need some very strong arguments. If you haven't any, then kindly stop knocking on my door.

PS: And how about entrenched habits, I hear you ask. Well, there's vegetarianism, thriftiness, politeness, neatness, asking awkward questions, looking in people's windows....

Saturday 10 September 2011

The myths of 9/11

Not only is the tenth anniversary of 9/11 being absurdly over-hyped, but two big myths are still being propagated - that 9/11 changed the world and that we're now all scared stiff of terrorists.

The attacks on the Twin Towers caused appalling carnage and lasting shock and trauma. But what changed the world wasn't that atrocity but the increased violence and destruction unleashed by the British and American governments, using 9/11 as a convenient excuse.

The obliteration of the World Trade Center was a grotesque criminal act that justified a huge worldwide hunt for those responsible. What it didn't justify was declaring war on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and causing well over a million innocent deaths that had nothing whatever to do with 9/11. It also didn't justify systematic torture and imprisonment in the name of fighting terrorism.

The other thing that changed the world was of course the global economic crisis caused by a wave of collapsing banks - and the cost of fighting all those wars (at least $2000 billion in the USA). But reckless banking didn't begin on 9/11.

The second myth is that we're now all scared stiff of terrorists. I don't think so. Our chances of being involved in a terrorist attack are still so minute we're more likely to be killed in a car crash. Personally I'm far more nervous of the actions of the British government, which seems indifferent to increasing unemployment, homelessness, poverty, ill-health and soaring living costs. Now that's a real threat.

Why give a few deranged terrorists, wherever they may be hiding, far more importance than they deserve?

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Not getting enough

French wives may or may not be pleased to know that their husbands now have a legal duty to have enough sex with them during the marriage. If he doesn't, he could be liable for hefty damages of up to 10,000 euro*.

France's civil code says married couples must agree to a "shared communal life", and a judge has now ruled this includes regular sex. Even if the husband excuses himself on the grounds that he's too tired, or has health problems, it won't impress the court. The 51 year old Nice man who claimed just that was still found to have shirked his marital duties.

The judge ruled that a sexual relationship between husband and wife is the expression of their mutual affection, and in this case it was absent. By getting married, he said, couples agreed to share their life and this clearly implied they would have sex with each other.

So those guys who're not so excited by their wives as they used to be, or just can't be bothered with the whole awkward business, or find they can't quite manage what's required, had better sort themselves out or they could face a large hole in their bank account.

A bit tough on those blokes who for good medical or psychological reasons simply can't make the grade and have to disappoint their loved ones. Are they now expected to do their conjugal duty whatever it takes?

And there again, some women may not be too keen on sex and wouldn't relish the prospect of hubby trying it on at every opportunity on the grounds that he's legally required to have plenty of sex with his spouse.

I don't recall the British marriage vows including a promise to have heaps of nooky as part of the deal. Surely "shared communal life" can be achieved by all sorts of means that don't necessarily include erotic bliss.

So is this some kind of feminist triumph for thwarted French wives who want their fair share of sexual pleasure? Maybe. But only if it makes inattentive males more considerate. Not if it turns them into priapic gropers.

* £8,500 or $14000 or A$13200

Friday 2 September 2011

The other 9/11 victims

With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 coming up, there's the usual focus on the almost 3,000 people who died, but little is said about the 20,000 with serious illnesses caused by exposure to toxic dust and debris.

The health hazards of two massive skyscrapers collapsing and poisonous material spewing all over the surrounding area should have been obvious, yet thousands of emergency workers, volunteers, local residents, cleaners and other tradespeople went about their business for weeks with very little protection.

Now thousands are suffering from a range of disabling illnesses including asthma, sinusitis, muscular and intestinal conditions, lung diseases and memory problems. Many are unable to work or live a normal life.

Up to 80,000 people were present in the aftermath and new patients are coming forward all the time with previously undiagnosed disorders. People are expected to fall sick for at least another 20 years.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that everyone should have been evacuated from the area and proper decontamination teams sent in to remove all the toxic residue. Yet the dust and debris - which included asbestos, lead and mercury - was generally treated as a mere nuisance rather than a major health emergency.

Alex Sanchez is just one example of this peculiar oversight. He helped clean dust from numerous buildings in Lower Manhattan. In only two buildings was he given even a face mask. Now he has severe breathing difficulties, headaches, gastric problems and is no longer able to work. His life has been wrecked just as much as for the families of the dead.

The government has set up a $2.9 billion fund for monitoring, treatment and compensation for the 20,000 plus "other" victims. But the question remains - why was this serious health hazard not clearly recognised in the first place?

PS: Some first responders get help, some don't. Ralph and Barbara Geidel have spent close to $100,000 on his medical treatment since 2003, when the former fireman and first responder was diagnosed with tongue and neck cancer. The Zadroga Act, which set up the compensation fund, doesn't cover cancer. Yet a study in The Lancet says firefighters at Ground Zero are 19% more likely to get cancer than those who weren't there. Ralph's brother Gary died in the World Trade Center attack.

Pic: Alex Sanchez

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Beach magic

What makes a great beach? I was wondering this as Jenny and I and a friend were walking across Ballyholme beach, just a few miles from Belfast, and I was thinking "This is just as good as Bondi."

Yes, I've been to Bondi, but why it has such a glittering reputation I don't know. It's no better than a lot of other beaches. It's probably all the visiting celebs who give it an inflated glamour.

So what's the secret of a perfect beach? Here's my own checklist:

1) plenty of sand
2) plenty of space
3) no sharks, jellyfish or other nasties
4) not too many people
5) no litter or pollution
6) attractive setting, not over-developed
7) warm enough to swim
8) windy enough to surf
9) some good cafés
10) some interesting shops

Well, Ballyholme scores on most of those (even the surfing), though swimming is for the warm-blooded only and I did see a few jellyfish. And the only cafés and shops are round the corner in Bangor.

On the other hand Bondi is often distinctly overcrowded and touristy, and sharks sometimes pay a visit. The one big difference is of course the blazing Aussie sun. But wild, windswept beaches can be just as exciting as the scorching ones.

The fact is I was just as reluctant to leave the particular charms of Ballyholme beach as I was to leave Bondi. And I know some Sydneysiders wouldn't be seen dead on Bondi, they sneak off to the quieter, more remote beaches only the locals know about.

So move over, Bondi, other beaches are magical too.

PS (Wednesday): A 14 foot shark has been spotted at Portrush harbour on the north coast. But it's a basking shark and is said to be harmless to humans....

Pic: Ballyholme beach, near Bangor, Northern Ireland

Thursday 25 August 2011

Love locks

The worldwide fashion for love locks has become so popular that well-known tourist sights are turning into eyesores and the locks are being removed in their thousands.

The trend was prompted in 2006 by Federico Moccia's book "I Need You", in which a young couple write their names on a padlock, attach it to a lamppost and throw the key into a river to pledge eternal devotion.

He had no idea what he had started. Now there are millions of love locks in cities all over the world from Italy to Korea, China and Japan, and city officials are hopping mad at having to remove them all.

Signore Moccia* himself however has no regrets and thinks all the love locks are great. "The padlocks are a symbol of love and something to be proud of" he says. "Better a padlock than graffiti disfiguring the walls."

I don't agree with him. The love locks are spoiling the beautiful things they're attached to. All three bridges in Venice are festooned with them and they're just pointless clutter.

There are plenty of ways of showing your love for someone that don't degrade famous landmarks. And what if the couple's pledge of devotion turns sour but the padlock's still there, marking their false hopes?

To me it's simply another example of a mindless trend that people take up without thinking of the consequences of what they're doing. It's not just an amusing gesture, it's a blot on the landscape.

Call me a crusty old fuddy-duddy if you like, but I prefer the Ponte di Rialto as it was and not draped with sentimental bric-a-brac.

* pronounced Motcher. The Italian title is "Ho voglia di te".

Pic: love locks in Huangshan, China

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Charmed, I'm sure

It's usually easy enough to tell phoney charm from the genuine article. The artificial smiles of car salesmen, estate agents and politicians can be spotted a mile away and don't fool anyone for more than a few seconds.

But sometimes the phoney charm can be convincing enough to be mistaken for the real thing, and I've been conned by a few plausible villains in my time. It's only after meeting them several times that alarm bells start ringing.

Like the landlords who seemed so friendly and helpful when I first met them, only to discover a few weeks down the line that any requests for urgent repairs or pest control fell on deaf ears. Or the bosses who promised me fabulous working conditions and left me to discover the verminous kitchen and the Stone Age computers.

Sometimes the veneer of charm is so polished, so well-rehearsed, that it's hard to distinguish from the natural goodwill and compassion of the truly charming. Especially if there's no slick sales patter or oily conviviality to go with it.

I always feel sorry for those people who lose thousands of pounds to con-men who manage to worm their way into the victim's affections. Particularly if they're the confused elderly or desperately lonely (or both). Always you hear the same refrain afterwards - "But he seemed such a lovely man", "To begin with, he couldn't do enough for me."

I wrote once about the builder who scammed my mother. He was typical. At the start, he did lots of little jobs for her very cheaply. But gradually he upped his prices and did increasingly shoddy work until she was forced to turn him away. And then she was afraid he might retaliate in some way.

But I don't feel so sorry for those people who invest in shady get-rich-quick schemes and then complain that both their life savings and the dubious intermediary have vanished into thin air. Anyone who hands over large sums on the unlikely promise of fabulous wealth lacks even the most basic common sense.

Charming is as charming does. And sometimes the results aren't pretty.

Friday 19 August 2011

Spoil yourself

It's generally asssumed that book-readers don't like spoilers - too much information about the plot and what happens at the end. The big pleasure of reading is supposedly the "wait and see" element.

But an experiment by Californian psychologists suggests that actually this isn't true. They found that people who read stories containing spoilers actually enjoyed them more than the untouched version.

This took them by surprise, so much so that they're struggling to come up with any convincing explanation of why this might be. They wonder for instance if people reach a deeper understanding of a story when they aren't preoccupied with the plot and its complexities.

Journalist Alison Flood says that when reading a horror story she likes to check that the hero/heroine is still alive at the end. With romantic stories, she likes to find out straightaway who gets off with whom. She insists this unorthodox peeking doesn't affect her enjoyment at all.

Personally I don't like to be told the entire plot of a novel before I start reading it, though in some cases the plot is so fiendish that a summary I could refer to when totally confused would be handy (Nicole Krauss's The History of Love comes to mind).

And I do admit to thumbing through the pages to find out if my favourite character ends up alive or dead, or if the odious wife-beater eventually gets his come-uppance. Sometimes my curiosity is so great I just can't wait for another 200 pages to satisfy it.

But if the "wait and see" element is so crucial, how come we like rereading books, when we already know exactly what happens? Shouldn't we be throwing them in the dustbin?

Tuesday 16 August 2011

The perils of honesty

In principle, I believe honesty is the best policy. If we were all totally honest about everything, life would run a lot more smoothly.

There would be fewer misunder-standings, less mistrust, closer relationships, less scope for furtive affairs or hidden bank accounts, and less chance of dreadful discoveries about your new wife or husband. Everything would be visible and upfront, everything would be clearer and more straightforward, and we wouldn't always be swimming around in a haze of misinformation.

In reality, of course, total honesty would be disastrous. In no time we'd have offended so many people and revealed so many damaging facts we'd be seen as a hopeless liability and ostracised by all and sundry.

If we actually told our relatives or neighbours or bosses how nasty they were, the reaction would be pretty nasty too. If we told our spouses how much we secretly fancied the man/woman at the house opposite, or told our workmates we didn't in fact speak three languages fluently, or told our new landlord we were evicted from our previous flat, it would only upset our well-ordered lives for no good reason.

I guess at one time or another we've all covered up for a workmate who's made a complete mess of something, so they don't get a bollocking from a permanently irascible boss. And so they'll cover for us when we screw something up ourselves.

We invariably defend our loved ones when they're criticised by a friend or relative, even if we privately agree with the criticism. My wife* might very well be stingy and self-righteous, but I'm not going to add to the brickbats and leave her tearful and upset. No no, I hasten to say, she's just sensible with money and has strong opinions.

Several times over the years I've been aware that a workmate or friend, unbeknown to their regular partner, is flirting heavily with someone else, or even dating them, but I've kept quiet. What business is it of mine? And why tell the ignorant victim if it'll only distress them and this sudden fling might fizzle out next week anyway?

Like most things, honesty works best in small doses. Too much can be fatal.

*Not my real wife obviously. Jenny is naturally generous and open-minded at all times. And she always helps old ladies across the road.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Still fumbling

As I've said before, like many oldies, I don't really feel I've grown up yet. I feel as if I'm still a fumbling adolescent, forever groping my way through the complexities of life waiting for the sure-footedness of maturity to alight on me.

Well, I'm still waiting. Whoever's meant to be handing out the sure-footedness seems to have forgotten me. So I just have to carry on fumbling behind a pretence of worldly wisdom and carefree poise.

Someday, about forty years later than expected, I shall finally say goodbye to all those immature habits that secretly embarrass and bemuse me and become adorable and sophisticated.

All of a sudden I'll be much more generous, articulate, patient, understanding, adventurous and good at cooking. Just like that I'll know exactly what to do if someone drops dead or the person sitting next to me at the dinner party is a neo-fascist or there's a stray cow in the back garden. Nothing will phase me, nothing will send me running for cover, nothing will leave me like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I'll just stride in and take control.

And pigs will fly.

When I was young, I always assumed grown-ups were mature and responsible and infinitely knowledgeable. It never occurred to me that they might be fumbling along unsteadily the same as myself, trying desperately to make sense of everything.

Today's young people are not so innocent. They can see quite clearly that adults are often stumbling around like drunks in a pub, knocking things over and talking nonsense.

They take whatever adults say with a healthy dose of suspicion and are more likely to work out for themselves what life's all about. Which can only be a turn for the better.

Grown-ups don't know everything, and never did.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

The riots

I'm following the coverage of the riots in London and other cities with a mixture of disbelief, horror, sympathy for the innocent victims, and a total lack of surprise.

Disbelief because the sheer scale of what's going on is extraordinary. Massive buildings burnt to the ground. Blatant looting in front of the police. Thousands of youngsters casually running amok all over London. Whole neighbourhoods trashed. This goes way beyond the odd local disturbance we're used to seeing.

Horror because of the danger ordinary people are exposed to from burning buildings and vehicles, flying missiles, falling masonry and broken glass. Many people were afraid to venture onto the street for fear of injury.

Sympathy for the innocent victims of destruction. There are people who've lost both their businesses and homes, their lives wrecked. Other people who've lost their jobs, cars, precious belongings, maybe pets.

Lack of surprise because many young people in deprived areas are facing the bleakest future for generations, struggling to find jobs and a meaningful existence in the face of economic recession, deep cuts in services and facilities for youth, and politicians who're indifferent to their problems. This colossal explosion of anger, bitterness and outrage hardly comes as a big shock.

Condemning those involved as criminals and thugs is pretty futile. Yes, of course that's what they are, but it doesn't address the basic issues that have led to such rampant destruction on such an astonishing scale.

Firstly, how swathes of young people have become so alienated from the rest of society they think nothing of ruining other people's lives and laying waste to their property and possessions, and are immune to their misery and anguish.

Secondly, how numerous parents have abdicated responsibility for their children's behaviour. They've become oblivious to where they are and what they're doing, and couldn't care less if they're committing crimes or terrifying the neighbourhood.

Only when the politicians start to focus on these underlying social disorders can we have any confidence that the sort of ferocious mayhem we've seen in the last few days won't reoccur in the future.

PS: Several people have referred me to an excellent piece about the riots by Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph. He points out that corruption and immorality is now as common at the top of society as at the bottom, and that MPs and businessmen condemning the actions of the rioters are guilty of hypocrisy and double standards.

Pic: burning building in Tottenham, Saturday night

Saturday 6 August 2011

Dogs collared

If you're a dog owner in the Chinese city of Jiangmen, you're in trouble. Dogs will be banned from public streets at the end of August, because they're dangerous and unhealthy.

City leaders say 42 people have died from rabies in three years, 12000 people a year are injured by dogs, increasing dog shit on the streets is a major nuisance, and many residents find dogs frightening. So tough action is being taken.

The original plan was to ban all dogs from the city, either having them put down or given to new owners in the countryside.

But there was such a public uproar that officials had to backtrack and cancel the ban. Instead there'll be stricter controls on dog-owners, including dog licences and full liability for injuries.

I'm sure if our local council tried to get rid of dogs there'd be a similar outcry. There's no way people would wave their pets goodbye, health hazard or not.

In any case, I haven't heard of any locals getting rabies. And even if some people are scared of dogs, that's no reason to ban the lot.

Dog shit splattered all over the pavement drives me nuts, but the answer to that is surely better enforcement of the regulations against fouling pavements.

But if all the dogs in Jiangmen are to be banned from public streets and parks, how will little Fi Do get her daily exercise? Will she have to use a treadmill or go a special doggy gym? The officials are silent on this point.

I suspect dog-owners will rebel again and the streets will still be full of dogs. And the city officials will be left with egg on their faces.

PS: Several Chinese cities, including Shanghai, already have a "one-dog policy" to limit the number of pets.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Passion killers

It's strange that some people still find public displays of affection beyond the pale and would rather "that sort of thing" was confined to somewhere more private. What's so offensive about kissing or hugging someone in the street?

Of course exceptionally besotted individuals can go a bit too far in their intimate fondling and caressing, to the extent that I have to tactfully avert my gaze and pretend to be engrossed in the niceties of paving-stone design, but that's a rare occurrence. Most couples are sensible enough to keep their embraces within decent limits.

In fact I find the sight of passionately entwined couples rather touching and heart-warming, a visible reminder that love still blossoms in a world where many people feel lonely or unloved. I always hope their passion will last and not wither away.

But there are still some who maintain that such public smooching "just isn't necessary", that it's frightfully vulgar and inconsiderate, that it's "rubbing our noses in it." Rubbing our noses in what? That we can enjoy each other's company?

Same-sex embraces are especially distasteful in some quarters, goodness knows why. Religion's usually involved. But what harm is it doing anyone? It amuses me that heterosexual men are still averse to kissing or hugging each other when they meet and limit themselves to a chaste handshake. Heaven forbid anyone might get the wrong impression and think they're "that way inclined".

Personally I've not only kissed hundreds of men but enjoyed it. Kissing is always fun, whoever it's with. But I still find myself exchanging those familiar jokey remarks to other men that "We'd better not kiss, ha ha ha." Most frustrating when it's someone utterly gorgeous....

This same-sex coolness seems to be very much a British thing, a relic of the widespread sexual repression of earlier decades. Men in other countries happily kiss and hug when they meet without thinking twice about it.

There's nothing to be scared of, guys. It won't drop off.

Friday 29 July 2011

How to be mature

The idea of maturity, as in being a mature adult, is a highly dubious one, especially when it implies giving things up or toning things down.

If behaving in a certain way makes you feel good or adds to your enjoyment of life, why should it have to be toned down? So other people feel more "comfortable"? So you don't look "ridiculous"? Phooey. Don't listen to such mean-minded nonsense.

And what are we supposed to rein in or do away with anyway?

Mature adults, it seems, should have "normal" hobbies i.e. ones that other people can understand, like gardening or knitting. No eccentric interests like collecting pepper grinders or making the Taj Mahal out of matchsticks.

You should never be too enthusiastic or gushing about anything, as it's "childish". Your appreciation should always be restrained and thoughtful, suggesting some subtle dimension of pleasure (whatever that might be).

You shouldn't wear clothes that are too flamboyant or eye-catching. No bright colours, no miniskirts, no budgie-smugglers, nothing too tight or too scanty. You should blend in with your surroundings and dress "modestly".

You should always be polite and inoffensive. Keep a lid on those controversial opinions about Bible-bashers or baby-boomers or drunken louts. Maintain a neutral atmosphere, however artificial and strained.

But why should we always suppress our natural tastes and responses in the name of being "mature"? Which means what exactly? Responsible? Sensible? Well-behaved? We can be all those things without turning ourselves into strait-laced old farts.

Maturity? Bah, humbug.