Sunday 30 January 2011

Hidden faces

The face mask has mysteriously become the fashion must-have for Japanese teenagers. But they're reluctant to explain why.

Many Japanese wear face masks to protect themselves against flu germs and bugs in general. The masks are a common sight when you're walking down a street.

But now teenagers en masse are wearing them, even if they couldn't care less about flu. It's become a cult accessory you just can't be seen without.

Because they don't want to explain themselves, social commentators are busily trying to interpret this strange phenomenon.

The mask-wearers, they say, are so shy they want something to hide behind. It's a way of retreating from society even when they're in a crowd of people. They want to be anonymous, they want to look just like everyone else.

Or maybe they're simply poking fun at all the germ-obsessed individuals who insist on wearing face masks even though they offer little or no protection.

It wouldn't happen here. The British are far too self-conscious to go around wearing face masks, even if they were terrified of catching flu.

And if they want something to hide behind, their preferred option is a thick layer of make-up or a voluminous beard.

Face masks are strictly for Nurse Jackie. Or bank robbers.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Beyond belief

It strikes me there's a very simple reason why religion causes so many problems. Too often people don't stop at the self-improvement aspect that religions began with. They go further and try to foist their beliefs on other people who don't share them.

It seems to me that the great religious leaders like Jesus and Buddha were only giving people guidance on how to live their lives more creatively and productively. Which is harmless enough. If you're focussing on your own life, that leaves other people to get on with their lives in their own way and no toes get trodden on.

As I see it, Jesus and Buddha never saw their beliefs as something to be imposed on others, to be followed obediently by masses of people. That desire to proselytise, to convert, to turn religious beliefs into social norms, was something that came later, something hatched up by followers with an authoritarian streak.

And that's where all the trouble starts. As soon as you stop treating religious beliefs as a personal matter informing your own life, and your life alone, and expect everyone else to follow suit, naturally it's a surefire recipe for opposition, resentment and violence.

Those who are told they have to adopt certain beliefs whether they like it or not, regardless of their own existing beliefs, will inevitably turn on these religious bullies and tell them where to stuff their unwanted dogma.

Personally I'm inspired by the principles and beliefs of Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism. They've been a great influence on my thinking, the way I live my life, and how I relate to other people. But I would never dream of telling others to follow the same principles, and telling them that if they don't they're hopeless sinners and blasphemers and infidels. To do that seems simply intrusive and impertinent.

As the Buddha himself said, "Be a light unto yourself." That's clear enough, isn't it?

Sunday 23 January 2011

No room at the inn

A court has decided that two Christians who wouldn't allow a gay couple to book a double room in their hotel were acting unlawfully.

They had insisted that their religious objection to unmarried couples sharing a room entitled them to turn the pair away.

The court said no, a civil partnership had the same legal status as a heterosexual marriage and therefore the owners of the hotel in Penzance, Cornwall, were clearly discriminating against Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy.

It's amazing to me that people running a hotel feel they have the right to tell their guests what they should or should not be doing in their hotel room (except for wrecking the place, obviously).

Of course they're free to hold whatever religious beliefs they like, however preposterous we may think them. But to enforce those beliefs on their guests regardless of their guests' own beliefs and preferences, is simply dictatorial and unChristian.

It's particularly absurd when they're running a hotel and inviting couples to stay with them. If they really don't want gays under their roof, shouldn't they be running some entirely different business - like selling ice cream?

I'm surprised they don't also try to regulate the behaviour of their heterosexual guests. I mean, who knows what deviant, blasphemous nocturnal activities they might be up to? What would the Good Lord think of all those strange fetishes and foibles your average straight couple go in for? A bunch of miserable sinners, surely?

Pic: Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall

Thursday 20 January 2011

Not rude enough

I find it hard to insult people. No matter how offhand or unhelpful or condes-cending someone is to me, I have trouble answering them in kind or showering them with abuse.

It goes against the grain to call someone fucking stupid or a mindless arsehole. Or even a useless prat. It always seems to me that upping the ante like that will be counter-productive. They'll get ruder, I'll get angrier, and nothing positive will come of it.

I tend to shrug off a disappointing response and either continue to be polite and reasonable or walk away from it. I also assume there's probably a good reason for their rudeness - they hate their work or they've got a blinding headache or they've had one too many awkward sods to deal with. Or all three. So I'm reluctant to pile on the aggravation.

Perhaps I'm too charitable by half, too sensitive to other people's feelings and too inhibited about expressing my own. On the other hand, perhaps those who're always ready to answer truculence with more of the same are too impulsive.

But people who blow their top easily soon get a reputation for being difficult to handle and best avoided wherever possible. They may get what they want in the short term, but in the long term their fiery reputation does them no good.

People who have violent spats in public just strike me as embarrassing and childish rather than assertive. "Act your age" seems more fitting than "Good for you." Of course we all secretly enjoy the spectacle of a no-holds-barred slanging match, as long as it's happening to someone else, but at the end of the day it probably doesn't gain much. In fact it's just fucking stupid.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Name dropping

A Japanese law says newly married couples must adopt a single surname - which in practice is usually the man's. Now five people in Japan are going to court to challenge the law.

One of the five, Kyoko Tsukamoto, says the loss of her maiden name has caused psychological damage and loss of self. She has never got used to having a different name and wants her old one back.

The five say the surname law violates their right under the constitution to individual liberty and equal rights as husband and wife.

There have been several previous attempts to change the law, always blocked by those who claim the change would undermine family life and children's identities. Surprisingly, almost half the population share these curious fears.

Although newly-weds in Britain are free to choose whatever surname they like, in practice they tend to follow the Japanese and take the man's name.

I wonder how many women are happy with the change of name and how many would secretly like to reclaim the old one? Do some of them feel they've lost a little bit of themselves and their family history? Or do they welcome the new name and all that goes with it?

Jenny has always kept her original name and shudders at the thought of changing it to mine. She doesn't want to be subsumed into my identity, thanks very much, quite apart from all the complications of changing every official record of her name in existence.

How very telling it is that practically every new husband expects his wife to adopt his own name. For him to adopt her name would be embarrassing, belittling, a loss of manhood. And a chap's manhood, as we all know, is alarmingly fragile.

Pic: Marriage Japanese style. Don't you just love that wedding dress?

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Mistaken identity

People who know a little bit about me tend to stereotype me as a way-out left-wing rebel who's totally against conventional attitudes and happy to indulge all sorts of wacky lifestyles and beliefs.

In which case they've got me all wrong. Yes, I'm relaxed about a lot of unusual behaviour that most people tut-tut about, but in other ways I'm quite a hard-liner with a strong sense of moral righteousness.

I'm not the least bit bothered by homosexuality, cross-dressing, nude beaches, blasphemy, atheism, legalising drugs, equality for women, the right to abortion, euthanasia, asylum-seekers or vegetarians.

On the other hand I'm firmly opposed to most plastic surgery (unnecessary and dangerous), all prostitution (most prostitutes have post traumatic stress disorder), binge-drinking (unhealthy and anti-social), yobbery and vandalism (frightening and intimidating), rape (whatever the bogus and self-serving excuse), and quasi-anorexic models (who encourage eating disorders).

I won't turn a blind eye to behaviour that's seriously destructive to individuals or the rest of society. I think we should all condemn it forcefully and persistently. I'm not a well-meaning libertarian who thinks people should be free to do whatever they like without outside interference. If we're convinced something is genuinely wrong, we should have the courage of our convictions and say so.

I'm absolutely not one of those clich├ęd long-haired hippies who spends all day smoking dope and saying everything is cool, indifferent to whatever misogyny or dogma or selfishness or emotional violence is going on under his nose. We can't solve the world's problems by wishing everyone peace and love, we have to get our hands dirty and tackle vested interests that rely on people's woolly indulgence.

Yes, one part of me is a left-wing rebel, but the other part is a no-nonsense maiden aunt. So please leave your stereotypes at the door.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Losing the plot

The 9000 people who've complained about the cot death story in Eastenders* just don't seem to understand what fiction means.

The furious complainers, led by the parents' website Mumsnet, have accused the BBC of portraying bereaved mothers as "deranged and unhinged" and showing "a lack of understanding."

The plotline involves Ronnie Branning, who lost her baby in a cot-death, swapping him for another couple's new-born son.

The BBC, in a fit of spineless timidity, has now said the story will be ended prematurely in the spring.

But why are they being so supine? Eastenders is a work of fiction. It doesn't necessarily reflect real life. It may often wander into the realm of the implausible and the fantastic. That's what fiction does.

The idea that Eastenders has to faithfully mirror life as it actually is (if that can even be accurately pinned down) is absurd.

It's equally absurd to insist that a fictional creation should not offend the sensitivities of a particular group of people.

Apart from the fact that it's hard to know what will or won't offend the viewers, avoiding offence to every motley group in society would be an impossible task. Someone somewhere is always going to feel insulted by something.

And again, the point of fiction is not to avoid offence, it is to create imaginary scenarios and situations. Being nice to people is the job of politicians and vicars, not dramatists.

The overheated followers of Mumsnet really ought to calm down and not expect soap operas to be something they were never intended to be. Eastenders isn't a helpline or a counselling service, it's a piece of vaguely credible make-believe. Nothing more, nothing less.

Pic: Samantha Womack as Ronnie Branning

* Eastenders is a long-running British TV soap opera set in the fictitious Borough of Walford in East London.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Out of step

It was time to pay another visit to my invaluable therapist Dr Melissa Flinch. There was a nagging problem I needed to discuss with her.

"Melissa" I began, as I sank into the luxuriously upholstered armchair amid the jungle of pot plants, "I'm puzzled. Men are supposed to be obsessed with sex and pornography. They're said to be constantly distracted by the thought of beautiful women they could be in bed with. That's why they have so many accidents and screw-ups all the time. They just don't have their mind on the job."

"And does that apply to you, Nick?"

"Absolutely not. I don't think of sex much at all. I think a lot more about food and coffee and books and useless politicians and washing-up. I find porn really boring, I've never bought a porn mag in my life. I don't care when I last got my rocks off. Does that mean I'm not a real man, Melissa?"

"Is there any such thing as a real man, Nick? And why would you want to be one? Does it matter if you're effeminate?"

I plucked an oatmeal and cinnamon cookie from the bowl. "Personally I'm quite happy to be effeminate. But all those hunky, thrusting men out there, all thinking non-stop about sex, they embarrass me. They assume I'm as horny as they are, that I share their fixation with busty blondes. If I said I was more interested in lemon drizzle cake or reducing poverty or Dexter Dalwood's paintings, they'd think I was lacking something. They'd think I was a traitor to my sex, a party-pooper. So I just keep quiet."

"And do you think you're a traitor to your sex?"

"Not at all. I've never identified with other men. I don't understand them and I don't understand masculinity. I feel far more comfortable with women. Their take on life is more like my own. Why should that be?"

"Sorry, Nick, your time is up. Love your lipstick, by the way. Is it L'Oreal?"

I gave her the tube and made off down the windy, deserted street. I'm not sure she helped me very much.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Read all about it

I fail to see why the entire private life of a murder suspect is seen as public property as soon as the finger of suspicion is pointed at them.

Why do the media feel entitled to dig all this stuff up and linger on all the colourful details as if they are of huge importance?

We've had columns and columns of titillating gossip about Chris Jefferies, landlord of the flat rented by the murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates. His eccentricities, his blue-rinsed hair, his confirmed bachelorhood (nudge nudge, wink wink), his love of discipline.

Of course I'm as fascinated by all this tittle-tattle as everyone else. I won't pretend I ignore it all. I love to read the intimate details of other people's lives and draw dodgy conclusions from them.

But why should Mr Jefferies' life be laid bare and spread out before us in page after page of newsprint, as if he no longer has any right to privacy or common decency?

He is a suspect in a murder case. He may be guilty, he may be totally innocent. He hasn't yet been charged or taken to court. But because the police have taken an interest in him, he is somehow assumed to be ripe for a no-holds-barred journalistic striptease.

All we need to know is that he's a suspect, the police have questioned him, and he was Joanna's landlord. The rest is just gratuitous prattle.

Perhaps when the journos have finally scoured the bottom of the barrel, and told us what kind of underpants he prefers, how often he picks his nose, and where he buys his toilet rolls, boredom will set in and they'll be on their way, sniffing out someone juicier.

They just don't know where to stop.

Pic: Chris Jefferies

PS: Joanna's boyfriend, Greg Reardon, has said: "The finger-pointing and character assassination by social and news media of as yet innocent men has been shameful. It has made me lose a lot of faith in the morality of the British Press."

PPS: Monday morning. Police have said Joanna's killer is still "on the loose" and have effectively admitted that Chris Jefferies is innocent. Mr Jefferies is now considering legal action against the police.