Saturday 26 February 2011

Why oh why?

One of those bizarre psycholog-ical mysteries that explodes out of the blue. A college lecturer, apparently contented and enjoying life, kills her two children and herself while her husband is working abroad. Why?

It's the sort of totally unexpected event that leaves everyone stunned and aghast. Whatever was slowly eating away at her was carefully concealed from the outside world.

Neighbours, friends, relatives, clergy - none of them can explain what she did. According to them, Claudia Oakes-Green of Shepshed in Leicestershire always seemed bright and happy and doing well in life. There was nothing to suggest that some acute inner distress was about to tip her over the edge.

Whatever was troubling her - depression, financial worries, marital problems, workplace pressures - she was seemingly unable to confide in anyone else and seek outside help. She maintained a cheerful facade that hid a grimmer reality.

It takes a particularly distraught person not only to kill themselves but take their children with them, the children that up till then they've cherished and protected.

How tragic it is that people still feel so embarrassed and ashamed of their inability to cope that they simply cannot voice it. Or they feel their situation is just so hopeless that no one else can put it right.

We may find out more in the coming days. Some nagging anxiety may come to light. Some crippling sense of inadequacy may be revealed. Or her actions may remain a total puzzle, an endless source of conjecture and speculation with no one any the wiser.

The family: Claudia (44), husband Iain, son Thomas (13), daughter Eleanor (7)

Pic: The Oakes-Green house in Shepshed

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Life's too short

Life's too short to be wasted on pointless nonsense. There are just too many demands on our time to fritter it away on things that don't inspire us or enliven us. As Secret Agent Woman has said so wittily, listing the particular bĂȘtes noires she does her best to avoid.

I have a few extra bĂȘtes noires of my own, things that do nothing for my life or well-being and breed only frustration and weariness. Life's too short to:

Pretend I'm someone I'm not. It's so easy to put on an act in response to what others expect of me, and hide my real self. But all it does is make me feel false and cowardly. It also leaves people with a phoney idea of who I am.

Exhaust myself in a gym. Natural forms of exercise like hill-walking are more fun and more scenic. Struggling with machines in a sweaty gym is totally artificial and not at all essential for my health.

Listen to moaners. The hours I've wasted listening to people moaning away about their workplace, their neighbours and their relatives. I prefer to spend my time with people who enjoy life rather than moan about it.

Think about the Royal Family. I couldn't care less about the Royals. They're just a bunch of parasites sponging off the rest of us and giving little in return. It's about time they did some real jobs. How about plumbing?

Idealise politicians. I no longer kid myself that politicians who promise a bright new future mean what they say. I've seen too many false dawns and blighted communities to be convinced any more.

Bear grudges. Better to let bygones be bygones rather than brood over old grievances that will never be put right. Yes, we all get treated badly from time to time, but simmering over it for years only makes us sour.

Dwell on things I can't control. Likewise, there's no point in harping on about things I have little influence over. Like drink-driving or homophobia or religious fanatics. I concentrate on things I can actually do something about.

Keep the house spotless. I'm not one of those houseproud obsessives who clean and sweep non-stop. There's always going to be dust and grease marks somewhere. As long as the place is presentable, that's enough for me.

Shop till I drop. I can't stand shopping, I do it only when I absolutely have to. Spending an entire day in a shopping centre, buying things I don't need and being assaulted by endless Musak, is my idea of hell.

Worry about my failings. Like everyone, I make mistakes and I upset people. There's no point in beating myself up over it or wishing I was more perfect. I do what I can to put things right, and then I move on.

Sunday 20 February 2011

A masterpiece explained

I was thrilled to hear that Tanzi Twitch, the renowned conceptual artist, has won the Scunthorpe Award for International Art with her ground-breaking piece "Empty Room with Small Mouse and Bad Dream Number 17."

She was interviewed recently by art critic Sophie Slingback, who asked her about her award-winning work.

SS: So what exactly was the intention behind "Empty Room"?

TT: It was to show just how empty a room can be. The infinite emptiness of a space without content. The total absence of expected visual triggers. The absurd non-availability of pizza.

SS: Though a pizza carton did feature briefly in version number 13.

TT: That was an accident. It was left there by Stephanie, my cleaning lady.

SS: I see. But many people have said they can't see the small mouse or the bad dream.

TT: I can't help them. The small mouse and the bad dream may be there or they may not. I thought I saw the mouse yesterday morning but I may have been mistaken. It may have been a truffle. Or a waffle.

SS: What about the bad dream?

TT: There is always a bad dream, wherever you are. A nightmare is always waiting to crawl out and scare you to death. If you look, you'll see the bad dream. It's as plain as can be.

SS: The small mouse is a recurring theme in your work. What does it signify?

TT: You'll have to ask the mouse. I can't speak on its behalf. It may just signify the universal prevalence of recurring themes. Or the presence of unexpected visual triggers. Or a nearby cheese mine.

SS: I thought cheese was a dairy product.

TT: Whatever.

SS: And how would you yourself sum up this masterpiece?

TT: Empty is as empty does. Empty vessels make the most noise.

SS: Brilliant! Sheer genius!

Picture of Tanzi Twitch courtesy of the Plunkett Gallery, Cork Street, London

Friday 18 February 2011

Intimate relations

Established couples are assumed to be completely open and intimate with each other, having abandoned all the polite taboos and inhibitions of normal social encounters.

They no longer hide anything, no matter how personal or unappealing. Be it peeing, washing, cutting their nails, removing their body hair, picking their spots or farting, long-standing partners should be open-minded and tolerant enough to let their loved one behave any way they like, free of the usual suffocating public etiquette.

With a lot of couples, this is exactly what happens. They never lock the bathroom door, they pee and shit while chatting to their partners. They carry out every type of personal grooming, however unsavoury or hideous, in full view of the other person. They belch and burp freely at the dinner table, cramming their mouths to full capacity.

Well, that may suit some couples but Jenny and I would beg to differ. We don't believe a close relationship calls for that sort of unrestricted intimacy, in fact we regard it as insulting and tasteless. It's precisely because we respect each other's sense of decency and dignity that we keep certain things to ourselves.

We don't see unabashed intimacy as vital to emotional and spiritual closeness. Closeness doesn't come from cutting your nails together, it comes from knowing each other at a deeper and deeper level, and savouring that knowledge.

There's nothing more embarrassing than the uninhibited middle-aged male who believes his carefree farting, belching, groin-scratching and ear-probing is the sign of an enviable intimacy, while his long-suffering spouse watches in a state of mounting dismay and horror. And finds the idea of divorce increasingly attractive.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Lingering delusions

As you get older, so it's said, you know yourself better and shed all the self-delusions of youth. Is that really true? Or are we still busy fooling ourselves?

They're hard questions to answer, because we can never really see ourselves objectively, as others see us. We're always on the inside looking out, and from the inside, through the prism of vanity and self-interest, it's easy to keep distorting the truth.

I've certainly shed a few youthful illusions - that I'm a brilliant writer, or a witty conversationalist, or a sensitive shoulder to cry on, or that the great socialist revolution is just round the corner. Some pretences simply can't be sustained in the light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I like to think I've got a more realistic picture of my strengths and weaknesses. The things I've got a talent for and the things I'm hopeless at however hard I try. I no longer think I'm unique or special, I realise I'm just an averagely intelligent person who somehow muddles through life without making too many gigantic blunders.

But am I really any more self-aware? Or have I just picked up a load of fresh delusions to replace the old ones? Like thinking that as an oldie I'm more wised-up than all these inexperienced teenagers? Or thinking I'm a patient, forgiving soul when I'm regularly bristling over poor service and mindless officialdom? Or convinced I'm altruistic and caring while expecting others to solve their own problems and not be too demanding?

Even if I ask others how they see me, how their impressions compare with my own, are their conclusions any more accurate than mine? They may have created a certain image of me, and they tailor their observations to fit the image. If they've decided I'm shy and indecisive, that's how they'll keep seeing me, whether it's true or false.

At the end of the day, my picture of myself is too tarnished by optimism and wishful thinking to be relied on. Am I still as deluded as a muddle-headed schoolboy? Who knows? Who can see that clearly?

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Camera rats

If there's any bunch of people who deserve contempt it's the paparazzi, whose only aim is to harass and humiliate public figures for the benefit of whatever voyeuristic media outlet is prepared to publish their pictures.

Their continual spying has forced Lily Allen to install a £60,000 state-of-the-art security system at her new home in the Cotswolds to keep them out. Now she is taking legal action against the Daily Mail for publishing extensive pictures and details of her home, including the property's name, address, location, precise layout, fixtures and fittings, and details of its private gardens and rear exterior.

The paparazzi are willing to use any method at all to get their salacious and intrusive pictures. Nothing is out of bounds. Breaking into houses, chasing cars, telescopic lenses, doorstepping, following people to holiday resorts, you name it.

The usual bogus excuses are endlessly trotted out by the media. They're public figures so they're not entitled to privacy. It's what the public wants. They like all the publicity really. If they behave badly, they must expect attention.

In my opinion, total bollocks. Everyone is entitled to privacy and a personal life without unwanted intrusion, whether they're household names or the milkman. Constant invasion of privacy is not only prurient but extremely stressful and emotionally disturbing for those on the receiving end.

The only exception, to my mind, is those in responsible public positions who have done something that jeopardises their ability to do their job properly. In that case they deserve to be exposed.

How telling it is that the media bosses themselves guard their own privacy and off-duty lives so religiously. You won't see the paparazzi following them. So don't expect to find out any time soon about the newspaper editor who's hooked on prostitutes or the tabloid mogul who beats his wife.

They may dish the dirt on others, but they don't want their own dirty laundry laid out for inspection.

Sunday 6 February 2011

The unstoppable crisp

We may all be cutting back on spending because of the recession, but some things are sacrosanct. Last year our consumption of crisps went up by 5.7 per cent.

That's an extra 208 million bags of those crunchy slivers of fried potato we're all mysteriously addicted to. Can you go anywhere without that raucous crunching sound from someone's favourite snack hovering in the background?

Nobody can really explain why we're such suckers for something so insubstantial and so unhealthy, and so absurdly expensive for what it is (raw ingredient - a potato or two with some seasoning).

Is it that fabulous crunching sound as we demolish a crisp? Is it those weird and wonderful artificial flavours? Is it just the secret thrill of eating something especially noisy and ostentatious? Whatever the reason, we're hooked on them.

Supposedly* we owe this uncontrollable addiction to a hotel diner in Saratoga Springs, New York State, in 1853 who complained that his fried potatoes were too thick and too soggy. Chef George Crum responded by slicing the potatoes as thin as he could. The diner was so enthusiastic about the result that they became a regular menu item, "Saratoga Chips". And the rest, as they say, is history - and big business.

Now crisps are the UK's third most popular snack after fresh fruit and chocolate. We just can't get enough of those curly wafers of fried spud.

But I have a shameful confession to make. I'm not a great crisp devotee. Actually I prefer hula hoops. Or Bombay Mix. So I'd better not set foot in Saratoga Springs. An angry mob might just chase me out of town.

* So it says in Wikipedia.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Circling sharks

If you think you've got money problems, spare a thought for those with REAL money problems - the victims of ruthless loan sharks charging up to 450% interest.

With the recession and the rocketing cost of living leaving ever more people in chronic debt, the shady loan outfits are having a field day pulling thousands more victims into their net.

There are already 7 million Britons shut out of the high-street banks because they're too poor or they have dodgy credit records.

Maverick loan companies are happy to fill the gap by lending money to these desperate souls at extortionate interest rates - anything from 272% to 444%.

Predictably enough, the victims commonly default and get sucked into a permanent spiral of debt, interest on debt, late payment charges and interest on late payment charges.

The loan companies - all quite legal - are making a fortune out of the destitute while the government turns a blind eye and pretends it's not happening.

When they were in opposition, senior members of the current government pledged to stop these loan crooks from creating so much misery. They said they would cap the cost of credit for all borrowers at an affordable level.

Now they're in government, surprise surprise, they've forgotten their promise and done precisely nothing to cap credit costs. All they'll commit themselves to is "considering introducing" caps - politician-speak for "doing fuck-all."

Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow in East London, whose surgeries are chock-a-block with distraught loan-shark victims, is campaigning to get a credit cap introduced without delay. I sincerely hope she succeeds. This legalised skinning of the penniless is a national disgrace.

Excellent article about people drowning in debt here