Thursday 31 March 2011

Gropes or kisses?

If you look for romance through a dating agency, you have to expect the unexpected. But a Donegal woman claimed she got a lot more than she had bargained for - that she was groped, assaulted and battered.

She was so incensed that she sued the Happy Matchmaker agency for €6000, alleging negligence, breach of duty and fraudulent misrepresentation.

Annmarie McBrearty complained that they hadn't vetted or screened any of her four "prospective suitors", which was why they had behaved so badly and physically molested her.

The district court judge however, having listened to all the evidence, decided that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred and that the men were no more than "unmannerly" or "over-enthusiastic". The worst that had happened was a kiss on the mouth.

So he threw out all the claims against the agency.

Which is puzzling. The judge didn't actually say he thought she was lying from start to finish, but that's the conclusion we're led to. Otherwise, why would he strike out all the claims?

Alternatively, was she in fact groped and attacked but the four men portrayed themselves as such innocent, considerate souls, and there was so little proof of anything untoward, that the judge simply couldn't believe what she said?

As it stands though, the result of the hearing suggests yet more false accusations of sexual violence by a dishonest woman with an ulterior motive. Which unfortunately creates yet more public suspicion of women who make genuine claims.

All in all, a case with disturbing repercussions.

Monday 28 March 2011

Rescue remedy

When a large chunk of my taxes is being spent on foreign conflicts of one kind or another, I try hard to understand what those conflicts are about and whether I actually support them or not. It's been particularly difficult to comprehend the assault on Libya.

It was all rushed through parliament and the UN so quickly dozens of awkward questions went unanswered, and are still unanswered. We were told it was a humanitarian rescue of thousands of innocent Libyans facing slaughter by Gaddafi's troops. But had any massacres already occurred? I don't recall hearing of any. And was a massacre actually about to happen? One can only guess.

So various countries including the UK have invaded Libya, firing bombs and missiles in all directions, causing colossal damage, to carry out a rescue mission which may or may not have been needed.

I started off by thinking that any such action against a sovereign state was unacceptable, whatever the pretext. Would we accept an invasion of our own country to rescue the residents of Manchester? I think not.

Then I thought that preserving political autonomy, however worthy and democratic it sounds, can't be an excuse for leaving thousands of trapped people to die. It would be like refusing to enter someone's house when the family was about to be murdered.

But the quandary remains of what precisely the mission's objective was and whether it's being achieved. I can't find any clear answers to either question. All we get is gung-ho reports of bombing raids and speculation about whether Gaddafi is planning to do a runner.

I have mixed feelings even about the way the so-called rebel forces are gaining ground and look likely to replace Gaddafi. I have no idea what their intentions are and whether they'll run the country any better than the ousted dictator. Plenty of shiny new governments have proved to be just as corrupt and inept as the old ones.

Oh and one minor point. When the government keeps telling us the country is broke and we all have to tighten our belts, how come we can find £3 million a day to bomb Libya?

Friday 25 March 2011

Gender surrender

It's fashionable in certain households to try to raise gender-free children - kids without rigid ideas about what boys do and what girls do. The trouble is, it never works.

However thoroughly the parents try to shield their offspring from indoctrination, sooner or later they cotton on to the idea of gender roles anyway and start behaving the way society expects them to.

As psychologist Cordelia Fine has noted, our everyday lives are so saturated with male and female assumptions that it's impossible to shut them all out. With the best will in the world, they seep into our minds whether we like or not.

And children have such a strong urge to conform that as soon as they realise their parents' mix-and-match view of gender is out on a limb, they rush to embrace the status quo.

Parents have tried all sorts of measures to break the strangehold. Giving trucks and toy soldiers to their daughters, and dolls and knitting patterns to their sons. Encouraging boys to cook and girls to play football. Telling little Damian it's fine to cry or be emotional or show weakness.

But then the kids go to school and the other pupils are laughing at cissies or crybabies or hairy dykes. They watch films where the wispy heroine is ecstatic over her new wedding dress, and the muscular guy is a ruthless oil tycoon. Straightaway all that parental hard work goes to pot and it's business as usual.

Oddly though, most of the parents who fail in their gender-free quest jump to the conclusion that being masculine or feminine is an innate tendency that can't be altered. They're so oblivious to the 1001 social cues prompting our behaviour they completely overlook them.

What Silly Billies, trying to interfere with Mother Nature. Boys will be boys, after all.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Nanny state

We've all done it. We've all fumed at one time or another about the nanny state and how the government keeps giving us advice we don't want or need, and how we're quite able to run our own lives, thanks very much.

We're assailed every day by official guidance on things like healthy food, giving up smoking, drinking less, drug abuse, coping with flu, obesity. We're encouraged to change our bad habits and behave more sensibly.

But do we really need all this advice or is it just patronising guff? Should they just shut up and let us decide for ourselves whether we want to be healthy or unhealthy?

My objection to all this stuff isn't so much that it's unnecessary - some people might welcome a bit of advice - but that a lot of it is misleading and confusing and not actually very helpful.

The experts keep changing their minds about what's healthy and what isn't. How much salt should I eat? How much wine should I drink? The guidelines shift every month. What about obesity? It's supposed to be deadly, but life expectancy keeps rising. How about drug abuse? It's widely condemned, but fatal overdoses are rare.

If we ignored them all and just followed our own instincts - which is what plenty of people do anyway - I doubt if we'd come to much harm. Chances are we'll still live to a ripe old age. And if we know we're overdoing something, only we can decide to stop. Official finger-wagging achieves little.

If the government really want to help people, how about more practical support for people who want to kick serious addictions and personal problems? More rehab centres. More therapists. More social workers. Oh, but I forgot. The government is pruning all those "unproductive" activities as a cost-cutting measure.

But don't worry, folks. Just make sure you eat a bit more fruit and get your flu injection and everything will be fine.

Thanks to Suburbia for the idea

Saturday 19 March 2011

Now I'm 64

Tomorrow I reach the grand old age of 64. As in the Beatles song When I'm 64. Except that it's about 40 years out of date, and things have moved on since then. Nobody's past it at 60 any more.

Knitting a sweater? Digging the weeds? A holiday in the Isle of Wight? I think not. How about sky-diving? Or a trip to Australia? Or climbing Kilimanjaro?

But I'm definitely aware that time is running out. I no longer have my whole life ahead of me, and if I have any major ambitions left, I'd better tackle them now. Who knows, I may be six feet under in a few years' time.

Not that I had many ambitions to start with, and those I've mostly realised or given up on. I'm never going to spill out a literary masterpiece or a world-changing invention. On the other hand I can read an Italian newspaper and I've seen the New Year fireworks in Sydney.

Being 64 also makes me feel I should be passing on my lifetime's experience and knowledge to those who are just starting out. But is that knowledge as useful as I think it is? And do young people want to hear it anyway?

I know when I was young I got very impatient with grizzled old farts giving me well-meaning advice. Firstly I didn't trust any of them. And secondly I just wanted to follow my own instincts and see where they took me. On the whole, they served me well.

At my advanced age, I also wonder if I'm still open to new ideas and attitudes or if I've unknowingly got hidebound and blinkered. I wouldn't like to be one of those crusty old diehards people secretly laugh at.

I think the rot sets in when an oldie starts to dismiss every new trend or fashion as a step back from some mythical golden age. Not me. I can think of too many relics of the past that were far from golden. Bring on the future, I say.

Victor Meldrew I am not.

*Victor Meldrew was the classic grumpy old man in the BBC TV sitcom "One Foot in the Grave"

Pic: Not me and Jenny, just a lovely old couple....

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Not just a movie

Some films come so close to horrific real-life events that they can cause serious distress to those watching them. But is it justified to pull the films from cinemas to avoid upsetting people? Or should they just be reminded that fiction, after all, isn't reality?

The question arises again with the news that Clint Eastwood's new film, Hereafter, starring Cecile de France, is to be withdrawn from Japanese cinemas because it features a journalist nearly dying after she's caught in a devastating Asian tsunami.

An official at Warner Brothers said that the tsunami sequences in the film were "not appropriate" at the present time, and that the film would therefore no longer be shown.

One blogger has said that her own sister and cousin were caught in the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand in 2004 and when she watched Hereafter she was very upset by the footage where de France is swept away in a massive wall of water.

It's easy to argue that freedom of expression is sacrosanct and that if people think they'll be upset they shouldn't watch the film, but when huge numbers of people have been personally caught up in an eerily similar disaster and are likely to be highly distraught, perhaps it's right to withdraw it.

It's only a film, it's not essential to show it, and it can still return to cinemas at some later date when emotions have settled down. If that's ever possible, that is, after such a shocking and traumatic experience.

Some 45 films were edited, delayed or abandoned after the Twin Towers attack in New York. They may have been fictional but they were too close to a shattering real-life event to be shrugged off as mere movies.

Of course you can argue that once you start censoring films because they might upset people, where do you stop? But one or two withdrawals out of respect for widespread personal distress hardly amount to censorship. There are thousands more films out there we're still free to watch and be entertained by. It's a very small sacrifice to make.

PS: It is reported that Clint Eastwood supports the decision by Warner Brothers, and is to donate some of the profits from the DVD to charities responding to the Japanese earthquake. He says: “The devastation and loss Japan is facing is almost incomprehensible. I’m glad to join Warner Brothers in this effort to help the Japanese people.”

Pic: Tsunami reaching land in Japan

Sunday 13 March 2011

Changing the world

One thing I've realised as I get older is that it's much harder to change the world than I assumed when I was young. The forces of inertia and habit are amazingly strong.

When I was still a teenager, I was quite confident that if enough people stood up and demanded an end to poverty, or equality for women, or more generous wages, then those responsible would take notice and changes would come thick and fast.

I failed to understand just how entrenched existing behaviour can be, and how powerful the sheer weight of tradition, fear, dogma and ignorance that keeps people from altering the status quo they find so cosy and familiar, however oppressive and stifling it may actually be.

I fondly imagined that if I presented people with a reasonable, sensible, well-argued case for ending some obviously abhorrent practice, they would be sure to respond.

Racism, homophobia, sweatshops, domestic violence, they would all be swept away in the face of a rising tide of popular disgust and rage, and a shiny new world of tolerance and enlightenment would take their place.

How naive I was, how deeply unaware of the complexities of other people's reactions and how resistant they are to radical change. And not necessarily without cause. Radical change isn't always as positive as well-meaning idealists like to think, and those who resist may sometimes be wiser and shrewder than the would-be reformers.

But having realised that changing the world is not as easy as I thought it was, nowadays I pick my causes more carefully and only take up arms if I think there's a serious chance of succeeding. I no longer rush to support any worthy campaign that grabs my attention.

I might be able to save the local library, but ending patriarchy in the boardroom will have to stay on the back-burner for a while.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Weekend woe

How very sad that so many people invent exciting, glamorous weekends for themselves because the reality of lonely or humdrum days off is too embarrassing for them to admit to. They want to be in a wild social whirl like everyone else.

A new survey says that 27 per cent of us deliberately lie about our weekend activities to impress others, concocting parties, romantic flings or even trips abroad, because the humble truth of gawping at the TV or having a lie-in makes us seem pathetically middle-aged and past it.

It seems that having lots of friends and a frantic social life is now such a desirable norm that people with empty diaries who just want to watch reruns of The Wire feel there's something wrong with them. They're afraid other people will see them as dysfunctional misfits.

But what's really sad isn't their preferred lifestyle and their lack of company. What's sad is the fact that they choose to fabricate elaborate lies rather than saying, that's how I am, that's how I spend my weekends, what's it to you?

I suspect humdrum weekends are probably the norm for most people, despite assumptions to the contrary. If you actually looked into people's homes on a Saturday evening, you'd find plenty of people in decidedly unglamorous settings, unblocking the sink or changing the cat litter.

And just suppose two workmates are both lying to each other about their weekends. They're telling bigger and bigger whoppers to impress the other. If A has been to a luxury hotel in New York with the sexiest woman in town, then B has to produce an even hotter woman in an even swankier location. While they both know they were really sprawled on the settee guzzling fish and chips.

Well, I don't mind admitting that I spend most of my weekends doing nothing more exciting than cosying up to my loved one, ploughing through a paperback or ambling round the neighbourhood. There are no lightning trips to Venice or celebrity-packed parties. Unless you count that little jaunt with Penelope Cruz of course....

Monday 7 March 2011

Men in skirts

It's extraord-inary that transvest-ites still have to be so secretive about their leanings, for fear of other people's negative reactions.

In this day and age, when we're all much more broadminded about the sort of clothes people choose to wear, it's odd that there's still such a stigma about clothes that are "gender-inappropriate".

So much so that a journalist writing about the transvestite Butterfly Club, based somewhere near Belfast, is incredibly careful not to reveal its exact location, the identities of its members, or any other details that might lead to unwanted attention from the uptight and the straitlaced.

When it's now perfectly okay for women to wear "male" clothes, it's shocking that men who fancy wearing "female" clothes are still seen as deviant weirdos to be shunned and ridiculed.

Admittedly the men in question often don't do themselves any favours by wearing such laughably unfashionable clothes and wearing them with so little elegance and style, but why is a man in a dress and heels so difficult for other people to accept - or even enjoy? Why do other people feel so threatened and discomforted by someone who's not wearing the expected clobber?

It would certainly help if some transvestites paid a bit more attention to the fashion pages and how real women dress, and looked more like dizzy blondes than frumpy housewives. Then the disbelieving titters might give way to sneaking admiration. And other men might even dip their toes in the water.

But the continuing hostility, still so acute that many men are scared even to reveal their guilty secret to their own wives, is a mystery to me. Is the sight of a man in a miniskirt really so emasculating? Or so traumatising? What's the big deal?

Pic: Male model Andrej Pejic, who frequently models female clothes. Drop-dead gorgeous or what?

Saturday 5 March 2011

Watching the Strad

It may seem strange to you and me, but musicians casually carry around instruments worth hundreds of thousands of pounds as if they were of no more value than a paperback.

They're so used to owning them, and so used to keeping sight of them at all times, that they seldom get stolen. Musicians watch their instruments as carefully as a parent watches a child.

The recent theft of a £1.2 million Stradivarius violin from a London sandwich shop is most unusual.

Of course one reason Strads are unlikely to be stolen is the difficulty of reselling them. They're so recognisable (there are only a few hundred in the world) that dealers would be instantly suspicious. You'd be lucky to flog it at the local market for a fiver.

Violinist Stephen Bryant's violin* is worth about £250,000, but his only precaution against losing it is to watch it like a hawk. It's so precious to him that such habitual vigilance is second nature.

Some musicians do have an instrument minder - someone who either carries the instrument or makes sure the musician is looking after it. But many musicians would only trust their personal attachment to something that is so important to them - something crucial to their self-identity.

In 2008, violinist Philippe Quint was so grateful for the return of a 285-year-old Stradivarius left in a New York taxi that he treated New York cabbies to a special private performance.

It's surprising that musical instruments aren't kidnapped and held to ransom. If they're so precious to the musicians, presumably they'd be prepared to pay quite a lot to get them back. Maybe they do, but it's all kept very quiet. Or should I say, molto molto pianissimo.

* Leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Pic: Min-Jin Kym, whose £1.2 million Stradivarius was stolen, and is still missing.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Only joking

People do come up with the most inventive excuses for naked prejudice. They make a totally insulting remark about Jews, Muslims, blacks, women, gays, or any other group they happen to loathe, and then when someone complains they act astonished and trot out some absurd and laughable excuse.

Fashion designer John Galliano's pro-Nazi insults, and excuses, have attracted a lot of publicity, but there are plenty of ordinary folk out there who dream up equally ridiculous explanations. Such as:

1) I wasn't thinking clearly because of work pressures
2) It was just a joke, it wasn't serious
3) The person I was speaking to wasn't offended
4) It's only the office culture, it means nothing
5) It was an off-the-cuff remark, take no notice
6) It's not prejudice, it's the fucking truth
7) Everyone's over-reacting
8) Everyone's just being politically correct

Er no, none of these pathetic excuses actually stands up. An insult is an insult, and any intelligent adult knows exactly how insulting they're being. They know perfectly well it isn't a joke, or a meaningless part of "office culture". And when they try to pretend otherwise, they're simply aiming to cover their tracks and defuse the unexpected outrage.

Is it really so hard not to insult someone? Is it really so tricky to consider the other person's sensitivities and not say something that obviously demeans and belittles them? And why does anyone need to demean and belittle other people in the first place?

Of course some individuals claim to be offended and insulted simply for ulterior motives, to prevent criticism of their religion or personal behaviour. But in general, if people say they're offended they are offended and nonsensical excuses are just an attempt to carry on behaving badly and get away with it.

People who delight in causing offence to others are no better than the little boy who delights in setting fire to puppies. They just like to inflict pain and distress for the sheer hell of it. And because puppies like being set on fire really.

PS: John Galliano is to be put on trial in Paris following a police investigation into his alleged anti-semitic remarks.