Sunday 29 May 2011

Just like Ferdinand

Jenny has always likened me to Ferdinand the Bull in the famous children's story. While everyone else is busy go-getting and getting-on, I prefer to sit quietly under a tree and smell the flowers. Or at least ruminate on the meaning of existence and whether it's really true, in every single case, that two and two make four. The really important stuff, in other words.

I've never been especially ambitious. I had no desire to be a mover and shaker, a captain of industry, a cultural icon, or even a glittering celeb. A bit of comfort, a bit of money, a bit of intellectual nourishment and a few friends are all I need.

Everyone expected Ferdinand the Bull to be fierce and frightening so he could star in a bullfight, but he wasn't interested. When he was taken to a bullring, he just sat quietly in the middle of the ring sniffing the flowers in the women spectators' hair. He refused to be fierce and they had to take him back home instead.

At first his mother thought he must be lonely under the cork tree and encouraged him to play with other bulls, but then she realised he was quite happy where he was and left him to it.

And what happened after the bullfight? "For all I know he is sitting there still, under his favourite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly."

Ferdinand wasn't always allowed to sit quietly in real life either. Bizarrely, soon after the book was published in 1937, it was banned by several countries on the grounds that it was too pacifist and left-wing. Of course this was a red rag to a bull, and lefties everywhere promptly promoted the book and made it immensely popular.

I can't sit quietly under a tree right now as there's an arctic wind blowing, but I shall sit in my favourite armchair and ruminate. That is, until I feel an urgent need for chocolate.

Pic: Ferdinand the Bull from the Walt Disney film of 1938

Friday 27 May 2011

Gone missing

I was astonished to read that up to 200,000 children go missing in the UK every year. Can you imagine all the grief, guilt, anger and bewilderment parents and carers go through as they realise their child has gone and face the agonies of trying to find them and wondering if they might be seriously injured or even dead?

Some children just get lost accidentally for a few hours. But it's terrible how many children deliberately disappear, possibly for years, because of overwhelming personal problems or family tensions they simply can't sort out. They feel their parents don't understand their difficulties, or aren't giving them enough help, or are actively hostile to them.

They're being bullied, they're secretly gay, they're taking drugs, they're failing at school, they've been abused, they're depressed. Whatever the reason, they feel their home life is making things worse rather than better, and walking away from it actually seems the sensible choice.

How sad that parents who presumably love their children are unable to give them the support they need, because they're too busy to listen or they trivialise the problem (or they are the problem) or they simply don't know what to do.

And how distressing it must be when children go missing for years or even decades, with no clue as to where they might be and whether they're alive and well. There's not even a letter or phone call to reassure their parents they're just living their own life and haven't come to a grisly end.

The continuing despair of Kate and Gerry McCann over their long-lost daughter is only the most dramatic example of how a child's disappearance traumatises the parents and family. But there are plenty of other families in similar despair.

Even learning your child is dead must be easier to deal with than the endless uncertainty over their fate, simply not knowing anything, imagining one horrible scenario after another, day after day. It could very well drive you crazy.

Parents always fear their children's disappearance. But if it actually happens, it must be so much worse than anything they've imagined.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

The crack of doom

I really do wonder how outwardly sensible, rational people could have believed the absurd Doomsday prophecies of some 89-year-old Bible-basher from Oakland, California.

A belief so passionate that some of them spent their life savings, sold their homes and gave up their jobs to publicise the prophecy and prepare for imminent Armageddon at 6pm on May 21.

Could they seriously have expected that on the appointed day they would be wafted up to heaven in a state of rapture while non-believers were wiped out and sent to hell by the wrath of God?

What were these devotees taking? Some potent hallucinogenic? Or were they just so desperate for someone to give their lives a meaning they latched on to the strident certainties of this grey-haired old nutter and his bizarre mathematical calculations?

Were they not aware of the umpteen Doomsday prophecies that have sunk like a stone while everyday life continues unaffected? Did it not occur to them that the avuncular Harold Camping was getting an impressive income out of his loopy prophecies, prophecies no more credible than the trite ramblings of the local palm-reader?

Had it not struck them that if God wanted to end the world, He or She would probably do it whenever the impulse arose and not at some deadline calculated by an elderly preacher in California?

It was painful to watch these misguided souls trying to reorient themselves after the witching hour came and went and absolutely nothing happened except a thousand more Big Macs and Chevrolets.

They were gob-smacked by the anti-climax, frantically groping for an explanation. Maybe it was another test from God to persevere in their faith? Maybe they misunderstood something? Maybe they were using the wrong calendar? Maybe they'd been swindled? No no, that last possibility was foul-mouthed blasphemy.

The omniscient Harold Camping was not on hand with the definitive explanation however. He went missing as soon as the Apocalypse went missing and hasn't been seen since. Perhaps he was the only one raptured up to heaven?

And if you think it's all just a hilarious con trick, think again. Lyn Benedetto from Antelope Valley, California, was arrested for attempted murder-suicide after slitting the throats and wrists of her two daughters, because she was convinced the world was ending.

PS: Mr Camping has re-emerged to say how embarrassed he is that he got it wrong, and that the correct date for Doomsday is in fact October 21. Sure, and ferrets can play chess.

Pic: Harold Camping

Saturday 21 May 2011

Post mortem

I'm just putting the finishing touches on the best blog post ever, the post that'll go down in history. It will feature the following:

1) identical twins
2) an unexplained murder
3) a stunning transsexual
4) jokes so funny you'll wet yourself
5) endearing furry animals
6) chocolate cakes
7) a strange ticking noise
8) a missed appointment
9) an unopened letter
10) a bottle of perfume

But there are a few loose ends that need to be tied up first. Did the heroine miss the appointment because of the unopened letter? Why was there a bottle of perfume in the corpse's hand? Will the furry animals need feeding? Why are the identical twins both called Sheila? What is the meaning of life?

Once I've sorted out those little details, we'll be up and running.

You may think that you've read this post already, that you know exactly what happens to the identical twins and why they had to leave their rented flat so hastily on the night of March 20th. You may imagine you can easily explain the padlocked cellar door in the shy transsexual's suburban semi, and why she has a horror of artichokes. But you'd be wrong. This is a brand-new post, fresh as the morning dew, fresh as fairy dust. Never before has such....

Oh, fuckity fuck, I've just pressed Delete by mistake. The entire post has gone down the swanee. I can't believe it. I'm devastated.

(Sobs uncontrollably)

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Slut Walking

A Toronto police constable who made an off-the-cuff remark about women who "dressed like sluts" must be mortified by the global notoriety he inspired, not to mention a whole new movement, Slut Walking.

He's doubtless not the only cop to have said "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised" but unfortunately for PC Michael Sanguinetti his remarks were publicised by the law school students he was addressing and a worldwide furore broke out.

Angry women held a Slut Walk in Toronto, in which they dressed like "sluts" and said they were reclaiming the word as something jokey and inoffensive rather than a term of abuse and contempt.

They also criticised Sanguinetti for suggesting yet again that if women are attacked by men it's their fault, that the way some women dress or behave is supposedly "asking for it".

Now there have been similar rallies across Canada and the US, and others are planned in cities around the world.

I'm all in favour of the protests, and the idea of cleaning up the word "slut". But a surprising number of journalists and feminists are opposed, saying the word has such universally scathing and vicious overtones that it's beyond redemption and shouldn't be used at all.

That seems rather defeatist to me. Surely if enough people decontaminate the word, then it has to lose some of its negativity, in the same way that the word "gay" has been turned into a simple description (even though some people are trying hard to turn it back into an insult).

And the implications of the word "slut" are a great focus for debate on why women are attacked and why the victims are blamed rather than the attackers. Why does having a lot of sex or dressing in skimpy clothes make you a "slut"?

And why are women referred to in such aggressive terms as sluts, slags, slappers and tarts, when men who bed every woman in town are affectionately known as womanisers, seducers, or libertines?

Michael Sanguinetti has inadvertently done a great service to feminism by sparking such a passionate argument about this toxic word.

British Justice Minister Ken Clarke has started a similar furore by referring to "serious rape" as opposed to other types of rape. Not surprisingly, there was an immediate outcry that rape is serious whatever the circumstances.

Friday 13 May 2011

Looping the loop

Don't we all do strange things in hotel rooms? What do you mean, you don't? No need to be bashful, it's all perfectly normal.

Just try this little quiz to find out exactly how weird and obsessive you really are.

When in a hotel room, do you:
1) Methodically empty the minibar, even the most queasy and expensive items?
2) Steal all the freebies, including that really pongy soap and shampoo?
3) Write silly comments on the back of the pictures?
4) Disinfect all the bathroom surfaces before using them?
5) Look for creepy-crawlies under the bed?
6) Cover up all the mirrors?
7) Avoid making a mess in case the chambermaid complains?
8) Read every word of the fire instructions?
9) Sleep on a chair if the bed looks unsavoury?
10) Talk to your imaginary friend?
11) Hide your sex toys at the bottom of your suitcase?
12) Check for concealed microphones?

What your "Yes" score says about you:
13: You've miscounted.
9-12: You're stark raving bonkers. Consider suicide.
5-8: You're moderately bonkers. Consider therapy.
1-4: You're losing the plot. Consider a good long rest.
0: Pull the other one.

Not that any of these traits apply to me, of course. As you know, I'm just a no-nonsense, level-headed sort of guy. Or so my imaginary friends tell me.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

What if?

I'm not very prone to the What If scenario. What if I'd taken different decisions in my life? What if I'd never met X? What if I'd won the lottery? I don't think like that. But it must be really hard not to ask that question if your life has been torn apart by some quite hideous tragedy.

However determined you are to accept what life has thrown at you and come to terms with it, if something appalling has happened right out of the blue, surely you're bound to dwell on the circumstances and whether they could have gone differently.

If your loved one has been killed in a shocking air crash, aren't you bound to speculate? Suppose she'd taken a different flight? Suppose the flight had been cancelled? Suppose she'd been ill in bed? Suppose she'd been going somewhere else?

I reflect on this because of the recent inquest into the 7/7 bombings in London, and how many of the bereaved relatives are still traumatised by what happened. They must still be thinking frequently about that dreadful day and the tiny twists of fate that led to a horrific death rather than a lucky escape.

How could they possibly shrug it off and say, what happened happened, there's no point in brooding on it, you can't turn the clock back? The fact is there's a huge hole in their life where that person used to be and they desperately wish that hole had never opened up.

And they must also ponder that other version of What If - Why Me? Why did this calamity hit me and not some other person? Why was I singled out when other people are happily carrying on their lives, feeling safe and secure, confident of what the future holds?

Most of us take for granted the route our life has taken and assume we're travelling safely, but for those struck by tragedy suddenly the route is like a dangerous road on a cliff-edge. One careless manoeuvre and you could go straight off the edge into oblivion. All at once life isn't a springboard but a roulette wheel.

Saturday 7 May 2011


I cope with disapp-ointment fairly easily. Some disapp-ointments are harder than others, but they never turn into a festering grievance or personal hatred.

If I fail to get something I want, I tend to think, well, maybe it wasn't right for me anyway, or someone else was more deserving or better qualified, or it's an opportunity to change direction and try something else.

I very seldom blame other people or see myself as victimised or unfairly snubbed. That may well be the case, but it does no good to dwell over injustice. Yes, the world's unfair, I can't always get what I think is rightfully mine, I just have to walk away and knock on some different doors.

I've sometimes had stinging disappointments. The two times I was made redundant. The time I was disciplined by my manager for a very petty offence. Relationships and friendships that have crumbled. Houses and flats I wasn't able to buy. The constant conflict with my father. People who've let me down badly.

But that's life, I can only come to terms with what's happened and maybe learn some lessons about how to handle things better in the future.

I've known people who've eaten themselves away with bitterness and resentment, often over things that seemed quite trivial. They're obsessed with the person who ended their job or their marriage, they spend their days plotting revenge, reliving acts of cruelty or contempt, gloating over X's continuing bad luck or mistakes.

They seem unaware of how self-destructive they're being, of how all this scalding hostility is driving out anything positive, eroding their enjoyment of life.

They would say they can't help it, that it's a natural reaction to being so badly treated, that they don't just take things lying down. But being more philosophical about life's disappointments isn't turning the other cheek, it's being realistic and accepting that things don't always go your way.

Shit happens. Sometimes mountains of it. You just have to put your foot on the throttle and keep on trucking.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

The price of silence

An American girl cheerleader who refused to applaud a basketball player she claimed had raped her has been told by the courts that she wasn't entitled to stay silent - and must repay her school's $45,000 legal costs.

Such is the American enthusiasm for cheerleading and the disapproval of anyone not entering into the spirit of it - even if they have strong personal reasons for not doing what's expected of them.

The courts ruled that a cheerleader agrees to act merely as a "mouthpiece" for an institution and therefore surrenders her constitutional right to free speech.

The girl's lawyer said this meant students could be punished for refusing to follow "insensitive and unreasonable directions."

HS, as the courts referred to her, was sexually assaulted by Rakheem Bolton at a party in Silsbee, Texas in 2008. She claims he and other male pupils raped her but he only admitted the lesser charge, which allowed him to return to the school and join the basketball team.

At a basketball game four months later she couldn't bring herself to cheer him and instead stood silently with her arms folded.

This seemingly minor incident led to expulsion from the cheerleading team and her family bringing a compensation claim against the school, Silsbee High.

In a disastrous outcome, three different courts ruled against her, the US Supreme Court refused to consider the case and she was ordered to pay legal bills of $45,000 (£27,300).

This seems to me like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, not to mention a vindictive and callous response to a teenage girl who claims she was sexually attacked.

The school might say that a basketball game has nothing to do with a player's private behaviour, and that her refusal to cheer was absurd and perverse.

But if the other cheerleaders were willingly applauding, what did it matter? And why weren't her personal feelings sympathised with rather than punished?

The message is clear: cheerleading is a sacred American tradition, and the slightest refusal to participate fully, even for good personal reasons, is an outrage to be firmly stamped on. How dare you spoil our fun?

Monday 2 May 2011

The eggs have it

On Thursday in a rare referendum, UK voters will be asked if they want to change the existing voting system for MPs. The resounding NO that's being currently predicted is doubtless due to a serious image problem.

The choice is between First Past The Post (FPTP) and the Alternative Vote (AV). Unfortunately these conjure up very different pictures.

First Past The Post suggests an amusingly amateurish egg and spoon race, in which the gorgeous Tessa, 17½, crosses the finishing line first amid cries of "Hip Hip Hooray, it's Tessa's Day!" There's a smile on everyone's face as they congratulate Tessa and tuck into jam scones and a nice cup of tea.

AV on the other hand suggests a horrible disease, linked to some grim industrial compound, involving a long lingering death in which appalling pain is unrelieved by massive cocktails of powerful drugs, and the victim dies in agony cursing human existence, God and voting systems.

Those valiant souls trying desperately to sell AV to a suspicious public are up against this unappetising image and are having an uphill struggle to convert people from the status quo. They're quite happy with the egg and spoon race and the glorious Tessa, so why would they want a nasty disease instead?

Sad really, because AV makes a lot of sense. If the first count doesn't produce a winner with a majority of the total votes cast, people's second preferences are added in until someone gets a majority.

Under First Past The Post, you can win straight off with a minority of the vote, even if a majority of voters would prefer someone else. How can that be fair?