Tuesday 28 June 2011

Suffering pets

Household pets may look innocent and happy enough in the pet shop, but the way they're bred can mean appalling cruelty. So San Francisco has decided to ban the buying and selling of pets.

Originally the ban was intended only for cats and dogs, but then it was extended to cover all kinds of pets. So now, whether it's a snake, a lizard, a hamster or a parrot, you won't be able to buy it. Though you'll still be able to get a pet from a rescue centre or shelter or take in an unwanted kitten from your cat-owning friend.

It seems big pet-breeding companies often keep animals in dreadful conditions more like battery farms. There can be overcrowded living quarters, lack of contact with other animals, over-breeding, inbreeding, poor veterinary care, low-quality food.

People buying a pet are unlikely to know how it was treated before it came into the pet shop. If they did, they might well be horrified. It goes far beyond the occasional neglect and maltreatment of pets by their owners that is more likely to make media headlines.

I'm all in favour of the ban. I've never owned a pet myself (partly because I'm not sure I'd look after it properly) but as a vegetarian I hate to think of all those millions of potential pets suffering at the hands of profit-hungry breeders. That sort of misery in an animal's early life can lead to a stack of behaviour problems later on, including vicious attacks on human beings.

It's awful that profit comes into the provision of domestic pets at all. They should be bred out of the simple love of animals and for the pleasure and company they give to their owners. But profit gets its sticky fingers on everything, and I suppose we all have to make a living somehow.

It makes me wonder about the past history of Mac, the black Scotty we had when I was a child. He was always extremely neurotic and jumpy, probably as a result of callous handling before we acquired him (not exactly helped by my father's impatience and irrascibility). If only he could have told us about his earlier life!

Friday 24 June 2011

Desperate measures

Another tragic story of an American with no health insurance who resorted to desperate measures to get treatment for all his ailments.

James Verone of North Carolina needed help so urgently he robbed a bank of one dollar so he would be arrested and qualify for free health care.

He was duly taken to jail and is now getting the medical attention he needed for his slipped discs, arthritic joints, a foot problem and a growth on his chest.

A few years ago he lost his job with Coca-Cola, and with it his health insurance. Since then he has lived on his savings, part-time jobs and food stamps. He can't afford to get his own health insurance.

I don't know if Barack Obama's watered-down health care reforms will eventually help people like James. If not, then they're pretty useless.

They say a civilised society is one that looks after its most frail and vulnerable citizens. In that case, the USA, with its reluctance to provide free medical treatment for anyone who needs it, is far from civilised.

Millions of hard-up people are expected to endure painful and disabling ailments indefinitely because they're seen as too feckless to provide for themselves and therefore undeserving of help from anyone else.

There are cats and dogs that are looked after more generously and humanely than human beings. There are rare plants and endangered species that are cared for with more diligence.

But human beings are expendable. If James should drop dead of some untreated illness, there are plenty more Jameses to fill the gap. Why waste cash on society's flotsam and jetsam?

Pic: a very desperate-looking James Verone

Tuesday 21 June 2011

When to boo

I can't recall ever booing any public performer, though I've sat through some appalling spectacles in my time. I guess the performance has to be pretty rock-bottom before booing or slow handclapping breaks out, as it did at Amy Winehouse's disastrous gig in Belgrade.

Of course for booing to start, the entire audience has to be so visibly disgusted by the performance that someone is prompted to begin booing, and then everyone else joins in.

I've often been subjected to truly plodding and lifeless actors, musicians and public speakers, but had to repress the urge to boo because the rest of the audience seemed to be heartily enjoying themselves, or even laughing fit to bust. I could only make a discreet exit, wondering what on earth I was missing.

Some established stars seem to inspire such reverence they can get away with an awful lot before an audience finally loses its patience. Especially rock bands. They come on stage an hour late, forget half the lyrics, look bored and indifferent, and still the audience screams for more. Except in Amy's case, where the reverence seems to be running out fast.

Mass booing must be quite exciting when you're in the thick of it. The huge wave of derision, the startled looks from the performers, the refusal to be fobbed off with something mediocre.

Heckling is the more stylish version of booing, not just voicing disapproval but doing it with a witty remark or two. I've sat through many political meetings where the hecklers were out in force, constantly interrupting the speakers with razor-sharp put-downs that not only had the audience in stitches but often the speakers as well.

But on the whole the British are rather reluctant to boo or heckle. They tend to be a bit too charitable, taking the view that the performers are doing their best and even if they're losing their way it would be a little mean to tell them so. Better just to tear them to shreds later on in the pub.

If Amy hasn't got there first, that is.

Friday 17 June 2011

Tongue tied

One situation where I always feel totally at sea is funerals. Not having lost anyone precious to me, not having seriously grieved, I'm never quite sure what to say to the relatives.

An expression of sympathy? Some comforting words? The hope that they'll find the strength to cope? An appreciation of the person who's gone? Some fond memories? Whatever comes into my head seems somehow inappropriate or trite or idiotic.

If I had been through profound grief myself, I could draw on my own experience to say something suitable, something that might actually help. Though even then, people's experiences of grief can be dramatically different and very personal, and what helps one person can be totally irrelevant to another.

I remember a particularly embarrassing funeral where the mourners actually queued to offer their condolences to the relatives, and by the time it was my turn I was just a bag of nerves discarding one inept remark after another.

To have not joined the queue at all and discreetly disappeared would have been seen as grossly disrespectful, yet the fumbling and clumsy contribution I actually made probably sounded disrespectful and insincere in itself.

The irony was that I had genuine affection for the person who'd died and had always enjoyed his company immensely. He was one of those larger than life characters who enlivened any gathering and had a cracking sense of humour. But when confronted with the grieving relatives, I didn't know what to say or how to express my feelings about him.

So if I'm ever sunk in grief, and you have no idea what to say to me, I shall completely understand.

Pic from the film "Death At A Funeral"

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Asking for it

Okay, girls, as you know, men have helpfully informed you that if you wear certain clothes, and present yourself in a certain way, then obviously you're Asking For It. You're blatantly inviting attention in the Intimacy Department.

So here's a handy guide to how to display yourselves to avoid any possible ambiguity and make it absolutely clear that you aren't in any way Flaunting Yourself. When going out and about, always make sure:

You have a crew cut.
You have nasty zits.
You have a nervous twitch.
You haven't washed for a week.
You have copious body hair.
You're wearing overalls and wellington boots.
You're picking your nose.
You're belching loudly.
You have a massive beer belly.
You're walking like a gorilla.

Then every man, even the most obtuse and moronic, will surely get the message.

However, the only downside is, you'll hate yourself.

The other alternative is to dress normally, deciding for yourself what you want to wear, generally something comfortable and attractive, and relying on What You Say and Common Sense to make your intentions clear.

Unfortunately this never works and sooner or later a man will again declare that you are Asking For It. It was the short skirt. Or the long skirt. Or the tight skirt. Or the loose skirt. Or the pencil skirt. Or the pink skirt. One of those. Damn, why are the rules so complicated?

And in case you're wondering, men themselves are never Asking For It. Men are just Going About Their Daily Business. Their dress and behaviour is of No Significance. Tight pants and bare chests imply nothing.

No, hang on, isn't it the other way round? Men are Always Asking For It. They think of nothing but sex. All their clothes have the same message. They just want to tear them off and get on with it.

No, that can't be right.

Funny, it all seemed so simple when that nice man at work was explaining it to me....

PS: Blinding insight. No wonder the dress code is so confusing, because it's a total red herring. What men are really saying is that being a woman is asking for it. The only way not to be asking for it is to be a man.

Next week: Why dressing in a certain way means you're dying for a cigarette

Friday 10 June 2011

Poor kids

Some things are just seen as too depressing and upsetting to dwell on. Okay, mention them briefly if you must so we know about them, but then push them away quickly into a dark corner while we focus on something more cheerful.

The number of children living in poverty is one such dreary scenario. Yes, 3½ million British children don't have enough food, clothes, toys, holidays at the seaside, or a dry and warm place to live.

They're miserable for years on end. They feel permanently disheartened and constricted by their living conditions. Telling their schoolmates what their home is like is humiliating. They can't see any way of improving things. They hate the wealthy families who take for granted they can have virtually anything they want. One in six of them have considered suicide.

Yet the rest of us tend to ignore them. Very sad, of course, terrible that in a so-called advanced country like the UK so many children are trapped in such dreadful conditions. But there's little you and I can do about it, it's up to the politicians to put it right and why don't they? There's no point in rubbing our noses in it every day, it just makes us squirm.

It's odd though that while poverty-stricken kids are swept out of sight, children who go missing or are violently attacked get huge headlines day after day. Why do these tragedies grip us so unshakeably yet the tragedy of poverty doesn't? Why has Madeleine McCann had such colossal coverage while little Tracey in her worn-out shoes and threadbare coat gets barely a mention?

Poverty is still treated the way cancer used to be. It's too awful to contemplate. And it might be contagious. Take it away quickly, it's putting me off my cornflakes.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Escape clause

Calling someone an escapist used to be insulting. It meant they lived in a fantasy world of their own because they couldn't cope with "real life".

Not any more. Nowadays we're all escapists. We all find "real life" so inadequate and frustrating we've got umpteen little worlds of our own that we retreat to at a moment's notice.

If we're not celeb-watchers, we're soap addicts, compulsive readers, armchair philosophers, bloggers, therapy buffs - anything supplying that little extra something that makes life a bit more complete.

Few people still pretend that the everyday routines of housework, car-washing, earning money and paying the bills are what life's all about. Self-maintenance and survival are not enough to make us happy. Of course we need more than that, we need things that express our unique tastes and interests.

Then again, who says all these personal pastimes are escapist? Feeding our minds is as much a part of real life as hoovering or chopping vegetables. We're not escaping from real life, we're adding to it.

And I'm not saying that all these everyday routines are fruitless. Of course a lot of us love cooking, raising children, or the job we do. But nobody thinks any more that that's it, that's life, and anything else is just frivolous nonsense.

More and more, we live in parallel universes. While one part of us is getting through the daily chores, another part is monitoring our other life, anticipating the next soap episode or internet search.

Only trouble is, while we're all so busy with our private indulgences, everyday life is going to pot. While we're updating our Facebook pages or doing our Tai Chi, jobs are disappearing and houses are unaffordable. Real life is screaming for help.

Friday 3 June 2011

To err is human

The excellent Miss Scarlet says she is aiming to be elegant and sophist-icated. That's a tall order. Two qualities that are hard to carry off successfully. Only a rare few have the knack.

I'm certainly not one of them. Elegant and sophisticated I am not. The very idea is laughable. At any social event, I'm the one who's sure to walk into a cupboard instead of the toilet, say the wrong thing, not know the correct way to eat spaghetti, demolish a priceless vase, forget everyone's names and not notice the hostess is six months pregnant.

But those people who really are effortlessly sophisticated - aren't they impressive (and infuriating)? She (and it's usually a she) glides into a room like a fish into a lake, completely in her element, nonchalantly greeting one person after another (remembering all their names instantly), saying just the right thing to put them at their ease, tossing off a deft witticism or two, avoiding all the awkward moments that lie in wait for the rest of us (she handles her spaghetti as nimbly as a Sicilian) and drawing constant gasps of admiration and envy as she proceeds.

I exaggerate of course. Nobody is that perfect. Everyone fluffs their lines from time to time,even the Belle of the Ball. And personally, while always admiring Ms Effortlessly Sophisticated, the people I actually warm to are the ones who do fluff their lines, the ones who try so hard to be suave but still manage to tread on the dog or spill tomato sauce on their pants. They're the ones I actually want to get to know, because they're so clumsily and endearingly human. And much more fun.

To err is human, to forgive divine - Alexander Pope

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Jobless Paddy

Féilim Mac An Iomaire is desperate to get a job so he can stay in his home country of Ireland. But after 100 failed job applications he decided he had to do something dramatic to get anywhere.

So he's advertising himself on a huge billboard on one of Dublin's busiest streets, at a cost of £1745 for a fortnight's exposure.

He doesn't want to be one of the 50,000 Irish citizens due to emigrate this year to find work, nor one of the 400,000 jobless* in the Republic.

He's already worked in the States and Australia, but doesn't want to work abroad again. Despite the grim economic situation in Ireland, his roots are still firmly in "the Old Sod".

The poster has led to a flood of sympathetic emails and messages, but as yet no job offers. He may still have to leave the country.

People try all sorts of bizarre tactics to get employment. They walk the streets with sandwich boards, offer their services for nothing, and buttonhole chief executives, not to mention stuffing their CVs with bogus skills and experience. When times are hard, ingenuity is called for.

Fruitless job-hunting has to be one of the most disheartening experiences there is. Month after month you send out the applications, only to get polite letters "thanking you for your interest". Or no response at all, just a deafening silence. I got my present job after over two years of searching, and what a relief it was. Persistence does seem to pay off eventually.

So what's in store for Féilim? Will he be gainfully employed in Dublin or will he be heading back to Oz? Watch this space.

* That's 14.7% of the workforce

How does he pronounce his name? That's a good question, I'm glad you asked me that.

A note on the post title: the pic doesn't show the bottom of the poster which gives his email address as joblesspaddy@Gmail.com

PS (Thursday night): I read that Féilim now has dozens of job interviews lined up and is likely to get a job offer very soon.

PPS (June 16): Féilim has been offered two top marketing jobs and is deciding which to take. Emigration cancelled!