Tuesday 29 November 2011

Love lies bleeding

Which is worse, I wonder, having never fallen in love or having fallen in love but been rebuffed? Not having had either experience, I can only conjecture, but I imagine the second would be much more painful.

I find it hard to believe someone could never have fallen in love, but such people do exist. Do they just not have the inclination, or have they never met the particular person who gets their mojo working?

Whatever the reason, if you've never known love, I guess you don't know what you're missing so it's no big deal. On the other hand, if you've fallen for someone but they feel nothing at all for you, that must be very distressing.

But then again, do people who've never fallen in love not know what they're missing? Everywhere they look there are besotted lovers who can't get enough of each other and seem totally blissed out. Don't they think they're being deprived of some vital pleasure in life? Or do they simply think these starstruck lovers are suffering from some psychic delusion? Just seeing a very flawed and ordinary person through rose-tinted glasses?

And is unreciprocated love necessarily distressing? Okay, so the other person doesn't feel the same way, but isn't it fun fancying someone and imagining a red-hot night of passion, even if it never happens? How can what is merely a personal fantasy be distressing if there's not the slightest chance of it turning into reality? Even if there's an element of masochism, an unreal substitute for something more attainable, that's hardly an emotional knifing.

I would have thought love that has actually been reciprocated, even for a short time, would cause a lot more pain than love that's never reciprocated at all. For a while there is that heady prospect that you both feel the same way, that there is that magical symbiosis of affection and understanding that connects your two identities and creates something bigger and better than your individual existence. And then your growing hopes are cruelly dashed as the other person makes it clear they don't feel that subtle communion after all.

All I know is that one way or another love can cause deep anguish as well as profound joy. It's an emotion not to be trifled with, not to be taken lightly.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

The media squirms

How wonderful to see the media on the defensive for a change, forced to admit their sadistic and illegal hounding of anyone they don't like the look of or who isn't "normal" enough. Or just happens to be a celebrity.

For years they've been able to get away with their relentless bullying, lying and smearing not only through the usual journalistic methods but through phone-hacking, the use of private detectives, searching people's refuse and permanently watching their homes.

They've got away with it because usually the victims don't have the time or energy to pursue complaints, because they're afraid of prompting even worse treatment, or because the damage has already been done.

Now however, with the start of the Leveson Inquiry into UK press standards, the spotlight is being shone firmly onto the media's behaviour, one appalling revelation after another is coming to light, and the media instigators are squirming with embarrassment and furious that all of a sudden they aren't calling the shots.

Hugh Grant said the only way certain information about his relationships with women could have been known (like the woman with the "plummy" voice) was through the Mail on Sunday hacking into his mobile phone.

Now Steve Coogan has explained how the Sun and the News of the World tried to trick him into revealing "lurid" details of his sexual relationships, and how reporters and photographers beseiged his home, searched his rubbish bins, blamed him for an actor friend's overdose and offered his friends cash for juicy stories.

A whole string of high-profile witnesses is lined up to give a barrage of damning evidence against the media, to the daily chagrin of the usually unrestrained hacks, who are feebly requesting their "right to reply".

After it has finished hearing evidence, the Leveson Inquiry is expected to come up with some radical and far-reaching measures for muzzling the media's increasingly intrusive behaviour.

The Press Complaints Commission, which is meant to regulate the press, has been endlessly criticised as toothless and ineffectual, frequently watering down complaints or making excuses for the media. Time and again victims have had to do the job themselves, taking legal action or demanding retractions.

It's sheer delight to see the media cringing for a change instead of their hapless targets. They might just begin to understand the misery they so casually inflict on others.

Pic: Steve Coogan at the Leveson Inquiry

Saturday 19 November 2011

Cambridge cameo

I'd always thought of Cambridge as a rather glitzy, glamorous town, full of witty intellectuals oozing pithy insights into the vicissitudes of life. But the reality is more humdrum.

I went there on Thursday with my 89 year old mum (she and my sister Heather live 15 miles north in St Ives). We traipsed around the town centre doing our best to soak up the unique atmosphere, but actually it wasn't that unique.

There were all the expected ingredients: breathtakingly beautiful students, shambling white-haired academics, map-clutching tourists, crumbling old buildings, punts on the river Cam, quaint little teashops, wobbling cyclists.

But it wasn't glamorous, in fact it was all a bit shabby and tired-looking. Here and there I saw hideous sixties-style buildings slotted in among the older architecture. On every railing there were scruffy leaflets and posters which suggested impulsive mess rather than creative ferment. The passers-by looked more weary and preoccupied than fizzing with groundbreaking ideas.

The only noticeable glamour came from something quite jarring and anomalous - a swish shopping centre nestling in the heart of the academic enclave, complete with a massive John Lewis and all the other over-familiar High Street chains. How it got planning permission I can't imagine. The prospect of a hefty rates income for the council, presumably.

The only other touch of glamour was an unexpected exhibition of Bridget Riley's abstract paintings at one of the art galleries. I love her work so I was chuffed to come across the gallery.

But I could think of dozens of towns and cities with more charisma than Cambridge. Like Liverpool, which I visited in July. Or Edinburgh. Or York. Or Belfast. There may be lots of exciting things going on in the lecture theatres and seminar rooms, but there wasn't much sign of them on the public streets. I guess you have to be a Cambridge insider to have your finger on the creative pulse. So I doubt if I'll be going back any time soon.

And how are my mum and sister*, you might be wondering. Both rather frail but still enjoying life as much as they can. I hadn't met up with my sister for many years, so that was a great reunion. Luckily she's not on her own but has her husband Mike to support her. I think one day at a time is the motto.

* Heather has Motor Neurone Disease

Pic: King's Parade, Cambridge

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Pristine psyches

It's easy to assume that if someone's doing all right materially - nice house, big car, exotic holidays and all the rest - then they must be doing all right psychologically as well. I mean, would they have got all that if they were mentally screwed-up? They must be well-adjusted, emotionally secure, productive individuals.

Despite all the well-known examples of people who had a glittering lifestyle but were in inner turmoil - like Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain - we still imagine material success goes hand in hand with personal serenity. It's hard to picture these apparently privileged souls secretly struggling with feelings of anxiety, worthlessness, despair, grief or addiction.

We all know friends or relatives who wrestle with inner demons of one kind or another. We know those seemingly capable, confident people may be very different in private, when they put aside their well-rehearsed public persona and reveal what's underneath. Yet we still believe that worldly success is some sort of magic psychic cure-all.

Even if we know Ms Doing-Very-Nicely has the odd phobia or panic attack, we just see it as a curious quirk in a basically problem-free person. We don't want to think of her as a hopeless psychological wreck, barely staggering from one day to the next. We want her to be a role model, someone we can look up to, someone inspiring.

We like to believe there are people out there with pristine psyches, perfectly attuned to life, free of all the mundane mental hang-ups. Which is why all these charismatic gurus and preachers are so popular. But nobody is that angelic. Even these supposedly saintly figures are regularly unmasked as fallible mortals, prone to groping young women or defrauding their devotees.

Show me a hang-up free person, and I'll show you a corpse.

What are my inner demons, I hear you ask? Oh, surely you know by now. Anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, fear of the dark. Need I go on?

Thursday 10 November 2011

Stroke surprise

I know very strange things can happen to people who've had strokes. But this really is extra-ordinary - a 19 stone rugby-playing bank clerk who turned into a slimline gay hairdresser passionate about his appearance*.

After an unlucky training accident that broke his neck and caused a stroke, Chris Birch of South Wales gave up his weekend drinking sessions with his hetero mates, gave up his girlfriend and started to date men. Now he lives with his partner Jack.

He also lost interest in his banking job and retrained to be a hairdresser.

"Suddenly I hated everything about my old life. I didn't get on with my friends, I hated sport and I found my job boring. I'm nothing like the old Chris now but I wouldn't change a thing. I think I'm happier than ever."

What this confirms to me is that being gay is definitely not, as some would say, the result of brainwashing, a temporary phase, being too close to your mum, or any of those other idiotic ideas. It's all down to something in your brain that makes you the way you are.

But it must be quite weird when your old personality, that you assumed was fixed and permanent, suddenly mutates into something quite different. A bit like acting someone in a play and then finding you ARE that person, for good. I'm surprised he's so matter-of-fact about it, as if it's all completely natural.

Other equally astonishing things have happened to stroke victims. Alan Brown from Worcestershire found he was able to paint and draw with great skill, despite no previous training. Others have developed regional accents or started speaking in another language.

It makes you wonder what unsuspected talents are lurking in our brains, ready to be triggered by a drastic medical trauma. Are we all secret Einsteins?

* Some sceptics have suggested Chris simply discovered his true sexuality and the stroke had little to do with it other than causing him to rethink his life.

Pic: Chris Birch

Sunday 6 November 2011

Inner child

One reason I've never wanted children is that I'm already busy enough dealing with my truculent inner child. You know, the part of me that never does what he's told and insists on going his own way.

Psychologists talk a lot about "getting in touch with your inner child" as if that's something inherently positive and creative and life-enhancing, but in fact it's equally likely that your inner child is one long pain in the butt.

I mean of course the inner child who wakes me up at 2 am fretting about some upcoming task, convinced that it'll all go horribly wrong, I won't be able to cope, I'll let everyone else down etc. The inner child who's plagued by anxiety, hysteria, panic. The inner child who takes no notice when I tell him to go back to sleep, that everything'll work out fine, that there's nothing I can do about it right now anyway.

It's the same inner child who doesn't want to do things because he's too scared, or cynical, or lazy, or indifferent. Doesn't want to see that new film because he's seen some bad reviews. Doesn't want to go to that social event because he'll be tongue-tied with all those strange people. Doesn't want to drive to somewhere new because he'll get lost and confused and find the place he's looking for doesn't exist.

Like a real-life obstinate child, I can cajole and coax and tempt until I'm blue in the face, but half the time I get nowhere, the resistance simply increases. Why do I have so little control over a part of my own psyche, my own being? Shouldn't I be able to bring him into line and get some simple cooperation? But no, that's too much to ask. The inner child is like someone who's been dumped on my doorstep and I just have to do what I can with this wayward entity.

And unlike a real child, he's never grown up and started his own life. He's still hanging around like some feckless teenager, annoying the hell out of me. How can I discreetly strangle him?

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Up for grabs

Being one of the female crew on a long-haul flight has always been seen as dazzlingly glamorous and exciting, and the new TV series Pan Am is being trailed as capturing that aura of glamour. But the reality is and was rather less rose-tinted.

Female flight attendants have had to endure sexist and abusive attitudes ever since the job was invented. That was true in the Pan Am days in the sixties and it's just as true now. Their biggest union, the ITF*, has hundreds of horror stories of cabin crew who've been molested, insulted and propositioned.

Some airlines support them and warn passengers to treat cabin crew with respect, but other airlines see the prevailing sexy image as just something passengers expect and turn a blind eye to it. Their attitude is "If you don't like it, you're in the wrong job."

Many airlines also have a strict dress code for female staff that stresses a sexy appearance. They stipulate make-up, short skirts or high heels, and sometimes even how often their hair should be trimmed or what shampoo they should use.

As they're expected to smile and simper at all times, you may not be aware of what they're having to put up with, but the behaviour of passengers is regularly outrageous. Unfortunately, unlike women workers on the ground, they don't have the option of deciding they've had enough and walking out.

I've never seen any truly appalling behaviour when I've been flying, but clearly some passengers think it's quite normal to fondle an attendant's breasts, simulate sex, or just persistently ogle her.

Airline advertising, far from discouraging such harassment, blatantly promotes it. Virgin Atlantic's parade of "red hotties" and Ryanair's pin-up calendar have been loudly complained about but the airline reaction is a wall of indifference.

And any female cabin crew approaching middle-age are liable to be nudged out of the job by the suggestion that they're too old or too plump or too stony-faced. Heaven forbid they might look too much like the life-worn travellers slumped in their planes.

So what does little Rebecca want to be when she grows up? I sincerely hope Flight Attendant is the last thing she thinks of.

* the International Transport Workers' Federation