Saturday 29 December 2012

In two minds

I always feel ambivalent about other people’s miseries. On the one hand I want to help them and make them feel better. On the other, I don’t want their misery to deflate my own happiness.

Should I respond altruistically or selfishly? Should I think of their well-being or my own? Should I leave them to sort out their own negative feelings or ride to the rescue?

I think this ambivalence is quite common. Although there’s a huge market for books about people’s miserable past, about the abuse and neglect and poverty and self-hatred, in our daily life we may turn away from a stranger’s rambling hard luck story with a dismissive shrug. It may be too much to handle if we’re already wrestling with a dozen problems of our own.

Some people’s misery is so personal, so rooted in their own psyche and their way of seeing things, that it can be hard to relieve it however much we try. Any amount of sympathetic listening, intelligent advice or tough talking may cheer them up for half an hour but then the misery returns.

Also, misery can be very multi-layered. It can take time to dig out the exact cause. What someone tells us to begin with may be only the most trivial bits, the bits that are easiest to talk about. It may take a lot of patient coaxing to get to the heart of what’s clawing at them.

If it’s someone we love, that patience is easily come-by. But if it’s a mere acquaintance, we’re nervous about what we might be getting into and we’re more cautious with our concern.

And of course people often hide their misery. It’s embarrassing to confess that they don’t enjoy life. They see it as a personal failure, a temperamental flaw. They’d rather keep this awful affliction to themselves. We may guess at their private sorrow, but there’s no way they’ll talk about it.

But if it’s possible to ease someone’s misery and make them a little happier, it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. What more can you do for another human being?

Thursday 27 December 2012

Tall dark stranger

As is customary at this time of year, I always ask the renowned psychic and clairvoyant Esme Plunge what the new year has in store for me. Swallowing my earlier doubts about her psychic gifts, I ventured once more into her garish consulting room, trying not to stare at her ample bosom.

Nick: So, Esme, darling, what’s 2013 got up its sleeve?

Esme: Well, sweetheart, I see you being swept off your feet by a tall dark charismatic stranger.

Nick: But I’m a happily-married man.

Esme: Ha, that’s what they all say.

Nick: So, this tall dark charismatic stranger. Does she have a lot of money?

Esme: I’m not sure. My crystal ball’s getting a bit cloudy.

Nick: So is she cultured, well-read, sophisticated, witty?

Esme: Sorry, it’s really fogging up now, I can’t see a thing. Ask me another.

Nick: So is she red-hot under the sheets?

Esme: I can’t answer that. This is a decent, God-fearing, family business. But my psychic channels say she’s definitely not the shy, retiring type.

Nick: I see. So do I face any unexpected catastrophes in 2013?

Esme: Yes indeed. Your cosmic aura tells me that following a very messy and acrimonious divorce, your new mistress will desert you for a 22-year-old lesbian and you’ll be well and truly washed-up, eking out a miserable existence in a scummy bedsit.

Nick: Oh dear. But can I prevent all this?

Esme: Of course you can. Just ignore the tall dark charismatic stranger, take plenty of cold showers and remember your marriage vows. Tell yourself that temptation can always be resisted.

Nick: But then 2013 might also be a bit boring.

Esme: Not at all. I also foresee a hugely successful series of sado-masochistic soft porn novels, written by your wife, her whirlwind romance with a tall dark charismatic journalist, and a messy and acrimonious divorce followed by….

Nick: That’s quite enough. I don’t want to hear any more. I love my wife dearly. Nothing must ever come between us. Our union is unshakeable. The bonds between us are stronger than life itself.

Esme: Whatever. That’ll be £51, cash only, sweetheart.

Pic: the legendary Esme Plunge

Sunday 23 December 2012

Letting rip

Criticising other people is all the rage nowadays, isn't it? Pick someone who looks a bit vulnerable, or someone who looks a bit smug, and then tear them to pieces. Why not? It's all good clean fun.

The media gave the green light years ago by laying into every celeb they could find. Women in particular. She's too thin/ too fat/ badly dressed/ needs a hairdo/ looks a mess/ neglects her kids. Nothing's too petty to complain about.

Then the internet trolls joined in, waging hate campaigns against anyone they fancied, celebs and nonentities alike. Even when they've turned their victims into nervous wrecks, still they persist.

Even everyday bullying seems to be on the increase, be it of school pupils, employees, immigrants, the elderly, hospital patients or claimants.

I don't know if it's the thumbs-up given by so many carping journalists or just the idea that treating other people decently no longer matters, but gratuitous criticism now looks to be routine. If you don't like someone's behaviour, don't maintain a tactful silence, don't try to understand why they're behaving like that, just say exactly what you think and fuck the consequences.

Shop assistants aren't polite enough. Waiters aren't speedy enough. The young aren't respectful enough. Nurses aren't compassionate enough. The jobless aren't enterprising enough. Tradespeople aren't punctual enough. The slightest faux pas and someone somewhere will have a go at you. Absolutely nothing makes the grade.

What the hell's going on? We seem to be losing the ability to appreciate what we've got, to recognise that other people may be doing their best in very trying circumstances, to accept that it's an imperfect world, and to let other people live their own lives in their own way.

A little more tolerance and empathy and common courtesy wouldn't come amiss.

NB: I'm not referring to criticism of the rich and powerful. They deserve all the criticism they get.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Tug of war

The English High Court is having to resolve the deadlock between a couple who have totally different views on treatment for their sick son.

This must be a situation every parent dreads - heated disagreement on how to deal with a crisis in their child's life, and no obvious way of ending the dispute. Meanwhile the crisis intensifies and the child is left in a limbo.

Sally Roberts, mother of 7 year old Neon, who has a brain tumour, didn't want him to have either radiotherapy, chemotherapy or a second brain operation, fearing that the treatments would leave him disabled or otherwise damaged.

His father Ben however supports the treatments as without them doctors say Neon could be dead in a matter of months.

The judge ordered that the second brain operation should go ahead, but his mother was firmly opposed and was gathering evidence on alternative treatments. She said she didn't trust British doctors.

I think this sort of parental conflict over their children is much more common than we realise. Not just on medical treatment but on things like schooling, discipline, choice of friends, internet use, religion, diet - any number of issues. If the conflict isn't quickly resolved, a lot of harm can be done.

My own parents were divided on what secondary school I should go to. My father insisted on a boarding school but my mother didn't like the idea. Eventually his view prevailed and I was packed off to a boarding school where I was thoroughly miserable.

I hated the school's emphasis on religion but although my mother sympathised with my wish to opt out my father decided I should go along with it to avoid being an "oddball". Once again his view held sway.

The result of course was me forever resenting my father's obstinacy and insensitivity and ineptness. But at least it didn't end up in the High Court.

Pic: Sally Roberts

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Flag fury

Anyone outside Northern Ireland must be wondering what the flying fuck is going on in this country right now. They may well ask. The ongoing mayhem and anarchy makes little sense even to most of us living here.

The fascist thugs who are orchestrating the chaos would like us to believe they’re furious because a Union Jack is now flying over Belfast City Hall 17 days a year rather than 365. No, you haven’t misread that. A single Union Jack no longer flying permanently, only occasionally.

No matter that there are already thousands of Union Jacks flying across Northern Ireland every day of the week on buildings, on streets, on private homes, everywhere you look. Just drive for half an hour and you’ll see hundreds of them. But a single flag not flying so often is apparently the end of civilisation as we know it, a vicious attack on personal identity, and a valid excuse for unlimited rioting and destruction.

Ah, but it’s the symbolism, they shriek. The Union Jack symbolises everything that’s British, it symbolises our fundamental identity. Take it away and we’re nothing, our very heritage has been destroyed. Well, funnily enough, I’m British myself and I find I can assert my identity quite easily without a flag anywhere in sight.

But that’s not all. The rioters are also directly attacking the democratic institutions and politicians that made the decision about the City Hall Union Jack two weeks ago. The Alliance Party politicians who supported the decision have been subjected to a ruthless campaign of intimidation, including arson, death threats, attacks on property and verbal abuse. The flag-wavers want to smash the party and its non-sectarianism and drive it out of politics.

The senior Unionist politicians who encouraged the opposition to Belfast Council’s decision in the first place by sanctioning 40,000 inflammatory leaflets are now looking the other way and pretending the mayhem is nothing to do with them. Their reluctant and half-hearted pleas for the protests to end are having no impact whatever. The police are being equally laid-back and have arrested only a tiny number of rioters.

All the rioters are doing is wrecking their own lives and communities. The chaos is threatening thousands of businesses and jobs, driving people away from Belfast and Northern Ireland, and turning loyalism into a dirty word. But they just can’t see it. They’re convinced they’re fighting for some noble cause. Whether common sense will eventually prevail is anyone’s guess.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Rare emotion

It was a surprise to realise I can't recall a single time in my adult life when I've felt humiliated. Humiliation is not an emotion I'm prone to.

To feel humiliated, I would have to feel that my fundamental sense of self-worth had been shattered, and that has never been the case. However serious the situation, whatever its personal impact, it has never been enough to destroy my belief in myself.

I might feel insulted, or rejected, or got-at, or belittled, or unappreciated, but never humiliated. That would be too extreme a reaction.

There was one particular occasion when I was working in a bookshop and my boss jumped on me for being late for work. Not only was I formally disciplined but my trade union colleagues didn't support me. I could have felt humiliated, but the way I was treated didn't affect my underlying self-esteem. I didn't feel I'd done anything seriously reprehensible or irresponsible. So I never felt more than victimised and isolated and unlucky.

There was another occasion at Newark Airport, New York, when a zealous security official emptied out the entire contents of my suitcase in front of dozens of other travellers. She was happily rummaging through my underwear and personal possessions, searching for God knows what. But I didn't feel humiliated. Her intrusive rummaging didn't damage my self-respect. I felt embarrassed and awkward and exposed but that was it.

Maybe if she'd discovered a stack of porn mags or a corset or a copy of Mein Kampf. But she didn't.

My childhood was a different matter. My father would routinely humiliate me by suggesting I was stupid or lazy or cruel or selfish and my self-worth was being battered every day of the week. The same applied at boarding school where I was bullied persistently for four years. Thankfully that sort of merciless denigration stopped when I moved out of the family home and got a place of my own.

Given my treatment as a child, it's strange that at some point my self-esteem became quite solid and hard to shake. I don't need constant reassurance that I'm a worthwhile person. I believe in my own values and attitudes and I don't constantly doubt myself. I may be endlessly anxious, but it's not my own self I'm anxious about.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Ghost writers

Apparently it’s getting quite common for well-known authors to farm out the writing process to other people and avoid the gruelling ordeal of actually producing a book. Quite often the ghost writer’s name is not even on the book so the public has no idea they’re being cheated.

It’s claimed that all crime writer James Patterson does is send four line chapter summaries to a co-writer who then fleshes them out into a complete book. Which is how he managed to publish 14 new titles in one year.

Personally I wouldn’t read a book that I knew was largely written by someone else. It’s that particular author‘s style and flavour I appreciate and I wouldn’t want to read another writer’s probably inferior attempts at copying it.

Though if the author’s writing style was so prosaic and run-of-the-mill that any halfway competent writer could copy it slickly enough to fool the public, I wouldn’t want to read it in the first place. I would stick to someone original enough that any cheap imitation simply wouldn’t be convincing.

I also think that if a ghost writer is being used, not only should they be credited on the cover of the book but it should be made clear just how much of the book they’re responsible for. To deliberately pass off a book as entirely the work of someone who has merely produced a plot outline is outrageous.

I also wonder why on earth someone like James Patterson needs to resort to such subterfuge when he is said to earn around $94 million a year. If he’s tired of writing, why doesn’t he just retire gracefully and do something more enjoyable with his time?

Of course any author with any integrity would throw their hands up in horror at the idea of hiring a ghostwriter, and would never ever hand over the writing to another person. They‘re far too protective of their own individual style to entrust it to anyone else, however talented they may be.

There is absolutely no truth in the rumour that Nickhereandnow is written entirely by a team of unpaid teenage interns based in an ugly office block in Chipping Norton. I can’t understand where such vicious smears come from. I can assure you this tedious rubbish is entirely my own work from start to finish.

My thanks to Genevieve Hassan of the BBC, whose article this post is indebted to.

Friday 7 December 2012

Smug and patronising

The story so far: Nick is accused of being smug and patron-ising. He is in a quandary. How exactly should he respond?

1) He could mount a long-winded and defensive explanation of why he isn't at all smug and patronising and never has been.

2) He could pretend he doesn't care less, that the accusations are ridiculous, and anyway it's all water off a duck's back.

3) He could get very upset and hurt, cry on and off for days, wallow in self-pity, and vow never to write another blog post.

4) He could drink himself stupid, take off all his clothes, and run up and down the street shouting "The end of the world is nigh. Prepare to meet thy doom".

5) He could accuse his accusers of being smug and patronising themselves and projecting their own faults onto someone else.

6) He could whistle loudly and go "La la la la la, can't hear you."

7) He could utterly despair of the decency of the human race and their ability to treat other people fairly and sympathetically.

8) He could decide it's all too much, he just can't take it any more, and commit an especially gruesome form of suicide.

9) He could cheer himself up by buying some new nail polish and lipstick and dying his hair blonde.

10) He could take to his bed and refuse to get up until the astrological alignments are more favourable.

Which response will be opt for? How will he resolve this tangled situation? Will his hair turn grey? Will he lose his sanity? Will he resort to cup cakes? Don't miss the next gripping instalment....

Friday 30 November 2012

The greener grass

On the whole, I've never thought the grass is greener on the other side. I seldom imagine that other people's lives are far more enjoyable and fulfilling than my own.

I just don't idealise other people. Whatever their home life, their job, their hobbies, their physical appearance or their sex life, I don't kid myself they're perfect, that they live some charmed and magical existence I can only dream of.

I assume that whatever the outward impression, they're prone to just as many problems and disappointments and disasters as I am, and were I to step into their shoes for a day or two I'd soon discover how flawed their lives were.

But a surprisingly large number of people do seem to think that if only they had what somebody else has, their lives would be dramatically transformed. If only they had a huge house, a more glamorous job, a stunning figure, or a sexier partner, life would be a bed of roses and all their frustrations would fade away.

The fact is that people are very good at airbrushing their public persona, talking up their lives and carefully hiding the less attractive bits. Someone could be quarrelling viciously with their partner night after night but all that's shown to the public is a happily smiling couple, arm in arm and seemingly without a care in the world.

Of course I'm aware that I come from a somewhat privileged middle class background and so I don't have much cause to envy other people's lives to begin with. My life has mostly been pretty comfortable.

It's more understandable though that those who aren't so fortunate, those who have to struggle day in and day out for even the bare essentials of a decent life, may be bitterly envious of those who seem to live the life of Riley without lifting a finger.

To people that desperate, any apparently better-off household must seem like a deliberate taunt to their own hardship. To them the grass may be not just greener but irresistibly luscious.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Unshared memories

One reason I can't fully explain myself to other people is that so much of my identity is made up of memories - lush, detailed, intense memories that others can never have access to. I can only summarise those memories in a few brief sentences that fail to pass on their complexity.

It's a whole inner landscape or inner country that I'm familiar with, that I've wandered through hundreds of times, that's as vivid to me as the outside reality I'm seeing right now. Yet nobody else has set foot in it.

If I think of my boarding school, for example, a whole swathe of memories spreads across my mind, a whole panorama of teenage bullies, uninspired teachers, muddy sports fields and loud rock music. There's no way I can convey the full flavour of those memories to anyone else. However well chosen the words, they can only suggest a tiny fragment of what my inner eye is seeing.

It's like trying to conjure up Venice to someone who's never been there. I can describe it, I can show you a few pictures, but I can't give you the full three-dimensional reality of being there and discovering it for yourself.

It doesn't matter if the memories are true or false, accurate or distorted. The point is that they inhabit my mind but they don't inhabit yours. They fill out and embellish my past to give it a completeness that nobody else can know.

I can remember a particular girlfriend, say, and exactly how she spoke and moved and ate and laughed and undressed. However detailed my account of her, you will never see her as clearly as I can see her in my memories. You will never be able to imagine the living, breathing, animated person that I can instantly visualise.

If only I could transfer those memories, how much more you would know about me and my inner experience. If only you could download them from my brain and play them back through your own senses, in all their astonishing intricacy.

But no, they're mine and mine alone, circulating my mind like guests at a party, furnishing me with endless private scenarios I can't communicate. A whole chunk of my identity as inaccessible as the Milky Way.

Friday 23 November 2012

What the hell?

The point of religion, according to comedian David Mitchell, is to explain what the hell's going on. The trouble is that each one claims to have the very best version of what the hell's going on. So far from clarifying everything, they make things even more confused. And then we really really don't know what the hell's going on.

Personally I find most religions, and the extraordinary explanations they come up with, totally baffling. Buddhism makes a lot of sense to me, but then it's more of a philosophy than a religion.

But what I admire is the way people have put so much effort into understanding what the hell's going on. Someone sits down one day and asks themself "Just what the hell's going on? There must be some ultimate explanation for all this, if I could only find out what it is."

So they sits and they thinks. And they ask themself all those crucial questions that have been asked since prehistoric times. Like "What happens after we die?", "What the fuck are we doing here?", "Why are my wages so crap I can't even afford a new iPhone?", "Why do I have to wear a tie?", "Who eats pot noodle anyway?". You know, all those absolutely basic questions we're all desperate for an answer to.

And they come up with the ultimate rationale, the all-inclusive, everything-you've-ever-wanted-to-know easy reference guide to what the hell's going on. And it's called the Bible, or the Koran, or the Upanishads or whatever, and bingo, all those mystified souls who were forever scratching their heads in utter bemusement suddenly have The Answer. And they heave a massive sigh of relief and pore gratefully through the pristine pages.

But then as David Mitchell says, some other bearded guy in a robe* comes up with what he insists is A Better Answer, and everything's thrown into the melting pot again.

So we're still none the wiser. And God knows what the hell's going on.

*And why is it invariably a bearded guy in a robe? Doesn't he have some housework to do?

Monday 19 November 2012

Up for grabs

Other people's bodies seem to be fair game these days. They can't just be quietly enjoyed and apprec-iated. Everyone has to have an opinion on them, the more scathing and dismissive the better.

I know, I've done my fair share of presumptious commenting on other people's bodies, weighing in on something that's none of my business.

I've aired my opinions on their clothes, their size, their voice, their hair, or anything else that catches my attention. And what's all that got to do with me? In a word, nothing.

It's entirely a matter for them. Just as what I do with my own body is my business and not that of every opinionated Tom, Dick and Harriet who happens to see me.

Some people go even further. They presume to tell women if they can have abortions or use contraception or get sexual advice. Or keep their clitorises. And usually it's men who issue these gratuitous instructions. Who gave them the right?

There's a term for all this unwanted opinionising. A very accurate term. Body fascism. Because isn't that what it is? Or at the very least authoritarianism.

No wonder so many women dislike their own bodies and wish they had a different one. How can anyone have body-confidence if any passing stranger feels entitled to pass judgment? Just a critical glance can be disconcerting.

Random strangers and their opinions are bad enough, but once the journalists start wading in, it can be seriously destructive. Thousands of people are told that celebrity X or Y is badly dressed, too thin, has stringy hair or looks like they just crawled out of bed. Who gave these superannuated hacks the right to trash other people's bodies so freely?

It's about time we reclaimed the integrity of the human body, instead of treating it as another commodity to be shaped by public whims.

PS: Just to clarify, I don't include loved ones here. I think they're entitled to have opinions on their partner's/ friend's body. Of course those opinions may not be heeded....

Friday 16 November 2012


When I was young, boys everywhere wanted to be like Charles Atlas, the musclebound strongman who supposedly attracted women like bees to a hive.

The adverts posed the question "Why be a seven stone weakling and have sand kicked in your face when you could be a muscular he-man?" All you had to do was follow his special body-building technique and in no time you'd look like Tarzan.

I couldn't for the life of me see why men would want to be so obsessively muscle-packed they looked like some kind of freak of nature, like Michelin Man. I was quite happy to be a seven stone weakling, or pretty close to it. I was alarmingly thin as a boy - and continued to be stick-thin well into my thirties. I had no visible muscles, just a lot of pale flabby flesh.

And as I'd never had sand kicked into my face, except by romping dogs, I didn't see any need for lavish muscular protection. In fact I never had anything kicked in my face as far as I can remember. Except maybe the odd football carelessly aimed my way.

But some boys were seduced by the beguiling adverts playing on their insecurities and their lust for women. I had a schoolfriend who tortured himself daily with his bullworker, anxiously monitoring the strength of his muscles. Sorry to say, after six months they looked much the same as when he began.

How many women are bewitched by rippling muscles anyway? Some maybe, but I suspect kindness and intelligence are probably more appealing. Okay, he can't single-handedly shift the sofa or the washing machine, but is that really a deal-breaker?

So be warned - any rude remarks about my pigeon chest or my weedy biceps and I might have to kick some sand in your direction.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

False assumption

Just imagine being mistaken for someone who has died and your photo being flashed around the world as being that person. And then imagine the other person was a political activist their government wanted to get rid of.

Quite a nightmare. And Neda Soltani, who was a victim of exactly this mistaken identity, is still trying to rebuild a life that was wrecked by the confusion - a confusion still being perpetuated by indifferent journalists.

Media outlets looking for a picture of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot dead during a demonstration in Tehran, found Neda Soltani's Facebook photo and assumed she was the same person. Her photo went around the world as the other Neda - and is still being misused even now.

Before the confusion, she was a Professor of English Literature leading a normal, unassuming life. In less than two weeks that life was torn apart. She received hate messages accusing her of being both an agent of the Islamic Republic and an agent of Western governments. She was hounded by the Ministry of Intelligence.

She had no choice but to flee the country, eventually settling in Germany where she obtained political asylum. She is still trying to put her life back together. She suffers from depression and nightmares - and total disbelief at the events that shattered her life.

The people she is most angry with are the Western media. They kept using her photo even though they knew it was the wrong one, and knowingly exposed her to extreme danger. She could easily have been murdered.

Simply because her name was similar to someone else's and she had a Facebook photo. Two tiny but disastrous facts.

My thanks to the BBC Magazine, which originally ran this story. Pic: Neda Soltani

Saturday 10 November 2012

It doesn't take much

My self-confidence has always been shaky. It's not something that comes naturally to me, it's something I have to nurture and work at.

Some people seem to just ooze self-confidence. They like nothing better than to burst into some social gathering and start chatting away to complete strangers as if they've been friends for years.

I'm not like that at all. I have to constantly psych myself up, overcome my inhibitions, calm my nervousness, let myself go a little. I have to push aside my self-consciousness and my extreme self-censoring impulse, take a leap of faith and surrender to the moment.

Most of the time I manage a convincing display of easy confidence. But it's all built on quicksand. It doesn't take much for that confidence to dissolve into inarticulate awkwardness. If someone's ignoring me, or scoffing at my opinions, or misconstruing me, or being harsh with me, my immediate instinct is to freeze, to shut down and say nothing until I feel more secure and appreciated. My instinct is not to fight back to bolster my self-confidence but to retreat into my shell.

People sometimes wonder why I'm not more combative, why I don't simply give as good as I get when someone mistreats me. Why don't I just go in with all guns blazing and tell them to take a running jump? Isn't it a bit pathetic merely to crumple and limp away?

But I really don't have the emotional toughness for serious battles with people. On the rare occasions when I've tried it, I only end up feeling exhausted, furious and torn-apart. It isn't in any way cathartic.

So I tend to just lick my wounds and slink off into a corner to be alone with my injured feelings. And to restore my laboriously-honed self-confidence yet again.

I'm really not as nonchalant as I might appear. Believe me, it's all smoke and mirrors.

PS: This deeply personal post is dedicated to the very lovely Kylie Tai

Thursday 8 November 2012

Something personal

That Kylie Tai is hard to satisfy. No sweeping generalisations please. Nothing impersonal. No news stories. No make-up hints (oh, I may have invented that one).

Writing something totally personal is surprisingly hard. There's a whole wide world out there. But let me see now:

I could say I took the dog for a walk. But I don't have a dog.

I could say I took the wife for a walk. But that would be sexist.

I could say I fell off a stepladder and broke my leg. But that would be a lie.

I could say I get dreadful depressions that last for days. Except that I don't.

I could tell you about my unusual pubic hair. But that would be Too Much Information.

I could tell you I only wear stiletto heels in the privacy of my own home. But you wouldn't be interested in that.

I could tell you I'm full of anxiety and self-doubt. But who isn't?

I could tell you who I have a massive crush on. But you would just laugh.

I could say my childhood ambition was to be a trapeze artist. But you wouldn't believe me.

I could say I had no childhood ambition whatever. But you'd think I was an utter dimwit.

God, these stilettos are killing me. I'm taking them off right now.

Where was I?

Monday 5 November 2012

Acting tough

I know it's another of my notorious sweeping general-isations, but I think there's still a widespread assumption that men are tough and capable while women are more fragile and inept.

Neither assumption is true of course. Women can be just as resilient and hard-headed as men, while all those tough-looking guys may be secretly shitting themselves and feeling totally out of their depth.

Nowadays with the spread of feminism it's a lot easier for women to drop the pretence of being helpless and incapable and make it clear they can deal with difficult situations just as well as men, if not better.

But I think it's far harder for men to shed the image of being thick-skinned and ready for anything. It's still seen as very weird if a man comes over all shaky and clueless and needy and wanting a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on.

It's not only men who get embarrassed and scornful if other men cry or look helpless. A lot of women still find the sight of a weepy, floundering man disconcerting. It may be okay on the football pitch or at an awards ceremony, but in everyday life - definitely a bit of a no-no.

I certainly feel I have to maintain a fairly seamless facade of casual competence when I'm at work or in any public venue. There's no way I can collapse in a quivering heap pleading my gender frailties. My gender is still expected to be frailty-free.

Even in the protective intimacy of coupledom, women may still see a crying, crumbling man as a bit of a wimp rather than a vulnerable human being who needs sympathy and support. She's the one who keeps stumbling into psychic turmoil, and he's the strong, dependable one who's meant to ride to the rescue.

All I can say is, I regularly see tearful, distraught women. But when did I last see a tearful, distraught man? The fact is, I don't.

PS: From what I'm hearing now, I think this may be a generational thing. Younger guys are quite relaxed about crying and showing their emotions and weaknesses, while older guys are more likely to bottle it all up and put on an impervious exterior.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Secret knowledge

I can't for the life of me remember how I found out about sex. I mean, how you did it. What it involved. I picked it up somewhere obviously, but the actual source is lost in the fog of childhood memory.

It certainly wasn't from my parents. In those days, most parents were acutely embarrassed about the subject in front of their children. My parents would only refer to it in the most roundabout way, through double entendres and cryptic euphemisms.

In the 22 years I lived with them I never saw any evidence of their sex life. They kept it very carefully hidden, strictly confined to the bedroom and never shared with us kids. We knew "something" was going on, but what exactly that something was, we could only guess.

I didn't learn anything from my teachers either. At that time sex education was unheard of, and decent schools would never get involved with "that sort of thing". Maths and grammar naturally, but sex? Not at all appropriate for a school curriculum. And of course most teachers were as embarrassed about it as the parents.

Nor did I glean anything from other boys. If they were up to anything sexual, they didn't mention it to me. It was a guilty secret they kept to themselves. Even in the sweaty intimacy of changing rooms and dormitories, the subject never cropped up. Or was my sheltered and prudish mind simply blocking out whatever I heard?

Somewhere along the line I put two and two together and worked out what this sex thing was all about. But the when and the who and the how is lost to memory. No wonder my first sexual experiences entailed a great deal of fumbling and panic and semi-ignorance. I'd just about discovered the basics but there was an awful lot I still had to learn.

What a great advance it is that today's kids are brought up in a more enlightened atmosphere and can learn more easily and naturally about this very basic aspect of life without all the squeamish secrecy and sheepishness of an earlier age.

Monday 29 October 2012

Party poopers

I used to belong to the Labour Party, but these days I have little inclination to join any political party. The perennial problem with political parties is that for every person whose views I wholeheartedly share there are probably an equal number whose views I utterly detest. In other words, the problem of belonging to a broad church.

Whenever an especially loathsome view is expressed by some renegade party member, of course the leadership stresses that the person concerned isn't voicing the official party view, that they're speaking for themself, that they were speaking off the record and so on. The fact remains that the view was loathsome and I wouldn't want to be associated with it.

MPs from all parties for example regularly come up with appallingly sexist and misogynist views, causing widespread embarrassment to party supporters. A Labour MP has just told a Tory MP that she shouldn't disagree with her husband in public and she wasn't being a "good little girl". Why would I want to be in the same party as someone who says things like that?

If other people are prepared to put up with such throwbacks for the sake of some collective goal, the best of luck, but I'd rather not. I couldn't simply pretend they don't exist or make excuses for them. I'd want to keep their nasty opinions as far away from me as possible.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Small mouse

Another triumph for Tanzi Twitch, the renowned conceptual artist, who has again won the Scunthorpe Award for International Art with her startling new work "The Small Mouse Is Slightly Confused But Nevertheless Finds The Cheese Number 23."

Art connoisseur Sophie Slingback asked her about the controversial painting, which has been heavily attacked by critics and the general public alike.

SS: Critics have pointed out that the title seems to bear no relation to the painting, which depicts a dusty room empty of everything except a tin of baked beans. There is no visible mouse or cheese or mousetrap. Is this discrepancy saying something about confusion?

TT: The critics all hate me. They hate that I'm rich and famous and beautiful while they're ugly nonentities living in seedy basement flats. That's why they're attacking my painting. It's all just spite and malice.

SS: They have a point though, don't they? I mean, there's no mouse to be seen anywhere in the painting. Neither a confused mouse or a clear-headed mouse. Neither a small mouse or a large mouse. The mouse has gone missing, whereabouts unknown.

TT: The critics are all parasites leeching off the artistic estate. They wouldn't know a masterpiece if it bit them on the arse. They wouldn't know genius if they had it for lunch. Their opinions are worthless, only fit for toilet paper.

SS: The critics also suggest that the anonymity of the mouse, the lack of an identifiable name, is insulting and demousifying and recalls Nazism at its worst.

TT: The mouse prefers to remain anonymous. She finds names confusing. She might forget if her name was Mirabelle or Goldilocks. Or Tinkerbelle or Anastasia. She would be running around all day in a panic, terrified she might be called Sharon.

SS: There are persistent rumours that the mouse was brutally disposed of when the painting was complete. It was chopped into pieces and dumped at dead of night in remote woodland. There are witnesses.

TT: Another grotesque lie. The mouse is alive and well in a mouse retirement home in Budleigh Salterton. She spends her days knitting and playing sudoku. She is blissfully happy and proud of her unique contribution to the global artistic heritage.

SS: Brilliant! Sheer genius! A talent to be reckoned with.

TT: Christ, I could do with a fag.

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

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Self righteous, moi?

I'm accused sometimes of being self-righteous, but I don't quite get that. Okay, I have strong opinions but I'd never say my opinions are more valid than someone else's. If I'm presented with an argument that's more convincing, more sensible, better thought-out, or better researched, I'm happy to adopt it and dump my own opinion in a second.

For example, I used to think prostitution was acceptable until I read that most prostitutes show signs of post traumatic stress disorder, which changed my mind instantly. I used to think it was healthier to be thin, but dropped that idea when I heard that slightly plump people are actually less prone to serious illnesses.

I'm also accused of being opinionated, which might or might not be true. True if opinionated simply means having strong opinions on most subjects. Not true if it also means I foist my opinions on others and expect them to agree.

I express strong opinions in my blog but I don't expect others to swallow them. On the contrary I welcome totally opposite opinions that make me think through my own views more carefully.

In my non-blog existence I usually keep my opinions to myself unless someone specifically asks me what I think about something. Of course that might just mean I don't want my dubious and half-baked opinions to be challenged by anyone else.

If I'm really self-righteous and opinionated, I've obviously missed my vocation. I should have been a politician.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Two of me

It's fascinating (and amusing) how differently my blogmates see me. Sometimes in quite contra-dictory ways.

I'm too pro-women.
I'm not pro-women enough.
I'm too masculine.
I'm too feminine.
I'm over-emotional.
I'm under-emotional.
I'm too judgmental.
I'm too objective and tolerant.
I'm too personal.
I'm too impersonal.
I worry too much about other people's opinions.
I'm insensitive to other people's opinions.
I'm cautious and timid.
I'm reckless and tactless.
I make sweeping generalisations.
I refer to one-off individuals.
I'm too conventional.
I'm too unconventional.
I'm self-righteous.
I back down too easily.

Just saying.
Will the real me please stand up?

Thursday 18 October 2012

Noxious busybodies

How often do women have to say "It's my decision what to do with my body, not yours" before other people finally take notice?

How often do women have to tell the huge army of busybodies, nosy parkers and interferers to butt out and mind their own business before they actually do so?

A private sexual health and abortion clinic, the Marie Stopes Clinic, has just opened in Belfast. And predictably enough, all the usual anti-abortion, anti-choice factions are protesting against it and trying to close it down.

Too bad if women out there are desperate for an abortion, for all sorts of very good reasons, and believe it's entirely their decision to go ahead.

It's their body, their womb, their embryo, their potential parental responsibility. All the implications are personal ones. All the long-term consequences are personal ones. Yet other people think they have the right to tell them what to do or not to do with the child inside them.

People who justify their offensive interference by citing religion, or respect for life (does that include the mother's life?), or opposing mass murder. Whatever the (dubious) pretext, it apparently entitles them to permanent rights over a woman's womb and whatever is inside it.

Well, here's my advice. Why don't they try looking after their own affairs, which no doubt are far from perfect, and stop poking their self-righteous noses into other people's?

Pic: protest outside the Marie Stopes Clinic

Sunday 14 October 2012

Pigeon holed

Someone suggested the other day that the label "eccentric" was out of date, that the people we used to call eccentric would nowadays be diagnosed with a range of mental health problems.

A recluse would be identified as agoraphobic, a hoarder as having OCD, a social clod as having a personality disorder, and so on. They'd all be neatly pigeon-holed by therapists and given a suitable course of treatment.

Well, I think that's absurd. Of course there are people who're eccentric, meaning strange or unusual or wacky, and to reduce them all to mental health categories would be dehumanising nonsense.

It denies the full richness and uniqueness of their identity, as well as implying they aren't just strange but psychologically damaged.

I'm sure we all know a few individuals we would call eccentric - because of their odd clothes, or opinions, or way of talking, or domestic habits. But we wouldn't dismiss them as mentally ill, we'd just see them as a bit dysfunctional, not quite all there.

Attitudes to eccentrics have changed though. A few decades ago people would have enjoyed being seen as eccentric. They would have revelled in it, and tried to be even more outlandish. People like Screaming Lord Sutch, Kenneth Williams and Su Pollard.

But nowadays most people find the label embarrassing, almost a liability. Even if they're privately as eccentric as a pink banana, they take care not to show it but to pass as a normal, unobtrusive citizen. Only if you know them well do you realise they're nutty as fruitcake.

Which means it's hard to think of any contemporary eccentrics. Grayson Perry is about the only one who comes to mind.

But there are plenty out there, lurking behind the grey suits and the sensible dresses. Just doing their thing and trying not to be diagnosed.

Pic: Emilie Autumn, the American singer-songwriter

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Aren't I wonderful?

I'm not narciss-istic. I'm not obsessed with myself or my appear-ance. I don't spend hours gazing critically into the mirror. I would say I examine myself just enough to be a healthy, well-adjusted human being.

I don't endlessly deliberate if I should reshape my nose or dye my hair or wax my back. I don't slather myself with moisturisers and perfume and exfoliants. I don't dwell over every detail of my behaviour. I don't swell with pride over my achievements or wallow in self-pity over my failures. I don't hold forth about every ongoing personal saga. I don't imagine I'm astonishingly talented or charismatic.

Of course a bit of self-analysis and self-awareness is essential if I'm to relate intelligently and considerately to others. Those embarrassing individuals who never examine themselves and have little insight into their own motives or the messages they're sending out are already too numerous.

But those tiresome me-worshippers who find their own existence far more fascinating than the trivial lives of anyone else are pretty infuriating.

Every so often I have the misfortune to be at a social gathering where one self-absorbed guest is blathering on about the ins and outs of their humdrum everyday life as if every detail is front-page news, while the other guests listen politely and wonder how long this interminable monologue might last. If they manage to interrupt the flow for long enough to broach a change of subject, Mr or Ms Aren't-I-Wonderful will either find some personal slant on the new topic or ignore it altogether.

If anything, I'm the opposite of narcissistic, I tend to be too self-effacing and too intrigued by other people's conversation to make a proper contribution of my own. I find my life fascinating but I'm never entirely convinced that others might think the same. I need a lot of persuading that people actually want to know about me and my tangled personality. I'm quite capable of lengthy silences if I'm not totally confident of other people's genuine interest.

Apart from anything else, it must take so much effort to be narcissistic. Constantly talking yourself up, screening out criticism, tweaking the unflattering reality into something more impressive. You can't let up for a moment, or the mask will slip and the mere mortal will re-emerge. Unthinkable!

Sunday 7 October 2012

Unpopular bosses

A lot of people - both men and women - complain about female bosses and female workmates. Supposedly they can be harder to work with than men - tougher and less forgiving. Strangely enough, I've never found that myself.

I've worked with plenty of women, both as bosses and workmates, and I've never had any problems with them. The bosses in particular were very easy to get on with and even a joy to work for. I've had much worse male bosses - bullies, dimwits, nit-pickers, egotists, neurotics, penny-pinchers, you name it. Bosses I was glad to get shot of. So I'm baffled by all these complaints. Am I just lucky or what?

Maybe I'm generous towards women, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the women indulged me because I was a bloke. Maybe I was happy to do what they asked me without too much fuss. Maybe I thought they had better ideas than the guys. Whatever the reason, there was never any serious friction. So what is this antipathy others keep referring to?

Is a lot of it just sexism? Are there still hordes of men out there who resent women having high-powered jobs and telling them what to do? Do women themselves secretly think women bosses aren't up to the job and a man would do it better? Is it that old cliché that women have to do the job twice as well as a man just to be seen as competent?

All I can say is, thanks to Kate, Iris, Sheila, Ulli, Ruth and all the other female bosses I've had. I enjoyed working with you and I'd be very happy to work with you again. No hard feelings whatever. No grudges, no rancour, no unfinished business. What's the big deal?

Friday 5 October 2012

Knight errant

I'm shocked and totally disgusted that during the several decades that Sir Jimmy Savile was abusing girls and young women, everyone around him knew about it but did precisely nothing. People at the BBC, other presenters, the media, they all knew but kept their mouths firmly shut.

All this time the public were still blissfully ignorant, seeing him as a funny, lovable eccentric who raised millions of pounds for charity and was a role model for alienated rebels everywhere. They hadn't a clue what he was really up to behind the innocent facade.

Why is there always this entrenched conspiracy of silence about these perverts, particularly the ones in high places? Why does nobody say a word for fear that they're the ones who'll be jumped on and not the little toerag they're exposing?

The journalist Janet Street Porter, revealing on BBC's Question Time how widely Savile's abuse was known about, defended her own silence by saying that as a woman in a male-dominated workplace nobody would have taken her seriously.

Others were silent for a variety of reasons. Because Savile's public reputation seemed impregnable. Because they knew other people would close ranks. Because he threatened to stop helping charities if anyone told the truth. Because they feared some sort of retaliation.

But it's this endless conspiracy of silence that allows abusers to get away with it not just for years but often for decades. How on earth can keeping silent still be more normal than protecting vulnerable young women and girls from lasting psychological and emotional trauma?

In the name of common decency and humanity, these shameful cover-ups have to stop.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Stiff upper lip

Some people love stoicism. They think it gets them safely through a crisis without being washed away in a flood of unhelpful emotions. I'm not so sure about that. It can equally mean suppressing yourself and wading through a load of crap.

Sometimes those so-called unhelpful emotions are exactly what you need. They alert you to what you really want and to the fact that other people are blocking you from getting it. They stop you putting up with things that aren't in your interests.

It seems stoicism and the stiff upper lip are quite recent British traits. Centuries ago we were renowned for being over-emotional and lacking self-control. In fact it was considered essential in the best social circles. Gradually it became fashionable to control your feelings, grit your teeth and take whatever was thrown at you.

But why should we take anything that's thrown at us? Why should we put up with awful working conditions, or domestic violence, or relentless bullying in the name of stoicism and "not letting it get you down"?

Yes, there are times when a bit of self-control is necessary if you want to keep your job or save a relationship. But at other times letting go of your emotions is the best way to protect your self-esteem and stop other people trampling all over you.

I could have been stoical about the way my father insulted me and belittled me, even as a mature adult. Instead I kept away from him and refused to let him treat me badly. I didn't speak to him for years. But I kept my dignity and belief in myself.

I could have been stoical about the boss who persecuted me for a minor lapse in time-keeping. When he dragged me through a disciplinary hearing, I fought him every inch of the way. He still got what he wanted but I felt so much better for having challenged him.

Now and again I come across people who seem to have spent their entire lives being stoical - passively enduring dreadful jobs, tyrannical spouses, contemptuous children and interfering neighbours. And what good has it done them? They've let their identity be crushed and trodden-on and ended up an apologetic shadow of their true self. They've been all too willing to let the bastards grind them down.

Friday 28 September 2012

A whiff of paranoia

In general I'm not a paranoid person. I trust people. I believe in them. I don't assume they're going to cheat me or betray me. I don't secretly question their intentions towards me. I don't imagine they're full of hidden hatreds and grudges. But with one exception - I'm very paranoid about friendships.

Even with a long-established friendship, when I should have every confidence that the other person is not just going to dump me overnight, I still get fretful and anxious and imagine the worst if there's too long a silence, or if I keep leaving messages and they're not returned.

Supposedly this is a particularly female trait. Women need constant reassurance that the relationship is still healthy, that the other person still likes/ loves them and isn't drifting away. Whereas a bloke is always sure the relationship is solid as a rock and doesn't bat an eyelid if there's no contact for weeks.

Well, how female am I, then. If there's too long a silence my imagination runs riot. He/ she has gone off me, or I said something offensive, or I'm boring, or too needy. I dream up a dozen reasons why I must have put my foot in it and that's the end of a beautiful friendship.

Then of course the other person contacts me and just carries on as normal without the slightest hint of anything untoward. And I realise my feverish imaginings were just that - feverish imaginings.

Some day I'll learn to have more faith in my friendships and not overreact to quite routine interruptions and silences. I'll learn that friendships are more durable than I think, that they don't just crumble over some tactless remark or tetchy outburst. Good friends are not that fickle.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Slumming it

The rise and rise of slum tourism - tourists visiting the poorest neighbourhoods to see how the worst-off survive rather than heading for the well-known sights - attracts mixed reactions. Some see it as positive, others as cynical exploitation.

It's nothing new of course. The trend was well under way in Victorian London over 130 years ago, when the upper class wanted to see for themselves the poverty in the East End. It took off again when Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa and tourists flocked to the townships and places linked to apartheid.

Now it's big business in cities like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing and even New York City, home of the Tenement Museum.

There's a similar trend in Belfast. Not so much slum tourism as conflict tourism. More and more tourists are curious about the areas that suffered heavily during the Troubles, as well as all the paramilitary murals and peace walls.

But opinions are divided over whether this fashion is good or bad. Those in favour say that as well as bringing money into desperately poor areas, it opens the eyes of people who may have lived in comfortable conditions all their lives and know nothing of serious hardship except what they see on TV.

Those against point out that a lot of the money raised doesn't go to the locals at all but to outsiders who've never set foot in the areas visited. And people's eyes may be opened for a few days but when they return to their normal privileged lives they soon forget what they've seen.

At its worst it's a voyeuristic search for cheap thrills and titillating squalor, taking away the dignity and privacy of those they're gawping at and not leaving them with any long-term benefit.

I'm of two minds about it all myself. Yes, there's little financial gain for the places the tourists visit, and little change to the prevailing poverty and degradation. But then again, I think many of those tourists are quite sincere in wanting to know about the wretched lives some people have to endure, and they return home genuinely enlightened and humbled.

The more people experience the grim reality of those forced to exist on the crumbs falling from the millionaires' well-stuffed mouths, the better.

My thanks to James Melik of the BBC for his article on the subject

Saturday 22 September 2012

Opening time

If you've written a mediocre book and you want it to get a flood of undeserved attention, all you have to do is give it a sensational and instantly memorable title. Like "Vagina".

It works like a charm. Naomi Wolf has been basking for weeks in the white heat of media publicity, as everyone dips into her long-winded tome expecting some perceptive (and saucy) insights into the much-loved female orifice.

Unfortunately a bevy of reviewers and commentators seem agreed that far from yielding shrewd insights, the book is disappointingly conservative and anti-feminist. For example:

"Much of the book boils down to the not-exactly-radical idea that a woman just needs a good seeing-to."  Anna Carey, The Irish Times

"....insisting that women have a physiological need to take delivery of flowers, to sleep with powerful men, and to receive large amounts of semen...."  Rachel Cooke, The Observer

"Wolf specifically disqualifies masturbation as a method of achieving high orgasm."  Zoë Heller, New York Review of Books

"Vagina, then, is that very modern thing: a handbook for priggish sexual conformity masquerading as a manual for erotic liberation."  Laurie Penny, New Statesman

Not that any of the brickbats will bother Naomi overmuch. No doubt thousands of women (and men) are flocking to snap up the controversial text and see what all the fuss is about, proving once again that all publicity is good publicity.

It may be full of misunderstood science, mystical gibberish, slavish heterosexuality and trite platitudes, but what the hell? Everyone wants a "Vagina" on their coffee table.

What's the book actually about? Have a look here

Pic: Naomi Wolf

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Winning formula

Zadie Smith, in an interview with John Self, asks an interesting question about what we expect when someone invites us round. "Once you're invited, what kind of hospitality is ideal?"

I guess we all have our own ideas about what makes for an enjoyable evening and what doesn't. I've been to a few agonisingly tedious get-togethers in my time but also plenty of witty, exhilarating ones I had to drag myself away from. So what's the difference, I wonder? Here's a few suggestions for the ideal formula:

1) A relaxed, informal atmosphere. As opposed to that uncomfortable feeling that the place has been specially cleaned and tidied, there'll be a big frost if you accidentally spill wine on the priceless Persian rug, and too many subjects are taboo in case they embarrass or offend the assembled company.

2) Original ideas and witty comments. As opposed to hours and hours of banal, predictable, deadpan conversation about property prices, childcare, the weather, holiday cottages and the price of heating oil.

3) Disarming personal confessions. There's nothing so riveting and touching as someone unexpectedly revealing that they get awful panic attacks, or they're terrified of the dark, or they used to go shoplifting, or they talk to themselves.

4) The other guests being genuinely intrigued by my own life and interests. As opposed to asking me a few polite, indifferent questions and then continuing to hold forth about themselves. Or ignoring me completely while finding someone else utterly fascinating.

5) Following from 4, an absence of those self-absorbed individuals who find their own lives totally mesmerising and could talk about themselves till dawn the next morning unless you forcefully shut them up or show them the door. If allowed a free run, they kill the conversation stone dead.

6) Positive, optimistic people who enjoy their lives. As opposed to the permanently-depressed moaners and whingers who never stop complaining about their bad luck, their overwhelming problems and burdens, and how everyone else is sabotaging them and undermining them.

It's not often that these things come together and you go home feeling quite deliriously entertained and inspired. But it does happen sometimes. And when it does, it's worth all the dreary, interminable occasions that preceded it.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Rooting for Kate

Good for Kate Middleton, suing the French magazine Closer for publishing 11 topless pictures of her sunbathing in Provence.Why shouldn't she be entitled to her privacy like anyone else?

Of course there are still people blaming Kate for the intrusion rather than the cynical, salacious gutter press. They say she shouldn't be doing anything to encourage the voyeuristic media, and sunbathing topless was foolish and naive.

So once again the victim is being blamed for the actions of her predators. She has no right to enjoy her private life as she pleases, but the media have every right to stalk her and prey on her and flash titillating photos of her breasts across the world whenever they feel like it.

Apart from the ruthless invasion of privacy, I'm always struck by the utter hypocrisy of these little escapades. It's fine to publish photos of a celebrity's breasts, but if someone wanted to publish pictures of a newspaper editor's breasts, or her naked body, would she consent eagerly? Like hell she would. She would be racing to the courts just like Kate.

And then people say that when it comes to privacy, celebs are different. They're fair game because they court publicity in the first place and because they're always in the public eye. I totally disagree. Why does being a celeb mean your right to privacy can be instantly demolished? It's simply an excuse for poking your telephoto lenses into someone else's backyard and photographically raping them.

I'm rooting for Kate. Take them to the cleaners, honey. Sue them for everything they've got. Give them a good legal slap in the face. The prurient bastards.

Pic: not a picture of the royal breasts

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Too much information

Talking frankly about your personal sexual history is still a dicey topic, isn't it? Who really wants their current lover or anyone else to know about their probably far from flattering debacles or embarrassments or fumblings? Not me for one, I'd rather draw a veil over quite a few awkward experiences.

And if anyone tells you all their sexual partners were utterly fantastic, brilliant in bed, completely attuned to their particular sexual tastes, and always ready for it, who's seriously going to believe them? Sex is a complicated business and we all make a mess of it from time to time.

And if we're already a bit nervous about our sexual skills, who wants to hear about the wonderful ex who always knew exactly what to do and how to trigger total bliss in ten seconds? Or for that matter the hopeless ex who hadn't a clue and inspired a new world record in faked orgasms? Who only makes us feel even more nervous.

Do we really want to be told how stunningly attractive they were (prompting immediate thoughts of our own over-large bum, wrinkles and disastrous hair)? Or how amusing and witty they were (reminding us of our habitually catatonic and hatchet-faced disposition)?

No, unless the other person is supremely self-confident and quite happy with their body, any distant tales from the bedroom are asking for trouble. Better to keep them to yourself along with other mood-dampeners like heavy periods and false teeth.

The often ham-fisted and blush-inducing details of our chequered sexual history should only be divulged to very close and trusted friends who won't be phased by our failings or excesses but will remind us of their own sexual quandaries and give us the shared understanding we need.

So don't even ask about the woman with breast implants or the woman with the hand mirror or the woman with the very long tongue. My lips are sealed.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Happy bunny

I know I've been rather negative and angsty of late (one person even thought I sounded
"frantic") but I'd like to reassure anyone worried about my emotional or mental health, or convinced I was about to top myself, that I'm just fine, thanks very much, and there's absolutely no cause for concern.

In fact something very wonderful has happened to me recently (I'm sorry I can't give you any details because it's strictly private and confidential - but it has to do with an unexpected and very fruitful friendship) and actually at this moment I couldn't be happier.

Of course that cryptic little titbit will have your collective imaginations shooting off in a hundred directions, but I'm not saying any more. I'm not having an affair, I haven't met Penelope Cruz, I haven't run into a millionaire, I haven't found the perfect manicurist. But it's something just as joyful and special. In fact more so.

It's funny how every time I think my life is more or less complete, that I've done all the exciting and inspiring things I'll ever do, and that from here on in I'm just trundling steadily towards the old folk's home, suddenly something extraordinary happens that reinvents my life and makes me rethink everything from first principles.

And it happens when I'm not even looking for it. I'm just pottering about, minding my own business, doing the domestic chores, paying the window cleaner, wondering if that bar of chocolate has turned to fat, and whap, something explodes into my life like a meteor and sends everything flying. And what a lovely experience it is.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Parental dreams

I wonder why so many parents find it so tough to accept their children for what they are? They so often have hopes and assump-tions quite unrelated to what their children actually want out of life. Or what they're really suited for.

They imagine a grand career in some profession their child has zero talent for. They expect a dull, routine lifestyle for a child who is clearly rebellious and quirky. They hear the patter of tiny feet when their child has no desire whatever for an infant.

I've known so many people who say their parents don't understand them, don't appreciate what motivates them, and constantly undermine their true aims and ambitions. In short, their parents are more of a hindrance than a help.

Is it so hard to see your children as they are and encourage them in their true inclinations rather than a load of parental daydreams?

When I was young my mother and father had endless preconceptions about what sort of person I was and what I should do with my life, and they always found the reality hard to adjust to.

In the few years that I worked for a local paper, they saw me as some high-flying journalist jetting around the globe reporting world-shattering events. But it wasn't what I was cut out for or interested in.

They assumed I would share their very orthodox political views, and were baffled and upset when my views got increasingly left-wing and iconoclastic.

They expected me to have children and grandchildren, and couldn't understand why I opted out.

In general they saw me as Mr Normal, following a predictable, conventional, conservative lifestyle, probably on some new-build suburban estate where everyone mowed the lawn on Sundays and changed their car every three years.

I think they were permanently shell-shocked by my turning into the exact opposite of their stifling stereotypes. They looked on in disbelief as I adopted one radical cause after another - homosexuality, feminism, socialism, vegetarianism, premarital sex and abstract art, to name but a few. They probably wondered if some hospital blunder had left them with someone else's baby. They certainly saw me as as some alien being from another planet.

It must be very heaven to have parents who truly appreciate you for what you are.