Tuesday 31 January 2012

The honour police

I'm immensely grateful I'm not part of a community that expects me to beat or mutilate any woman who has brought "shame" on my family by damaging our "honour".

I don't understand how any man who carries out such arbitrary punishments can live with himself. Presumably because he does it in the name of morality and decency. As defined by him and his puritanical brothers, of course.

Umpteen "offences" will put a woman in their sights. An unsuitable boyfriend. Objecting to an arranged marriage. Lesbianism. Revealing clothing. Make-up. A request for a divorce. Exposing domestic abuse. If the men say it's wrong, it's wrong. No arguments. No protests. Just do what you're told, woman.

Around 3000 "honour" attacks are recorded by police every year in the UK. And that's just the ones they get to know about. Many others go unreported because the victims are too terrified to say anything.

It might be obvious to us that what really brings shame on a family is bigoted attacks on its female members and attempts to stop them leading independent and fulfilling lives. But the "honour" vigilantes have a peculiar code of conduct all of their own.

At the end of the day, I guess it's only women standing together and demanding their freedom who can stop this reign of terror and get their lives back. And that takes an awful lot of bravery.

Pic: Banaz Mahmod, 20, from Mitcham, South London, was strangled on the orders of her father and uncle because she left her violent husband for a new boyfriend they deemed "unsuitable".

Thursday 26 January 2012


Come on, admit it, you're a wee bit dishonest, aren't you? Only a wee bit. Just now and again.

According to this handy quiz*, I'm extremely dishonest. Or that's how they see it. As I see it, I bend the rules when I think it's justified. Being systematically dishonest is something quite different.

Anyhow, how would you score for dishonesty? Do you think the following are ever justified?

1) Fare-dodging on public transport
2) Cheating on taxes
3) Speeding
4) Keeping money found in the street
5) Lying in your own interests
6) Not reporting accidental damage to a car
7) Dumping litter in a public place
8) Driving under the influence of alcohol
9) Inventing things on a job application
10) Buying something you know is stolen

I don't think 6,8, 9 or 10 are ever acceptable, but I think the others are sometimes okay, depending on the circumstances. If I find a £10 note in the street, and it's highly unlikely anyone would bother to claim it at a police station, then I pocket it. So would 80% of the population. Of course it's technically dishonest but in reality it's unimportant.

I think the type of dishonesty that really matters, and which funnily enough they don't mention, is dishonesty to your loved ones and friends. To lie to your partner about a secret bank account, or a secret lover, or a secret porn stash, is pretty shabby. That I would never do, not that I have any of those anyway. But without complete trust between you and those close to you, relationships are fatally damaged.

As for dishonesty among prominent public figures, which seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, let's not even go there. We'd be at it all day.

* Shamelessly and dishonestly filched from The Independent

Monday 23 January 2012

Under a cloud

Can you imagine what it's like to be falsely accused of murdering your son for 25 years before you're finally cleared of all wrongdoing? It must be sheer hell.

The police questioned Elizabeth Watkins of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, immediately after her son's death in 1987 but then released her without charge. That wasn't good enough for the locals, who were convinced she had killed her six-year-old son Nicholas.

Her other son and his father were also convinced of her guilt and broke off contact with her.

After 25 years of living under a cloud of suspicion, it must be a colossal relief to at last be free of it.

A new inquiry into her son's death has concluded that he wasn't murdered but was killed by a pack of dogs. How tragic that detectives didn't investigate more thoroughly at the time and discover the non-human cause of death while unhealthy suspicions could still be nipped in the bud.

But just imagine the festering feelings of injustice and rage and despair that must have addled her life and crushed the sort of enjoyable, freewheeling existence that most of us take for granted.

And the sick feelings of betrayal and humiliation as relatives, friends and acquaintances all refused to believe her declarations of innocence and continued to assume she was capable of slaughtering her child.

And the feelings of burning impotence as she could find no way of proving to the outside world that she had nothing to do with the death. Presumably she had no alibi for her movements at the time.

Now she has somehow to put all those miserable years behind her and try to recreate a more normal life in which she is once again an unblemished and respected member of the community. Without an awful lot of sincere regret and generosity on other people's part, that's going to be quite a struggle.

Pic: Elizabeth Watkins

Friday 20 January 2012

Rough sleeper

No, there's not an epidemic of insomnia, there's just a lot of people out there obsessed with getting "a good night's sleep."

Take no notice of all those "experts" with their miracle cures and relaxation techniques. Ignore all those warnings that if we don't sleep for eight straight hours, our health is in jeopardy.

It's all a load of bollocks. Even if we only get two hours' sleep, we can still function well enough the next day. And sooner or later our body will catch up on the missed sleep if it needs to. So throw all the dire warnings in the bin and relax.

I'm finally taking this more laid-back approach after years of erratic sleep patterns and failed attempts to get the vaunted "proper night's sleep." Instead of cursing the fact that I've woken up at 2am and trying in vain to doze off again, I've at last accepted that waking up doesn't actually matter and I may as well just stay cool and use my unexpected wakefulness to read a book, surf the net or send a few emails. And have a cup of tea and a biscuit. Maybe after a while I'll nod off again. Or maybe I won't. It doesn't really matter.

I know perfectly well that I've had nights of minimal sleep and spent the next day just as alert as if I'd slept like a log. If my brain rejects sleep, then perhaps it doesn't need it. But the idea of "a good night's sleep" is deeply embedded in our childhood by solicitous parents.

In the past I've tried sleeping pills but they were useless. I didn't fall asleep any quicker, and when I finally awoke I was so groggy it took me hours to get my brain properly focussed. Since then I've never tried any other "remedies" and I've gradually learnt to go with the flow instead of trying to force my body and brain to do what they don't want to do.

Wide awake at dawn? So what?

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Bad dreams

I have a problem. It's my dreams. They're not what I expect them to be. They're seriously dysfunctional. They're totally out to lunch.

What I want my dreams to consist of:

1) Glimpses of paradise
2) Sun-kissed oceans
3) Snow-clad mountain peaks
4) Golden beaches
5) Tropical islands
6) Lush rain forests

What they actually consist of:
1) Missing the last bus
2) Losing my way
3) My house collapsing
4) My teeth falling out
5) The car exploding
6) Being chased by a shadowy figure through a derelict building

I've put in an official complaint. This simply isn't good enough. The price I pay for my annual dream package is astronomical, and then I don't even get what I signed up for. I don't even get the requested number of dreams per night. I'm supposed to have a hundred and it's more like half a dozen. And then they're in black and white instead of colour. What do you have to do to get a decent service, eh? I might as well not dream at all.

Now there's an idea....

Friday 13 January 2012

Local knowledge

What a difference it makes to a holiday when you're not just an ignorant tourist but you know one of the locals who can guide you to all the special places you would otherwise have missed.

As a typical tourist you're entirely reliant on travel guides and what you happen to hear from hotel staff, bus drivers or other semi-ignorant tourists. You end up in places that are popular but not very interesting, and in eateries that are adjacent but hardly mouthwatering.

In Melbourne we were very lucky to have our good friend Kath who was endlessly generous with her time and local knowledge and took us to one fabulous place after another. To the wonderful Mornington Peninsula, the Dandenong Ranges and the Yarra Valley, where she led us to a brilliant out-of-the-way art gallery and the Domaine Chandon winery, where we sampled some excellent wines (and I got pleasantly light-headed).

Not only that, but she also introduced us to her family and several friends, who gave us all sorts of insights into Aussie lifestyles and interests that don't make it into the travel guides. Her brother told us all about his work as an immigration officer interviewing new entrants to Australia.

She also took us to all the best local cafés, restaurants, burger joints and ice cream parlours, as well as a superb bookshop (Readings).

What more could we want? At the end of the week I was starting to feel like a native Melbournian rather than a clueless visitor trying to find my way around. I felt completely at home, connected to the city much more strongly and intimately than before.

So thanks for everything, Kath, you added so much to our visit. It was really hard to drag ourselves to the airport and return home.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Spirit of Oz

Okay, it's about time I satisfied your burning curiosity as to where I've been. The answer is, to Australia! A week in Adelaide, a week in Sydney and eight days in Melbourne. In Sydney Jenny and I met the wonderful Kylie and the equally wonderful Helen (again) for a catch-up over a Turkish meal.

So how do I sum up our latest Aussie adventure? Well, how do Aussies compare with the Brits? Some big differences come to mind:

1) They worry about bushfires and are ready to evacuate their homes in a hurry.

2) They worry about water shortages and keep their water use to a minimum.

3) They worry about skin cancer and slap on litres of sunscreen. Which is why they're mostly as pale-skinned as the Brits.

4) They love beaches, barbecues, surfing and swimming. Just as long as the sharks keep their distance.

5) They love anywhere that has ice-cold air-conditioning, though if it's a fashionable restaurant or café steaming heat is no obstacle.

6) White Aussies are taking more interest in aboriginal culture and giving it the same importance as the settlers' culture. Unfortunately many aborigines are rejecting their own culture in favour of alcohol, drugs and child abuse.

7) They take space and sprawling homes for granted, unlike us Brits in our cramped, congested cities. Oz is a big, big country with space galore to spread out in.

8) They're competitive about their cities. Sydney's better than Melbourne. Melbourne's better than Adelaide. Tell you what, guys, every city has its own charms and failings. Why the jockeying for position?

9) Most Aussies are only interested in Oz. Other countries seldom feature in the news unless there's some strong Aussie link. The eurozone crisis seems to have passed them by.

10) They're seriously devoted to wine. There are hundreds of wineries and cellar doors (shops), all bristling with afficionados sampling what's on offer. But how come their home-produced wine is so pricy when they're overflowing with the stuff?

I felt very at home in Oz this time round. Maybe because I've been to all three cities before. Maybe because Aussies are so keen to enjoy themselves - unlike all those British tightarses.

I didn't want to go home. And not just because of the gruelling 20-hour flight. The Spirit of Australia is more than a Qantas catchphrase.