Saturday 31 March 2012

Pretend boys

In Afghanistan, I learn, it's common practice for girls to be disguised as boys - because boys are more prestigious.

Some girls spend their entire childhood pretending to be boys. Families without sons are often taunted and looked down on, regarded as failures. So desperate parents resort to trickery rather than admitting they only have daughters.

They justify their decision by saying they're just following the centuries-old tradition of Bacha Posh - disguising girls as boys - and avoiding being treated as social pariahs.

They also say that as "boys", their daughters will get experiences and opportunities that girls wouldn't get, thus giving them a better start in life.

But the fact is that they're colluding in a deeply sexist culture that sees boys as superior and girls as second-class citizens denied the same privileges. The collusion stifles any debate on increased freedom for girls and the ending of gender roles.

Criticis of Bacha Posh also point to the damaging effect on girls who feel they've missed essential childhood memories as well as losing their identity. After years denying who they really are, reverting to their true self can seem odd and unnatural.

Social traditions like these can be very powerful forces, maintained so insistently by so many people that they're almost impossible to resist. But someone has to be courageous enough to stand up and say that the deliberate repression of female identity is inhuman and barbaric.

Girls are not merely non-boys. Nor are they pretend-boys. They're fine just as they are - girls.

Pic: Mehrnoush the girl has become Mehran the boy

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Prim and proper

Is it really true that the young are embarr-assed by oldies who are physically affectionate to each other? Do they really think we're "too old" for that sort of thing and should be chastely conversing, keeping our hands and mouths to ourselves?

I find it hard to believe that young people, with their generally open-minded and hedonistic approach to life, are truly that intolerant of oldies who still enjoy a bit of cuddling and canoodling as much as anyone else.

I think it's more likely that oldies have fallen for this daft idea of a "dignified" old age, and decided that certain behaviour is now embarrassing and inappropriate. So they restrain their natural impulses and stick to what they think is "proper". All that's going to do is stop them having any fun.

After all, the young don't see any virtue in a "dignified" youth. They couldn't care less if what they're doing is seen as embarrassing or inappropriate. They dress in crazy clothes, get paralytically drunk, crash cars, eat unhealthy food. They kiss and fondle each other passionately in public, oblivious to other people's reactions.

So why shouldn't oldies be equally uninhibited? Why not grow old disgracefully? Or at least naturally and not trailing a long list of artificial taboos.

Canoodling isn't the only thing oldies are supposed to abandon. There's also dancing, singing, shrieking at the top of roller coasters, laughing hysterically, eating too messily, and bellowing across crowded rooms. Anything in fact that smacks of wanton enjoyment rather than the sedate and decorous self-control that's mysteriously connected with advancing years. Bollocks to that.

The popular stereotype is something like Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous*, staring aghast at the outrageous clothes her mother is about to go out in, and commenting incredulously "You're not going out like that?" Which prompts a slurred and irreverent reply from Eddie, wondering if she has anything even more outrageous to put on instead.

But I can't believe many of the young are that censorious. And even if they are, they're only jealous. We sexagenarians may be crumbling a bit but we can still rock 'n' roll with the best of them.

* TV series featuring a stern, moralistic teenager and her wild, uncontrollable mother.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Questions questions

The splendid Speccy has challenged me to answer eleven questions. I'm glad to see there's nothing too revealing or controversial, nothing to make a maiden blush or a vicar weep. So here goes:

1. What was the last concert you went to?
K T Tunstall at the Ulster Hall, Belfast. Totally brilliant.

2. When did you last drink champagne?
At the Chandon winery near Melbourne in January.

3. Have you been dancing recently?
Only dancing with rage. Or dancing with joy.

4. What's the first track on the closest CD?
St James Infirmary by Hugh Laurie and Record Collector by Lissie Maurus. I adore both singers.

5. If you could compete in the Olympics, in what event?
Gymnastics. I'd love to be capable of such grace and agility.

6. What is your favourite children's book?
Alice in Wonderland. She has such extraordinary adventures. And I've always been a sucker for surrealism.

7. How did you choose your blog title?
An angel of the Lord came unto me saying "Howdi, Nickhereandnow, I command you to start blogging."

8. How long do you spend on blogging each week?
A few hours. Or a few days if you include answering the huge piles of fan mail.

9. What was your biggest achievement?
Staying alive. I was very accident-prone as a child.

10. Who are you inspired by?
Anyone who is generous, compassionate, smart, strong-minded, courageous and witty.

11. Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?
Not me, it was the cookie fairy. I saw her. I did, I did. Cross my heart and hope to die.

I won't tag anyone else, they might not like it. But if anyone wants to join in, here are some new questions:

What are you hopeless at/brilliant at?
What do you wish you'd never worn/said?
What was the last time you cried/jumped for joy?
What personal quality do you cringe at/relish?
What's your favourite garment/time of the day?
What daily chore drives you nuts?

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Wicked rumours

Malicious rumours are being spread that my blog posts are created in Chinese sweatshops by exhausted children working 23-hour days and paid the equivalent of 5p a week.

This is simply untrue, as a quick phone call to our head office would easily confirm.

Our 147-strong staff work in luxurious conditions
in our purpose-built production centre in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, and all receive exceptionally generous salaries compared to other less reputable blogging enterprises. World-class chefs, beauticians and hairdressers are on hand day and night to tend to their every whim, and chauffeur-driven limousines make light work of any travel needs.

But don't take my word for it. Here's what 25-year-old concept-facilitator Mandy Mouthwash has to say: "I just love working at nickhereandnow so much. It has totally changed my life. For the first time my creative talents are being recognised and appreciated. I feel I'm making a real contribution to the well-being of society. Not only that, but the guys here are drop-dead gorgeous."

The scurrilous rumours of Chinese child-labour are based on an alleged interview with 7-year-old Wah Shing in one of the tabloid newspapers.

He claims to have been trapped into blog-slavery several years ago and despite repeated attempts to escape his inhuman conditions is still forced to write continuously with no meal or toilet breaks and even when his fingers and eyeballs are bleeding from overuse. Frequently collapsing from malnutrition and exhaustion, he is mercilessly revived with buckets of ice-cold water until he resumes work.

Unstinting inquiries by my staff have failed to locate the elusive Wah Shing, who is clearly a monstrous journalistic invention with as much substance as Tinkerbelle.

I have put the whole distasteful business in the capable hands of my lawyers, Sue Grabbit and Runne.

Pic: The nickhereandnow head office at Chipping Norton

Saturday 17 March 2012

Only teasing

When does teasing become bullying? And are some people more upset by it than others?

I haven't been teased much in my life, and when I have it's been more affectionate than malicious. At school I was called "beanpole" because I was so thin, but I just found it amusing. My granny used to call me "Little Knickers" but that was simply playful as well.

One workmate used to tease me about the number of bananas I ate (actually a grand total of two a day), but then he used to tease everyone mercilessly so I never took it personally, except to get very irritated by the repetitiveness.

One boss I had used to refer to every male employee as "Fred", regardless of their real name. That was definitely insulting, as he knew very well, but he wouldn't stop doing it.

If teasing is based on affection, that's fine, it doesn't bother me. But if it's based on ill-will and the wish to provoke and undermine, then it becomes something nasty that needs to be stopped before a person's self-confidence crumbles.

And it's true that some people are more sensitive to teasing than others. Someone with a thick skin and an enormous ego hardly notices they're being teased, it's simply water off a duck's back. They may even welcome it as a way of getting attention.

But someone who already has low self-esteem can quickly be unnerved by persistent teasing that only adds to the negative self-image they're carrying around.

Men still think it's fine to tease women about their figures, or their sexiness, or their clothes (and most women are insecure about all three), but complaints by women generally fall on deaf ears. If women teased men in the same relentless fashion, they would get it in the neck.

Teasing as a sign of fondness is harmless fun. Teasing as a sign of malice can quickly turn into emotional torture.

Pic: Rean Carter of Sunderland, who was being teased at school for his "girlie" hair. He has now had it cut short.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Sigh of relief

Teachers who organise school trips are getting more and more nervous that they'll be held responsible for every little cock-up that takes place, however innocent or unpredictable. So much so that some teachers are refusing to organise such trips altogether - to the great disappointment of the kids who lose out.

But teachers who went on a school trip to Belize where two pupils were raped have been held not responsible, and the pupils themselves have been told their behaviour was partly to blame.

That doesn't excuse the rapes of course, but it does help teachers who're stressed out with anticipating every possible accident and mishap and waiting for an accusing finger to be pointed at them.

The High Court found that the pupils had broken two basic rules of the trip by letting a man into their cabin and drinking alcohol. And they had not asked him to leave.

The court also found that the teachers had no reason to suspect the rapist, the resort owner's son, who had no criminal record and as far as they knew had not behaved improperly to anyone.

The teachers must have been greatly relieved, especially as the case has taken seven years to reach court - presumably seven years of nailbiting anxiety and self-accusation. Perhaps the teachers deserve to get damages for all the anguish they've been through.

The fact is that with the best will in the world, and with all possible precautions being taken, disasters can still occur. You just have to accept that they couldn't be prevented and deal with them as best you can. Dragging people through the courts seldom helps.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Brushed aside

It's easy to overlook human frailty. If we're able-bodied, healthy and mentally alert, it's easy to be impatient and insensitive towards those who aren't.

We don't always understand the limitations and failings that other people are struggling with, and sometimes it's all too tempting to believe they're exaggerating their problems and don't really need as much help as they make out.

How often I see people intent only on their own personal pleasures or urgent tasks rushing through the streets in a self-absorbed bubble, with no time or tolerance for those who are physically impaired, slow-witted, confused or otherwise not as capable as those around them.

How often I see reports of lonely elderly people forgotten about by their neighbours, disabled people forced onto the sidelines, mentally ill people treated as work-shy frauds, and wonder when we're going to have a bit more compassion and consideration.

I think the worst offenders aren't ordinary individuals, who can be astonishingly generous and sympathetic when prompted, but politicians to whom the weak and vulnerable are frequently nothing more than a tiresome embarrassment to be hidden away and ignored. Or told they're leeching off the state and should get off their arses.

A couple of years ago there was an elderly man living in the house next door. I didn't think about him much, I assumed he was happy enough doing his own thing, whatever that was. Then I heard he had died of chronic liver disease as a result of heavy drinking.

I thought that maybe if I'd been a bit nosier, a bit friendlier, he would still be alive. I was maybe just as oblivious as so many other people. The truth is, he was out of sight and out of mind.

Thursday 8 March 2012

A coating of sugar

It's always a let-down when a well-written and believable novel finishes with a totally contrived "happy ending". Probably because that's what the publisher wanted.

A book full of adultery, accidents, abortions and animosities magically terminates with all the festering problems conveniently resolved and everyone sailing on serenely. Pull the other one, it's got bells on.

The writer Winifred Holtby once said her idea of a happy ending wasn't one where everything comes right but one where the hero or heroine remains undaunted by things going wrong. I couldn't agree more.

The logic of the "happy ending" is fundamentally flawed. If the point is to encourage your readers and fill them with optimism, well, it may do that for five minutes, but then anyone with any intelligence will realise the contrivance and reflect that of course real-life is different.

If you want to encourage your readers, far better to depict someone who's been thrown the worst life can offer and has found the inner resources to deal with it and emerge stronger and more capable. Isn't that more inspiring than a bogus "all's well that ends well"?

A couple of months ago I read a typical "happy ending" novel. A women who's desperate for a child but can't get pregnant with her husband goes to bed with another man (married) and has his child. I assumed that once the truth got out (as it did) all hell would break loose and both marriages would be on the rocks.

But no. Very fortuitously the woman's husband doesn't mind a bit. And the other man happens to get killed. Everything wrapped up very neatly - except for the grieving widow, that is.

I'm sorry but a tricksy finale like that simply spoils the whole book for me. Life just isn't like that. If only they'd asked Winifred Holtby for the ending.

Monday 5 March 2012

Hard feelings

I do envy those people whose emotions are easily accessible, who know instantly if they're angry or jealous or sad or whatever.

I'm not like that at all. Sometimes my feelings are clear but at other times I have to dig them out from under a thick layer of repression, confusion and politeness.

I have to ask myself, what's going on here? What am I feeling, if anything? Am I really unruffled and unaffected, or am I quietly seething with rage or burning with resentment? What am I hiding in a dark corner somewhere?

Some people may wish they were less visibly emotional, that they weren't a constant maelstrom of violent ups and downs, but personally I'd like to bring a bit more emotion to the surface. I'd like to be a bit less of an unreadable sphinx.

Where this cool exterior somes from I don't know. Maybe it's just my personality. Maybe it's masculine conditioning. Maybe I'm afraid of exposing too much and getting hurt. Whatever it is, it's frustrating. Too often, I'm just unsure what's going on inside me.

I may imagine that by being less emotional, I'm thinking things through more clearly. But that has to be an illusion. I'm simply not aware of how my buried emotions are still affecting my thinking anyway. They'll make their presence felt somehow, whether I like it or not.

If I can just push away all the psychological sludge that's submerging my feelings, they might flow a bit more easily. I might even learn to wear my heart on my sleeve instead of behind my back.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Debt crisis

Are you as confused as I am about the Greek debt crisis? Are you struggling to make sense of it? Can you tell your junk bonds from your derivative instruments? Would you recognise a promissory note if you saw one?

No, I thought you wouldn't. Well, you can relax now, you're in good company. Nobody knows what the fuck's going on except a few hotshot economists (round about twelve) who have a vague idea of what's what. The rest of us are about as clued-up as a monkey with a hangover.

Still, having racked my brain for a while, I think the gist of what's happening is this:

1) The Greeks have been very naughty boys and girls
2) They've been given a jolly good ticking-off
3) They've been told to behave themselves or else
4) We'll be keeping a very close eye on them
5) So they'd better not try anything funny
6) We've confiscated all their pocket money
7) They can't have any sweeties for a very long time
8) They've been very naughty boys and girls
9) Just what do they think they're playing at?
10) They should be ashamed of themselves

There you are, not so hard is it? If you just collect up all those tricky words like guaranteed collateral and leveraged buyouts and flush them down the toilet, you'll feel ever so much better. If you realise there aren't really any debts anywhere, just rows of figures and bits of paper, you'll feel on top of the world.

Now help yourself to some olives, a few grapes and a jug or two of ouzo and, believe me, the Greek debt crisis will soon be of no importance whatever. Abracadabra!