Saturday, 28 April 2012

A shocking death

It's always extremely shocking when someone you know kills themself. Even if you're half expecting it, even if they've made a previous attempt, the actual reality of their doing something so desperate and so final is appalling. Especially if the method used was so grisly, as it was in this case.

Alice* was an old school friend of Jenny's. They were very close when they were young and had kept in touch ever since. For the last 31 years Alice had been a diagnosed schizophrenic. There seemed to be little anyone could do for her except keep her in supported housing with carers permanently on hand.

She was always pumped full of drugs, which seemed to do little for her, and any kind of talking cure or non-drug treatment had apparently been ruled out.

Her quality of life was poor and there was no sign of it ever improving significantly. Every day was a frustrating and humiliating experience of not being able to do what she wanted to do, and relying on others who did their best to make her life more worthwhile with limited means.

Many years back she had already expressed her anguish by jumping in front of a train and losing both her legs, which meant artificial legs and greatly reduced mobility. It was hard to have a sensible, coherent conversation with her as she was often scatterbrained and agitated, possibly because of the huge cocktails of drugs she was plied with. It was sometimes hard to pin down her underlying mental state - cheerful or depressed - because she would put on a chirpy front.

But we're told she had been seriously depressed for the last nine weeks and had actually been sectioned three weeks ago - we're not sure why. Twelve days ago she went off from the hospital on her own and was found later in the grounds of a primary school, having slashed her neck with a broken bottle. She died several days later.

It's heartbreaking that someone can come into this life with such high expectations, only to endure such tragic and agonising circumstances that suicide becomes the only answer.

I can't tell you how sad I feel about such a dreadful waste of life.

* not her real name 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Strained loyalties

How far should loyalty go? Do you stay loyal to someone regardless of what they've done - crime, cruelty, promiscuity - or do you at some point say, enough is enough, I'm simply not tolerating this, it's harming both of us and it has to stop?

It's easy enough when someone's done something a bit disturbing but of no great consequence. You can turn a blind eye and say, I'm not comfortable with that but what the hell, it's not worth picking a fight over it.

If your partner fiddles their expenses or tells someone they're stupid or keeps flirting with the neighbour, it's not hard to shrug it off as human weakness, remember you've sometimes done the same, and keep the criticism muted.

But if it's something more extreme - they've done a hit-and-run, or they're a workplace bully - do you still find ways of justifying it, or do you unflinchingly condemn them? Where do you draw the line between excusable everyday behaviour and something that's beyond the pale?

I'm always aghast at those people who'll defend their kids/spouses/siblings against the most appalling accusations of fraud, murder or thuggery and insist on their innocence despite everything, forever valuing personal loyalty over other people's interests. Their loved ones can do no wrong and other people are mean, nasty liars.

Women of course were traditionally loyal to their husbands (read slavishly submissive) however vile their behaviour, but thankfully that's a dying attitude and men can get away with a lot less than they used to.

But the people I really admire, on the other hand, are the ones who stand by partners who've done something highly principled but unpopular, like going on strike, and aren't intimidated by all the hostility. No way will they side with the critics for the sake of an easy life.

When I was once in dispute with a workplace manager over a (quite untypical) instance of poor timekeeping, I expected some loyalty from my workmates, especially as we were all in a trade union, but the non-committal and evasive silences were upsetting to say the least. One case where loyalty didn't stretch very far.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Cruel cuts

It's disgusting that every year up to 22,000 girls in the UK are at risk of being sexually mutilated in order to guarantee their "purity" when they marry. And up to 100,000 women have already been mutilated.

The practice is illegal but nobody has ever been convicted and only two doctors have been struck off for carrying out the procedure since 1980.

Somalian supermodel Waris Dirie, who was genitally mutilated as a child, is vehemently against the practice and the racist double standard that allows it to continue on such a massive scale.

"If a white girl is abused, the police come and break down the door" she says. "If a black girl is mutilated, nobody takes care of her. This is what I call racism."

The police and the government think that convictions will not achieve anything and that the best tactic is a softly-softly cultural approach, working with local community leaders to persuade families that the practice is barbaric and unnecessary.

It's hard to say if this policy is working. There is evidence that some communities are getting the message, but the fact remains that the number of girls being "cut" is still shockingly high.

It makes me so angry that so many innocent young girls, unable to stand up for themselves or resist their family's pressure, are being deliberately robbed of sexual pleasure in the name of some abstract notion of "purity" and family "honour".

The authorities may say they're doing everything they can to stamp out this repulsive ritual, but I'm just not convinced when they say so little about it.

If little boys were being routinely castrated, would there be the same half-hearted approach?

Pic: Waris Dirie

I can't stop listening to: Bonnie Raitt's new album, Slipstream. She may be 62 but hey, that lady still rocks!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Secret admirer

I'm still thinking about compli-ments. And I'm wondering if I'm the only person in the world with a constant desire to compliment total strangers on their appearance.

Whenever I'm out and about, if I see someone who's amazingly beautiful, or who's wearing some lovely bit of clothing (usually a woman but sometimes a man), I always have the urge to tell them.

I don't of course, because their likely reaction is either that I'm a nutter, or I'm about to hit on them, or I'm out to sell them something. They'll either mumble a reluctant "thanks" or say nothing. Then they'll move off in a hurry, furtively checking I'm not following them and intent on knifing them to death.

It's frustrating though, because I'm sure the other person would love to know that their dress/suit/hair/bracelet is admired by someone and isn't just an expensive mistake. And I'm sure they'd love to know that they're seen as attractive/handsome/sexy and not as a plain Jane or a clammy Sammy.

There should be a National Compliment Day when we voice all those unspoken compliments to whoever it is, and the complimentee always relishes the sentiment rather than freezing with apprehension. Just think how awash with pleasure and self-esteem we would all be by the end of the day.

It's sad that we have to keep so many potentially uplifting compliments to ourselves and the admired person never has an inkling that something about them is appreciated or even envied. Sadder still if they happen to be depressed and in need of a few encouraging remarks.

So here's a question for you. If some aging geezer like me stopped you in the street and said he adored your dress (or jacket) would you be pleased or alarmed?

Monday, 16 April 2012

Compliment slips

Supposedly many men are nervous about paying compliments to a woman because the intended compliment easily gets misconstrued as something negative.

"Curvy" is taken as "fat". "Figure-hugging" is taken as "too tight". "Great make-up" is read as "too much". And so on.

Not only that but most women aren't actually very keen on compliments anyway, or so this survey says. It doesn't explain why.

The reason, from my own past experience, is that women often regard compliments with suspicion. They think you're simply flattering them, or trying to seduce them, or trying to get something out of them. The idea that you're genuinely admiring them, with no ulterior motive, is hard to swallow.

But apparently some compliments are more credible than others. If you say a woman looks thinner, or looks utterly gorgeous, or her dress is stunning, or her hair is fabulous, she's more likely to believe you and bury the doubts. All a bit of a minefield for the well-meaning bloke just trying to say "Hey, you're looking good".

I suppose women's scepticism isn't as strange as it might seem, given that often men DO have an ulterior motive when they pay a compliment. Yes, they frequently do want her to cook the dinner, or organise the conference - or go to bed with him.

To be fair though, the survey should also have asked women if their intended compliments to men are equally misconstrued. Don't men also wonder about the hidden agenda? Or are they so narcissistic, they just lap up the compliments and let their heads swell?

Personally, the only compliments I get are usually of the "You're so thin" or "You look so young" variety. Which happen to be true. I never get compliments on my clothes, mainly because they're bog-standard male clothing. And I'm never complimented on my make-up. I must be using the wrong shade of lipstick.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Unforeseen errors

The Titanic sank on April 15 1912. It sank because it hit an iceberg. It hit an iceberg because of a chain of avoidable human errors that ended up causing the deaths of around 1500 people (the exact number is still uncertain).

It's all these human errors that fascinate me. Errors that the directors of the White Star Line couldn't have foreseen when they confidently described their prestigious liner as "virtually unsinkable". The sort of unpredictable blunders that can so easily sabotage years of meticulous planning.

These are the known human errors:

* Iceberg warnings from other ships were either ignored or not seen by senior crew

* Despite the iceberg warnings, on a poor-visibility, moonless night, the ship didn't stop or slow down but continued at its top speed of 21½ knots.

* This was because the captain was determined to reach New York in 6 days

* The lookouts in the crow's nest had no binoculars

* The radio operator told the nearest ship, the Californian, not to send any more messages as he was too busy sending messages for passengers

* When the lookouts saw a dark mass ahead, they spent ten minutes discussing what it was before realising it was an iceberg

* When the iceberg was spotted, the ship steered away from it and hit it side-on. If the collision had been head-on, the reinforced bow would have kept it afloat

Oddly enough, Titanic Belfast, the new building devoted to the Titanic story, has no gallery specifically on the collision with the iceberg, even though the collision is the crux of the story and the single reason why the liner is still so notorious a hundred years later.

I guess they find the human errors too embarrassing to emphasise, despite their importance. You're led to believe that the ship quite suddenly and unexpectedly hit an iceberg. Far from it.

(And that's not all. More human errors added to the high death toll)

Details of human errors are from the TV programme "The Unsinkable Titanic", Channel Four, November 3, 2008

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Stuff and nonsense

I'm always a bit disconcerted by stuffed animals. Why would someone want a dead animal in their home, a constant reminder that this poor creature was once living and breathing and is now just a bit of skin? Wouldn't a picture of the animal be enough?

As for dead animals being seen as works of art - like Damien Hirst's famous creations - that's even more baffling. What exactly is artistic about an embalmed animal?

I know the dead animal is unaware of its bizarre fate, a decorative ornament to be casually appraised by curious visitors, but even so, such contrived immortality seems either tasteless, pointless or absurd.

I had a girlfriend once whose ex-husband was a taxidermist. She did find his occupation rather odd, but what split them up in the end wasn't his work but his insistence that she dressed like a Barbie doll.

I suppose there's a case for stuffed animals in a museum, so you get a better idea of how they actually look, but any other use seems a bit peculiar.

Stuffed animals can also be terrifying if you don't expect them. Try walking into a dimly-lit room and coming face-to-face with a giant bear. It would be enough to give you a heart attack.

Apparently there's now a trend towards "catch and release" taxidermy, where photos and measurements of the animal (or fish) are taken, the animal is released and a resin or fibreglass replica is made. Is that still taxidermy though, or is it more like sculpture?

But what are we to make of those grief-stricken pet-owners who ask taxidermists to stuff their deceased poodle or tabby, so their beloved companion can still be stroked and fondled? How very sad. And desperate. And crazy.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

How am I doing?

Being too self-conscious is a recog-nised problem, but what about being too other-conscious? Just as awkward, just as embarr-assing, and equally likely to stop you enjoying life.

Like the way women are hyper-sensitive to other people's comments about their appearance, which results in most women disliking or even hating how they look. Or the way men monitor comments about their lack of masculinity, terrified they might be seen as "gay" or "girlie" or "wimpy".

Then there's socialising. While we're busy chatting away, we're privately wondering how our conversation is going down. Am I creating a good impression or do I look like a complete plonker? Do people like me or do they think I'm a pain in the neck?

I'm quite prone to being too other-conscious myself. Of course we should all be aware of other people and how they see us. But I spend too much time wondering what people are thinking and not wanting them to be too scandalised or bemused or offended. Entirely pointless, since speaking one's mind has to mean stepping on someone's toes now and again.

At least I don't go a step further and imagine what they might be thinking. Unlike the rampantly paranoid, I don't convince myself someone's got it in for me and is secretly hoping for my downfall. I don't dream up all sorts of devious plots and manoeuvrings. That's because I basically see other people as well-disposed towards me.

And at least I'm not so paranoid about other people's hidden thoughts that I avoid socialising altogether and flee from unexpected conversations. I enjoy talking to people, it's just that I always secretly wonder if I'm crossing some unspoken boundary or committing some unknown social gaffe.

This wariness probably owes something to my father, who used to say exactly what he thought regardless of the fall-out. If anyone got angry or upset he simply accused them of over-sensitivity. So I've gone in the other direction and have a tendency to walk on eggshells.

That's a bit girlie, isn't it? A bit wimpy in fact. Goodness knows what people are saying about me....