Wednesday 30 May 2012

Dividing line

I guess we all try to steer a careful line between normality and eccentricity. On the one hand we don't want to be normal, which means boring, predictable, obvious, stereotyped and just like everyone else. On the other hand we don't want to come across as some raving loony so detached from social norms that everyone gives us a wide berth.

I don't think there's much danger of my being seen as normal, since so many of my views and feelings are way out of line with other people's, or at least other people's as depicted by newspaper headlines, cabbies and the old geezer in the supermarket.

There's a much bigger risk of my turning into a wild-eyed eccentric, frothing and fizzing about every controversial issue and becoming the local laughing-stock that nobody takes seriously. I sometimes have to rein myself in and refrain from the sort of off-the-wall opinion that makes people knit their brows in bewilderment and ask me if I'm feeling all right.

I often have to ask myself "What would a normal person do in this situation?" and then act accordingly. Or alternatively, if the thought of behaving like a normal person, even for a few minutes, makes me distinctly queasy, I just keep quiet and wait for everyone else to enlighten me as to what the normal response might be.

When I come across someone who is conspicuously, dramatically eccentric, flouting every known rule of normal conduct with manic glee, I shudder and hope fervently that my own behaviour is still well short of such lurid extremes.

It's hard to tell though. I'm eccentric enough already, what with being a feminist, a socialist, a vegetarian, a Royal Jubilee refusenik, an Olympics don't-care, a Dexter Dalwood fan. Would it take much more to propel me into the heady realms of nutterhood?

But it's all relative, isn't it? It doesn't take much to feel eccentric in this particular neighbourhood, packed as it is with God-fearing churchgoers and Union Jack-wavers. If I was camping out at some mud-drenched anti-capitalist rock festival near Stonehenge, I would probably feel completely at home - and sickeningly normal.

Footnote: I guess at the end of the day, whether I feel normal or eccentric is pretty academic, because the only thing that really matters is whether other people accept me or not.... 

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Role reversal

Good grief, he's asking for it.
Fancy going out like that.
He's just looking for trouble.
He's got no sense at all.

Friday 25 May 2012

Rude and crude

It's still not possible for a woman to walk down a street confident her privacy will be respected and she will not at some point be intruded on and harassed by some unknown man who feels she owes him some attention.

Research by the organisation End Violence Against Women has found that 41% of London women under the age of 34 have been subjected to sexual harassment in the street, and a third have received unwanted sexual attention on trains and buses.

Will men ever get the message that women are not sexual playthings provided for their personal pleasure but are other human beings whose lives are their own and nobody else's? Answer - only if they come under a lot more pressure than they're exposed to at the moment.

As usual, reports on the research call for changed attitudes from just about everybody - councils, police, government, public transport staff. Everybody that is except the people actually causing the problem - men.

Where is the emphasis on teaching men to respect women and not invade their privacy? When are men going to be told firmly and forcefully, just stop harassing women. Stop it now. Or you'll be ostracised and isolated by the whole community.

But no, it's still women who're advised to change their behaviour to ward off harassment, as if they're the ones to blame. They should dress differently, avoid certain areas, not go out, take taxis, stay sober, not look too friendly.

Women are still seen as asking for it. When in reality it's men who're asking for it. Not even asking, assuming their male prerogative. Assuming their feudal entitlement. Assuming they're God's gift to women. Well, they're not. They're just predatory arseholes.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Declining manners?

One of my blogmates recently deplored the decline of table manners, and pointed out several distasteful habits she often observed.

I was surprised to see how many people agreed with her over the habits in question, and how little, on the other hand, I myself was bothered.

I really wondered what all the fuss was about. I have to say that when I'm eating with other people I'm much more interested in how intelligent and engaging the conversation is than in how exactly they're eating their food.

Unless they're throwing their food all over the floor, or commenting on how badly it was cooked, or saying they're allergic to practically everything on offer, I don't really care how they eat just as long as they're enjoying themselves and enjoying the assembled company.

But for the record, these were the habits under discussion:

1. Talking with your mouth full
2. Starting to eat without waiting for others
3. Answering the phone while others are talking
4. Hitting your teeth with your cutlery
5. Not using cutlery
6. Hoovering through the laid-out dishes
7. Texting during the meal

I do object to people texting during the meal, as I expect them to be contributing to the conversation and not trying to be somewhere else at the same time. But other than that I'm very laid-back about other people's eccentric and unconventional habits. After all, my own table manners are far from perfect and no doubt give rise to ribald comments as soon as I'm out of earshot.

So am I really untypically tolerant or are others absurdly fastidious?

Saturday 19 May 2012

Feckless scroungers

The anti-public services and anti-welfare state brigade are having a field day, using the recession as an excuse to kick the most vulnerable and deprived citizens in the teeth and remove as much state support from them as possible.

Politicians and columnists alike are bemoaning the 101 evils of welfare. It goes to the undeserving. It stops people working. It makes them lazy. It stops them standing on their own two feet. It's beset by fraud. It encourages single motherhood and large families. And on and on.

None of these hysterical claims  are true. They're disproved time after time by thorough research and a look at the statistics. But this doesn't stop the halfwits and ideologues from digging up anecdotal and untypical stories to make sweeping and utterly false generalisations about the entire rollcall of claimants.

Stories of massive families living in mansions. Stories of the alleged disabled running marathons. Stories of workshy scroungers lying in bed all day. Stories of widescreen TVs and new cars provided by the taxpayer.

This ferocious black propaganda is smoothing the way for the government to cut benefits to the disabled, the sick, the unemployed and struggling families on a colossal scale, with the passive agreement of large swathes of the misinformed general public.

There's been much publicity about the family of 17 on state benefits, publicity that ended in tragedy a few days ago when six of the children died in an arson attack. What was the point of singling out this family for criticism? None, except to suggest they were feckless, irresponsible layabouts.

Large numbers of innocent people who genuinely need help are being penalised because of this politically-motivated smear campaign. And those doing the smearing are mostly well-off and highly unlikely to need any state benefits themselves. Their callousness and viciousness is breathtaking.

PS: May 31. The parents, Mick and Mairead Philpott, have been charged with murdering the six children. 

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Back from the brink

Don Ritchie lived close to the Gap, a notorious clifftop suicide spot in East Sydney. But while others would just shrug their shoulders and wonder why people top themselves, he would offer a kind word and a smile and try to convince them life was worth living after all.

Over the years Don Ritchie saved between 160 and 500 people from throwing themselves onto the rocks. But not any longer. The man who was named "The Angel of the Gap" has just died at the age of 85.

"He could read some people needed help" said his sister Sue. He would offer them a kind word and befriend them, and invite them back home for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. "That was often all that was needed to turn people around."

He received presents, Christmas cards and letters from those he saved, sometimes decades later. "It's really rewarding knowing that the action I took changed the course of their lives and got them back on track" he said.

What impresses me is that he was so sure the would-be suicides didn't really want to die, and so sure some temporary crisis meant they were looking at their life in a distorted way, that he was bold enough to intervene and try to change their mind.

He refused to say "It's got nothing to do with me." He refused to just pass by on the other side and say it was someone else's problem. He refused to accept that their lives were as black and hopeless as they made out.

I tend to assume that someone who is suicidal has been that way for so long, with the sense of despair and torment growing ever deeper and all-consuming, that second thoughts are unlikely. But Don Ritchie clearly had other ideas, and acted on them.

I wonder if another of the locals will step into his shoes and take on the same role, or if potential suicides will now simply jump off the cliff with nothing to stop them.

Pic: Don Ritchie at the Gap 

Saturday 12 May 2012

Making the break

Even after all these years, I still feel a bit guilty about some of the breakups I caused, and the possibly dubious reasons I came up with.

It was a Guardian piece "42 reasons to break up with someone" that made me recall some of the grounds I had used myself. For example:

1) She was a chain-smoker, and I hate cigarette smoke.
2) His real personality was buried under his speed*-addiction.
3) He/she was just terminally boring.
4) She was totally self-centred.
5) She was politically poles apart from me.
6) She was terrible at sex.
7) She was too intense/neurotic/anxious.
8) She was too wild/whacky/off-the-wall.
9) She wasn't interested in politics/art/anything intellectual.
10) She was too deferential and unassertive.

Of course when it comes to the crucial moment to call it off, the specific reasons are usually ignored for fear of a long and pointless squabble about whether the other person really is self-centred or neurotic or useless at sex.

We settle for some customary cliché about the relationship not working, or not going anywhere, or screwing us up, and leave the other person to work out the reasons - which have probably been brought up often enough anyway.

But even though I always told myself the breakup was inevitable, I would still feel a bit guilty about it. Was I being too demanding and expecting them to be someone they were not? Was I being too impatient and not giving the relationship enough time to grow?

At the end of the day I just had to trust my own instincts and accept that if the relationship felt wrong it was wrong and there was nothing more to be said. There was no point in analysing it to death. And if the other person was upset, it really couldn't be helped.

In any case, the person I broke up with might well have been equally unhappy about the relationship and been relieved rather than upset when it ended.

And I hope those women and men who broke up with me don't feel too guilty about it. If they thought we were incompatible, no doubt we were, and I bear them no grudges. But then again, I'm lucky enough to have found someone I am compatible with. Many people unfortunately never do.

* amphetamine, that is 

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Still alive

When I was a teenager, I was firmly convinced I wouldn't live beyond thirty. I guess I felt vulnerable, fragile, at the mercy of unpredictable events that could easily finish me off.

I would be in a car crash, or have a premature heart attack, or be viciously mugged. I would never be old enough to have wrinkles or arthritis or a pension. I'd be a pile of ash long before that.

So now I'm 65 I still find it extraordinary that I've survived to such a ripe old age without the expected calamity carrying me off in the meanwhile. How come I'm still here? How come I'm alive to see the 2012 Olympics, wind farms, Louise Mensch*, Barack Obama and the internet? Which guardian angel is hovering over me, keeping me from harm?

I'm very philosophical about my age though. I have no desperate urge to live to a hundred. I don't see that as a dazzling achievement. And as for living beyond thirty, well, I'm profoundly grateful I met Jenny at the age of 34, naturally. But if I'd snuffed it in my twenties and skipped a few decades, so what? I'd never have met Jenny, but then, what you've never had, you never miss, as they say.

I suppose my assumption of a brief lifespan was partly connected with my constant sense of being different from everyone else. If most people lived to a hoary old age, then ergo, being the habitual exception, I would peg out in my prime.

There was no concrete reason why I should die early. I wasn't addicted to drugs or alcohol. I didn't have a life-threatening illness. I wasn't doing a dangerous job. I was perfectly healthy. Yet I was convinced I couldn't possibly reach middle age, that that was an experience I would never know.

And now here I am, with the wrinkles and the pension. And still with a sense of having cheated my natural destiny. How did that happen?

*Louise Mensch - Tory MP who subjected James and Rupert Murdoch to ruthless questioning over the phone hacking scandal 

Sunday 6 May 2012

The price of fame

This is getting beyond a joke. I'm really hacked off with the media's constant intrusion into my personal life, day after day, as if I'm some piece of public property to be picked over by all and sundry.

On Monday it was "Is Nick too thin? A scarily gaunt-looking Nick tottered into the Merchant Hotel as if his legs were too weak to carry him. His ribs were clearly visible through his T shirt. Now anorexia is the word on everyone's lips."

Then on Tuesday came "Is Nick the country's most embarrassingly-dressed man? The skin-tight pants and punk-style leather jacket look really grotesque on a man of his age. The female receptionists at the Europa Hotel were struggling not to laugh."

On Thursday it was reported "At the Fitzwilliam Hotel Nick was looking worryingly pale and haggard, and without his usual companion, the artist and model Tanzi Twitch. Are his vigorous male appetites being satisfied? In short, is he getting enough?"

The endless torrent of lies, false assumptions, smears and abuse is getting me down. I've instructed my lawyers Sue Grabbit and Runne to take immediate action against these nauseating scumbags. As my closest friends know full well, there isn't a word of truth in these scurrilous attacks.

If this is the price of celebrity, if this is what it means to be a household name, I shall have to consider giving it all up and going back to my old job on the sandwich counter at Pret A Manger.

The reality is that I'm a chaste, God-fearing teetotaller with a love of stamp-collecting, cheese-rolling and dressing up in women's clothing. I have an allergy to hedgehogs and I'm honorary president of the East Belfast Garden Gnome Appreciation Society.

I couldn't be more normal if I tried.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Hairy females

Every so often there's a public questioning of why women have to shave. What's wrong with having hairy arms and legs, demands a rebellious female, to a wave of shock and outrage from her more conventional sisters.

The latest renegade is Emer O'Toole in the Guardian, who says she has now resisted shaving for 18 months and found it isn't the problem she thought it would be. She's quite happy to be hairy, and so apparently are most of the men she comes across, including her current boyfriend.

Yes, people sometimes giggle or make comments about her hairiness, but that's their problem, not hers. Children are generally curious rather than critical, wondering why women shave in the first place. She doesn't mention her academic colleagues at the University of London but presumably they aren't bothered.

Of course it's relatively easy for a middle-class leftie Londoner to get away with such scandalous gender-defying insurrection, but I wonder how easy it would be in less enlightened communities. The reaction in the average suburban street would surely be frosty enough to send her running for cover.

The problem is that the vast majority of women have been so thoroughly conditioned into the idea that body hair is repulsive, unhygienic and masculine that from puberty onwards the daily ritual of frantic depilation becomes firmly entrenched, particularly when every other woman looks impeccably waxed and plucked and lasered.

I imagine also that Emer is lucky enough to have only a modest sprinkling of body hair, intriguingly different rather than wincingly unattractive. Some women unfortunately have such rampant growth they simply wouldn't contemplate letting it all hang out.

I must say my own attitude to body hair is somewhat ambivalent. The idea of leaving your body as it is without forcing into some arbitrary gender stereotype is obviously appealing. On the other hand I've always found thickets of body hair either on men or women distinctly unalluring, and given the choice between women keeping their body hair or men removing it, I would actually opt for the latter.

Not that the female hair-purging routine is going to stop any time soon, despite the brave boycott by one truculent columnist. Neither are the lads going to uproot their beards, chest hair and pubic undergrowth, however much their womenfolk might fancy the idea. Some things are sacred.

PS: What's the norm in gay relationships, I wonder? Shaving or not shaving? I've no idea.

(Emer O'Toole's piece on body hair is hilarious and worth a read)