Saturday 30 June 2012

Back to normal

We all like to think that we never worry about being "normal", that we just do our own thing, however weird or unusual it might be. I mean, who wants to be "normal"?

Not true of course. The fact is that we're always striving to be normal, whether we're aware of it or not. We may all want to do our own thing, but we don't want to be seen as a total loony. Nor do we want to be seen as undignified, embarrassing or vulgar. In private we have a very precise image of an appropriate public persona and we stick to it meticulously.

We don't go around

Sobbing with grief and misery
Laughing hysterically
Talking to ourselves*
Wearing pyjamas, wedding dresses or pink polka-dot suits
Ranting about the state of the world
Picking our nose or farting
Pointing at fat people
Smashing car windows

Dignity is very important to us. We don't want to be viewed as a figure of fun, an emotional wreck, or someone hopelessly out-of-control. We want to appear sensible, mature, responsible - in a word, dignified. And what is being dignified but acting normally, behaving in a way that other sensible, mature individuals would expect us to?

The occasional lack of dignity in suitable circumstances is fair enough - at a funeral or a party or a divorce hearing. But we soon put a stop to it and reassert our everyday decorum. We'll happily defend the idea of eccentricity but actually most of us steer well clear of it. We may think Grayson Perry's fabulous but we're not going to greet our own neighbours dressed as a small girl with a lollipop.

We're all more normal than we like to think we are.

* The less said about that the better 

Thursday 28 June 2012

Scrambled brain

I've had a nasty infection for a week and my brain is scrambled.

I feel like Francis Gilroy in David Park's book The Truth Commissioner:

"Never before has Gilroy felt his life so full of words and so depleted of those that carry meaning. Some days it feels he's wearing a straitjacket or his brain is clamped in a vice. He wants a new way to speak; he wants whatever's still ahead of him to be lived in a different way."

Normal service may or may not be resumed in due course.

Watch this space.

Monday 25 June 2012

Hot off the press

Once again I'm baffled by the latest publishing sensation. In this case it's a trilogy of erotic books about a wealthy businessman and a young graduate by the author E L James. They're the fastest selling paperbacks of all time, even surpassing Harry Potter.

What the attraction is I couldn't tell you, as I haven't read them. Apparently they involve BDSM* and are extremely explicit. Guardian reviewer Jenny Colgan however finds them surprisingly tame and innocent: "The sole erotic thing anyone ever does is bite or play with their bottom lip."

I daresay it's one of those situations where a book gains a racy reputation way beyond its actual content, and word of mouth and idle curiosity mean thousands of people are surreptitiously buying it to find out what all the fuss is about.

That's despite a bevy of reviewers making withering comments on the "treacly clich├ęs", "awful descriptions", "clunky prose" and "asinine phrases". But then most book-readers aren't attracted by high-flown literary outpourings, whatever we culture vultures might think. They just want a good read on the beach.

It seems that some of the interest is rooted in the sexual politics of the three books, which revolve around a virginal woman's affair with a more experienced man keen on sexual domination. Feminists have argued fiercely about whether the heroine is liberated and free-thinking or stuck in some sexist dark age.

Groundbreaking they certainly aren't, according to Jenny Colgan. She thinks they're heavily derivative, the businessman being straight out of "Pretty Woman" and his apartment recalling Frasier Crane's penthouse - "I kept expecting Eddie to arrive and do something amusing on the expensive furniture." The flirtatious emails are lifted from Bridget Jones while the sex is indebted to Ann Rice.

What has surely boosted the trilogy's sales is the much-noted quirk that slightly embarrassing books can be read unobtrusively on e-readers, since unlike a paperback they don't broadcast the content to all and sundry. So the demure middle-aged woman on the bus can be happily enjoying the whips and handcuffs regardless of the other passengers.

But however great my curiosity, I don't think I'll be sampling Ms James any time soon. I suspect my own fantasies are far racier than anything she could have concocted.

* for those from a sheltered background, bondage domination and sadomasochism 
The three books are Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed 
PS: This review is hilarious 

Thursday 21 June 2012

Unnatural practices

Those who rant against homo-sexuality usually trot out the religious line that it's an "unnat-ural practice", unlike the entirely natural business of heterosexuality.

Lord Ken Maginnis, a prominent Northern Irish politician, cranked out this familiar smear in a radio interview recently, and was roundly condemned for it. For good measure he also described gays as "deviant" and linked them with bestiality.

But a moment's thought exposes his use of the term "unnatural" as idiotic and detached from reality.

If you use the basic yardstick that anything you come up with yourself is "natural" while anything that has to be taught you by someone else is "unnatural", then clearly Lord Maginnis has got his nappies in a bit of a knot.

Homosexuality is an excellent example of something you come up with yourself, a personal preference that you merely act upon. Religion on the other hand is an equally excellent example of something that has to be taught you by someone versed in religious concepts and principles. A child doesn't spontaneously believe in God or spout the Ten Commandments.

In which case Lord Maginnis has got everything totally upside down, and it's homosexuality that's natural while religion is profoundly unnatural.

If Lord Maginnis wants to get rid of everything that's unnatural, some rather vital activities would disappear. The entire education system for a start, plus the health service, transport of all kinds and the English language itself. He would find himself living in a cave, wearing an animal fur, and grunting. Is that natural enough for you, Mr Maginnis?

Pic: the drop dead gorgeous Ken Maginnis 

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Generation game

I so take for granted my childless status that I've never thought very much about the ways in which my life differs from that of the average parent. It's only occasionally that something said by a harassed mum or bemused dad gives me an insight. For example:

1) I can never be hopelessly embarrassed by my child. I needn't worry about the grunting, shaggy-haired, sloppily-dressed, drunken young lad staggering along the pavement. He's not mine.

2) My child can never be hopelessly embarrassed by me. I can lurch around the house playing air guitar, spouting street slang or wearing bright pink pyjamas without being told to act my age and stop trying to be a teenager.

3) I don't have to keep coughing up money because my child needs tuition fees, a flat deposit, a car, tickets for Lady Gaga, new clothes for an interview or a flight home from Australia.

4) I don't have to worry that my over-suggestible offspring will end up a druggie, an anorexic, an alcoholic, a prostitute, a banker or a confidence trickster.

5) My offspring never has to worry that I'll squander the inheritance, go senile, become bedbound, fill the house with cats, take in a deranged lodger or fill the fridge with rotting food.

6) My child doesn't have to waste precious hanging-out time showing me how to fix the computer/ the iPad/ the mobile/ the lost emails. Or explaining the latest fad for corsets/ super-bling/ silly bandz/ half baldies/ vampires.

7) I don't have to provide ongoing emotional support over my child's traumatic break-up with the love of his/her life and daily threats of suicide.

8) My child doesn't have to provide ongoing emotional support as daddy and mummy go through a bitter and messy divorce with each one blaming the other for causing it.

Of course, in return for these advantages some may think I've missed out on the most wonderful and rewarding experience of my life - having children. Well, what you've never had, you never miss, as they say. And I've never had the teeniest parental urge.

I'm not entirely free of such domestic headaches though. Jenny and I are quite wayward enough to cause each other hopeless embarrassment. Or frantic worries. Or bug-eyed disbelief. But at least I don't have to fly her home from Down Under.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Memory lapses

It's really most unfair to criticise the Prime Minister for his constant amnesia over his links with the Murdoch empire and whether he knew about various corrupt/ immoral/ illegal activities that were going on.

I mean, give him a break. Okay, so his memory failed him over 20 times*. But we've all been there. We've all had memory lapses from time to time. We all have hectic lives, rushing from pillar to post, trying to keep all the balls in the air, trying to keep it all together. We can't remember every little detail.

If a media tycoon asks you to bend a few rules so he can get his hands on a tasty little business with no questions asked, you're not necessarily going to remember, are you? Especially if you're being distracted by the gorgeous, pouting Rebekah Brooks with her big hair and flirtatious glances. Obviously, a man loses his concentration in such circumstances.

Heavens above, who remembers all these trivial minutiae nowadays? There's so much to absorb and our brains are only so large. There's too much new information jostling for attention, shoving all the old stuff out of the way, pushing it down into some inaccessible corner of our grey matter. Who can retrieve all these scraps at a moment's notice?

Just last week Jenny asked me if it was true that I was seen at a notorious "house of pleasure" with a certain buxom blonde. I had to say that quite honestly I couldn't remember everything I'd done that afternoon, particularly with all the potent medication I was taking for my athlete's foot. As far as I could recall I was discussing an ambiguous passage in Deuteronomy with my local vicar. Well, it was either that or Leviticus, I'm not entirely certain.

No, I''m sure the Prime Minister is genuinely forgetful. After all, he did accidentally leave his daughter in a pub in Buckinghamshire a couple of months ago. His memory isn't what it used to be.

* when he appeared at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press 

Wednesday 13 June 2012


Just for a change, how about giving reality the brush-off? How about letting our imaginations out to play?

Imagine a woman in the middle of a field

Imagine the field growing bigger and bigger

Imagine the sky turning pink

Imagine another woman in a small plane

Imagine a column of smoke on the horizon

Imagine a hundred white butterflies

Imagine the women are thinking of circles

Imagine the circles are growing bigger and bigger

Imagine they're buzzing like bees

Imagine they're floating like clouds

Imagine the circles have escaped

Imagine the women have escaped

Imagine the field is empty

Imagine the plane is on the ground

Imagine a thousand white butterflies

Imagine a wrinkle in the sky

Imagine the women brushing their hair

Imagine the women remembering their past

Imagine the women walking on tiptoe

Imagine their soft breath

Sunday 10 June 2012

Years and tears

Are broken relation-ships harder to cope with as you get older? Are we less resilient, less optimistic, less forgiving? Do we have more invested in them, so that failure comes as more of a blow?

Personally, I couldn't say, as my present relationship is of very long standing. I can only look at what happened when I was young, when I did in fact get over doomed relationships quite easily.

Of course that wasn't just a question of age. It was also because the relationships had been short, or half-hearted to begin with, or I had my eye on someone else anyway.

The older you are, the longer your relationships are likely to have lasted, so they're harder to end for that reason rather than age in itself. Although I think it's also true that as you age you become more dependent on relationships and feel more bereft and beleaguered if they fold. You have less confidence that you can simply bounce back and carry on.

It also comes as more of a shock if someone you've felt totally secure with for many years suddenly announces that they don't feel the same and their affections have moved elsewhere.

I think it's true too that as you get older, relationships seem more important than they did when you were young, and break-ups seem more disastrous. All around you there are happy couples and close friends enriching each others' lives in a hundred ways, and anything that depletes that precious store looks like a tragic waste.

Or can younger people be just as traumatised and shattered by broken relationships as those who're older, especially if they idealise their partners more and expect a perfect emotional harmony that's unattainable?

All I know is that I'm very blessed to have a relationship that's endured for so long, when many people are battered by one disappointment after another, forever asking themselves what went wrong and why others seem to have the magic touch.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

An awful likeness

One of the worst things you can say to most people is either "You're turning into your mother" or "You're turning into your father." Given that we're all acutely aware of our parents' failings, the idea that we might be reproducing them sends a shiver down our spine.

Even if we're thinking more of our parents' virtues, we still don't want to be told that we're merely a carbon copy of a parent, we want to have our own identity and take our own route through life.

I certainly don't like to be told that I take after my father, who in my opinion had a stack of unpleasant traits I spent most of my time trying consciously to avoid. Self-righteous bullying, among other things.

It helps that he hasn't been around for 24 years. Once a parent is gone, you're no longer exposed to the character flaws you disliked, and you're less likely to copy them. And when nobody can see the two of you together any more, they're less prone to see resemblances. I'm especially fortunate since Jenny never actually met my father and knows nothing about him except what I choose to reveal. So it's extremely rare for her to utter that dread phrase "You're turning into your father."

But it says something about our underlying view of our parents that if we're told we're morphing into one of them, our reaction is invariably one of shock and horror. My God, you can't be serious? You think I'm like my mother? This is terrible! Even if we're aware of all their good points, we never say "I'm like my mother? That's fantastic. How lovely of you to say so!" No, we always assume the worst, that the other person can see some vile, hideous trait that makes us thoroughly unattractive.

But as far as I'm concerned, I'm not like my father in any way at all. Absolutely, positively not. And you can't say any different as you've never met him. So there.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Sick joke

Anna's six year old daughter Charly fought bravely against cancer for two years before she finally died. All her online followers were grief-stricken. Then they discovered the truth. Neither Anna or Charly existed, and the whole thing was an elaborate hoax*.

It seems such hoaxers are common, and they tell their stories with such convincing details that other people are completely taken in, to the extent of sending money and gifts and giving regular emotional support.

What on earth possesses people to carry out such deliberate frauds on the unsuspecting public and feel no guilt or shame at what they are doing? Are they simply desperate for attention? Do they enjoy portraying themselves as embattled victims? Do they just like the idea of fooling gullible people? Whatever the motive, they are cynically exploiting our trust in the genuineness of onliners, whom we assume to be telling the truth unless we discover otherwise.

The syndrome has been named "Munchausen by internet" after those individuals who pester health services with imaginary but cleverly-faked illnesses that call for extensive treatments and hospital admissions.

One woman called Cara, on the American west coast, conned her internet visitors that she had cancer, HIV, anorexia and heart problems. She posted pictures wearing an oxygen mask and feeding tube, and a video in which she struggled to speak. She was eventually rumbled, and vanished.

Many women fake pregnancy and childbirth, stealing ultrasound pictures and baby photos, and even using ultra-realistic dolls.

But even if the motive is attention-seeking, it's a very convoluted and laborious way of doing it. Why not just get onto a bus and start ranting and raving? Why not just go out in fancy dress? Why go to such ridiculous lengths, and why the need for such bare-faced deceit?

* Information from the Macmillan online cancer forum, which "Anna" joined. 
PS: I've had a complaint that I haven't sufficiently acknowledged the BBC article by Jolyon Jenkins which is the source of much of the information above. I freely admit to having reused information from his article, I'm very happy to explicitly acknowledge him as the source, and I'm sorry if he got the impression the post was entirely my own work.

I also freely admit that I lift material from all sorts of media sources, as do bloggers generally, but I hope I don't give the impression that it's based on personal research. Where I use outside material, I always link to the original source, though I accept this may not be seen as explicit enough.