Tuesday 31 July 2012

Winging it

People who worry they're not up to the job they're doing, that they landed it by mistake and they'll soon be found out, are said to have "impostor syndrome". I think I have a very advanced case of it. I feel like an impostor virtually all the time, whatever I'm doing and however good I am at it.

However well I'm handling something, however much other people seem to appreciate it and treat me as the genuine article, I still think deep down that really I'm just fluffing my way through and sooner or later I'll fall flat on my face, announcing to all and sundry that I'm a total fraud.

I may seem very chatty and sociable but am I just hiding my secret desire to be a hermit, shutting out the world? I may seem to know everything about socialism or modern art or growing orchids but am I just cunningly glossing over all the details I'm ignorant of? I may seem thoroughly masculine but am I just taking my cue from the Pocket Dictionary of Gender Roles?

There's something vaguely unconvincing about much of my behaviour, something that doesn't quite ring true, however slick and confident the performance. I guess I'm always unconsciously comparing myself to some role model whose actions seem much more adept, much more fluent.

So what does it take to feel authentic rather than fraudulent? What's the trick? How do other people do things with total conviction, as if they haven't the slightest doubt about their competence? Or are they privately as impostor-ridden as myself, keeping their anxieties concealed just as I do?

I suppose feeling like an impostor has its benefits. The constant question-mark about how well I'm doing means I'm not so prone to arrogance or contempt. I'm less likely to scoff at other people's fumblings and stumblings when I know how close I usually am to stumbling myself. I always feel I'm walking over some treacherous surface and if I don't concentrate hard enough I'll lose my footing.

There are some things I'm wholly convinced about though. I've been an atheist since the day I was born and the idea of a supreme being has never made the slightest sense to me. You can try as hard as you like but you'll never uncover a shame-faced Bible-basher lurking in the wings.

Friday 27 July 2012

Kiss me, kiss me

I love kissing. I love the sheer sensuality of it. And I love the different dimensions of it.

A kiss between loved ones or friends is an innocent and beautiful experience. It is affectionate, trusting, playful. It says I like you, I enjoy your company, I want to share myself with you. It says my soul wants to kiss your soul.

But a kiss is also the classic sign of an illicit relationship. An over-intimate kiss between two supposed acquaintances suggests something much deeper, something sexual.

However much you deny it, it speaks for itself. There's something going on here, something that shouldn't be going on. Or maybe something that should be going on, but it's going to hurt somebody else badly.

Then there are the kisses you don't really want to give at all. You're a bit reluctant to kiss granny or grandpa because, well, they're a bit wrinkly and funny-looking, and kissing all those wrinkles and saggy bits might feel a bit yukky. But after all, it's granny, so you overcome your squeamishness and give her a nice big kiss. And she really appreciates it.

And of course there are the people you're just dying to kiss, desperate to kiss, but you can't because they're remote celebs, or they're your boss, or your student, or you're sure they'd run a mile, or they're uptight straight men, or they just jilted you, or they're complete strangers in Sainsbury's.

There was a guy* who set out to kiss a complete stranger every day for a year - because he thought it was such a delightful and friendly thing to do. And he managed it. He recorded the reactions of all the people he kissed. Surprise, amusement, embarrassment, happiness, gratitude, flirtation. It was touching and heartwarming.

The human body is just made for kissing. The textures, the contours, the pliability. I'll happily kiss just about anywhere, from the forehead to the ankle and most spots in between. Whoever invented kissing was a genius.

* the wonderful Philip Thiel from Melbourne 

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Spilling the beans

In this era of supposed personal frankness, when people gush out their intimate thoughts and feelings to any passing journalist or TV presenter, you might think that no one has anything left to hide any more, that it’s all out there for instant public consumption.

I think not. For every person who spills the beans, there are ten others who’re more reticent and still keep an awful lot to themselves. Most of us don’t trust other people to be sympathetic to our innermost secrets, be they embarrassing, weird, disgusting or just incomprehensible.

The fact is that there are plenty of people only too willing to exploit other people’s weaknesses and eccentricities for their own personal gain or entertainment, and those uninhibited souls who lay their entire life on the table for others to pick at should either have a very thick skin or be prepared for a rather painful public mauling.

Even routine oddities like fear of flying, or fear of public speaking, or a passion for pickled onions, are often concealed in case of scorn or ridicule. As for the more rarified traits like social phobia or aversion to sex or hating to be watched, very few people would be trusted with those. Maybe only our partners, who’re going to find out sooner or later anyway.

It may be that other people are more sympathetic to those things than we imagine, but we daren’t risk telling the wrong person and being treated as some kind of freak show.

It may be that our shameful secrets are not as shameful as we think. But the longer we hide something, the more we prevent others from accepting and neutralising it, the more peculiar and monstrous it becomes, until the very idea of exposing it to others is unthinkable. We convince ourselves we’re so warped that if we confess all nobody will ever speak to us again.

We probably all need a personal therapist, someone we can confide in without fear of a negative reaction, someone who’ll listen without judging, someone who’ll help us to understand what we are rather than expecting us to be normal. With the best will in the world, even the closest and most trusted friend isn’t necessarily that dispassionate and all-embracing.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Short of staff

The total chaos over providing security staff for the Olympics shows once again that the private sector is not necessarily better at running services than the public sector. It also shows what happens when workers are treated like shit - they simply don't turn up to do the job.

Thousands of workers taken on by the bloated multinational security firm G4S haven't shown up at their allotted workplaces and thousands of troops and police officers have had to fill the gaps.

This epidemic of refuseniks is hardly surprising when you see how the wretched hirelings are being treated. Many have been employed on a daily basis only, so on any given day they may be told they're not wanted. So much for security of employment.

Their pay rate hasn't been revealed, but you can be sure it's the absolute minimum the firm can get away with. There are even reports that some workers are having to pay for their own training.

Those coming from a distance are having trouble finding affordable accommodation, which presumably the firm isn't helping out with. They may also have heavy travel costs to and from the venue.

If the workers calculate that they'll be making a pittance after their costs are allowed for, or they've found a better-paid job elsewhere, then of course they're likely to not turn up at all.

This massive absenteeism could surely have been predicted by G4S on the basis of past experience, yet they claim to have had no inkling of the problem until a few weeks before the start of the Olympics.

They also claim to have been taken unawares by the administrative demands of recruiting thousands of staff, training them, vetting them and allocating them to the various Olympic sites. The complex process was way behind schedule and many workers ringing helplines either couldn't reach anyone or nobody could answer their queries.

Even the Chief Executive of G4S, Nick Buckles, has admitted the situation is "a humiliating shambles" and regrets taking on the contract.

Though I can't think why. The firm will still claim its £57 million management fee, Buckles will keep his £830,000 annual salary (or a £20 million severance package), while the debt-ridden British government (and the taxpayer) have to bail out the private sector yet again.

Pic: Rebecca Tunney, the UK gymnastics champion 

Saturday 14 July 2012

Dog fight

An acri-monious worldwide campaign to save Lennox the dog ended this week when he was put down by Belfast Council.

The council maintained Lennox was a pit-bull type dog and therefore illegal and dangerous under UK law. Owner Caroline Barnes insisted he was harmless and had never injured anyone.

A huge internet campaign to save Lennox got more and more vicious, with the council's dog wardens being subjected to death threats, slashed car tyres and ferocious verbal abuse.

The case dragged on through several expensive court hearings before the council finally got the go-ahead to put Lennox down. Caroline Barnes is still bitterly aggrieved and sees the council as heartless and inflexible.

At the last minute an American dog trainer offered to care for Lennox for the rest of his life, but the council rejected the offer, saying the dog was dangerous and had to be destroyed.

I can't see why this sympathetic offer was so firmly refused. At least Lennox would still be alive. But refused it was, adding to the family's suffering.

I have to say though that in general Caroline Barnes seems to have handled the situation very badly. Apparently she made little attempt to establish the dog's actual breed or find any other legal way of contesting the council's ruling. And she allowed her so-called supporters to alienate council staff with a terrifying hate campaign.

Also, she must have known Lennox was a pit-bull type dog, and therefore possibly illegal, when she acquired him seven years ago. So it was likely that sooner or later he would be reported to the authorities.

If she had had any sense, she would have found a dog that was indisputably legal and therefore never in danger of being put down. It would have saved an awful lot of unnecessary distress and heartbreak.

PS (July 20): An innocent animal sanctuary, Benvardin Kennels near Ballymoney, is being bombarded with threats and abuse by pro-Lennox fanatics. Benvardin say they have nothing whatever to do with Lennox and blame an incorrect American media report. 

Pic: Caroline Barnes, her daughter Brooke, and Lennox 

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Reckless lives

When I look at the way some people live their lives, especially their unhealthy eating and drinking habits, I can come to only one conclusion - that they're either suicidal or they really don't care if they live or die.

How else can you explain the behaviour of someone who regularly drinks to excess, chain-smokes, eats junk food, or takes dangerous drugs, and has no interest in behaving more sensibly?

No doubt I sound absurdly moralistic and sanctimonious, but surely anyone who values their life and wants to enjoy it as long as possible would not deliberately do things that threaten to make that life not only much shorter but potentially blighted by serious illness?

When people say how much they love their family, their children, and their friends, how can they really mean it when at the same time they're behaving in ways that clearly jeopardise those relationships?

I can only conclude that at some level, in some private corner of themselves, they find life so frustrating and dissatisfying that actually they wouldn't mind it suddenly ending. So they simply don't have the motive to give up the destructive habits and adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Take someone like Amy Winehouse. If she genuinely valued her family and friends, why did she drink so heavily and give up on rehab so easily? Did she not care that she was causing her loved ones so much distress and concern as she relentlessly emptied one bottle after another?

I'm not being self-righteous here. I'm not saying I'm some perfect, saintly person because my own lifestyle is less reckless. I'm just lucky I'm not the addictive type and haven't succumbed to the things others find so attractive. I'm also lucky that my parents provided a model of behaviour that frowned on wild excesses of any kind. Their only blemish was my father's ten-a-day smoking habit.

I know people say how tough it is to break a long-standing addiction, even if you genuinely want to. But surely if you relish your life and want to prolong it, you're going to do whatever it takes to break the cycle?

Word check is not preventing a deluge of spam comments, so I've had to introduce comment moderation. Sorry about that. 

Saturday 7 July 2012

Dodgy deals

There was a riveting exchange about drug use on Question Time* between John Lydon (of the Sex Pistols) and Louise Mensch (the Tory MP).

Louise Mensch said she deeply regretted taking class A drugs when she was young as they had left her with mental health problems such as acute anxiety.

John Lydon poo-pooed her regrets and her anxiety and said there was nothing wrong with drug-taking as long as you were properly informed about them.

From his boorish and aggressive manner, and his habit of talking over everyone else, I can only conclude that his own drug use hasn't done him a lot of good.

Strangely enough, although I grew up in the sixties when drug use was widespread and a lot of my acquaintances were stuffing themselves with every hallucinogen and narcotic they could get their hands on, I hardly touched drugs at all. I tried marijuana twice and LSD twice but I didn't like the effects they had. I didn't like the idea of something taking me over and suppressing my own autonomy and identity. So that was the start and finish of my experiments with drugs.

John Lydon has a point though when he says lack of information makes drugs a lot more dangerous. If you don't know precisely what's in that substance you're shovelling into yourself (as most illegal drugs are routinely adulterated) and if you don't know what dosage you're taking, then you're asking for trouble.

I can still remember a lovely guy I met in the early seventies who was heavily into drugs. One day he took a massive cocktail of goodness knows what, and was found later dead in his bed with blood spilling out of both ears.

If he'd known exactly what he was taking, and known exactly when to stop, he might still be alive.

But when you have only the vaguest idea of what you're putting in your mouth (or arm or nose), it seems sensible to opt out. And listen to Louise Mensch.

PS: If you don't think prescription drugs are dangerous, take a look at this article on antibiotics 

* BBC TV programme about current affairs 

Thursday 5 July 2012

Grumpy, moi?

I refuse to moan and groan.
I refuse to become a grumpy old man.
I refuse to let the world's problems get me down.
I refuse to make mountains out of molehills.
I refuse to turn petty irritations into causes célèbres.
I refuse to complain about my bodily deficiencies.
I refuse to denigrate other people's lives.
I refuse to tell other people what to do.*
I refuse to rant and rave.
I refuse to demonise young people.
I refuse to be cynical.
I refuse to be paranoid.
I refuse to see the worst in people.
I refuse to be nostalgic.
I refuse to believe everything was better in the old days.
I refuse to think that I know best.
I refuse to think life's conspiring against me.
I refuse to be offended by bad manners.
I refuse to be offended.
I refuse to over-react.

I refuse to be one of those stony-faced old codgers who buttonhole me at the doctor's surgery or the bus stop and tell me the world's going to pot and nobody cares and the lunatics are running the asylum and he's glad he won't be around much longer and bloody hell, look at that, the way some people dress nowadays (Nick takes out small handgun and puts him out of his misery)

Mind you, Jenny would probably say that if you watch me closely, there's a grumpy old man much closer to the surface than I like to believe. He's just biding his time, honing his invective, but sooner or later he'll burst out of this innocent Clark-Kent exterior and wreak havoc at the number 4A bus stop.

* except for politicians and bankers, naturally. 

Monday 2 July 2012

Fool's errand

Like many parents at that time, I guess, my mother and father were always worried that I might grow up to be homo-sexual.

In the fifties homosexuality was still a crime, homophobia was rampant (the word had still to be invented), and gay men regularly committed suicide rather than face a lifetime of concealment or persecution.

The worrying was fair enough. But my parents went further and tried actively to prevent me becoming "one of them". In those days there were all sorts of hare-brained theories about why people became gay, and they didn't realise the futility of their efforts.

After a certain age they withdrew all physical affection, be it kissing, hugging or touching. They somehow believed that too much physical affection would turn me "the other way".

They scrutinised all my friends, and any male neighbours I talked to, for any signs of inappropriate behaviour or homosexual tendencies - whatever they might be.

Then bizarrely they sent me to an all-male boarding school, seemingly unaware that such schools were notorious for routine homosexuality. As it happened, there was never a whiff of gay sex in my particular school, so luckily for them I was spared the evil tentacles of Sodom.

They continued to be suspicious of my late teenage relationships, especially my friendship with a sixty year old abstract artist. My father was convinced he was trying to seduce me, despite the total absence of sexual overtones.

Eventually I left home and they were no longer able to monitor my activities. They were probably horrified when I started supporting the Gay Liberation Front.

But I never became gay and their decades of neurotic concern were completely pointless. It was nothing but a fool's errand all along.

PS: A new report by Stonewall says homophobia is still rampant in schools. It says 55% of gay pupils experience homophobic bullying and 96% hear words like "poof" or "lezza" in the classroom.