Friday 28 September 2012

A whiff of paranoia

In general I'm not a paranoid person. I trust people. I believe in them. I don't assume they're going to cheat me or betray me. I don't secretly question their intentions towards me. I don't imagine they're full of hidden hatreds and grudges. But with one exception - I'm very paranoid about friendships.

Even with a long-established friendship, when I should have every confidence that the other person is not just going to dump me overnight, I still get fretful and anxious and imagine the worst if there's too long a silence, or if I keep leaving messages and they're not returned.

Supposedly this is a particularly female trait. Women need constant reassurance that the relationship is still healthy, that the other person still likes/ loves them and isn't drifting away. Whereas a bloke is always sure the relationship is solid as a rock and doesn't bat an eyelid if there's no contact for weeks.

Well, how female am I, then. If there's too long a silence my imagination runs riot. He/ she has gone off me, or I said something offensive, or I'm boring, or too needy. I dream up a dozen reasons why I must have put my foot in it and that's the end of a beautiful friendship.

Then of course the other person contacts me and just carries on as normal without the slightest hint of anything untoward. And I realise my feverish imaginings were just that - feverish imaginings.

Some day I'll learn to have more faith in my friendships and not overreact to quite routine interruptions and silences. I'll learn that friendships are more durable than I think, that they don't just crumble over some tactless remark or tetchy outburst. Good friends are not that fickle.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Slumming it

The rise and rise of slum tourism - tourists visiting the poorest neighbourhoods to see how the worst-off survive rather than heading for the well-known sights - attracts mixed reactions. Some see it as positive, others as cynical exploitation.

It's nothing new of course. The trend was well under way in Victorian London over 130 years ago, when the upper class wanted to see for themselves the poverty in the East End. It took off again when Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa and tourists flocked to the townships and places linked to apartheid.

Now it's big business in cities like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing and even New York City, home of the Tenement Museum.

There's a similar trend in Belfast. Not so much slum tourism as conflict tourism. More and more tourists are curious about the areas that suffered heavily during the Troubles, as well as all the paramilitary murals and peace walls.

But opinions are divided over whether this fashion is good or bad. Those in favour say that as well as bringing money into desperately poor areas, it opens the eyes of people who may have lived in comfortable conditions all their lives and know nothing of serious hardship except what they see on TV.

Those against point out that a lot of the money raised doesn't go to the locals at all but to outsiders who've never set foot in the areas visited. And people's eyes may be opened for a few days but when they return to their normal privileged lives they soon forget what they've seen.

At its worst it's a voyeuristic search for cheap thrills and titillating squalor, taking away the dignity and privacy of those they're gawping at and not leaving them with any long-term benefit.

I'm of two minds about it all myself. Yes, there's little financial gain for the places the tourists visit, and little change to the prevailing poverty and degradation. But then again, I think many of those tourists are quite sincere in wanting to know about the wretched lives some people have to endure, and they return home genuinely enlightened and humbled.

The more people experience the grim reality of those forced to exist on the crumbs falling from the millionaires' well-stuffed mouths, the better.

My thanks to James Melik of the BBC for his article on the subject

Saturday 22 September 2012

Opening time

If you've written a mediocre book and you want it to get a flood of undeserved attention, all you have to do is give it a sensational and instantly memorable title. Like "Vagina".

It works like a charm. Naomi Wolf has been basking for weeks in the white heat of media publicity, as everyone dips into her long-winded tome expecting some perceptive (and saucy) insights into the much-loved female orifice.

Unfortunately a bevy of reviewers and commentators seem agreed that far from yielding shrewd insights, the book is disappointingly conservative and anti-feminist. For example:

"Much of the book boils down to the not-exactly-radical idea that a woman just needs a good seeing-to."  Anna Carey, The Irish Times

"....insisting that women have a physiological need to take delivery of flowers, to sleep with powerful men, and to receive large amounts of semen...."  Rachel Cooke, The Observer

"Wolf specifically disqualifies masturbation as a method of achieving high orgasm."  ZoĆ« Heller, New York Review of Books

"Vagina, then, is that very modern thing: a handbook for priggish sexual conformity masquerading as a manual for erotic liberation."  Laurie Penny, New Statesman

Not that any of the brickbats will bother Naomi overmuch. No doubt thousands of women (and men) are flocking to snap up the controversial text and see what all the fuss is about, proving once again that all publicity is good publicity.

It may be full of misunderstood science, mystical gibberish, slavish heterosexuality and trite platitudes, but what the hell? Everyone wants a "Vagina" on their coffee table.

What's the book actually about? Have a look here

Pic: Naomi Wolf

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Winning formula

Zadie Smith, in an interview with John Self, asks an interesting question about what we expect when someone invites us round. "Once you're invited, what kind of hospitality is ideal?"

I guess we all have our own ideas about what makes for an enjoyable evening and what doesn't. I've been to a few agonisingly tedious get-togethers in my time but also plenty of witty, exhilarating ones I had to drag myself away from. So what's the difference, I wonder? Here's a few suggestions for the ideal formula:

1) A relaxed, informal atmosphere. As opposed to that uncomfortable feeling that the place has been specially cleaned and tidied, there'll be a big frost if you accidentally spill wine on the priceless Persian rug, and too many subjects are taboo in case they embarrass or offend the assembled company.

2) Original ideas and witty comments. As opposed to hours and hours of banal, predictable, deadpan conversation about property prices, childcare, the weather, holiday cottages and the price of heating oil.

3) Disarming personal confessions. There's nothing so riveting and touching as someone unexpectedly revealing that they get awful panic attacks, or they're terrified of the dark, or they used to go shoplifting, or they talk to themselves.

4) The other guests being genuinely intrigued by my own life and interests. As opposed to asking me a few polite, indifferent questions and then continuing to hold forth about themselves. Or ignoring me completely while finding someone else utterly fascinating.

5) Following from 4, an absence of those self-absorbed individuals who find their own lives totally mesmerising and could talk about themselves till dawn the next morning unless you forcefully shut them up or show them the door. If allowed a free run, they kill the conversation stone dead.

6) Positive, optimistic people who enjoy their lives. As opposed to the permanently-depressed moaners and whingers who never stop complaining about their bad luck, their overwhelming problems and burdens, and how everyone else is sabotaging them and undermining them.

It's not often that these things come together and you go home feeling quite deliriously entertained and inspired. But it does happen sometimes. And when it does, it's worth all the dreary, interminable occasions that preceded it.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Rooting for Kate

Good for Kate Middleton, suing the French magazine Closer for publishing 11 topless pictures of her sunbathing in Provence.Why shouldn't she be entitled to her privacy like anyone else?

Of course there are still people blaming Kate for the intrusion rather than the cynical, salacious gutter press. They say she shouldn't be doing anything to encourage the voyeuristic media, and sunbathing topless was foolish and naive.

So once again the victim is being blamed for the actions of her predators. She has no right to enjoy her private life as she pleases, but the media have every right to stalk her and prey on her and flash titillating photos of her breasts across the world whenever they feel like it.

Apart from the ruthless invasion of privacy, I'm always struck by the utter hypocrisy of these little escapades. It's fine to publish photos of a celebrity's breasts, but if someone wanted to publish pictures of a newspaper editor's breasts, or her naked body, would she consent eagerly? Like hell she would. She would be racing to the courts just like Kate.

And then people say that when it comes to privacy, celebs are different. They're fair game because they court publicity in the first place and because they're always in the public eye. I totally disagree. Why does being a celeb mean your right to privacy can be instantly demolished? It's simply an excuse for poking your telephoto lenses into someone else's backyard and photographically raping them.

I'm rooting for Kate. Take them to the cleaners, honey. Sue them for everything they've got. Give them a good legal slap in the face. The prurient bastards.

Pic: not a picture of the royal breasts

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Too much information

Talking frankly about your personal sexual history is still a dicey topic, isn't it? Who really wants their current lover or anyone else to know about their probably far from flattering debacles or embarrassments or fumblings? Not me for one, I'd rather draw a veil over quite a few awkward experiences.

And if anyone tells you all their sexual partners were utterly fantastic, brilliant in bed, completely attuned to their particular sexual tastes, and always ready for it, who's seriously going to believe them? Sex is a complicated business and we all make a mess of it from time to time.

And if we're already a bit nervous about our sexual skills, who wants to hear about the wonderful ex who always knew exactly what to do and how to trigger total bliss in ten seconds? Or for that matter the hopeless ex who hadn't a clue and inspired a new world record in faked orgasms? Who only makes us feel even more nervous.

Do we really want to be told how stunningly attractive they were (prompting immediate thoughts of our own over-large bum, wrinkles and disastrous hair)? Or how amusing and witty they were (reminding us of our habitually catatonic and hatchet-faced disposition)?

No, unless the other person is supremely self-confident and quite happy with their body, any distant tales from the bedroom are asking for trouble. Better to keep them to yourself along with other mood-dampeners like heavy periods and false teeth.

The often ham-fisted and blush-inducing details of our chequered sexual history should only be divulged to very close and trusted friends who won't be phased by our failings or excesses but will remind us of their own sexual quandaries and give us the shared understanding we need.

So don't even ask about the woman with breast implants or the woman with the hand mirror or the woman with the very long tongue. My lips are sealed.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Happy bunny

I know I've been rather negative and angsty of late (one person even thought I sounded
"frantic") but I'd like to reassure anyone worried about my emotional or mental health, or convinced I was about to top myself, that I'm just fine, thanks very much, and there's absolutely no cause for concern.

In fact something very wonderful has happened to me recently (I'm sorry I can't give you any details because it's strictly private and confidential - but it has to do with an unexpected and very fruitful friendship) and actually at this moment I couldn't be happier.

Of course that cryptic little titbit will have your collective imaginations shooting off in a hundred directions, but I'm not saying any more. I'm not having an affair, I haven't met Penelope Cruz, I haven't run into a millionaire, I haven't found the perfect manicurist. But it's something just as joyful and special. In fact more so.

It's funny how every time I think my life is more or less complete, that I've done all the exciting and inspiring things I'll ever do, and that from here on in I'm just trundling steadily towards the old folk's home, suddenly something extraordinary happens that reinvents my life and makes me rethink everything from first principles.

And it happens when I'm not even looking for it. I'm just pottering about, minding my own business, doing the domestic chores, paying the window cleaner, wondering if that bar of chocolate has turned to fat, and whap, something explodes into my life like a meteor and sends everything flying. And what a lovely experience it is.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Parental dreams

I wonder why so many parents find it so tough to accept their children for what they are? They so often have hopes and assump-tions quite unrelated to what their children actually want out of life. Or what they're really suited for.

They imagine a grand career in some profession their child has zero talent for. They expect a dull, routine lifestyle for a child who is clearly rebellious and quirky. They hear the patter of tiny feet when their child has no desire whatever for an infant.

I've known so many people who say their parents don't understand them, don't appreciate what motivates them, and constantly undermine their true aims and ambitions. In short, their parents are more of a hindrance than a help.

Is it so hard to see your children as they are and encourage them in their true inclinations rather than a load of parental daydreams?

When I was young my mother and father had endless preconceptions about what sort of person I was and what I should do with my life, and they always found the reality hard to adjust to.

In the few years that I worked for a local paper, they saw me as some high-flying journalist jetting around the globe reporting world-shattering events. But it wasn't what I was cut out for or interested in.

They assumed I would share their very orthodox political views, and were baffled and upset when my views got increasingly left-wing and iconoclastic.

They expected me to have children and grandchildren, and couldn't understand why I opted out.

In general they saw me as Mr Normal, following a predictable, conventional, conservative lifestyle, probably on some new-build suburban estate where everyone mowed the lawn on Sundays and changed their car every three years.

I think they were permanently shell-shocked by my turning into the exact opposite of their stifling stereotypes. They looked on in disbelief as I adopted one radical cause after another - homosexuality, feminism, socialism, vegetarianism, premarital sex and abstract art, to name but a few. They probably wondered if some hospital blunder had left them with someone else's baby. They certainly saw me as as some alien being from another planet.

It must be very heaven to have parents who truly appreciate you for what you are.

Saturday 1 September 2012

Dogged heroes

The popular idea of a hero or heroine is someone who has done something brave and life-threatening, but to me the real heroes are those who persist in something they believe in, or simply stay true to themselves, despite relentless harassment and persecution from other people.

They just stick to their chosen path with quiet determination, refusing to compromise and refusing to give in to the bullies and bigots.

To my mind, that can be more heroic than a person doing something that's courageous and risky but which is generally supported and applauded by the public and they aren't also fighting for the right to do what they're doing.

Certainly rescuing someone from a burning house is heroic, but what about insisting on your own identity in the teeth of violent opposition? Opposition you may have to endure for decades? Opposition that may extend to death threats and murder? Isn't that heroic too?

I think of people like Manal al-Sharif, who has campaigned in Saudi Arabia against the ban on women drivers, and has been hounded by the government and forced out of her job.

Or Karen Silkwood, who investigated claims of dangerous practices at a US nuclear plant and died in mysterious circumstances.

Or Amy Lees, stalked for nine months by her ex-boyfriend, who put her details on a sex website so strangers kept pestering her.

Or Paris Lees (no relation), the transsexual campaigner who has been constantly abused and attacked simply for rejecting her given gender.

Or Lydia Cacho, the Mexican journalist who writes on sex trafficking, prostitution and pornography and has been physically attacked, raped, tortured and had numerous death threats.*

These are my heroes, these are the people I really admire for their dogged persistence in the face of seething hostility and repeated attempts to shut them up.

In short, people who refuse to take the easy way out.

* Yes, they're all women. It just happened to be women who sprang to mind.

PIC: Manal al-Sharif