Friday 30 November 2012

The greener grass

On the whole, I've never thought the grass is greener on the other side. I seldom imagine that other people's lives are far more enjoyable and fulfilling than my own.

I just don't idealise other people. Whatever their home life, their job, their hobbies, their physical appearance or their sex life, I don't kid myself they're perfect, that they live some charmed and magical existence I can only dream of.

I assume that whatever the outward impression, they're prone to just as many problems and disappointments and disasters as I am, and were I to step into their shoes for a day or two I'd soon discover how flawed their lives were.

But a surprisingly large number of people do seem to think that if only they had what somebody else has, their lives would be dramatically transformed. If only they had a huge house, a more glamorous job, a stunning figure, or a sexier partner, life would be a bed of roses and all their frustrations would fade away.

The fact is that people are very good at airbrushing their public persona, talking up their lives and carefully hiding the less attractive bits. Someone could be quarrelling viciously with their partner night after night but all that's shown to the public is a happily smiling couple, arm in arm and seemingly without a care in the world.

Of course I'm aware that I come from a somewhat privileged middle class background and so I don't have much cause to envy other people's lives to begin with. My life has mostly been pretty comfortable.

It's more understandable though that those who aren't so fortunate, those who have to struggle day in and day out for even the bare essentials of a decent life, may be bitterly envious of those who seem to live the life of Riley without lifting a finger.

To people that desperate, any apparently better-off household must seem like a deliberate taunt to their own hardship. To them the grass may be not just greener but irresistibly luscious.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Unshared memories

One reason I can't fully explain myself to other people is that so much of my identity is made up of memories - lush, detailed, intense memories that others can never have access to. I can only summarise those memories in a few brief sentences that fail to pass on their complexity.

It's a whole inner landscape or inner country that I'm familiar with, that I've wandered through hundreds of times, that's as vivid to me as the outside reality I'm seeing right now. Yet nobody else has set foot in it.

If I think of my boarding school, for example, a whole swathe of memories spreads across my mind, a whole panorama of teenage bullies, uninspired teachers, muddy sports fields and loud rock music. There's no way I can convey the full flavour of those memories to anyone else. However well chosen the words, they can only suggest a tiny fragment of what my inner eye is seeing.

It's like trying to conjure up Venice to someone who's never been there. I can describe it, I can show you a few pictures, but I can't give you the full three-dimensional reality of being there and discovering it for yourself.

It doesn't matter if the memories are true or false, accurate or distorted. The point is that they inhabit my mind but they don't inhabit yours. They fill out and embellish my past to give it a completeness that nobody else can know.

I can remember a particular girlfriend, say, and exactly how she spoke and moved and ate and laughed and undressed. However detailed my account of her, you will never see her as clearly as I can see her in my memories. You will never be able to imagine the living, breathing, animated person that I can instantly visualise.

If only I could transfer those memories, how much more you would know about me and my inner experience. If only you could download them from my brain and play them back through your own senses, in all their astonishing intricacy.

But no, they're mine and mine alone, circulating my mind like guests at a party, furnishing me with endless private scenarios I can't communicate. A whole chunk of my identity as inaccessible as the Milky Way.

Friday 23 November 2012

What the hell?

The point of religion, according to comedian David Mitchell, is to explain what the hell's going on. The trouble is that each one claims to have the very best version of what the hell's going on. So far from clarifying everything, they make things even more confused. And then we really really don't know what the hell's going on.

Personally I find most religions, and the extraordinary explanations they come up with, totally baffling. Buddhism makes a lot of sense to me, but then it's more of a philosophy than a religion.

But what I admire is the way people have put so much effort into understanding what the hell's going on. Someone sits down one day and asks themself "Just what the hell's going on? There must be some ultimate explanation for all this, if I could only find out what it is."

So they sits and they thinks. And they ask themself all those crucial questions that have been asked since prehistoric times. Like "What happens after we die?", "What the fuck are we doing here?", "Why are my wages so crap I can't even afford a new iPhone?", "Why do I have to wear a tie?", "Who eats pot noodle anyway?". You know, all those absolutely basic questions we're all desperate for an answer to.

And they come up with the ultimate rationale, the all-inclusive, everything-you've-ever-wanted-to-know easy reference guide to what the hell's going on. And it's called the Bible, or the Koran, or the Upanishads or whatever, and bingo, all those mystified souls who were forever scratching their heads in utter bemusement suddenly have The Answer. And they heave a massive sigh of relief and pore gratefully through the pristine pages.

But then as David Mitchell says, some other bearded guy in a robe* comes up with what he insists is A Better Answer, and everything's thrown into the melting pot again.

So we're still none the wiser. And God knows what the hell's going on.

*And why is it invariably a bearded guy in a robe? Doesn't he have some housework to do?

Monday 19 November 2012

Up for grabs

Other people's bodies seem to be fair game these days. They can't just be quietly enjoyed and apprec-iated. Everyone has to have an opinion on them, the more scathing and dismissive the better.

I know, I've done my fair share of presumptious commenting on other people's bodies, weighing in on something that's none of my business.

I've aired my opinions on their clothes, their size, their voice, their hair, or anything else that catches my attention. And what's all that got to do with me? In a word, nothing.

It's entirely a matter for them. Just as what I do with my own body is my business and not that of every opinionated Tom, Dick and Harriet who happens to see me.

Some people go even further. They presume to tell women if they can have abortions or use contraception or get sexual advice. Or keep their clitorises. And usually it's men who issue these gratuitous instructions. Who gave them the right?

There's a term for all this unwanted opinionising. A very accurate term. Body fascism. Because isn't that what it is? Or at the very least authoritarianism.

No wonder so many women dislike their own bodies and wish they had a different one. How can anyone have body-confidence if any passing stranger feels entitled to pass judgment? Just a critical glance can be disconcerting.

Random strangers and their opinions are bad enough, but once the journalists start wading in, it can be seriously destructive. Thousands of people are told that celebrity X or Y is badly dressed, too thin, has stringy hair or looks like they just crawled out of bed. Who gave these superannuated hacks the right to trash other people's bodies so freely?

It's about time we reclaimed the integrity of the human body, instead of treating it as another commodity to be shaped by public whims.

PS: Just to clarify, I don't include loved ones here. I think they're entitled to have opinions on their partner's/ friend's body. Of course those opinions may not be heeded....

Friday 16 November 2012


When I was young, boys everywhere wanted to be like Charles Atlas, the musclebound strongman who supposedly attracted women like bees to a hive.

The adverts posed the question "Why be a seven stone weakling and have sand kicked in your face when you could be a muscular he-man?" All you had to do was follow his special body-building technique and in no time you'd look like Tarzan.

I couldn't for the life of me see why men would want to be so obsessively muscle-packed they looked like some kind of freak of nature, like Michelin Man. I was quite happy to be a seven stone weakling, or pretty close to it. I was alarmingly thin as a boy - and continued to be stick-thin well into my thirties. I had no visible muscles, just a lot of pale flabby flesh.

And as I'd never had sand kicked into my face, except by romping dogs, I didn't see any need for lavish muscular protection. In fact I never had anything kicked in my face as far as I can remember. Except maybe the odd football carelessly aimed my way.

But some boys were seduced by the beguiling adverts playing on their insecurities and their lust for women. I had a schoolfriend who tortured himself daily with his bullworker, anxiously monitoring the strength of his muscles. Sorry to say, after six months they looked much the same as when he began.

How many women are bewitched by rippling muscles anyway? Some maybe, but I suspect kindness and intelligence are probably more appealing. Okay, he can't single-handedly shift the sofa or the washing machine, but is that really a deal-breaker?

So be warned - any rude remarks about my pigeon chest or my weedy biceps and I might have to kick some sand in your direction.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

False assumption

Just imagine being mistaken for someone who has died and your photo being flashed around the world as being that person. And then imagine the other person was a political activist their government wanted to get rid of.

Quite a nightmare. And Neda Soltani, who was a victim of exactly this mistaken identity, is still trying to rebuild a life that was wrecked by the confusion - a confusion still being perpetuated by indifferent journalists.

Media outlets looking for a picture of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot dead during a demonstration in Tehran, found Neda Soltani's Facebook photo and assumed she was the same person. Her photo went around the world as the other Neda - and is still being misused even now.

Before the confusion, she was a Professor of English Literature leading a normal, unassuming life. In less than two weeks that life was torn apart. She received hate messages accusing her of being both an agent of the Islamic Republic and an agent of Western governments. She was hounded by the Ministry of Intelligence.

She had no choice but to flee the country, eventually settling in Germany where she obtained political asylum. She is still trying to put her life back together. She suffers from depression and nightmares - and total disbelief at the events that shattered her life.

The people she is most angry with are the Western media. They kept using her photo even though they knew it was the wrong one, and knowingly exposed her to extreme danger. She could easily have been murdered.

Simply because her name was similar to someone else's and she had a Facebook photo. Two tiny but disastrous facts.

My thanks to the BBC Magazine, which originally ran this story. Pic: Neda Soltani

Saturday 10 November 2012

It doesn't take much

My self-confidence has always been shaky. It's not something that comes naturally to me, it's something I have to nurture and work at.

Some people seem to just ooze self-confidence. They like nothing better than to burst into some social gathering and start chatting away to complete strangers as if they've been friends for years.

I'm not like that at all. I have to constantly psych myself up, overcome my inhibitions, calm my nervousness, let myself go a little. I have to push aside my self-consciousness and my extreme self-censoring impulse, take a leap of faith and surrender to the moment.

Most of the time I manage a convincing display of easy confidence. But it's all built on quicksand. It doesn't take much for that confidence to dissolve into inarticulate awkwardness. If someone's ignoring me, or scoffing at my opinions, or misconstruing me, or being harsh with me, my immediate instinct is to freeze, to shut down and say nothing until I feel more secure and appreciated. My instinct is not to fight back to bolster my self-confidence but to retreat into my shell.

People sometimes wonder why I'm not more combative, why I don't simply give as good as I get when someone mistreats me. Why don't I just go in with all guns blazing and tell them to take a running jump? Isn't it a bit pathetic merely to crumple and limp away?

But I really don't have the emotional toughness for serious battles with people. On the rare occasions when I've tried it, I only end up feeling exhausted, furious and torn-apart. It isn't in any way cathartic.

So I tend to just lick my wounds and slink off into a corner to be alone with my injured feelings. And to restore my laboriously-honed self-confidence yet again.

I'm really not as nonchalant as I might appear. Believe me, it's all smoke and mirrors.

PS: This deeply personal post is dedicated to the very lovely Kylie Tai

Thursday 8 November 2012

Something personal

That Kylie Tai is hard to satisfy. No sweeping generalisations please. Nothing impersonal. No news stories. No make-up hints (oh, I may have invented that one).

Writing something totally personal is surprisingly hard. There's a whole wide world out there. But let me see now:

I could say I took the dog for a walk. But I don't have a dog.

I could say I took the wife for a walk. But that would be sexist.

I could say I fell off a stepladder and broke my leg. But that would be a lie.

I could say I get dreadful depressions that last for days. Except that I don't.

I could tell you about my unusual pubic hair. But that would be Too Much Information.

I could tell you I only wear stiletto heels in the privacy of my own home. But you wouldn't be interested in that.

I could tell you I'm full of anxiety and self-doubt. But who isn't?

I could tell you who I have a massive crush on. But you would just laugh.

I could say my childhood ambition was to be a trapeze artist. But you wouldn't believe me.

I could say I had no childhood ambition whatever. But you'd think I was an utter dimwit.

God, these stilettos are killing me. I'm taking them off right now.

Where was I?

Monday 5 November 2012

Acting tough

I know it's another of my notorious sweeping general-isations, but I think there's still a widespread assumption that men are tough and capable while women are more fragile and inept.

Neither assumption is true of course. Women can be just as resilient and hard-headed as men, while all those tough-looking guys may be secretly shitting themselves and feeling totally out of their depth.

Nowadays with the spread of feminism it's a lot easier for women to drop the pretence of being helpless and incapable and make it clear they can deal with difficult situations just as well as men, if not better.

But I think it's far harder for men to shed the image of being thick-skinned and ready for anything. It's still seen as very weird if a man comes over all shaky and clueless and needy and wanting a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on.

It's not only men who get embarrassed and scornful if other men cry or look helpless. A lot of women still find the sight of a weepy, floundering man disconcerting. It may be okay on the football pitch or at an awards ceremony, but in everyday life - definitely a bit of a no-no.

I certainly feel I have to maintain a fairly seamless facade of casual competence when I'm at work or in any public venue. There's no way I can collapse in a quivering heap pleading my gender frailties. My gender is still expected to be frailty-free.

Even in the protective intimacy of coupledom, women may still see a crying, crumbling man as a bit of a wimp rather than a vulnerable human being who needs sympathy and support. She's the one who keeps stumbling into psychic turmoil, and he's the strong, dependable one who's meant to ride to the rescue.

All I can say is, I regularly see tearful, distraught women. But when did I last see a tearful, distraught man? The fact is, I don't.

PS: From what I'm hearing now, I think this may be a generational thing. Younger guys are quite relaxed about crying and showing their emotions and weaknesses, while older guys are more likely to bottle it all up and put on an impervious exterior.

Thursday 1 November 2012

Secret knowledge

I can't for the life of me remember how I found out about sex. I mean, how you did it. What it involved. I picked it up somewhere obviously, but the actual source is lost in the fog of childhood memory.

It certainly wasn't from my parents. In those days, most parents were acutely embarrassed about the subject in front of their children. My parents would only refer to it in the most roundabout way, through double entendres and cryptic euphemisms.

In the 22 years I lived with them I never saw any evidence of their sex life. They kept it very carefully hidden, strictly confined to the bedroom and never shared with us kids. We knew "something" was going on, but what exactly that something was, we could only guess.

I didn't learn anything from my teachers either. At that time sex education was unheard of, and decent schools would never get involved with "that sort of thing". Maths and grammar naturally, but sex? Not at all appropriate for a school curriculum. And of course most teachers were as embarrassed about it as the parents.

Nor did I glean anything from other boys. If they were up to anything sexual, they didn't mention it to me. It was a guilty secret they kept to themselves. Even in the sweaty intimacy of changing rooms and dormitories, the subject never cropped up. Or was my sheltered and prudish mind simply blocking out whatever I heard?

Somewhere along the line I put two and two together and worked out what this sex thing was all about. But the when and the who and the how is lost to memory. No wonder my first sexual experiences entailed a great deal of fumbling and panic and semi-ignorance. I'd just about discovered the basics but there was an awful lot I still had to learn.

What a great advance it is that today's kids are brought up in a more enlightened atmosphere and can learn more easily and naturally about this very basic aspect of life without all the squeamish secrecy and sheepishness of an earlier age.