Saturday 29 December 2012

In two minds

I always feel ambivalent about other people’s miseries. On the one hand I want to help them and make them feel better. On the other, I don’t want their misery to deflate my own happiness.

Should I respond altruistically or selfishly? Should I think of their well-being or my own? Should I leave them to sort out their own negative feelings or ride to the rescue?

I think this ambivalence is quite common. Although there’s a huge market for books about people’s miserable past, about the abuse and neglect and poverty and self-hatred, in our daily life we may turn away from a stranger’s rambling hard luck story with a dismissive shrug. It may be too much to handle if we’re already wrestling with a dozen problems of our own.

Some people’s misery is so personal, so rooted in their own psyche and their way of seeing things, that it can be hard to relieve it however much we try. Any amount of sympathetic listening, intelligent advice or tough talking may cheer them up for half an hour but then the misery returns.

Also, misery can be very multi-layered. It can take time to dig out the exact cause. What someone tells us to begin with may be only the most trivial bits, the bits that are easiest to talk about. It may take a lot of patient coaxing to get to the heart of what’s clawing at them.

If it’s someone we love, that patience is easily come-by. But if it’s a mere acquaintance, we’re nervous about what we might be getting into and we’re more cautious with our concern.

And of course people often hide their misery. It’s embarrassing to confess that they don’t enjoy life. They see it as a personal failure, a temperamental flaw. They’d rather keep this awful affliction to themselves. We may guess at their private sorrow, but there’s no way they’ll talk about it.

But if it’s possible to ease someone’s misery and make them a little happier, it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. What more can you do for another human being?

Thursday 27 December 2012

Tall dark stranger

As is customary at this time of year, I always ask the renowned psychic and clairvoyant Esme Plunge what the new year has in store for me. Swallowing my earlier doubts about her psychic gifts, I ventured once more into her garish consulting room, trying not to stare at her ample bosom.

Nick: So, Esme, darling, what’s 2013 got up its sleeve?

Esme: Well, sweetheart, I see you being swept off your feet by a tall dark charismatic stranger.

Nick: But I’m a happily-married man.

Esme: Ha, that’s what they all say.

Nick: So, this tall dark charismatic stranger. Does she have a lot of money?

Esme: I’m not sure. My crystal ball’s getting a bit cloudy.

Nick: So is she cultured, well-read, sophisticated, witty?

Esme: Sorry, it’s really fogging up now, I can’t see a thing. Ask me another.

Nick: So is she red-hot under the sheets?

Esme: I can’t answer that. This is a decent, God-fearing, family business. But my psychic channels say she’s definitely not the shy, retiring type.

Nick: I see. So do I face any unexpected catastrophes in 2013?

Esme: Yes indeed. Your cosmic aura tells me that following a very messy and acrimonious divorce, your new mistress will desert you for a 22-year-old lesbian and you’ll be well and truly washed-up, eking out a miserable existence in a scummy bedsit.

Nick: Oh dear. But can I prevent all this?

Esme: Of course you can. Just ignore the tall dark charismatic stranger, take plenty of cold showers and remember your marriage vows. Tell yourself that temptation can always be resisted.

Nick: But then 2013 might also be a bit boring.

Esme: Not at all. I also foresee a hugely successful series of sado-masochistic soft porn novels, written by your wife, her whirlwind romance with a tall dark charismatic journalist, and a messy and acrimonious divorce followed by….

Nick: That’s quite enough. I don’t want to hear any more. I love my wife dearly. Nothing must ever come between us. Our union is unshakeable. The bonds between us are stronger than life itself.

Esme: Whatever. That’ll be £51, cash only, sweetheart.

Pic: the legendary Esme Plunge

Sunday 23 December 2012

Letting rip

Criticising other people is all the rage nowadays, isn't it? Pick someone who looks a bit vulnerable, or someone who looks a bit smug, and then tear them to pieces. Why not? It's all good clean fun.

The media gave the green light years ago by laying into every celeb they could find. Women in particular. She's too thin/ too fat/ badly dressed/ needs a hairdo/ looks a mess/ neglects her kids. Nothing's too petty to complain about.

Then the internet trolls joined in, waging hate campaigns against anyone they fancied, celebs and nonentities alike. Even when they've turned their victims into nervous wrecks, still they persist.

Even everyday bullying seems to be on the increase, be it of school pupils, employees, immigrants, the elderly, hospital patients or claimants.

I don't know if it's the thumbs-up given by so many carping journalists or just the idea that treating other people decently no longer matters, but gratuitous criticism now looks to be routine. If you don't like someone's behaviour, don't maintain a tactful silence, don't try to understand why they're behaving like that, just say exactly what you think and fuck the consequences.

Shop assistants aren't polite enough. Waiters aren't speedy enough. The young aren't respectful enough. Nurses aren't compassionate enough. The jobless aren't enterprising enough. Tradespeople aren't punctual enough. The slightest faux pas and someone somewhere will have a go at you. Absolutely nothing makes the grade.

What the hell's going on? We seem to be losing the ability to appreciate what we've got, to recognise that other people may be doing their best in very trying circumstances, to accept that it's an imperfect world, and to let other people live their own lives in their own way.

A little more tolerance and empathy and common courtesy wouldn't come amiss.

NB: I'm not referring to criticism of the rich and powerful. They deserve all the criticism they get.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Tug of war

The English High Court is having to resolve the deadlock between a couple who have totally different views on treatment for their sick son.

This must be a situation every parent dreads - heated disagreement on how to deal with a crisis in their child's life, and no obvious way of ending the dispute. Meanwhile the crisis intensifies and the child is left in a limbo.

Sally Roberts, mother of 7 year old Neon, who has a brain tumour, didn't want him to have either radiotherapy, chemotherapy or a second brain operation, fearing that the treatments would leave him disabled or otherwise damaged.

His father Ben however supports the treatments as without them doctors say Neon could be dead in a matter of months.

The judge ordered that the second brain operation should go ahead, but his mother was firmly opposed and was gathering evidence on alternative treatments. She said she didn't trust British doctors.

I think this sort of parental conflict over their children is much more common than we realise. Not just on medical treatment but on things like schooling, discipline, choice of friends, internet use, religion, diet - any number of issues. If the conflict isn't quickly resolved, a lot of harm can be done.

My own parents were divided on what secondary school I should go to. My father insisted on a boarding school but my mother didn't like the idea. Eventually his view prevailed and I was packed off to a boarding school where I was thoroughly miserable.

I hated the school's emphasis on religion but although my mother sympathised with my wish to opt out my father decided I should go along with it to avoid being an "oddball". Once again his view held sway.

The result of course was me forever resenting my father's obstinacy and insensitivity and ineptness. But at least it didn't end up in the High Court.

Pic: Sally Roberts

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Flag fury

Anyone outside Northern Ireland must be wondering what the flying fuck is going on in this country right now. They may well ask. The ongoing mayhem and anarchy makes little sense even to most of us living here.

The fascist thugs who are orchestrating the chaos would like us to believe they’re furious because a Union Jack is now flying over Belfast City Hall 17 days a year rather than 365. No, you haven’t misread that. A single Union Jack no longer flying permanently, only occasionally.

No matter that there are already thousands of Union Jacks flying across Northern Ireland every day of the week on buildings, on streets, on private homes, everywhere you look. Just drive for half an hour and you’ll see hundreds of them. But a single flag not flying so often is apparently the end of civilisation as we know it, a vicious attack on personal identity, and a valid excuse for unlimited rioting and destruction.

Ah, but it’s the symbolism, they shriek. The Union Jack symbolises everything that’s British, it symbolises our fundamental identity. Take it away and we’re nothing, our very heritage has been destroyed. Well, funnily enough, I’m British myself and I find I can assert my identity quite easily without a flag anywhere in sight.

But that’s not all. The rioters are also directly attacking the democratic institutions and politicians that made the decision about the City Hall Union Jack two weeks ago. The Alliance Party politicians who supported the decision have been subjected to a ruthless campaign of intimidation, including arson, death threats, attacks on property and verbal abuse. The flag-wavers want to smash the party and its non-sectarianism and drive it out of politics.

The senior Unionist politicians who encouraged the opposition to Belfast Council’s decision in the first place by sanctioning 40,000 inflammatory leaflets are now looking the other way and pretending the mayhem is nothing to do with them. Their reluctant and half-hearted pleas for the protests to end are having no impact whatever. The police are being equally laid-back and have arrested only a tiny number of rioters.

All the rioters are doing is wrecking their own lives and communities. The chaos is threatening thousands of businesses and jobs, driving people away from Belfast and Northern Ireland, and turning loyalism into a dirty word. But they just can’t see it. They’re convinced they’re fighting for some noble cause. Whether common sense will eventually prevail is anyone’s guess.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Rare emotion

It was a surprise to realise I can't recall a single time in my adult life when I've felt humiliated. Humiliation is not an emotion I'm prone to.

To feel humiliated, I would have to feel that my fundamental sense of self-worth had been shattered, and that has never been the case. However serious the situation, whatever its personal impact, it has never been enough to destroy my belief in myself.

I might feel insulted, or rejected, or got-at, or belittled, or unappreciated, but never humiliated. That would be too extreme a reaction.

There was one particular occasion when I was working in a bookshop and my boss jumped on me for being late for work. Not only was I formally disciplined but my trade union colleagues didn't support me. I could have felt humiliated, but the way I was treated didn't affect my underlying self-esteem. I didn't feel I'd done anything seriously reprehensible or irresponsible. So I never felt more than victimised and isolated and unlucky.

There was another occasion at Newark Airport, New York, when a zealous security official emptied out the entire contents of my suitcase in front of dozens of other travellers. She was happily rummaging through my underwear and personal possessions, searching for God knows what. But I didn't feel humiliated. Her intrusive rummaging didn't damage my self-respect. I felt embarrassed and awkward and exposed but that was it.

Maybe if she'd discovered a stack of porn mags or a corset or a copy of Mein Kampf. But she didn't.

My childhood was a different matter. My father would routinely humiliate me by suggesting I was stupid or lazy or cruel or selfish and my self-worth was being battered every day of the week. The same applied at boarding school where I was bullied persistently for four years. Thankfully that sort of merciless denigration stopped when I moved out of the family home and got a place of my own.

Given my treatment as a child, it's strange that at some point my self-esteem became quite solid and hard to shake. I don't need constant reassurance that I'm a worthwhile person. I believe in my own values and attitudes and I don't constantly doubt myself. I may be endlessly anxious, but it's not my own self I'm anxious about.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Ghost writers

Apparently it’s getting quite common for well-known authors to farm out the writing process to other people and avoid the gruelling ordeal of actually producing a book. Quite often the ghost writer’s name is not even on the book so the public has no idea they’re being cheated.

It’s claimed that all crime writer James Patterson does is send four line chapter summaries to a co-writer who then fleshes them out into a complete book. Which is how he managed to publish 14 new titles in one year.

Personally I wouldn’t read a book that I knew was largely written by someone else. It’s that particular author‘s style and flavour I appreciate and I wouldn’t want to read another writer’s probably inferior attempts at copying it.

Though if the author’s writing style was so prosaic and run-of-the-mill that any halfway competent writer could copy it slickly enough to fool the public, I wouldn’t want to read it in the first place. I would stick to someone original enough that any cheap imitation simply wouldn’t be convincing.

I also think that if a ghost writer is being used, not only should they be credited on the cover of the book but it should be made clear just how much of the book they’re responsible for. To deliberately pass off a book as entirely the work of someone who has merely produced a plot outline is outrageous.

I also wonder why on earth someone like James Patterson needs to resort to such subterfuge when he is said to earn around $94 million a year. If he’s tired of writing, why doesn’t he just retire gracefully and do something more enjoyable with his time?

Of course any author with any integrity would throw their hands up in horror at the idea of hiring a ghostwriter, and would never ever hand over the writing to another person. They‘re far too protective of their own individual style to entrust it to anyone else, however talented they may be.

There is absolutely no truth in the rumour that Nickhereandnow is written entirely by a team of unpaid teenage interns based in an ugly office block in Chipping Norton. I can’t understand where such vicious smears come from. I can assure you this tedious rubbish is entirely my own work from start to finish.

My thanks to Genevieve Hassan of the BBC, whose article this post is indebted to.

Friday 7 December 2012

Smug and patronising

The story so far: Nick is accused of being smug and patron-ising. He is in a quandary. How exactly should he respond?

1) He could mount a long-winded and defensive explanation of why he isn't at all smug and patronising and never has been.

2) He could pretend he doesn't care less, that the accusations are ridiculous, and anyway it's all water off a duck's back.

3) He could get very upset and hurt, cry on and off for days, wallow in self-pity, and vow never to write another blog post.

4) He could drink himself stupid, take off all his clothes, and run up and down the street shouting "The end of the world is nigh. Prepare to meet thy doom".

5) He could accuse his accusers of being smug and patronising themselves and projecting their own faults onto someone else.

6) He could whistle loudly and go "La la la la la, can't hear you."

7) He could utterly despair of the decency of the human race and their ability to treat other people fairly and sympathetically.

8) He could decide it's all too much, he just can't take it any more, and commit an especially gruesome form of suicide.

9) He could cheer himself up by buying some new nail polish and lipstick and dying his hair blonde.

10) He could take to his bed and refuse to get up until the astrological alignments are more favourable.

Which response will be opt for? How will he resolve this tangled situation? Will his hair turn grey? Will he lose his sanity? Will he resort to cup cakes? Don't miss the next gripping instalment....