Thursday 26 December 2013

All due respect

I totally disagree with that old cliché "respect has to be earned". I think everyone should be respected until such time as they do something that forfeits that respect.

A complete stranger is as worthy of respect as an old friend you've known for years. They deserve respect simply because they're another vulnerable human being, with the same feelings and needs and weaknesses.

If a person hasn't "earned" respect, does that mean I can treat them as badly as I like, kick them around, abuse them, until such time as they've qualified for better treatment? Whose barbaric idea is that?

This absurd principle is trotted out all the time to justify hostile attitudes towards immigrants, welfare claimants, single mothers and all sorts of minorities people don't want to treat decently.

It means people are regarded as second-class citizens unless they've jumped through all sorts of demeaning and ingratiating hoops to raise their status.

It's like saying people have to earn kindness, or courtesy, or fairness. Shouldn't these be the normal way to behave?

Do we say a new-born baby has to earn our respect? Do we say a dinner guest has to earn our respect? Of course not.

Everyone deserves an initial respect, be they malodorous beggars, beer-slurping couch potatoes or clock-watching pen-pushers. Surely respect should be the norm unless it's forfeited by something unforgivable or reprehensible? Or unless the person's actually attacking or robbing you.

To my mind, respect is the cornerstone of a civilised society. It's not some prize to be competed for. It's not a carrot on the end of a stick. It's a basic right.

Saturday 21 December 2013

A foolish debacle

If there's any moral to draw from the Saatchi/ Lawson/ Grillo case, it's this - taking people to court isn't very wise. It can cause more harm than good and blacken your own reputation more than the person in the dock.

What exactly was gained by accusing the Grillo sisters of fraud? Elisabetta and Francesca have done well. They were cleared of fraud, there were no damaging claims about them except that they spent money rather freely, and several papers are now offering them large sums for their stories.

Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson on the other hand have not done so well. Saatchi was painted as a bad-tempered tyrant who terrorised his wife, the Grillos and his employees. Nigella was painted as a habitual drug user who was often "off her head", incapable of running the household properly, and addicted to pricey designer clothes.

None of these claims were substantiated, but they will stick in people's minds and be seen as facts even if they're half-truths or total lies. Charles and Nigella will forever be seen as an ill-matched couple constantly sniping at each other and prone to eccentric behaviour.

You do have to wonder why a court case was ever seen as the answer to the Grillos' lavish spending and why a simpler and more discreet solution couldn't be found. Like giving them a strict monthly spending limit. Like restricting their spending to certain items. Like taking away their credit cards altogether. Anything rather than drag them through the courts, with the inevitable media feeding frenzy and smear campaign that was bound to follow.

Not to mention the massive legal bills that just add to the huge sums spent by the Grillos. Good money after bad, you might say.

If you ask me, it's not the law that's an ass so much as those foolish people who put too much faith in it.

Pic: Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo

Sunday 15 December 2013

The snare of jealousy

Jealousy and envy are healthy, says Caprice*, since they're both connected to that strong feeling of loving somebody. Well, I can't agree with her.

To my mind, jealousy always means begrudging what the other person has and wishing you had it yourself. It means wanting to stop them from having it, by violent means if necessary. It means hating them and hoping they come to a sticky end. It means thinking they don't deserve what they have, that they've somehow got it unfairly. How can all that be healthy?

I'm glad I'm not prone to jealousy. I'm glad I'm able to appreciate other people's talents or possessions or friends or good looks without wanting to destroy them or wish some misfortune on them. On the contrary, I'm pleased for them. I'm pleased that in a brutal and unpredictable world they're lucky enough to have something of value, something positive, something that's a source of joy and well-being.

I remember a workmate of mine many years ago who was always eaten up with jealousy over what she saw as the privileged lifestyle of her bosses. Every day she was seething with resentment and rage, and the other employees would steer clear of her dispiriting rants.

Celebrities seem especially susceptible to jealousy, to people so pissed-off at their success and popularity that they flood the internet with abusive bile aimed at bringing them down from their lofty pedestals. Straying sexual partners can attract similar venom from the person spurned, finding their clothes trashed, their cars vandalised, their laptops sabotaged.

Jealousy is an ugly and corrosive emotion. I can see nothing healthy about it. It sinks a corkscrew into your soul.

* Caprice Bourret - British model and businesswoman.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Ten questions

I was intrigued by the ten questions Jenny Woolf posed to her blogmates. So here are my answers, for what they're worth.

1. If there's one chocolate left in the box, do you have to eat it, or can you leave it sitting there?

I could leave it for years. I'm very strong-willed when it comes to food.

2. What do you want to remember most of all, if you survive to be very old?

My trips to Australia, all the fun times with Jenny, walking in the Mourne Mountains.

3. Would you enjoy being a very rich and famous celebrity?

No. Being pursued everywhere by the paparazzi and demanding fans would be a nightmare.

4. What piece of music do you personally find most emotionally moving?

There are so many, from Mozart's Piano Concerto Number 21 to Goldfrapp's Black Cherry album.

5.  How do you deal with depression, anxiety and bad times?

I never get depressed for longer than half an hour, but anxiety is my middle name. I've tried many many ways of controlling it but nothing works for very long.

6. What do you love doing that bores everyone else stiff?

Grinding coffee, washing up, chopping vegetables, washing my hair.

7. Did you ever encounter an inanimate object that seemed to have a will of its own?

Shoelaces. They knot and unknot whenever they feel like it.

8. What is your very favourite hotel or restaurant?

The San Cassiano Hotel in Venice. It's on the bank of the Grand Canal.

9. Do you think prisoners who have committed particularly vile crimes should be segregated in jail for their own safety?

That's for them to decide. Long-term segregation can be very psychologically damaging.

10. What do you wish you had known when you were 18?

I wish I'd known a lot more about sex!

(There was an eleventh question about the photos in her post, but since you can't see them....)

Saturday 7 December 2013

Off trend

I couldn't be pretentious to save my life. I do what I want to do, and if it isn't trendy or cultured or flashy enough, that's too bad.

I see other people with their Armani jeans and iPads and Lady Gaga tickets and the Morrissey book and I think, well, that's fine, whatever turns you on, but I'm not going to rush out and buy all the latest fashionable bits and bobs just to prove I'm a cutting-edge sophisticate who knows where it's at. Whatever It may be. And wherever It may be lurking.

I insist on buying cheap chain-store jeans, tickets for old-timers like K T Tunstall, books by obscure authors nobody's ever heard of, and comfort food scarcely mentioned by all the celebrity chefs. I know practically everything I do or say is thoroughly off-message, and I don't give a damn.

The few times I've actually tried to be up-to-the-minute, style-conscious and so-hip-it-hurts, it's been a dismal failure and whispered put-downs and stifled giggles are the order of the day. I just somehow lose the plot and look like a pathetic wannabe trailing hopelessly behind the smug pace-setters.

When I was at boarding school, I tried desperately to be as smoothly masculine and rugged as the other boys, but of course it didn't work. However hard I tried, I still ended up as the effeminate wimp who simpered when I should be growling, and let my hair flop everywhere instead of slicking it back like Elvis.

As a teenage dater, I sometimes tried to be the cool, monosyllabic guy with the perfect social poise, but inevitably I reverted to type and remained the bashful, stuttering greenhorn terrified that any intelligent woman would laugh hysterically at my mumbled request for a second date.

No, I leave the pretentious posing and posturing to others, and continue to go my own way, gazing curiously at the breathless trend-setters scurrying along several miles ahead.

Don't mind me. I'm quite happy where I am.

Monday 2 December 2013

Too much information

It may be weird, but I don't really understand the concept of Too Much Inform-ation. I'm happy for other people to tell me whatever they want about themselves, and if they feel comfortable with it, then so am I. I don't care how strange the subject, if it's important to them, I'm glad they told me.

But of course it doesn't work the other way round. I say things I'm comfortable with, only to discover that other people are NOT comfortable with them and clearly think I've Gone Too Far. I have to hastily retreat and apologise and withdraw the awkward remark. Which I hasten to add, I don't mind doing; I don't want anyone to be squirming at something I've casually blurted out, oblivious to other people's sensibilities.

The thing is, there's very little about me I wouldn't want others to know. I know I'm full of faults and shortcomings and oddities but so is everyone else, so why be nervous about sharing them? Other people don't see it that way though; they feel there are certain things that shouldn't be shared, that they don't want to know, and if I do share them they cringe.

I do in fact keep quiet about a lot of things I'm pretty sure other people wouldn't want to hear. But then I mention something else that seems to me quite innocent and unremarkable and I find I've Said The Wrong Thing. And I scratch my head and wonder what caused such a frisson.

If anything, I would say most people give me Too Little Information. They're so afraid of embarrassing themselves, or embarrassing me, or looking crazy, or being self-centred, or exposing something too intimate, that they stick to neutral, well-trodden topics that avoid anything genuinely revealing. I think we're all far more guarded than we need to be.

Thursday 28 November 2013

The agony of divorce

If you think staying married can be tricky, try getting divorced. It often leads to the most horrendous and tangled proceedings you could imagine. Bitter squabbles over every aspect of the break-up, from children to property to money to how much each spouse contributed to the marriage.

A High Court judge said recently he was filled with "nothing but despair" over a wealthy couple who had already spent some £700,000 on divorce proceedings which had barely started, such were the labyrinthine arguments about aspects of the relationship. He decried the "unedifying" sight of a family "tearing itself apart."

It seems virtually impossible for a couple to divorce amicably and sensibly, with the bare minimum of fuss. The long-standing anger and resentment that led to the split in the first place seem to boil over in the courtroom and create one impasse after another. Each partner is afraid of giving too much away, losing out, appearing to be weak, and they keep upping the ante.

I know of several couples whose divorce was a horrific experience, with one or the other digging their heels in, refusing to compromise, and making life as difficult as possible for the soon-to-be ex-spouse. Very profitable for the lawyers but a nightmare for the warring couple.

There have been many attempts to replace ugly court cases with informal mediation arrangements, but quite often they lead to much the same stubborn wrangling.

My parents were sometimes bruised enough to talk about getting divorced. But they never did. In the end they stuck together as that's what most couples did in those days. "For the sake of the children" as they usually explained it. Maybe they should have divorced, but I'm glad they didn't. I can only imagine the tearful and rancorous scenes it would have involved and the misery for each parent as they tried to move on.

A shame there isn't some kind of foolproof psychological test couples can take before they marry, to determine if they're truly compatible or in the throes of some grand romantic illusion. It could save an awful lot of agony later on if things turn nasty.

Friday 22 November 2013

It could be worse

I have to laugh at all those reassuring clichés that people trot out when someone's in a tight spot or feeling a bit pissed off. They make you feel better for about ten seconds until you start thinking about them and realise they're total bollocks.

"You should be grateful for small mercies." Why? I want big mercies. The bigger the better.

"It could be worse." So if my house has fallen down, my wife's died and the car's been stolen, that's okay because it could be worse.

"The meek will inherit the earth." No they won't, they'll be shat on by every ruthless bastard who sees them coming.

"Your day will come." Probably not. The odds are it's already come and gone without you noticing.

"Always look on the bright side." Suppose there isn't one? Suppose it's a total calamity and all you can do is climb from the wreckage? (Another version of "It could be worse")

"You'll feel better in the morning." More likely you'll feel worse as you start blaming yourself for the disaster that was caused entirely by your own stupidity.

"It's all good experience." No it's not, it's a crap-fest that teaches you nothing except not to jump into things feet first.

"It'll all work out in the end." Or alternatively it'll turn into a bigger and bigger mess until you just want to top yourself.

"Every cloud has a silver lining." Not necessarily. It might be a budget version with a cheap and nasty polyester lining.

"We've all been there." Have you? Do you have the slightest inkling how shattering and demoralising this was? (Another version of "I feel your pain.")

Of course nobody truly believes all this nonsense. The real point is that it expresses the other person's sympathy and concern and kindness, and that's what counts when you're feeling knocked for six.

So the next time I'm down in the dumps, by all means tell me it could be worse. I'll know what you're really saying. I'll know all those silly words are really just a big hug and a loving kiss.

Monday 18 November 2013

Going backwards

If you thought today's young men were more pro-women and less misogynistic, then think again. A lot of them thoroughly enjoy abusing women and laugh at any woman who objects. Feminism seems to have passed them by.

Apparently British universities are becoming notorious for male students who take every opportunity to harass and intimidate women and still think rape is a hilarious joke. One especially shocking video of University of Stirling students enjoying misogynistic chants on a bus has been viewed tens of thousands of times.

In the video the male students are making jokes about miscarriages, feeling up women and screwing them, while women passengers sit silently, hoping not to be picked on. A student union officer walks away without trying to stop the abuse.

This is just an extreme example of what's going on routinely every day on uni campuses. The Everyday Sexism Project has received more than 100 reports of similar incidents from different universities, suggesting it's now typical male behaviour.

Jokes about rape and sexual violence, rude comments about women's bodies and clothes, unwanted physical contact - you name it. The now sickeningly familiar "It's not rape because...." jokes are trotted out.

One 16 year old says she's scared of going to university, not because of exam stress but because of the horror stories she's heard about male attitudes to women. "I'm scared. I'm actually scared of being a female."

How is it possible that rampant, unapologetic sexism has become so rife on uni campuses? Why aren't those in authority doing more to stop it? What are the student unions doing? What are the university staff doing? What are those men who object to it doing? Why aren't the woman-hating arseholes being thrown out of university?

I can only assume that those sitting on their hands instead of taking action secretly agree with the misogynist line that those women who complain are just frigid, uptight bitches who can't take a joke. "Where's your sense of humour, love? Boys will be boys, eh?"

Friday 15 November 2013

Talking yourself up

Wow, I can see I explained myself really badly in my last post. That's why so many of you claim you never try to impress anybody, which I very much doubt!

My mistake was to focus on the crudest and most blatant  ways of trying to impress - name dropping, place dropping, clever references and all that. But of course there are much subtler ways of "putting on the style", ways we usually take for granted.

By trying to impress, all I mean is that instead of simply being ourselves, we emphasise things, we flag things up, we steer people towards aspects of our personality we think they'll appreciate, in the hope they'll warm to us and like us more.

We don't have to name drop. All we need do is make a point of how sensitive, sympathetic and generous we are. Or how open-minded, tolerant and non-judgmental we are. Or how practical, efficient and well-organised we are. And of course we're hoping those listening will think "Oh, just my sort of person. I must get to know her better. I might have a great new friend here."

How many people choose to chatter pointlessly about the weather or their faulty vacuum cleaner, when they could be angling the conversation towards something that makes them look good, something that flatters them, something that paints them as a desirable human being? Not many, I would say.

Certainly not me, and I don't mind admitting it. I like people to like me, and I make a conscious attempt to bring that about. Apart from anything else, pointless small talk is an insult to the other person's intelligence. It says "Why waste any effort on this person? They'll listen to anything, however banal."

So I hope that makes my point of view a bit clearer. Obviously I made a real dog's dinner of it the first time round. As George Bernard Shaw once said. Or was it Gertrude Stein?

PS: Of course women "dress to impress" all the time. Is that so wrong?

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Pretentious, moi?

Funny how many of us are never quite happy with ourselves as we are. We feel it's not enough just to be us, we need a little extra something to make an impression, to stand out from the crowd.

It's hard to resist those familiar gambits that supposedly give us a little extra je-ne-sais-quoi but in practice make us look like pretentious, insecure gits. You think you're going down a treat when in reality everyone's wincing at your desperate attention-seeking. But it's so tempting, isn't it?

How about a bit of name-dropping? That famous actor you met last week. That bestselling author who sent you a letter. That prominent politician you had a go at.

Or maybe some place-dropping? You're just back from San Francisco. Which wasn't as cool as Chicago. And not nearly as glamorous as Sydney. And did I tell you about Los Angeles?

Or some obscure literary references? A pithy quote from Jane Austen. Or J D Salinger. Or Mary Wollstonecraft. Or The Diary Of A Nobody.

Or your visit to the trendiest restaurant in town? How you managed to get a table at Chez Rousseau when all your friends were told there was a six-month waiting list? And the champagne was on the house?

Well, no, actually I don't do any of that, though I'm probably pretentious in less obvious ways. I want to have the driest witticisms, the most original arguments, the slickest turn of phrase, the sharpest put-downs. Just saying what I think isn't enough, there has to be something more, something unexpected. I'm not just Mr Ordinary, Mr Average, I'm Mr How-about-that?

Come on, admit it, we're all trying to make an impression, aren't we? None of us wants to be bland and unforgettable, none of us wants to be an also-ran. We all want to make a mark of some kind, we all have ways of putting icing on the cake.

Saturday 9 November 2013


People sometimes suggest (because I like my own company I guess) that I hate other people.

That's very cheeky. And totally untrue.

Firstly, I don't hate anybody. Secondly, my attitude to other people depends entirely on the person. If they're intelligent and interesting and considerate to others, I warm to them. If they're dumb and boring and selfish, I give them a wide berth - but I don't hate them, I just wonder what made them like that.

I don't go out of my way to meet other people, I tend to keep to myself, but that's not because I hate people. It's because the chances of their being dumb, boring and selfish are alarmingly high.

And no, that doesn't mean I'm an elitist snob, it just means I don't want to spend my precious time humouring someone who's intent on airing their ignorant views about immigrants, homosexuals, lefties and welfare claimants. Or how long they had to wait for the bus, or the supermarket checkout, or the plumber.

Far from hating people, I'm hugely compassionate towards them. I want to understand other people's personal circumstances, I want to know why they're the way they are, I want to grasp the often traumatic and daunting situations they've been through that have influenced their personalities and their outlook on life.

We've all faced overwhelming and terrifying events at one time or another, and I can't hate people who've done their level best to overcome those obstacles and keep their lives on track. I can't hate people who're simply frail, vulnerable human beings trying to cope with the messy unpredictability of their daily existence.

I don't even hate rapists or murderers. They shock and sicken and bewilder me, but I don't hate them. I just want to know why on earth they did what they did, why they lacked the normal scruples and inhibitions that stop others doing the same. And I want them to be treated or rehabilitated rather than punished or ostracised.

I've seen enough vicious hatred in my life to know that hate achieves nothing except yet more hatred. I'm not that way inclined and never will be.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Brand awareness

Don't vote, create a revolution instead. The British comedian Russell Brand is still getting huge coverage for his cry of disillusion, even though his views are less than original.

Reactions are sharply divided. Some agree entirely with his message that all the major parties are in hock to big business and the wealthy and do nothing for those at the bottom of the heap who're struggling to pay the bills and keep food on the table. Why vote for these corrupt politicians, he says, all you're doing is maintaining the whole addled system. We should create a totally different society where everyone is treated fairly - in other words, a revolution.

But others say, yes, of course the political class is rotten to the core, rapidly increasing inequality and elitism rather than ending them. However, not voting doesn't solve the problem, it only makes it worse. The same useless politicians will be elected by an even smaller percentage of the voters, and nothing much will change. We need to make the system work rather than opting out of it. And where is this wonderful revolution going to come from? Who's going to bring it about? And how?

I guess I'm one of the doubters. I wholly agree the current political set-up is corrupt through and through, but I don't share his rather nebulous faith in some spontaneous revolutionary uprising. It's much more likely that people will continue to curse the present system but do nothing about it except to make sure their own family and friends are doing okay. I still think the answer is for more people to engage with the current political machine and force it to work properly.

One thing I do like about Russell Brand though* is his openness, his honesty, his willingness to admit his own faults and mistakes, his lack of airs and graces. And I like it that he's opened up a really passionate debate about the future of our putrid, worm-eaten democracy.

* Apart from his drop-dead gorgeousness, of course

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Gasbags and lurkers

I don't think extroverts and introverts will ever understand each other. They have such different outlooks and such different temperaments. The confident, sociable gasbags are baffled by the reticent, thoughtful lurkers and vice versa.

Personally I'm a confirmed introvert. I enjoy a modest amount of socialising and chattering, but too much of it and I start to panic, feeling my identity is being lost in a thickening fog of compulsive blather that's draining me rather than nourishing me.

To an extrovert, that inner panic is bewildering. They love talking to others and they would go on all day and all night if they could. The idea that you've had enough, that you might be hankering desperately for some peace and quiet, is incomprehensible.

Unfortunately, instead of trying to understand each other, extroverts and introverts tend to be mutually suspicious, always accusing the other lot of being the oddities and weirdos who make daily life more difficult.

If only those boring silent types would contribute a bit more, say the exasperated extroverts. If only those narcissistic windbags would shut up for a second, say the irritated introverts.

As an introvert, I believe an hour or two of private thought about something is probably more productive than an hour or two of gabbling away to someone else about it. An extrovert would believe exactly the opposite.

As an introvert, I like to contemplate beautiful sights in silence, gradually absorbing the full grandeur and impact. This isn't enough for the extrovert, who needs to share the excitement with as many people as possible, take 23 photos and post half a dozen Facebook updates. To them, staying silent can only mean chronic emotional constipation.

I guess this mutual perplexity will run and run. But one thing's for sure. Extroverts and introverts need each other's opposing qualities to get the maximum out of life. A bit like chocolate chips and cookies.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Whistle stop

New laws were passed a while back to protect whistleblowers and stop them being penalised for exposing things other people would like to keep hidden.

But in practice the laws have had little effect and people who're brave enough to ask awkward questions and challenge malpractices are still relentlessly persecuted.

They can lose their job, lose their home, lose a lot of friends, and be quite traumatised by hate campaigns and personal attacks. They still take a huge risk in speaking out.

Julie Bailey, the woman who exposed the substandard care and unnecessary deaths at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, has been so persistently harrassed that she has had to sell her business, sell her home and move to a caravan park fifty miles away. She has effectively been run out of town.

Hers isn't an isolated case. Others who "tell tales" in the same way have been similarly persecuted and hounded to try and shut them up and prevent them telling the truth. I know personally of one woman who can no longer find work in the food trade after she complained of sexual discrimination and had to change career to make a living.

The fact is that unless you're prepared to have your life ruined and your professional reputation trampled on, you shouldn't speak out about wrongdoing and corruption but should pretend you know nothing about it and everything in the garden is rosy.

Too many people and organisations still object to their work or their behaviour being criticised, even if the criticism is well-deserved and in the public interest. They'll go to any lengths to close ranks and silence the troublemakers. No wonder whistleblowers are still such a rarity.

Pic: Julie Bailey

Wednesday 23 October 2013

The unflinching truth

Prepare yourselves! My new no-holds-barred autobiography, out tomorrow from Snipcock and Tweed ("Counting The Cost", 872 pages, £24.99) will be a shattering exposé of my chequered and controversial life, marked by brutal honesty, eye-watering revelations, and unflinching hatchet jobs on all my friends and relatives.

Humiliating financial circumstances have forced me to relive all those notorious, headline-grabbing episodes I'd prefer to forget and plumb the depths of gratuitous muck-raking and character assassination.

Recoil at the sordid details of the all-night chocolate cookie binge. The hysterical outburst on the number 4A bus. The uplift bra calamity. The awkward stumble on the loose paving-stone. The mangled credit card. Images that will haunt you for weeks. Insights that will change your life.

The complete story of the runaway pram is told for the first time. The frail pensioner who lost her left leg. The giant egg. The missing sock. The burnt toast. The unbelievable chain of events that led to one of the biggest disasters in post-war British history. Including newly-discovered, stomach-churning photos.

Nothing is spared in the account of my tragic unrequited crush on Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. The repeated visits from her 20-stone bodyguards, the restraining orders, the arson attacks on my country hideaway, the sabotaged car brakes, my poisoned Alsatians. I make no secret of my tormented heart, my hopeless misery, my searing emotions.

I nail once and for all the persistent rumours that I was born with three legs. I prove that the photos were faked and the so-called reliable source was an alcoholic welder from Dundee. I reveal the real owner of the amputated leg, a 90-year-old widow called Fiona.

All this and more in the literary sensation of 2013. Buy it now or be out of the loop! An ideal topic for dull dinner parties! And at 872 pages, the perfect doorstop! What are you waiting for?

PS: Rats! All copies of the book have had to be withdrawn following a legal writ from Ms Huntington-Whiteley. She claims there are numerous defamatory statements, unauthorised photographs and factual errors in chapter seven. I can't say right now when the book will be re-published.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Future shock

I have what you might call future-phobia*. I'm nervous about the future and what it might bring. I don't have that optimistic horizon that most people possess.

Where other people assume the future will bring something better than they have right now, that life is essentially a matter of onwards and upwards, my imagination runs riot with all manner of unpleasant possibilities.

I'll run out of money; I'll go senile; I'll get some dreadful illness; the house will fall down; I'll live to 100, by which time I'll be a brainless vegetable; I'll die alone and not be found for weeks; I'll turn into a crazy eccentric, shouting at people in buses; I'll be dumped in some vile care home; and so on and so forth.

Why do I have these gloomy (and extremely unlikely) scenarios? Why don't I assume the exact opposite,a happy and healthy old age in which nothing very nasty happens and I enjoy all the things I enjoy right now?

After all, the future, by definition, is largely unknowable. Anything could happen, and there are sure to be plenty of surprises and odd quirks of fate. Good luck is just as likely as bad luck, and to dwell on the second is irrational and perverse.

But then, as we all know, humans are irrational creatures and trying to banish the irrational from our psyches is no easy task. I can tell myself over and over that my fears are unbalanced, that I'm looking at things from a lop-sided perspective, but the fears defy my earnest logic.

No doubt in twenty years' time, if I'm still on this planet, I'll laugh at all the absurd fears of my earlier years and wonder how on earth I imagined such grim turns of event. And then I'll have a chocolate biscuit and a nice cup of tea.

* It's very common but there doesn't seem to be a technical name for it. Secret Agent Woman, any ideas?

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Feeding time

Why are people still so hung up about breastfeeding? It's a totally natural activity, all the experts recommend it, there's nothing sexual or porny about it, yet any public glimpse of it is still seen by many as shocking or even distasteful. Why such extreme reactions?

One woman suggests it's partly the lack of breastfeeding photos in the media. If you never see pictures of it, it turns into something odd and furtive, something you feel uncomfortable about. If images of breastfeeding were everywhere, that sense of peculiarity would disappear.

It's not only photos we're lacking. It's any mention at all, other than in parenting columns. It seldom comes up in books or plays or movies. Or public health ads. Or people's photo albums. Even in ordinary conversation, it's a bit of a taboo.

Not so long ago pictures of heavily pregnant women were thought outrageous. Now they've become normal and nobody bats an eyelid. Breastfeeding photos need to become equally common. And not just photos in a domestic setting but in those public places we use all the time - restaurants, cafes, shops, cinemas.

Feeding your child with your own milk (or someone else's child for that matter) is one of the most natural and beautiful things in the world. It's far more natural than the sort of images routinely plastered over the media every day - images of death and destruction and disaster.

Newspapers fall over themselves to publish pointless pictures of buxom, scantily-clad women. Yet when breasts are put to their intended use, suddenly mass coyness descends and nobody must see this awful, corrupting sight. It's absurd.

If breastfeeding mums were as visible as page three girls or underwear models, maybe ordinary women with hungry children wouldn't find themselves relegated to a filthy toilet or dingy storeroom as if they were hopeless perverts.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Head scratching

There are many things in modern life I totally understand and welcome. There are other things I don't understand at all. I ask myself, what is this all about? What's going on here? But I'm buggered if I know the answer. Here are just a few of the things that leave me scratching my head:

1) The obsession with celebs
2) Tattoos
3) Tongue-piercing
4) Stag and hen weekends
5) The prejudice against public services
6) Posting naked selfies on Facebook
7) Wearing a face veil
8) Having private quarrels in public
9) Personalised number plates
10) Going mental on a plane
11) Nouvelle cuisine
12) Barbecues
13) Thongs*
14) Cosmetic surgery
15) Weddings on the other side of the world
16) Gangnam
17) Letting kids run wild
18) Teeth whitening
19) Designer labels
20) Lads' mags

I'm not saying these things are wrong. I'm not saying they should be stopped (well, maybe some of them**). I simply don't understand the attraction or the need or the pay-off. Different strokes for different folks and all that. Of course if I lived in Australia, I would have to attune to 12. I mean, barbecues are compulsory, aren't they? Don't you get jailed if you refuse to have one? Or so I'm told....

* that's the underwear and not the Aussie footwear
** maybe 5,10, 17, 20?

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Couth or uncouth?

We all have a different idea of what's meant by good manners, don't we? What to one person is quite normal behaviour strikes someone else as the height of rudeness and vulgarity. What one person sees as a stimulating argument, another sees as a blatant attempt to spoil a happy atmosphere.

People can feel so strongly about someone's "bad manners" or "discourtesy" that they cut them dead, even if they were close friends. They find the other person's conduct so repulsive and embarrassing they just don't want to be exposed to it again.

I remember carefully avoiding one woman after she invited me for a birthday drink and then steadfastly ignored me while chatting busily to her other friends. Jenny and I gave another friend the brush-off after she turned up an hour late for a (by then overcooked and inedible) meal. She breezed in without any apology as if this was perfectly acceptable.

Table manners can be a big bone of contention. I don't even notice if someone always talks with their mouth full, while someone else will be cringing with distaste. I loathe messy eaters who spray crumbs and food fragments in all directions, while other people aren't remotely bothered.

Conversational habits are another bugbear. Is the person who gushes non-stop about themself tediously narcissistic or admirably self-confident? Is the person who hardly says a word a good listener or a lazy deadweight? Is the person who finds the hole in every argument a pain in the arse or a breath of fresh air?

Attitudes to personal criticism vary widely. I can take very heated criticism without turning a hair, while others are grievously offended by the mildest challenge. I know I have plenty of faults and I don't mind if others point them out - as long as they're polite about it. But my father took the slightest criticism as almost a declaration of war, and would sulk for days.

What's meant by good or bad manners is a tangled question. But one we shouldn't waste too much energy on. If we're so obsessed with someone's eating habits that we pay no attention to what they're saying, that's absurd. It's jolly bad manners in fact.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Forced to love

Living in the society I do, where marriages are based on love and affection, it's hard to believe there are still many countries where a forced marriage to someone you don't like, don't love, or don't even know, is commonplace.

It's bad enough when they're similar ages, but even worse when the bride is still a child and the bridegroom maybe decades older, and the girl has very little idea what she's getting into or how she might be treated. It may seem quite romantic until she's faced with the reality of an uncaring husband.

Noora Al Shami's story is horrific, but I imagine all too typical of what a forced marriage can really mean in practice. Her husband treated her like a sex object, like a toy, and it was only after ten years of constant physical attacks that she managed to escape and rebuild her life by training as a teacher.

Of course it's not so long ago that British couples were forced into shotgun weddings by parents embarrassed by an "out of wedlock" pregnancy, and many of those marriages were also disastrous. Thankfully attitudes to unmarried parents are now more relaxed and this home-grown variety of forced marriage has ended.

But elsewhere the custom is alive and well, with many declared and undeclared reasons for marrying someone off. It can be to provide citizenship, to attract a bridal dowry, to increase the population, to resolve tribal feuds, or for the sake of family pride. The obvious potential for conflict, violence and misery between two people who turn out to be incompatible is routinely ignored. Likewise the likelihood that a strong and arrogant older man will treat his young wife like a doormat.

Even a relationship based on love and affection can be hard enough to maintain in the face of everyday problems and challenges. The chances of a forced marriage being successful must be very low indeed. Yet utterly reluctant girls and women - and presumably some of the men - are still pushed into it by determined families unconcerned with the possible consequences.

There must be many women like Noora, trapped in dismal marriages, who at times wish they'd never been born at all.

Pic: Not Noora Al Shami

Friday 27 September 2013

Swept away

It really annoys me when people look down their noses at someone who's got into some horrible mess and declare that it's all their own fault and they should have known better.

They stubbornly believe that the reason they've never stumbled into the same sort of mess themselves is their own superior character - their innate common sense, self-discipline, intelligence, or whatever.

They're too blinkered and obtuse to realise that we're all capable of screwing up our lives if the circumstances allow it, and that what brings it about isn't wilful irresponsibility but some personal weakness we're simply unable to resist.

If they haven't succumbed to such a weakness, it's not because they're inherently superior but because they've just been lucky enough not to land up in a situation that exposes that weakness and triggers it off.

People who have disastrous affairs, or go broke, or get themselves sacked, or are caught shoplifting, aren't merely "lacking in self-control". They've been so smoothly tempted or charmed or beguiled or persuaded into something risky that they're simply helpless to resist, despite their better judgment, despite their gut-feelings, despite everything. They just find themselves swept away and powerless to do anything about it.

Whatever we may think, we could all find ourselves on that slippery slope. There are plenty of stories of people who thought their lives were going fine, that they were sitting pretty, and a few months later everything's in ruins.

The sight of people crowing and gloating over other people's unexpected misfortunes is something I find quite sickening.

Tuesday 24 September 2013


I think of myself as a not especially generous person, but that may be because I'm thinking of generosity in the money sense. I'm probably quite generous in other senses though, like being forgiving, or being empathetic, or overlooking faults.

I quite easily forgive people for hurting me, or upsetting me, or being rude to me. I don't hold grudges for years afterwards or plot their early demise. I just assume they were having a bad day or didn't think before they spoke.

I try hard to understand other people's feelings and opinions and circumstances. I don't instantly dismiss them as idiots, cranks or time-wasters. I assume there are good reasons why people are miserable, or poor, or intolerant, and I want to know what those reasons are.

I accept that people have all sorts of faults, the same as I do, and I work around those faults rather than condemning them. Cutting them a bit of slack seems kinder than making them feel guilty and incompetent.

I don't let an instant dislike of someone put me off them. However disconcerting a person may be at first glance, I always give them a chance to correct me and show me their finer qualities. And they usually have some.

I will give people time. If someone has a complicated problem, or a long tale of woe, I'll hear them out for as long as it takes. I'm not one of those super-busy, self-important people who always have something more urgent to attend to.

I try to accept people as they are and not as I would like them to be. I try to respect their uniqueness and individuality and not force them to be something I find more comfortable or definable.

In return I hope others will be generous to me in the same ways. That they'll give me time, be forgiving, be compassionate, allow for my faults.

We can have all the material goodies in the world, we can have beautiful homes and possessions, but if we aren't generous to each other, if we treat each other brusquely and harshly, then life becomes cold and sad.

It's the people who've been generous to me, who've treated me with unexpected warmth and sensitivity, that bring sunshine to my life. They make up for all those who were mean and curt and discouraging, those whose hearts are frozen.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

The rose-tinted dead

Not many people give their honest opinion about someone who's died. However extreme and infuriating they were, people find all sorts of clever euphemisms to dress up unpleasant traits as something quirky and endearing.

Whatever the grim reality, most of us want the enduring memory of the person concerned to be a little rose-tinted, with their more objectionable qualities carefully softened or ignored. Those awkward characters who tell the truth are seen as malicious and embarrassing.

As one journalist notes, obituaries can be little masterpieces of misdescription. An "eccentric" could well be a social outcast, someone with "blokey humour" is likely to be a fierce misogynist, and someone who "enjoyed a tipple" was probably a confirmed alcoholic. There's a vast vocabulary of flattering or at least neutralising terms to help us out.

Obviously no one wants to offend grieving relatives and loved ones, but why go to such absurd lengths to pretend someone was a lovable old rascal when in reality they were a total pain in the neck or even a vicious monster? If that's what they were, why not say so?

It's odd that people don't want to speak ill of the dead,even though it's no longer going to hurt or distress them, yet rabid criticism of the still-living and still-vulnerable goes on all the time.

In any case, however thorough the attempts to clean up someone's image and hide all the skeletons in the closet, sooner or later the truth will out in some no-holds-barred biography or a bit of careless drunken gossip or the chance discovery of some revealing love-letter or diary entry. Secrets seldom stay secret forever.

I really don't care what people say about me after I'm dead, as long as it's not total invention. Of course I can be selfish and argumentative and obsessive and timid and scatty and brusque. So what? I've never pretended to be a saint so why pretend I'm one after I've gone?

Sunday 15 September 2013

San Francisco

Wow, what to say about San Francisco? First off, it isn't the paradise on earth it's hyped up to be. It's a very dysfunct-ional city, with not much that works efficiently and dozens of down-and-outs in every public space.

Many of the main streets are seedy and grubby, with lots of tacky tourist shops and stalls. The famous areas like Fishermans Wharf are jammed with tourists and day-trippers. There are long waits for the cable cars, as there aren't nearly enough of them to meet the demand. Most of the hotels are on busy thoroughfares and quite noisy at night.

That said, if you're willing to dump your inflated expectations and make the most of the city as it really is, there are many interesting and beautiful sights -  and people. We visited quite a few of the well-known SF 'hoods, as well as Berkeley, and found all sorts of little gems and treasures.

We loved Castro, the gay district, where we visited the GLBT Museum and Harvey Milk's old camera shop. We loved swish North Beach and Nob Hill. We loved the Golden Gate Bridge and also the Bay Bridge, which is just as elegant and impressive. We loved the wide range of art in the De Young Museum. We loved the sixties time-warp of Haight-Ashbury. We loved the cool and studenty Uni of California campus at Berkeley.

But oh dear, it's such a chaotic and shambolic city compared to say, Vancouver or Sydney. It was hard to get a complete map of the bus routes, there's no direct bus from downtown to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Museum of Modern Art has been totally closed for enlargement for at least 18 months, and there were masses of derelict buildings. Plus the cable car shambles and the ubiquitous street-people I've already mentioned.

It's not a city I would want to live in or come back to. It's not even much fun to walk around because of all the steep hills - daunting even to the fit and healthy - and the crowded and shabby main streets. I'm puzzled as to why so many people are so enthusiastic about it. I guess its nostalgic reputation as a mecca of alternative culture and sophistication is way out of line with the reality, which is rather more prosaic and predictable.

Pic: Castro Street

Saturday 24 August 2013

Thoroughly decent

I'm sure you've all had quite enough of me rambling on about my 101 neuroses. Just for a change then, I'm going to blow my own trumpet and tell you what a thoroughly decent and honourable person I am.

So at the risk of seeming smug, patronising, supercilious, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, goodie-goodie-two-shoes etc etc, here are all my thoroughly lovely qualities:

1) I don't harbour malicious thoughts about friends, loved ones or workmates.
2) I don't make anonymous attacks on Twitter.
3) I'm not interested in porn.
4) I'm not misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic.
5) I'm deeply disturbed by all the poverty, violence, misery and oppression in the world.
6) I've never had an extra-marital affair.
7) I like fluffy kittens and cupcakes.
8) I mind my own business and try not to judge other people's lives.
9) I don't gossip, and I'm good at keeping secrets.
10) I don't annoy the neighbours with loud music or all-night parties.
11) I deplore machismo and male posturing.
12) I do my share of the housework.
13) I'm a good listener.
14) I don't hide my emotions.
15) I'm not easily offended.
16) I'm not the jealous type.
17) I like teddy bears and ice cream.
18) I'm not an angry or bad-tempered person.
19) I do all my own laundry.
20) I take off my high heels on delicate parquet flooring.

Monday 19 August 2013

No offence meant

Some insults are obviously exactly that. If someone calls you a f***ing arsehole or a stupid cretin, then there's no way you can miscon-strue it. They're having a go at you.

But other insults are more subjective, aren't they? What one person sees as a hideous insult another will find entirely trivial and not worth remarking on. So much depends on how the words are interpreted.

People sometimes say I've insulted them when for the life of me I can't see where the insult lies. As far as I'm concerned, I respect them, I value them, I may even admire them. Yet they're convinced I've abused them in some way.

They'll take what I've said as a criticism of their religion, their work, their political views, their parenting skills, or whatever, and any attempt I make to put the record straight is simply ignored.

Personally, I'm fairly insult-proof. If someone says something that might possibly be an insult, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume a quite innocent meaning. They'd have to be blatantly rude for me to take offence.

Even if they're saying something clearly derogatory, often I can see it's because they've obviously misunderstood me or imagined something about me that's complete nonsense. So usually I just laugh or shrug my shoulders or take no notice. Why fly off the handle at some gormless misunderstanding?

But some people just seem to look for insults, they love the sheer drama of feeling insulted and fuming at someone. They'll see an insult in every other sentence - a sly dig here, a snide reference there, a sarcastic aside somewhere else. Everyone is getting at them, everyone is busy sharpening a knife to stab them in the back.

The fact is, I don't insult anyone out of the blue, for no good reason. They'd have to insult me first, and quite flagrantly, for me to respond in kind. Even then, I find it hard to be insulting. I always feel uncomfortable and mean, however justified my reaction, however hurt or crushed I may be.

All I can say is, like beauty, insults are often in the eye of the beholder.

Friday 16 August 2013

Kitty corner

These three adorable little kitties are called Fluffy, Taffy and Tiddles. Aren't they just the sweetest little darlings in the whole wide world?

Unfortunately they can't speak. But if they did, they could tell you some fascinating facts about cats:

1) Cats were sacred to the Ancient Egyptians, who worshipped a cat god called Bastet, and mummified their cats to prepare them for the afterlife.
2) Cats spend two thirds of their day dozing or doing absolutely nothing.
3) Studies show that many more people claim to own cats than there are cats. (?)
4) The word "tabby" comes from a cloth: a kind of striped silk taffeta. It derived from the Arabic Attabiy, the quarter of old Baghdad where it was originally made.
5) Up to 85 per cent of white cats with two blue eyes are deaf.
6) Like many small animals, cats have a non-fatal falling velocity - in cats this is about 60 mph. Once they relax, they orient themselves, spread out, and parachute to earth like a squirrel. Some cats have fallen 30 storeys or more without ill effects.
7) A single pair of cats and their kittens can produce 420,000 kittens in seven years.
8) Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap.
9) Cats can make over 100 vocal sounds, while dogs can make only ten. (?)
10) A cat's tail contains over 20 bones, helping it to balance on narrow surfaces.
11) A cat can move at a top speed of around 30 mph.
12) A cat can jump up to five times its own height in a single bound.
13) There is no mouse-flavoured cat food because the test subjects (cats!) didn't like it.
14) Milk is bad for cats. It gives them upset stomachs, cramps and diarrhoea. Diarrhoea can be fatal to kittens because it dehydrates them. All cats need is fresh water.

(?) Can this really be true?

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Hidden depths

How much can we ever understand someone else? Even if we've known a person for decades, can we ever compre-hend more than a fraction of their complex personality? How much can we ever glimpse behind all the public masks and role-playing and social diplomacy?

By the time we're adults we're amazingly skilled at faking it - in displaying not our real selves but the selves we want other people to see. The competent mum or dad, the chatty socialite, the reassuring friend, the diligent employee. Some pretty astute detective skills are needed to cut through all the pretence and dig out the real person hiding underneath.

We don't want other people to see the secret reservoirs of malice, jealousy, violence, greed, sloth, contempt and all the other 101 varieties of untamed nastiness. And worse than that, the fleeting desire for sheer unmitigated madness - the wish to strangle our argumentative spouse, drown our impossible children, burn down the stingy bank, bomb that hideous new office block.

If we know someone really well, we'll have seen a few of these squalid impulses in unguarded moments. But it's unlikely we've seen them all, or seen them in their full naked ferocity. And the really shocking traits may be concealed so rigorously that we never discover them at all.

How many times have we read of a woman whose husband of twenty years suddenly turns out to be a serial killer, a multi-million pound fraudster, a polygamist, or a drug trafficker? They swear they had no idea what was going on, that he was an affectionate, charming husband who aroused no suspicions whatever.

Extreme emotions and beliefs are especially hard to fathom. Strange obsessions and passions and hatreds that make no sense. What fuels such vicious hostility towards a former lover? What fires such devotion to an obscure religious sect? There's something going on there we just aren't privy to.

At the end of the day there's only so much you can learn about another person. Only they can know the whole story. Only they can know exactly how they think and feel and react. Only they can know their every sordid nook and cranny. They'll always leave us guessing more often than not.

PS: Next post - three adorable little kittens called Fluffy, Taffy and Tiddles.

Friday 9 August 2013

Tucked away

By the time you're my age, you've been through a lot of pain and hurt of one kind or another. If I gave it all free rein, it would be overwhelming. I would be an emotional wreck.

Childhood bullying, a vile-tempered father, failed friendships, failed romances, tyrannical bosses, nasty betrayals and rejections. Painful at the time and still painful many years later.

Those glib phrases "Get over it", "Deal with it", "Put it all behind you" are easy enough to say, not so easy to practise. Hurt isn't something you can just put in a rubbish bag and throw in the trash. It lingers, it loiters, it refuses to die.

You can come to terms with it. You can suppress it. You can take it to a therapist. You can pretend it's nothing much. You can take it out on other people. But at the end of the day it's still there, it's something you actually felt in all its raw intensity, and that has to leave a scar of some kind, a psychic wound. It happened and it's not going to unhappen. Somehow it has to be dealt with.

I have a bad memory. I'll forget the vicious words that someone used, the brutal look on their face, the clinical phrases in a redundancy letter. But I don't forget the cold way I was treated, the unkindness, the harshness.

I'm a forgiving person. But even when I can put myself in the other person's shoes, even when I can half-understand why they did what they did, what their motives were, what the catalyst was, it doesn't take away the pain.

Pain can cut you to the quick. It can break your heart. It can tear you to pieces. If I let it all out in its sheer extremity, I would be a jibbering lunatic. Like everyone else, I find ways of subduing it, of damping it down, of keeping it safely tucked away somewhere deep in my being.

Pain is the hidden shadow in everyone's identity. They may smile and chirp for other people's benefit, but who knows what they're keeping under wraps?

Monday 5 August 2013

Not for me, thanks

Things I don't do:

1) Wear red trousers
2) Wear lacy knickers
3) Eat meat
4) Chew gum
5) Drink Coca-Cola
6) Own a pet
7) Sleep with a teddy bear
8) Buy porn mags
9) Ring the Samaritans
10) Cry my eyes out
11) Giggle uncontrollably
12) Blush
13) Go to the gym
14) Ride a bike
15) Look for trouble
16) Look for excuses
17) Recite poetry
18) Read the Bible
19) Sunbathe
20) Keep a diary
21) Jump for joy
22) Jump queues
23) Bite my nails
24) Dye my hair
25) Go clubbing
26) Collect shells
27) Talk in my sleep
28) Sing in the bath
29) Shoplift
30) Hug trees

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Good mothers

Journalist Bronwen Clune moans that from the day she produced the first of her four children everyone expected her to be a "good mother" and assessed her every action against this impossible ideal. Any careless lapse was instantly jumped on.

But can this really be true? Surely in this day and age everyone - including non-parents like myself - knows that parents are not perfect, children are not perfect, and obviously you have to make allowances for normal, fumbling human behaviour.

Not so, says Bronwen. She's expected to make gourmet school lunches, supply everyone's favourite breakfast cereals, be a maths wizard and always have matching socks on hand. She's meant to be forever smiling and free of foibles and oddities.

I don't believe people are so censorious. Doesn't every other parent know full well how hard it is to bring up children? How demanding and awkward they are, how exhausting and infuriating, how unpredictable and startling. Do parents who know all too well the non-stop craziness of parenting and their own constant inability to measure up really expect other parents to reach some exalted standard they couldn't possibly reach themselves? Are they truly such mean hypocrites?

Even those of us who've never had children and may know little of the day-to-day turmoil and weariness of looking after them can surely imagine what it's like and sympathise with those mums and dads who're temporarily losing it or collapsing in a defeated heap while their offspring happily misbehave?

Who are all these people who expect Bronwen to be so saintly? If they're friends and relatives, then shouldn't she either keep well away from them or tell them to go screw themselves? If they're complete strangers, why take any notice of them at all? Or are these elevated standards ones she's actually setting herself, some kind of internal perfectionist streak?

This "good mother" hang-up seems especially odd for someone who's had four children. Hasn't she realised by now that there's no perfect way to bring up a child and you just have to take things as they come and do the best you can? Isn't the best response to other people's sniffy disdain a gale of raucous laughter and another glass of pinot noir?

Thursday 25 July 2013

The secret's out

Over the 66 years of my life, I've confided some very intimate, very personal thoughts and feelings to other people. Mainly to Jenny but also to other close and trusted friends.

Have I ever regretted such confessions? Strangely enough, I haven't. I can't recall anything that had damaging consequences or made me feel a reckless idiot.

Other people seem to do it all the time. Those familiar phrases - "Me and my big mouth", "I open my mouth and put my foot in it", "Did I say that out loud?"

Well, I don't use them myself. Have I, for example, ever been unfair to someone, shocked or horrified someone, diminished myself, exposed my weaknesses and frailties? Yes, I've done the last. But I'm happy to do that with people I trust.

Have I revealed things that are simply too private and personal to be shared? I don't think so. Someone can only get to know me properly if I tell them everything that goes on inside me. And that means everything.

There are people I haven't seen for decades who know quite mind-boggling things about me, but I'm not bothered. I doubt they've abused my trust in them, and even if they have, even if they've gossiped shamelessly, it'll be to people I don't know who can't do me any harm.

Then again, I don't need to have confessed to anything. There are glaring shortcomings I've revealed simply in the course of everyday life - sexual hang-ups, social ineptness, nasty habits, chronic self-doubts. But so what? Why be embarrassed that people have stumbled on awkward faults? They have just as many themselves.

I've got nothing to hide. My only worry is what others will do with the information. But by and large my trust hasn't been misplaced.

Sunday 21 July 2013

And so to bed

The meaning of the bed has changed drastically over the centuries. Nowadays beds are just something for sleeping, having sex or recov-ering from illness. But during the Middle Ages they were mainly a sign of social status.

While the poor had tiny beds made of canvas and straw, often slept in by an entire family, the rich had large and elaborate beds with canopies and curtains and lots of pillows. Some of them were so luxurious and worth so much they would be bequeathed in a person's will.

When bedside tables were invented, they too became a symbol of wealth and social status. As did the number of beds in the household, Louis the 14th having more than 400.

A rich person's bed was so impressive that they would often receive guests or preside over meetings while in bed. A big contrast to today, when receiving guests in your bed is seen as totally disreputable and degenerate.

The poor of course would justify their spartan bedding by saying that anything more extravagant was just a sign of self-indulgent pampering. Pillows, they insisted, were only necessary for sick women and invalids.

It was only in the 19th century that beds started to lose their social status to other possessions, and comfort became more important than how fancy your bed was. All people want to know today is whether they will sleep soundly or toss and turn all night. Or whether the bed springs will squeak embarrassingly as they pleasure a new lover. Or whether the bed's so narrow you and your loved one will be rather too intimately entwined.

In a hotel bedroom, I also want to know that the bed is clean and bug-free and not bearing traces of the previous occupant's frolics or nausea or greasy takeaway. And that the bed linen isn't threadbare from a thousand washes. And that the bed won't collapse in the middle of the night.

If I could also have a bed that guaranteed blissful and beautiful dreams, instead of the anxious and scary ones I usually have, that would be an added bonus. But I don't think the neuroscientists have cracked that one yet.

Tuesday 16 July 2013


Pictures of post-natal female bodies are seldom seen. They're thought of as ugly and embarr-assing. But one woman has set out to change that negative view by publishing a book of over 70 post-natal bodies and inviting us to make our own judgments.

The photos make no attempt to hide all the physical effects of childbirth - the scars, stretch marks, wrinkles and knobby bits that are usually seen as unattractive and to be kept out of sight. There's no airbrushing or photoshopping or touching-up of any kind, just the honest reality of what a new mum may actually look like.

"So many people tell me, oh, I've never seen a body like that," says the photographer, Jade Beall of Tucson, Arizona. "I want people not to have to react as, you're gross, but instead, oh, that's a woman who is incredibly human, or that's a woman who has scars and lines with stories to tell. My goal is to help these mothers feel worthy of being called beautiful."

Most of the women who took part were deeply self-conscious of their bodies and reluctant to display them, but they took the plunge and agreed to be photographed.

Both men and women have pointed out that they're unprepared for the physical changes to a new mother's body precisely because they're always hidden from the public gaze. The sudden appearance of unexpected "blemishes" that go against media images of female beauty can be shocking and upsetting only because people don't know they're commonplace and normal.

Not everyone thinks the book is a good idea though. Sociologist Meredith Nash thinks it's quite natural to be horrified at your new stretch marks or scars and the book may simply pressurise women to feel good about something that isn't good at all.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with women feeling upset about the fact that they have stretch marks, because culture tells them they are ugly. There is a reason women feel upset about the way they look."

Maybe initial upset is natural, but surely it's right to challenge that reaction and ask why women are so mortified about their changing bodies? Why this endless pretence that women's bodies are always perfect and flawless when we all know the reality is something more wayward - and more interesting?

Saturday 13 July 2013

Loosening up

The sixties are always seen as the decade of the "sexual revolution", when all of a sudden people lost their sexual inhibitions and were jumping into bed with everyone left, right and centre.

That may have been true for some, but for me it was quite the opposite. Although I was a teenage boy and supposedly awash with testosterone and erotic yearnings, I was actually totally chaste until the sixties were virtually over.

My various girlfriends seemed to be equally chaste and made no attempt to seduce me. Clearly libidos had not yet run amok in the strait-laced London suburbs.

Though I did know one guy who was assiduously bedding every woman he came across, I had no wish to do the same. He seemed to have little time for anything else but proving his manhood. But there was certainly no shortage of eager women happy to satisfy his urges.

I suppose I never quite saw the point of the so-called sexual revolution. Of course it was a step forward that people were losing their sexual inhibitions and prudishness, but it didn't follow that you had to prove your newly liberated attitude day after day with as many partners as you could handle. Shedding inhibitions was somehow equated with promiscuity and lack of commitment.

I must say it's refreshing to hear younger people discussing sexuality with a degree of candour and directness that would have been unthinkable when I was growing up. That was the age of tortuous double entendres, coy references to "down there" or "consummation", and the elaborately evasive and euphemistic "Carry On" films. Any clearcut mention of sex was enough to traumatise the assembled company and have you frozen out of the conversation.

Certainly I wish I'd been able to talk about sex with the same frankness and in the same detail when I was an innocent and ignorant teenager. It might have saved a lot of confusion and embarrassment in later life when my sexual naivety was all too obvious. And still catches me out even now.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Unsung heroes

Reports of the San Francisco plane crash made it sound as if the cabin crew simply scuttled off the plane along with the passengers. This is insultingly ignorant of their vital role in getting passengers off the plane and saving lives.

It's not generally realised that cabin crew have very intensive training on how to handle emergency situations of every possible kind, including fires, crash landings, hijacking, medical crises, disruptive passengers and childbirth.

The one thing the crew did not do was scuttle off the plane like frightened mice. They stayed right there and did all the things they were trained to do to rescue the passengers.

Despite the possibility the plane might have caught fire or blown up, they did what was needed. They deflated an escape slide with trapped passengers under it, slashed seat belts open, guided people through the smoke, put out small fires, and calmed the panic-stricken.

Only when they had done everything possible to evacuate the passengers safely did they leave the stricken plane themselves - thankfully without it exploding around them.

Many of them did their work in the regulation pencil skirts and high heels, having trained in their flight clothing and having worked out how not to be hampered by it.

It's still widely assumed that cabin crew are just glorified food-servers, doling out the skimpy airline fare and then having a nap or devouring the latest Patricia Cornwell. Their exhaustive training on handling emergencies and in-flight glitches in general is still overlooked - mainly because you only see it in action if your own plane is in trouble.

It's a professional skill-set we should all properly appreciate. After all, guiding terrified passengers out of a smoke-filled plane while mincing along in a pencil skirt is not a feat we could all manage. Unsung heroes indeed.

Here are two articles about the cabin crew's training at Jezebel and NBC

PS: A new report says the pilots delayed evacuation for 90 seconds

Monday 8 July 2013

Bug alert

American cheese lovers are incensed that a rather tasty French cheese, mimolette, has been banned by the US government on the grounds that the cheese mites that give it such a tangy flavour could cause allergic reactions.

The French are also pretty cheesed off that 1.5 tonnes of the distinctive cheese, first made when Louis XIV wanted a domestic version of the Dutch cheese Edam, are rotting away in a warehouse and can’t be eaten.

The manufacturers claim that nobody has ever become ill from eating mimolette, that the cheese mites are essential for the taste, and just can’t understand the fuss. They say the cheese has been imported into the States for around 20 years with no previous problems.

After all, many foods that could cause allergic reactions – like peanuts and wheat - are on sale without any objection. Allergy-prone individuals are expected simply to avoid the offending items.

I’ve never tried any mimolette myself so I’ve no idea whether the special taste is worth fighting for or not. In fact until today I’d never heard of mimolette or for that matter milbenkäse, another cheese that uses cheese mites.

Cheese lovers are protesting vigorously, especially on a “Save The Mimolette” Facebook page, whose slogan is “No to the Mimolette ban in the US! Let us eat stinky cheese!” The right to nibble freely is being stoutly upheld.

I imagine the only real hazard of eating mimolette, like cheese generally, would be a few extra pounds on the scales. But US food inspectors seem to have got it in for the poor defenceless cheese mites. What miserable killjoys!

Pic: not mimolette but something reassuringly mite-free....