Tuesday 29 January 2013

Flash mob

Restaurants in New York are getting so pissed off with diners taking photos of their food and annoying other customers that some of them have banned photography altogether.

Diners think nothing of taking constant flash photos, putting camera tripods on tables, and standing on chairs to snap their meals from above. Other diners complain about their selfish behaviour and the way they intrude on other people’s conversation and enjoyment.

Sometimes they anger their dining companions as well. One woman complained that when she eats out with her father he takes endless photos of the food but never takes photos of his family. And they can’t start eating until he’s finished with his camera.

The photographers of course can’t see what the fuss is about. They say their pics are a tribute to the food and the chef, as well as free advertising for the restaurants. They say they just want to share their pleasure with friends.

Fortunately this photo-fetish doesn’t seem to have spread to Belfast yet. It’s still possible to enjoy a meal out without half the diners wanting to record the meals for posterity – or their Facebook friends. People are happy to enjoy what’s on their plate and leave it at that.

It’s a very modern syndrome that people feel free to do something that is obviously inconsiderate to others, and be oblivious to the angry glares and muttered protests. Even if the photo shows little but a shapeless heap of something-or-other, they’re still intent on recording it.

And in between all the fancy camerawork, do they actually enjoy the food? Or are they too busy weighing up different camera angles for the next course to appreciate the delicate flavours of whatever they’re eating?

What are all these clever photos even conveying? They can’t reproduce the actual taste of these sumptuous dishes, only what they looked like. All they can do is make people envious of the diners and their haute cuisine. But perhaps that’s the whole idea.

Friday 25 January 2013

The urge to soothe

There are people who like to calm things down, and people who like to stir things up. I’ve always had the urge to calm things down; too much tumult and uproar badly unsettles me.

As soon as other people start arguing and squaring up, my immediate impulse is to lower the temperature and smooth the ruffled feathers. I don’t find displays of aggression at all attractive, I find them ugly and intimidating.

But an awful lot of people delight in stirring things up, causing quarrels and bad feeling where previously there was none. They like nothing better than to nudge some placid, gentle soul into a burst of ill-temper and belligerence, and then enjoy the commotion they’ve caused.

I remember one workmate who was an expert stirrer. He knew everyone’s weak points and would provoke one person after another until the whole place was a frenzy of hurt feelings, resentments and reckless insults. He visibly smirked and tittered as his victims rose to the bait. A calm, relaxed atmosphere was like a red rag to a bull.

I’m totally the opposite. When people are laying into each other, I’m straightaway looking for the common ground, looking for a way of reconciling them. I want them to live and let live, to agree to disagree, to settle their differences. I’ll seek out the fire extinguisher rather than fanning the flames. I’ll build bridges rather than blowing them up.*

Some people say my soothing-tendency is a cop-out, that I’m just avoiding argument, concealing my real opinions, repressing my emotions. I don’t think so. If I have strong views I’ll express them. If I disagree with someone I’ll say so. But I won’t let a simple clash of views flare into a claws-out catfight if I can possibly help it. I’d much rather be the oblivious cat lazing on the windowsill.

* And I’ll happily mix metaphors if necessary

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Veggie woes

I never cease to be astonished at how bemused meat eaters are by my vegetarianism. My very simple preference for foods that don’t include meat is met with anything from wide-eyed puzzlement to seething hostility, as if I’m asking for something utterly outlandish. Freshly grilled newborn babies maybe or honey roasted virgin’s vagina.

Whatever reason I give for my aversion to meat, it’s usually regarded as slightly bonkers, or stubbornly perverse, or deliberately awkward. Seldom do people understand the quite valid reason for my attitude – that I don’t want animals to be killed to provide me with food, when there are hundreds of delicious non-animal alternatives readily available. And a lot cheaper.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 37 years, but the general bafflement at my choice is as strong as ever. The idea that meat is not only vital for health but is obviously tastier than any other type of food is a long time dying. The fact that most people are eating vegetarian dishes every day of the week – macaroni cheese anyone? – seems to make no difference.

So I wasn’t too surprised to read 20 stories of vegetarians being insulted and patronised and sneered at in umpteen different countries. The reactions are all too typical - insisting ham or chicken aren’t really meat, serving totally inedible meatless dishes, declaring anything other than meat to be mere animal feed, assuming a secret yearning for meat. And so on and so on.

So many meals became an all-out battle between diners who just wanted something meat-free and cooks and wait-staff determined to give them something meaty, even if it had to be stealthily concealed among the other items on the plate.

One woman who was constantly harangued by meat-eaters in West Africa finally stumbled on a foolproof tactic. When she explained that her dying grandfather had forbidden her to eat meat, to her delight she found that nobody dared question her grandfather’s final wishes.

I really don’t know why meat-eaters get so defensive and angry at those of us who don’t share their particular passion. A guilty conscience perhaps over the thousands of animals who’ve died for their gastric pleasure?

Thursday 17 January 2013

Gang warfare

More and more people seem to think that freedom of expression means not the freedom to put your opinion and have it heard but the freedom to gang up against anyone who offends you. That's not my idea of what it means.

Nowadays the media is full of angry hordes declaring that they've been insulted and belittled by some columnist or other and laying into the unfortunate person with unbridled viciousness as if they have no right to express their opinion at all.

The attacks go way beyond simple hostility to include demands for sackings and resignations, death threats and venomous personal smears.

The columnist Julie Burchill has been the focus of a sustained campaign of hatred after her article last weekend which dropped a number of unkind and unsympathetic remarks about transsexuals.

A tidal wave of offended readers complained loudly about the article, calling her bigoted and transphobic, threatening her with all sorts of dire fates, and even calling for the article to be deleted and the paper's editor to be sacked (and yes, believe it or not, the article WAS deleted).

Whatever you think of Julie Burchill and her constant aim to be as controversial as possible, it seems to me that the reaction to this article is way over the top and completely inexplicable.

Surely she's entitled to express her opinion, even if it offends people; she's entitled to dislike transsexuals and insult them, however idiotic her prejudices; and she's entitled to a fair hearing without attempts to shut her up and censor her writing.

I find the concerted bullying and intimidation from her critics far more disturbing than the original article, which was just a typical example of loud-mouthed, potshotting journalism, not to be taken too seriously.

What worries me is that this sort of vitriolic mass vendetta is no longer isolated but is becoming routine. And freedom of expression is being abused in a most sinister way.

PS: An excellent article on freedom of expression by Suzanne Moore (who has also been attacked for saying that women aspire to be like Brazilian transsexuals)

PPS: The Press Complaints Commission is to launch an inquiry into Julie Burchill's article, after receiving 800 complaints.

Pic: Lea T, the Brazilian transsexual model

Saturday 12 January 2013

Not a coward

Is it wrong to call someone a coward? Is it just mean and unfair and insulting? If someone doesn't want to do something that's dangerous, shouldn't we respect their decision and not simply condemn them for it?

We all have different personalities. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, our particular resources and lack of them. Isn't it up to us to decide if we're capable of dealing with something, to estimate the dangers and consequences, and if we don't feel confident enough, to opt out and say we're not going to take the risk?

It's pretty high-handed and presumptuous of other people to say that someone is a coward, that they should have done what was expected of them regardless of their personal fears and uncertainties, that they should have jumped in and hoped for the best, and if they came a cropper that was just bad luck.

But if say, a woman was being gang-raped on a train by a bunch of particularly nasty-looking men, would we say it was our duty to tackle the rapists even if they might attack us too? If we saw someone inside a burning building, would it be our duty to run in and try to rescue them, even at the risk of being burnt alive? Surely that's the individual's decision and for someone else to accuse them of cowardice is impudent and uncalled-for. It's really an incredibly rude thing to say.

The flipside is that we heap lavish praise on someone we see as brave and courageous and fearless, as if they're some sort of super-hero, when in reality they may only have been doing their job, or only showing their natural strength and resilience. Why is someone "brave" given so much more respect than someone who's been less than brave - or not brave at all? Can't we just respect people's different capabilities and shortcomings? Why must cowardice be a cause for shame?

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Sometimes brave

I'm a strange mixture of extreme cowardice and surprising bravery. A group of youths on a street corner can make me cringe nervously. But I'll take on a ruthless boss who wants to undermine my working conditions.

Any kind of visible aggression makes me very jittery, and that can include angry expressions, threatening postures, gloating laughter, even lads kicking footballs. A huddle of teenage males usually exudes enough aggressive undertones for me to cross the street to avoid them.

In the workplace though I've often challenged managers who want to mess about with my working hours or salary or work routines. If I feel unfairly treated, I'll square up to them. I spent four years as a trade union rep doing the same for my workmates.

I've often been the lone voice in a gathering of diehards, expressing my own heretical opinions whether they like it or not. I'll voice my atheism to a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool believers. I'll tell a roomfull of meat-chompers that I'm a vegetarian. I'll lob my socialism into a bevy of hardline conservatives.

But I can also get absurdly shy at social events. Faced with a sea of unfamiliar faces, I get tongue-tied, my brain freezes, my self-confidence withers, I don't know what to say.

Public speaking is equally scary. I've never given a formal speech or presentation in my life, and I hope I never have to. I'm sure I'd say all the wrong things and seriously embarrass myself.

And in restaurants, like most people, I'm loathe to complain about the food, even if it's virtually inedible. I just valiantly gulp it down or leave it. I don't like to make a fuss or be the centre of attention.

I guess what all this amounts to is that I have a very unpredictable response to danger. Sometimes I flee, sometimes I walk straight into it. And sometimes I don't even notice it, I just do what I have to do.

Friday 4 January 2013

Just in case

Just in case you ask me what I was doing this afternoon, I can report the following:

I wasn't walking the dog.
I wasn't eating chocolate.
I wasn't reading War and Peace.
I wasn't building a model of the Taj Mahal out of matchsticks.
I wasn't buying a bra.
I wasn't writing a sado masochistic soft porn novel.
I wasn't feeding the baby.
I wasn't making a birthday cake.
I wasn't dialling 999.
I wasn't watering the aspidistra.
I wasn't laughing till I wet myself.
I wasn't filling in my tax return.

Oh no, my afternoon was singularly uneventful. It was distinctly prosaic. It was noticeably humdrum. I could have invented some highly amusing incident. Or a bizarre pastime. Or a terrible disaster. But they would be lies. They would be wicked fabrications. Having perpetrated such untruths, I would be unable to live with myself. I would be unable to show my face in decent society. I would have to hide from public view. I would be a pariah.

Of course I always suspected 2013 would be like this. Uneventful, prosaic afternoons. Not walking the dog. Not dialling 999. Once again not discovering the meaning of life. Once again not knowing where that strange whistling noise is coming from. Once again not understanding the term "fiscal cliff". That's what 2013 was bound to be like. You could see it coming a mile off. There was no mistaking it.

Just in case you ask me what I was doing this afternoon....

Tuesday 1 January 2013

In a bubble

Why do so many people hate politicians? Why do they have scarcely a good word to say about them? One MP has actually taken the trouble to ask people why they feel so venomous.

Gloria de Piero asked hundreds of people to be brutally frank about their aversion to politicians, and they didn't mince their words.

They mentioned all the MPs who were found to be fiddling their expenses; the unruly disputes in the House of Commons; the frequent attacks on welfare claimants and "shirkers"; their elitism; their jargon; their lies; their self-interest; their privileged backgrounds.

Above all, they were seen as living in a bubble, detached from the real world and unable to understand ordinary people who were struggling to stay afloat in desperate economic circumstances.

Tanya, 34, told the MP "They've gone to different schools that you've not gone to, and they don't struggle with childcare."

Two warehouse workers said politicians didn't have to survive on the minimum wage or benefits while shop prices were rising.

If only more politicians would ask voters the sort of direct questions Gloria de Piero is asking, they might actually find out why so many of them are held in contempt and they might stop claiming to be baffled at such lack of appreciation.

They might even step out of their Westminster bubble and make a serious attempt to understand all those under-privileged folk who didn't go to Eton, aren't millionaires, haven't inherited fortunes, aren't members of BUPA, don't have chauffeurs and don't live in mansions. And they might even do a bit more to help them.

Pic: Labour MP Gloria de Piero