Tuesday 26 February 2013

Are you listening?

How easy it is not to pay proper attention to other people. Not to listen properly, not to take in everything they’re saying, not to register the nuances and subtleties and little details. How easy it is to be distracted, to let your mind wander.

I think it’s one of the most insulting things you can do, to listen to someone with only half an ear as if what they’re saying isn’t really important or interesting or valid. As if you’ve got something much more exciting lined up and you’re only listening to them out of politeness.

In today’s hectic world, it’s so common to be thinking of something else while you’re outwardly paying attention. What you were doing an hour ago, or what you’ll be doing in an hour’s time. Some domestic or marital or family crisis. A big news story. Some detail of the other person’s clothing or appearance. Anything but the full content of what they’re saying.

I think I’m listening to someone carefully. Then they say something that makes it clear I was miles away. The row with their husband? What row? When did they mention that? And I have to somehow tease out the details without revealing that I had drifted off for a while.

Listening, true listening, is a huge talent that many of us don’t possess. We have to keep on working at it. It always astounds me when someone really listens to me, so attentively they can recall every little detail of what I told them, even things I barely mentioned.

The trouble is, we’re all so busy nowadays that we’ve got used to only half-attending to people, and used to other people only half-attending to us. A lot of the time we don’t even realise we’re distracted, we think we’re fully present. It comes as a jolt when something makes our inattention glaringly obvious.

The psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz says that what every person wants is to know they’re worth thinking about, that they’re not just an irrelevant nothing. And you can only feel that if other people are fully engaged with you. Nobody likes that glossed-over feeling.

Friday 22 February 2013

Old flames

In James Joyce's famous short story "The Dead", Gabriel Conroy's sexual desire is thwarted by his wife Gretta's lingering affection for an old flame from many years before.

I suspect it's very common for relationships to be subtly diminished or spoilt by the embedded memories of an older relationship.

Not in my case perhaps, because none of my youthful romances were especially intense or sensational, but I imagine many couples are contending with some hidden emotional or sexual nostalgia.

How many bedmates are secretly thinking of that passionate affair of ten years ago, that disarming man or woman who led them to new heights of love or sex or joy or excitement but then for one reason or another disappeared from their life?

How many couples are privately comparing their present partner with someone else and thinking that what they've ended up with is okay but lacks some extra something they had a tantalising taste of in the past?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe most couples are quite satisfied with what they've got and aren't comparing their partner with anyone at all. They may even be relieved that they've landed someone so much better than that immature idiot they were so besotted with in their more impressionable youth.

But what woman has not at some time or another been called not by her own name but by the name of some previous heartthrob the man still carries a torch for? And which he frantically takes back in a flurry of red-faced apologies?

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Battle of wills

I'm always fascinated by battles over wills and inherit-ance. Especially when the legal costs eat up the entire inherit-ance. And especially when nobody will budge an inch.

Peter Burgess's mother changed her will, cutting him out of it and leaving everything to his two sisters, Julia and Libby.

Libby and Peter disputed the new will, claiming their mother was suffering from dementia at the time. Julia insisted she had been quite rational.

When Mrs Burgess died in May 2009 she left around £200,000. But after nearly four years of legal quarrelling, leading to a six-day trial at the English Court of Appeal, that sum has been overtaken by the lawyers' bills.

The Court agreed that Peter Burgess should have been included in the will and that his mother didn't understand the changes she had made.

It astonishes me that people can dig their heels in so stubbornly, to the extent that families are driven apart and absurd amounts of money squandered in the name of pride, greed and self-righteousness.

Just a tiny bit of flexibility and common sense would have avoided the whole debacle and left them all with a handy windfall rather than a gaggle of lawyers looking forward to a fat profit.

Friends and relatives must have urged the three siblings countless times to settle their differences and bring the dispute to an end, but to no avail, and the lumbering machinery of the law took over.

The problem arose of course with the existence of two wills, and the question of which one was valid. Changing one's will is always a hazardous business, liable to just that sort of posthumous wrangling instead of a straightforward transfer of assets.

The strong suspicion is that Mrs Burgess was pressured into making the change, though it seems the court made no comment on that. But it was certainly a change with devastating consequences.

Pic: not the siblings in question

Saturday 16 February 2013

Bending the rules

We've all committed crimes, haven't we? Maybe hundreds and hundreds of them. Sometimes petty, sometimes serious. So we can hardly get on our high horse about "criminals" when we're less than snowy-white ourselves.

And if you tell me you've never committed a crime, I don't believe you. No speeding? No petty pilfering? No VAT-dodging? Nothing from the black market? No illegal drugs? No litter-dropping? How could you be so saintly? Do you have a police officer in the family?

I frankly admit that I have on occasion done all the things on that list. Not out of ignorance either but quite deliberately. Because the way I see it, although in general laws are needed to maintain decent behaviour, there are times when breaking the law does no harm, may actually be necessary in the circumstances, and may (shock horror) just be enjoyable and cathartic.

How many of us have nicked a few things from work to compensate for a tyrannical boss or miserable pay? Or hurtled through a 30 mph zone because we're late for work or just like to put our foot down? Or bought something knowing full well it's from a dodgy source but it's half the normal price? How many of us slavishly keep to the law because we're afraid of unleashing anarchy or mayhem? Is there anyone that puritanical, that strait-laced?

By the same token, I won't rush to judgment over other people who've committed crimes, or at least relatively minor ones. I won't condemn a penniless woman who's shoplifted from the local corner shop to feed the kids, or someone with rent arrears who's done a moonlight flit, or a homeless person who squats in a long-time empty house. Okay, so they're breaking the law, but maybe you or I would do the same in similar circumstances. How can I tell them they're criminals and happily see them fined or jailed? I'd need a heart of stone.

Those people who pontificate about law and order and coming down hard on law-breakers are probably not only heartless arseholes but also hypocrites. Let she who is without sin cast the first stone....

Wednesday 13 February 2013

No shorthand

It's been pointed out to me many times that I generalise too much about men and women. That we're all complex individuals, sometimes very different, sometimes very similar. Generalisations are hazardous.

So I'm going to try not to generalise about men and women in future. I'm going to treat them as individuals with their own particular identities. I look male, you look female. But maybe I swoon over my favourite lip gloss, while you swoon over the latest football scores. We can't be pinned down that easily.

It's a tempting shorthand to say men are emotionally repressed or sex-mad, while women are hopeless with machines or incurably romantic, but it's all half-baked nonsense that's probably false as much as it's true. It's the stuff of tabloid newspapers rather than real life.

People may say their man or their woman is "absolutely typical" of the gender stereotypes. They may say "Men - they're all the same." They may say "You know what women are like." But they don't really mean it. They know the actual men and women in their lives don't fit neatly into any gender boxes and have all sorts of unpredictable quirks and tastes. The throwaway statements are just lazy thinking.

So I've vowed not to generalise any more. Whether I'll stick to it is another matter. I might forget myself and slip back into easy clichés. I might forget that suits and ties or dresses and heels do not always a man or woman make. People are not what they seem. Appearances are deceptive. The public persona is not the private zeitgeist. Scratch the surface and glib assumptions quickly crumble away.

If I start backsliding, let me know. And none of that feminine shyness, girls.

Sunday 10 February 2013


I may be British, but so-called Britishness means nothing to me. It's just a bundle of tired old stereotypes I simply don't identify with.

And now it's struck me that most of the stereotypes have a distinctly male bias, I recoil from them even more. They're not only simplistic but firmly stuck in some sexist past that doesn't exist any more.

Think of Britishness and what comes to mind?

1) Football. Both players and supporters predominantly male.
2) Cricket. Even more so.
3) Pubs. Still mainly a male preserve, despite the rising number of heavy-drinking women.
4) Wars. Largely started by men, fought by men and supported by men.
5) John Bull. The archetypal Englishman - stout, middle-aged and jolly.
6) The bulldog. Tough, rugged, fierce, intimidating. Masculine, you might say.
7) The stiff upper lip. The traditionally male tendency to suppress your emotions and soldier on.
8) Suits and bowler hats. The customary uniform of the male civil servant.
9) Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. A good hearty meal for hard-working men. Though prepared by women, bless 'em.
10) The Union Flag. Symbolising conquest and the imposing of superior values on Johnny Foreigner. A strong whiff of the masculine, I think.

If the government wants us all to be proud of our Britishness, it might help if they gave the familiar image a rather more androgynous and gender-neutral flavour instead of the current phallocentric overtones.

It's hard to see how any woman could feel remotely British if these are the things she's meant to enthuse about. If on the other hand, Britishness referred to lip gloss, cupcakes, pencil skirts and chihuahuas....

Friday 8 February 2013


Nick eats his breakfast.
Granola, then bread and marmalade.
Hartleys Olde English Thick Cut Marmalade.
With a lot of tooth-rotting sugar.
Nick has only 26 teeth.
Six were removed as a child because of his small jaws.
He still has all his own teeth.
Only one root filling, no crowns.
His 90 year old mother also has all her own teeth.
He thinks his sister too has all her own teeth.
As he eats he remembers something curious.
As a child he never had a rocking horse.
He thinks it would have been soothing and calming
to rock the horse gently back and forth
back and forth
back and forth
But he doesn't feel the lack of a rocking-horse experience.
He doesn't feel emotionally deprived in any way.
He doesn't feel the victim of poor parenting.
He had never even reflected before
on the absence of this popular children's plaything.
Nick has had the same breakfast for many years.
Granola, then bread and marmalade.
He sees no need to change it.
It suits him perfectly.
It never disappoints him.
It's an ideal combination of tastes.
He seldom thinks about his six missing teeth.
The remaining 26 do an excellent job.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Hush or blush

I love private terms of endear-ment, they’re great fun. But I would never ever reveal most of them in public – they would promptly become blushingly embarrassing rather than amusingly intimate. The same goes for hearing other couples’ love-names.

My loved one and I have all sorts of private pet-names but mostly they stay firmly private. The only one I would use publicly is the essentially descriptive “sweetheart” and even then only in a sympathetic gathering.

You can speculate furiously but my lips are sealed over the others. At least we like them all, unlike some pet-names that one partner or the other hates with a vengeance and tolerates with gritted teeth.

The most loathed term among women is supposedly babe or baby, closely followed by baby girl, baby doll, pudding and pumpkin. As for terms like sweetcheeks, snookums and muffin, I can’t imagine who could actually use them with a straight face.

Then there’s the question of how you refer to your loved one in the first place. Personally we loathe the words husband and wife and the negative associations they still carry, so they’re used strictly as a standing  joke. We prefer partner, but some people dislike the corporate overtones.

“This is my man/woman” is apparently common in Scotland and Italy. “Lover” was modish at one time but seems to have lost favour. “Boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are still popular though strangely innocent-sounding in an age of sexual licence. “Spouse” is horribly formal and somehow vaguely insulting. “Cohabitee” sounds oddly clinical. One of my blogmates refers to her Significant Other.

Or you can just be super-subtle and say “This is Natalie” or “This is Damien” , leaving the assembled company to investigate the exact nature of the relationship for themselves.

As for extra-marital couplings, let’s not even go there. Though I always had a secret hankering to refer casually to my concubine. And watch people’s faces.

Friday 1 February 2013

Emotional riddle

I'm not an overly emotional person. I don't rant and rave. I don't collapse in floods of tears. I don't throw things. I don't hurl torrents of abuse. I'm never sure if that's because I'm not prone to over-reacting or because I'm repressing my emotions.

I see people steaming with anger, bitterness, hostility and violence over some perceived insult, festering away for hours with righteous indignation. In the same situation I would probably just dismiss the remark as a bit mean and nasty and then carry on with what I was doing. No rip-roaring emotional avalanche, just a hint of puzzlement and chagrin.

I see people stricken with grief over some appalling tragedy halfway across the world and I think, yes, how awful, a bomb explosion, an earthquake, a mass shooting. But while I sympathise with the hapless victims, I wonder how people can be so overwhelmed by emotion for complete strangers as opposed to their own loved ones. Can they really be that devastated?

Though I have to say that boiling rage is my typical reaction to any kind of deliberate brutality or sadism, be it in Belfast or thousands of miles away. Especially violence against women. So maybe that vicarious grief is as genuine as my vicarious anger.

Then again, I see people consumed by disappointment over a ruined dress or a disastrous holiday, sunk in gloom and recrimination as if their life has collapsed. Their distress seems out of all proportion to what happened. Sure, I would be disappointed too, but I wouldn't be knocked for six by it. I'd just be a bit miffed and wanting to stop it happening again.

Am I lacking some basic emotional reflexes? Some essential human sensitivity? Or am I just too sanguine and philosophical to get worked up into a blistering lather over things that simply don't deserve it? Am I a cold fish or a cool cookie?