Friday 30 May 2014

Our bed

The famous artwork by Tracey Emin, "My Bed", is to be auctioned at an estimated price between £800,000 and £1.2 million. That's an impressive income from a bunch of tangled duvets and a heap of personal effects like vodka bottles, condoms, fag ends and tights.

Clearly this is the way to finance my retirement. Our bed is an equally important and ground-breaking work of art, and I'm prepared to sell it for a very modest £500,000. If that isn't the offer of a lifetime, what is?

That bargain price-tag includes:
  • Two duvets with slightly darned covers
  • Three pillows of various thicknesses
  • A nightshirt (mine)
  • Pyjamas (Jenny's)
  • A lot of crumbs (from breakfast in bed)
  • The odd grease stain (moisturiser? marmalade? ointment?)
  • A mislaid sock
  • Some crumpled tissues
  • A dead spider
  • Some toenail clippings*
The giveaway price reflects the lack of any vodka bottles, condoms, fag ends or tights. However, these can be added by the new owner as required.

The bed, with all its evidence of lives fully lived, of a relationship fully realised, will be a fascinating addition to any art-loving household. Hurry, before it's snapped up by a Chinese investor! Or set on fire by an envious rival artist!

NB: Batteries not included. Not to be used by children under five. Suitable for vegetarians.

*the above list might or might not be true.

Pic: Tracey Emin, "My Bed"

Monday 26 May 2014

Mindless spleen

The journalist Robert Fisk has made a heartfelt plea for action to curb the rising tide of abusive and venomous comments on the internet. He says an increasing number of media sites are suspending or restricting online comments because mindless spleen is taking over from serious thinking.

He is disturbed that privacy and anonymity is becoming more important than responsibility, and instant reaction counts more than considered opinion.

He refers to the personal trauma that such vicious abuse can cause. He mentions the suicide of an Irish government minister. He could also have mentioned the many young people who have killed themselves as a result of relentless online bullying.

Personally, when I read the comments on media articles, I'm often shocked by how vitriolic and brutal they are. Under cover of anonymity, the writers simply lash out like brainless thugs.

These aren't comments in any normal sense. They don't come from a thorough and considered reading of an article. They don't show any respect or sympathy for other people's views or circumstances. They don't have any intelligent thoughts or fresh perspectives to offer. They are simply verbal kickings trying to harm some vulnerable, sensitive human being.

It's the ability to be anonymous that allows the commenters to be as malicious as they like, ignore all the usual conventions of decent behaviour, and not have any comeback. They can burst out of their hiding-places, lob a few online grenades, then disappear again, and nothing can be done to stop them except in very serious cases where the police are compelled to trace their identities.

It seems to me the media either have to ban anonymity or restrict online comments. The first may discourage some worthwhile comments, the second is a form of censorship, but surely either of those is preferable to people being scared that voicing their opinions will just unleash a sickening torrent of abuse.

Shrugging your shoulders and saying "Oh well, that's the internet for you" simply isn't good enough any more.

Friday 23 May 2014

Anything but greed

With the exception of food, most people aren't willing to admit to greed. They'll produce any number of ingenious euphe-misms for their wild cravings, anything that avoids that embarrassing word, greedy.

There's always a good reason why someone has 32 pairs of shoes. Or such an enormous car. Or a TV in every room. Or three bathrooms. It's not greed. No no, it's just a question of comfort. Or practicality. Or convenience. Or enjoyment. What's the harm in that?

The idea of greed is so repulsive that most people are quick to deny such tendencies. We don't want to be thought of as mindlessly grabbing everything we can, pushing others aside to justify our own voracious lust. We don't want to be seen as addictive, out of control, frenzied.

When did you last hear someone described as greedy (well, apart from millionaires)? When did you last use the word yourself? We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than risk such an insult.

I mean, I'm not greedy. Good heavens, no. I may live in a very large house, but that's because I like plenty of space. I may have been to Australia a few times, but that's because it's exciting and beautiful, and because I have friends there. I may have a state-of-the-art computer, but only because the old one was obsolete. Me greedy? How very dare you.

What greed also implies is not just an untamed appetite but taking more than your fair share of something. Which is another good reason for glossing and tweaking what you're doing to avoid scorn. No no, I'm not depriving anyone else, there's plenty for everyone. Or if there isn't, then somebody should be providing more. It's not greed, it's just getting my slice of the cake.

Oh yes, there are plenty of people out there who're greedy. But don't ever say so. They won't thank you for it.

Saturday 17 May 2014

Count me out

When it comes to wild partying, I was always old before my time. I never quite saw the attraction, even as a rebellious teenager who was pretty wild in other ways.

I had a friend who would drag me along to these all-night parties in trendy Notting Hill. We would be there till the small hours, he enjoying himself immensely, me getting more and more bored and longing for my warm, cosy bed.

Everyone else would be getting sky-high on drugs or booze and raving about the latest fashionable gurus (R D Laing, Tim Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Huey Newton, Germaine Greer, Valerie Solanas). I wasn't keen on either mind-bending substances or personality cults so I felt a bit out of the loop. I would have preferred a searching one-to-one conversation to a roomful of lazy name-droppers so I was forever frustrated. I felt like a 70-year-old grandad who'd somehow stumbled into a kids' party.

Funny, because the rest of the time I was an instinctive rebel, disputing anything and everything from news values and dress codes at the local newspaper I worked for, to prejudice about gays, women, socialists and modern art, to parking restrictions and speed limits. There was virtually nothing I would happily accept, nothing I wouldn't promptly question and challenge and argue with. I drove my parents crazy with my endless scepticism and disagreement.

So you'd think wild parties would be right up my alley. But I suppose the truth is I found them distinctly unrebellious and predictable. Getting stoned? Getting drunk? Idolising a few alternative celebs? It was pretty tame stuff as far as boundary-breaking and tradition-smashing went. Hangovers never changed the world. Drugged stupors never put an end to poverty. Celebs get attention but seldom change the world either.

So if you fondly imagined I spent my teenage years in an addled stupor of non-stop partying - then think again.

R D Laing: radical psychiatrist who questioned definitions of madness
Tim Leary: psychologist and advocate of psychedelic drugs
Abbie Hoffman: one of the founders of the libertarian Yippies movement
Huey Newton: one of the founders of the Black Panthers
Germaine Greer: author of The Female Eunuch
Valerie Solanas: author of the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Boarding blues

As someone who spent five years at boarding school, I applaud the campaign by Boarding Concern to keep younger children out of such schools to avoid lasting mental and emotional damage.

Many psychologists are now convinced that children who are suddenly wrenched out of their customary family environment and left to fend for themselves among strangers with only a passing interest in them suffer emotional injury that hampers their entire adult life.

They can suffer a host of negative emotions that are never properly dealt with. They can feel abandoned, betrayed, neglected, demoralised, bewildered, shocked, angry, sad, vulnerable and distressed. But nobody takes any notice. They're just expected to bury their misery, toughen up and pretend everything's fine.

The family members who would normally validate their feelings and give them the support they need aren't around, and the school staff are unwilling or unable to step into their shoes.

The result is that many boarders leave school emotionally repressed, and permanently distrustful and insecure. All that leads to serious problems with relationships and personal growth. Over and over again, the spouses of such ex-boarders (usually wives) comment on their inadequate personalities and emotional illiteracy.

Personally I can vouch for that. Although I'm much more in touch with my own, and other people's, feelings than I used to be, I'm still far from emotionally fluent and I still have a lot of trouble expressing what's going on inside me.

The staff at my school never showed any interest in my emotional well-being and left me to sink or swim in an atmosphere of rugged masculinity.

I'm glad the psychological pain of boarding is finally being recognised and I hope fewer children will be exposed to it. But it's depressing to learn that right now boarding schools are as popular as ever and just as many thoughtless parents are dumping their children into these destructive institutions (around 74,000 at the last count). They seem to be wilfully blind to the emotional harm that's being done to innocent hearts and minds.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Ever been nagged?

How odd that it's always a woman who nags and never a man. A woman is always an unreasonable, over-persistent, pain in the arse while a man is merely mentioning something that needs attention.

A woman who has to keep pestering her man to get off his butt and do some necessary domestic chores is seen as a nag, while a man who pesters a woman to look sexier or be stricter with the kids is just the voice of common sense.

Well, that's the popular stereotype anyway. But have you ever heard of a nagging husband? A husband who's demanding maybe, or fussy or pedantic. But not one who's a "nag", with all the insulting overtones that implies.

It struck me that one reason Jenny and I still get along so well is that neither of us nags. If there's something about the other person that bugs us, we'll mention it but we won't bang on about it. Either the other person responds or they don't, and that's that. Or we don't mention it at all because it's not that important, or it's purely a question of personal taste.

Nagging is usually counter-productive anyway. The more you nag someone about something, the more you get their back up and the less likely you are to achieve anything.

To my mind, if a woman "nags", there's often a very good reason for it. Like a man who always "forgets" to do the food shopping, or is forever "running late" for everything, or "doesn't have the time" to get the leaky tap fixed. But he has plenty of time to update Facebook or read the sports news. She's not "nagging", she just wants him to pull his weight and not keep taking the piss.

Not so much nagging as getting a grip.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Going unheard

It's a tired old cliché that not only was Britain the cradle of democracy but it's still a highly democratic country where everyone has a chance to influence the government and their policies. The people running the country, we're told, fall over themselves to heed popular opinion and act accordingly.

As the latest election campaigns get under way, with all the usual grinning politicians vying for our precious votes, it's worth asking if the old cliché is actually true.

Well, it isn't, is it? It's a load of 24-carat bollocks. It's the biggest urban myth ever. If you believe we live in a democracy, you've been sadly duped.

The chances of an individual like myself having any real influence on what the government* are doing are frankly, zilch. Despite the well-trodden claims, unless you have some serious clout - you're a generous party donor, a millionaire, a big employer, a celebrity, a high-profile campaigner - the government will ignore you completely.

I can go through all the familiar democratic motions. I can cast my vote, visit my MP, sign a petition, attend a rally. But the truth is I'm highly unlikely to budge the government from their chosen path.

Can I stop the government from cutting welfare benefits, making life harder for the disabled, privatising the NHS, bashing the unions, charging for education or stigmatising the unemployed? Not a hope. They go their own sweet way and tell their critics to get stuffed. They're convinced they know best and that any dissenting views are the ramblings of idiots.

I've more chance of persuading the local supermarket to stock Vegemite than I have of influencing the government.

I will of course cast my vote. Given all those people eager to flock to the polling station and vote happily for extremists, lunatics and religious nuts of assorted hues, it's my public duty to cast at least one vote for someone sensible.

But do I really imagine I'll be furthering the great democratic tradition? Don't make me laugh.

* Local councils are a little easier to influence, but they can still be pretty blind to public opinion when they choose to be.

Saturday 3 May 2014

A tight rein

I'm not controlling with other people. I'm happy to let them be just what they want to be. That way they're a lot more interesting. Unexpected quirks and foibles come to the surface.

But I'm very controlling with myself. I tend to keep a tight rein on whatever I'm saying or doing so as to give the right impression, the right image, the right idea.

I have a certain picture of myself which is positive and attractive. I see myself as open-minded, considerate, sensitive, intelligent, amusing. I don't want to reveal anything that spoils that picture, that makes me look nasty or callous or stupid.

(At the same time though, I have this huge urge to show myself exactly as I am, warts and all, to display the whole me and not just the bits that fit the shiny image. I want to spill out all my insecurities, inadequacies, weaknesses, idiocies. I want people to know I have all the same hang-ups they have, that I'm a very long way from perfect. So there's a big inner tug-of-war going on).

I also tend to keep a tight rein on my emotions. I'm still a bit afraid of my emotions, I'm scared that if I let them rip they'll be so intense, so strong, so wild, they'll overwhelm me and drown me. So I minimise what I'm feeling and tell myself I'm not really that sad, that upset, that angry, that hostile.

So other people probably see me as a bit emotionless and over-cool, because they don't see the swirling currents of emotion churning away under the surface. The fact is that any number of things can hurt me and shock me intensely, I'm just not good at showing it.

But hiding myself, muting myself, isn't just personally damaging, it's an insult to other people. I'm saying, I don't trust you with my real self, you'll laugh at it or trample on it. Which sometimes happens, but most people are kinder and gentler than I imagine.