Saturday 28 June 2014

The inner monster

It's fascinating (and shocking) when the parents of someone who's gone on a killing spree or some sort of horrific rampage say they had no idea their child was capable of such a thing, that he or she had always seemed like a decent, civilised person who would never hurt anyone.

This is what Peter Rodger says about his son Elliot, who killed six people in California and then killed himself. He says that his son's actions have haunted him day and night, that he never saw it coming and that he always thought his son couldn't harm a flea.

Every morning he wakes up to the fact that his son was a mass murderer and that on the inside he was very different from how he seemed on the outside. Clearly he's having a very hard time trying to come to terms with it.

How can someone not even have the smallest suspicion that their child has disturbing anti-social tendencies that need to be urgently addressed? How can their child hide these tendencies so successfully, so cunningly, that nobody suspects a thing? It's extraordinary.

On the one hand parents say they know their children so well they can be pretty certain of their thoughts or feelings on just about anything, and there are few surprises. They say they would notice straightaway if something worrying was going on.

On the other hand parents complain that once their children become teenagers they're more secretive, keep a lot of things to themselves and are often totally unfathomable. They develop a hidden, private identity their parents have little knowledge of.

I have no personal experience to offer as I don't have children. All I can say is that it must be unimaginably painful to know your child has done something so heinous and caused so much suffering and heartbreak to so many other people. And if they're also dead, you can't even ask them to explain. It's just a bottomless mystery you will never ever solve. A mystery that will probably haunt you till the day you die, and even make you question your decision to have a child. Peter Rodger's life will never be the same again.

Pic: Peter Rodger and Richard Martinez, father of victim Christopher Martinez

Sunday 22 June 2014

British values

There's a big debate going on over the meaning of the term "British values". Should immigrants have to convince us they've adopted British values? Suppose they fail the test? And what on earth are British values anyway?

After following the debate closely, I have to say I'm not sure I'd pass the test myself, despite having lived in Britain for 67 years. If I had to prove my British credentials, I'd probably end up being deported.

When I look at all the things that are typically British, I find most of them so obnoxious I'd rather not be described as British at all. The word starts to give off a rather unpleasant stench.

Just a few of the British phenomena I'd rather not be associated with:

1) Pot noodle
2) Instant coffee
3) Football
4) Binge-drinking
5) Racism, homophobia and misogyny
6) Tuition fees
7) Greedy landlords
8) Attacks on welfare "scroungers"
9) Trolling
10) The war on drugs
11) Warmongering
12) The Royal Family

Most of the things I enjoy aren't typically British but a feature of societies all over the world, from Brooklyn to Brisbane. Like art, films, music, books, intelligent conversation, friendship, good food, good wine, sex, hill-walking and beautiful landscapes. Not to mention those essential human qualities of love, compassion, open-mindedness and curiosity.

Isn't the term "British values" just a sign of blinkered insularity, of a refusal to admit that other countries' values might be just as admirable as our own, maybe more so? Why be so dismissive of French values or German values? Might there be something to learn from people outside our own borders?

Personally I'd steer well clear of anyone who's passionate about British values. How about human values? How about just treating each other decently?

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Dashed hopes

People like to trumpet their successes, but they tend to keep their disappointments to themselves. Which gives a very false impression of effortlessly capable individuals who never put a foot wrong. Well, except for those misery memoirs where every possible indignity and trauma is given an airing, as that sells much better than a happy upbringing in staid suburbia.

So anyway, in the interests of balance and an accurate portrayal of my chequered life, here are a few of the most memorable disappointments.

(1) Six and a half years in a spartan, freezing bedsit in an inner London borough, owned by a slum landlord who never did any maintenance and let the rising damp creep up the building.
(2) Being far too staid and suburban to become a wild, drug-addled, out-of-control rock star, and settling for the more sedate occupation of bookselling.
(3) Various sexual let-downs with various attractive but incompatible women, which had the fortunate effect later on of steering me away from extra-marital flings.
(4) Not being born in Australia and spending my life in the sodden, chilly, gloomy British Isles, trying desperately to keep warm for six months of every year.
(5) Not travelling more when I was younger. I should have done the classic round-the-world backpacking thing but I was too unadventurous and unresourceful to do so.
(6) Discovering I wasn't a natural writer and I was never going to rattle off that stunning, award-winning literary novel I'd fantasised about for most of my childhood.

So there you are - the secret lows of Nick's existence. I could mention a few more but enough is enough. I don't want to detract too much from my carefully polished image as a debonair city-slicker. I have my pride, you know.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Dine and whine

An eleven year legal battle over a scathing restaurant review has finally ended in Sydney with the restaurant getting £349,000 damages. But just how did the court come to its decision when the evidence in the case (the meal) has either been eaten or thrown in the trash?

In any case, I shudder to think what state the food would be in if it had actually survived for eleven years. Everyone in the court would need clothes pegs on their noses or gas masks to shut out the overpowering stink of rotten food.

Seriously though, how on earth did the court make their decision? In the end it boils down to one person's word against another's. The journalist who said the meal was crap from start to finish, against the restaurant that insisted their food was the finest haute cuisine. So who's right? Was it simply a question of who sounded most convincing?

Even if the journalist had called on other diners to confirm how disgusting the food was, it would still only have been an opinion, as their meal would also have been disposed of.

As it was, it was all so nebulous that the case went to two jury trials, a trial before a judge, two appeals, two special leave applications to the High Court, a full High Court hearing and a Supreme Court hearing before a final decision was reached.

I also wonder why the restaurant closed down six months later, supposedly because of this one appalling review. Are diners really put off by a single review, however vitriolic? There must have been other reviews (or just word-of-mouth) that were equally damning. Personally, I would regard one dreadful review as an unfortunate mishap - the reviewer was in a foul mood, the chef was having a bad day, whatever. It wouldn't put me off trying the restaurant.

Perhaps restaurant reviews should always have a disclaimer at the bottom - "This is merely one person's opinion on one particular day and may not truly represent the general quality of the restaurant's meals."

In other words, it might be the review that's three courses of crap and not the food.

Monday 9 June 2014

English as she ain't spoke

I find most regional and foreign accents fascinating, but I'm surprised how many people find some of them so unpleasant or repulsive they'd like to get rid of them altogether.

My mum finds the London cockney accent or "Estuary English" very unattractive. She thinks people who speak like that should have elocution lessons and learn to talk proper Queen's English.

What an awful thought. Can you imagine if everyone in London spoke like those bland BBC newsreaders, all smoothed-out vowels and slightly toffee-nosed delivery? Spoke like me in other words, with my posh public-school diction. It would give me the heebie-jeebies. I love to hear an infinite range of accents and pronunciation, it's exciting and intriguing.

I love all the regional accents too - Northern English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish. In fact in Northern Ireland there are almost as many accents as there are towns, and you can usually tell which town someone comes from by the way they speak. But some people object to regional accents as being a weird perversion of standard English. As if there's only one "normal" way of speaking the language. Variety is the spice of life, I say. Why should everything be standardised?

Then there are all the foreign accents of people from other countries. English with an Italian or German lilt. English with an American or Aussie twang. For some people, a foreign accent is an instant cue for prejudice and a show of superiority. Such arrogance! We should be admiring those people who've taken the trouble to master another language, or even several languages. And we should be ashamed of the general British inability to be multilingual.

I think it's sad when someone with a strong regional accent feels obliged to fake "standard" English for job purposes, because they think their natural accent is a liability. Sometimes the result is embarrassingly false and exaggerated. But apparently some call centres prefer staff with regional accents, which are seen as warmer and friendlier than the flat, aloof-sounding London accent. Good for them.

The more accents the better. Ain't that the troof, guv?

Wednesday 4 June 2014

A step back

People are fond of saying that in a crisis you should "follow your instincts" or "do what feels right". I've long been a bit wary of that advice, as instincts can be as disastrous as they can be spot-on.

My habit has always been to reflect on what I'm about to say or do before I leap into it. Which makes me a slightly reticent and cautious person, but I'd rather that than make some colossal blunder simply because I didn't think first.

You only have to look at the torrents of abuse and spite unleashed on the internet to see that "following your instincts" can sometimes be pretty destructive, especially if your instincts are tangled up with heated emotions and it's actually the emotions that are holding sway.

I think instincts can be helpful in some situations but calamitous in others. Parents getting conflicting advice on how to bring up their children usually fall back on instinct, and since that instinct is guided by love and affection for their child, the result is usually positive.

But relying on instinct in fraught public arguments, where delicate sensitivities are at stake and it's all too easy to fan the flames and make everything worse, is a mug's game. So much tragedy and distress could be averted if those involved first took a step back and thought about the effects of their actions.

Following your instincts is not much help if it means bingeing on junk food or having 19 children or squeezing into your budgie smugglers. A pause for reflection might have led to a happier outcome.

Instead of "follow your instincts", how about "follow your thoughts" or "chew it over"? Or how about another old phrase "Look before you leap"?

Unless you're a bemused parent, that is.