Saturday 29 November 2014

Ghastly snobs

The fashionable insult right now is "snobbish". Any reference to anyone less well-off or less fortunate than yourself, however innocent or well-meaning, is likely to bring cries of snobbery raining down from all sides.

The most visible victim recently was Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP who tweeted a picture of a nondescript house with a white van outside and was widely vilified for her disgusting snobbery, even though she made no comment on the photo other than "Image from Rochester".

Big-name politicians are now terrified they'll be accused of snobbery, elitism and being "out of touch with the ordinary voter" - if there's any such thing as an "ordinary voter". They're falling over themselves to be seen quaffing a pint, scoffing a bacon sarnie or puffing on a furtive fag.

I've been accused of snobbery myself on occasion, which always baffles me as my awareness of poverty, disadvantage and crap jobs is prompted entirely by my loathing of inequality and injustice and in no way implies that I feel superior or conceited about my own more fortunate circumstances.

But dismissing someone as a snob is a handy quick-win, a way of slickly discrediting them and implying that everything they say is fed by some impure motive. It's also instantly intimidating, because nobody likes to be seen as a snob, even if they are.

The term snob should be aimed at genuinely snobbish behaviour, like being rude to shop assistants or sneering at someone's poor grasp of English, and not mindlessly lobbed at anyone with a few quid to spare.

Let's go for the real snobs, not the imaginary ones.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Lies and more lies

What do you do when someone publishes an unauthorised biography that's "trashy, vindictive and full of lies" about your life? How can you stop thousands of people reading what you regard as damaging tripe?

Aretha Franklin has let rip at the biography by David Ritz which reportedly claims she's jealous of other singers, fought alcoholism at the height of her fame, is delusional about her love life and was promiscuous from an early age.

She strongly contests what he's written. "As many of you are aware, there is a very trashy book out there full of lies and more lies about me. Clearly the writer has no class, no conscience or standards!

"His actions are obviously vindictive because I edited out some crazy statements he had the gall to try and put in my book written 15 years ago. Evidently, he has been carrying this hatred ever since."

Of course if the claims in a biography are unflattering, insulting and destructive, then the subject is highly likely to deny everything and accuse the writer of making it all up, peddling unverified rumours and gossip, and having some deep-seated grudge.

When the two are in such heated disagreement, who can possibly know if the book is telling it like it is or if, as she maintains, it's a pack of vicious lies?

In such situations, my immediate reaction is not to read the book at all, because if its truthfulness is doubtful, what's the point? I might as well be reading some muck-raking tabloid.

The obvious thing to do is sue for libel, but that's a costly business and the outcome might not be in her favour. So far she hasn't gone down that road as she's hoping her statement is enough to stop people reading it, or at least taking it seriously.

But I doubt her reputation will suffer, whatever the wild claims. Is anyone bothered that she's a flawed human being who might have behaved badly at times?

Thursday 20 November 2014

Sadly misinformed

My father was a horribly self-righteous man. He always had to be correct, and he had to have the last word. Only he knew what he was talking about, the rest of us were sadly misinformed.

Luckily I don't take after him. When I voice my opinions, I expect other people to have different ones. I welcome argument and debate. If I hear a good enough counter-argument, I'll back down and change my opinion in a second.

My father hated it when I argued with him, when I challenged his sacred views. He hated me having opinions contrary to his own. I can't recall a single occasion when he agreed with something I said. He dismissed all my opinions as stupid, half-baked, ignorant or deliberately provocative.

I guess it was his extreme rigidity that drove me furiously in the opposite direction. From an early age I welcomed a plethora of views on every possible topic. The more varied the views the better. Only by exploring every possible line of thought could I be sure of arriving at a sensible, considered conclusion. To suppress opinions, however far-fetched or absurd, was to cripple my mind.

What annoys me isn't different opinions but people's reluctance to voice them. When people don't engage with my views at all but stay conspicuously silent, I wonder what they're thinking. Do they find my views so misconceived, so confused, there's no point in even acknowledging them? Do they simply dislike arguments? Do they dislike having to think? Whatever the reason, I feel frustrated by the lack of a good head-to-head.

But how kind I am to my critics, how lavishly easy-going. My father must be turning in his grave.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Sour grapes

I'm always taken aback by those who begrudge other people's success. The extreme bitterness and jealousy that often goes with it is astonishing.

Sometimes it's understandable. If someone manages to get a promotion or a plum job or a glamorous assignment that you feel you should have been given yourself, then of course you're likely to feel royally pissed off for a while.

But a general tendency to trash other people's achievements, maybe something they're worked hard for over a long period - where does that come from? Why the need to put the boot in?

I'm really pleased for someone when they succeed at something they've long been aiming for. I'm happy they've finally got what they wanted after years of frustration or despair or self-doubt. I'm glad they've finally cleared all the hurdles and reached their goal. Why wouldn't I be?

I'm especially pleased when someone has managed to give up something that was badly harming them - alcohol or drugs or an abusive relationship or a stressful and unrewarding job. I love it when they've found the strength and self-confidence to move on and improve their life.

Even if someone's success isn't hard-fought-for but has just fallen into their lap - like a lottery win or a sudden inheritance - I still don't begrudge them their good luck. Okay, I'd enjoy having a huge pile of cash (who wouldn't?), but I'm doing okay as I am so why should I care?

I have no problem with someone who's successful - unless they're rubbing other people's noses in it. That's what really makes me mad.

PS: A classic case of begrudgery. The opening night of Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant was sabotaged by a rival making 100 fake bookings.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Bad sex

Having taken a quick look at the ten authors shortlisted for the annual Bad Sex In Fiction Award, I have to say the passages quoted are pretty excruciating. But then again, can any fictional description of sex ever do justice to the real thing? I think not.

Sex is such a personal and physical experience, I don't really think any writer, however brilliant, can capture it at all realistically. Their attempts are inevitably going to be leaden, bizarre or over-the-top.

Certainly I've never read any description of sex that accurately reflects my own experience. The images conjured up are quite laughable, like a non-swimmer trying to describe what it's like to swim.

So in a way the Bad Sex Award, however amusing it may be, is rather unfair on the poor embarrassed authors who're singled out for special attention. I'm sure their efforts are not much worse than all the authors who've been lucky enough to escape notice.

In fact I wonder why sex has to be described at such length in novels anyway. What's the point of these flowery renderings of a bit of nooky? We all know what it's like (well, those of us who actually engage in it), so why not just leave us to fill in the details? A lot of writers could save themselves a lot of creative torture and a lot of guffawing readers by putting the red pencil through the whole shebang.

But just to give you a taste of the Bad Sex offerings, here's a typical passage:

"Her hair was piled high, but when she shook her head it came cascading down in a glowing wave over her shoulders, and fell as far as her knees. The rippling curtain did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures. They were perfect rounds, white as mare's milk and tipped with ruby nipples that puckered as my gaze passed over them."

That's from Desert God by Wilbur Smith.

And now I have to go, I'm laughing so much it hurts.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Rough diamond

I'm a bit of rough diamond, I guess. I may think of myself as wise and sophist-icated, but in my actual dealings with other people I can be as gauche and clumsy as a confused adolescent.

I'm never very confident in social situations. I'm not sure what to say or what to do or what's expected of me. If in doubt, I tend to say nothing and retreat to a quiet corner where nobody will bother me.

If I meet someone I've always seen as especially intelligent or talented or inspirational, I can be so overcome with childish awe that it's all I can do to stammer out a few gormless platitudes before lapsing into an embarrassing silence.

Everyone else seems to be so at ease, chattering away effortlessly to complete strangers, baring their soul with no apparent qualms, never at a loss for words. Whatever the trick is, it seems to have passed me by.

In private though, alone with my thoughts, I don't feel at all hesitant or wrong-footed. I feel worldly-wise and experienced, ready for any crisis, equal to the challenges of daily life. I know I'm just as smart and practical and capable as the next person. But as soon as I'm with other people, the awkward me, the ham-fisted me, suddenly springs out of hiding and takes over.

I'm too self-conscious, I suppose. The legacy of a frightening and insecure childhood. Losing that self-consciousness and just letting everything flow is a knack I've never picked up. I envy those who've mastered it. It must make life a lot easier and a lot more enjoyable.

Or maybe I just need that old Irish standby, the gift of the gab.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Off message

Father of two Bobby Smith is fuming with rage over a sculpture of two women and their children outside the Library of Birming-ham. To him it's not just a sculpture, it's a political statement that offends his delicate sensibilities.

He objects to the idea that this is a "normal" family and says "kids are always better off with both parents in their lives." He obviously thinks sculpture should convey an ideologically right-on message and has never grasped the strange notion of freedom of artistic expression. Presumably he believes the only "correct" sculpture would be one of Mr and Mrs Average of Acacia Avenue, Anytown.

He was so incensed that he travelled from Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire to Birmingham to make his protest. He stuck photos of himself and his two young daughters onto three of the figures and threw a sheet over the other one.

So does he feel better for his valiant protest on behalf of normal, properly-parented families? Hard to say. In the photos, he looks glum and wary rather than pleased with himself. In fact he looks as if he's just lost a fiver and found a penny.

The artist, Gillian Wearing, explained sensibly enough that "a nuclear family is one reality but it is one of many and this work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed."

There seems to be an increasing tendency to see works of art not as complete in themselves but supposedly "representing" some wider bunch of people who then complain they're being insulted or maligned in some way. The unsuspecting artist is said to be denigrating women, or men, or gays, or heterosexuals, or whichever group is dancing with rage.

Can they not accept that a work of art isn't a political manifesto but simply an aesthetic and emotional creation with nothing to say other than whatever the random onlooker takes from it?

As for the idea that the sculpture is making fathers invisible, you only have to walk down any busy street to see dozens of them with their children in tow. If Bobby Smith could tear his attention from "incorrect" art-work for a few minutes, he might actually notice some of them. Unless they're all covered with sheets, that is.

Pic: A Real Birmingham Family by Gillian Wearing