Sunday 29 November 2015

Lifestyle choice

The idea that those who don't fit in, who aren't like you and me, don't deserve any sympathy or support because their behaviour is merely "a lifestyle choice" astounds me.

Apparently to some people it's a "lifestyle choice" if you happen to be a refugee, a welfare claimant, a single mother, a homosexual, transgender, or even a rough sleeper. They've supposedly "decided" to be those things and therefore it's up to them to deal with whatever difficulties they face. The rest of us can happily ignore them.

From this weird viewpoint, a refugee isn't simply someone desperate to get away from unbearable violence and oppression. They woke up one day and decided it would be fun to live somewhere else for a change.

A welfare claimant isn't someone who's too disabled or mentally ill or frail (or just on a low wage) to pay their way. They woke up one day and decided to sting the welfare system for everything they could get.

Those fortunate enough to be able to choose what they do in life, and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, often fondly believe that other people have "chosen" a more difficult or unpleasant life and could easily make things better for themselves if they really wanted.

They don't like to admit that their privileged position is as much a matter of luck as it is of judgment, and that a different twist of fate could have thrown them into the same situations as the people they habitually scoff at.

There aren't many "lifestyle choices" if your country is being bombed month in and month out. The only choice is survival.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Shifting memories

It's curious how nostalgia often makes us glamorise experiences that at the time were actually pretty awful. I look back fondly at my childhood summer holidays, conveniently forgetting the pouring rain, the ghastly B&B meals and the lumpy, uncomfortable beds.

I look back equally fondly at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival in 1969, quietly overlooking the collapsing tents, the overwhelming crowds, the endless queues and being so far from the stage that Bob Dylan was barely visible.

But I guess that only works if the positives are as numerous as the negatives. Then it's quite easy to screen out the nasty bits. Once the negatives start to dominate, that's what sticks in my memory. Like the truly dreadful public school I attended.

Even some events that I know were a total shambles still seem glamorous later on, because after all isn't it a part of being young to stumble through everything, leaving one mess after another but having great fun in the process? Like my first sexual relationship, full of misunderstandings and disappointments but hey, it was another exciting initiation into the adult world.

Even encounters that seemed unpleasant at the time can be re-interpreted in a more favourable light. That obnoxious train passenger who insisted on telling me her life story while I was engrossed in a novel, in retrospect becomes an amusing eccentric who livened up a rather dreary journey.

In fact I have a natural urge to rewrite history in a more dramatic vein. My over-active imagination tires of the same old prosaic memories and stealthily turns them into something a bit more thrilling and surprising. Like the dull landlady who in my mind gradually becomes a neat-freak, constantly polishing the cutlery and disinfecting the worktops. It's only a matter of time before she was never dull at all, she was always the clean-freak of my fantasies.

How many of my memories are now glorious inventions?

"Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were" - Marcel Proust

Thursday 19 November 2015

Absolutely nuts

Is it ever acceptable to use the idea of mental illness as a form of abuse, or is it always offensive - simply adding to the widespread stigma against those with mental health problems?

Ken Livingstone MP, who's usually very sensitive to any kind of discrimination, caused an outcry by suggesting his fellow MP Kevan Jones was "obviously very depressed and disturbed", "should pop off and see his GP", and "might need some psychiatric help". He claimed not to know his colleague confessed to having a major depression some years ago. He had to make a profuse public apology to the other MP.

Of course if you know very well someone has a psychological problem, you're not going to refer to it in an abusive way. But assuming that isn't the case, what harm does it actually do to suggest someone is "depressed and disturbed" or "might need psychiatric help"? It's not as if you're accusing them of being a serial killer or a paedophile. You're merely suggesting they're not mentally 100 per cent and maybe they should do something about it. And all the other person has to do is declare that they're quite all right, thanks, so shut your gob.

Does what Ken Livingstone said really add to the stigma against mental illness? Is he really going to stop people seeking help and prompt them to keep their problems secret? I can't honestly believe those rather mild phrases could have such a dramatic effect. I think there's an element of fashionable over-reaction here.

It seems even odder to me that simply describing someone as "nuts" or "crazy" is also seen as unacceptable. After all, you're not seriously saying the person is a deranged psychopath. They're just common terms for "a bit eccentric" or "not thinking straight". If someone calls me nuts, to me it's no more offensive than calling me lazy or greedy. It's just another harmless everyday insult.

The whole thing is surely a storm in a teacup. It's all a bit nuts, in fact.

Afterthought: Why is it thoroughly offensive to suggest someone needs psychiatric help, but not offensive at all to suggest they need to see a doctor?

Pic: Ken Livingstone MP

Saturday 14 November 2015

Tit for tat

I amuse myself sometimes by imagining that the appearance of male public figures is criticised as relentlessly as women's. Just suppose men were told all the same things:

That jacket is hideous.
Those pants are too tight.
He has facial hair/ hairy legs.
He's not wearing heels.
He's not wearing make-up.
His shirt/ pants are too revealing.
He's fat/ too thin/ unattractive.
His hair is too long/ too short/ in a mess.
His clothes are too sexy/ not sexy enough.
You can see the outline of his underpants.

Not only are they spared all that ruthless criticism, they can get away with virtually anything because "that's what men are like".

They can sport massive beards, five o'clock shadow, dishevelled and badly-fitting clothing, hairy nostrils, beer bellies, over-tight suits, filthy fingernails, comb-overs, greasy and tangled hair, missing teeth, and nobody says a word - except maybe their wives and girlfriends in the privacy of their home. And the chances are they'll be ignored.

When it comes to appearance, men have it easy. While women are always ready for some catty comment, men can swan around confident that lips are tactfully sealed. A sort of diplomatic immunity.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Hate filled

So much hatred.
So many people overflowing with venom and spite and viciousness.
Hidden away in backrooms, spilling their hatred all over cyberspace. And any other space they can commandeer.
Usually anonymous. Too cowardly to identify themselves.
Hatred for anything they don't understand. Homosexuals, socialists, atheists, welfare claimants, the unemployed, immigrants, pacifists, fat people, transgender, abortions.
So many things they don't understand.
What horrible lives they must have had to get so addled with hatred.
Tyrannical fathers maybe. School bullies. Mean bosses. Nasty spouses. Greedy landlords. Inflexible officials.
Or maybe it's bred in the bone. A genetic flaw. A birth defect.
Who can say?
But so much hatred where there could be love. Compassion. Curiosity. Enjoyment.
So much hatred poisoning and souring society.
And poisoning and souring their own souls.
How can all that hatred be dissolved?
I wish I knew.
I wish I had some answers.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Me myself I

I do like my privacy. I like being able to think or emote or plan or just be totally vacant without other people intruding on me and obliging me to interact.

I want to be able to choose when I mingle with other people and when I don't. There are times when I love socialising and crave other people's company. But there are also times when I want to be on my own and the slightest hint of conversation makes me want to flee.

I would hate to live in a household so full of other people - children, grandchildren, parents, neighbours - that you never have a moment to yourself unless you actually leave the house and vanish for a while.

Luckily I've spent most of my adult life either on my own or with one other person (Jenny) who is often elsewhere and allows me plenty of privacy. I once spent a month in a shared flat that turned into a chaotic multi-person squat. That was enough communal living for a lifetime.

Some people appreciate the idea of social privacy, which is helpful.They understand that even if you're in a public place or in  a social gathering, you don't necessarily want to chat ad nauseam. If you look as if you're enjoying a moment of quiet reflection, they'll pass you by and approach someone else.

Of course the main downside of privacy is loneliness. Too much privacy can easily become chronic loneliness as thinking your own thoughts stops being a pleasure and turns into a tiresome albatross. Fortunately my thoughts are so sparky and so fertile that I seldom want to escape from them. The more the merrier in fact.

Oh, sorry if I've intruded on your privacy. I'll stop now and leave you alone....

Tuesday 3 November 2015

First timers

My blogmate John was looking back at all the memorable "first times" in his life, so I thought I would shamelessly plagiarise him with my own list of unfor-gettable "firsties":

  • Going vegetarian. Two gay vegetarian friends persuaded me to go veggie in 1975. I've often considered going vegan but I'm just too fond of cheese.
  • Passing my driving test. I was absurdly nervous as I took my final driving lesson, but come the test I was mysteriously super-cool and passed easily.
  • Meeting Jenny. We were both working in a central London bookshop at the time, and we clicked instantly. Thirty four years later we still love each other to bits.
  • Flight in a light aircraft. A school friend's mum owned a light aircraft and took me up for a flight. It was both scary and exciting.
  • Seeing a corpse. At a mortuary when I was a local newspaper reporter. It was a young woman who had killed herself. A very strange sight.
  • Having sex. Aged 22 with a beautiful woman who loved Janis Joplin, cannabis, long floaty dresses and everything about the sixties counter-culture.
  • The debut Beatles record. "Love Me Do". The start of an incredible musical phenomenon. I was always desperate for their next release.
  • The Isle of Wight Music Festival in 1969. Waiting impatiently for Bob Dylan and queuing endlessly for everything amid the chaos of tents and rubbish.
  • My first day at work. In 1965 smoking in offices was normal and I virtually suffocated from the thick fug of tobacco smoke. Alarmingly, I soon got used to it.
  • My first pay packet. In those days you got an envelope stuffed with cash. I couldn't quite believe I was being paid for rustling up news stories.
  • Arriving in Australia. Drinking in every detail of the scenery as the taxi took us from the airport over the Tasman Bridge to our apartment in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • First visit to Venice with Jenny*. More scenery-drinking as a water taxi took us along the canals and past the amazing old palazzos and churches to our hotel.
  • Arriving in Belfast. My first holiday in Northern Ireland (Jenny was there as a child), and I loved the people and the scenery. We moved there in 2000.
* I went there as a child with my parents and sister