Saturday 27 February 2016

Suck it up

One of the worst things that can happen to you is to be in constant fear of someone else. Worse still, when people don't believe you or won't do anything about it.

Which is why I'm following the case of the American singer Kesha and her record producer Dr Luke Gottwald with great interest.

It seems outrageous that a judge has denied the singer's request to be released from a six-album recording contract with Dr Luke, who Kesha claims physically, mentally and sexually assaulted her for ten years and left her permanently scared.

If you can't even rely on the courts to protect you, because the sanctity of a commercial contract is deemed more important than personal safety, that's a sorry state of affairs.

It's odd that the judge was so indifferent to Kesha's suffering. British contract law says there must be "mutual trust and confidence" between both parties, which clearly has broken down in Kesha's case. But maybe the law is different in the States.

Personally I haven't been in fear of other people that much. I was often scared of my father's foul temper. I was often scared of the other pupils at my boarding school, who bullied me on and off for four years. I was often scared of a tyrannical line manager who thought nobody did their job properly except himself. But thankfully I've never known the dreadful experience of being terrified of someone day in and day out, with no end in sight and no support from anyone else.

Kesha's case unfortunately reinforces the idea that if someone's abusing you, you'd better just put up with it and stop whinging. Don't try to get help from anyone else because they'll just laugh at you and walk away.

Many celebrities have pledged their support for her and demanded that the record contract be cancelled, but whether they'll have any effect is anyone's guess. Watch this space.

Pic: Kesha

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Ego shortage

What a lot of problems egos cause. All those over-the-top individuals who demand that we keep admiring them, pumping them up, fawning all over them. What hard work it is to feed their absurd pretensions.

At least if someone has an obvious ego, you can make a point of avoiding them. It's trickier when someone has an ego but pretends they don't and you get sucked in. They seem modest enough, but scratch the surface and there's the familiar self-importance and craving for attention and adulation.

I don't have much ego myself (no, really....). I've no desire to be seen as important or the centre of attention or a role model or a trend-setter. I'm happy to be anonymous and unremarkable. My impulse when surrounded by other people is not to have all eyes on me but to merge into the background. In fact the idea of being the centre of attention and subject to sharp-eyed scrutiny is quite alarming. Who knows what personal foibles will be eagerly pounced on?

I shudder at the thought of being a role model or a trend-setter. What, me with all my myriad hang-ups and fixations and shortcomings? No, no, don't copy me, copy someone who's worth copying - someone with visible talent and insight and imagination. My own talents consist of getting by, keeping out of trouble and feathering my own nest. Hardly a valuable gift to humanity.

If I draw attention at all, it's probably for all the wrong reasons. I've just knocked over a bottle of wine or said something stunningly rude or a chair has collapsed under me. It's highly unlikely I've drawn attention for my dazzlingly perceptive take on South American literary trends or melting Arctic glaciers. My opinions are about as significant as bus-shelter graffiti.

I don't mind if I drop dead having been of no importance to anyone except my small circle of loved ones. The obituary columns will just have to do without me.

Thursday 18 February 2016

But it's traditional

I'm always suspicious of the word "traditional". It's so often used negatively, to malign someone or prevent them doing something.

If it means enjoying yourself and having a good time, fine. Nothing wrong with wanting, say, a traditional family Christmas or a traditional seaside holiday. No harm in that (unless you can't stand your relatives or you can't swim, of course).

But when people bang on about "traditional marriage" (i.e. a man and a woman, or a breadwinner and a housewife) or "traditional British values" (i.e. what immigrants need more of) or "traditional British cooking" (i.e. none of that foreign muck), I cringe. It's just a sign of blinkered intolerance and inability to accept other people's tastes and preferences.

In any case, a lot of these supposed "traditions" are either being hugely misrepresented or are actually quite a recent thing. Single parent families have always been common. British values have always pillaged values from other cultures. And British cooking has always used foreign ingredients. So where are these much-vaunted traditions that are always being waved in our faces? They're mostly mythical.

But it sounds good, doesn't it? If something's "traditional", it must be based on long experience, tried and tested methods, solid common sense etc. Except that if you look more closely, it's just as likely to mean nothing more than force of habit, sticking to the status quo, and running away nervously from anything unfamiliar.

We could do with a bit less tradition and a bit more eagerness to try something new.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

No platform

Continuing with the same theme, a National Union of Students officer has refused to share a platform with the well-known progressive campaigner Peter Tatchell, on the grounds that he's racist and transphobic. When he asked her for evidence, she refused to speak to him and wouldn't produce any.

Anyone who knows Peter knows very well he's never been remotely racist or transphobic. On the contrary, he's backed every anti-racist and pro-transgender campaign in his 49 years of human rights work. The accusations are totally absurd.

Yet the NUS officer, Fran Cowling, won't back down and the NUS leadership is supporting her rather than Peter. Peter sees this as another example of the growing censorship of free speech at universities and elsewhere.

He says: "This sorry, sad saga is symptomatic of the decline of free and open debate on some university campuses. There is a witch-hunting, accusatory atmosphere. Allegations are made without evidence to back them - or worse, they are made citing false, trumped-up evidence.

"The race to be more left-wing and politically correct than anyone else is resulting in an intimidating, excluding atmosphere on campuses. Universal human rights and enlightenment values....are often shamefully rubbished as the ideas of Western imperialist white privilege."

He points out that even if he did happen to be racist or transphobic, the best response isn't to shut the person out (what's called no-platforming) but to debate with them and expose their views for the nonsense they are. Open debate is surely what universities are all about.

But Fran Cowling and the NUS are happy to see Peter smeared as some kind of entrenched bigot, and then when he asks for evidence, they're too sneaky and cowardly even to respond. They're beneath contempt.

Pic: Peter Tatchell

Thursday 11 February 2016

Thin skinned

I'm all in favour of giving people the respect they deserve, whether they be men, women, black, white, gay, straight, British, non-British, or whatever. Why should anyone be insulted or ignored or seen as inferior? We're all human beings and we should all be treated decently.

At the same time, I do think a lot of people are getting absurdly thin-skinned to real or imagined slights, permanently irate at this or that supposed verbal outrage, unable to shrug their shoulders, wonder at the speaker's clumsiness or cluelessness and move on.

Maybe it's because I'm pretty impervious to insults myself that I see others as over-sensitive, but even so, I'm amazed at what seems to be one storm in a teacup after another.

Northern Ireland politician is alleged to have said he was "scared out of his wits" when compared to First Minister Arlene Foster. He's also alleged to have said "I'm brilliant with women under the age of eight and great with those over the age of 80 - it's the ones in between I can't cope with."

This has caused a huge row, with two official complaints by other parties, another politician saying he showed contempt for women, and a flurry of abusive comments on social media.

But someone else defended him, saying "He was not offensive to anybody, he was having a go at himself."

Precisely. To my mind, he's simply saying he has problems relating to women. Hardly outrageous, and hardly rampant misogyny. It's not exactly unusual for men to have problems relating to women. It's also not unusual for women to have problems relating to men. So why such a ridiculous fuss?

I'm all for appropriate censure over genuine, clear-cut insults. But on many occasions somewhat ambiguous comments are taken out of context, given unintended meanings, and treated with self-righteous grandiosity, when the most sensible response would be "Who cares? What does it matter?"

Surely we're all grown up enough to take a few iffy remarks on the chin, not get our nappies in a knot but just get on with our lives?

Monday 8 February 2016

Typical day

My typical day, by Nick:
  • Wake up at 4 am, worrying about things I don't need to worry about
  • Wade through all the scare stories, politicians' lies, celebrity gossip and wardrobe failures in the media
  • Realise once more how little I can do about refugees, earthquake victims, welfare cuts and bombing raids on foreign countries
  • Watch a brilliant TV series from Norway/France/Germany and wonder why British TV is never as good
  • Wonder what is the best way of eating pizza - slices or small chunks?
  • Wonder why anyone buys a £50 bottle of wine when a £5 bottle from Sainsbury's does the job
  • Listen yet again to Frank by Amy Winehouse
  • Press on with Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney
  • Go for my usual daily walk in steady drizzle
  • Plan tonight's meal, as Jenny's now in England (no, not pizza)
  • Do the bare minimum of housework (unless visitors are expected)
  • Ponder the meaning of life
  • Reflect on the extraordinary variety of human faces
  • Dodge swarms of parents and offspring at the two nearby schools
  • Wonder whatever happened to (insert celebrity's name here)
  • Wonder how we accumulated so many bowls/dishes/ramikins
  • Wonder why I am not yet a National Treasure
  • Survive another day without buying a smartphone or taking a selfie
  • Survive another day without an espresso machine
  • Puzzle over which of the 13 clocks and watches in the house is showing the correct time

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Clean sweep

A good woman friend used to point out my habit of making sweeping general-isations about all sorts of people - men, women, politicians, right-wingers, religious believers, landlords, you name it. It was totally unfair, she told me, to all those people who didn't fit the description and were being grossly maligned.

We're all very different, she said, and very few people actually conform to the tired old stereotypes we love to fling around so recklessly.

She was right of course and now I'm careful not to generalise but always to qualify anything I say about a specific group of people. And preferably not to make any general statement at all but stick to those individuals I know personally.

I used to be scathing about men, thinking only of those men who hate women and treat them appallingly. I would forget all those decent, considerate men who treat women with respect and are horrified by the rapists and misogynists.

I used to be over-polite about women, assuming they were always kind and caring, when as we all know women can be just as bitchy and competitive and aggressive as men when it suits them.

And so on and so on.

After all, I don't like it when people generalise about me. I resent the tedious stereotypes about public sector workers, vegetarians, socialists, home-owners, non-parents and thin people.

I may be a public sector worker, but I don't have a fat salary. I don't have a pension (let alone a fat one), I don't hand people 40 page application forms, and I don't go on sick leave every other day. I do my job for a fairly meagre salary and I haven't gone off sick since I started the job over five years ago. So as far as I'm concerned, you can screw up the stereotype and chuck it in the rubbish bin.

So, yeah, I'm super-sensitive to sweeping statements now, I can sniff them a mile off and I studiously avoid them. Please feel free to alert me if you see me thoughtlessly uttering one. I didn't mean to, honest. It was the mouse's fault.