Friday 27 May 2016

Biographies - no thanks

I seldom read biog-raphies. I admire people for what they've created or achieved, but in most cases the details of their personal lives are irrelevant to the things I admire. What they've given the world is usually unique and extraordinary, while their daily comings and goings are mostly much like anyone else's and of limited interest.

Marriage, children, affairs, divorce, drugs, alcohol, money problems, mental illness. We've heard it a thousand times before, and it sheds little light on their brilliant paintings or films or plays or music.

I love Mark Rothko's paintings, for instance, but does it help to know that he killed himself by slashing his elbows, that he drank and smoked heavily, that he had a tense relationship with his wife, or that he had a heart problem? No, it adds nothing unless you're into fancy theories about great art stemming from neurosis or whatever.

Most biographies aren't meant to illuminate the person's achievements anyway. They're usually just a way to trade on someone's fame with a money-spinning best-seller. And some are of dubious reliability, cobbled together from all sorts of questionable sources and sometimes actively opposed by the person's family who dispute much of the content.

Quite often biographies are simply an excuse to name-drop copiously - how X had a long-running spat with famous artist Y or was royally swindled by famous art dealer Z. The banality of the average biography increases of course when it's turned into a film with a string of dramatic set-pieces that distort the reality even further.

So no, I rarely read biographies. Why waste the time when I could be enjoying the things the person is actually celebrated for? I'm sure Lionel Shriver would much rather I savoured her books than read about her adolescent weight gain.

PS: But I do enjoy fictitious faux biographies like William Boyd's Sweet Caress.

Monday 23 May 2016

Nudes and prudes

There's a general assumption nowadays that prudery has died out and all the old hang-ups about sex and nudity are a thing of the past. But it's not true. Everywhere you look sex and nudity are causing as much fuss as ever. If anything the squeamishness is getting worse.

A long list of things can prompt anything from tut-tutting to all-out uproar. Breastfeeding in public. Kissing in public. Over-revealing female clothing. Too much visible cleavage. Bra-less breasts. Naked male chests. Nudity on TV. The word vagina. Politicians having affairs. Older people's sex lives. Photos of women with stretch marks, scars or mastectomies.

Despite today's supposed laid-back attitudes, in fact there's still a vast unspoken code of conduct about what's permitted and what isn't, and one step over the boundary can unleash a barely-concealed puritanism.

Of course there should be limits on what we do or show in public. I don't think daily life would be improved if everyone strolled around in the nude and shagged wherever they felt like it. But a bit more tolerance and open-mindedness would avoid a lot of the sillier complaints.

Some protests are just balmy. Is it really outrageous to name a female body part? Or show your affection by kissing someone? Or feed your child as nature intended? Only if you're a fully paid-up member of the Permanently Offended community.

Given my enthusiasm for kissing and hugging in public, I'm surprised nobody has ticked me off, though I've had a few disapproving looks. I don't expose my chest to all and sundry, and not my legs either unless it's a scorching Aussie summer. And I've never had an affair, so I'm free from criticism on that score.

But I have to report that prudery is a long time dying.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Was my face red

Supposedly many people feel acutely embarr-assed talking about anything too personal with their doctors. And equally embarr-assed by any over-intimate examination of their bodies. Especially anything related to sex.

Or so I keep reading. Whether it's true I don't know. But it seems the only people who talk freely to their doctors are either doctors' children or people who were simply never taught to be embarrassed. Or maybe hypochondriacs.

I must say I'm one of the exceptions, as I'm happy to talk to my doctor about anything at all. In fact, I sometimes feel she's the one who's embarrassed and not me. I don't know why that's the case, but I have no problem discussing what's happening "down there" or having her hand up my bum to check my prostate.

For a doctor, surely it's just part of the day's work. She's discussed it all and examined it all with thousands of patients so for her whatever I say is totally unsurprising and unshocking and the moment I've left her she'll probably forget everything I said.

And obviously whatever I say is strictly confidential and goes no further than the consulting room. It's not as if my revelations are broadcast to all and sundry. It's not as if my trite medical concerns are hot gossip to be whispered to the other doctors. I haven't suddenly grown a pair of breasts or an extra head. So why the squeamishness?

I'm really curious as to why people get so embarrassed. Especially if they have serious and worrying physical symptoms that need looking at urgently. Surely protecting your health is more important than avoiding embarrassment? But who knows what goes through people's minds, what deep inhibitions they've learnt from someone.

Sometimes spilling it all out can be hard.

PS: A survey by the British Menopause Society found that half of women going through the menopause are too embarrassed to speak to their doctor

Friday 13 May 2016

Well heeled

It's hard to believe that in the year 2016, when gender equality is meant to be progressing rapidly, a woman can be sent home without pay by her employer for refusing to wear high heels all day.

But that's what happened to Nicola Thorp when she turned up for work at Price Waterhouse Cooper in London. When she said she couldn't escort clients round the office all day if she was in high heels, she was ignored. Her petition to the British government for a change in the law has attracted huge support.

Surely by now it's well-established that regular wearing of high heels is physically harmful, acutely painful, impedes numerous activities, and hinders personal safety. Yet employers can still overlook all these dangers and insist on their being worn in the name of "looking professional" and "promoting the right image".

As far as I know there's no evidence whatever that high heels make a woman look more professional or inspire more confidence in her abilities, but they're still part of the obligatory dress code in many companies.

If high heels look "professional", then how come men can look professional without having to hobble round the office in such things, and can inspire confidence simply by wearing a tie and a crumpled suit? Why aren't men asked to do their job in agonising shoes with bleeding feet? Why aren't they asked to "promote the right image"?

The obvious answer is that men simply wouldn't put up with chronic pain day in and day out, and wouldn't entertain the idea for two seconds. That and their entrenched dread of doing anything "effeminate", of course.

I can think of a novel way of opposing the high heels dress code. If we have business with a company that applies it, just refuse to talk to a woman in high heels and ask for a woman in normal footwear. That would soon bring a few changes.

PS: Nicola Thorp's petition is here

Wednesday 11 May 2016

The real me

What's the real me and what's the fake me? Does it even matter? Is the fake me all a part of the real me anyway? And why do I worry about such nonsense?

I worry about it because I don't want to fool people, to appear as something I'm not. I want to be seen exactly as I am, warts and all, loud socialist left-wing views and all, weird private habits and all.

But what the hell is the real me, I wonder. Is it the me that keeps to myself and wants peace and quiet whenever possible? Or the me that enjoys a good conversation and enjoys a raucous, high-spirited public rally? Or is it both?

Perhaps I should leave the judgment to others. I'll behave as I feel like behaving, and others can decide if that's the real me or some peculiar impostor. They can decide if I'm being Nick or channelling an alien being.

Of course they might just be seeing my well-polished public persona. The kind, considerate, sensible old geezer who gives everyone a fair hearing and never rants or raves. As opposed to the private curmudgeon who takes exception to everything, hurls crockery across the kitchen and kicks the cat*.

But if I'm being super-polite and super-agreeable, am I fooling people or do they know very well it's just my bland public image? I mean, nobody can be that polite, can they? They must assume straightaway that in private I'm as potty-mouthed and sweary as the next person.

Mind you, however hard I try to be my genuine, unedited self, some people will always read something bizarre into what I've said and get me all wrong anyway. A fake me I never even thought of. I can't win.

* Don't worry, we don't have one.

Saturday 7 May 2016

Eye of the storm

Stillness. Calm. Tranquill-ity.

So desirable yet so hard to achieve in this era of constant noise, media contro-versies, social chit-chat, cold calls, "keeping busy" and random internet blurtings.

It's so soothing and restorative to be totally still for a while, mentally vacant, stripped of all this outside communication. But the compulsion to be endlessly on the move and spilling something out has infected us all and is well nigh impossible to turn off.

Luckily Jenny and I live in a largish detached house and can shut everyone else out if we wish. We can keep the world at bay in our little private sanctuary. All those people forced to flatshare or live with relatives, but craving peace and quiet, aren't so fortunate.

There seems an unspoken assumption nowadays that we must all have opinions on everything, however trite or absurd or violent, and must voice those opinions to as many people as possible via every available outlet.

The result is a daily tsunami of raucous pontificating and ranting on every conceivable subject from fluffy kittens to surly shop assistants to anti-Jewishness. A tsunami to which I'm personally contributing of course with my own feverish outpourings. Do feel free to turn me off at any time....

Now and then I climb Slieve Donard, the tallest mountain in Northern Ireland. You'd think that there at least I could enjoy perfect peace. But no. Slieve Donard is so well-known that there are always trails of hikers trudging up and down the mountainside, cheerily saying hello and commenting on the weather.

I think to get perfect peace I'd have to clamber into a rocket and be shot into outer space. That's the only way the constant buzz of humanity could be left behind.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Being insulted

It's really infuriating when I'm accused of insulting people and I know I never insulted them or had any thought of insulting them. Yet the accuser refuses to back down or admit they might be mistaken.

Just this week I've been accused of patronising someone, of treating someone "like a silly schoolgirl" and of "defending antisemitic rantings".

The last is the worst of course. Being patronising (if it were true) is hardly a hanging offence. Treating someone like a schoolgirl (if it were true) is a modest faux-pas on the sexist spectrum. But to suggest I'm a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Jewish bigot is outrageous.

Like most people, I have Jewish friends, so why would I condone attacks on them? What could I possibly have against Jews apart from my not being religious?

I begin to understand how angry the 400,000 Labour Party members must be as they are all smeared as being anti-Jewish week in and week out by the media and have little or no opportunity to defend themselves.

I try very hard not to gratuitously insult people. If I'm about to say something derogatory, I ask myself "What's the evidence? Am I sure about this? Or is it just an assumption?" If I'm not sure of my ground, it goes unsaid. Other people don't abide by the same rules though. An idea pops into their head and they run with it, regardless. Often with predictably disastrous results.

Of course some insults slip through my mental filter, and I'm happy to apologise if need be. But I hate being accused of something that's categorically untrue, or at the very least a matter of personal interpretation.

Just give me a break. Think before you speak.