Wednesday 27 March 2019

The name game

Apparently many parents (one in seven, according to a survey) regret the name they gave their child and want to change it. Children themselves may also regret their name.

Parents go off a child's name for all sorts of reasons - it doesn't fit their personality, it's gathered unwanted associations, it's become too popular, it's become too unpopular, or it's become a commercial brand. Or even because someone they detest has a child with the same name.

A lot of children change their names as well. They shorten it, or adopt a completely different or androgynous or more memorable name, or turn a foreign name into something that sounds more English. Or replace a totally ridiculous name like Peaches with something more normal. Not surprising really since we're given no choice over our names and can easily take exception to them.

Personally I never use my given name, Nicholas (except on official documents), and I'm always known as Nick. It seems to me Nicholas is a bit long - and slightly pompous. Luckily it hasn't been tainted in any way - there's no serial killer called Nicholas or Nick as far as I know. And as yet there's no Nicholas rat poison.

My father disliked his given first name, Edward, and was always known by his second name, Colin. My sister's name is Heather, but she's usually known by the abbreviated Heth (th as in though).

The fashion for androgynous names can cause a lot of confusion. Names like Sam, Alex, Charlie, Frankie, Robin, Jackie and Jules can prompt very wrong and embarrassing assumptions about the person's sex. If they look androgynous as well, there's even more scope for confusion.

It must be galling for parents when they've agonised for months over what name to give their child, only to find the child loathes it and adopts a different name anyway. Or little Trixie decides she'd rather be called Kardashian or Wittgenstein.

Saturday 23 March 2019

No fisticuffs

I've never been in favour of violence, be it political, personal or otherwise. It may occasionally bring results, but nine times out of ten it's simply harmful and unpro-ductive.  And violence generally breeds more violence.

I've known plenty of people who believe political violence is necessary, that non-violent protests get nowhere and are usually ignored by the powers that be. They're always ready for a dust-up, ready to throw bricks at the police, smash shop windows or set fire to cars. All they do is alienate the public and discredit those of us who prefer peaceful, law-abiding protest.

I was on a march once in central London (I think it was the Anti Nazi League) when we were suddenly confronted by a very nasty-looking mob of National Front supporters. Some people were obviously prepared for a fight with them but not me. I had no wish to get involved and left the march in a hurry.

I know political violence does sometimes work - the poll tax was abandoned soon after serious rioting - but mostly it just means protesters being injured and maybe less inclined to join other protests in the future.

I've never indulged in personal violence either. I've never kicked anyone, punched anyone, threatened anyone. If it looks like a conversation is getting aggressive, I simply walk away from it. Luckily alcohol makes me soporific and easy-going rather than belligerent.

Luckily also I'm not an angry person. I can't imagine being so enraged by someone's opinions that I'm tempted to punch them in the face or knock them down. Even if someone's been blatantly rude to me (which doesn't happen very often) I wouldn't respond with violence, I would just be rude back. Or assume they were having a bad day and felt like taking it out on the nearest person.

Brickbats are safer than bricks.

I'll leave the fisticuffs to others.

Tuesday 19 March 2019

Asking for trouble

It's a truism that you can never understand other people's relation-ships. If you offer any well-meaning advice, you're asking for trouble. Chances are you'll be told to shut up and mind your own business.

But the number of times I've asked myself questions like:

"All they do is argue. What on earth keeps them together?"
"I'm told they never have sex. What on earth....?"
"She's totally sweet, he's a loud-mouthed alcoholic bully. What on earth....?"
"He never lifts a finger, he just sits around watching TV. What on earth....?"
"He has one affair after another. What on earth....?"
"All she does is whinge and moan. What on earth....?"

I guess there's some underlying motive or dynamic that keeps such couples together despite the baffling outward behaviour. It's all about money, or security, or property, or loyalty, or habit. Something strong enough to override the arguments and affairs and alcoholism. Something only they can appreciate.

A relationship you're sure is going to collapse at any minute lasts for 50 years. One that seems like the perfect match ends in divorce a few months later. There's no accounting for it.

Relationships are so intricate, trying to analyse one is a bit like being a novice at quadratic equations. Or the rules of chess. You're bound to make a fool of yourself because of your total ignorance of the complexities. Best to keep your thoughts to yourself.

Of course if someone actually confesses to a marital crisis and asks for your advice, that's another matter. And the crisis they reveal will probably be very different from anything you might have  imagined.

As for my own relationship, Jenny and I have been an item now for almost 38 years. How extraordinary is that? So what keeps us together? Buggered if I know. Some mysterious connection that's impossible to comprehend. And even more impossible to put into words.

Friday 15 March 2019

A twinge of envy

There are plenty of things I envy in other people - certain skills and abilities, certain personality traits, certain physical features. Things I would quite like to have myself, instead of what I was actually blessed with. Things that had been mysteriously overlooked when I came into the world. For example:

Intelligence: I'm constantly impressed by those who are smarter, more quick-witted, can think on their feet, get straight to the point of something, and always have a witty comeback to an unexpected criticism.

Memory: I admire those with a better memory, who can recall all those little details that rapidly escape me. In particular I envy the sort of photographic memory my sister has.

Writing: I'm in awe of those who can produce novel after novel, who have the ability to keep a complex plot and umpteen characters in their mind as they twist and turn over hundreds of pages.

Height: I would quite like to be a bit shorter, so I don't have to stoop a dozen times a day and it's easier to find clothes that actually fit me.

Sight: It would be nice to have perfect sight rather than a hazy blur and not need the glasses I've worn since I was 17.

Happiness: Some people seem to be perpetually happy, despite all the challenges and mishaps of daily life that so often upset the rest of us. How do they do that?

Tolerance: I admire those with infinite patience over things that annoy the hell out of everyone else. Like boisterous children and unhelpful call centres.

Don't get me wrong. These aren't things that eat me up with jealousy, or things I brood over into the small hours. They're just things I'd quite like to have in an ideal world. Which of course doesn't exist and never will.

Monday 11 March 2019

Crisis, what crisis?

The media and popular culture would have us believe that men go through four major crises in their lives, which they may or may not weather smoothly. We can't escape them, they're a simple fact of life. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint all the pundits, but there's been no sign of these dramatic crises in my own life. I've mysteriously avoided them.

First there's the teenage crisis. Supposedly an uncontrollable surge in testosterone turns teenage boys into acne-ridden sex maniacs, trying to take advantage of every girl in sight, and so distracted from their studies they're liable to fail all their exams. Well, I have to confess I never went through any such phase. My schooldays were entirely humdrum and sex-free.

Sometime in middle-age (the exact age is always rather nebulous) men are prone to a mid-life crisis - concluding that life is passing them by, they've wasted their energies on all the wrong things, and they're generally missing out. They ditch their wives for younger women, buy flashy sports cars, go for a brand-new career, and take up some odd hobby like paragliding. Er, no, not me either.

Then there's the later years crisis, when men want to deny their age and re-enact their youth, chatting up young women in supermarkets, starting strenuous domestic projects involving rickety ladders, driving like lunatics as if their reflexes are still razor-sharp, and slurping down litres of alcohol as if hangovers were obsolete. No, that one has passed me by too.

The retirement crisis also looms large. Men who retire after working non-stop for decades are supposed to feel bereft, having identified so strongly with their job that without it they have no idea what to do with themselves and feel empty and depressed. Not me, guv, I love being retired, doing what I want and no longer at someone else's beck and call.

So much for the pundits.

Thursday 7 March 2019

Taking advantage

I don't usually comment on outside controversies, but I'm so aghast at this particular trend that I have to say something about it. It seems that political fashion has banished common sense, but few people are prepared to say so.

I refer to the growing tendency for sportswomen to be defeated by men who have declared themselves to be women, entered women's sporting events and triumphed easily because of their superior physical strength and stamina.

Sports authorities have allowed them into women's events on the grounds that regular use of female hormones and testosterone-suppressing hormones has made their bodies sufficiently "female" for them to compete on an equal basis with natural women.

As I understand it, this is nonsense, because however many hormones a man takes, this will never negate the superior physique he developed as a growing man, and he will always be stronger than a woman who didn't develop in that way.

Quite a number of sportswomen, such as Martina Navratilova, Sharron Davies, Paula Radcliffe, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Sally Gunnell, Kelly Holmes and Nicola Adams, have now protested against this unfairness, which they regard simply as cheating and trickery.

If I were a sportswoman who had trained for years to reach a certain level of performance and expected to compete with like-bodied members of my own sex, I would be enraged at this blatant injustice and at the well-meaning idiots who declared that with a little pharmaceutical help trans women could qualify as real women.

Of course the trans women lucky enough to benefit from this fashionable attitude fiercely justify it. Cyclist Dr Rachel McKinnon, who recently won a world title at a California track event, claims there is no evidence trans women have a competitive advantage and calls the criticism "transphobic hate speech".

So how come trans women keep winning time and time again?

Pic: (L to R) Carolien Van Herrickhuyzen, Rachel McKinnon and Jen Wagner-Assali, who called McKinnon's victory unfair.

Sunday 3 March 2019

Out in the open

It's the era of openness, of transparency, of people telling it like it is, of all those little personal quirks and oddities being broadcast to the world. People coming out as gay, as anorexic, as self-harming, as having mental health issues.

All those things people used to keep to themselves out of embarrassment, shame, fear of being abnormal, fear of being misunderstood, all those things a tangle of inhibitions stopped us revealing, are now being voiced more freely.

You can't open a newspaper or turn on the TV without someone being astonishingly frank about some psychological weirdness they've been struggling with for years, and all the ways in which it's drastically affected their life.

I think it's a very healthy trend. There were many things I kept quiet about as a child because I was afraid of other people's reactions. But now I try to be as open as I can and less in thrall to those unnecessary inhibitions.

On the whole I'm happy to discuss my numerous neuroses - my anxieties, my fears, my lack of confidence, my doubts about my intelligence, my social shyness, my inarticulacy, my odd sleep patterns, my peculiar dreams. There are only one or two things I'm silent about, so as not to embarrass other people.

It's an unusual trait in my family. My mum was always obsessively secretive, confining herself to small talk and steering away from anything too personal or revealing. My brother in law and sister are much the same. Happily my niece is a lot more open, probably because she's 36 and part of a generally more communicative generation.

As a kid I was taught that men should "keep a stiff upper lip", not show anyone we were upset or afraid or couldn't cope. We were supposed to bottle up our emotions and put on "a brave front". Thank goodness that absurd attitude is gradually fading away.