Sex sells — even when you’re buying votes by banning it (Technical information and clever bits courtesy of Shibblez)

Yesterday, the interwebz seemed to be ablaze in equal measure with news of the birth of the royal sproglet and PM David Cameron’s new anti porn plans. Sproglets, whether royal or commoner, are — as you’ll probably have worked out by now — of singularly no interest to me, so don’t all faint at once when I tell you that that’s not to be the subject of today’s Muttering.

No, today I’m going to talk about pornography, or at least, about its regulation and how our esteemed leader clearly has no idea how the internet — or the human mind — works. Now, I have some friends who are totally anti-porn (to the extent that they consider lads’ mags and Page Three to be detrimental to the fabric of society), and others who regard sites like www.kink.com and www.hogtied.com (don’t click if you’re under 18 or easily shocked, folks) to be but mildly titillating. For now, I’ll let you form your own opinions about where I fit in on this spectrum.

Cameron University Hospitals Birmingham

David Cameron, a politician with no morals. [Photo: University Hospitals Birmingham]

Anyway, this, in a nutshell, is what our esteemed leader (or his advisers) came up with:

  • Every household in the UK has to opt in if they want to view online pornography: ‘family-friendly’ filters will be activated and the account holder will have to ask their ISP to turn it off if they wish to view anything ‘adult’.
  • The possession of images depicting rape will be made illegal in England and Wales.
  • Online videos that are streamed to the UK are to be subject to the same restrictions as those for sale in shops.
  • Search engines will be encouraged to do more to block images of child sex-abuse.

Please tell me that you’re not reading this and thinking ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’ Because it’s not. At best it’s all very silly and naïve on the part of the PM; at worst it’s deliberately disingenuous — ‘let’s appeal to the not-very-bright (and win lovely votes) and make them think we’re going out of our way to protect their children, end rape, and generally stop women being exploited.’

Oh dear, oh dear.

But let’s say we go along with his ideas for now, just for the hell of it. These wonderful filters are going to block out pornography, and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) will compile a list of ‘abhorrent’ search terms that will be automatically proscribed. Computers and the technology that makes them work are not sentient. They are as good or as bad as they are programmed to be. When I adopted a new dog, my formerly placid golden retriever suddenly changed into a snarling, savage hell-hound. I consulted the internet and discovered that the search terms ‘dominant aggressive bitch’ turned up some very interesting — and mixed — results. So are these words in and of themselves abhorrent? Mr Cameron would view my experience as a perfect illustration of how well these filters work and why they are needed. But he’s wrong. Because were these search terms prohibited, I would never have learnt that my dog’s behaviour was a normal reaction and the rescue dog would probably have been sent back to the shelter before the two of them had chance to become the inseparable chums they were once the hierarchy had been established. Moreover, I have not been adversely affected by what I saw. Any dominatrix-like tendencies I possess are inherent and not the result of my happening to see a leather-clad woman wielding a riding crop when I was looking for something else. I am an adult. I can distinguish between the useful and the merely interesting (or the distasteful, if that’s what you’d prefer me to say). Would I have been traumatized if I’d been eight years old? I doubt it. Nowadays, eight-year-olds can’t spell ‘dominant’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘bitch’; and even if they manage it by a fluke, they’ve all seen  whatever today’s equivalent of Xena Warrior Princess is — and she’s much more imposing than Mistress Sadica von Tawse ever could be.

Why filters anyway? The local loop (which I’m reliably informed is the bit of wire from telephone to exchange) is now unbundled, rather than filtering why doesn’t some enterprising individual — or, indeed, government-controlled body — set up NannyNet with either no access of any kind to the big bad internet, or a Great (Fire)Wall of Nanny that controls every last detail of the connexion? Oh, because people want to have their cake and eat it; they want the expansiveness of the internet but the fake security of Cameron’s filters.

Unfortunately, Mr Cameron seems less than sure what actually constitutes pornography. Jeremy Vine yesterday interviewed the Tory leader on Radio 2 (here’s a link http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/b0375cm2/ — the relevant bit starts at 1:05:30 and lasts for about 12 minutes), and asked whether he advocated banning images of breast-feeding, as Facebook does. Mr Cameron was shocked that this could be viewed as pornographic. Mr Vine then inquired whether Fifty Shades of Grey would be filtered out, at which point a rather flustered Mr Cameron revealed that it wouldn’t — he didn’t think — and that it was only pornographic images — probably — that would be subject to exclusion.

Pornographic images. Mmm. Them. Just about everything can be a paraphilia or fetish for someone. Just about, did I say? No, everything. Absolutely everything. ‘Standard’ pornographic imagery — one man, one woman, or one man, two women — is but the tip of the iceberg. If you’re sexually aroused by cats, then this shameless hussy will probably have you drooling.

SAM_0152

Tilly, a cat with no morals and even less decorum.

Should we now ban pictures of cats from the internet? Facebook would close down overnight! By the same token, I’m sure any paedophile worth his salt doesn’t need photos of children performing sexual acts to get his juices flowing and his pulse rating — an innocent image of two little girls, in their nice new party frocks will probably do the job just as well. So where do we draw the line? Who’s to say that this is a morally-corrosive image but that isn’t? According to Mr C, this isn’t an attempt at government censorship, so…?

Whilst I’m on the subject of paedophiles and child pornography — Mr Cameron waffles a little to Jeremy Vine about peer-to-peer sharing, in the manner of one who’s heard the term but has no real idea what it means. (And why should he know more than that about it? He‘s not a computer boffin after all; I certainly don’t know the ins and outs of how it works either — oh, but there again, I’m not trying to legislate for a whole country based on a concept I don’t comprehend — yeah, he really should find out more before he opens his mouth.) He then compounds his stupidity by saying something along the lines of ‘it doesn’t matter how you do it; we’ll know about it and we’ll come and find you’ — thus challenging internet-savvy paedophiles nationwide to increase their activity just to prove him wrong. Big Brother is watching you, but this isn’t censorship, honest.

Besides, Mr Cameron has clearly never come across the concept of Onion Routing. Even a techno-numpty like me has heard of this before. TOR (The Onion Router) was originally designed by the US Navy as secure way of communicating over the internet and setting up invisible websites in countries where the political regime would tend to frown on such activity — oh, a bit like the Conservative party is doing in the UK, really. It was created to be untraceable and go through firewalls. It is encrypted. It bounces happily from server to server and never follows same route twice. Messages sneaked out from all these Arab countries where there have recently been revolts and uprisings have come via TOR. What’s more, OpenTOR is available for anyone to download!  Look — here’s a link if you want it for yourself: https://www.torproject.org/

And obviously, anyone who’s got anything in their possession that depicts a rape scene must surely be planning on re-enacting it. I am slightly worried about Mr Cameron’s own moral compass at this point. I own a DVD of The Accused. I do. And I don’t care who knows that I do. It’s a good film; a good court-room drama. I can honestly say that I could be in the same room as Jodie Foster (an actress for whom I have much admiration and respect) and not feel the urge to force myself upon her sexually. Nevertheless, being brutally and graphically raped on screen won Ms Foster a lot of controversy at the time, but also an Oscar, a David, a Golden Globe, a KCFCC, and an NBR, and marked her transition from child star to serious actress. But I’m shocked to learn all those award-awarding committee members are, like myself, to be considered as potential rapists. I’ve also got a copy of A Clockwork Orange, with its stylized, balletic rape scene. And I watched Scum on TV a couple of months ago. I am, therefore — if we believe David Cameron — a criminal and should clearly be banged up.

Jodie Foster by Miss Shari

Jodie Foster, an actress with both morals and decorum. [Photo: Miss Shari]

According to The Register (Jasper Hamill,  “War On Porn: UK flicks switch on ‘I am a pervert’ web filters”, 22 July 2013, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/07/22/war_on_erupts_in_britain/) feminist campaigners think Cameron’s stupidity is a good thing. Mr Hamill quotes Fiona Elvines of Rape Crisis South London as saying that ‘the government today has made a significant step forward in preventing rapists using rape pornography to legitimise and strategise their crimes and, more broadly, in challenging the eroticisation of violence against women and girls.’ Because no one was ever raped before people had access to the internet? The Story of O (1954) was always intended to be an online blog, but Anne Desclos, a.k.a Pauline Réage just got a bit before herself chronologically (yes… a woman eroticized violence against her own sex… as did Elizabeth McNeill (9 ½ Weeks), Mary Gaitskill (Bad Behavior, more famously filmed as Secretary), E. L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey)… well, I’ll stop there; you get the gist)? The Victorians never traded spanking porn photos or met in secret clubs for the purpose? No, all that is modern and the internet is to blame. Bad, bad internet.

Most porn sites — i.e. those featuring consenting adults — don’t want to be involved with children, from either side of the camera or computer screen. They don’t want stricter controls on their activities; nor do they want to be closed down because one underage girl claims she’s eighteen. The membership of the ASACP (Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection, http://www.asacp.org/) and the RTA (Restricted to Adults, http://www.rtalabel.org/) comprises more adult porn sites than anything else.

What other nonsense was there? Oh yes, restrictions on streaming. ‘Put simply,’ says Mr Cameron, ‘what you can’t get in a shop, you will no longer be able to get online.’ Yup. That’s putting it very simply. Too simply. We’re back to my suddenly-aggressive golden retriever. How is anyone to know if a video entitled good_dogs_and_bad_masters.mpg is about the mistakes people make when training their canine companions or some kind of BDSM fest with human puppies being led around on leads and drinking out of bowls on the floor? Well, it really is as simple as the PM believes. Someone would have to watch it. And every other one of the millions and millions of videos that are out there.

But it’s OK. Mr Cameron wants stricter policing by the various search engines. Let’s completely disregard the fact that most ISPs in the UK have already been censoring the internet for years, blocking child porn sites on the Internet Watch Foundation’s pretty extensive list. Mr Cameron now wants to shift the burden onto Google, Yahoo, Bing, et al That’ll take a lot of the onus off that poor soul who has to watch all the dross out there in the hope of spotting something a bit spicy. Only it won’t. Let’s imagine that the telephone number 01234 567890 belongs to a sex shop. BT decides, or is ordered, to stop listing sex shop numbers in its directory. You look in the phone book, and it’s not there; you phone directory enquiries and they too cannot help you. But the number still exists. Your friend might be able to tell you what it is; or next time you’re in that neck of the woods you could pop into the shop and ask them. Just because Mr Cameron browbeats Google or Yahoo or whoever into removing listings from websites he deems to be ‘abhorrent’ doesn’t mean that they no longer exist — it just means that you have to know where to look or whom to ask.

Mr Cameron believes that ‘online pornography is corroding childhood,’ because ‘in the darkest corners of the internet, there are things going on that are a direct danger to our children, and that must be stamped out.’ He wants Britain to be ‘a place where […] children are safe; where there’s a sense of right and wrong and boundaries between them; where children are allowed to be children.’ That’s nice, isn’t it? So let’s set up a few filters, let’s reassure parents that the stamping out has thus taken place; and let’s complacently sit back and be shocked when ‘abhorrent’ things do get through after all. Because they will.

Jeremy Vine asked what would become of those parents who chose to turn off the filters — would the ISPs or the government sic Social Services on them for endangering the morals (or something) of their children. Cameron waffled on about parents being responsible for controlling what their children have access to – as they do now. As they do now? So if all parents opt out, then what’s changed… other than some of the tax payers’ money being spent on another silly and futile initiative? Oh. Oh. I see.

So here’s what you should do if you think someone’s accessing your broadband illegally: ensure that anyone who connects to it without your permission is automatically redirected to a porn site. Then sit back and wait for them — or their parents — to come round and complain about how you’re a reprobate and corrupting their kids.  After that, it’s simple (to use Mr Cameron’s adjective of choice): just report them for offences under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/a_to_c/computer_misuse_act_1990/#an06)

Photos:

David Cameron:

David Cameron visits Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham

Jodie Foster:

Jodie Foster

Betrayed by Mr Boyle’s breakfast (written in collaboration with Liam Drayson)

Yesterday, The Independent carried this article: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/frankie-boyle-goes-on-hunger-strike-to-support-shaker-aamer–the-last-british-detainee-in-guantnamo-bay-8720221.html.

To save you clicking on the link, here’s the gist: the Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle, has gone on symbolic hunger strike in support of Shaker Aamer, the last British detainee in Guantánamo Bay.  (In fact, the Indie is being less than accurate here: Mr Aamer isn’t a British citizen: he’s a Saudi one, with legal British residency, but that’s of no real import.) When I read of this so-called protest, I felt horrified, sickened, betrayed even, so I posted a link on Facebook to the article above with the comment ‘Frankie Boyle has gone down in my estimation.’ What follows here is a conflation of the conversations which followed.

AOP Frankie Boyle

Frankie Boyle — not looking very hungry. [Photo courtesy of AOP.]

Since I first encountered Mr Boyle some seven or eight years ago on Mock the Week, I have been a fan. I liked his wit, his irreverence, and the mischievous glint in his eye. Let’s make no bones about this, I fancied the pants off Frankie Boyle because he seemed never to give a toss about what anyone thought of him. But this? This is just blatant ‘Like me because I’m campaigning for a good cause.’ He’s sold out. He’s changed. Now, suddenly, after building an entire career on not caring whom he hurts, he suddenly wants us to care because he says so. Why that should wound me personally, I have no idea; but it does. I desperately want him to turn round and make some sick, Daily-Mail-reader-enraging comment about life in Gitmo; I want my politically incorrect, scandalous Frankie back. Because if he’s gone, I simply cannot believe in  this new Saint Francis, Patron of the Oppressed, and must suspect him of — what? Of trying to make himself popular with the masses? Of playing the good guy so TV stations will forgive him his past indiscretions and welcome him back with open arms? No. No. That’s unbearable. His wit has always been indiscriminate. Everyone was fair game. Frankie Boyle’s venom was spread far and near; and when it struck, it struck hard — but its impact was due to its honesty. He said what we all thought, even if many of us were afraid to admit those thoughts even to ourselves.

So why is he doing this? Because after a lifetime of not caring, he’s suddenly learned compassion? Or because after a lifetime of being the voice of unpalatable truths, he’s suddenly learned acceptable duplicity? Either way, it’s not good, Frankie, and I am saddened. Nay, more than that. I rarely have anything even approaching a visceral reaction to current affairs, but that Frankie Boyle would stoop to this has truly sickened me. I am angrier about it than I can express here. I feel it to be a betrayal of both his admirers and his principles.

My left-wing friend sees only the good in his gesture. She feels that the fact that his actions have resulted in the publicizing of Mr Aamer’s situation justifies his action; and because his going on hunger strike is part of an organized international campaign (according to the Stand For Justice website, people from around the world have promised around 1200 days’ hunger striking on behalf of the Guantánamo detainees), that legitimizes it.

At this point, I confess, I had missed out on the fact that it was a symbolic hunger strike. I was naïve enough to think that Mr Boyle (he who hadn’t previously given a stuff about anyone) had undergone such a moral sea change that he was now prepared to endanger his life, Suffragette or Thich Quang Duc style, to save the life of a man he’d never met.

If we imagine a thermometer of anger, his willingness to do this raised the temperature to uncomfortably hot — open a few windows or turn up the aircon — but still bearable. How dare he, I felt, put the life of a stranger before the well-being of his partner and family, not to mention compromising his own health. After all,  for it to be a valid protest, he must, surely, intend to take it that far (otherwise all he’d be doing would be stopping as soon as he got a little peckish, and that’d hardly be very meaningful; indeed, the cynical amongst us might view it as more of a publicity stunt than an act of solidarity). Then there would be the concomitant medical expenses and the fact that — if he died because of this Quixotic gesture — that’d be an end to his talent and his ability to do anyone else any good (or bad) in the future.

That he had given the settlement he received from a previous libel case to the cause, whilst arguably surprising, seemed quite reasonable; just because he was fearless in his attacks doesn’t mean he had to be a meanie.

It was at this point that my friend pointed out that his hunger strike was symbolic, there was no danger to his health (‘Of course he’s not aiming to starve himself to death — or even into a state of serious health risk; and for all you know, his partner may wholeheartedly support him’), and that such campaigns — she cites anti-capitalism ‘spend no money days’ — can en masse be highly effective. And it was at this point that the mercury in the thermometer began to bubble in a disturbingly energetic manner. Time to evacuate and declare a heatwave warning and get the fire brigade on stand-by.

So every time (and there have been many) I’ve been on a diet, I should have claimed I was symbolically starving myself for some worthy cause? I’ll bear that in mind next time. And sure, Frankie’s partner will support him if it’s symbolic — she’s probably been nagging him to shift a few pounds for months now.

The only way such a protest could ever, in my eyes, have any form of validity is if he was so committed to the cause that he’d die for it. I mightn’t condone such an action, but I would respect it. This strikes me as nothing more than publicity seeking and vanity. If he was really trying to raise awareness of internees of Guantánamo Bay, rather than raising awareness of F. Boyle Esq., he’d have a burly American soldier sticking a feeding tube down his nose whilst yelling, ‘TAKE YOUR F**KING MEDICINE, YOU MURDERING SAND NIGGER!’

As for ‘spend no money’ days — if directed at large multinationals, maybe they can make a point. But that’s entirely different. Said multi-nationals exist to make a profit. If they cease to do this, then they cease to exist. It is in their own interest to take note of their users’ demands. I remain sceptical of the value of such protests, however, because equally capitalistically-minded individuals, with more money to spend in an afternoon than most of us earn in a year, will still go shopping, simply taking advantage of the emptiness of the shops. Moreover, if not carefully managed, small retailers can suffer, and not making a penny on Thursday can end up putting them out of business if the rent is due on Friday. Guantánamo Bay, on the other hand, simply exemplifies the US view of human rights and disregard of due process. In whose interest is it to release Aamer… really? There’s no oil to be drilled for and no money to be made.

Now, I don’t consider myself right-wing, but as far as I can see the purpose of these symbolic actions is to make those performing them feel better. They are token hardships ‘endured’ by people with rather comfortable lives to try and absolve them of the middle-class/liberal guilt they feel for not being a persecuted minority. In other words, they are for increasing the well-being (and often status within a particular social group) of the individual performing them, and are of no direct benefit to the oppressed individual or group they are supposedly in support of. It would be arrant idealism to think that those at whom they are directed will take any notice unless they themselves have something to lose. Boycotting a certain commercial chain, for example, can have an effect because those in charge think ‘Eek, if this continues, we’ll go out of business and our opulent lifestyles will be but fond memories — maybe we should do [whatever].’ By the same token, politicians will do a U-turn if their safe seat becomes slightly too wobbly for their liking. A few comfortably well-off, first-world dwellers making themselves a tad less comfortable (but all the while knowing that their next meal awaits them when they’ve had enough of being symbolic) are not going to change the thinking of the United States. The US is too powerful to feel threatened by symbolic gestures. The guy’s in Gitmo, which means that — regardless of any facts or evidence to the contrary — for the vast majority of Americans, who have been carefully brainwashed into collective paranoia, he’s a terrorist and should stay there.

So, not only do we have the issue of whether the Americans either know or care who Frankie Boyle might be — ‘Dodgy looking Brit misses a few meals’ is hardly going to penetrate American social conscience — we also have the question of timing. America isn’t bothered about Guantánamo Bay at the best of times; but with the acquittal of George Zimmerman a few days ago, they’re more concerned about whether over-enthusiastic Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinators are going to shoot them as they go about their lawful business. Zimmerman, they feel, should not be roaming the streets putting their lives at risk. The only way they’d want Aamer out of Gitmo is so Zimmerman could occupy his place. ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,’ Obama proclaimed this morning. Whether Zimmerman should have had the book thrown at him or not doesn’t matter. The perceived miscarriage of justice has got most of America buzzing. Obama can appeal to the white middle classes to assume an African-American perspective on the whole affair. It’s politics, folks, and justice comes second to spin. So, really, with all the fun and games to be had, is this the right time for the polite clearing of throats and ‘Ahem, erm, excuse me, sorry to trouble you, but we just thought you might want to know that we’ve missed our breakfast because there’s a bloke still banged up in a Cuban jail… No? Oh, OK, bacon and eggs all round it is then’?

In his time, Frankie Boyle has targeted the monarchy (the Queen, he said, is ‘so old her pussy is haunted’), the disabled (his remarks to the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome were pronounced ‘no different to bullying;’ he later mocked the appearance of British Falklands War veteran, Simon Weston, who was severely burned in action; and his comments on Katie Price’s handicapped son had the Daily Mail and its ilk baying for his blood), international affairs (he likened the situation in Palestine to ‘a cake being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew’ and joked about ‘studying Israeli Army martial arts [and knowing] 16 ways to kick a Palestinian woman in the back’), and earlier this year, his monologue for Comic Relief, in which he focused on the royal family, Oscar Pistorius, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, was deemed so offensive that the entire six-minute performance was cut out of the show.

Frankie Boyle’s current protest may or may not be sincere — but it’s hard to believe we should care when the person telling us to is one who’s always made it clear he doesn’t. He could just as easily be making jokes about the ‘Guantánamo diet and health resort’ and campaigning on behalf of disabled children of vacuous celebrities. Once, he was headline news for weeks because he had ‘a theory that Jordan married a cage fighter ’cause she needed someone strong enough to stop Harvey from f**kin’ her’ — now, it would seem, he’s hoping for the same notoriety because of this ineffective and tokenistic demonstration of solidarity with a cause the old Frankie would have gleefully mocked and pilloried.

And meanwhile, just imagine the scene in Whitehall where senior civil servants are considering whether the UK should increase its displeasure with the US over the detainment now that Mr Boyle has missed not only breakfast, but possibly elevenses and lunch as well:

‘So, who is this Boyle chap anyway, Chivers?’

‘He’s a comedian, sir. Recently suggested that Her Majesty’s corpse should be hollowed out and operated like a puppet, by the actor that portrayed Gollum, no less.’

‘Hmm. Indeed… Well, we can’t rush this sort of matter, eh?’

‘Quite, sir.’

———————————————————————————————

UPDATE: It would seem that Mr Boyle managed a whole week without food. I’m sure anorexic girls (the ones who wish they weren’t; not the Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia adherents) and people in third world countries would love to be able to have a square meal every seven days. Shaker Aamer himself has been on hunger strike for 150 days. So, wow, I’m sure Frankie’s protest really moved those in charge of Guantánamo Bay and all the prisoners will be released forthwith. Twat! And to think I used to like this man (before I realized he was a self-serving publicity junkie).

http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/showbiz/news/a500710/frankie-boyle-completes-hunger-strike-for-british-prisoner-at-guantanamo-bay.html

You’d like me to sponsor you? Did I hear you correctly?

I have no problem with people expressing themselves how they will, providing it has no direct negative impact on anyone else. Personally, I dislike tattoos as a mode of self-expression, but this is largely because so few are truly well executed, and I’m always dubious about how anyone can be certain he or she will want the same skin markings for life. In my early twenties, I dyed my hair bright red and could never envisage wanting any other colour… but I did. Several other colours, in fact. Hair dye either washes, or grows, out. Tattoos tend not to. But it’s not my purpose just now to whinge about body art; and, as I say, if it makes the individual happy, and the aesthetic is pleasing to him or her, even temporarily, then so be it. The same goes for piercings, surgical mods, clothes, and lifestyle choices in general.

If you wish to identify as a punk, a goth, a hippy, a hipster, then that’s all fine with me. If you wish to mix the genres and create your own hybrid, eclectic style, that’s even better. But, please, please, do it because you think it looks good. The rest of the world might disagree, but what do they know? You are your own person and you should please yourself in these matters.

This man looks very good with a moustache

This man looks very good with a moustache

If you want to grow a moustache (and are capable of so doing), then grow one. Grow a Victorian villain twirly moustache and wax the ends; or big thick handlebars; or a drooping, lugubrious Zapata jobbie; even emulate the late Herr Hitler if his facial hair strikes you as becoming. But do not grow one because of some bloody stupid Movember nonsense. If a moustache is not your thang, then think of some more original way to make people aware of prostate cancer (is that what it’s in aid of?) and preserve your self-respect. And if a moustache is something you occasionally grow and occasionally shave off again, then doing it for the eleventh month is hardly going to attract attention; people will merely think ‘Oh, it’s Dave (or whatever your name is), trying out new looks again,’ and get on with their lives.

This man does NOT look good with a moustache

This man does NOT look good with a moustache

And now I read in The Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/body-politic-after-movember-here-comes-armpits4august-8717396.html) that women are feeling hard-done-by that they can’t also make idiots of themselves in the name of charity and have started Armpits4August which involves letting their under-arm hair grow in order to raise awareness of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Puh-lease! So personal grooming is going to go out the window for a month, one of the few warm, sweaty ones we get in this country, and women are going to walk around in sleeveless tops, arms aloft, to show off their hairy pits? Again, I’m not saying anyone should or shouldn’t epilate. It’s a personal choice. If you want to have shaggy under-arms, have them by all means; but if you don’t — and I myself dislike both the look and the feel of excess body hair — then whatever good can it do to grow it, because, honestly, only your nearest and dearest are ever really likely to know what you’re doing and why. Most people either won’t notice or won’t care. You’d raise more consciousness by wearing a T-shirt with the PCOS logo on it. You would. Trust me on this.

Ah, but you’re going to tell me that you’re making this gesture of facial or axillary hirsuteness, not only to stimulate awareness of your cause, but also to raise money, in the form of sponsorship, to fund research into it. So you’re going to jump on the band wagon like everyone else is doing and make yourself look ridiculous/feel uncomfortable because ‘it’s all in a good cause’ and you’ll feel positive about yourself if you brow-beat a lot of people into giving you money? You’re doing it; that person over there is doing it; so’s my neighbour; and I think the owner of the corner shop said something about it too. So tell me, why should I sponsor you and not them? Or should I sponsor everyone who asks me? Yes, that’s a good idea. I’ll give money I don’t have to random people because they either have no sense of individuality or because they went down the pub and, while in their cups, decided to do this thing (‘Yeah, go on, it’ll be a giggle and Pat at work’s doing it’). I’ll fail to pay my own bills or look after my animals because I’ve agreed to give £20 (or whatever the acceptable sum is) to thirty different people who’ve all guilt-tripped me into sponsoring them, and I feel it’d be churlish to refuse my friend if I’ve agreed to help my colleague, and disloyal to turn down my cousin’s request if I’ve agreed to my friend’s…

The whole concept seems immoral to me. People take advantage of the good nature of their friends and family. ‘Oh, I know you’ll sponsor me, won’t you, Sam?’ they say, and poor Sam feels obliged to say ‘yes’ because it’s a friend who’s asking and a refusal might offend. But Sam is nicer than me, and more easily influenced. I, of course, am a hard-nosed bitch and  wouldn’t feel that way even for a second; indeed, no one who knows me well would, I hope, dream of asking me to sponsor them (or their spouse or offspring) to do anything quite so asinine. But just in case I’m assuming my friends and associates know me better than is really the case, may I suggest that you explain to me why this research is so important, and, if I have any spare cash or time or a skill that the charity could use, and I think the cause is a good one, then I’ll give what I can. But don’t, if you value your life, ask me to sponsor you. Because I won’t. On principle, I won’t.

[Good moustache: photo courtesy of Liam Drayson; bad moustache: photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaptainkobold/7578899170/in/pool-36808397@N00]

As cool as Lemmy

I am rarely, if ever, star-struck. I have met a fair few of the rich and famous, in one context or another, but on the whole, I haven’t been impressed by their ostensible eminence.

Recently, I found myself in Brighton and in need of coffee. As the nearest place was a Costa, I hied me hence. It was a busy time and I ended up sharing a table with a girl who looked vaguely familiar. Eventually, it dawned upon me that she was an actress in one of the soaps, and a love/hate figure for tabloid journalists. I did not reveal to her that I’d recognized her – indeed, my cognitive processes had not allowed me to recall either her name nor that of the character that had made her famous — and we chatted in a desultory manner about Brighton and shopping and whether the (sunny) weather was likely to change. She was much nicer than the tabloids would have one believe, but — alas — not more intelligent. Coffee consumed, we left Costa together and walked down I-know-not-where in each other’s company.

And then I observed a street artist. I looked more closely. Yes. Yes, it was. It really was! It was Kevin Hayler. I have for years been impressed by his talent. (He is, for those who don’t know, a self-taught wildlife artist, and a true genius. Here’s a link to his work: http://www.kjhayler.co.uk/ As one who has artistic aspirations herself, I can safely say that his is a rare and enviable talent.) I was gobsmacked. Here, in the middle of a Brighton street, was one of my heroes. I gasped. I gawped. I stopped talking to the starlet, who was a little bemused, I suspect, that I hadn’t reacted with such awe in her presence. He was equally bemused, I think, to be greeted with such idolatry. He’s a nice man, and unassuming. But look at his stuff and tell me that my hero-worship was in any way misplaced.

Which brings me on to Lemmy. Lemmy Kilmister, lead singer of Motorhead. I have not met Lemmy. I would dearly love to meet him, but I have not done so, at least not yet. Were I to be playing that Fantasy Dinner Party game, Lemmy would definitely be on my guest list (most — if not all — of the others would be dead people). Nevertheless, years ago, I passed up on the opportunity to meet (and possibly have meaningless groupie sex with) this man. My then boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend was a great Motorhead groupie. She appeared beside the great man , often in a state of undress, in various photos in various fanzines of the day. My then boyfriend’s brother somehow remained oblivious to her proclivities, or chose to give that impression.

One day, this girl (whose name I forget but whom I shall call Lyndsey for the simple reason that I know that that was not her name) asked me to go to a Motorhead gig and accompany her to the party backstage afterwards. Because I had morals in those days (hell, I still have morals, just not necessarily so mainstream as they were back then), I felt that, out of solidarity with my then boyfriend’s brother, I had to turn down the offer. Lyndsey tried to persuade me. ‘Just come with me,’ she pleaded, ‘you won’t have to do anything.’ But that was not my fear. I have always been too bolshie for anyone to make me do anything I didn’t want to do. My reluctance was solely baed on the fact that she was lying, and expecting me to lie, to my then boyfriend’s somewhat naïve and trusting brother. Do I regret my decision? No. Because, whilst the mature me would love to meet the mature Lemmy, the teenage me was never going to become just another of his post-gig f**ks. That has never been my style. And besides, I didn’t appreciate then just how cool Lemmy is. Nor had I ever heard this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yk4ATrsNnFc

The realization of his total and overwhelming coolness came in the mid-nineties when he was interviewed on (I think) Channel 4 by some blonde, giggly, bimbo-esque presenters who clearly thought they’d discomfit the silly old rocker and make him look stupid for having shagged everything that moved.* Suffice it to say — they didn’t. Because Lemmy has more cool in his little finger than the Noth Pole and the South Pole combined. Because Lemmy is a God. Because no one in their right mind would try and get the better of Lemmy. But he’s not unique. A similar situation obtained when Robbie Coltrane was interviewed a couple of years later by Chris Evans, and there was clearly an embarrass-the-fat-bloke agenda going on, the barbs of which completely failed to scratch Mr C ‘s impenetrable composure. And does anyone remember the pasting Anne Robinson got when she tried to out-snide and out-bitch the drag-queens in a Weakest Link special?

There are very few people in this world who can achieve the coolness of Lemmy, the sang-froid of Robbie, or the effortless put-downiness of the drag-queens. I have had the honour to meet — oh! — I’d say fewer than half a dozen such individuals. But they know who they are: I told them.

*I have tried — and failed — to find a clip or a transcript of this interview, so if, dear reader, you can point me in its general direction I would be forever in your debt.

[Photo pinched from here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericvv/5466375289/in/photostream/ ]

I’ve just never been maternal

I don’t like children. As I have opined in the past, they are an alien species and they creep me out. I have felt like this for as long as I can remember, possibly even in the days when I was a child myself. (I never found it easy to make friends with my peers, so that could well have been the reason.) Over the years, of course, people have tried — wholly in vain — to change my mind about this: ‘Oh, children are wonderful’ they say; ‘You’ll think differently when you’re older’ used to be a favourite; or ‘You just need to understand them,’ and ‘If you met MY kids, it’d be different’ — well, no, they’re not, I didn’t, I don’t, and it wouldn’t. If, dear reader, you think that this makes me a terrible person, that is your prerogative; feel free to stop reading now; but please don’t bother commenting to tell me how unnatural I am — I already know that and yet… I just can’t seem to care.

Now, having stated my antipathy in such absolute and all-encompassing terms, let me concede that there are some children that I actually do like. In small doses. Very small doses. Minuscule doses that’d make a homeopath doubt their efficacy. I like them when they’re happy, clean, healthy, well behaved, and well-rested; and even then, I relish the moment when I can hand them back to their parent(s) and think no more about them.

One of the main problems, as I see it, with this procreation lark is the totally arbitrary nature of the process. I estimate that <1% of children are tolerable. How can people be sure that they won’t end up with one of the >99% that are not? They can’t. It is a gamble, and these are not the sort of odds to make it an attractive one. I’d want guarantees. After all, once you’ve had a child, you’re pretty much stuck with it. If you subsequently have a change of heart (or decor) and think ‘Meh, he’s OK I suppose, but I’d rather have an iguana,’ it is generally frowned upon to suggest such a swap on Craig’s List or Gumtree.

I’ve never felt grown-up enough to want to have babies. I have a hard enough time looking after myself, let alone another person. Plus there’s the whole need/want thing going on (I posted my views on this last month): kids need their parents; once they reach any form of cognitive maturity, they rarely want them.

Having kids, as far as I can see, usually — and yes, there are exceptions, of course there are — seems to mean that you stop existing as yourself and become ‘Jocelyn’s mum (or dad)’ instead. Everything you do is suddenly wholly Jocelyn-centric. You can’t go to the theatre because you can’t find a trustworthy babysitter; hell, you can’t even pop out for a couple of hours unless you organize some sort of supervision; you can’t go and indulge in a culture-fest in Prague because little Jossikins would be bored — instead you go to Lloret because it’s kid-friendly and cheap (cheap is important when you have small children — read on); you can’t have nice things because they’re either too fragile or too dangerous for rugrats; all your spare (and not spare) money goes on buying cheap plastic tat and clothes that the sprog’ll grow out of in a fortnight. You spend the first few years worrying that Jocelyn is eating too much or too little; is growing too fast or too slowly; has croup or kennel cough (oh no, that’s dogs, isn’t it?). You console yourself that in a few years, you’ll be able to get a full night’s sleep once more. Only then Joss goes to school and gets bullied, or bullies others, and your worries and sleepless nights don’t diminish, they just change focus somewhat. Of course, your offspring’s reaching puberty doesn’t help your peace of mind. Your loving, sweet, sticky (that’s another thing I’ve got against small children — they’re always so sticky, ugh!) little darling suddenly becomes a hormone-filled mass of sullenness and teenage angst. And you, as the parent, have to cope with the uncommunicativeness and rudeness and try and second-guess the problem — are you dealing with drug addiction, eating disorders, the influence of disreputable friends… or is it just the latest fashion? Not that you dare ask — you know your well-meaning enquiry will be greeted with a contemptuous grunt: you are old and stupid and out of touch, and you should just accept that and stop trying to be something you’re not. (Bizarrely, it’s when they get to this obnoxious, disaffected age that I begin to find them vaguely tolerable. At least, between neanderthal grunts, they can usually manage to string a sentence together if they really want to — and they’ve grown out of that annoying squeaky-voice stage with which younger children seem frequently to be afflicted.)

Oh, I’m sure that there are happy times; I’m sure that when you’re in your dotage, when you’ve given your all to a parasitical being who took you for granted and frequently resented your attempts to love, cherish, advise, and protect and are now spent, when dear Jocelyn is grudgingly spending time with you because you’ve somehow managed to use enough emotional blackmail to make refusal all but impossible, I’m sure you’ll look back fondly on the moment when Jossy took that first step, or learnt to swim, or first saw an elephant at the zoo, or… But these are the highlights; these are the five-minute recap — one goal and a moderately spectacular pass — on Match of the Day that saves you from having to sit through the entire match.

I have an acquaintance, Charlotte, who has two children, now in their late teens. Charlotte can’t stand either of them. In the fifteen or so years I’ve known her, she’s never been able to stand them. She claims to love them, and perhaps on some level she does, but she’s just waiting until they leave home and she gets her life back. Her daughter is vain, selfish, wants only to be with her boyfriend, and thinks Charlotte is a never-ending source of cash. Her son is a lazy good-for-nothing who is eating his mum out of house and home and spends all his time playing online video games with people he doesn’t know. These are Charlotte’s opinions of her children; for once, I actually think they’re quite pleasant kids (not that I’d want them around full-time, of course) — who’d be considerably pleasanter if their mum could occasionally bring herself to say something nice to them instead of remonstrating with them the minute they walk through the door.

‘Why,’ I asked her once, ‘did you have kids? You don’t seem to like being a mum very much.’

‘Well,’ she replied, looking at me as if she’d never thought about this before, ‘it’s just what you do, isn’t it?’

Umm… no. It’s not what I did. It’s not what quite a few of my friends did either.

Moreover, I’ve noticed that once kids come along, the relationship between the parents takes a nose-dive. Before Jane and Simon had children, Simon was — we were informed by the heart-stoppingly beautiful Jane — the most wonderful, sexy, considerate, intelligent man in the world. He was such an absolute paragon of perfection that it was hard to know who was the luckier of the two. But then Robbie was born, and two or three years later along came Phoebe. Suddenly Simon’s marvellousness was replaced by his uselessness. He became a bit of a buffoon. Rather than tell us how romantic he was, Jane regaled us with tales of how pathetic he was, how he couldn’t work the microwave or had assumed the washing machine was also a dryer because the last time he’d used one, in his uni days, it had been. Instead of lauding his considerate nature, Jane increasingly focused on all the things he didn’t do. Whereas once his bringing home a bunch of flowers was a gesture that made her heart melt and warranted at least an effusive Tweet, now it was greeted with a lament along the lines of what good did he think flowers would do when she was the one who’d been up all night because Robbie had tummy ache and Phoebe was teething and it’d be much better if he could just do the washing for a change instead of expecting her to do everything and then trying to make it right with a bunch of effin’ carnations from a service station forecourt…

Oh, and Jane herself? Remember I said she was heart-stoppingly beautiful? Yes, she was. But twelve years of sleepless nights have put paid to her that. OK, we’re all older, and some of us didn’t have so much to lose, but Jane now would turn no heads and looks so very much older than her years.

Oh, I could go on. I could tell you about the heartbreak of parents whose daughter died before she reached forty, or another case of estrangement between the generations. I could tell you about promising academics who’ve given up their career to start a family only later to wish they’d put academia first. I could tell you a million tales of child-induced woe, but many, many fewer about unremitting joy.

If you who are reading this are amongst the lucky few, if you can look at your own offspring and think ‘Yes, you have brought me more delight than misery, more peace than anxiety,’ then you are blessed indeed and I am happy for you. But if you aren’t, if — even though you’d sooner cut off your own right arm than admit it — you recognize your children for the grasping, selfish, life-sucking leeches described above, then accept my condolences. I’d have told you if you’d only asked me… not that you’d have taken any notice.

[Photo by Adam Tuttle:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tuttletree/5336273135/sizes/l/in/photostream/]

The Day That Changed Everything: a story of cause and effect

Why are you reading this? No, that’s not a ‘How dare you read this? Why don’t you mind your own business?’ comment; indeed, I am delighted that you are reading this. Please continue. What I mean is: what led you to read this? OK, you clicked on a link somewhere and it brought you here. But that’s not the real reason. Let me explain.

wilkie

I attribute most things in my adult life to the fact that, around twenty years ago, a seventeen-year-old girl showed spectacular ignorance when it came to English literature. Clearly, I could go back further, but for me, that day was a defining point in my life. It was the Day That Changed Everything. It was the day I fell in love.

I was working at a boarding school somewhere in the middle of England. I taught Spanish back then, but was also assistant housemistress, so lived on-site. On the DTCE, I had flu. The evening before I’d been so horribly ill — aching, shivering, sweating — that I just wanted to die and have done with my suffering; however, by the following afternoon, I was slightly recovered. I was still unable to get out of bed — the floor seemed to sway in an alarming and unpredictable manner if I tried to walk on it — but Death had become a less welcome bedside visitor and I wanted something to read. Alas, the majority of my books were still in boxes in my parents’ loft and those few I had with me at the school, I’d already read. By good fortune, however, not long had passed before Ann-Marie, one of the girls who lived in the same boarding house, called in to see if I was still alive and, assuming that to be the case, whether she could get me anything. I asked her to go to the school library.

‘Get me something light and easy,’ I said. ‘Something fun. I need cheering up and cannot face anything too demanding.’

‘Will do,’ cried Ann-Marie before bouncing off to do my bidding (the healthful always appear to the sick to bounce everywhere). Some twenty minutes passed before she returned (equally buoyantly), clutching to her bosom a rather thick looking volume.

‘I got you this, miss,’ she said. ‘I think it’s by Joan Collins’s sister, so should be all sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll. Gotta dash, or I’ll be late for supper.’ And with that she gambolled off.

I reached out a weary hand and picked up the book Ann-Marie had left on the nightstand beside me. It didn’t look like your typical holiday bestseller, but appearances can be deceptive; and, besides, the school librarian had a fondness for changing the covers on books, ostensibly because they got shabby, but — I always suspected — more probably because the more graphic and colourful ones might make reading seem more interesting and appealing to young minds. I opened the heavy tome…

Joan Collins’s sister, eh? That’d be Jackie Collins then, wouldn’t it? Not (unless there was a third sibling who’d somehow managed to be born over a hundred years before the rest of the brood) Wilkie Collins? Ah ha. I wanted light-weight holiday pap, and poor, well-meaning Ann-Marie had brought me worthy Victorian stodge. Disappointed, I replaced the volume on the nightstand and tried to sleep. But you know how it is with flu — one’s body is so achy and exhausted that it’s impossible to get comfortable — and a few hours later, I was still wide awake. Reluctantly, I picked up The Woman in White, for that was the book in question, and began reading. Twenty minutes later, I was hooked. I found myself hoping I didn’t recover until I’d discovered the eventual fates of Laura, Marion, Walter, Fosco, and Mr Fairlie. (I didn’t — I also managed to read The Moonstone before I was well enough to return to work.) It was an epiphany! It was the start of the longest love-affair of my life. It was the Day That Changed Everything.

Because Ann-Marie confused Wilkie with Jackie, I fell in love with Victorian literature; because I fell in love with Victorian literature, I eventually went back to university to do my MA; because I went back to university and did my MA, I discovered I also loved studying and learning things (I’d got my BA and my PGCE on a combination of luck and natural ability, but certainly not on hard work); because I discovered the joys of studying and learning things, I then did my PhD; because I did my PhD… well, you get the picture.

Ann-Marie innocently and unknowingly started a chain of causality whose links I can trace, one by one, to this very moment. If she hadn’t made the mistake she did, I wouldn’t be writing this now, and you wouldn’t be reading it. So I ask you, because I’d really like to know, why are you reading this, from your point of view? Is it because you played a video game twenty years ago? Is it because you dyed your hair bright pink when you were fifteen and the headmaster sent you home from school? Is it because your former neighbour’s dog kept you awake every night for six months? Did a snatch of a song you heard on the radio or a chance conversation with a stranger on a bus change your world? Or was it something on a grander scale — surviving a car crash or the death of a loved one, perhaps? Everyone has a DTCE. What’s yours?

The perfidy of stuff

Yesterday and the day before, I helped a friend move house. My friend had lived for the last five years in a very nice shared flat in the East End of London. Then, one day, a couple of months ago, the landlord gave all the residents notice to quit. The reason stated was that renovations were to be made, but the tenants were given no say in the matter, nor any opportunity to return to the new, improved accommodation.

My friend — whom I shall, for the purposes of this post, christen Sebastian (for there is something indefinably yet Anthony-Andrewsesquely Brideshead about him) — found himself thrown into the dual chaoses of uprooting his life and transferring it elsewhere. In this case, the distance was walkable, but that is irrelevant. Packing is torturous. Moving is hellish. Unpacking is infernal. Dante would surely have consigned all three to the ninth circle.

Sebastian didn’t ask me to help with this torment. He is a kind and sensitive person who would not inflict such horrors on those he cares about. No, the simple fact of the matter is that I — I, of all people — volunteered. He said he was trying to find a man-with-a-van and I remarked that I was a woman-with-a-van… It was entirely my own fault; I could have said ‘mmm, good luck with that,’ and left him to it. You see, packing is akin to being a phobia with me. I have moved house/city/country some forty or fifty times in my life, and it never gets any easier. When — and I admit that it’s rare these days — I have nightmares, they are invariably packing-related. Sometimes I’m packing up to move and the suitcases and boxes are too small; other times, they fall apart; or I have to pack everything and get to a station or airport by a certain time and the clock is ticking but the items remain scattered around me; or I sit there, surrounded by debris and detritus and have no idea where to begin. I awake, panting, petrified, convinced that those boxes still await me, patient in their malevolence.

When I first made incursions into nomadism, all my belongings would fit into a suitcase and a holdall. Then, at some point, I passed my driving test, and suddenly my life expanded to fit into a car. Over the years, it has grown and grown until now, I’d probably require a fleet of pantechnicons to get me from A to B. Another friend, this time one I’m naming Branwen (for reasons she — if no one else — will, I hope, appreciate), recently remarked that all the things that matter in her life would fit into her car — as for the rest, she said, it’s just stuff. Sebastian has accumulated stuff in his five years in the old flat, as I have I throughout my life. Could I, I wonder, sift through it all and select just those few items that would fill my van? Could he? He swears he’s going to throw out the majority of the stuff so that when he next has to move, he’ll have perhaps one van load instead of four. Personally, I’m not convinced. I’m older than he is and thus better acquainted with the dread perfidy of stuff — it proliferates; it sneaks up on you while you sleep; it takes over your wardrobe, your shelves, your house, your life; it seizes you in a stranglehold and will not let go. It encumbers your existence. It ties you to the past and prevents you from exploring the future. Stuff is wholly invidious.

So yesterday, in the blazing hot sun, Sebastian and I lugged hundreds of boxes and bags down in the lift from the old flat, across the car park to the van, and up two flights of stairs to the new flat. I exaggerate, of course; indeed, most of the lugging, and all of the heavy lifting, was done by Sebastian; I assumed a supervisory/decorative/van-guarding role for much of the time (when one has such a prodigious skill at anything as mine is at observing and advising, one should make the most of it, don’t you think?). And whilst Sebastian was thus sweating and cursing, and I was listlessly supervising operations/decorating the landscape/guarding the van, I fell into conversation with Cathy, a homeless person to whom we’d earlier given some food — a cheerful, chatty homeless person whose stuff seemed to have defied its natural, multiplicatory instincts and be restricted to the confines of one old sleeping bag and two Tesco’s carrier bags.

Maybe Sebastian and I do have too much stuff; maybe Branwen does too, even if she would, should she ever have to, have an easier job of choosing what to keep and what to throw; maybe Cathy is genuinely happy with her meagre, portable existence, depending on the kindness of strangers for what little she does have; maybe she chose to live that life and never feels even the smallest pang of regret or envy. But I don’t think so. We, who have the luxury of stuff, also have the concomitant luxury of complaining about it; but would we trade places with Cathy just to be free of our self-imposed burden? Of course we wouldn’t. Not in a million years.

[Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xlibber/9119517418/]