Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Gay relations

Gays in Derry are preparing for the Foyle Pride Festival from August 13, in a more tolerant atmosphere than a few years ago when homophobic attacks were appallingly common.

The photo shows the famous Free Derry Wall getting a bright pink makeover for the six-day festival, to recognise that the Civil Rights Movement also includes gays.

Says festival organiser David McCartney: "The last time the festival was in Derry, five years ago, there were 93 homophobic attacks in the city that year. This year there have been just two, which shows the change of attitudes towards the gay community."

But an article in the Belfast Telegraph says many gays in Northern Ireland still haven't come out to their parents for fear of the reaction. And many parents haven't told the truth about their gay children to anyone outside the family for the same reason.

Cathy Falconer, 49, who lives in Derry, has written a book 'Good As You' about 11 mothers' reactions to gay sons. She says she couldn't speak to fathers because they found the subject much harder to deal with and talk about.

She explains how her son Barry, 25, came out to her almost eight years ago, and how shocked and upset she was at the time, before she gradually accepted it. She still fears other people's reactions because the old myths about homosexuality are so strong.

So I hope the Festival is well supported, not just by gays but by the whole population of Derry, to show that the familiar stigma is finally lifting.

PS: Graffiti has been sprayed on the wall but it has now been repainted.

Photo courtesy of the Irish Times

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Dealing with drugs

When the media love to scare us all witless about the horrors of drugs, and how a few grams of skunk or cocaine will turn us into psychotic beasts, it takes a hardy soul to defy the shrieking headlines and say all drugs should be legalised.

But why not? It's been pointed out often that most drug-related tragedies actually stem from illegality, and many of the deaths, overdoses, collapses and addictions would not occur if drugs were openly available.

It's illegality that means drugs are taken furtively in unhygienic conditions that cause infections. It means dosage and quality are uncertain and drugs can be contaminated with serious poisons.

It means that in an emergency people are loathe to seek help because they're doing something forbidden. And it means accurate information about drugs and their physical effects is hard to obtain.

What's more, if it all went legal, the unscrupulous drug-dealers who sell polluted products at inflated prices would have to shut up shop or clean up their act, and they'd have to pay the government some tax instead of just lining their pockets.

But at the end of the day, drug use isn't a legal issue, it's a health issue. You can't stop people taking them, but what you can do is ensure they take them in conditions that safeguard their health and don't lead to illness, unhappiness and isolation. Conditions in which they aren't treated as pariahs and outcasts but given all the advice, support and information they need to indulge their tastes safely and not recklessly.

Most of the tough talk comes from ill-informed hotheads who've never tried the drugs in question and are swayed by rawcous hard-liners - even when they're happily consuming dangerous drugs like alcohol and tobacco themselves.

But draconian laws aren't stopping the explosion in drug use. We need a better remedy for pain and distress than law courts and jail cells.

(For the record, the only banned drugs I've taken are cannabis and LSD. I've never tried any others, mostly because I've never been offered them - what a sheltered life I lead)

PS: Very interesting programme on Channel 4 on August 3 by Dr Colin Froggatt arguing that heroin should be decriminalised and freely prescribed. He says this has been a big success in Switzerland. Thanks for the link, Bellulah.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Diet deceit

We posh middle class folk like to think we eat much more healthily than those frightful working class oiks, but it's not true. We've been exposed as hypocrites and frauds.

New surveys* have revealed that well-off households have equally unhealthy diets and their children are actually more likely to be overweight or obese. So much for that little delusion of superiority.

We middle class types like to make out we're busy stuffing ourselves with fruit and vegetables and wholesome, unadulterated food untainted by heart-clogging nasties, but we're a load of charlatans.

We come on so virtuous and sensible, but on the quiet we ignore those impressive bowls of grapes and peaches displayed for our visitors and sneak into the cupboards for a few squishy cakes and ready meals.

We say screw virtuous, I'm pissed off, today's a shambles, nothing's going right and I'm going to eat that entire packet of luxury chocolate brownies because then I'll feel much, much better.

Or we think, I've spent all day eating sensibly, I'm crammed with stuff the experts approve of, now I'm entitled to relax and have something unhealthy, I've earnt it. Where's that box of raisin fudge?

Even if we manage to avoid these noxious titbits at home, we get offered them outside. All my relatives believe a cup of tea goes hand in hand with the best of the local bakery, decked out with as much cream, sugar, fat and icing as possible. A blanket refusal is of course the height of rudeness, so a few tactful mouthfuls have to be consumed.

So I'm hardly surprised by the revelations of hidden hypocrisy in those swish suburban avenues. There's many a grubby secret behind the fragrant net curtains. Dietary deceit is the least of them - but that's another story.

* International Journal of Obesity and Food Standards Agency (UK)

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Masculinity

I've never felt masculine in my life, and I've never felt the urge to be like other men. Right from childhood, they seemed to have nothing at all in common with me except their bodies.

I was always indifferent to the stereotype masculine interests of cars, booze, gadgets and sport. Even girls didn't register very much except as potential friends or enemies. Sex hardly crossed my mind until my twenties, I was that innocent.

It never occurred to me to see male celebrities as role models I should imitate, just because they happened to be the same sex. Their maleness was no more significant to me than their fingernails or what they ate for breakfast.

Most of the time I've just gone my own sweet way without ever thinking about masculinity. But every so often I'm in some situation where it seems appropriate to 'act masculine' or 'act like a man' and I have to rack my brains as to what that means.

Sometimes it's obvious enough - wearing a skirt or putting on make-up wouldn't go down too well - but sometimes I'm baffled. Usually it's some kind of emergency and I'm clearly expected to be a master plumber or an income tax wizard or just a tough he-man who can casually break down a door or see off some unsavoury loiterer.

When I tell people I'm utterly unmasculine, they usually say 'Oh, but you're so male when you do so-and-so.' I explain that I wasn't being masculine, I was just doing what the occasion demanded or what seemed sensible. I repair the garden fence not because I'm a bloke but because I don't want it to fall to bits.

It's also puzzling that people expect me to defend other men because I'm one of them. Shouldn't I be loyal to my sex? But I don't see why I should excuse someone who behaves badly because of what's between his legs. It makes no more sense than rooting for fellow spectacle-wearers or right-handers.

I think a lot of men feel secretly unmasculine, or even feminine, but not being brave enough to resist, they conform to the classic masculine patterns. How many men slouched in the pub debating the pros and cons of four-wheel drive would rather be trying on dresses or cooking lasagna or ballroom dancing (or even something gender-neutral like campaigning for cheap nurseries)? The answer might surprise you.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Daring and doubt

One potential break-up factor I've never mentioned is adventurousness - when one person is always keen to try something new or act on impulse, and the other is more cautious.

It causes friction between Jenny and I from time to time, Jenny being the adventurous one and me being the one who puts a spanner in the works, finding lots of excellent reasons why her idea isn't so good, or at least not right now.

Sometimes this works out well, when we realise later it would have been a big mistake to go ahead with something - quitting a job, or moving house, or inviting someone to stay. But at other times it causes a serious rift, when Jenny is passionate about something and I'm not at all convinced.

We've been at odds the last few months over whether to improve the house. Jenny's dead keen on a loft conversion and rear extension while I've been voicing my doubts.

We've finally agreed to go ahead, but not without some rather emotional scenes and bitter outbursts. Luckily we always manage to work through our splits and come out safely the other end, but sometimes we wonder if it's a bust-up too far.

Things would be a lot easier if I was as adventurous as Jenny, and we agreed on things more quickly, but it simply isn't in my character. We just have to hope our relationship is strong enough to take the strain. Which so far it has been.

(And in case you're wondering, Jenny is looking over my shoulder and agrees this is a fair and accurate portrayal etc etc)

Re my posts on prostitution: I liked these thought-provoking notes on the related subject of pornography (one and two) by wisewebwoman.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Baby shambles

If the NHS is getting better all the time, as the government claims, why did pregnant 22 year old Karen Shaw have to be airlifted from Northern Ireland to a Scottish hospital because neo-natal cots weren't available?

This was hardly a rare medical condition that took the Causeway Hospital by surprise, with the resources needed simply unplanned for.

Karen was expecting twins and her waters broke seven weeks prematurely - as happens frequently to mothers-to-be. But the hospital was unable to cope and had to send her elsewhere.

Her stepfather Paul Parry said she had been "terrified and traumatised" and criticised the local health service as "underfunded and farcical".

Karen has already lost one child after a miscarriage so naturally she was scared of losing the twins. She nearly lost them early in the pregnancy.

The hospital didn't explain the lack of neo-natal cots but claimed there was no risk as two specialist midwives accompanied her on the flight.

But you have to ask why the cots weren't available when premature birth is so common and maternity services are one of the major elements of the NHS.

How can such a basic failure occur when so many billions have just been pumped into the health service? And isn't it ironic that the airlift across the Irish Sea (over 100 miles) probably cost more than the missing cots?

PS: Karen has now given birth to healthy twin boys.

Photo: Karen Shaw

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Tart Mart

In the interests of balance, as they say, I thought I'd put the case for prostitution being completely legal - or a Tart Mart on every high street.

Legalists would say that outlawing prostitution and all its associated activities - kerb-crawling, paying for sex, soliciting etc - simply worsens all the undesirable aspects of the work and makes it harder to help women who feel trapped in dreadful circumstances.

If it's all illegal, prostitutes shy away from offers of help for fear of alerting the authorities. Women thinking of becoming prostitutes won't voice their misgivings for fear of public odium.

Appalling working conditions and violence from pimps and customers go unnoticed and unchallenged because illegality keeps them hidden and the normal safeguards of employment law don't apply.

And it's harder for women forced into prostitution by people-traffickers and others to seek aid in escaping their captors and bringing them to justice.

Only if legal restrictions are lifted and prostitutes are able to do their work freely and openly without social stigma will it be possible to deal effectively with all the hellish problems they face, which in the case of HIV and other sexual infections spill over into the rest of society.

Only if they can identify themselves and talk frankly to others about their experiences and needs, without shame or condemnation, can we fully understand what they go through and why they deserve the same workplace rights that other employees take for granted, like health and safety measures, adequate holidays and rest days, and protection from violence and harassment. Or simply the right to walk out of a job they were tricked into and then shackled to by debts and threats.

There're no grounds for prostitution to be illegal apart from the squeamish distaste and snobbery of the general public, who want these embarrassing people swept away into a dark corner and forgotten about. There's no good reason why prostitutes should be treated differently from any other group of workers trying to make a living from whatever they're good at.

If you want evidence of how making it legal brings benefits, you only have to look at homosexuality. Once draconian anti-gay laws were lifted, the problems of persecution and self-hatred were greatly reduced and there was a huge change in social attitudes. And the dire predictions of sexual anarchy proved baseless. In the words of the pro-abortion lobby - Keep it legal, keep it safe.

(So convincing I find myself switching sides again!)

See also previous post, putting the case for banning prostitution.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Banning prostitution

I've been prompted to explain why I think prostitution should be banned rather than tolerated. Isn't that a bit draconian, a bit heavy-handed?

For years I took the classic libertarian position that if there was a demand for prostitutes then let them get on with it and make a living out of foolish sex-obsessed customers.

Okay, so the working conditions might not be too good - pimps, violence, sexual infections, freezing streets - but lots of jobs have shitty downsides. You have to decide whether the grunge is worth what you get out of it.

But then I thought, hang on, who gains anything at all out of prostitution? Does it produce any benefit whatever (apart from cash)? You can't say the dreadful conditions are the price you pay for something essential like coal or clothing or medicine.

Despite what men say, they won't turn into psychotic savages if they don't get sexual release and burn up their testosterone. In any case, they're free to do it without paying anyone else.

And working conditions for prostitutes aren't just poor, they're barbaric. Many prostitutes nowadays are at the mercy of people-traffickers who control their every move, and having sex with these women is effectively rape and torture.

For many men, visiting a prostitute is not just sexual release but a display of power over women, a way of humiliating them and showing who's boss. Anyone who thinks it's prostitutes who have the power should try doing the job themselves for 24 hours.

That's why I now think this whole sordid trade should be banned, as it has been in some other countries. Yes, there's a risk it'll just go underground, but that's not a reason to accept something utterly uncivilised.

Wishy washy liberalism is out of place here, some tough-minded radicalism is more appropriate. Men should keep it in their pants and women should have decent, fulfilling jobs.

(And for the record, I've never been to a prostitute in my life and never saw the attraction)

Thanks to Bellulah for her prompt. See also this excellent overview of the international sex workers' movement pointed out by Medbh. See also next post, which puts the case for legalising prostitution.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Coming of age

I'm usually reluctant to blame my failings on being old. It's rather pathetic to trot out such a lame excuse for being exhausted or grumpy when younger people don't have this handy copout and just have to deal with things.

It also panders to ageism by giving the impression older people are so beset by mental and physical decrepitude they're best avoided and probably not fit to be employed.

But sometimes it's very tempting to use the magic word age to get a wave of sympathy and concern when it's something that fits the bill. And there's plenty to choose from. Knackered? Ratty? Dozing off? Scatterbrained? Bit wobbly? Stiff fingers? Well, I'm getting on a bit, you know. Not as young as I used to be. Oh don't worry, Nick, not a problem, we can handle it.

Except it might not work like that. People might not be sympathetic at all. They might just think I'm being feeble and helpless and should pull myself together. Or since I don't look my age, they might think I'm just kidding and take no notice.

Also, being a fiercely independent person, not wanting to admit I can't cope and not wanting other people fussing round me, I'm actually more likely to put on a BAFTA-winning pretence of Olympic fitness than admit the years might be telling on me.

Anyway, if I start to blame my failings on age, before long I'll be one of those oldies whose lifestyle shrinks to zero on the grounds that I'm getting too old and doddery to do anything new or adventurous. I'll start claiming I don't have the strength or energy to do things instead of rising to the challenge and finding out what my limits actually are.

I don't want to end up one of those old fossils gawping at the TV all day because I'm convinced I'm half-paralysed and ready for the long wooden box. Me, I'm going out with a bang - you're only old once, I say.

(Thanks to Flirty for raising the subject)

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Amsterdam

Well, the mystery departure was actually to Amsterdam which Jenny and I had never been to before. So many people recommended it we thought we'd give it a try.

But although we both enjoyed ourselves, we didn't think it was that special. It just didn't live up to its hype as a super-cool, super-stylish city.

Some parts were very beautiful (mainly along the canals) but other parts were grotesque, especially the roads round Centraal Station - just long tourist strips of shabby hotels, tacky restaurants and souvenir shops.

Smoking was still rife in cafes and bars, something of a shock now it is so restricted in the UK and Ireland. There was little sign of any green consciousness, with few of the recycling bins common in other cities. The only exception was the huge bike usage, with hundreds parked in every street - we were practically knocked over every five minutes.

But the atmosphere was very relaxed and stress-free. Everywhere people were sitting outside cafes having leisurely meals and drinks and long rambling discussions. The quality of the food was high and we had some delicious vegetarian dishes. There were lots of astonishingly thin women, who would have been labelled anorexic in the UK - do they eat anything at all?

Amsterdam also has some excellent museums. The temporary Stedelijk Museum site had some amazing modern art and the Van Gogh Museum has loads of his masterpieces.

But what really moved me was the Anne Frank House and the secret annexe where she hid from the Nazis for two years before being betrayed and sent to her death in Belsen. Lots of visitors were in tears as they inspected the mementos of this horrific story and saw how courageously Anne had always kept her spirits up and looked forward to a brighter future.

What also impressed me was the Verzets (Resistance) Museum which explained how hundreds of thousands of ordinary Dutch people had resisted the Nazi occupation in any way they could. Some 300,000 went into hiding while others risked their lives and jobs and families to defend their way of life and defend those the Nazis were hunting down.

So while Amsterdam had some spectacular highlights, that magic quality that other people rave about eluded us. We had a lot of fun but not enough to be going back.