Thursday, 30 August 2012

Dress sense

I'm forever baffled by men's attitude to clothing. They seem to be quite happy wandering around in amazingly boring clothes, with no wish to be more adventurous or colourful or eye-catching.

Go into any office block and there are the massed ranks of men in their black suits, white shirts, ties and black shoes. Maybe a slightly garish tie if they're feeling really bold.

If they're in a less formal workplace like a charity, they might roll up in jeans and a casual shirt. Or even an earring or two. But there the daring stops.

They adhere rigidly to the prevailing male dress codes as if it's a matter of life or death. Any move away from the officially sanctioned range of clothing is simply unthinkable. Men dress in a certain way and that's it.

Don't they sometimes think, I rather fancy wearing a skirt today? I wonder how I'd look in a frilly blouse? Suppose I wore a long swishy dress? No, of course they don't, because they're men and men just don't have silly girly thoughts like that.

Besides, if they wore anything other than orthodox masculine clothing (and especially anything girly) it would be the biggest social embarrassment ever. All their mates would laugh at them. Their boss would fire them. Women would titter and giggle. Shop assistants would give them peculiar looks. They'd be instant pariahs and freaks.

No, wearing interesting and attractive clothing may be okay for women, but men are different. Sartorial restraint is required. Experiments with clothing are frowned upon. Clothes aren't there to have fun with, they're the outward signs of male responsibility and propriety. Wear your suit with pride! Adjust your tie manfully! No frivolity please, we're blokes.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Weighty secrets

I don't like having secrets. They feel like a burden, a rock on my back. I want to be a totally open person, revealing myself without any inhibitions or squeamishness.

Unfortunately so many people are censorious and intolerant, and likely to trample all over whatever I happen to tell them, that in practice I'm extremely secretive, keeping all sorts of things to myself for fear of the consequences if I don't.

Stuff about sex. About gender. About relationships. About phobias. About prejudices. About extreme emotions.

I find this a tremendous load to bear. There is so much I want to share with other people - to get their views, their advice, their own experience of the same things. But I have to stay silent and work through them all on my own.

Obviously I'm not talking about things people tell me in confidence. Those stay secret for a good reason. But all this other personal stuff locked inside me like junk in the attic - I just want to let it all out, let it circulate, do something with it.

Some people enjoy having secrets, knowing things that others don't know. They like having bits of themselves that are theirs and theirs alone, that can't be taken away or spoiled. The last thing they want to do is share them with all and sundry.

I don't feel like that at all. I really want to let it all hang out. Having so many secrets that aren't public currency makes me feel isolated, shut off, detached from other people like some sort of awkward outsider. And it makes me feel abnormal, weird, perverted, as if I'm harbouring some monstrous tendency that mustn't be let loose.

I want to bare my soul. But not to a hostile audience with axes to grind.

Thanks to Leah for the inspiration 

Thursday, 23 August 2012


(The phone is ringing)

- Good morning, Nickhereandnow, Melanie speaking, how may I help you?
- I'm very disappointed, Melanie. There hasn't been a blog post since last Saturday.
- I'm sorry about that. All the creative staff are on a team-building week in the Maldives.
- Holy catfish. Isn't there anyone left in the office to create a new post?
- There was Benedict. But he had to be rushed to hospital.
- Oh dear, why was that?
- Some sort of auto-erotic experiment that went wrong. Not the first time. And there was Lawrence, but he's having the gender-change op today. Oh, did I say Lawrence? I meant Lavinia of course.
- All a bit of an omnishambles, isn't it? Didn't anybody leave any notes for a new post?
- Oh yes, there are lots of notes, but Mr Nick has rejected all of them. He's very discerning, you know, certain standards have to be maintained. We have a very high reputation which mustn't be tarnished. Apparently Her Majesty the Queen reads the blog regularly.
- But what am I to do? Nickhereandnow is my lifeblood. I'm lost without it. I might have to kill myself.
- Oh, quite the drama queen, aren't we? I bet you say that to all the girls.
- I am a girl.
- I do apologise. You have such a deep voice.
- I know. My vocal chords were damaged by a fish bone.
- How extraordinary. Is there anything else I can do for you? Life insurance? Double glazing? Liposuction? Wart removal?
- Certainly not. I shall go away and rummage in the archives.
- Thank you for calling Nickhereandnow. Your interest is appreciated. Have a nice day.

(Melanie slams phone down, as Mr Nick approaches in a fuchsia blouse, pencil skirt and three-inch heels)

Pic: the indispensable Melanie

Saturday, 18 August 2012

A codger's duty

To be a genuine, 24 carat old codger*, it's not enough to dismiss something as unusual, hard to understand or a bit foolish. You have to work yourself up into a vortex of spleen, go red in the face and declare that it's disgusting, repulsive, stomach-churning and degenerate.

Take for example:
Pierced lips
Arse-hugging shorts
Purple hair
Artworks featuring tampons, unmade beds, toilets or bleeding eyeballs
Any form of sex other than missionary position with the lights off
Films featuring homeless disabled stuttering lesbian drug addicts
Breastfeeding in public
Unsuitably dressed fat people

If you're religious, you could also find such things unGodly, sinful or blasphemous. If you have sexual hangups, you could find them indecent, obscene or pornographic.

You should always voice your condemnation as loudly and as witheringly as possible, ensuring the person concerned hears every word.

You should declare firmly that "normal" people don't need to "go to such extremes" or "call attention to themselves". They don't need to be "deliberately offensive" or "setting out to shock". Normal people are "happy to blend in", "happy to be one of the crowd", "happy to hide their light under a bushel".

And should someone be impudent enough to try to defend the disgusting/ sinful/ indecent whatever, then simply don't listen to them. Obviously they're defending the indefensible, so just take no notice and act as if they're in the grip of some juvenile and irrational obsession.

Old codgers know that someone has to take a stand against the relentless tide of filth, smut and perversion that's sweeping the country, and if they shirk their duty, it could be the end of civilisation as we know it.

Old codgers know that pierced lips and tattoos are just the first steps on a slippery slope to perdition. It's up to them to stop the rot.

* or of course an old crone 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012


I know all about snobbish-ness. I've experi-enced plenty of it in my time. Sometimes I think my birth-country of England is snobbery capital of the world. Most of the English are obsessed with their position in the social hierarchy, looking down on anyone supposedly below them and feeling inferior to anyone seen as above them.

Being lower middle class myself (he says, reluctantly categorising himself), I've been given the cold shoulder regularly by those who regard themselves as financially, culturally, educationally or occupationally superior.

I especially remember the time Jenny and I lived in a posh block of flats in Islington, London. Some of the other residents, mostly high-end professionals like lawyers and doctors, were always slightly sniffy towards us, seeing us as "not quite one of them", suspecting us of dubious tastes and opinions, and generally on the lookout for unpredictable and embarrassing behaviour.

They seldom invited us in for a drink or a meal, did their best to avoid us and seemed to regard us as temporary interlopers who had somehow tricked our way into their prestigious block of flats*.

During our time in London, I can recall many social occasions where those present would form into cliques of perceived similar-status guests, each clique keeping themselves firmly separate from those seen as lower status, and taking care not to mix with them or in any way recognise their presence. Such recognition could irredeemably damage their own social standing.

I wonder why it is that people are so insecure and self-doubting that they find mere contact with someone from a different background so threatening. They must be terrified that their own lifestyle will be found wanting.

As an ex-journalist and ex-bookseller who has mixed with people from all sorts of backgrounds and with every possible viewpoint, and having learnt a great deal on the way, I find such aloofness baffling and pointless. How can we possibly begin to understand the rest of the world if we try to permanently seal ourselves off from it?

It was extremely refreshing to move to Northern Ireland, where people are much less status-conscious and plumbers and chief executives mingle quite happily without regarding each other as an alien species. Shock horror, they may even live next door to each other.

* PS: Not that this bothered us particularly. We were perfectly happy without their company. We had some good friends there who didn't have an ounce of snobbery. And we had plenty of other friends. We found the snobs more amusing than upsetting. 

Thanks to Cheerful Monk for the inspiration. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Locked in

How shocking that someone can wake up in a hospital bed, hear the people around him planning to switch off his life support, and have no way of telling them he is 100% mentally aware.

Which is what happened to Richard Marsh from California three years ago after a stroke. At the time he could do nothing but blink, and the medical staff were convinced he was in a persistent vegetative state. But his wife Lili didn't agree, and refused to let them end his life.

What a sound decision that was. Four months later he went home, and he has now recovered 95% of his physical functioning. Just suppose his wife had gone along with the doctors and given up on him?

The first sign that he wasn't actually a goner was his twitching fingers. Then the doctors discovered he could communicate by blinking. Only then did they realise their colossal misjudgment.

But this made me think, surely there should be some routine "blink test" to check if a patient in that condition (what they call locked-in syndrome) can communicate by blinking? Then such an awful misunderstanding would never have occurred.

And surely there must be some sort of test of mental functioning that could at least indicate that there is activity beyond a mere vegetative state, even if it can't say exactly what that activity is?

It seems extraordinary that someone's life can be written off so casually when the reality entirely contradicts the doctors' assumptions. Is modern medicine really as advanced and sophisticated as we think it is?

Pic: Someone completely different. I couldn't find a picture of Richard Walsh on the net. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Something missing

Whatever I say, whatever I do, I never feel people are seeing the real me. I feel the image they have of me is always distorted, inaccurate, simplistic.

I do my best to explain myself, to express the reality of how I see the world, how I live my life, how I relate to others, how I react to tragedy or blessings. But I feel something is always missing, something that conveys the uniqueness of who I am. Something always gets left on the cutting room floor.

People know for example that I'm a vegetarian. But do they understand why I'm a vegetarian, why I'm so horrified by abattoirs, why I hate the mass slaughter of animals, why I loathe the sight of a butcher chopping a carcass? No, they don't, because I have no way of conveying the depth of emotion and antipathy and incomprehension that's involved. I can't express more than a tiny sliver of what's actually going through my mind.

And so it is for everything else that makes up my particular identity. It's like the layers of an onion. People see the top layer and they think that's what I am, but they don't see all the layers underneath, going right down to the core of my being. How on earth do I explain all those other layers, the bits that can't be seen but are all parts of me? It's frustrating and perplexing.

So most of the time I just give up. I decide there's no point in trying to explain the complexities of the real me. It would take too long, I don't have the words, and everyone would lose interest long before I'm anywhere near finished.

So I just reconcile myself to the fact that people don't understand me properly, they never will, and there are always going to be a thousand false images of me in circulation, bearing as much relation to the true me as a plot summary to a 600-page novel.

A novel that may not be worth reading anyway....

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Having a laugh

They say laughter is the best medicine. But is it really healthy to laugh at anything at all, even if it's at the expense of other people? Even if it's making fun of people's weaknesses or disabilities?

There's a big clash of opinion here. Some say it really doesn't matter what you laugh at, and people who say they're offended and hurt are just over-reacting. They just have inflated egos. What about those gay and disabled comedians who send themselves up all the time? There's a funny side to everything, no matter how serious.

Others say no no, humour has its limits. Of course we all enjoy a good laugh, but jokes that are cruel, jokes that merely mock someone's shortcomings or differences, aren't funny and often just add to ongoing victimisation. Laughing at such jokes simply shows we're stupid and heartless.

I tend to agree with the second view. Laugh by all means, but pick your targets with care and don't get your amusement by ridiculing the less fortunate or less privileged.

I have to admit that in private I've been known to crack some very dubious jokes - racist, sexist, disablist, you name it. Let's face it, some of them are wickedly funny. But I know very well how dodgy they are and I would never repeat them in public. I have gay and black and disabled friends and I'm well aware of how hurt they can be by crass, unthinking so-called jokes by those who have no idea of the problems and discrimination they have to cope with day in and day out.

Accusing people who're not amused by your jokes of "not having a sense of humour" or "taking themselves too seriously" is unacceptable. Why should people be compelled to find something funny? Why should they be forced to laugh at themselves if they aren't comfortable about it? People are entitled to their personal dignity.

After all, there are plenty of jokes that are funny without having to ridicule others. So why resort to ridicule at all? Why is a snide, unkind joke more gratifying than a harmless one? What is the twisted part of us that enjoys it? Why do we have such a powerful urge to stick the knife in?

Sunday, 5 August 2012


Jenny and I have just spent a few days in Dublin. We saw some great art and great theatre, and had some fabulous food. But oh dear, Dubliners don't exactly welcome you with open arms.

Ask them for directions, or any information, and they give you vague and monosyllabic replies as if you've asked them about their sex life or their incontinence, or asked some unbelievably stupid question that isn't worth answering.

I can only assume their offhandedness is either because they want to keep all the cool places to themselves; or because they dislike non-Dubliners/ the English/ tourists in general; or because they just can't be arsed.

But you get the feeling that what they'd really like to do is build a moat and a 20-foot wall round Dublin to keep everyone out except the Very Talented, the Very Rich and the Very Beautiful.

So we tended to find our guidebook and streetmaps more helpful than the natives when it came to getting round the city and visiting the places you might imagine Dubliners would be proud of and only too eager to show off to the world.

We did see lots of interesting art at the National Concert Hall, the Royal Hibernian Gallery, the Hugh Lane Gallery and the National Gallery. We saw the Abbey Theatre's first-rate production of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars (set at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising). We toured Kilmainham Gaol, where many rebel political leaders were imprisoned or executed. And we had some fantastic food at The Farm, Dunne and Crescenzi, and Cornucopia.

But Dublin doesn't look or feel like a capital city, more a provincial city like Birmingham. There's little spectacular architecture, little open space, much of the city centre is run-down and shabby, and many of the streets are narrow and clogged with traffic. Nor did the people look very happy or prosperous, unlike Belfast.

So I don't think we'll be back for a while - not unless there's some stunning new attraction to lure us south. Or unless the locals decide outsiders might actually be worth talking to.

PS: I should point out that whenever someone asks me for directions in Belfast, I'm always extremely helpful, and I think that applies to most Belfast folk. In fact we not only give very explicit directions but check the inquirer has fully understood them. 

Pic: The Halfpenny Bridge, Dublin