FAMILY AFFAIRS

Studying my family tree has become a bit of an obsession. Does this mean I am getting old? My kids are not particularly interested in finding out what great-grandfather did in the war. Nor are my friends, I’m sure. Yet, there is such a fascination in thinking about those long-lost lives that I am genetically part of. I stare at the photo of my grandmother as a young woman and wonder who she really was. How did she think? What were her loves, her hates, her interests? What were her moods? How did she talk? Was she argumentative or passive? I hardly remember her, as she died when I was a small child, but her picture hangs above my desk and I often talk to her. Weird? Maybe. But haven’t cultures worshipped ancestors since the dawn of time? And what about the sudden interest in archeology? British TV is full of serious people digging up old bones and trying to fathom out who they were and even how they looked with the help of computer generated images and clever artists. And then there are the websites dedicated to helping you find your past. Millions subscribe to these.

There has always been nostalgia about our history. We like to see events throughrose-tinted spectacles. It feels more comfortable to believe that Great Aunt Maud was a bit of an eccentric and not admit she was a spiteful and vindictive old bat.  I have been to funerals where I knew that the dead person was a nasty piece of work, but the eulogies painted a very different story.

As I child I used to believe that I would meet all the dead members of my family in some heavenly sitting-room, where we would all embrace and talk about ‘the old times’. This view was based on my Catholic upbringing and my convent education. I had no doubts at all that there was life afterdeath until I reached the age of fifteen, when I started to ask some really difficult questions. Now I am older and thinking about my own demise, I have suddenly started to consider that the sitting room in the sky might be quite a good idea…

Then I look at photos of me as a baby. It that really me? Yes, it is, according to my family. But it could be anyone. I have no memory of the photo being taken; no memory of how that shawl so tightly swaddling me, felt. A therapist might say that is the cause of my phobia about bed sheets that are tucked in too tightly.  That baby in the photo has no connection with me, other than what I am told  by my family. Time is such a mystery.

We must never dismiss those who have lived and are now dead. They had lives full of small moments; breath and hunger and fear and joy. They could see and hear and remember. They looked forward and felt love and pain. And they must be remembered. When humans are treated like inhuman objects that do not live life made up of small moments, annihilation becomes easier. They simply do not really exist in the mind of the dictator.  That is why bombs can be dropped on land seen from the gun-sight of a fighter plane; land that looks empty but is in fact full of living moments; full of real people. That is why political leaders can have a ‘plan’ to exterminate thousands of innocent people; because they are not seen as beings that live in small moments – they are just a mass of nothingness, like empty land. On the other hand, suicide bombers are often motivated not just by religious fanaticism , but by the memory of members of their family killed in conflict. Could it be that they remember the small moments and can only deal with their loss by passing on the mayhem and murder? Whatever the causes, war and terrorism are never the answer to political conflict.

To me, this interest in our past is a healthy sign that times are changing. Could it be that the human race is starting to feel some hope that we can see each other as lives lived and not as one-dimensional frozen cut-outs that can be dismissed and killed in futile wars?  Will it be that in future, we will not engage in war just for ideology or economics, but because we abhor the fact that people living everyday-small-moments that make up their life, will lose their life?

Grandma stares down at me, her whole life ahead of her and at the moment that photo was taken, she didn’t know what I know now; that she would live until she is 79 and be buried in a cemetery in London, far away from her birth place in the north of Italy. Looking at my grandmother as a young woman and thinking about her life and its content, the children she loved and nurtured, the people she talked to, the food she ate and the things she achieved, all of this makes her important and valued. The fact that she is part of a genetic chain that lives on in me is a miracle.

 

SHOPPING MANIA

10-foot user interface example of a living-roo...
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Can shopping send you mad? I didn’t believe that it could but after my experiences during the past few weeks, I am feeling slightly unhinged.

It all starts with a simple desire to purchase a small armchair that would fill a small space in my living room. Easy, you would think. I should be able to find what I want at a reasonable price if I surf the net. It takes me half a day but eventually I find  a nice little armchair with wooden legs, costing £150. Delivery is free of charge.

I hand over my money via an internet form and wait. A nice lady calls a few days later and says my chair will be delivered the following day.  She can’t give me a time, so I stay in and sure enough, two jolly chaps arrive and carry what might be anything – it’s so tightly bound in plastic wrapping – into my living room and drop it on my carpet. I ask politely if I should open it and inspect the goods. They assure me there is no need for that. They are in a hurry and if I need to return the item, it’s a simple job. I just make a phone call to the company and they will arrange  a collection and then refund me.

I struggle to open the package and after half an hour or so of fighting with plastic and staples and cardboard, my chair emerges. It seems okay and is small enough to fit the space I have allocated for it. I move it gingerly into place, after all it is new and I am always careful with new things. I stare at it. Something is wrong. I go upstairs and wake my Apple from its sleep. I find the website and look at the picture of the chair I have purchased. It has legs. The chair in my living room has no legs. I go downstairs and search through the acres of plastic and cardboard for legs. There are none.

I run upstairs again, find the phone number on the website and call. It takes some time to get through as I have to answer lots of questions put to me by robot woman who finally connects me to a human voice, but one who has little patience for my dilemma. The legs should be stuck to the bottom, she says. I look. They aren’t. I go back to the phone. The voice has gone and a dialing tone refuses to converse with me. Time for a cuppa.

Fifteen minutes later, I begin the leg search again and success! They are under the cushion; all wrapped up in more plastic, cardboard and staples. I unwrap them very carefully. Nothing more must go wrong. My chair need its legs and I need that space filled. At that point, my other half comes in and takes over. He turns the chair over and let out a sharp noise like a very angry horse. Look at this, he says. I look. The  bottom frame of the chair is split in two. There is a definite bend in its bottom, and on feeling through the fabric, it’s obvious that my sad little chair has a nasty fracture.

We stare at each other. We stare at the chair. Then I go upstairs to check the rules for returning faulty goods and my partner makes a cuppa. After fifteen minutes of scouring the website I find the page and tick the box saying ‘my goods arrived damaged.’ Instantly a large red box appears. I must phone the company as the page I am looking at is only for the return of socks and bags and the like. I go downstairs to report to my other half.  Don’t worry, he says, I will wrap it all up again while you call them, so that’s what he does, using miles of Cellotape.

I pick up the phone again. Three-quarters of an hour later, having spoken to several disinterested female voices, who may or may not have been robots, I am told that the collections delivery unit will phone me to arrange ‘collection’. When? Can’t say? Can I have my money back? Not till the item has been collected and is back in our warehouse. I admit defeat and put the phone down. Partner comes in and gets furious. He picks up the phone and calls the offending firm again. Fifty minutes later, fuming and unsatisfied, he puts the phone down. The same mantra has been related to him via the robots. He is less tolerant than me.  Let’s go into the garden and smell the roses, I say.

The next morning, after a bad night of dreams about broken legs and dancing chairs, I phone the company again. Finally, I get to speak to a slightly less unpleasant girl, who says she is sympathetic with my plight. You have my money and I want it back, I say. You have sold me a defective chair, I say. When will you collect it, I beg. She says Friday. Friday? I can hardly belive it. I have a day. Can I have a time? No.

Friday comes and proceeds to go. At 2 pm I phone the company again. Where are your collection men? They should be picking up a chair with a broken back. They work till 7pm, she says. Oh, I say. I wait. And wait. 6pm. 6.45pm. 7pm. The chair, wrapped up like a sweating mummy, waits in my garage. It needs fixing or burying or burning.

After a good dinner and some wine I reach for the phone once more. Jean answers me. A sweet sane voice, full of empathetic understanding. But she keeps me hanging on for ‘five’, while she finds her manager, who must deal with this. I am an unhappy customer and she is unhappy because I am unhappy. The minutes tick by. Musac fills the room; I’ve put speakerphone on. Then all at once, Jean is back. She has a homely voice, like a 1950’s housewife. I am about to be reassured. No. Jean cannot handle this. She has made a large note on her screen. In fact, I can hear her pecking out the note and other ‘details’ about me on her keyboard. She is putting stars against my name. She will pass it on to the manager as soon as she can. She can’t speak with him because there have been a ‘inordinate amount of phone calls from customers this evening…’ All trying to get their money back, I ask? Jean hangs up and I go downstairs and eat some chocolate

At 8pm the phone rings. An Australian voice says I’m Kevin, the manager. THE MANAGER! The manager has actually taken the trouble to phone little old me, a mere customer? Kevin schmoozes me. He charms me. If the delivery firm haven’t collected the chair by next Wednesday, he will give me back my money on that very day, no matter how long it takes his men to collect said chair. I feel he is bestowing me with blessings. I feel special. He may propose.

Then, I think, hang on a minute girl! This man is the manager of a firm that has sold you sub-standard goods, is holding your money in their bank account and is making you feel he is doing you a big favour! The Sale of Goods Act flashes up before my eyes. I thank him and threaten him with trading standards and put the phone down. Then I realise he’s got away with it. I will have to wait for my money and that bloody chair will hang about for days, rotting in its plastic mac!

My partner comes into the room. Are they collecting that bloody chair? Next week. When? Can’t say. Are you getting the refund? Er… yes. When? Next Wednesday, maybe. Shall I go and torch the  chair? No,they’re coming to collect it! When? Don’t know. When are you getting your money back? Next Wednesday, I think…

There are men in white coats at my door, maybe?

 

ADVICE FOR NASTY PEOPLE

No sexism racism homophobia
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So, have Andy Gray and his pals made it okay for women to discriminate against men? Can I say things like ‘ fucking hopeless’ on the radio or TV when some footballer fails to get the ball in goal? Can I say it was ‘just banter’ when I’m accused of sexism? And when people complain about my language, can I roll my eyes in the direction of heaven, shrug my shoulders and say: ‘fucking fuss over nothing…’ Can I?

It really is time to wrap this one up and CHANGE, all you sexist people out there. That includes women as well as men. It also includes racist people and people who just go around being thoroughly nasty. All of you, CHANGE. The world is in one hell of a state. Give up all that nasty stuff up. NOW!

I was walking down a country lane this morning and I came across a couple of black and white cows in a field. They glared at me and I smiled back. I was trying to connect. To let them know I was interested in them; they were part of the animal kingdom, like me. But they didn’t get it. They wanted grass, not my friendship. They were in their own universe, and I wasn’t part of it. In fact, although they were looking at me, I wasn’t even sure they could see me.

Is there a metaphor here? I think there is, all you sexist/racist/discriminating people. But I think I might liken you all to a load of old sheep, rather than a couple of cows.  Your views are so isolated, so out of date, so stupid, so ridiculous, so pathetic because, like the cows or a load of old sheep,  you can’t see anyone at all; you can only view the world through your narrow, limited field of vision. Sad, isn’t it?

What a lot you are missing, all you sad sexist/racist/discriminating people. Your little brains are a bit like bad walnuts; the centres, where all the good stuff should be, is rotted out.  If you cleaned all that grunge out, you might enjoy living a lot more. You might find that everything becomes much easier, because PEOPLE WILL LIKE YOU!

I thought everyone wanted to be liked; everyone wants lots of friends – look at Facebook, people will kill to have the most friends in their circle – of friends…   But you lot, well you seem to be happy with pretend friends; sycophants and hangers on, who don’t really give a toss about you, just pretend they do because they too have nasty stuff (or not much) between their ears.

Does anyone know the meaning of ethics any more? What about morals? Anyone out there have any? What about warmth, generosity of spirit? How about just sheer kindness? Why is ‘nasty’ so appealing to so many? Because that’s what racism, sexism, discrimination actually is; it’s nasty. It stinks.

THE SEXIST GAME?

Sky Sports Ident Circa 1997
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So the game of football is labelled an ‘institutionally sexist’ old boys club, according to Uefa.  No change there, then.

Football commentator Andy Gray has been sacked by Sky Sports for calling Sian Massey, a female assistant referee ‘fucking hopeless’. Amongst other sexist behaviour, Gray also discussed Massey in disparaging terms before going on air.

Football needs to have a long slow look at itself. It has always been a sexist game and that’s a real shame. There are millions of women supporters. Women WHO BUY TICKETS!  Will they want to spend money on a ticket for a game now?

Discrimination of any sort is hateful. Women have put up with it for long enough. The sex discrimination laws seek to stop this kind of thing, but I fear it is endemic in so many organisations, while women are under represented.  Football is grossly under represented by women in coaching or executive positions. Why?

Dr Steven Bradbury of Loughborough University says ‘there is a deeply masculine culture, and overt and casual sexism inherent within the men’s game’. It’s hard to believe that this is still happening in 2011. Many top players have protested about it, too. Thank God for Leo Ferdinand who praised Massey and said he was all for women in football: ‘discrimination should not happen in our game at all…prehistoric if you think otherwise’. Sadly, most of the men running the beautiful game are prehistoric in their views, to my mind, and middle aged or elderly, and predominately white. It really is time for a shake-up. Get your act together, you old dinosaurs.

Covert sexism is hard to expose. Women often let it pass in all but the high profile cases. Anything for a quiet life. But it hurts. And the hurt sticks. I can remember to this day, the way I felt when a male colleague devalued and invalidated my abilities in a personal and sexist manner. At the time, I was so stunned that my mind went blank. I didn’t come back at  the man, just sat there, quietly dying of embarrassment. And no one stood up for me. It was as if it never happened. Afterwards, over a drink with my women fellow workers, I was given lots of sympathy, but when I asked why they hadn’t come to my aid, there was a sudden silence. Eventually one woman owned up: ‘It didn’t seem too bad at the time. It was only later when I really thought about it…’

That was many years ago, but it looks as if sexism is alive and well today. Of course, if you confront a man, tell him he is being sexist, you will often get the wide eyed horror look. Moi? Never! Some of my best friends are women. Don’t you think you are being just the tiniest bit over sensitive, sweetie? It’s at that point that you give up and go home to slit a pillow with the bread knife.

It is any wonder that women keep quiet about this sort of thing? Yesterday, I watched a TV programme about stalkers. The excellent documentary looked at the story of one woman who had been stalked by her ex-boyfriend for years and it was still going on. Despite new guidelines for police, she felt that they had not protected her or come down heavily enough on the stalker. The presenter of the programme seemed to agree.

The stalker was threatening and aggressive. He has ruined her life. She’s distraught yet the man is still free. This isn’t an isolated case, either. Many women are in the same situation. Two women a week are murdered by someone they know, usually in a domestic violence incident.  Surely, anything we can do to change the way some men view women is vital?

If the game of football is institutionally sexist and it is game supported mainly by men, then they have a responsibility to speak out against people like Andy Gray and Richard Keys, because if you allow men in the media who are commentating on the game to call women ‘fucking hopeless’ in public, how soon does this become a sanction for violence against women and maybe lead to a woman’s body being found on a road side?

TAX GAMES

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The deadline approaches. You start to tremble. What is it that causes all this consternation and stress? The 31st of January is the day our Tax Returns have to be submitted to HM Revenue and Taxes and every year millions of us who do self-assessment are late submitting our forms, either by post or online.

When you retire, it’s even more terrifying. You see, you are not dealing with people, even though a tired, sighing voice may handle your call when you try to contact this huge monster of a public organisation. You seem to be dealing with speaking bees in cells; very busy but all isolated from each other and all humming in a different key.

Last December I spoke to Christine who, baffled by my questions, passed me on via another phone number, to a nameless individual, also hiding somewhere in the bowels of The Great Tax Beast. Why? because I have been trying to get an ACTIVATION CODE. What is an ACTIVATION CODE?  Well, it is something more difficult to find than the Holy Grail, more invisible than a lost star and more precious than the  Wittelsbach-Graff diamond. And you cannot submit your Tax Return online without it.  If you miss the deadline, then some whirring, distant machine will issue a notice telling you about the fine you will have to pay for being late with your Return.

Now, things go wrong; that is the nature of life on this planet. Mistakes are a natural and normal part of our day-to-day existence. But as you get older, each mistake you encounter causes you to breath a little faster, makes your Blood Pressure go up and doesn’t help your bladder. So when you are newly retired and you have to telephone The Great Tax Beast, be prepared for mistakes, for confusion, for the sighing voice to give you numbers to call that no one answers, to hang on the phone for hours while hideous Musak assaults your ageing ears and increases your slight deafmess; be prepared to enter a strange and indecipherable world that is the Tax system in this country.

My ACTIVATION CODE is out there, drifting through the ether, unable to find a place to settle, unable to find ME. According to TGTB, it has been sent to me, twice. I only have the word of the sighing voice that this is the truth, but I am obliged to believe the story, because TGTB never lies. That’s the rule. That’s the game we simple folk subscribe to. They are right and we are wrong. So where is my ACTIVATION CODE then? How can I track the poor thing down and give it a home? It appears that is has been sent to something called a ‘communication address’. Er… you mean: my address? No, your ‘communication address’, that’s different from your address. Is it? Yes. But I only live in one place. I am retired. I do not have a second home; a bijou holiday flat in the South of France, a house in Florida, a caravan in Clacton…  Ah, time to phone another number. Tell them that your ‘communication address’ has changed. Has it? I thought it was where I live and you have that address, otherwise you couldn’t have sent me all those letters… (BUT NOT MY ACTIVATION CODE)!

So you bite your knuckles and punch in a new number. You may get Dave on the end of the phone line. Dave is a temporary. He explains this to you in detail. He has only been ‘taken on’ because there are so many people wanting answers in January. He cannot, like a very simple toy dog that only jumps when you wind it up and press a button, deal with more than one query. For any other queries, you must call another 0845 number. I just want to tell you where to send my ACTIVATION CODE, Dave. Please let me, Dave. Please. Please. PLEASE!

If you started phoning at 8am when the Tax office opens, have a packed lunch on your desk and at least a flask of tea. You might possibly need the number of an undertaker for your next of kin, in case you have more than three questions to ask.

Just as you are thinking about finishing all the alcohol left over from Christmas, you may get a phone call from your accountant, refusing to accept that you cannot afford his fees any more because you are living on a pension. Your accountant is a very precious animal. He must not, under any circumstances, be upset. He had been an umbilical cord between you and The Great Tax Beast for many years and only he understands how to satisfy TGTB. He knows how to dissolve a demand for a whole side of beef and make TGTB accept a few chops instead. (I am using a similar style of language to that used in all correspondence from TGTB – you can’t quite get your head around it). What I mean is, he can arrange your tax affairs for you so you pay less than you would have had to, had you not paid him a huge fee to act on your behalf. Swings and Roundabouts?

So how do you placate your darling accountant? You have to explain as sweetly as you can that you can’t pay him. Of course, he will never believe you, because  all accountants attend the School of Disbelief. They never believe anyone until they have it in writing, sealed with blood. To them, we are all on the fiddle. That’s why the rogue accountants get away with fiddling. They know how it’s done. So after an uncomfortable phone call, when he tells you that you will almost certainly receive a fine for being late; that he has lots of ACTIVATION CODES and that he can sort it all out for a cut-price fee, (tempting…), you start to sweat again.

As you slowly realise that this situation is likely to lead to a sudden heart attack or even a stroke, so you begin to write a letter to TGTB. It appears to be the only way forward. As a heading you write your name, your address, the last five addresses, several telephone numbers, two email addresses, your date of birth, your NI number, your Tax Reference Number, your favourite colour and the type of tea you like to drink. Then you re-write and after an hour of deciding which information TGTB is likely to need, you begin the body of the letter. This will take the rest of the day, because when you start to write it all down, you see how hysterically complicated it all is. How will anyone understand you? How will you explain in a letter of less than four pages, what your beef is? How will you get through to TGTB?

You won’t. Get wise, stupid. There is only one way to deal with this ferocious, insatiable creature; obey every rule months in advance of the deadlines. DO WHAT THEY WANT YOU TO DO. Assume the beast has less than one brain cell and humour it. Accept that you can’t win. Become an accountant or go into Tax exile. Die.

Unless we get hit by a meteor on the 30th January 2011, you will have to get that Return in and pay up.  Hang on, what’s that coming over the horizon? I hope Dave can deal with it…

MENOPAUSAL MADNESS

Charity by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
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There was a great article in The Guardian Family section yesterday. It was titled: Confession of a Menopausal Mother. Joanna Moorhead, the author, writes about her hormones. She says ‘they are telling her to stop answering her family’s every need, reclaim time for herself and shout a bit’.

She talks about using the phrase: I‘m not available. Having been a loving and devoted mother, her disappearing oestrogen has made her feel that motherhood is not enough any more.  She quotes Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain: the menopause is the moment when what she calls ‘the mommy brain’ starts to un-plug… with sometimes devastating effects.

All of us over fifty know exactly what that feels like, I suspect. We become what men describe as ‘difficult’. I remember a time in my early fifties when I was so angry (about what, I’m not sure) that I insisted my children called me by my first name. I didn’t want to be referred to as Mum any more. Why did I risk upsetting them by demanding they call me by my Christian name? Because I was changing. The oestrogen levels were falling and I was emerging from the mother chrysalis into someone else. My kids were confused, although they complied with my request, but I still haven’t asked them what they really thought about it.

During that time, my kids were also changing as they grew up. It can be a time of battles and tears and long arguments. But I look back now and know what I was fighting against;  I wanted to break out, stop finishing off the fish fingers and eat the world.

We got through it. The kids reached adulthood comparatively unscathed and I did do my own thing, but there was a lot of guilt on my part and there still is whenever I embark on a new project. And there is the yearning that comes with approaching old age; the ‘if only’ syndrome. In the middle of the night, I wake and ruminate on whether I took the right road; was the best mother I could be; if I gave them what they needed. When the day comes and the light makes things less terrible, I remind myself that I have needs too, and that it’s okay to think about myself once in a while.

The menopause is a time of reassessment for women. You can start to look back and wonder if you have made mistakes. You want to move forward but feel you are held by responsibility and loyalty.  If you have an understanding and supportive partner who can mediate with the kids, you do move forward and eventually, reach a plateau. But it’s not easy.

There is another flowering that comes in later life. Women are living longer. We hope to reach our sixties healthy and in sound mind and if we do, opportunities will present themselves; you can try out all the things you shifted to one side because of husbands and kids. This late flowering feels very satisfying and can put everything into perspective.

And then there are grandchildren. They plug you back in, even without oestrogen. They assuage those feelings of guilt that you have left mothering behind, and can never reclaim it. They can also stop you from making your husband into a surrogate child.  But if you do not have grandchildren, there are other, very positive ways to re-plug yourself. By engaging in a project with all the love and care you gave to your kids, you can feel that rush of joy that comes with the recognition that you are still womanly; still able to express love and passion.

Women do strange things when they are menopausal. They leave long-term marriages and relationships, they fall madly in love and may even move on with a younger man. They desire freedom and a voice that has maybe, been quelled by the choices they made when they were young. The menopause can last six months or it can drag on for years and all through it, the changes are palpable and real. The energy that emerges when you are through it, is unique. It can, if you let it, propel you into adventures you never thought possible in your youth.


WHY WOMEN NEED ATTITUDE

It’s a man’s world, is it? Yes, I’m afraid it is.

No matter how hard we girls try to get a foot in the door, those blokes are pushing hard against the other side to keep us out. It happens at work, in shops, at home; the list is endless. And these days, it’s often subtle.

There is hard core discrimination against women out there, but it’s the subtle stuff that gets to me. I’m talking about what goes on in the UK. The subject becomes too vast to tackle here if I take in the rest of the world.

Let’s make one thing clear; I am no man-hater. I like men. I’m married to one. I gave birth to two. I get on with the species. I admire many and revere a few. I try to be equal to them. I try. But I don’t subscribe to the notion that they are the ‘stronger sex’. They may be physically stronger, but even that is open to dispute these days as women have grown taller and bigger. It’s more about inner strength.

There are unrealistic expectations of men these days, just like there were in the last couple of decades when women were supposed to be ‘super women’ and do everything; run a house, have kids, work full-time, entertain and have amazing sex!  Now, I think that women demand as much from men but with one big extra – men must ‘think’ like us, too. They must be intuitive and pick up on unspoken clues about the way we are feeling. They must be ‘sensitive’ to our emotional lives but also not forget to be macho and manly. They must earn their share of the bread and never criticise us when we read Hello magazine, so we can compare our lives with all those hapless celebs. They must never cry although we want them to be empathetic, sympathetic and understanding. Perhaps this is why many men find the demands made on them just too much and react by pushing women away and putting them down at every opportunity.

That is still no excuse for playing games with women in the workplace and I don’t mean ‘those sort of games’! I mean the sort where in a meeting you know that the male colleague next to you is just waiting for you to open your mouth so he can say: ‘Don’t you think you are being just a little emotional about all this? After all, you have to have reason as well as emotion…’ Everyone smirks and looks uncomfortable, but if the man is a higher rank than you, I guarantee that no-one will speak up for you. Someone might say; ‘Oh, I thought so-and-so was being very reasonable…’ but the response is likely to be embarrassed silence, because to deal with this effectively you might have to expose it as subtle discrimination, to my mind.

Another game that is often played in meeting situations is the one I call: The Mr. Nice Guy Syndrome. Chief man chairing meeting will smile enthusiastically at you  and ask for your opinion. You take a breath, get your thoughts together and begin. Then you note that Chief’s eyes will roam, hand will start to doodle on writing pad and atmosphere in room will change. Other men in the room will mirror the Chief. But there may be one who stares at you intently and nods, smiles and even says: ‘Bravo‘! when you slow down and come to a full-stop, feeling that what you were saying was crap, anyway. Yet, amazingly, Mr Nice Guy will take up where you left off and repeat almost word for word what you have just said and the men in the room will appear riveted.

Feminism did a lot for women, because it made us aware of what our rights were; that we had just as much right as men to be heard and our opinions were as valid and important as those of men. But it also, I suspect, irritated a great many men, because like all causes there are always fanatics and it was those women who caught the media’s attention. What do most men remember about the feminism campaign ? Bra-burning. The core of what it was all about; that women wanted the same rights at work and in the world in general as men, was buried under all that ridicule about bras.

Today, women in the UK are still paid less than men. Here is a quote from The Telegraph:

Women paid 10pc less than men

Women are typically paid 10pc less than men, with the figure rising to almost double that for the over 50s, official figures have revealed.

Female eningeers can take home 26pc less pay than their male counterparts, the ONS said. 

Female eningeers can take home 26pc less pay than their male counterparts, the ONS said. Photo: Corbis
By Louisa Peacock, Jobs Editor 12:22PM GMT 08 Dec 20105 Comments 

However, the overall gender pay gap has fallen by 2pc over the past year from 12.2pc to 10.2pc, the Office for National Statistics figures, published today, showed. This was the biggest drop since the measure began in 1997.

The difference in men’s and women’s earnings narrowed after women were paid more per hour over the past year. In 2010 men’s median hourly earnings grew by 0.3pc to £13.01, up from £12.97 in 2009, while women’s hourly earnings were £11.68, a 2.6pc increase compared with £11.39.

But female employees aged between 50 and 59 were typically paid 17pc less than men in full-time roles, the figures showed. Those in part-time roles suffered a 17.4pc pay gap – the largest difference for all employees.

Female workers aged between 40 and 49 took home 16.1pc less pay, while the women in their 60s were paid 9.6pc less than men, the figures showed.

The difference in pay between men and women for workers aged 39 or under was just 2.9pc or less.

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So that is why I say that women need attitude to deal with these difficult and complicated issues. I’m sure that none of us want to alienate men, but men do need to recognise that sometimes, by the way they interact with us, talk to us, deal with our pay, listen to us, and treat us generally, is still tinged with inequality and we have to constantly fight for recognition as their equals. Because this happens so frequently, men alienate us.

In this context, I think about teenage mothers, who often want nothing to do with the father of their child. The men disappear. They don’t pay maintenance unless the courts catch up with them and they are forced to, and they have no relationship with their child. So many people’s lives are hurt by this state of affairs. But unless men start to take real responsibility for birth control, these children will continue to be deprived of something incredibly important to them; a loving and present father. As those young men mature, they often want to find their kids later in life. If they do, it can be wonderful or it can be disastrous, with much misery and anger for all concerned.

Men must listen to women and women must listen to men. They must respect each other as equals. It’s the only way forward. Will it happen? In Utopia, yes. Today? I live in hope.

BEAUTIFUL STATS

Statistics for the Utterly Confused
Image by inju via Flickr

Did you know that there are more than 50 ways to kill a slug? 50 ways to leave your lover and over 50 types of pasta in Italy? How lovely it is to be able to turn everything into a statistic. It’s something we simply have to do. You can find a statistic on anything. If you want to know how many toe nail clippings end up in the loos of London, there will be someone somewhere who will give you a number. If you want to know how many young women Silvio Berlusconi allegedly asked to dress up as nurses and administer to him, then there will be another statistic available somewhere and written down as the percentage of European Prime Ministers who like nurses…

Of course statistics can be devilishly hard to understand. The office for National Stats. http://www.statistics.gov.uk is a joy for anyone with a touch of OCD about the subject. Pages and pages of data that only those blessed with a special brain that can read this strange, elusive language will enjoy. There are headings like this to decipher: Most recent on a month earlier, most recent three months on a year earlier, most recent month on previous month, most recent three months on previous three months…. And sentences like: the seasonally adjusted volume… and the seasonally adjusted value… or even non-seasonally adjusted weekly value…!  All gobbledygook to me. But someone understands this strange concoction of numbers and graphs and weird words. And they love it. Well, each to his own, say I.

Here’s one you might have tried earlier. Do you know how many hairs there are on an average head? Statistics show that…  Oh, for heavens sake! 100,000! okay? 100,000 bleeding hairs. Satisfied?

And what are the stats for the number of people living in igloos? That’s going to take you some time to find out. At least it might have done. Now we have the internet, we can find those stats in a twinkle. So how many live in that ice box? Well, there is every computation of answer on Google, but no actual statistics. But now I will have bought this to the attention of some boffins, so we are likely to find out next time we search.

The best stats. of all are the one’s that you can’t believe. Did you know that if you counted 24 hours a day, it would take 31,688 years to reach one trillion? Did you know that you can only smell one twentieth as well as your dog?  Did you know that a sneeze shoots out of your nose at over 120 miles per hour? True. Did you know that Sarah Palin is not Michael Palin‘s old auntie … No, sorry that’s not a stat, just a gag.

I am warming to this stat. thing. I go around trying to work out how many men wear badly fitting trousers in my town; how many women wear wigs, how many kids will have fish fingers for lunch. Beats worrying about the economy. But the best stat. to ponder on at the moment is, in my opinion, this one: how many bankers will get a bonus this year…  That’s a statistic we should all keep in mind…

WHO CAN YOU TRUST?

An elderly relative of mine has received seven phone calls from a commercial company asking her to buy their product, telling her she entered a competition – the condition of which was to accept a quote for their product and a final call from a hideously rude young man who argued with her for ten minutes, saying that she was obliged to listen to his sales pitch, or else!

My friend, who is in her seventies was horrified and felt persecuted and harassed. She became scared to answer her phone. Her son has now got help from her line provider. They have blocked her number from receiving such calls in the future, but it beggars belief that these sales people are put under so much pressure that they will adopt any tactic to force people to listen to them no matter what. I really would like to know what sort of training these sales people get?

We seem to be living in an age of incompetence, from bankers to politicians and all points in between. I am sick to death of the way ordinary people’s lives are being tainted by this lack of compassion. We also live in a culture of incompetent intrusion, where any one is fair game and false promises – lies, in fact, are told as a matter of course. What’s happened to honesty, awareness of another person’s situation and simple kindness?

People are increasingly having to go to debt management agencies, to assist them. The government set up these schemes. But what ever you do, if you are tempted to use one of them , read the small print and make a nuisance of yourself by asking hundreds of questions until you are sure you want to give away your financial freedom, for that, to my mind is what these schemes amount to, and they charge you for it, too. That’s not to say that there aren’t ways out there to get help, but being in severe financial trouble often means you don’t want to read anything any more and just want someone else to take the problem away.  There are hidden pitfalls.  Incompetence is everywhere. It’s like road rage; expect it and you will see see it!

In business, we are all so stretched and stressed that no one really cares much about any one anymore. Why should they? They may get the sack next week. The company may fold. You can hear the the anxiety in the voices. An example: I ordered something on the Internet and it didn’t arrive. The girl on the end of the phone was very polite at first but it took five phone calls to sort it out and by the fifth call, I smelt a rat. I asked her if the company was in trouble? There was a long silence, so I knew they were. She then became belligerent and obviously wanted to get me off the phone as quick as possible, the stress in her voice, palpable.

I  heard a senior politician on a radio programme, promising to help three hapless people who were having a variety of financial and social problems. He told them, with great sincerity that he would investigate their plights and get something done. A month later, the programme asked the three people what had happened. Two of them said very little had improved, although they had been contacted by government officials. One, a business man looking for financial investment, was pleased that there had been some progress. The other two were deemed to have problems that were very complex. So why did the MP say he would help? It was obvious, in hindsight, that he couldn’t assist all of them, but it seems rash imprudence to say you will help, when the truth is, you most probably wont be able to.  That attitude is everywhere. Things don’t  get done, but we want to believe in promises, because most of us still believe in those good old rules; to tell lies is bad, respect other people, help when you can. So is this a lack of real care – the diffidence of these insolvent times, or is it just sheer incompetence?

Well, they say people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, so I am looking to my own life now. All around me I see people struggling with life in a way I haven’t seen for some years. I see our freedom being slowly eroded,  I see irritated intolerance that tells me this is a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown. How to deal with all this? Keep your head down, your lips sealed and wait for the storm to pass? Maybe. It’s just so sad to live among a people who are becoming so disillusioned and down trodden. How can us ordinary folk get through to the people who have landed us here? To those bankers who stole our money? The gap between them and us is wider that it has ever been.

So, back to incompetence, unkindness, intolerance, irritability, rudeness… It just goes on and on. People have lost trust in institutions, in the government, in everything and I think, in each other. That’s a pretty nasty state of affairs. We are all clamouring to be heard but no one is listening.

LIFE MUSIC

c. 1490
Image via Wikipedia

There are some singers that get to you. Voices, that when you hear them, send shivers through you and make you yearn – for what, you are not sure. That’s the power of the singing voice. Of course, there are singers that make you want to yell out in pain; the pain of listening to wrong notes, sharps where there should be flats, trills and runs that make you want to throw up.

I remember A&R men; do they still exist? Some of them were geniuses at spotting a singer and knowing that lots of money was in a certain voice. They knew how to publicise and promote and sell records, and the singer usually did okay out of the deals they set up.

Today we have downloading, so you can find anything you want on the net and listen to it. But it’s more difficult to hang on to your rights as an artist. The internet is a music pirate’s dream. Laws are appearing to try and fight this illegal downloading epidemic, but it’s a tough job.

I have a cupboard full of old LP’s. They are such a joy to handle. The covers are works of art and that’s before you get to the music. Some of those covers are full of magic and mystery; think of The Beatles‘ covers. They inspired you. They made you feel you were right in the middle of a place of huge excitement. You were part of ‘it’ – or was that just the Sixties?

There were other LP covers that gave you a sense of security. The folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary had covers that transported you to a log cabin up a mountain, eating corn by the fire!  Then there were the covers of the Rolling Stones LP’s. Goats Head Soup, full of suggestion that you were on the edge of something dark. The music was tinged with the same feeling, but was it wonderful? YES!

The LP’s in my cupboard are part of a period of my life where music represented something more than just good or bad sounds. They were part of a time when everything was changing, fast. You felt swept along in the Sixties river, unable to pull away because the current was so strong. Everyday, the radio played new artists that you felt you knew. They looked like you, wore the same clothes and sang music that was about your life. When the mini skirt appeared, all the girl singers wore one, and so did the girl record buyers.  It was a uniform and it made you feel good, because  it made a statement to the world; your were not part of the mundane and ordinary anymore, even if you lived at home with your mum and dad and your dad was a postman and your mum was a dinner lady, you felt connected to glamour and change and a new way of living.

Today, anything goes. What can you hook your hat onto? I wonder what makes our young people feel that thrill of excitement, that thrill of belonging to something special?

There is so much misery surrounding us. It’s streams out of your TV every day, it seeps into you as you read the paper, it’s everywhere. Joy is hard to come by.

Here is a piece of real joy:  

The beauty of the voice, the song, lyrics, the orchestra, even the way the conductor moves his baton; everything is there to take you to that place of excitement; give you that feeling, etherial and transporting from the mundane. What a way to greet the day!

But it’s not just this type of music that can do that. Listen to this:

Pure theatre! Gets your heart pumping. Makes you feel happy, even though the lyrics are telling a story of lost love!

This is music by Kurt Weil. Mysterious, touching on something we all know about…

Life without music, in all it’s forms, good and bad would not be life. For me, it is life. Everyday I need a good dose of it or else I start to starve and fade away…