Sunday, December 16, 2012

The End of the World, or the End of THIS World?

John’s been sitting on my shoulder for weeks now and I don’t think he’s going anywhere until I listen to what he’s got to say. The thing is, John’s usually right about most things so I’ve nothing to gain from ignoring him. Yes, I challenge him on the “all you need is love” notion (definitely important but doesn't put food on the table), but in most other cases, John is usually spot on.

“How did you get to America?” they asked him once. “Turned left at Greenland,” he answered. How did I get to Paris? Turned right at Geneva. It was about eighteen months ago. I'd been traveling through Switzerland so my first approach was from the south. Little did I know then that I would soon be setting up camp a mile from the Louvre and lapping up life in the city of lights. But I’m full to bursting with baguettes and Bordeaux; it’s time to move on.

Samuel Johnson suggested that, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Of course he hadn't experienced rush hour on the Northern Line. I can tell you that when a woman is tired of Paris, she’s tired of French bus drivers. There is no denying that Paris is a beautiful city; it’s charming and perfectly preserved, and full of treasures, but for me, a city is not the stunning architecture, the heritage, the art collections, the perfect bread and abundance of fabulous wine, it is the living breathing occupants. As another one of my favorite philosophers asked, What is a city but the people? (Coriolanus III.i), and the people of Paris are the pissy Parisians, who still seem to be, en masse, in some kind of post-revolutionary rage. Isn’t it time to move on?

I had no prejudices before I arrived. I’d heard the rumors about rude French waiters, but that was about it. I had no big preconceived ideas about the French. For one reason or another, I did very little history at school; most of my exposure to the Anglo-French wars was through Shakespeare, and that was hardly an objective view. So I arrived a blank slate, so to speak, and all the damage has come from first-hand experience.

It’s a generalized attitude problem. Anarchy is fun for a while, and then it’s downright dangerous. Back in February, during the big freeze, on the outskirts of Paris, I saw a grown man allowing his children to walk over a frozen lake and try to poke holes in the ice with a stick. When I suggested he was putting his sons’ lives at risk, he laughed, even when I explained that two kids had died after falling through the ice on that very lake the week before. Traffic signals mean nothing to motorists, and motorbike riders assume sidewalks are their personal overtaking lanes and race up behind pedestrians like they’re bowling pins. I don’t understand the mindset. Men are predatory and women are jealous. The snobbery and greed, the arrogance and selfishness, seem to be acceptable traits. I’ve never in my life experienced people actively trying to cheat me out of money. It’s happened three times, sadly once with success. There’s a sneaky, dishonest streak prevalent in some of the people here that I haven’t encountered since I worked with a couple of problematic children in nursery school. Where does it come from? And has it always been so?

I’ve been watching a documentary on the history of New York for a work project and was fascinated to learn a little more about the Statue of Liberty story. We all know that the French generously presented New York with the statue at the end of the nineteenth century, but I didn’t know the context. Apparently, the French offered New York the statue if the Americans paid for the foundations and the enormous pedestal. (I will give you a car as long as you build a garage to house it.) This caused the Americans huge stress and embarrassment because (as presumably the French were aware) the US just happened to be in the middle of the worst economic crisis and depression the country had ever known.

I’d accuse myself of sour grapes here, based on the fact that I have failed – spectacularly – to learn the language and thus cannot survive in the country long term, except for the fact that I have several native Parisian friends who agree with me and feel that things desperately need to change.

In Paris, garbage is conveniently collected every day, but there seems to be no policy encouraging the reduction of waste. They wash the streets, every night, with big high-pressure hoses, wasting gallons and gallons of water, as a solution to a problem that need not exist but for people's utter laziness and selfishness. They think nothing of it. They are astonished by the notion of saving water. "What eez zis 'oze pipe ban you eenglish like to have in zee summer?" Hello? Is anyone from the UN listening? For a socialist country there’s very little social conscience. In New York it is not the fine that makes people pick up after their dogs, it’s a sense of responsibility and community. The streets are self-policed by New Yorkers who will not tolerate anti-social behavior (...the people… who make the city…). In Paris no one would dare challenge a person for not picking up after their dog for fear that the offending mess would be thrown in their face.

I was discussing these issues a while back with an American Francophile I met. He likes Paris the way it is. "If the bad things change, some of the good things would change too, and that would ruin what Paris is about," he argued. Really? Is it not worth making compromises for the sake of an improved environment?

Fear of change is rooted in deep insecurity, dirty streets are the tip of the iceberg, because if people cannot change at this level, what hope is there of persuading them that more important, fundamental changes must be made for the future of the human race and the protection of this planet?

I believe in community, that old-fashioned concept that Margaret Thatcher did her best to eradicate in England in the 1980s by encouraging people to think of themselves at the expense of others. I was lucky enough to live, for a while, in a place where there was a strong sense of community. In Silver Lake, an eastside neighborhood in Los Angeles, I experienced some of the best people I have ever met. It’s not a case of whether bio-fuel is better, or how much we really affect climate change, it is the sentiment behind taking an interest in these issues that matters. I was living in Silver Lake when a local business called Forage was opened. Billed as an "anti-restaurant," it encouraged local residents to sell on surplus fruits and vegetables from their gardens to be turned into the dishes offered on the menu. Obviously the menu changed daily according to what was available. There was always an abundance of produce in Silver Lake. I regularly picked lemons off a local tree on my daily morning walk; one family would leave ripening avocados on their front wall for passers by.

When I first arrived in Paris, I was delighted by the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, until I realized why the mountains were there, and how much was going to waste.

Europe is going down the tubes and we're all busy shaking our sticks at the Greeks when in actual fact the French also have a lot to answer for. The French won't back down on farming subsidies. They insist that their farmers be protected no matter what the cost is to the EU coffers or the environment. Without boring you with all the ins and outs of the Common Agricultural Policy, let me just make the point that if we (as the Swedes are pushing for) abolished all farm subsidies next year we’d save over fifty billion euros. In 1962, the CAP was a fantastic idea, but the world it was based on no longer exists and the French need to wake up and deal with the source of the problem instead of always washing away the mess.

I have no future in France. Paris and I have a joint responsibility in this. We don’t speak each other’s language... and I don’t just mean the words. I don't want to live in a city where bus drivers play chicken with me on pedestrian crossings. I want to live in a city where the cab driver says, "That's five pounds twenty, love, but a fiver's fine if you like." Where, when I ask if there's any chance I can order the small plate of fish and chips off the children’s menu, the waitress says, "yeah, 'course you can, pet." Where I can have five grown men in stitches in a split second with one of my sassy comebacks, instead of hearing, "Ah, you will have to explain me, my eengleesh eeze not so good," long after the moment’s gone. In any case, doesn't a girl have an obligation to live in the hometown of her beloved football team at least once in her life?

To each his own; plenty have run screaming from my old adopted home, Los Angeles, claiming they can’t find any culture (we keep it hidden in places like Downtown LA, Highland Park, and Pasadena, away from the celebrity-obsessed masses on Rodeo Drive). Well, I’ve discovered that Paris is not for me. It was a passionate love affair that has passed its prime.

But there is another factor at work here, and it's all Danny Boyle's fault. It’s possible I was perfectly happy in Paris, doing my thing, yelling at bus drivers, eating a lot of bread and wine, talking to no one, and then Danny goes and puts on the mother of all shows to kick off the Olympics, and I find myself sitting in a British-themed pub, staring at the big screen, bawling my eyes out, and whimpering, “I want to go home!” I was mesmerized. It was spectacular. It was nostalgic. It was life changing. Non-British friends around the world were variously bored, confused, and underwhelmed, but I was reminded which side of the Atlantic and the Channel I am from. 

At the end of the day, life is about perspective. One of the paraplegics who carried the Olympic torch this year was quoted as saying words to the effect of: you’ve got two choices when you lose your legs, you either lie in bed and get depressed about having no legs, or you get yourself up with whatever means possible and do whatever you can to live life to the full. You can apply that to everything in life. Everything. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get depressed from time to time about having no legs, or no money, or no children, or your equivalent tragedy, but it means that there’s no point in playing the victim and constantly asking, “Why me?” Don’t let your handicap become your handicap. Get mad, get melancholic, but then get merry. It could be better, it could be worse, but whatever it is now, it may be different tomorrow; you have to keep the hope alive. You didn’t win a medal or qualify this year? Then try again, because if you quit, you can guarantee it'll never happen. Look at where half the success stories of this year – Mo Farah, Tom Daley, Jess Ennis and Katherine Grainger – were four years ago in Beijing. They all faced individual disappointments, but none of them gave up, they faced their challenges and reset their sights on London 2012 and all of them came away with massive achievements. If you don't win gold today, there's always tomorrow; you have to keep believing.

I'm a Londoner born and (partially) bred. Although I've lived in other cities in other countries for large chunks of my life, I did many long stints in London, including my university and drama school years. But London and I have always had a tempestuous relationship and in 2008, after a particularly vociferous fight (I think it started over Oyster cards), I stormed out and didn’t come back for two and a half years. While I’m not quite ready to get back on my Boris bike yet, we’re definitely working on a reconciliation. 

It’s a powerful thing, perspective. Sometimes you need to go a long, long way away, and stay away for a considerable amount of time, to get enough perspective. Most of my life was defined by the fall out of my parents’ ugly divorce. It scarred me and burdened me. I allowed it to become my handicap and played the victim for far too long. Last summer, on a bookshelf in my mother’s spare bedroom, I spotted a book called, “Divorce: the things you thought you’d never need to know.” It reduced me to tears as, for the first time in my life, I considered her divorce, not in terms of how it affected me, but in terms of what it must have felt like for a woman, at the age I am at now, to face the shock, the humiliation, the grief, and the exhaustion of ending her marriage while trying to raise three rambunctious, outspoken children. Where was she supposed to find the tools to do that? Maybe she didn’t always say the things I longed to hear, or do the things I yearned for her to do, but she never failed as a mother, she succeeded against all odds.

I made a fleeting visit to London over the final weekend of the Olympics. Within hours of arriving, I found myself standing on the platform at Earl’s Court tube station saying, “Where am I and where has London gone?” Three times I’d had my suitcase carried down a flight of stairs by London Underground staff, without even needing to ask. I’d sat on the tube and witnessed random strangers striking up conversations with each other. I found dairy-free salads in M&S. I was sure I’d walked into some alternative reality. This was certainly not the London I remembered. Maybe London and I had both grown up in our time of separation.

Then I figured out what had happened. The people had taken the city back. The great British public had said, "No one puts London in the corner." This was no longer the divided London of Thatcher's yuppies and have-nots, it was not the London failed by New Labour, it was not the ravaged London devastated by the 2011 riots, it was a city of people who cared. It was a great capital city, humbly stunned by its own success. It had hosted what people were calling the greatest Olympic Games ever. There were never any guarantees and there were many incidents forewarning of failure, but somehow London kept the faith. Like most successes, it was the combination of hard work and a little bit of luck on the day. And thus Britain reminded itself that it was Great, that it could still stand up as a kingdom United.

However, while the Olympics stood out as a beacon of success, it still cannot, and should not, anesthetize the shame of some failings that have unfolded before our eyes this year. The Libor scandal and the Leveson inquiry have shown us that our bankers and journalists cannot be trusted, the BBC has been exposed as an unmanaged machine, and it appears our Queen once knighted a prolific sexual predator (leaving us wondering how many more have slipped through the net). But the British will not push matters aside and say, "c'est de l'histoire ancienne, ce n'est pas sérieux." No stone will be left unturned until we uncover the full truth and put into place practices that prevent repeat offenses. We set the bar high and when it slips we push it up again, even higher.

But whatever Britain faced when it took a look in the mirror this year, it is nothing compared to what the Americans experienced as a result of the presidential election. Around half of the US population was persuaded to vote for a religious extremist whose closest allies were exposed as bigots and oppressors. No matter whether it would ever be possible to revoke the rights that generations of women fought to obtain, the fact that anyone could stand up in what is supposed to be one of the world’s greatest democracies and challenge them, now, in the twenty-first century, was nothing short of terrifying.

The concept of inalienable human rights was conceived in 1215 in England with the signing of the Magna Carter. For almost 800 years, in countries aligned to Britain and beyond, this concept has stood as a cornerstone of constitutional law, ostensibly protecting the individual (i.e. regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation) against the arbitrary dictatorship of a despot and guaranteeing a person’s right to a fair trail by the legal system of their land. Although in France they seem to feel that a person’s privacy is above the law, a policy that has long harbored sexual predators and corrupt politicians. We need to remember what we ultimately believe in. We need change. We cannot fear change; fear cripples us. As FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

My friend is writing a book about spiders, and how to deal with them. I don’t know the details but she’s a creative spark and it’s bound to be both informative and entertaining. Fortunately the only spiders I'm afraid of are the cyber ones that crawl all over your browser spying on your every move. I have no problem with real spiders – even in Australia those killer ones are pretty rare and can usually be caught and released safely – but what about those metaphorical spiders?

We all have our personal spiders, seemingly small things we’re afraid of, things that bring up a whole range of rational and irrational fears. Top of my list is the idea of trusting someone with my heart again. Relationships are hard to get into and even harder to get out of. Best to steer well clear, I reckon. I know I’ve never got it quite right and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the courage to try again. Why not admit defeat and focus on the few things I think I’ve got figured out (like how to entertain children and make great soup)? I’ve just never understood the rules of relationships. What comes first? The sex or the relationship? I’ve always got it wrong and it’s always ended in tears. I even wrote an entire book about the subject and I still have no answers. I only envisage pain when I think about romantic love. As Shakespeare said, there is no evil angel but love. Indeed, the great irony of love is the fact that anyone has ever tried to write about it at all. There are actually no words to describe that strange sickly sensation of feeling stuck to someone, of being unable to stop thinking or caring about them even when they drive you mental, of knowing that their well being means as much to you, if not more, than your own. (I’m even re-reading that now, shaking my head, thinking, “no, that’s not it, exactly. It’s something like it, but not exactly it.") I know nothing. Is it wonderful? Is it insufferable? Is it all you need? Is it worth the bloody effort? Is there a conspiracy to make it look like heaven when really it's hell? Back over to Will who suggested, There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.

So… is it a good thing or a bad thing that this world is due to end on Friday?

Apparently there is a little method to the Mayan madness. We’ve all heard the theories about a possible polar reversal, or a more dramatic and catastrophic polar shift, that could be at the root of all the hysteria; such speculative events have been dramatized in apocalyptic themed films (that will all feel embarrassingly dated if we come out the other side, like the 1984 and Y2K films). But I did hear a more enlightened, uplifting theory recently. I’m not sure I fully grasped it but it was something to do with the build up of cosmic radiation (that the earth's magnetic fields protect us from) that is going to peak and start declining as of Friday. Why is this a good thing? Because apparently it has happened before and has always coincided with a huge shift in human evolution. Insha'Allah, as my dad was fond of saying to us when we were growing up in the Middle East, because we are well overdue a shake up here.

If we are heading for the end of this world, what should we take with us into the next? What have we learned? What do we need to do? What's our collective responsibility; our common path?

Until this point human beings seem to have been ruled by their fears. Fear of change is certainly a factor, but other basic fears have caused the majority of our suffering. While generalized fears of hunger, loneliness, and pain may motivate most self-sabotaging acts, there is no greater catalyst for destructive behavior than the fear of being insignificant. We want to be noticed, we want our lives to mean something, so we crave power, and when we realize we will never have ultimate control, we explode in frustration and demand more of whatever we can find to make up for it: more money, more land, more followers, more chocolate, more sex. This leads to an obsession with indoctrinating others. You don't need a PhD in psychology to understand how Hitler’s actions can be traced back to being rejected by his father. Fears can propel people to commit heinous crimes. Fears can also paralyze us and stop us from doing everything possible to prevent those heinous crimes. We want to cling to the old and familiar because taking action scares us; change scares us. And when we realize we’re naturally programmed to fear change, we’re even less likely to do anything radical, because we can just blame it on the human condition. We justify our choices every day; we dig our heals in and say, "this is who I am and what I do and I've made my decisions and that's the end of it." We pull the blinkers ever closer to our eyes, blocking out what we can't face looking at. We're barely coping with our own lives, so it’s too much to worry about doing anything about the state of the world. We just don't have the energy to fight. We have children to raise, and X Factor to watch, and iPhones to play with. The wine will soon drown out our screaming consciences. We're far too exhausted to deal with any metaphorical bloody spiders.

But if we don't deal with them, the evil little things are going to take over the world and ruin it for everyone. If we don't face problems head on then what's the point? Is it not our purpose to learn and evolve and push the human race forward? Is it not our responsibility to learn from our mistakes and make the necessary changes to get it right the next time? What the hell are we doing here? Are we learning anything anymore? If we lack the strength to change direction and challenge our fears – even on an individual level – what will become of the world? To make any real difference we have to start to take responsibility, realize we can't have it all and accept that some is enough. We must think of new ways to work together to fight oppression and cruelty, and to bring down borders. We must challenge the naysayers no matter what; we cannot back down. We have to fix what is broken; we have the tools. We've never had so much at our disposal; we have to do something with it. It’s not enough to post a link on Facebook and sit back and think we’ve done our bit. If we allow that to ease our conscience, we’re cheating. 

Why is anyone homeless when there are empty houses? Why is anyone starving when we are tipping surplus food into landfill sites on an hourly basis? Why is anyone dying from diseases we have drugs to cure or information to prevent? I’m told it is because of politics. It is not politic to redistribute food and shelter in certain cases. Or the bureaucracy behind mobilization is too complicated. That's bullshit; I don't accept that. I agree with Dickens who said, "Consider nothing impossible, then treat all possibilities as probabilities." If we don't answer and resolve these questions soon then we have failed. We have failed ourselves, we have failed our ancestors, and we have failed our future generations. Can we do it? Yes we can. We can do anything. I mean… just… Imagine.


I started this blog just over two years ago. Ironically enough, with what I believed to be a quote from John. My intention was to practice my writing skills, to self-publish in order to challenge my fear of exposing my work to anybody. It's served me well. My skills have improved and some of these posts have got me published and got me good work. But with this being very much the season of endings, I am going to wrap it up here. (It is not the end of my blogging, just the end of this blog.). It was a fantastic learning curve, a real education, and I thank you, if you've followed it, for your time, and in many cases your private messages of appreciation. But I feel it’s time now to take what I've learnt to do here – in this relatively safe, hidden corner of cyberspace – and take it further afield; it’s time to do something more with what I’ve learnt to do.

Two years ago, I was in a very different situation from the one I'm in now. To be honest I was barely surviving, I was treading water at best. I was virtually drowning. But somehow I turned it around. The greatest battle I’ve fought to date is still the nicotine addiction (three years of winning that one now), but I also figured out how to take better care of myself, how to command a good wage for my skills, and how to be emotionally independent. I’ve learnt to love my mother again and now count her as one of my closest friends. I’ve learnt to take a little more time over choosing my friends, but once I’ve chosen them, to love and trust them freely. I've learnt to say "no"... to myself as well as others. I've learnt that I am what I think of me, not what my family, or anyone else thinks of me (and at times my opinion of myself has been the most hurtful one of all; I've learnt to face that, too). But most of all I've learnt that there is always more to learn and there is no point in living if we ever stop learning.

It's been a long, long journey, but I think I’m ready to go home. I'm still nervous. I've done the reverse culture shock before and it's tough. Just because you're speaking the same words, it doesn't mean you're speaking the same language and we know what I’m like with languages! But perhaps I'll be more inspired to learn one in a place where I actually like the people. Needless to say, six months from now I’ll probably be moaning about the bloody moaning Brits, but for the moment the grass is definitely greener on the other side of the Chunnel.   

John finally got to me the other day.

I was sitting in his eponymous airport a few weeks back, waiting to board a delayed flight back to Paris, and there it was, etched into the wall in huge letters, above WHSmith’s:

If the Beatles or the sixties had a message, it was learn to swim. Period. And once you learn to swim, swim. You make your own dream. That's the Beatles story, after all, isn't it? 

"Let your fear be your compass," a great friend once told me. I finally understand what she meant.

And the love thing? Maybe I’ll find the courage to give that a go again. We’ll wait and see if John has anything to say about that. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Barack Obama vs. Jimmy Savile

No one in the UK is following the US presidential election anymore. Why? Because everyone is glued to the Jimmy Savile case. It's a double whammy. Not only has the country's long-treasured children's TV presenter, beloved national radio DJ and charity champion been revealed to be a nasty sexual predator and paedophile, but its most trusted institution—the BBC—has been exposed as a harbourer of such vermin.

First of all, who allowed Savile to get away with this behaviour for so many years? I'll tell you who: the Great British public. As a British citizen, I’ll take my share of the blame, as painful (as I will come on to explain) as that may be. The buck stops with us, not with the BBC, not even with the head of our state, whose role it is to protect us, but with the people who make Britain so great. The British public allowed a bully to win, time and time again.

The problem begins with the way we put our dignitaries on pedestals and have a long history of doing so. We do so because, ultimately, we are afraid of them. We feel they have power over us. We do not stand up to the upper echelons of our society, even when they behave atrociously. I’m not talking about our celebrities; we are nothing if not weary of celebrities, even Royals behaving badly (Fergie, Princess Margaret, Harry) are given little sympathy when they are caught with their pants down in celebrity hang outs, but we do hold an unquestioning reverence for our beloved Queen and her chosen ones. People like Jimmy Savile, who are knighted and ratified by the head of our state, are therefore afforded the same respect. How could the Queen get it wrong? How could he be a bad person? Who are you or I to question him? Herein lies the problem. Respect by default is dangerous. It is what bullies thrive on.

Sir (making a point here) Jimmy Savile was a bully. Watch any old footage of him and look closely. You will see a bully. You will slap your forehead and say, "of course". He grabs a woman in a crowd and kisses her on the lips, making a lascivious smacking noise with his mouth. He puts his arms a little too tightly around a bunch of teenage girls on Top of the Pops. He sits a young child he has "fixed" something wonderful for on his knee and grins with satisfaction. He is the original child snatcher, handing out goodies in order to have his wicked way. And we all fell for it. We're not so much angry at him, or the BBC, but at ourselves. Why did nobody say anything? (They tried.) Why did nobody do anything? (They were afraid.) As a victim of repeated bullying, emotional abuse and sexual harassment myself, let me tell you, it is the hardest thing in the world to say something, let alone do something, about it.

I don't make that admission lightly. To this day I am afraid of saying it. I am afraid you will judge me, tell me it was my fault, that I wore the wrong dress, or made a suggestive remark, that I am exaggerating, or that I couldn't take a little office banter. But it wasn't like that. A bully had me in his clutches. He was my direct employer, the proprietor of the company I worked for, who hired and fired at will, and thus directly in control of my livelihood. He knew this and took pains to remind me, every day, that if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have a job. He had me convinced that no one else would ever hire me, that only he saw my special talents, that everyone else thought I was a pain in the ass. A pain in the ass I may have been, but that does NOT give a boss carte blanche to subject me, or anyone, to months, even years, of abuse. So, as I said, I am guilty as charged. I am guilty of not speaking up and complaining. When I finally did it was a small, quick, secretive private litigation that I won. I don’t remember the exact wording of the paperwork, but I think I might have agreed, legally, never to name him. I might have agreed to that. Like he deserved protecting. 

It is, and always has been, extraordinarily difficult to stand up to bullies. Clever bullies make you think it's all your fault. They flatter (you can just hear JS: "now then, now then, now then, do you know how gorgeous you look in that dress?") and then they make it all your fault ("goodness gracious, will you look at what you're doing to me, will you look down there under my pants; how's about that, then?")

But he's not here to defend himself. He lived in an era where sex with a 14 year-old scantily clad teenybopper in a rock star’s dressing room was thought of as being about as illegal as driving at 85mph on the motorway. If you get caught, you get a ticket, but if no one catches you and no one gets hurt, no harm's done. We now know that 14 year-old girls, whether they are throwing themselves at a celebrity adult male or not, are more often than not irreparably damaged by having sex with a man twice their age; even if they think they want it. That's why the law exists to protect them. But it's more than just the age difference (she says, defending herself after being so on the fence about Megan Stammers and her teacher boyfriend). It's about power. Who holds more power in the Megan Stammers situation? She does. He has more to lose. These days, if a man chooses to get involved with an under-age girl, he knows he is likely to face the consequences. He's likely to think long and hard as to whether it is worth the risk. Is it love? Is it something he is committing to long term? Or is it for kicks. Clearly in the case of Saville – since he was never reportedly in love with any of these girls, or made a long-term relationship with one of them – it was for kicks. Which makes him a predator, not a man who has simply fallen in love with a woman who is not quite technically a woman yet.

James Savile (interestingly, an over-sexed, confident and cunning Scorpio Tiger if you believe in that malarkey) didn't just bully individuals, he bullied several institutions, he bullied a corporation, he bullied the CPS (the British justice system), he bullied a whole nation. He even—by default—bullied a monarchy. No wonder no one stood up to him. He did not allow anyone to question him. We've been told that when they did, he threatened them. He is beginning to sound like nothing short of a tyrant. And he didn't stop there. Looking at the mess that high-ranking BBC employees have found themselves in, he is clearly still bullying from beyond the grave. Surely no one now thinks it was anything other than fear that motivated poor Peter Rippon’s decision (whether or not it came from higher up); fear of standing up to a bully. What might the Queen say? The Queen who in fact, at the time of writing, has yet to say anything about all this (and you really would have thought she’d have learnt her lesson after her faux pas in not making an immediate statement following the death of Princess Diana—who, incidentally, was unquestionably the victim of bullying). The British monarchy has a rather worrying and antiquated habit of sticking its head in the sand when something uncomfortable crops up concerning “one of their own.” As long as they continue to do this, bullies will not believe they are ultimately accountable. It’s only a mere 500 years since we were allowing our monarch to behead his wives without repercussion. The king was once able to execute at will for what was called treason, but was really “disagreeing with the monarch.” And you knew what would happen to you if you disagreed with the monarch’s right to execute a person accused of treason. No wonder we have a legacy of fear. And look where it’s got us. The BBC is reeling in the aftermath of mounting revelations about sexual harassment on what appears to be an endemic scale. The whole situation has called into question the very integrity of one of the most trusted organizations in British history. What should we do now? Maybe we need to look at how our American counterparts call their leaders to account. 

The United States, while in no way a perfect society, is a young country built on a foundation of truth and justice at all costs. It is a nation that actively disenfranchised itself from its founding state of barbaric British monarchs. Accountability has always been at the heart of the US justice system; the notion that no one is above the law is at the heart of its constitution. We may still be fighting for equal rights in many arenas, but every citizen is accountable for their actions, and entitled to a fair trail when their behaviour is called into question. The American people even put their own president on trial; they were prepared to lose one of the best presidents they had ever elected because they insisted he be held accountable for his unacceptable actions. I don’t see the Queen standing trial on behalf of her knighted subject and employee (as far as he was an employee of a crown-owned institution), Mr Savile, materializing as an event any time soon. Britain may have invented human rights with the signing of the Magna Carter 800 years ago, but it was the first independent American states that suggested, almost 600 years later, that no one man (or woman) was better than another by virtue of his or her birth. Any man could become the head of state.

And any man did.

And will again.

Obama will win another term not because he got everything right the first time (he didn’t) but because he has always stood accountable to the American people. He has always spoken up for what he, as a man, believes in... such as same-sex marriage. People know they are voting for a man and not a party (or a party’s puppet). He may not have been able to fulfil all the promises he made the first time around, but he’s a decent, upstanding, trustworthy man of integrity. In fact there’s so little dirt on this man, his opponents still have to harp on about the insane notion that his birth certificate is a forgery. His opponents are bullies who rely on little other than bullying tactics to make people scared to stand up to them, lest they be cast out and end up all alone. Bigotry in numbers works best, as everyone knows.

But aren’t I being slightly harsh on the bullies here? Let’s hear it for the bullies for a moment. What maketh the bully?

Most bullies are, as we know, cowards. They are so afraid of being nobodies, of being alone, that they will covet power at all costs. They do not want to govern, they want to rule. They do not want to lead, they want to be followed. They have insecure egos that need feeding with adoration. Why? Most likely because they, themselves, were the victims of bullies. To stop it, we need to break the chain, and it needs to start at the top. We need to end the era of accepting "untouchables". Just because a person is born into a certain family, or blessed by the pope, or has raised a million for the homeless, or is running for president, does not make them a good person by default. They must be judged directly, and solely, on their actions. Indeed the actions of these people, because they are part of the elite, must be more visible and accountable than even the common man. 

Going back to Jim, I wonder if someone perhaps bullied our idolized British icon? (Incidentally, if you're American and you're reading this and you're struggling to relate to Jimmy Savile, think Jerry Sandusky and multiply by at least ten.) What exactly do we know about him? That he never married, that he lived his whole life with his mother and preserved her room as she left it when she died, reportedly even dry-cleaning her clothes once a year. Hold on! Did no one think this was a little weird? A night at the Bates Motel? Anyone? He was just a little eccentric, was he? Maybe his mother had him under her spell? Maybe it was someone else. I doubt we’ll ever know the whole truth. 

I look back at the people who bullied me. In every single case (except the last, when I broke the pattern) I thought it was my fault, that I had done something wrong, either by being not good enough, or being too good. Perversely, I even looked up to some of those bullies and yearned for their acceptance, such was the depth of my low self-esteem.

And another reason victims of bullying don’t speak out is, who the hell wants to live through the whole sick ordeal again? Being asked, “So where exactly did he put his hands? And where did he put your hands? And he pushed your head in which direction exactly? Are you sure it was at that exact angle? Did you ever actually utter the word ‘no’?” Not only that, but you’re expected to have proof as well. “Yes, there was me, him and his BMW that he pulled into an underground parking lot when he was meant to be giving me a ride home. Ask his wing mirror, it will swear it’s all true.” No thanks. I’ll just get on with my life and take it to my grave. Bullies depend on victims thinking like this. They specifically pick victims they are sure will think like this. They do not pick people with high self-esteem, they pick people who have such a lack of self worth that they even doubt themselves. Did it really hurt so bad? Surely someone else has it worse than me. If I complain, I could easily lose my job/not be able to pay the mortgage/feed the kids.

If you have even the merest suspicion that you were perhaps bullied by someone, anyone, in your past, then you were. If you have ever, vaguely, sort of, in a low moment, faintly worried that you were abused, then you were. Get over it, forgive and forget, but don’t play it down, because we know what happens to victims of bullying who bury their pain. Don’t be a victim; be a survivor. If it ever happens again, tell people. Even if they don’t believe you or nothing comes of it, just telling people will make it real for you, and make you less likely to accept it happening the next time. Because if we don’t know how to protect ourselves, as adult victims of bullying, how can we protect our children? 

The human race has a long history of abusing children. Only recently have we begun to agree that it is wrong. It is absolutely imperative that we do everything in our power and stop at nothing to stamp it out.

Last night, the BBC, desperate to prove that it is not afraid of pointing the finger inwards, that it holds itself accountable to the British people, broadcast a Panorama special about the whole affair, and today it sent its head honcho to answer questions in parliament. Day late and a dollar short, I'd say. I haven't seen the Panorama programme yet because I can't get the BBC iPlayer where I currently live (in France) but I've read reviews (on the BBC website of course), and I watched a short clip of former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke explaining how most commissioning editors at the Beeb feel they are autonomous, that their duty is to the British public before the D-G (Q.E.D. by Panorama). But it doesn't matter what they show us now, we want to know what the hell they were doing then. Talk about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The BBC has just been exposed as an elitist, unregulated sham of an institution. We can now imagine years and years of secretaries suffering in silence, brilliant women being passed over for promotion, talented individuals being marginalized for "not playing ball". Everyone can see it for what it is now, and it’s shaken the country to its core. 

My rose-coloured glasses, I must admit, came off a little while back.

I yearned for that elusive "Top of the Pops" ticket when I was 12, about as much as I yearned for Jim to “fix it” for me (so glad he didn’t now!) In the days before You Tube, and Facebook, and X Factor, it was the only way to get your five minutes of fame if you weren’t actually that special, to be part of something big and wonderful and glittery, always thinking, Oh, will I ever be picked?! Will I ever be good enough, or cool enough, or lucky enough to get in?! Well I finally got to go to Top of the Pops when I was around 30, on a kind of VIP ticket, as I knew a producer. It was a huge disappointment. All I saw was a load of overpaid pop stars drinking too much and taking cocaine in the green room. Yes… I said it, I have seen illegal drugs taken on the BBC premises. Why didn't I report it immediately? Are you serious? I guess I should have complained about John Leslie groping me, too, on a separate occasion. But you don't. You don't want to be cast out once you're in. So you "pay your dues". The same goes for many elitist institutions, like expensive British boarding schools, the armed forces, or the Catholic church. Even now I'm scared. Even now, a small voice in me says, "Be quiet. What if someone reads this one day and subsequently doesn't hire you for a dream job?" (Maybe I have to trust that someone could hire me because of it.)

I have often been part of organizations in which I didn't really feel I belonged, and thus I lived my whole life in fear. If I criticize, I will be cast out, because I am officially a nobody, and the elite classes and power-hungry heads of big establishments will continue to remind me that I should not forget my place.

Well my place, I finally worked out, was not on my knees under the desk of some repulsive man on whom I believed my future wellbeing depended. My place is at my computer, writing, and publishing freely in this incredible domain that we call the Internet, in the hope that my words might give just one person the courage to stand up to a bully and break a chain, in the hope that we continue to talk about this issue and join forces to stamp out bullying of any kind, and fight to protect our children from any form of abuse.

And your place—if you’re a US citizen—is out at the polling stations on Tuesday, November 6th, ensuring that your country doesn’t lose a decent, fair, accountable man at its helm.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Banking Crisis and Cruise Control

Okay, I sold out, I got a real job (if you can call working in finance “real” at the moment.) Yes, for the foreseeable future I will be spending my days at the very heart of everything that is front-page news in these fickle financial times. I really don’t have a clue what I’m doing, but that’s okay because it seems no one else does either.

We should have seen it coming.

It’s not like we didn’t have a strong hunch that there was something rotten in the state of the European Union, it’s just that we were desperate to believe it wasn’t true. The recent spate of corruption uncloaking that is taking place at the very core of what our society is built on is a bit like having it confirmed that we’re not alone in the Universe. How would we feel if the Martians arrived and we couldn’t call their existence science fiction any longer? Every day a new story breaks about corruption in banking, journalism, politics, all the institutions the common man once regarded with reverence. Those days are gone. The bubble has burst. The newspapers are packed with revelations. How will the movies keep up? Real life has become more nail-biting and sensational than a George Clooney political thriller.

Only scarier, because it’s all true. The Martians really have landed.

When I first heard the song “Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols (years after it was first released I might add), I misheard it and thought it was about Amnesty, which was topical at the time as Amnesty International was making waves in South Africa. Anarchy was a new word for me so I looked it up and was shocked by its meaning. I immediately had visions of riots and lawlessness and ineffectual policing. But I lived in London, a place I knew to be relatively safe and well policed, especially when compared, say, to South Africa at that time.

All that changed last August.

Sitting in a cottage in rural France with no TV  (I was on a writing retreat) I was glued to the Internet and watched, with horror, footage of places I grew up in being torn apart. When I saw the bus stop in Ealing where I used to wait with my Grandma to take the Number 65 to Richmond Park surrounded by burning cars and smashed-up store fronts, I couldn’t hold back the tears. Kids were running through the streets like barbarians and no one was stopping them. How could society have come to this? Sure, I was proud to see Londoners cleaning up and holding their heads high, mirroring the survivalist mentality of New Yorkers after 9/11, with a renewed sense of solidarity and belonging amongst people who cared, but was the real issue brushed aside in this effort to portray union? When terrorists attack there is an enemy to focus our anger at. What do we do when we are an integral part of the enemy? When the enemy is the system we have voted for and supported with our taxes? Perhaps a degree of secret self-loathing set in.

Lack of policing was so obviously at the heart of the matter, and not just the physical lack of policing in the moment. An entire generation seemed indifferent to law and order. What ultimately motivated these rioters was the belief that that they could get away with it. They were unafraid of authority. And make no mistake, throwing them in jail for a few weeks or making them clean streets for a month of Sundays will never erase the memory of the adrenalin rush they got from walking away with a handful of mobile phones in full view of a copper.

When I was 14, I got into trouble with the prefects. I was at a well-policed boarding school and I’d challenged someone three years older than me when I felt she was abusing her authority to be a bitch to one of the new girls. I was hauled up in front of the entire sixth form, handed a punishment of no TV for week, and reprimanded for having no respect.

“You have to earn respect,” I brazenly answered back.

That earned me another week with no TV. 

But I stand by my statement. “Do as I say, not as I do,” should refer to the things that adults do that are not suitable for children. It should be, “Do as I say not as I do, until you are old enough to make these decisions for yourself.” It should not be interpreted as, “I instruct you to be a decent human being while I cheat, lie, and generally treat people like shit.”

In the UK, and in the democracies based on England’s ancient feudal system, we have been raised to respect Money and Power regardless of how Money and Power treat us and behave. This must end. There has been a wholesale code of silence surrounding the misdemeanors of those in charge. We even came up with a term to make them seem less wrong; we called it “white-collar crime.” When an 18 year old (possibly the result of a loveless one-night stand and raised by a permanently stoned single mother) smashes his way into a shop in the middle of a riot and steals a computer, saying, “I’m just getting my taxes back” (not even aware that he’s never paid a penny to the taxman in his life), we want to lock him up for a while, arguing that this is the only way he’ll learn. When a privileged, Oxford-educated 26 year old (possibly the heir to a small fortune and a friend of a friend of Prince Harry’s) manipulates interest rates, ensuring his buddy gets his bonus, at the tax payer’s expense, we give him a slap on the wrists and tell him he has to report to the head boy for a week. It’s unlikely we’ll ever get the names of the bankers who committed these crimes, they will be shielded by the organizations they worked for, the organizations that will pay hundreds of millions in fines for the rogue behavior of its employees. No one shielded Alexis Bailey, the primary school teacher convicted of intent to steal. Notice that was intent to steal; we’ll never know exactly what drove him to be standing with a group of people in an electrical store in the middle of the riots, but when confronted he gave himself up to police, he pleaded guilty in court, he said, “Sorry,” immediately, and yet he will probably pay for his mistake the rest of his life.

White-collar crime occurs when people have access to huge sums of money. It is driven by greed. You don’t get a great deal of corruption in nursing, say, or teaching, because people who gravitate to those professions are usually motivated by compassion. Cap the salaries of bankers and pay them on the same scale as teachers and let’s watch what happens. The problem is clear, when big money and/or fame is on offer, people get obsessed with it and crave it like a drug. It is perhaps the last big taboo in terms of sociopathic behavior, the insatiable desire to accumulate money. As a society we – to date – have enabled it.  

I actually feel sorry for debt-collectors. “Excuse me, sir, you haven’t paid your last two credit card payments. You owe us five hundred pounds.” I wonder what they say next if the response is along the lines of, “Take it off what Barclays Bank owes me, personally, for what it knocked off the value of my shares by its fraudulent activity.”

So where are we going? We can’t go on like this. More British High Street banks are about to fall from grace, and regarding the euro zone, there are only so many times you can rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. Either we descend further into an anarchic society, rapidly running out of ways to plug the holes as they appear. Or those who hold power and control the money must earn our respect.

When our authorities have the humility to say, “It’s our fault. We messed up. We got it wrong,” (and to say it immediately after the event, not after a year-long and costly government investigation brings it to its knees and backs it into a corner and it has no choice but to apologize) we might start to move forward. So far all we’ve seen (ironically so in the banking world) is the buck being passed, again and again and again!

Currently we have corrupt politicians, corrupt bankers, corrupt journalists... and let’s not forget all the Olympic officials pocketing profit from illegal ticket sales. Corruption is not a new concept; it is endemic in a society where Money and Power are sought after. But with modern technology, perpetrators are running out of places to hide. And without role models (even pseudo honest ones) what hope is there for the future generations? It is, as Sebastian Coe said of the Olympic ticket scandal, “deeply depressing.” If we’re going to move forward in a more positive direction, we must replace those cornerstones of capitalism, Money and Power, with new goals, and raise our children to strive for them above all others. It’s important to earn a living, it’s important to have some security, but it’s much more important to be honest and humble in all that we do.

There are two basic qualities I look for in a person I’m becoming friends with: Integrity and Humility. Integrity is another word I once looked up, in an effort to understand it better. To paraphrase, it is when you say what you mean and you do what you say. Humility is a lack of ego, the opposite of arrogance, the ability to admit you were wrong and apologize for it. The last person I discussed these credentials with agreed readily with me. Subsequently and sadly he turned out to have neither. An awareness of the existence of Integrity and Humility does not, by default, guarantee their presence.

(Having said this, I just reminded myself I now work in investment banking. I get paid to write about all the things—GMO crops, nuclear energy, the dairy industry—I am opposed to. Don’t talk to me about Integrity. I guess I shall not be a friend of mine for a little while! I hereby immediately and humbly apologize for my lack of integrity.)

And now you’re wondering how I’m going to link all this to the news that Katie Holmes is filing for divorce from Tom Cruise. Well...

We should have seen it coming.

Really... is anyone surprised? Since his couch-jumping appearance on Oprah we’ve been waiting for the bubble to burst. Some celebrity couples (Brad and Angie for example) make you think, it probably won’t last but it could. With others (let’s say Tom Cruise plus A.N.Other) it’s never a matter of “if,” just “when.” We’ve watched Katie get thinner and look more and more miserable, willing her to break free. My first thought, when I read the news, was, maybe we’ll see the girl smile again. And the shit must have really hit the fan because she’s taking the Cruise-machine to task and going for full custody. Watch them not fight it, under threat that she’ll do a reveal-all to the (utterly corrupt and unethical) press.

So it wasn’t a week of many surprises, even Merkel’s submission to Hollande at the EU Summit was expected in the circles I now socialize in, but there was one fact I read that, literally, shook me to my core. I had to re-read it several times before I could fully take it in.

Tom Cruise is turning 50 on Tuesday.

In case you suspect that is a typo and he’s really turning 40 and you’re still 25, I’ll say it again and write it out:

Tom Cruise is turning fifty on Tuesday.

Now I don’t give a toss about Integrity, Humility, Money, Power, or even when Katie Holmes might smile again, I just feel horribly old.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

French Kissing

Shortly after I arrived in France last year, my friend took me to a big party in a big house in some fancy suburban spot on the outskirts of Paris. The family who lived there had something of a von Trapp obsession. There were ten children, each one played a different musical instrument, and they were regularly called upon to give recitals in the music room, which was in the basement of the five-storey Swiss chalet style property that was painted pastel green with pink shutters. Party guests had been asked to dress in white. It was a “white party.” I’d never heard of such a thing; apparently quite a trend in France.
It stands to reason that a girl with equal propensity for wild gesticulation and wanton consumption of red wine does not possess any white items in her wardrobe. When I’d asked if she had something I could borrow, my friend’s French girlfriend (who was somewhere between a size zero and a minus two) had sheepishly held up a strip of material that I mistook for a napkin but on closer inspection turned out to be a white, strapless mini-dress that would have looked great on the 9 year-old me. In desperation, and lacking the budget or time to go buy something, I’d borrowed an off-white work shirt from my friend and was wearing it – loosely belted in – over jeans. Even though he said it was an old shirt, I steered clear of the Merlot and stuck to Champagne. Everyone else was in perfectly pressed white linen dresses and crisp, dazzling, starched-collared, open-necked shirts. I’d never experienced snowblindness before. It was painful. I had to wear my sunglasses until midnight.
At the time I had around ten words of French at my disposal (compared to the thirty or so I have now). I took to hovering at the edges of little groups, understanding nothing, but nodding and laughing occasionally, following the cues of others. Whenever I needed a break, I escaped to hang out with the youngest child, the two-year old. She had yet to start speaking (can you blame her for delaying competing with nine siblings?) and was still waiting to be assigned her chair in the orchestra. She was my perfect companion. We sat behind the buffet table for hours, building towers with plastic cups and pulling cheese off cold pizza slices.
Early on in the evening, during one of those moments when I was pretending to be an adult, I was standing in a small circle of people, next to my friend, listening politely to a stream of indistinguishable French, waiting for a suitable pause in which to excuse myself and go in search of Champagne and toddlers. Suddenly, a tall man in a dress shirt appeared in front of me and filled my empty Champagne glass. Someone introduced us (we’ll call him Pierre... it’s a safe bet that was his name anyway) and I held out my hand to shake his, the way in which I usually greet people when I first meet them.
“Votre main?” Pierre exclaimed. The group laughed in perfect unison. I looked blankly at my friend, who quickly explained,
“Your hand, he said. He’s asking why you offer your hand. It’s considered a little formal.” I turned back to face Pierre who, in the next moment lunged at me, grabbing my right shoulder with his left hand so I couldn’t escape, and dragged his sandpaper cheeks (French men don’t shave on weekends it seems) across each of mine, making me wince with pain. As if this wasn’t torture enough, with the “kiss” on the right cheek he had deposited a speck of spittle that I was desperate – ready to gnaw off my own knuckles desperate – to wipe off. I silently cursed the white shirt that made it impossible for me to do the quick shoulder to cheek maneuver for fear of leaving a nice peachy smudge of face powder on it.
Okay, before I go any further (and believe me there is so much further to go) in my observations of the French and their boundary issues, I should really confess my own. I do have this thing about my personal space.
People, for me, are like dogs. Some I want to pet and cuddle. Some I want at arm’s length... a long arm. It’s not so much looks-based (although I’m a German Shepherd magnet and repelled by Pomeranians – seriously, if you want a cat, get a cat, why do you want to get a dog that looks like a cat?) Initially it’s an energy thing. Most big dogs and babies gravitate towards me and I towards them. Cats cross the street to avoid me. Which suits me just fine (see above reference to Pomeranians and cats – interchangeably egregious as far as I’m concerned). As I get to know someone, even if I had an initial bad gut reaction, I usually warm up a little and get happier with the physical contact thing. But if I have literally never set eyes on a person, have never heard a thing about them, am not meeting them through someone I know well... well, I don’t particularly want their bodily fluids on my face. Is this just me?
I’m not good at faking it. And while we’re on the subject, let’s just clear up one fallacy. I’ve had two guys in my life tell me they wouldn’t date me principally because they never date actresses, because how could they ever trust what an actress would say or do. Well, here’s the thing. Actors are not actors because they know how to twist true emotions or pull the wool over anyone’s eyes in a real life situation. Actors know how to convey what they are actually feeling in a strikingly visible way. They respond viscerally. It doesn’t matter whether the stimulus causing that reaction is happening in the context of a drama on stage or a situation in real life, what comes out is the truth, not a carefully calculated response designed to have some specific effect on the observer. How I greet people is always a genuine expression of how I feel about them. Or how I feel they feel about me. If I’m not sure if they like me, I’ll usually hold back, even if I like them. Until I like them so much I can hold back no longer. But I’ll expand on that little nugget of a moment later. And not here. 
I accept this is a cultural thing I am dealing with. It is French custom to kiss on both cheeks – arbitrarily hitting air or cheek – on meeting anyone, male or female, young or old, whether for the first time or the hundredth. Well, I may live in France but I’m not French. I’m sorry but this double air kiss, “mwah mwah” meaningless bullshit is never going to be my thing. It’s my preference to shake hands until we’re more familiar. I usually like to move onto the hug when we’ve made a significant connection. Sometimes with a kiss, that often lingers in the air a few inches from the cheek at moment of hugging impact. And my nearest and dearest get enveloped into bear hugs that are hard to extract myself from. My personal space, I like to choose – with a kind of mutual energetic agreement – who comes into it and how long they stay. And because I’m not good at faking it, I’ve forced myself to lie, on the odd occasion, with the old, “Don’t come too close, I’m getting sick,” line. This is a rare, desperate measure, I mean we’re talking the last time was ten years ago, and only because I was sick of my uncle’s lecherous golfing buddy thinking it was his right to try and shove his tongue between my tightly sealed lips every time we met.
Briefly going back to the dog thing and by way of an aside (and sneaky segue) I want to make it clear that I don’t kiss dogs. Okay, there was Zoe – my one and only Sapphic canine love affair – but otherwise I am not interested in having my face licked by a creature not of my own species. I am very loving towards dogs. The ones I like, anyway. I have taken care of many and given them much time and affection, but they are still dogs. Having said that (said sneaky segue coming up) I feel a little more affinity with dogs lately. Having had to pee three times in public during the Paris Marathon a few weeks ago, I’m wondering what makes me so different from them now. Yes, I did that. I ran a marathon (and peed in public, due to impossibly long lines for the scarce toilet facilities) – more about which much, much later. It was, indeed, a huge personal achievement, although the true miracle is the fact that I didn’t kill anyone during the training process. The guy who almost crippled me on a pedestrian crossing when it was my right of way, the group of American tourists walking forwards while looking backwards, and the woman who exhaled a huge plume of cigarette smoke into my path all came close, but narrowly escaped the full extent of my wrath. I found releasing a stream of expletives and breaking into a minute’s flat out sprint usually quelled my anger. And here, now, I find myself wondering, is there simply a general disrespect of boundaries going on in France? Is it acceptable to ignore someone running across the street just because you’re in a hurry to turn right? Is it acceptable to stand in a bus shelter exhaling smoke over a newborn baby in a buggy because it’s raining and you don’t want to get wet? And don’t get me started on the number of people who don’t pick up after their dogs in Paris... I can’t go there right now. I break out in hives thinking about it.
Well, I thought I’d seen it all. And then I got taken to a Parisian nightclub.   
Now, I’m a super sociable girl and I’ve stacked up many visits to many nightclubs in my time. Big ones, small ones, fancy ones, and dives. I’ve done the velvet rope – both sides. I’ve been through pop, rock, techno, and a Swingers-inspired big band revival. I’ve danced in sneakers, Doc Martens, four-inch heels, and – once, on a beach in Fuengirola – nothing but a bikini, a sarong, and a hollowed out pineapple that used to contain a liter of sangria. I’ve seen and experienced my fair share of drunken kissing and groping and flirting and crying (over finding my 14 year-old boyfriend’s mouth suctioned onto my best friend’s neck), but I’ve never seen anything the likes of which I saw last Friday night. I’ve seen better behavior in a zoo. When I read Tristane Banon describe how DSK was “like a rutting chimpanzee” when he came on to her, I didn’t understand what she meant. Now I think I do.
My friends and I were on the guest list for some VIP area upstairs. We walked up a plush red-carpeted circular staircase and entered an intimately lit room decorated in Gothic style with an eclectic mix of beautiful antique and kitsch furniture scattered around the edges of the designated dance floor. At one end there was a bar selling what I call ten-buck beer (this is a generous description since they were charging 8 euros which is more like $12). At the other end of the long room, a DJ was spinning a seriously stylish selection of tunes. It wasn’t long before we were swinging our hips to The Doors remixed by Thievery Corporation.
I like to keep my hair off my neck and face when I’m dancing, and it’s rather long at the moment, so I had it scraped up into a high ponytail. I used to wear it the same way when I was five, and the boys in kindergarten would think it hilarious to pull it during story time. So when I felt something tugging the top of my head and turned to see two grown men giggling, I thought I’d stepped into some kind of freaky time warp. A few minutes later, after shifting our location on the dance floor, a group of guys barreled into us, and one of them grabbed my friend’s glasses off her face. Together we managed to wrestle them off him before any damage was done. I spun around searching for a bouncer who might have witnessed all this. But the bouncers were all downstairs with the common people... this crowd were supposedly the VIPs, the respectable ones who knew how to behave. My French friend hardly turned a hair.
“They’re just drunk,” she explained, rather redundantly. Drunk they may have been, but these were not depraved teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks. These were well-dressed, clean-cut looking men in – I’d say – their early to mid thirties.
And then the ass-kicking started.
I’ve metaphorically had my ass kicked countless times in my life, and I’ve done a little reciprocal “kicking” myself, but I’d never actually experienced shoe to butt contact. And never thought I would. Yet now, here, in 2012, in a Parisian nightclub, I was witnessing a group of guys who had decided it would be incredibly funny to kick the butts of a group of girls and then quickly turn around feigning innocence. They weren't softening the blows because we were girls, either. It actually hurt. It was so bizarre, I could only laugh. A girl a few feet from me didn’t see the funny side at all. She flew at one of these guys, lashing out with a ferociousness I’d never seen first hand in a woman, but I thought I might have to develop quickly if this kind of behavior was de rigueur in Parisian clubs. The guy who’d kicked me was now trying to kiss me. I pushed him away in disbelief. If this was supposed to be a mating ritual, I’d fallen down the wrong rabbit hole.  
Of course not all French men are animals. I’ve met some incredibly charming, respectful, generous, intelligent, sensitive males on terra Français, and every culture has its losers who let the side down, but I’m wondering if there’s a connection between the assumed right to kiss a perfect stranger without asking permission and the assumption that it’s okay to attack a woman’s head, derrière, or eyewear after spending a month's rent on beer.      
The Swiss – who never seem to mind a handshake if that’s all that’s on offer – like to kiss three times. Back and forth and forth and back and back again for luck. With my co-ordination it’s a miracle I haven’t headbutted any of my friends and relations who live in the country that is like France gone through a wash cycle with a pre-wash, extra-rinse and added laundry bleach. And the Germans have banned any kissing in the workplace. I guess I could move to Germany and get a desk job. But I’ve recently read some alarming tales of debauchery in Berlin bars. Maybe I’ll just keep working on my French until I can say, “Don’t come too close, I’m sick,” without the merest trace of an accent.
I’m not against kissing, kissing is wonderful, I love kissing; but I want to choose who I kiss, I want them to choose me, and I want it to come out of genuine feeling, not out of cultural obligation. Perfunctory kisses are no fun, they are a chore, they are uncomfortable; they are not good kisses at all. They are some of the worst kisses. But the best kiss? That's the one that you've waited forever for... and is even better than you ever imagined. Another story for another day!


Friday, January 21, 2011

To Eat Meat Or Not To Eat Meat, That Is The Question.

How long have you been a vegan?” is a question I’ve been asked several times over the past couple of months. When you live in one place and hang out with the same people on a regular basis, they get used to your strange quirks. When you’re traveling around the world and meeting new people every week, you do find yourself answering the same questions over and over again, and nowhere is veganism more of a mystery than in New Zealand.
On my second day in New Zealand I saw a huge billboard advertising beer in the center of Auckland. It showed a random picture of the countryside with the slogan, “The Most Effective Cure For Veganism Is Bacon,” emblazoned across it. This threw me into a kind of angry, ambivalent mood. On the one hand it was an outrageous thing to say, but on the other hand I was encouraged that the word veganism had even made it into Kiwi vernacular. Well that was hopeful thinking. Never mind that I have encountered a person who has never heard of autism, I have encountered several people who have never heard of hummus!
Poor New Zealand. In terms of food and nutrition they are a little behind the rest of the civilized world. The latest buzz phrase is “gluten-free food.” I remember this concept hit the streets of Los Angeles around 1995 and was all over London by about 2001. That’s ten years ago (I know... scary isn’t it?!) In New Zealand it is still quite acceptable to put huge amounts of MSG into food, even food that is fed to kids, and if you ask if something is dairy-free, you’re likely to attract some odd looks. Why would you want something dairy-free? Roughly half the people I’ve met actually pronounce the word “VAYgan.”
Well the short answer is “8 years.” The long answer is, I gave up meat, dairy, eggs, and all other land animal-derived products, such as gelatin, 8 years ago, while keeping seafood in my diet. I had a variety of reasons that more or less fell into three categories: ethical, nutritional and environmental. About a year ago I stopped eating fish entirely for environmental reasons; I simply don’t want to contribute to the decimation of the world’s natural fish resources, which is scheduled to occur in less than 50 years. I still think farming fish is a little on the wrong side, ethically, although I remain in a long debate with myself over the issue. I confess I once caught a fish and pulled it out of water, thereby killing it. I do believe it is hypocritical to eat animals you would not be prepared to kill with your own bare hands. And before we go any further you should know that I am not, strictly speaking, a true vegan, because I eat honey and currently have no problem with this. I am aware that there is a warrant out for my arrest, the global vegan police are still looking for me.
With Bill Clinton coming out as a vegan recently, and the UN declaring that we should all be moving towards a vegan diet where and when ever possible, “vegan” is the buzz word of the decade. But veganism is a major political issue. Militant vegans will declare that it is unacceptable to be “mostly vegan,” that you have to follow some strict code if you wish to use the word. But I have to point out that, unless you are living as a Buddhist monk in Bhutan, you will never be 100% vegan. It is highly likely that you drive a non-vegan car, live in a non-vegan house and use non-vegan appliances.
I used to cling to this hypocritical dogma myself. While I readily admit I was only a fishy vegan for many years, I believed everyone should live true to the title they awarded themselves. I once gave a girl an earful for professing to be a vegan but occasionally eating something containing dairy or egg to please a hostess who had made some delicacy at a dinner party. And I ripped the poor child a new one when she, herself, served hot buttered rum, made with real butter, at a holiday party. She wasn’t going to drink the stuff herself, she just knew some of her guests liked it.
I’m currently having a slight change of heart. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a vegan (a honeyed vegan, mind, with nothing fishy going on), but my angry ambivalence has recently given way to a dry Kiwi-inspired sense of humor, and you are now as likely to find me joking about bacon flavored beer (please let this be an urban myth!) as you are to find me soaking my lentils. These days I will celebrate if I see just one person chose one vegan meal in place of a usual meat-centric one. I recently made a 12-year old a falafel sandwich. She’d never tried anything like it and she loved it. She ate bacon and cheese pasta for dinner the next day, but I know she’ll ask for falafel again. That is better than nothing. But what really shifted my attitude was a farm visit. 
Within a few minutes of my arrival on a high country livestock station in the South Island of New Zealand, which is approximately a one-hour drive from the most basic local amenity, I was taken off on a guided tour of the 100 square mile property, led by the farm children, aged 6 and 7. First up was a feast fit for a vegan’s eyes. Their mother, the farmer’s wife, clearly has the Midas touch when it comes to growing vegetables. I have never seen such sumptuous heads of broccoli, so many varieties of lettuce, such huge zucchini and so many waxy-looking new potatoes. Yellow squash, mint, strawberries, rhubarb, red cabbage and carrots completed the vegan smorgasbord. But my paradise was shattered with one cluck of a chook.
I confess, I think of egg-laying hens and I am enraged at the idea of thousands of cooped-up feathered animals (seriously... read the regulations on what is legally acceptable as “free range”) being kept in captivity for the sake of a fluffy omelet. But here were ten clucking girls with the run of the yard. They looked healthy and perfectly happy to me. And there were two eggs ready for collection.
The children and I were reaching a slight impasse. They had never met anyone who didn’t eat eggs. They’d heard of vegetarians, and had even met a few, but could not fathom why a person wouldn’t eat eggs or drink milk if no animal was going to die. Talking of animals dying, I couldn’t help teasing them a little. On hearing that the farm boy's favorite meat was venison, I had to ask whether he was planning to barbecue the cute deer they’d rescued from a barbed fence. They’d named him Bambi.
“No!” squealed the farm girl. On further enquiry about whether they were intending to eat their horses, cats or guinea pigs, I was assured that they do not eat their pets.
“So let me get this right,” I feigned. “It’s okay to eat animals unless they have names. If you give them a name, you don’t eat them.”
“Iggs-actly,” the farm girl reassured me. I was relieved that their cute Shetland wasn’t going to be served up as pony escalope.
So it’s okay to eat the sheep and the cattle, and the cute pigs I met the next day, but nothing that has been given a name. Animals that have been named do not get eaten.
I had a sudden urge to run up the hillside, gather the troops, and start naming them all, or at least shout out at the top of my lungs,
“Mothers! Save your children! Name them... quick!” While I knew Bambi was safe, I was worried for his brothers, and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and cousins two or three or four times removed.
The tour of the farm continued, with a long drive with the farmer’s wife, across some of New Zealand’s most beautiful countryside, the Southern Alps loomed over us all the while. I saw sheep and deer and cows and bulls and baby calves and lambs and llamas, and they all looked incredibly healthy and happy. If this wasn’t how it is, would this land be a concrete jungle? I couldn’t help wondering. I paddled in a glacial stream with the farm girl, cupped my hands and drank water from it (something I had never done before), and I watched the 7-year old boy help his father make hay to feed the thousands of animals in the winter. That evening, the farm boy and I chopped the fresh vegetables we’d picked from the garden, and made a huge dish of roasted vegetables. I ate mine with beans and they ate theirs with lamp chops. Not once did they question my choice.
When I went to bed that night, I lay awake in the dark with a certain unease creeping over me. And it had nothing to do with my problems with eating animals. On the contrary, I was conflicted. Much as I hated the idea of breeding animals for food, much as I believed consuming animal products is a veritable health risk, much as I supported the UN’s call for a move towards a vegan diet, I really, really liked and respected these people I was staying with. This farmer, who was out in the fields during every hour of daylight, his wife who could grow vegetables the quality of which I’d never seen in my life, his kids who helped out responsibly on the farm... they were wonderful people. What’s more, they fully respected the choices I’d made. Their livelihood depended on the sale of meat and I was a conscious objector. And they still respected me. Wasn’t it only right that I return that respect? These kids were gorgeous; they were intelligent and responsible, and affectionate, and had huge personalities. Their mother was one of the kindest hearted people I’d ever met. She looks after the pets (including the children, her husband, the shepherds, and all the named animals), she feeds them, clothes them (the ones without fur, which does not necessarily include her husband), waters them, and gives them fantastic hugs. She also tends to the vegetable garden, grows giant lilies and roses, and keeps house. She’s amazing. I liked them all and they seemed to like me. Before we’d sat down to dinner, I’d watched the mother read the ingredients on the back of a sauce bottle and look up with a commiserating sigh as she explained that it wasn’t vegan-friendly because it contained skim milk powder. I hadn’t seen a Kiwi read an ingredients label yet, let alone make the connection that skim milk powder is, indeed, an animal product. It was this level of respect, this care, this hospitality that I was losing sleep over. Because I knew I had to return it somehow.
This family did not wake up one day and make an active choice to go and kill animals for a profit. This farmer inherited this massive farm from his parents. It is a stunning property that I will always feel incredibly privileged to have visited. What right did I have to deny them their inherited family business? What gave me the right to declare that what they did was wrong or cruel? Yes, I know the science, I know the results, I know what harm the consumption of animal products can do, but the fact that I can choose not to consume them is a privilege! These were not ignorant people blindly consuming products from fast food conglomerates; these were people getting on with the livelihood that had been thrust upon them. The 7 year-old farm boy is already learning to hold a gun because he knows he will, one day, inherit this farm from his father.
I finally drifted off to sleep, but I noticed one or two changes in my behavioral patterns the next day. I roamed the farm with less judgment than I’d had the day before. I watched sheep get “drenched,” I marveled at a pack of deer (who shall remain nameless) roaming across the highest peaks of the farm, and as we all helped ourselves to a hearty dinner, I turned a blind eye as I watched the farmer stick the tongs he’d just used to pick up his steak deep into the bowl of veggies. I bravely used the same tongs to help myself to a healthy portion of stir-fried veggies with chickpeas à la steak jus.
You’ll never get me to agree, in principal, with the practice of raising animals for food, and I still believe that one day, maybe in a few hundred years (hopefully less), without too much disruption to the livelihoods of good families, livestock farming will become an outdated practice, almost as unpalatable as cannibalism and slavery. I know this is unlikely to be in my lifetime, but I can start by making a stand. Blessed with the privilege of free speech, I can make a point, I can tell people all my reasons for being “mostly vegan,” but at the end of the day, I would never want to deny a family their livelihood. If someone has inherited a business that involves raising animals for meat and, with all the best will in the world, they can’t see anything wrong with doing that, and if they have the highest standards, and treat their animals with the greatest care, and can pretty much tell you where every piece of meat they put in their mouths comes from, then this vegan cannot, currently, argue too vehemently against that.
So here is my plea to you. Drink milk if you like it, but find out the facts about what it can do to your body by reading The China Study, or Skinny Bitch. Eat meat if you like it, but find out exactly where it comes from and please, please don’t support cheap food chains; that’s not real meat, that’s (in the farmer’s words) “crap that is swept up off the floor when they’ve finished cutting up the animal.” The big giants of industry will try to persuade you otherwise, but don’t be fooled. They do not care about animals and they do not care about you, the only thing they care about is their profit margins. If you must eat meat, eat it sparingly and only buy it from a local farmer. Get to know him, tour the farm, and be comfortable with his practices before you buy his meat. If you can’t do that, please eat chickpeas, beans and nuts until you can.
That billboard in Auckland was wrong. The most effective cure for veganism (if “veganism” can be defined as “the pious attitude of people who stop consuming animal products as far as they are able and proceed to seethe at others who do so much as sniff a gelatin-laced jelly bean”) then I can tell you that the most effective cure for veganism has nothing to do with bacon, and has everything to do with staying on a well-run livestock farm that is lovingly cared for by a good Kiwi family.