Under-achiever

I find myself, I like to think through no fault of my own, a middle-aged, middle-class white male human (or close(ish) approximation thereto).  I live in a society designed to cater to my every whim (or at least those whims that had been anticipated by those that came before me).  I’ll admit that I was educated by the State, but I did go to the longer established of the universities in Oxford and have lived in Cambridge.  I have even been overheard during a pub quiz explain an answer with the phrase “it’s your basic Greek”.  With this level of privilege, I feel that I should be in charge of something important and – probably – destroying it from within through a combination of ignorance, dogma and o’erweening self-regard.

I suppose I would have to admit I have not spent as much time as I might working on my mendacity and nor have I honed the edges of my stupidity to achieve a near Platonic bluntness.  However, I feel that I more than qualify as an idiot: trust me on this, I have to live with me.  I even think I am (sometimes) funny – even if the humour does require quite a lot of background reading to appreciate, reading it rarely justifies – and I have been endorsed for Quips on LinkedIn (OK, I may have that last one up).  I even have a platform (hello!) and produce positively heaps of “unique” content on social media.

So where are my laurels and attendant lictors?

Clearly, I need to up my game to avoid going to my eternal reward having failed to live high-on-the-hog of my privilege.

Last week, I did – unintentionally – work on broadening my appeal to extend beyond the demographic of the merely human.  I awoke one morning and, hurling aside my duvet in my eagerness to tackle the new day, I discovered that I had been sharing my bed with a pretty hefty arachnid.  It was no tarantula but was more than large enough to grace any bathtub or nightmare.  I’ll admit that I did emit a startled cry as I exited my bed with more than my usual alacrity.  My companion made a dash for the door, eschewing breakfast or even a post-coital cigarette, as they commenced their 8-legged walk of shame back to their own digs (or perhaps straight back to the office to continue their career in web development).  After the initial surprise ebbed, I found my first stint as a trans-species gigolo very amusing and started the day laughing.  As a side note, I do wonder if this response to sharing my bed with another lifeform explains my long-running single status?

I thought this would represent the end of the incident, until I returned home from the pub that evening to find my 8-limbed paramour in bed, waiting for me and keen to get at least some of their legs over once more.  As the newest member of the oldest profession, I felt it was important to retain some emotional distance between myself and my clientele and so decided it was wisest to send my prospective partner on their way to get jiggy elsewhere.  Still, I was secretly rather pleased that my services were sufficiently compelling to command such a swift return.  Spiders substantially out-number the human population of the planet and could, allegedly, eat us all within a year: if they put their tiny minds to it.  Not a bad basis for an army of conquest, and I’d never want for silk…

My second recent wheeze to raise myself to my rightful position of power and influence is linked to more ruthless exploitation of (N)YTMG.  I already like to think of this as a cult with myself as its charismatic leader (luckily, I do have a very active imagination – it’s how I stay in such good physical shape).  Musing over a pack of Mini Cheddars, I pondered upgrading (N)YTMG to a full-blown religion.  As I was munching, I couldn’t help feeling that my savoury treat had more than a hint of the Eucharist host about it and would go very nicely with red wine.  Subsequent research revealed that the Bible barely mentions cheese at all – depending on your source it rates but a single or at most a pair of mentions – which leads me to believe that there is a gap in the market for a deity (or perhaps a whole pantheon), and associated written works, that give coagulated casein its proper due.   I realise a religion would require a little fleshing-out from this basic premise, for a start, would the Cheeselet also be considered a blessed food?  I think it’s time to plan 40 days of leave from work to head out into the wilderness, or on a zoo-based cruise, to be tempted and then return in triumph with my full Revelation.  I like to imagine that I can convert my role as the first (and only) prophet of a new religion into an actual profit: or at least, a decent wedge of free cheese…  I suppose I’ll probably need to appoint some disciples to help me manage my, soon-to-be vast, army of fanatical followers: if any readers feel themselves to be suitably qualified, feel free to bang in a CV.

Look back over this post, and indeed the entirety of GofaDM, I think I might be able to catch a hint of why I have failed to rise to power and prominence.  I am certainly full of ideas, albeit most of them stupid (though recent evidence from the corridors of Westminster suggests there is no reason for this fact to hold me back), but I seem to lack the follow-through to make any of them a reality.  Last night, a friend and I spent a constructive early evening in a local salon brainstorming some new creative ideas (well, if we stretch the definitions of ‘brainstorming’ and ‘salon’ just a little).  Despite the excellent products of the brewer’s art that acted as accompaniment to the dizzying intellects on display, I seem to recall taking a few notes which means that, unusually, some of the gems of last night’s discourse may be capable of reconstruction and – more seriously – implementation.  My days of powerless, relative anonymity may be drawing to a close…

On Reading

As is so often the case, fans of Berkshire will be disappointed by the contents of this post.  As a small sop to them, I can exclusively reveal that I bought my first ever pair of jeans in Reading!  Not funny, but certainly true.

No, this post – as so many before it – will reflect on my most persistent hobby: reading.  I have been a reader for longer than I can remember.  I am told that as a tiny tot I would insist that any text within eyeshot was read out to me, and in an abortive attempt to shut me up my mother taught me to read at a young age (possibly the most unsuccessful plan in human history).  In many ways, little has changed and I find it very hard to resist reading any text which passes into my visual field – whatever the language.  Slightly dangerously, this extends to reading any text displayed on other people’s clothing or, indeed, tattooed onto their flesh.  This can lead to me staring rather too intently (and sometimes obviously) at the bodies of others – an issue which has recently taken a worrying turn.  Over the weekend, I found myself staring intently at the body art of a burly chap in the changing room at the gym trying to decide which Mesoamerican culture’s art had been pastiched to decorate his upper back and shoulder.  I tend to think it was Aztec (or maybe Olmec), but am grateful he did not catch me pondering this weighty matter as I fear he may have found my explanation inadequate.

I am rarely without a book, as you never know when you will have a lacuna – a queue perhaps or an ad break – which could usefully be filled by knocking off a few pages.  In fact, I usually have at least two books “on the go” at any time – one for home (often a larger, less portable choice) and one for away (always a more modestly sized paperback).  I also like to strike a balance between fiction and non-fiction and a range of genres – but sometimes a book just cries out to be read now and to Hades with the system!

All very well I hear you say, but why is he boring us with this information now?  Well, because I can (obviously) – but there are a couple of other reasons why reading was foremost in my mind.  Firstly, as recently reported I recovered my copy of The Silmarillion from storage.  This was to lend it to a chap how works on the bar at the Nuffield (though he is mostly a student, something in the biological sciences I think) who I got chatting to at a previous drinks do (my life is not just hob-nobbing with celebrities, you know).  How the conversation ended up with Tolkien’s LotR backstory I no longer recall, but I promised to lend the lad my copy.  Before handing it over, I did re-read a little of it – and it is very much my kind of thing, but I was left wondering how it would go down with a normal human being.  It would seem I needn’t have worried, before the evening was out he had read a little of the opening (when Eru made the Ainur and they began to sing Arda into existence) and seems to have been hooked.  I think my childhood love of creation myths, and mythology more generally, may be partly to blame from my relative immunity to the siren charms of organised religion (my mother may also need to shoulder some of the blame).  In many ways, Ilúvatar seems a much better bet than most of the gods actual religions have saddled us with – though even he has some explaining to do around the whole Melkor issue.  Re-reading some of the book as an adult, I was also forcibly struck by how few female characters it contains – other than a few Valar, there only seems to be Melian and Galadriel – though perhaps JRR was just following the model laid down by “real” religions?  Despite this, I must admit my re-reading suggests I haven’t changed that much over the nearly 30 years since I first read the book – a perhaps worrying degree of continuity.

My second reason was that I have just read The Quarry by Iain Banks.  I started with Mr Banks’ work in around 1991 with Espedair Street and swiftly went through all his M-free oeuvre.  I then knocked off his science fiction (with the M) and thereafter have had to read his books as they are written.  His work has, therefore, been my companion through most of my adult life (and nearly half my entire life) – but with his premature death in 2013, I always knew this would come to an end.  I read the Hydrogen Sonata a little while back, which will be the last I read of the Culture (a tragedy in itself – if there is one fictional place I’d like to live, it is in the Culture), but had been putting off reading his final work.  I really enjoyed The Quarry – and feel that Kit and I have quite a lot in common – but it was also sad to know that there were only 100 pages of new IB, then 50, then 25 and then it was all gone.  It was in many ways a good choice for a last work, started before he knew that it would be so – and so all the more poignant.

There have been many books from a whole range of authors that I have looked forward to over the years, but none held quite the place in my heart of a new Iain (M) Banks.  Still, there are a good half-dozen books in the bedroom awaiting my attentions and many more in bookshops and libraries (for the moment, anyway) across the land, so I shall learn to cope with the loss.  (And, of course, I can always return and re-read his work – so in a way, he is still with me).

XX

As GofaDM nears its six-thousandth page view, I thought I would tackle a subject on which I am even less qualified to pontificate than usual.

Feminism has been much in the news over the last couple of months and so I decided it was time, as a middle-aged man, to add my contribution.  To be honest, I have only one issue with feminism and that is the fact that it is so obviously still needed in the UK in 2013.  Nevertheless, I have no desire to retrain as a woman at this stage in my life – I haven’t made a particularly great fist of being a man and frankly feel the learning curve for a new gender is probably beyond me (added to which I’m not sure my current wardrobe would be suitable).

There has clearly been some progress since I was a lad, but I fear much of it has been what I might term “negative equality” – things are more equal, but this is not necessarily to anyone’s advantage.  Actuaries can now find the same stupidity bump in the mortality curve for young women that was long the preserve of only young men and traditionally male causes of ill-health caused by dissipation now afflict the distaff as well.  The England Women’s Football team in a recent international competition put in a performance so dire they are clearly now the equal of their male counterparts – though no doubt did so with a lot less falling over and for far less money.  I would have to admit that I don’t watch women’s sport (and not just because it is so hard to find on television) but then I don’t watch any men’s sport either – so I think that just shows a lack of interest in sport rather than any bias.  From the other direction, men are now being subjected to some of the same degree of objectification with the resultant obsession about their appearance that was once only visited upon the stronger sex.

I suppose it is positive that casual sexism is now often commented on with opprobrium, though I fear its eradication is a still rather a long way off.  Even the much (and probably rightly) maligned Culture Secretary has taken to upbraiding offenders – though seems much more willing to tackle the easy (but more distant) targets of BBC sport commentators and rather less keen to tackle her own cabinet colleagues (the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to name but two in the news for their casual sexism in recent months).

We do seem to be seeing and hearing a few more women in the media and some of them are even over 30.  However, there does still seem to be the idea that women are like plutonium in that if you have too great a mass in one place disaster will ensue – the safe sub-critical mass for women would seem to be one woman.  I find this mystifying – the episode of Heresy with an all female panel (and chair) struck me as a great success and the News Quiz often survives with two women sharing a stage (though not so far as I can recall has it ever risked three).  The Nature podcast now has two female presenters and often a third being interviewed – and all female panels on In Our Time are no longer unheard of.  The top guests on the latest serious of The Life Scientific were almost all women (though an honourable mention must go to David Spiegelhalter) and they make up a good proportion of the essayists on A Point of View.  However, the best thing I have heard on Radio 4 for a long time (perhaps ever) was Gillian Tett speaking on Pop-Up Ideas – and she had tough competition from two other quite excellent talks.  This 15 minute slot was worth this year’s License Fee on its own (and that of several more years to come) and was so good I bought a copy of the weekend FT which I believe contains more of the same for the substantial investment of £3 (for a newspaper!).  I suspect the FT is no more of a fan of the BBC than is Maria Miller, but as a result of its good offices they now have some of my money.  Whether they see any more of it will depend on the quality of their own work…

I have been lucky enough to spend more than half of what I like to call my “career” working for women.  This may be about to come to an end and I may find myself working for a chap – I find this a somewhat disquieting prospect which may explain the direction of my thoughts and this post.  I fear as a society we are never going to win the Global Race (an event with somewhat uncertain rules or objectives, but which the PM seems very keen we all compete in) if we neglect the talents of a rather significant portion of our population and denigrate (or far worse) those whose talents do gain even a small measure of public recognition.  If one were to believe the media, or some proponents of the world’s major religions, it would seem that women are minority to be feared.  It seems that if they are seen wearing anything more flattering or revealing than a marquee, we poor men will be driven quite mad with desire and unable to stand against them – though I notice that this weakness doesn’t seem to extend much beyond indulgence in the more basic gland games.   It certainly doesn’t seem to have been all that effective in achieving true equality or a senior position in the hierarchy of most of those organisations claiming to represent the world’s more famous invisible friends.

This post should probably conclude with some exhortation to action – but I don’t think the readership is really large enough to effect a great deal of change.  It would seem that the phrase “do unto others…” has been around for a good 2500 years – and appears in both secular and religious literature from a very wide range of cultures.  I can only assume that despite our Linnean name (Homo sapiens – go on, tell me you haven’t missed it!) which translates as “wise man” we can be extraordinarily dense when it comes to putting such a simple idea into action.