Beware of the Glass Floor

“Upskirting” is the latest addition to the English language, proving its ability to  condense a complicated process into one snappy word. It means nothing less than “taking a photo of underneath a person’s skirt without their consent, often in public places”. The official definition gains extra gravitas from the added warning, “This can cause emotional distress for a long time after it has happened”. Well, there is an alternative to distress. Surely if an ill-advised male came sufficiently close to me to commit this idiotic act, he would also be close enough for me to kick him into flight. No, I’m not a brutal amazon, just an ordinary female getting tired of  women complaining when they could take positive action.

I know what I am talking about. Many years ago one fine summer evening around 8 p.m. I was walking home in a respectable part of  West London when a man leapt out from behind a tall garden wall and dragged me into the garden. He was Scottish, he was very drunk, and he kept muttering about the so-and-so who’d done him wrong, all of which made my prospects dim. So I talked to him and maintained eye contact, as instructed by self-help manuals, until he began to cry and asked me to take him to the police station. This, I felt, was not my job and ran home fast.

The next day I enrolled at a self-defence class for women. There were ten of us of all ages and sizes and the instructor was a very capable girl. I was paired with a six-foot-tall Frenchwoman who lifted and swung me over her shoulder as if I had been a shawl. We went on for a few weeks, but then the group shrank until it was no longer viable and the few remaining members were offered to train with a men’s group. Three of us volunteered. The men treated us with the utmost tenderness; for the only time in my life I felt like a piece of priceless china; this also meant that we didn’t learn any self-defence skills, and that was the end of that. Nowadays I carry a little alarm gadget that utters a sound as shrill as a police siren. I fear its effects on my hearing, never mind that of my attacker.

Upskirting is an illegal offence in Scotland, not in England or Wales, but likely to become so under the heading of voyeurism or indecency. And so it should be. There are enough camera phones around to justify a little censorship. Anyway, this seems to be a camera-mad time, with selfies spreading like an epidemic and highly resistible family photos trailing every other e-mail. However, I’ve just come across a story from the 10th century BCE which cheered me up enormously, because it shows that a version of  upskirting was practised already then, moreover by the wisest and most powerful of men, namely King Solomon himself.

When a visit from the Queen of Sheba was due, Solomon had a glass floor laid from the entrance to his throne. The Queen mistook the glass for water and lifted the hem of her dress, uncovering her legs which, to Solomon’s consternation, were as hairy as that of a goat; worse still, the Queen had one normal foot and one goat’s hoof. Solomon actually reprimanded his visitor for this anomaly; this, to my mind, was not only unwise but very rude and unfeeling as well. All right, Solomon had up to 20 main wives and 80 to 100 secondary wives, numbers which obviously lowered the value of women, but surely a visiting Queen should have received special treatment.

However, I shouldn’t have worried, because despite all the above in due course the Queen of Sheba gave birth to Solomon’s son, called Menelik, which means “son of the Wise”. So this 3000-year-old ancient scandal of the upskirting glass floor ultimately led to a happy outcome.

Of course these days women have to worry about the glass ceiling, not the glass floor.  But that’s another story.

 

 

 

 

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Naming Names

I’ve just been invited to the name-giving party of my friends’ new baby daughter and I’ll be delighted to attend. My only quibble is with the name chosen for that innocent infant. It’s Delilah. Granted, it’s a pretty name with a pleasant lilt, easily abbreviated to Lilah (not to Deli, though – that’s a specialist food shop selling ripe Camembert and Slovene salami), but the story attached to it should make it a non-starter.

It’s a good example – with apologies to my friends – of the careless way parents choose certain historical names for their children without checking out the history first.  So here goes: Delilah was the last great love of Samson, the hero of super-human strength. Described by one source as being voluptuous and treacherous, Delilah accepted a bribe to discover Samson’s secret, namely that his strength was derived from his hair, and passed it on to his opponents. Then she lulled him to sleep, ordered her servant to cut his hair, and turned him over to his enemies. What a ghastly, nasty creature, betraying a man’s loving trust for money – if it were up to me, I’d ban her name for ever instead of giving it a new lease of life. But all the same I’ll go to the name-giving party and keep my misgivings to myself.

I’m good at that: had plenty of practice years ago when Jason suddenly became the most fashionable name for boys, including at least three children of people I know. Ouch. Would I name a child of mine after a classical fall guy who came to a sad end? I would not, once I’d discovered the tragic story behind the name. The original Jason was an ancient Greek hero, leader of the Argonauts who sailed the seas in the great ship Argo  in quest of the Golden Fleece; he was brave, splendid and successful and married the powerful sorceress Medea who used  her ruthless magic to help him achieve his victories. What Jason lacked was common sense. He didn’t know that Hell had no fury  like a woman scorned, so when he had reigned for years as king of a Greek state, having produced several children with Medea, he coveted another crown and married the daughter of a fellow king. That folly sealed his fate. Medea promptly murdered his new bride, together with her and Jason’s children, and departed in a chariot drawn by flying dragons. (Other considerations apart, the woman had style.)  Jason declined into lonely old age, frequently sitting in the shade of the rotting hulk of the great ship Argo, until the top deck fell on him and crushed him to death. Perhaps it’s best if the Jasons of today don’t read this account.

“Nomen est omen”, claims the Latin adage, an omen being an event regarded as a portent of good or evil. I hope it’s not true, so that a name in itself doesn’t decide what kind of experiences, good or bad, its owner should expect.  This, of course, refers full of hope to all the Delilahs and Jasons of today’s world. But in this instance I’m thinking of the many males of all ages called Jeremy. Their name comes from that of the 7th century CE prophet Jeremiah, AKA the weeping prophet, who spent much of his time on dramatic lamentation. He kept telling off his people, likening them to unfaithful wives and rebellious children; according to the dry remark of a modern commentator, he had “little good news for his audience.” If this reminds you of some public figure, say a politician of today, you may be spot on.

There are plenty of odd names in other countries, regarded there as normal but surprising elsewhere. My favourite is “Attila”, the name of the 5th C ruler of the Hun empire, known and dreaded as “the scourge of God”, destroyer and temporary conqueror of much of Europe, a ruthless barbarian by all accounts. The only good thing he ever achieved, although unwittingly, was the foundation of Venice. The Huns, who practically lived on horseback, were only stopped by water, which is why the people of Veneto, when threatened by Attila’s warriors, quickly established a new settlement in the sea. Great – but it doesn’t change the fact that Attila was an unmitigated disaster for Christian Europe. And yet in Hungary, a Christian country,  Attila is a popular name for men. Even streets and boulevards in Budapest are named after him. For some reason in that country he is seen as a positive figure, a bit of a no-good-boyo, but on the whole acceptable. Just shows you how adaptable names can be.

My own first name, Beata (pronounced as Bay-ah-tah, not Beta), is Latin and means happy or blessed. My mother meant well when she chose it, but it’s almost impossible to live up to it even half the time. Moreover, it’s linked to beatification, the first step in the Catholic Church ( once you’re dead)  towards becoming a saint, and nothing could be further from my career so far. So I just have to smile (no, not grin) and bear it.

Anyhow, this name of mine is only for this lifetime. If there is a next incarnation lurking round the corner, I may end up with something even trickier. But I can wait.

 

 

 

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A Quick Tour of the Place Below

Did he or did he not deny the existence of Hell? The controversy about the official opinion of Pope Francis may still be going on – I’ve lost track of its progress – but it reminded me of the time, some years ago, when I was vividly interested in the subject, although not for religious reasons. History of Art was one of my subjects at university, and when it came to selecting a subject for my dissertation, I chose the various depictions, both verbal and pictorial, of the underworld and particularly its infernal region. This was partly a reaction to too many sugary Madonnas and Babies, preferred by my professor, but mainly a rebellious wish to explore a fairly unpopular subject.

The first thing I discovered was that climate determined the prevalent temperature of Hell. In hot countries it was unbearably scorching, but up in the far North Pohjola was a dark, terrible and forever frozen place of icy despair. Ancient Greece chose a moderate climate for an underworld that wasn’t particularly hellish; indeed, its worst feature was the three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades, its best (in my view) Lethe, the river of oblivion, washing away all memories and, by doing that, healing all wounds.

Continuing my search in Southern Europe, Dante’s Inferno with its nine concentric circles of torment almost made me abandon my project: it was so perfect, so superbly organised and all-embracing that it seemed futile to move beyond it. It offered a rich menu of sins – lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery, which, except for heresy, are still practised today, and each variety was illustrated with poignant real-life stories of the sinners who were stuck there for all eternity. But then I realized that it was enough to read the morning paper with a special focus to find gorgeous current examples of those sins. Clearly, lust was behind the inappropriate behaviour of more or less eminent men reported almost daily (sorry, chaps, women can’t catch up with you here, and this gender gap has to be treasured), gluttony cum greed was behind the wave of obesity hitting us, wrath and violence were the parents of conflict, fraud fed the financial pages of the press, and treachery wasn’t hard to find, for instance in politics. But since we live in a secular society, the “sin” bits don’t come into the story; neither does the fear of ending up in Hell.  There are other fears – ending up in prison, going bankrupt, becoming a social pariah, losing foolishly one’s  celebrity status and so forth, but somehow these lack the dark glamour of one’s individual version of the infernal region.

My project suddenly grew wings with the discovery of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the 16th century Dutch painter of superhuman imagination. His depictions of Hell can be studied endlessly without solving the multiple puzzles of his symbols. Little wonder: it seems clear that Bosch was playing a double game, painting images that were outwardly acceptable to the Church authorities and his wealthy patrons, but hiding  behind them was the message of the medieval Cathar heresy. Once I entered the world of Bosch, there was no need for much else…years later I still haven’t solved his intricate, beautiful puzzles and go back to them every time the current world becomes dreadfully colourless.

Yes, Hell is a subject of endless fascination. Still plenty to explore in its depths. And it comes as a let-down to remember the much-quoted dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the peak intellects of the 20th century. He simply said, “Hell is other people.”

 

 

The Joys of Junk Mail

I hesitate to admit it, but sometimes junk mail, spam and otherwise, has a weird charm which the proper official kind lacks. It’s the sheer outrageousness or touching stupidity of some “cold call” e-mails that I find refreshing, especially because they tend to come in waves, bearing similar contents. Perhaps there is a secret hub somewhere in cyberspace that sends these waves; at any rate they come and go fast enough to remain entertaining. Some time ago it was the onslaught of the Nigerian Widows, all of them passionately religious and oh, so generous, offering me half of the fortune left in a British bank by their careless late husbands, if only…. Resisting them was fun but disappointingly easy.

Next came – repeatedly – an apparent, genuine-looking appeal from a close friend’s real-life friend, stuck abroad penniless after a mugging, begging for an instant loan to get her home with her small child. This might have been a successful identity theft, had I not known that the real person was about 20 years too old to have a small child.  Impostors should be good at research.

But recently the tide has turned. Instead of asking me to get someone out of trouble, I’m being inundated with generous offers. Several heads of recruitment are so impressed with my background (my what?) that they offer me impossibly tempting jobs – working from home, getting huge salaries, ample time off, and so forth. The fact that they know precisely nothing about me doesn’t make them less keen; reading their comments on my non-existent qualifications makes me wonder whether I’ve been underestimating myself all my life. What a pity that the last thing on earth I want is a job.

And now it’s a deluge of Gift Cards that’s hitting me, from well-known firms that apologize for having overcharged me or just want to thank me for my custom over the years, notwithstanding that I’ve never-ever visited their shops. “We’re giving you this awesome surprise”, one e-mail from a well-known chemist’s chain declares, although the prospect of two free pieces of soap does not fill me with awe. ( “Awesome” seems to be the latest linguistic import from the USA, used with abandon – and a total lack of judgement.)

My Gift Cards remain unclaimed. I’m trying to give away stuff instead of acquiring more. But oh, what joy to receive these bits of harmless nonsense, interrupting my real everyday work.

If nothing else, they remind me not to take that real work, or myself, too seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

Get moving, Quintus!

To give him his full name, it was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, surnamed Cunctator, “the delayer”, and he was a Roman statesman and general who lived around 280-203 B.C. His masterful delaying tactics during the second Punic War worked well against Hannibal’s dreaded forces; in fact they were the earliest known form of guerrilla warfare. This makes him sound quite a fearsome character, yet his surviving statue shows a handsome, gentle looking young man, holding his chin with one hand while presumably pondering what to delay next; contemporary records describe him as being mild mannered and slow-spoken, despite holding huge power.

Now before you begin to wonder what on earth this noble character  of 2200 years ago has got to do with us here and now, let me admit that his monumental lack of urgency has made him a living presence for me, unfortunately in a totally negative way. Almost daily some news item sheds light on an urgent problem affecting us all, together with a suggested official solution to be introduced – some time in the future. The latest example of this concerns the alarming obesity epidemic spreading in this country. According to official figures, one in five children arrive in primary school being obese or overweight, and – worse still – one in three leave primary school in that condition. The serious health risks of obesity are well known; it is a contributory factor to all major diseases from heart disease to cancer, and is therefore the No.1. candidate on the list of preventable baddies.

Prevention immediately  becomes a practical task if we contemplate the dietary disaster that makes the nation fat, the evil effect of the Junk Food Industry that turns out nutritionally empty but calorie-rich rubbish, made tasty and tempting by the galaxy of chemicals politely known as “food cosmetics”. Advertising brainwashes the public to buy and eat the stuff; only a few British schools have recently begun to teach children about healthy eating.

But at last our decision-makers have woken up to what’s going on around the nation’s expanding waistline and seem to be shuffling into action. According to a recent announcement, the relevant Government department has instructed food manufacturers to cut calories by 20% – by 2024. To do this, we are told, would slash costs to the NHS by £45 billion and prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths. Terrific – but for Heaven’s sake, why wait for six years to hit the target? Why this desperate lack of urgency that would make Quintus the Delayer smile with happy recognition? Surely this timetable won’t inspire food manufacturers to start improving their output in a hurry?

Parkinson’s Law, first formulated in 1955, states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So if I were a food manufacturer and knew that I had six years to make my calorie-rich junk product healthier, I wouldn’t do a thing for five years or so. After all, according to another “law” by some anonymous sage , “If you wait until the last minute, the job only takes a minute to do.”

The art of delaying has a language of its own, lavishly used in official communications. “At the earliest opportunity”, “in the foreseeable future” and suchlike should act as alarm bells, warning us that again there is no hurry and therefore no fast result involved. Of course there is no reason why we as individuals shouldn’t become awkward and try to speed up events. I’ve done it many times, failed in 40%. succeeded in 30% and at least got things moving in the remainder.

And, being of an impatient disposition – sorry, Quintus the charming Cunctator- I’ll continue to fight unnecessary delays wherever they crop up. There will be plenty left for others to cope with.

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Welcome to the Madhouse

“Oh, cheer up,” said my irrepressible friend on the phone, “Spring is coming, the first daffodils are out, why are you so gloomy?” I gave a non-answer and changed the subject. But afterwards I made a quick mental list of the strictly non-personal reasons, the ones concerning every single one of us, for my mood that was as cloudy and chill as the February afternoon outside, with no  precocious daffodils able to brighten it.

O.K., this is what happened that day. I switched on the radio and gathered that global sea levels had risen in the 20th century at nearly double their previous rate. Coastal habitats have been devastated, soils eroded and contaminated, flooding doubled, and with the glaciers melting we can no longer stop the process, only slow down its pace. (I live near the Thames and yes, recently the tides looked pretty swollen – surely West London isn’t yet on the list of doomed habitats?)

Switch off radio. Pick up morning paper. Long piece full of statistics about human overpopulation. Every 12-15 years we add another billion to our bulging masses, I read, and the impact on the environment is devastating. An expert called it “A barrel of explosives”. Oops – as these days explosives figure often in the daily news, this makes me shiver. Overconsumption, loss of tree cover, inadequate fresh water, starvation, increased pollution, new epidemics, you name it, we’ll have it.

As if this weren’t sufficient, the scientific journal that arrives in the mail confirms that at present  we are using up the renewable resources of 1.7 Earths, and by 2050 we’ll need three Earths to keep us going. Where on…no, where outside Earth are we going to find them? Just to pick out one grim detail, in the last 40 years our planet lost one third of its arable land, due to erosion and over-cultivation. Beyond a certain limit artificial fertilisers can’t make up for the loss of healthy fertile soil; first the quality and eventually the quantity of the crops plummets and all that remains is dead soil and the fertiliser run-off poisoning rivers and brooks. More people, less soil to grow food for them – surely something is very wrong here?

Enough is enough. Can’t take any more gloom and doom. Instead, I browse the sunnier uplands of the internet and read the messages of  the various civilian groups that, scattered all over the world, swim against the mainstream, trying to mitigate the damage caused by the unwisdom of the Establishment. Crowd funding, signatures by the milli0n, powerful  grass root initiatives  which succeed against heavy odds: things begin to look and feel  hopeful. No, perhaps it’s not too late, it’s still seven whole minutes to midnight. If those in power, the global decision-makers applied themselves to the task, they could stop the rot and start the healing process. End spending unimaginable fortunes on arms and plant forests instead. Feed the starving. Make contraception available everywhere to curb population growth. Educate and empower women and girls to add their special gifts to community life. Teach men to express their anger by non-violent means.

Wow, what a beautiful programme. It covers several topical needs. The next step is to involve those in power, the ones not caught up in corruption, fraud, nepotism or sex scandals to get going, inspire and lead us towards success. Surely they are aware of the huge risks of the moment and are busy seeking solutions?

So what does President Trump, head of the world’s No.1. superpower  think about all this? Well, actually he doesn’t. He’s preoccupied with the utterances of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and sends him this message: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

If it weren’t about the possibility of nuclear annihilation, this would remind me of nothing more important than small boys arguing behind the bicycle shed, on the level of “my Daddy is bigger/stronger/richer than yours”, or, more ominously, “my knife is bigger/ sharper/more expensive than yours”. Unfortunately this time the parallel doesn’t work, except in the lunatic logic of the madhouse.

And then my friend on the telephone wonders why I sound so gloomy.

 

 

 

Let Them Eat Plastic

“Let them eat cake” is what Queen Marie Antoinette was supposed to have said on being told that the poor peasants of France had no bread to eat. From what is known about her kindly nature she probably did n0t say it, but even if she did, she would have been motivated by ignorance and royal remoteness from the realities of poverty and famine.

No such excuse applies to one of the greatest powers of today, namely the Food Industry. According to a recent report in The Guardian, “Half of all the food bought by families in Britain is now ‘ultra-processed’, made in a factory with industrial ingredients and additives invented by food technologists and bearing little resemblance to the fruit, vegetables, meat or fish used to cook a fresh meal at home.”

Wow. So now it’s official. “The Food Industry makes us sick,” says a weary doctor friend of mine, “then passes us on to Big Pharma which extends our lifespan, allowing us to eat more junk food.” He is exceptional in realizing the food-health link: medical training spends scandalously little time on teaching the subject. Hence the vagueness of otherwise excellent doctors when asked about dietary matters. “Try eating a good balanced diet”, they say ; the rest is silence.

Having spent half my adult life studying the connection between food and health, viz. ill-health, I can’t fault my doctor friend’s diagnosis. Ultra-processed foods look good, taste reasonable and smell authentic, thanks to some 3000 “food cosmetics” used Europe-wide to produce the taste, looks and smell of emasculated foods that have been stripped of  their own natural characteristics. Or even of their substance, like fake noodles that consist of oils, starch and additives…

So if half of all the food  bought by families in Britain belongs to this ultra-processed variety, it’s time to look at the cause-and-effect side of the story. Psychologists tell us that children understand the link between cause and effect from the age of seven; can it be that some adults, including decision-makers, don’t? Yes, we all want the NHS to be properly funded and able to function at its best, but no amount of funding will be sufficient while people methodically eat themselves sick and obese.

What’s the answer? Not official guidance from above; as a rule that sparks off immediate resistance in suspicious citizens, with shouts of “No nanny state!” as a soundtrack. My answer is a new brand of food populism, a recognition and use of consumer power which is often obscured by brilliant advertising and avalanches of special offers. Yet we consumers have the power of choice, of saying yes to some products and a resounding no to others.

This food populism has already started at grassroots level,  led by an – as yet – small minority of rebellious consumers. They buy fresh organic produce wherever they can find it, cut down on red meat and cut out sugary snacks and  soft drinks. Some club together and arrange with an organic farmer to grow the foods they require, against guaranteed payment. Others subscribe to a weekly box scheme.And no, this needn’t be the “niche” indulgence of the well-off:  the money you save by boycotting non-foods and spending it on the real stuff leaves you well within your budget.

One of my informal rules is to avoid any food that has a long list of ingredients, many of them positively alarming. Again thanks to the Guardian, I now know that a Mr Kipling Angel Slice, a  top national favourite. has 22 ingredients, including red colour derived from insects. Compare this to a tin where under ingredients I find “Organic Red Kidney Beans and Water. And that’s it!” Rather endearing.

Lots more to say, but the long and the short of it is that we have choice in matters of what we eat and we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t use it.

We don’t have to eat plastic. Honestly.