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.

 

 

 

 

 

Wish It Were Here

The popular “Today” programme on BBC Radio Four has been running for sixty years, and to celebrate the occasion several high spots of long-ago programmes and then-and-now comparisons  were broadcast. “Today” being an essential part of my breakfast, with the voice, if not always the manner,  of the great John Humphrys as a special treat, I enjoyed the occasion, but it also started me off on a private memory trip. Meandering through the last two decades or so, I found myself listing a few things that I miss. Things such as:

A switchboard operator. A real human being with a pleasant voice who put you through in an instant to the person you wished to talk to. Just like that. Instead – oh, you know it all, there come five options, followed by three, an offer of  items you neither need nor want, sometimes the demand for a password, meanwhile adding insult to injury you are thanked for your patience when in fact you’re growling with homicidal rage at this wasting of your time – and finally the person you want isn’t available, please call back later. Whose interest does this idiotic method serve? Dropping it would create jobs for real human beings with pleasant voices.

Face to face arguments, conducted  with due tolerance and openness. This kind has its built-in boundaries and, with a bit of luck, follows logical lines. It may end with the classic formula of agreeing to differ, or else descend into a flaming row, but it would remain above board, free from the anonymous online poison-spitting that has grown into an epidemic. I often wonder what kind of person threatens me with rape or murder or both, simply because he dislikes something I’ve written, or doesn’t recognize a joke when he sees one – is his thinking apparatus in his head or somewhere else, lower down in his anatomy?

Hand-written personal letters and notes from people who really matter. You don’t need a diploma in graphology to sense the link between handwriting and personality: I certainly get a sense of the writers when their postcards arrive: P’s delicate, finicky style, Y’s energetic sweep, J’s dance-like linking of characters are unmissable. Only postcards give me this pleasure of recognition. Communications in e-mails don’t. It’s all uniform, Bookman Old Style, font size 14 or  Copperplate Gothic or a batch of other styles are fun to play with but they lack the personal touch, which is what I miss –

Hey, looking at these few things that I miss, they are all about lost human contact! I live in a world where being contactless seems a desirable aim, but one that doesn’t suit me at all. I like, love, need contact with my fellow beings and will maintain it, come what may.

At this moment a letter arrives from my bank, sending me my new card, with full instructions. “Simply touch your contactless card against the card reader,” it says. What? Touch? But that’s CONTACT!

There are times when it’s best to give up with quiet dignity. This is one of them.

 

 

 

Orphans, unite!

You have nothing to lose but your illusions – about the caring nature of our Government. With apologies for paraphrasing Karl Marx’s famous battle cry, let me suggest that we, the vast, helpless crowd of taxpayers are the orphans in need of wise counsel, care and leadership from our politicians, after all that’s partly what we pay them for, yet that is precisely what we are not getting. It took the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London to make this clear, through the disclosure of how ministers had stubbornly ignored repeated expert warnings of fire risks in high rise buildings. Yes, that fire  could have been prevented; but once it had happened, the initial official response turned out to be inadequate as well. Will there be urgent expert action to prevent similar disasters in other tower blocks? Watch out for it. But don’t hold your breath.

Our politicians seem to be fully occupied with bickering and practising U-turns among themselves. This reminds me of J.C.Bossidy’s  pleasant verse, stored in my treasured collection of useless information:

“And this is good old Boston, / The home of the bean and the cod,/Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,/ And the Cabots talk only to God.” Substitute your (un)favourite politicians for the Lowells and the Cabots, leave out the Divinity, and you get a pretty good idea of why we’ve become orphans, left to our own devices without as much as a whiff of official guidance.  Just look at two important topical problems we are faced with at this very moment, mainly in Southern and  South-East England. One is the unprecedented heat wave. Right now, at 11.40 a.m. in London, the temperature in the sun has reached 40 degrees Centigrade, equalling high fever in the human body. Moreover, this morning the  BBC weather report mentioned very high UV levels in the sunshine. Now that’s the dangerous component of sunshine that causes bad sunburn at best and skin cancer at worst. As a former melanoma sufferer, I would expect the powers that be to pull out all the stops and use all available channels to warn people against sunbathing, at least between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,  in order to avoid boosting the skin cancer statistics, especially because some popular sunscreens are known to be of limited use. Do we get any guidance from high above? Not a word.

The second huge problem is the lasting drought in the South-East. As an organic gardener, I am painfully aware of its consequences. And I recall another similar arid spell in 1976, when the then Conservative minister John Gummer, now Lord Deben, did a great job of making us save water. He asked us to stop washing our cars, not to use sprinklers or run the tap while brushing our teeth. He even composed a little ditty about when to flush the loo and when to let it wait until – well, the next time. I don’t know how many people followed his lead – I certainly did – but at least there was a lead, a member of the Government actually connected with the general population. Which the current one is definitely not doing. We might just as well not be here.

But we are here. And there’s a lot of us wanting something better. No, I am not advocating anything drastic, it’s far too hot for that and besides I dislike harsh actions. We’ll just have to start a countrywide non-material  DIY movement. Wake up the grassroots, so to speak (yes, I know it’s a mixed metaphor.). Get informed, use sound judgment and act. Grow up. Let’s shake off the traditional passivity, encouraged by the Welfare State, which expects someone else, preferably High Up, to do the necessary. Let’s stop saying “Mustn’t grumble” – yes, we must and follow up the grumble with peaceful action. There’s already a spreading international lay medical movement to empower patients and  make them sufficiently well-informed to take responsibility for their own health. The same principle of taking responsibility can be applied to other areas of life, too. We have unprecedented access to swift, free means of boundless communication, to spread information and coordinate action.  Let’s use it all.

And stop being helpless orphans. After a while it does become a bore.

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The Wednesday Census

In the area of West London where I live, the Council’s huge lorries appear every Wednesday to collect our rubbish and recyclables. The latter are supposed to be sorted  into their large colour-coded bags: white for plastics, green for garden waste, blue for paper;  additionally, there is a large dark green box for all else. Bags and box must be put out by 7 a.m., which is a bit of a bore, but at least it lets me glimpse some neighbours in their dressing-gowns and slippers.

So far so dull, but please stay with me, the real story starts here. The Council’s lorries don’t arrive until later, so I have time for a morning walk, which is more than just exercise: it serves as my systematic study – anthropological fieldwork, if you like – of my neighbourhood. Like many parts of London, it is distinctly un-neighbourly, but my inoffensive research gives me a unique insight into the personal habits and lifestyle choices of its unknown inhabitants.

All I need to do is to walk along slowly and inspect the contents of the green boxes. What  variety, what precise indications they offer! To start with, we seem to have quite a few serious drinkers among us; boxes bursting with wine and spirit bottles week after week make me worry about the livers of those who had emptied them. But then green boxes full of soft drink bottles, cartoons and multiple containers of sweets and salted crisps are not reassuring, either. The venerable experts who periodically issue official warnings about the ravages of alcoholism and obesity need only join me on my morning walk to see the proof of the problem close up. Booze and junk food rule o.k., warnings go unheeded, and the cash-strapped struggling NHS has to pick up the bill.  As a disillusioned doctor friend of mine said the other day, the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry are in cahoots: the former makes us sick and then passes us on to the latter for the rest of our lives. After thirty years in general practice I expect he knows what he is talking about.

No, I’m not a health nut. I just like good fresh food and refuse to pay for expensive over- packaged  rubbish. A box I pass is full of tins. I mean brim-full. The tin on the top had contained new potatoes in salty water – heavens above, at a time when fresh new potatoes are at their sweet youthful best, tasting fantastic if gently steamed, coated in butter, sprinkled with fresh parley – oh, sorry, sometimes I do get carried away, although my research should be dispassionate and neutral. I’ll try to cool it. Honest.

Besides disclosing their owners’ food and drink consumption, the boxes also betray some aspects of their characters. There are some meticulous individuals who organise their rubbish so neatly that it looks like a still life worth photographing; I don’t expect the dustmen notice its awesome symmetry before chucking it into the collective hell of their lorry. In these exemplary well organised boxes small carton wrappers sit in plastic bags, old socks and other textiles ditto, used batteries are segregated from carefully folded packaging material, and the box itself is clean and shiny. I fantasize about the house behind the box: all spotless, not a rug out of place, small objects resting at right angles on a polished table —- it’s too perfect for comfort, let me out of there!

So I land straight in the opposite reality:  a box containing an unholy mess of things, all mixed up, chaotic and inevitably messy, too, for the unrinsed jars and bottles drip stuff onto crunched up newspapers and unflattened containers, and a single dirty slipper sits on top of a broken plastic toy.  This, too, should be photographed and widely shown as an example of how not to handle one’s rubbish, but that’s beyond my remit. And then I suddenly remember once seeing the woman who lives in that house: she has remained memorable for standing at her front door in the scruffiest garment I’d ever seen, with hair and shoes to match, and even her cat looked distinctly ungroomed. It was depressing, but  it proved that the contents of green boxes disclosed the truth about the people who had filled them.

There is also the pleasure of seeing the wildly different house numbers owners draw or paint on their boxes. Some are highly fancy, glittering with gold paint; others are plain black and official looking, yet others are surrounded by carefully coloured floral decorations, possibly drawn by a child of six. By the time I finish my morning census I feel as if the neighbourhood had become less buttoned up, more friendly, certainly not secretive.  Moreover, it amuses me to think that I know rather a lot about a lot of people who  know nothing about me. (Careful, now: this is supposed to be a detached social experiment, not an ego trip.)

What about my own green box? Well now, let me see…