Archive for May, 2010
On my way out of the bathroom of a café in South Kensington, I collide with an unusual-looking man. There is something of the artist about him. He is wearing a flamboyant silk scarf and a capacious greatcoat, and peers through his spectacles like a character from a wartime spy novel. We make our apologies and I find my way to the corner of the café to wait for Oliver James, the esteemed clinical psychologist and broadcaster, author of such iconic books as They F*** You Up, Britain on the Couch and Affluenza. After a couple of minutes, I realise I have just met him.
James removes his flamboyant scarf and coat and sits down opposite me, taking a nicotine tablet. “I’ve just had the photoshoot,” he says, “I wonder if they’ve made me look horrible.” I make reassuring noises to the effect that they’ve not. “Do you have children yourself?” he asks. I tell him I have three: a two-year-old and nine-month-old twins. He looks at me in surprise. “Fuck,” exclaims the clinical psychologist.
James’ new book, How Not to F*** Them Up – the follow-on to his cult classic They F*** You Up – is a psychological guide to parenting. Unlike other books of this sort, How Not to F*** Them Up focuses on the wellbeing of the parent as a starting point for meeting the needs of the child. In reality, James argues, the happiness of the parent is “what will ultimately decide whether your child has a fruitful, sane life”. And sorting out your own wellbeing is not always easy. As he puts it, “The real challenge of parenthood is you, not your child.” Read the rest of this entry »
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Just ten minutes’ walk from bustling downtown Jerusalem is the district of Meah She’arim, home to the most inaccessible ultra Orthodox Jewish community in the world. It is a labyrinth of narrow, winding alleyways, and the apartment blocks are rickety, cramped and overcrowded. This is a poor community where life is dominated by religious conservatism and a dislike for outsiders. Enter this neighbourhood improperly dressed, and you risk being pelted with rubbish or stones, or even attacked with mace gas.
In the heart of this labyrinth is a prominent building with a large black flag hanging horizontally from the roof, symbolising a state of perpetual mourning. On the walls are signs in Hebrew, English and occasionally Arabic: “Zionists are not Jews, only racists,” says one. “Arabs yes, Zionists no,” says another. “Zionism is the holocaust of the Jewish nation,” says a third, and finally: “we mourn the 62-year existence of the state of Israel.”
This is the headquarters of the Neturei Karta, or “Guardians of the City,” one of Israel’s most controversial radical sects. Their male followers look no different from other Ultra Orthodox Jews, wearing black coats and hats, and bushy beards and ringlets. They live in Jerusalem and have been there since before Israel was established, but they have always maintained that the State has no right to exist.
Inside the building, amidst the sound of chanting from a distant room, and surrounded by bookshelves that strain under the weight of leather-bound scriptures, sits Rabbi Meir Hirsh, the leader of this organisation. A diminutive man in his late forties, he conducts himself with an air of considerable gravity. “God exiled us from our land two thousand years ago because of our sins,” he tells me in a surprisingly sonorous voice, “and He forbade us to return until the Messiah comes. The Zionists have rebelled against God’s will, captured Israel and turned it into a secular state, destroying the very root of Judaism. For as long as the State of Israel exists, “ he continues, “I will be telling the world that true Jews hate Zionism and everything it stands for. This is my life’s mission, like my father before me.” Read the rest of this entry »
Never is the householder so vulnerable as when he has forgotten to take out his bins in the morning. Out he rushes, bleary-eyed, dressing gown flapping indecently, dragging a wheelie-bin like a modern-day Sisyphus. At such times he is at the mercy of the bin men. And he knows it.
“Excuse me,” he says, ashamedly. “Terribly sorry to be a pain, but would you mind? I’m a bit late.” And he stretches his face into the expression of middle class apology. (You know the one: the corners of the mouth stretching towards either shoulder, the stiff-necked wiggle. It’s usually accompanied by a sort of “eeeer” sound, or a gargled “sorr-eee.” Try it — you’ll see what I mean.)
The bin men size him up, knowing that they hold in their calloused hands the fate of the man who — metaphorically, at least to start with — kneels before them. They could relieve him of his burden, perhaps grunt something nice. Or they could turn their backs, dooming him to a week of stinking piles of rubbish. Two weeks in some places.
In my adult life, I have lived in Winchester, Norwich and London, and played out this exact scenario in each city. I have to say that most recently, in Winchester, the experience was but a few degrees short of a pleasure. The bin man in question was courteous and obliging. He took my wheelie-bin off my hands with something approaching a smile, called me “mate,” and humped it cheerfully off towards the stinking jaws of his lorry.
Norwich, however, was another matter. Don’t get me wrong; the man took the bin. But he did so silently, sullenly, forcing me to fill the void with an increasingly elaborate apology involving children, ear infections and uncomfortable pillows. Having sensed that I was an outsider, his strategy was obvious. “It’s worth taking this prick’s bin,” he must have thought to himself, “if it will make him feel like even more of an arse.” I left Norwich shortly afterwards.
In London, the bin man regarded me laconically. “Want me to take this?” he said, eyeing me sidelong. Then he said it again. After the third time, realising that I still hadn’t cottoned on, he sighed and rubbed his fingers together suggestively.
I was taken aback. However, my indignation quickly gave way to a swift tally of hygienic verses financial disadvantage. “You’re not suggesting…” I said. The man nodded and, to underscore his point, rubbed his fingers together again. There was something nasty about those fingers. I persuaded him to wait and ran back to the house, clutching my dressing-gown like a half-dressed diva. Upon my return — pretty awkwardly, I must admit — I gave him a tenner. “Each,” he said, gesturing to two of his mates. I tried to read his face. Was this a joke? “Do you lot take visa?” I said.
As a coda, I should mention the way that bins are collected in Taiwan (I once spent a gap year there). At a randomly selected time, the bin lorry will turn up blasting pop music from speakers on the roof. The idea is that when you hear the music, you take your rubbish out and toss it onto the lorry. It tends to work fine. Except that up and down the country, cars with loud stereos are prompting people to dash onto the streets with their rubbish.
Ok, so I know it’s the election tomorrow. The most important election for a generation and all that. But it gets right up my nose when my neighbours put political signs up in their windows.
Several of my neighbours here have done that this week. All Liberal, as it happens. You know, those infuriating little orange diamonds. But what’s so liberal about intimidating your local community for political gain? Do they really think that, as I’m about to put a tick on the ballot sheet, I’ll be hypnotised by weeks of subliminal suggestion and be magnetised towards the Lib Dem box? As it happens, I’m a swinging voter. I’m not sure which way the prevailing winds will blow when I cast my ballot tomorrow. But I think I might vote Tory, just because my neighbours don’t want me to.
And what if I was a Tory? How would I feel then? Would I dare to put a ‘vote for change’ sign up in my front window, in defiance of the burgeoning sea of Liberalism lining the houses where I live? And if I did, what then? Would I be ostracised? Would people stare through me, walk past me? Would they smash my windows in the middle of the night, or put a flaming turd through my letterbox?
I know what you’re thinking. If you were a Tory, you would deserve it. And maybe you’re right. But my point still stands: election or no election, people should keep their political opinions to themselves. This shameless bullying has to stop.
Now I’m off for a sherry and a duck shoot.
NB: As it turned out, Winchester went to the Tories — a surprise result. Obviously those Lib Dem stickers had the same effect on everyone else as they had on me! –JWS