Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Yuck! Buerk! Igitt! Bleah! ¡Puag!

BBC News reports that discrimination against fat people may be subconscious.
"They found, for some people, the sight of obesity sparked strong subconscious reactions, such as disgust.

The Evolution and Human Behaviour study suggests this is part of a deep-seated behavioural reponse [sic.] designed to help detect and avoid those with infections."

Hmm. Now I would hate to be so arrogant to think I know my evolution and human behaviour better than some experts in the news. But perhaps my old friend Charlie has more standing;
"In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his fingers some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac., and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty."

Mr Savage is grossed out by an unfamiliar food product that appears to be raw meat, and therefore knows - because he's been taught it or learned from experience - is unhealthy to eat. Meanwhile, Darwin is disgusted because of an entirely learned prejudice against a man whose skin colour and dress is differenet from his own. Darwin's disgust is less rational, but both men are making a mistake.

Disgust is deeply felt but it is extremely difficult to work out what is learned socially, what is learned through experience and what is instinctive. We just don't know; so far, we have not been able to solve this nature vs. nurture conundrum on even those substances which pose a real hygiene hazard. You'd think our disgust for feces is so fundamental that even before a rudimentary understanding of bacteria, nobody would shit in the same river from which they took their drinking water. And yet, if you care for a baby, you cannot afford to throw up at the sight and smell of poo or vomit (and most babies don't seem to care at all). Similarly with blood if you are a woman.

And people with prejudice attempt to provoke the most visceral response. In the olden days (I don't know - the 1950s?), Continental Europeans were supposed to to stink of garlic and Central Asians were supposed to reek of curry - back when these smells were so unfamiliar to Britons that they caused revulsion. Foreigners of all variety have been cast as having poor general hygiene and it's only weeks since I most recently heard the urban myth about dogs and cats being found in the refrigerator of a Chinese Takeaway.

It is even argued that the principle purpose of dietary restrictions within religious groups was tribal cohesion; if you are taught that cabbage (or whatever) is unclean, for example - and the word unclean is the one so often used - when you meet a group of people who eat the stuff, you will probably think them a revolting bunch and won't wish to run off and join them.

The same applies to sexual practices; homophobes seem totally preoccupied with anal sex and demonstrating what a revolting practice that is. Famously, VD used to be known as the French Disease, the English Disease, the German Disease and so on, depending on which European country you were in. In Lady Chatterly's Lover, anal intercourse is referred to charmingly as in The Italian Fashion. And how many relatively poor rural populations are reputed, by their wealthier neighbours, to have sex with sheep or other domestic animals? It's all a big joke now, but it is a joke which works with disgust for the other.

So if you think about the stereotype of a fat person - I mean the really hateful one - size is just one small aspect. You're going to have to excuse me here while I say things I don't mean;
A fat person is unwieldy, an unstable mass, without grace or composure. She takes up all the space, lolloping along, causing vibrations through the ground and threatening to knock down buildings and squish passers-buy. Her clothes don't fit well, and despite her attempts to constrain her bulk, there are lumps and bumps and bubbles of pale flesh protruding at unsightly angles. A fat person sweats a lot and, because she doesn't care about such things and doesn't wash very often, she smells rather badly. Naturally, she has an extraordinary diet, eating more than would make you or I throw up, but always disgusting foods; she eats lumps of lard in chocolate sauce or an entire chicken with all it's insides intact, all in one sitting!
An innate fear of infection? I don't think so. The only reason I feel the need to be so explicit about this - and so very horrible - is to prove that the disgusting bits are all complete bullshit. An obese person can move gracefully and wear clothes that fit. She does not smell bad and most likely eats the same sort of things as everyone else. It is only when people respond to a big person as a stereotype that they experience disgust.

Beside which, there is a also the compelling fact that we are not completely grossed out by underweight catwalk models. An unhealthily low body mass index, as well as the symptoms of malnutrition which these ladies may exhibit are far stronger indicators of infectious disease that excess weight. Excess weight may imply disease, but where it does, this tends to be some long-term glandular malfunction as opposed to anything contagious. It seems that cultural reactions to weight - including those covering such things as seemingly basic as sexual attraction and disgust - vary significantly. This is not about instinct.

The reason I'm so motivated by this is because there is little difference between the way we look at bodies affected by obesity and those affected by different sorts of impairment. This is a subject coincidentally covered by Wheelchair Dancer who reviews an article about a ballet troupe made up of obese dances (who apparently "thump gracefully across the floor").

But I'm also concerned that the thing which we are failing to learn about prejudice is that it can be profound and feel like instinct, but this does not mean this isn't something we can and ought to address.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Goldfish Treatise on Marriage #2

In which I put marriage back together again - kind of. I realised that I actually had even more to say about this than I thought, but I'll try narrow it down to the basics.

The secret of solving the problems we have with marriage - as a society and as individuals - is to learn that there is no perfect formula. Ha! No really, this may sound blindingly obvious, but it would appear not. Lots of people have unhappy marriages because they try to recreate a cultural architype, or perhaps the marriage their parents had (oddly, people seem to do this whether or not their parents were happy together). Meanwhile, social commentators, politicians and ordinary people lament the state of marriage in society, because of a fixed idea of what marriage is and how we should all feel about it.

The reality is that any two people who embark on a long-term live-in loving relationship are embarking on a grand experiment with social consequences far beyond their own personal happiness. And yet it is something that most of us want to have a go at.

This concept makes people feel very uncomfortable since by definition, experiments have uncertain outcomes. Well yes, unfortunately this is the case. You may love each other, but you don't know whether you can live together or for how long, or how happily. You are yet to work out the happiest division of labour, you are yet to overcome the crises you shall face - which you don't even know about yet - and you are yet to see how you both develop as individuals as the years go by.

There is nothing you can do to avoid the experimental nature of a marriage. You can try to learn from the good and bad examples of others, but you are still two unique individuals, responsible for your own actions and yet, alas, not in complete control of outcome.

So how better to equip individuals and society for such an experiment? I may need some subheadings...

The forever business

Given the uncertain outcome, til death do us part is a problem. It may be reasonable to state as a sincere intention, but it is an impossible thing to promise in all confidence.

People complain that since divorce became socially and practically easier, people have lost their sticking power. This is not borne out by the facts; very few divorces take place within the first five years of marriage and when they do, it is usually because something has gone very wrong - or indeed, the whole thing was a big mistake. But people make mistakes. And things do go wrong. Always did, always will and we are far better coming to terms with this once and for all.

I would also say that the absence of forever can be good for people; it means people might be more conscious and therefore more conscientious about their own ongoing decision-making. I feel my choice makes me work harder. However exasperated I might get at times, I don't resent my lover, I don't resent anything about our life together because I choose it. It is not merely that I chose it, once, when I said "I do", I choose it now, today, and every day.

It is a little like being a mature student. If you go off to university with your peers at eighteen, and especially if it is not too painful financially, then you can take the whole thing for granted, barely register this path as one you've chosen and find the education bit a total bore. If you have had to come out of work, given up a regular income and then tried to get your brain back into learning mode, you have to know the value of the thing. You are less likely to waste time, miss lectures or dawdle around deadlines because you are ever conscious of the choice you're making and why.

Similarly, marriage. If you feel chained to a thing, you're unlikely to embrace it. We are not chained together, none of us, so we ought not to behave as if we are. People enter freely into relationships and those relationships are only ever of any real value if people know they are free to go. We need to accept that happy ever after is an ongoing project.

The business of Church, State and superstition.

Committed gay couples have historically been forced to conduct their relationships in an experimental fashion. No cultural architypes, no specific role assigned to either party. Not a particularly fair experiment, since you've got all manner of pressures associated with a homophobic society, sometimes estrangement from family and with such relationships being unrecognised in law. However, the fact that any of those couples stuck together for decades under those conditions suggests that here are some relationship models from which the rest of us have something to learn.

And yet, when we finally decided that okay, so there ought not to be an legal difference according to whether the person you love has an an inny or an outy in the pants department, we couldn't call these unions marriage. That word, which in law has nothing to do with religious concepts, is surrounded by superstition and using it for same-sex couples - even this entirely secular, legal contract - would have invited an enormous backlash.

Unfortunately, in the UK, we haven't fully extricated marriage from religion. In some other European countries - including Germany, as Bloggingmone mentioned - you have to go through a civil ceremony and the religious rite (of whatever variety) is an optional extra. This seems so much better to me.

This is not an anti-religious argument, only marriage within religion is quite different, varies from religion to religion and the promises a person makes in church are quite different from those promises which are legally binding. It is totally cool that people make and keep those promises if they wish, but I feel we could have far more sensible conversations about marriage if we were all talking about the same basic thing - and the thing that all married people and those in Civil Partnerships have in common is the civil law. And yeah, I do think we should use the same word for everyone, even if that means giving up the word marriage to those who are most precious about it.

The business of gender and "traditional" roles.

It's not that women are taught to rely on other people for their happiness, but to a large extent, we are taught that our actions only bring us happiness through other people. As wives and mothers, as caring daughters. When you think about those subjects held up as women's interests, they are all about the other; beauty and fashion so that you look beautiful for other people, cooking and domestic stuff so you can look after other people, celebrity gossip so you can talk about the lives of other people. Even women's health is a matter of responsibility; whereas it is to some degree acceptable for a man to throw caution to the wind, a woman must look after herself for the sake of all the other people she has to look after.

It is not that caring and nurturing roles cannot bring great fulfillment, nor is this about a specific role such as housewife or stay at home mother or any such thing – those roles are only problematic as an obligation; as a freely made choice, they are just as valid as any other. It's the idea of these things as fixed which is a problem. Whilst men are invited to see a spouse as someone who will support them in their endeavours, women are invited to see a spouse as an endeavour. And unless that spouse can plaster a permanent smile on his face, remain in tip top health and live forever, never have a cross word and be always telling her how fabulous she is, he will never ever be enough.

For this reason, we need to dump the idea that marriage - or even romantic love - is a necessarily condition for the happiness of women. We need to keep teaching girls about paths to self-fulfillment (and no, mere material wealth won't do either). This would make it better for everyone, including heterosexual men; I daresay some men wish to marry doormats (or indeed, other items of soft furnishings, fixtures and fittings - I had an uncle marry an architrave a few years back), but in general, human beings fall in love with other human being - each of us being reasonably complex and interesting in our own right.

The business of children

So much of the social outcry about marriage or lack thereof is about the potential effects of our relationships on children. Bad news here, I'm afraid: bringing up a child is also an experiment.

This is probably even more difficult to accept, but even as someone childless by choice, I can see we have a really bad attitude towards children in this culture. It is a ludicrous idea to imagine that a brand new developing human being can be the sole responsibility of just one or two other human beings; the nuclear family is a flash in the pan in terms of social and cultural history. But the awful reality is that in this culture, we generally consider any given child to be the responsibility of just one person; the biological mother. And since we don't like children or the way they behave, we don't think they're doing a very good job.

Mothers in the UK news, during the past week;
Babies at risk as mothers drink on
Why working mothers have fatter children

The truth about gymslip mothers
Yummy mummy 'babies at risk'

And news about fathers?
Mothers protecting their children should not have to defy the courts (i.e. about abusive fathers and their access rights to children).

In fact, the only time that fathers are spoken about in the news or in conversation is almost always when they are not living with their children; absent fathers or those fathers fighting for access. Fathers who are in a happy relationship with the mother, or the other father in the case of gay parents, let alone fathers as sole cargivers, are very rarely written about at all. What are their responsibilities? What do they get right or wrong? How does their age, diet or work patterns effect the health and wellbeing of their children?

In reality of course, apart from issues concerning pregnancy and breast-milk, men have just the same potential to influence the health and welfare of a child they are living with. We tend to relegate this subject to vague aspersions about the need for a male role model. But that's hardly going to be a helpful thing if we continue to assume the male role to be one so very distanced in responsibility for or interest in children and family. And like I said in my first post on marriage, our culture belittles the passions of heterosexual men, relegating them to lust - and thus we feel rather uncomfortable about men who love children who they're not related to. As a woman it is fine for me to be involved in the lives - and express my love for - children who are not my own. We need to make it fine for men too, not just for balance, but to maximise the number of role models available to each child. There are other ways of keeping children as safe as possible without denying them developmental opportunities.

In the meantime we must all take some responsibility for children in our society and around us and we all have a role in supporting the parents we know, within marriage or outside of it, whether a child has one or two primary caregivers. Right now there seems a tendency to wash our hands of children who are not our own and then blame the mothers when they're not all little angels.

Now, I'm sure I haven't covered everything, but this is way too long as it is. Congratulations to anyone who got down this far!

Friday, July 27, 2007

My trip to Newmarket

Today is the 40 year anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which decriminalised male homosexuality (at least, in strict privacy, between no more than two people, over the age of 21). I haven't seen anything about this anywhere, so I thought I would mention this here.

In other news, my Mum and I went on an adventure to Newmarket. This was great as it was the first time I'd been out of the house in almost a month and it just happened to be one of the best days of weather in weeks as well.

Newmarket is a curious town full of horses and the rather small people who ride them. We had lunch at the National Horseracing Museum (I admit we didn't really look at the museum as... well, frankly, because it was all about horseracing). The restaurant there was nice though; we sat in the garden next to a passionflower bush and it was very pleasant.

Shoes which are covered in patterned upholstery fabricIn the shops I bought a garlic press and some shoes. I was extraordinarily lucky; I don't much like shoe shopping as I struggle to find shoes I both like and can afford. We went into the Scope charity shop to dump some old clothes on them and there they were. No size label, but I slipped them on my feet and they were a perfect fit. And they had a purse to match. £3.50 for the shoes, £2 for the purse. Are they not rather lovely?

I'm now going to have a rest and tomorrow I will hopefully continue rabbitting on about marriage (you can't wait, I know).

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Goldfish Treatise on Marriage #1

I've been wanting to write about this for ages, but now realise it has to come in two halves. The first is, unfortunately, where I rip up marriage as it is for a lot of people. In order for this to be a readable length, I'm going to make some generalisations about a subject which people tend to get a bit emotional about. I'm sure I'm not talking about you.

There is no way to increase the numbers getting married and decrease the number of people getting divorced without backtracking on sexual equality. The principle reason there were more marriages and less divorces in the 1950s are mostly to do with the facts that it was made very difficult for women to cope practically, financially and socially without men, particularly if they had children. Women felt compelled to marry if they wanted children and many felt unable to leave when things well and truly fell apart.

The trouble with marriage is that, even in this secular society, it carries an almost supernatural reverence. People see it as magic. People insist that it is good for us, good for children, good for society as a whole. Meanwhile, the wedding ceremony, whether or not the participants are religious, carries a great deal of hocus pocus; white dresses, gold rings, Abra Kadabra words. And we imagine that it has always been exactly what it is, even though we're kidding ourselves to imagine it is only one thing to everyone who enters into it, let alone everyone who has ever entered into it. But as long as that magic remains, frankly, we're going to keep messing it up.

Marriage or an equivalent civil contract is necessary for one reason; it defines an important next-of-kin relationship within the law. It defines families and as such, it protects those family members in the event of anything going wrong. The main disasters being relationship break-down, serious illness (i.e. where one person has to make decisions for another) and death. It is a useful piece of paper. Even I've got one!

But is it good for anyone? Is it better than having the same domestic arrangements without the paperwork? And is there any reason to discourage people – or disapprove at all - when they feel they want to bring this contract to a close?

The statistics suggest that marriage is good for us, but only if you read marriage or lack thereof as the cause of everything. There is a relationship between marriage and economic wealth but this is more likely to be explained by the fact that whilst it only costs about a hundred quid to get married, the hocus pocus element which most people still deem necessary costs an average of £16K. As far as I can see, this and the relationship-stress associated with unemployment and poverty, are the only explanations for a connection.

Similarly cohabiting partnerships appear more unstable, but that is because most cohabitating couples either break up or get married. There is little data about committed partners who have a conscientious objection to marriage. And then there is the anxiety about single parenthood, but single parents have one income rather than two, most of them are women and women continue to earn markedly less than men. It is therefore maths, rather than morals, which disadvantage single parents.

Right so, let's tear this apart.

Culturally, marriage is not about children, but about women. In it's most inequitable manifestation, marriage is the ownership of women; this woman is mine, her womb is mine, she will work for me and have sex with me and any offspring that come out of her womb are mine. Very often women were bought (the dowry systems we're most familiar with now are those in which a bride's family pays the groom; was not ever thus). Naturally women were provided for, but not necessarily any better than any other slave.

Fortunately, that's the extreme end - I've already stated that I do think there is a necessity for something like this contract as far as the security of couples and families are concerned.

However culturally, marriage remains about women. Men are supposed to initiate relationships, to seduce us and get us into bed, but women are supposed to do all the work from there on in. Women are supposed to persuade the man to commit. Women, we are taught, are a monogamous bunch who wish to settle down and have babies at the earliest opportunity. Men, we are taught, are a promiscuous bunch who have no interest in settling down or babies; they must therefore be cajoled.

I'm not saying men are not passionate about the women they love, but our culture belittles the passions of heterosexual men, relegating it to lust.

The traditional wedding is a fantastic manifestation of the traditional inequalities in marriage. Women do all the work; the bride must organise everything, the venue, the decoration, the itinerary, she must appease family members when the political conflicts arise over the seating plan. In many cases, the bride even chooses what the groom is going to wear. And all this for her big day, the happiest day of her life etc., etc.. Meanwhile, the groom is obliged to make a big show of reluctance, stage parties and so on, and turn up to perform his brief role in proceedings somewhat hungover. He gets to speak, of course; whilst the women did all the work, it is the men who get to make the speeches.

It's a horrible caricature, but you have attended this wedding, haven't you? You bought them the hideous vase with the turquoise flowers on, remember?

Women are expected to do the bulk of the work involved in the marriage. This is not to say women are expected to work harder than men in general, but girls are still brought up to be wives and mothers; these roles revolve around the other. Boys are brought up to be men, which is a markedly different role and at times a very difficult one, but it is principally about the fulfillment of the self. So women make most of the domestic decisions, do most of the housework regardless of their own employment status and study magazine articles and self-help books about how to be a good wife, how to keep him happy and faithful and so on.

But of course, no partnership works without teamwork. It is not that two people cannot get on if they are performing very different roles in terms of the practical tasks necessary for survival. But there must be an equal investment in the team. Our culture promotes a situation where women have an irrational level of investment. Which brings me to the crux of the matter:

For many women, there remains a reliance on marriage for personal happiness.

Thus, many women are unhappy. Married women are more vulnerable to clinical depression than unmarried women (the reverse is true in men). And three quarters of all divorce proceedings are initiated by women. It's not a piece of paper that does this. Nor do I believe it is because men are an inadequate bunch who don't love their wives or try to make them happy.

The problem is a culture which holds up a legal contract as a supernatural rite.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Meme Mut8nt-R4

The 8 things Meme Mutated at Andrea's Buzzing About and Andrea (the index case) passed this virulent strain onto me. New genome for Mut8nt-R4:

1. Let others know who tagged you.
2. Players start with 4 recipes they especially like (ethnic or regional recipes and quick meals are especially nice).
3. Those who are tagged should post these rules and their 4 recipes.
4. Players should tag 4 other people and notify them they have been tagged.

I'm afraid I'm not very good at this for two reasons. One is that I don't do that much cooking, and with the stuff I make in my own way (i.e. not just lifting a recipe from elsewhere), I'm rather vague about quantities and timing (frankly, it's really difficult for me to imagine doing without the things in front of me). The second is that I'm pretty bad at writing instructions in any case.

However, when I saw this, I immediately thought of the four people I wanted to tag because they'll each be so much better at it than I will. And that's Seahorse, Bunnyman, Sara and S.. Which may be ever so slightly mean to Seahorse as she already provided a comprehensive week's menu on the Ouch! Blog and Sara gives us lots of recipes anyway, such as Blueberry Pie.

But I have to do this anyway...

1. Onion Gravy.

One of my favourite meals to make (I don't make many) is curly kale, sausages and onion gravy. Curly Kale is a really good lazy vegetable; often you can buy it in a bag and you can just eat heat the bag in the microwave. Ideally, we would prepare our veg from scratch all covered in dirt, but this is not an ideal life. Kale is good with sausages, any kinds of sausages, which are also easy to prepare (I make a foil tray for the grill; a waste of foil, but it saves washing up the grill). And to make this more interesting, I like to cook proper onion gravy.

Unfortunately, my onion gravy is not suitable for vegetarians as it contains Worcester Sauce (which has anchovies in it). But frankly, the anchovy is only a tiny little fish and... no, never mind. Enough to serve two adults. Requires one saucepan and somewhere to chop the onion (see suggestion below).
  • 1 Onion
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • Some oil - I use rapeseed oil for this purpose.
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp vegetable bouillon (this stuff)
  • 2 tbsp Worcester sauce
Chop the onion. It doesn't have to be very finely chopped, it's up to you. My top onion-chopping tip - do it in a flat-bottomed bowl, under water. If you have to work as slowly and precariously as I do, this will stop your eyes watering. Also, as we're making gravy, it doesn't matter so much if blood is spilt - it merely adds to the flavour!

Using the saucepan you're going to make the gravy in, add the sugar and oil to the onion and fry for a bit. Meanwhile make some stock using the vegetable bouillon and some water... uh, about a teacup worth? Add to this the Worcester sauce.

When the onion is cooked, add the flour and stir well. Then slowly add the stock liquid, stirring constantly. Then let it simmer for a bit. Probably.

I'm really not very good at this, am I? I'll try harder.

2. Orangey Tofu Noodly Surprise (which is suitable for vegetarians)

This is fairly healthy and interesting, something that started off as a proper recipe but which I made my own with several adjustments.

Serves two adults. Requires 2 saucepans, a chopping board, some means to juice an orange and somewhere to put the orange juice.
  • Some tofu (I don't know - as much as is in the packet).
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Some ginger root, roughly the same size as a clove of garlic
  • 1 tbsp oil (again, I use rapeseed oil for this purpose)
  • Juice of an orange
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp honey (clear is best I guess)
  • About 3 spring onions
  • Some brocolli
  • Some babycorn (um... some.... you can guess how much you need I'm sure)
  • Enough noodles for two people.
  • A good handful of sesame seeds
Slice the tofu best you can and put it in a saucepan. Chop up or crush the garlic and ginger, add this and the oil to the tofu. Stir all this together and leave it alone for a bit to llow the tofu a chance to absorb a bit of flavour. Meanwhile the orange juice with the honey and soy sauce. Cut up the vegetables into thin shreds, or at least small pieces, the best you can.

You can do all this before you do any cooking, so you can chip away at it during the afternoon. At some point, spread some sesame seeds over a flat surface under the grill and toast them. Do watch them carefully because they do nothing, go golden brown for all of a few seconds before going black such that even the birds won't have them.

Now when you're getting hungry, put the heat under the saucepan and fry the tofu in the oil, ginger and garlic for a while. When you feel it's the right time (?), cook the noodles.

Add the as yet uncooked vegetables to the tofu, give them a stir, then add the cooked noodles and the orange/ honey/ soy sauce mixture. Stir it all about. Yum yum yum. It might even help if you chant "Yum yum yum!" as you do this. You never know.

Now put it all onto plates or into bowls or whatever it is you like to do with noodly things (in the bath, if that's your thing). Then sprinkle the toasted sesame seeds all over the place.

This is actually quite nice. Honest. And it is really very healthy. Unlike...

3. Fanny Pasta

That's what it's called. [...]'s grandmother, Fanny - whose name he has been known to use as an alias on occasion - was a very old-fashioned lady who survived into the 1990s without a telephone. But when [...] and his sister would come to stay, she was prepared to make an exotic dish especially for them; macaroni cheese. She wouldn't eat any herself, what with it being foreign food, but she'd do it for the little ones. This is what she imagined macaroni cheese to be.

Requires a chopping board to slice cheese on and a saucepan. It is not very nutritious, but it's a good food in emergencies when you have nothing in the cupboard except for
  • Some pasta (macaroni was the original, fusilli or farfalle are our favourites)
  • Some cheddar cheese.
Cook the pasta and spread it flat on a heat-proof plate. Thinly slice some cheese and place it on top of the pasta. Grill until the cheese beings to brown.

See, that was very easy, wasn't it? Now for something sweet...

4. Crispy Cake (which may or may not be suitable for vegetarians)

This is one of my Granny's, who is an excellent cook. This is very easy to prepare. It isn't any good for you of course, but what with being made out of Rice Krispies (or similar), most of it is air anyway. That and sugar, of course. Hmm, never mind. Marshmallow is supposed to be good for some things, as a medicinal herb, but I'm not sure you have enough of it in the confection.

Requires some sort of microwave-proof dish.
  • Marshmallows (usually contain gelatin but you can get vegan ones)
  • Knob of butter or margarine
  • Rice Krispies (or cheaper own-brand alternative)
Get your dish, put a knob of butter in it and melt this in the microwave. Add some marshmallows, stir them about so that the butter covers them and then put the dish back in the microwave. You can watch the marshmallows expanding, which is good fun, but once they're going sloppy, whip the dish out and stir. You should have a thick pink liquid, into which you add your Rice Krispies. Add quantities of Krispies such that they are all covered and there's no pink stuff to spare. Leave to cool, ideally transferring to fridge when cool enough.

Later on, cut it up and gobble.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

8 Random Facts about the Goldfish

I have been tagged twice with this, by Jemma and McEwen. At Andrea's Buzzing About, the Meme mutated! I am very excited about this extraordinary development and will do that one soon as well. But for now, the original;

Here's the rules.

1. Let others know who tagged you. (I did that already).
2. Players start with 8 random facts about themselves.
3. Those who are tagged should post these rules and their 8 random facts.
4. Players should tag 8 other people and notify them they have been tagged.

Okely Dokely...

1. I mention this to the Unreliable Witness the other day. I carry this bit of jet around everywhere. As you can just about make out, it retains the texture of wood, specifically Araucaria araucana which is the monkey puzzle tree. North Yorkshire used to be covered in such trees during the Jurassic Period, over a hundred and fifty million years ago. They then got squished and squashed and moshed and mished until they became very very black and very very hard. Thus jet.

My friend H gave it me. He is a jet-carver and he decided I needed a piece as a lucky charm. I think this was a test after I accused him of superstition over something. It's a little bit magic to hold; lighter than you would imagine and warm. The only bits of jewellery I have of any value (as in, they'd cost more than a fiver to replace) are made of jet and they're very precious to me for more complicated reasons. But that's my bit of raw material.

2. When I was looking for my piece of jet, I found a spark plug socket in my handbag. I have no idea how this got there. I fear I may have accidentally stolen it from somewhere. Have you lost a tool for removing spark plugs? Did you see me, behaving suspiciously, in the area shortly before it disappeared?

3. I have a vast collection of scarves, all of which were gifts to me and all of which I love. Okay, so seven scarves but that's six more scarves than a person needs, isn't it? And no, they don't look very good piled together, but hey - you have to picture each one by itself with a grey trenchcoat.

You may notice my Open University scarf, as worn by Julie Walters in Educating Rita - not that exact one, obviously. Curiously, two scarves were given as souvenirs from Florence, Italy, by two different parties, ten years apart.

4. I had trouble walking to begin with. I was on my feet soon enough, but I walked like a penguin, apparently. I can vaguely remember having to go see some expert about it and having to walk up and down a room. Later, of course, I was very good at walking; I walked for many miles at a time and ran for many miles at a time. And then I got rubbish at it again, but not because I started walking like a penguin. A moving story, I know.

5. I've never been in debt, except for once was when I accidentally and very temporarily overdrew my current account by £19.50 (this was many years ago, but I remember the sum because I was mortified). I put my debt-free existence down to 50% circumstance, 40% good fortune and 10% good judgement. I haven't had a good excuse to borrow money (and I do think there are good excuses) and I've always been fairly lucky with the way things have worked out.

6. Yesterday, I contributed to a wiki for the very first time. I put an article about Blogging Against Disablism Say up at Disapedia, which is a wiki all about disability. Zephyr mentioned this on the Ouch! Blog this morning. I reckon this is a really great idea, which naturally relies on contributions from all of us, so get over there.

Alexander on the beach7. I am writing this on my new computer. I haven't told you about this even though I've had it over a week. Remember I was going to sell my powerchair and buy a MacBook? Well instead, my brother-in-law - who took this gorgeous picture of Alexander - gave me his old iBook, which is like a MacBook but older and yet is in pristine condition and has far better spec than I could have afforded buying a new MacBook. It is a fantastic machine, I love the user interface, I am very very pleased. And it was free! See above about my good fortune, eh? The only downside is that there's inexplicably no hash key, so you have to press ALT 3. Why no hash? Why?

8. I am related, in a very roundabout fashion, to the great Andy Williams. As I understand it, my great-aunt married an American, whose sister married Andy Williams. I think. Or the connection may be even more tenuous than that. And a second cousin briefly dated Michael Hutchins. It's a rock'n'roll kind of family like that.

Okay tagging. Forgive me if you have (a) already been tagged or (b) no desire to be tagged - there are no Meme police, this is entirely optional;
Sage, Marmiteboy, Sally, Cusp, Timbo, Diddums, Fluttertongue, Mark.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Time Travel

Perhaps more than anything, chronic illness robs you of time. You don't usually lose solid days or weeks, but those days and weeks get a lot shorter. Of course there are spells where time drags – usually at night, usually during the last twenty minutes of the period between doses of painkiller. But the shape of time is different; irregular, kind of vague at the edges. You find yourself with a lot of time on your hands, but only to watch it slip through your fingers.

Sleep becomes ravenous. It eats into your day, then takes random bites out of the middle. Often there are hours that pass where it is nibbling, non-committal, and even then there's nothing you can do but lie there, fading in and fading out. And even without sleep, you can do so little. Time flies whether or not your having fun.

Handicrafts are a symptom of incapacitating chronic illness. When time is so short, one is compelled to use it productively. So having no more useful purpose, you make crap. You sew, you make cards, you paint objects, you make all kinds of nonsense. I string beads sometimes; that is completely and utterly banal. Okay, so I choose which beads go nice with which others, in what order, but that's a three second creative process followed by, I don't know, hours if I make enough mistakes and drop them all once or twice (which I generally do). It's not about passing the time, but marking it. Giving these hours some small significance against all the other hours where nothing happens.

Meanwhile, you become an unfaithful friend. Perhaps not quite unfaithful. Only the amount you care weighs heavily against amount you have contact with people. And you don't even always know it, because the shape of time is misleading. You think you only spoke to them last week when in fact a month has passed. And because do you more thinking and caring that you do writing or phoning, you imagine you have been in contact when you haven't at all. My oldest friend sent a letter in June to my address in Whitby, five months after I'd moved out. But I was sure I'd written. I'm sure I'd told her all about the move, the flood, everything. I hadn't. My oldest friend.

So you resign yourself to a shorter life. Less time. Less stuff in it. And you think, disasters not withstanding, at least you lose the time gradually. At least you get a good number of goodnight kisses. At least you get to watch events unfurl over a good long period of time, rather than missing half of it completely. And at least you know the score. You know it's all very precious. And when you have a little time, a little useful time, a day when you do something, a day distinguished in some small way - such days make you feel like you have more than your fair share.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

And the public wants what the public gets

It's a long time since the Tories did anything to annoy me and when they do, it's pure rhetoric. They have started issuing fairly silly tax policies, claiming the desire to “mend our broken society”.

Which raises the question; if it is now broken, when was it ever pristine? I say pristine which implies perfection and that might be to overstate the position from which we supposedly have fallen. I guess intact is a more commonplace opposite to broken. Yet last time I looked, society was intact, is intact, as in, we're living in peace with one another, we enjoy a great deal of both freedom and security. Anyone who thinks this is a broken society, needs to get out more. Or at least, read a few history books, or I don't know, the news. Iraq; now that's a society which might be described as broken. Rwanda in the spring of 1994; that's an example of what happens when society well and truly snaps.

Not that this society is great. Not that our freedoms or security, or the degree to which we are at peace with one another are perfect – far from. Goodness knows, I see enough wrong here and I'm always going on about it. And I'm not objecting to this just because it's the Conservatives, who are unlikely to do much which would appeal to me in any case. It is because I genuinely believe exaggeration on this matter to be deeply, deeply harmful.

A broken society is a pretty hopeless society, one that very few people are going to wish to engage with. What's more, it had to have been broken by someone (society being man-made, it can only be destroyed by man). The trouble with truly broken societies is that there are usually two or more groups of people who blame one another for the breakage. In this case, not really being broken at all, anyone with the slightest prejudice can apportion the blame accordingly; it's them immigrants, working-mothers, benefit-scroungers, Muslims, lesbians, Thatcher, Blair or Yoko Ono. Or perhaps everybody else. And so people retreat. People act with cynicism and mistrust toward the people they meet because nobody can be trusted; this is a broken society. And as a result society really does a little more creaky.

I don't need to go into the rather daft but ancient idea, this kind of moral nostalgia that people were better in the past. This can be particularly bewildering coming from some generations, who pick the most inappropriate history periods as their ideal. My maternal grandmother has the nineteen-thirties, of all periods. That she may have had a happy childhood, I cannot dispute. That the rise of fascism in Europe, The Road To Wigan Pier and everything else we know about that time suggests it was a better world, I can. And indeed, talking to my Granny, who also had a happy childhood but can still tell you about hardships, injustices and abuses she was aware of which thank goodness seem unlikely to occur today.

But this moral nostalgia seems to strike members of every generation; you see it in books written all through the ages. Of course, the direction of social progress is not fixed; things go wrong, new problems arise - and sometimes new problems arise as a side effect to the solution for an old problem. However, the direction of history is fixed. We can never ever step back; any solution to a problem must be a step forward. The past might inform what that step should be, but we cannot go back there.

Fortunately, perhaps, the Tories haven't accompanied this positively destructive rhetoric with anything which would constitute a dynamic change in society; 7p extra tax on a pint of beer to tackle binge-drinking and a £20 a week tax-break for married couples to persuade unhappy couples to stay together (happy couples presumably don't need a cash incentive). 70p on ten pints is unlikely to make any difference to anyone's Saturday night and the loss of £20 a week is little compared to the existing expense of single living as weighed up against cohabitation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Five a day

A load of applesThe Tesco delivery came early, before I was awake. [...] accepted it and put most of the stuff away. But when I came through to the kitchen, I found a carrier bag bulging with apples. I checked the receipt and realised that instead of ordering six apples, I had in fact ordered six kilograms of apples. Which is about eighteen pounds, or thirty-seven decently sized apples. And I'm the only one who eats apples.

"Didn't you notice?!" I demanded. "When these arrived didn't you think that this was an awful lot of apples for one person to eat in a week, especially considering all the other fruit we've got in?"

"Well yeah," he said, "but I assumed you felt a bit constipated."

Early Hours Confession #4567

I realise the guilt is becoming a problem again. I realise this because I'm awake at half one in the morning. I've had a few disturbed nights with the pain lately, but there's niggling as well. So if I use you as a Priest and confess all, maybe I'll feel better. I haven't used the blog in anything like this way for a while, but hey, it's my blog.

The main reason I feel guilty right now is that I actually did something rather nasty. I wrote an e-mail earlier this evening when I was tired, pissed off and had some steam to let off. I wrote it to a trusted friend but in it, I was really very horrible about a third party. I mocked someone in a very personal way, someone who I don't know very well at all and who hasn't done me any harm except to annoy me. And that's really my problem as opposed to theirs.

It was totally unfair. And even though my friend isn't their friend, and I trust my friend implicitly, as soon as it was sent – which I naturally did in a hurry without thinking – I began to feel panicky about it. I began to think of bizarre (read outrageous) scenarios in which the subject of my venom would come to learn of what I had written. I felt like throwing up with the horror of what I had done - really. It even occurred to me that if Al Queda were intercepting my e-mails and they turned up and threatened to publish that e-mail on-line if I didn't blow myself up in a public place, I might feel a bit conflicted. What can I say? It's late.

There's a part of me that says, that was nasty, but it was ultimately harmless nastiness; the victim will never have an inkling and your friend is unlikely to think less of you for it (my friend who probably gets tired of my usual wet fish sympathy for all humankind outlook). And if that e-mail is, as it probably is, the nastiest thing you have done to anyone in ages, then you're probably quite a nice person.

My imp, who is naturally on my shoulder throughout all this, says, “But you're not a nice person. If you were a nice person you wouldn't do such things full stop. Also, since you do feel so extremely guilty about what is currently a victimless offence (at least until the series of inevitable freak accidents which will lead to the e-mail spreading throughout the web), this renders all your niceness void. Clearly you are just nice to people in order to selfishly avoid the agony of your guilt.”

My imp is kind of clever in a stupid way. I'm very tired, so I can't work out why that's stupid. Or is it? One could argue that someone with a powerful conscience is a fake since it is ultimately selfish to act in order to avoid guilt or make oneself feel better by being nice to people. Therefore, only a person without a conscience is truly free to be good or bad. Which is interesting because when we talk about psychopathy, which is supposedly the state of not having a conscience (a highly controversial label), we assume that a psychpath always behaves badly because they have all the self-preserving instincts of human nature without the altruism which keeps such things in check for the rest of us. In theory they could chose to be good. But yet to what extent is altruism instinctive and to what extent is it learnt? And can altruism be said to be the thing gives you a conscience, what causes you to feel guilt? In any case, if a person without a conscience chose to be good, could they be said to be a nice person, or would one have to conclude that they came to their choice through a process of logic as opposed to compassion? And is compassion a more valid motive than logic? And is compassion a more valid motive than guilt? What? Shut up!

Okay well, that's probably sorted both of us out for a good night's sleep now, so I won't bother boring you with all the other things I feel guilty about which I was planning to list. Yes. Good.

I should add, for anyone who is as paranoid as I am, that the person about whom I was so shamefully horrible is extremely unlikely to be reading this. It definitely wasn't you.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

When Arts & Crafts Go Bad

Recently, my creative projects appear to have taken a sinister turn. I suspect my big mistake is doing stuff when I'm not entirely conscious. And I keep producing hideous objects. Okay, so I have produced two hideous objects.

I had the idea of making a toy bat for Alex. You may remember that his grandmother is referred to as Superbat, I had been singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat to him, from Alice in Wonderland and I was getting a little nostalgic for Whitby. I thought young Alex should like a Twinkle Bat of his own.

I didn't have a pattern or anything, but I didn't for his pirate doll. Patterns? Who needs patterns?! So I sewed this during periods when really I should have been asleep. Or indeed, perhaps, when I was asleep. Because yesterday I suddenly found it was finished... and it looked like this...

A fat flat batty batAaaaaghh!!!

I put it in black and white, because it is even worse in colour. Honestly. I'll hide it behind a link and you can look at it here... if you dare!

Look at its feet! Look at its ears! Look at the shape of it! This really is an appalling bat. This is a truly a bat gone wrong.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I decided to decorate a couple of t-shirts for Alexander using some fabric paints I was given. I don't have any experience with fabric painting, but the first attempt didn't go too badly. I can't actually remember painting on the second t-shirt, that period is rather vague and blurry, but when I had finished I looked at it and saw this....

A really rather terrible t-shirtAaaaaghh!!!

It might not have been so bad had the paint not run. It went all splodgy. It's a terrific mess.

I must admit I did give this to Alex anyway as I felt it was probably suitable attire for playing about in the mud - an essential activity for any growing child.

It is pretty bad though.

The very worst thing I ever produced as an adult was a cross-stitch of Winnie The Pooh. I don't do or like cross-stitch, but someone gave me a kit during a spell of very ill health, so I sat in bed and attempted it. It had three arms. It had the right number of legs but one of them was coming out of Pooh's ear. Naturally nothing quite compared to that classic anecdote of Damon's, which if you haven't heard you have to listen too now - it's the top audio file on this page.

A passable t-shirtA plaque reading Alexander's SpaceAlex did at least get two passable presents; my first attempt t-shirt and a plaque for his bedroom door.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Paris Hilton and the Iconic Blonde

Helen of Troy by Evelyn de MorganI thought that would wake you up. And yeah, I really am about to write about this.
"Every decade has an iconic blond like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana, and right now I’m that icon." - Paris Hilton.
The thing that makes Paris Hilton a little unusual in the story of our culture is that she is an American. She hasn't even been on our television screens, on our talk-shows or anything else and unlike other American celebrities, we're not familiar with her from movies or music. So she is more than usually irrelevant to the British observer as compared to our homegrown stock of those famous for being famous. And then I saw this quote, undoubtedly repeated because it was considered rather funny in its arrogance. Only I think the lady is spot on.

Clearly, Hilton isn't famous just for being an idiot. Is she even an idiot? Well, perhaps a more pertinent question would be, is she an outstanding idiot? Driving offences are serious, but sadly commonplace; I have seen at least three cousins banned from driving at some point. In fact there’s probably no legal or social misdemeanour that Paris Hilton hasn’t committed which someone I know hasn’t also done. A dalliance in amateur porn? Indulgence in drink and drugs? Horrific fashion sense? I can personally lay claim to at least one of these.

Now I really don't know much about the lady except things that have filtered into my consciousness from headlines and gossip. Research would defeat the object somewhat. However, I can see the parallels with Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe - although I know much more about Princess Diana.

Paris Hilton is not like Princess Diana but as a figure, she is treated in a very similar way. People forget what it was like when Diana was alive, but the vast majority of press coverage about her was sensational and speculative unlike everything since which has gone on about what a super lady she was. In one of the few truly prophetic moments of my life, on the morning of her death, I said, "Elton John ought to re-release Candle in the Wind; the words are uncannily close to the truth."

Helen of Troy by Dante Gabriel RossettiLike Hilton, Diana's privileged background allowed her to be cast as a spoilt brat. She was resented for having everything a person could want and still exhibiting signs of unhappiness. She was a figure of fun and derisory comment. Like Hilton, despite being extraordinarily beautiful in the fashionable sense, she was criticised for her looks, her weight, the clothes she wore, the people she was seen with. Her sex life was a national preoccupation; not her charity work or her qualities as a mother. She undoubtedly had her genuine admirers, but most people I ever heard speak about her, during her lifetime, regarded her as a rich bimbo.

All of which would be harsh on a human being, but we're not really dealing with human beings here; we're dealing with icons and what those icons represent. And let's face it, we're dealing with misogyny. Misogyny is all about the power women have, the absolute basics of their being human, and a cultural desire to wish it away. Not just by men, but women too. Power complicates everything. And in the case of Hilton, Diana and perhaps Monroe, we're dealing with women who have significant sexual and material power. We're dealing with Helen of Troy - and just look at all the trouble that silly tart caused.

Of course, other beautiful, rich and famous women exist; actors, musicians and others whose output is far more popular, but we know relatively very little about their private lives - and some make a great success, against the odds, to keep themselves relatively private. To be an iconic blonde - and the blondeness is important but not essential - you have to give us a reason to hate you. Some weakness, some foolishness. And then you'll never be out of the papers.

Do people hate Paris Hilton? A lot of people are simply baffled by her celebrity or the interest of others in her - Mika Brzezinski's protest against headlining with the lady when there were other things going on in the world isn't hatred; I feel the same, which is why I'm trying to get to the bottom of this. But yes, things I've seen and heard suggest that some people really hate the woman, and they relish that hatred. It's culturally sanctioned misogyny; you can't talk like that about the pretty girl down the road who won't put out for you. You can say what you like about the celebritwit.

Helen of Troy by Anthony Frederick Augustus SandysSo in the UK currently we have figures such as Jordan, Jade Goody, Colleen McLoughlin; the class issue working in reverse of course because these are working-class women who are cast as uncooth, uneducated chavs.

This never happens with men. There are male celebrities who are held up as rather dim but they are usually very good at something (and that something is usually football and they're more often in the back pages of the newspaper than they are in the front). Plus male celebrities just don't get this level of attention, perhaps with the exception of Michael Jackson, who was not only very good at something, but the guy undoubtedly qualifies for outstanding idiocy above and beyond the call of celebrity.

I'm now beginning to think that depictions of Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, might be material proof that beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Miserable Interlude: Ages 15-18

I was thinking about the story of My Teenage Angst I was telling you and how I got kind of stuck with it. This is because there is an essential but miserable interlude. The story of what happened to my sexuality when I got sick is really rather depressing. It's also displays aspects of my personality which I am rather ashamed of; a degree of vanity and self-absorption. Still, I guess it's got to be exorcised sooner or later...

When I got sick, my body changed quite dramatically in addition to the fact that the insides were malfunctioning. I used to spend so much of my time outdoors and without that, my hair got a lot darker and my skin got a lot paler. I had liked my freckles; they made my face look more interesting and helped disguise the acne, but now they were gone. Meanwhile, the condition of my skin deteriorated. I had always had acne, but my immune system struggling as it was, I acquired patches of eczema, boils and blood blisters as well as yet more severe acne. Nice.

Then, as a side effect to medication, I put on a vast amount of weight; about four and half stone in not so many months (uh… sixty something pounds?). This was unpleasant and completely out of my control. I already had a few stretch-marks from shooting up in height, but they now appeared all over the place like great pink rents in my bluish white skin. Meanwhile, I couldn’t go shopping for my own clothes; I had to rely on my Mum to buy things which fit. That didn't help.

And of course, this body, this pale, fat, scarred, acne-covered body was also causing me hell on the inside. It hurt a lot. It didn’t work in so many and varied ways, including some rather gruesome ways which I don't want to nauseate you with. So whilst I’d long been self-conscious about this and that, I was now disgusted by my body.

Yes yes, I know. I did know that there were many people in the world far less fortunate than myself. What can I say?

Fortunately, whatever part of my brain had previously been concerned with all things romantic and sexual, simply switched off. Not the slightest crush, not the faintest romantic yearning, not so much as a tingle of sexual frustration (can that be a tingle? I don't know). But despite all the previous angst, I was more conscious about sex than I had ever been before.

I had always felt myself to be a bit of a weirdo in lots of different ways – sexuality being just one small thing. And whilst it had bothered me a lot at times, I hadn’t minded all that much; I didn’t get bullied or excluded from anything, so it wasn’t a tremendous disadvantage. With sexuality in particularly, the only times it had been a big problem was when I was in love; the agony always balanced against the ecstasy. But when I got sick my life I was excluded. Totally.

There’s something particularly isolating about becoming sick out of school. When you’re older, everyone you know is going about things in a slightly different way. I spend most of my time at home, but I know others who in a not dissimilar boat because they are working from home, temporarily unemployed, sick like me, retired or parents looking after young children and so on. It’s not all that weird to be at home. But when you’re fifteen or sixteen, your social circle generally only stretches a few years in either direction; all my peers were at different stages on the exact same path. You chose you’re A-Levels, you finished your GCSEs, you chose your university and applied to it, you finished you’re a-Levels and you went to university. Everyone was in school, five days a week, doing much the same thing, working towards the same goals.

Other people I knew had had months off school sick with glandular fever or anorexia. These girls had been very seriously ill, but they’d also been among the brightest and most conscientious students and on their return they’d be a term ahead of the rest of us. I was having very severe difficulty reading, let alone learning anything. In that big project that everyone else was engaged in – something that was supposed to determine the course of the rest of your life - I was completely stalled.

And gradually, together with my spectacular failure to get well – something I saw entirely as a personal failure, having maintained what I understood to be the positive attitude that I would overcome my illness just by thinking the right thoughts – all this became mixed and muddled in my mind until I saw it all part and parcel of the same nebulous problem. My weirdness, my difference, my illness, my ugliness. It was all the same thing. It was all me.

And sex was one manifestation. I had no sexual experience and imagined that everyone else had. This mattered; it was another example of my inadequacy as a human being (I was a kid, and a sick one; I was making all sorts of weird calculations). I felt the reason I had no sexual experience was because I was so hideously ugly and unattractive, inside and out. I didn’t consider the fact that being at home most of the time, rarely meeting new people and when I did, spending the whole time looking for cracks in the floor in the hope that the ground might open up and swallow me.

So anyway, there were almost three years of this sort of thing – although it was an accumulative effect and all the time I was living in hope that things might suddenly dramatically change. It was only really horrible towards the end of this period. Only after I gave up hope did change finally happen. Naturally, it was not at all in the way I expected.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.

The Creation of AdamThe problem isn't religion as such, at least it isn't the preserve of religion. I guess the problem can be summarised as

Political belief in the absence of reason.

Where political means of citizens or the state.

Holding some beliefs which cannot be justified with cold logic is inevitable. There are things about our world and ourselves we don’t know for sure and then there are choices we make where our feelings are as important as anything else; our personal codes about sex, marriage and family relationships, for example, the clothes we wear, the food we eat and so on.

The problems arise when we start interfering with one another. It’s not fair to say that people shouldn’t interfere with one another at all, because we are social animals, we live in society and we have a degree of responsibility for one another. We have to make rules. But these rules have to be established on the base of reason.

God has nothing to do with reason - not because God or any other supernatural force is an unreasonable concept, but because we have no consensus on the issue and no consensus can be achieved through argument. It is a matter of faith. Even if we believed that the Bible (for example) was entirely true, people have to translate and interpret and people have never ever agreed on what exactly it is He wants us to do. For every person who argues that we must do X because it is God's will, there will be a dozen people who feel sure He wants us to do Y.

Fortunately, most people with religion don't need to do this. Most of us are capable of coming up with some ground rules for society without reference to the supernatural, even if the supernatural might underpin why it is all so very important. For the Humanist, the consequence of bad behaviour is human suffering on Earth which is a terrible thing because we each only have one life, one shot, one short period of existence and that makes it very precious. For the Theist, the consequence of bad behaviour is human suffering on Earth which is a terrible thing because it upsets God. I simplify of course, but most of the conversations we have about politics needn't mention our religious beliefs if you and I both agree that human suffering is to be avoided wherever possible. And thus, religious diversity has existed for hundreds of years in the United Kingdom and elsewhere without too many major hitches.

Unfortunately, some people do have political beliefs which are not grounded in reason. Blasphemy must be by far the silliest example which remains on our statute books and is a concept which really, really makes me cross. Honestly folks, blasphemy is complete and utter nonsense and we really ought to have scrapped it by 2007.

God might well be offended by a book, a play, a poem, or some cartoons - he might even be preoccupied by these matters when elsewhere people are busy torturing and killing their neighbours in His name, but how would we know about it? So I recall, following his reaction to that business with the goat, the Semetic God hasn’t actually issued any specific complaint. And anyway, surely claiming to know the mind of God is the biggest blasphemy there is? Surely that would be taking the Lord's name in vain?

But beyond the shakey theological basis for the concept, anybody can claim that anything is blasphemous in the context of their personal belief system. Certainly, there has never been consensus among members of a given religion where some members have cried blasphemy – indeed, the alleged blaspheme is usually a member of said religion (if you don't know that the God or supernatural force you're insulting exists, one wonders whether you can truly insult Them). And there's no reason involved; it's just mere mortals getting cross and supposing that their God is as petty and insecure as they are. Which is a casual dismissal for something which has led and continues to lead to people torturing and killing one another and for some people living in liberal democracies fearing for their lives.

Like I say, it is not exclusive to religion; the expression of descent in totalitarian states is criminalised in a very similar way, using very similar language, since the leader or the ruling party tends to take on divine status. And it's not that I believe in dismissing or insulting people for the sake of it. What I object to is treating one particular set of people special protection from being offended under the law. I also object to the Race and Religious Hatred Bill for similar reasons.

So, did you want to see some blasphemy? I must say I'm always fascinated by controversial works simply because these are pieces of art which have been felt to have extraordinary power. Unfortunately, this awesome power is often wasted on me; I don't usually get it. I can see shocking, but that's not power. If all the Devil needed to do was shock people he'd just need to stop all the zips working in the House of Commons. I'll start with the worst offending item.

The only 'blasphemous' poem I know of in English is The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name by James Kirkup which lead to the successful prosecution of Gay News, when it was first published in 1976 (Mary Whitehouse brought the case as a blasphemous libel). This poem is not to be confused with the 1894 poem, Two Loves by Lord Alfred Douglas, which concludes with the line "I am the love that dares not speak its name." which was quoted and analysed at the trial of Oscar Wilde.

A few years ago, The Love... was read out in public on the steps of St. Martin in the Field by a number of literary figures and activists in a protest specifically against the blasphemy law. No arrests were made, no legal action taken but the law remains. I must admit that I was rather shocked when I got round to reading the text; by its reputation I had kind of imagined something like

Jesus was gay!
Hip hip hooray!
Simon fancied Peter
And James like musical theatre.
And Andrew was a nudist,
Who had a thing for Judas!

and so on and so forth. The actual poem has far more artistic merit than that and as a result is really very shocking and extremely distasteful, if ultimately somewhat silly. One can fully understand why it upset people, so be warned. However, I would still argue that adults should be allowed to find it, read it and judge it for themselves if they want to. So here it is.

The blog Sepia Mutiny shows the paintings of Mugbool Fida Hussein, who was attacked for blasphemy within the Hindu religion; I really don't know enough about Hinduism to put this in any context, but there is a debate in the comments section which provides some insight.

On Wikipedia, you can see Piss Christ, which is... I mean, why? Sister Wendy Beckett refused to see it as blasphemous. Wikipedia also has a low-resolution image of the Jyllands-Posten Muhmmad cartoons, which resulted in much flag-burning and the death of at least 139 people in protests worldwide. I consider them offensive because they play on some of the most inflammatory racist stereotypes you can think of, but they weren't worth anybody's life.

YouTube has various extracts from Jerry Springer the Opera, which met with great controversy when it was screened on BBC television last year. I've not seen the whole thing; it doesn't have much appeal to me but I would argue for the right for others to see it if they wanted.

For other examples of blasphemy, check out your record collection. The current Pope, in his capacity as a cardinal, condemned pretty much every pop song since the Beatles (and yeah, he did mention the Beatles specifically) as being the music of the devil. I think he probably confused the music of the Beatles with some of Paul McCartney's later output.