Friday, February 29, 2008

Cool for cats

I was basically okay, then I started vomiting and running a fever, then I was completely shattered and now I am basically okay again. Nobody else I know was sick so who knows what that was. Still, how was your week?

For some reason, throughout my life, most of my friends have been cat-lovers. Out of all the people I have ever been close to, since my first friends at primary school, I can count on my fingers how many of them have not either had cats or previously owned cats which they often refer to. Since only 8% of UK households are cat-owning, this is a little odd. Especially as I don't like cats.

Cat the CatIt is not that I dislike cats, but I am indifferent to them. Of course I wouldn't want to see them mistreated or neglected, but the same applies to most non-human animals. To me, a cat is no more aesthetically pleasing or companionable than an iguana or a cormorant. Yet I'm not concerned than my friends see things differently. From my perspective, having a deep and meaningful relationship with a creature endowed with a 30g brain is arguably less strange than the compulsion to reproduce. I experience neither, but I would live a lonely life if I condemned others for their peculiarities.

And when inevitably the things outlive their owners, I do sympathise. Even though I have never been particularly devastated by the death of a pet (even the mysterious and downright sinister disappearance of Cosmo the Stick Insect), I understand that this was my friend's friend, even if it licked its bits and had the conversational skills of a table-lamp. Yet, whilst I respect our difference, I do wonder why so many cat-people are my friends.

It is not as if I have a narrow social circle. Or that I smell of fish. Indeed, I imagine it something to do with some attribute I am attracted to. rather than something about me, because these cat-people seem to come from all walks of life. No landed gentry, but I have had cat-people friends resident in council flats and listed buildings, in all manner of work and none at all. And whilst cats are most often owned by women, a similar proportion of my male friends have always been cat-people, with no particular trend relating to sexuality or marital status.

Anyway, my social circle does not include a very high number of what I might imagine to be the modal average cat-owner, who is retired, widowed and female. But it is a loved-one from this very demographic who got me thinking about this recently; my Granny has a cat. She didn't obtain a cat. She didn't adopt a local cat that preferred her house to its own. She merely took temporary custody of the cat (imaginatively entitled Cat) during a marital breakdown in the family. After six months, it remains at Granny's house.

Granny has never been a cat person and at eighty-four, conversion would seem unlikely. She acknowledges that the creature scratches at everything but those items allocated for its scratching, that it wishes to eat everything but its own food, that it molts exclusively on dark-coloured clothes and soft-furnishings and it won't let her get on with her knitting. She doesn't find this stuff cute and is determined to get rid of it should it ever bring a half-dead rodent or bird into her kitchen.

Cat the Cat againHowever, when the cat sprang onto my lap to be stroked, Granny handed me the scarf that she uses to cover her lap when the cat wants stroking.

And indeed, Cat does fulfill one of the two useful roles that a cat may have in the lives of people; to sit and purr whilst being stroked for a prolonged period of time. That is a nice thing that not all cats consent to.

(The other thing, by the way, is to catch and eat small rodents in those environments where overpopulation is a menace; on a ship at sea, on a farm, etc.. Outside such environments, cats are an alien predator in their local ecosystems. But don't tell my friends I said so.)

So if Granny can keep a cat after all these years, maybe one day I too shall understand. But in the meantime, what is it with you guys? After all, I instinctively imagine that lots of people reading this are also cat-people; certainly enough of my favourite bloggers are. What is it that cat people have in common which make them such good company?

Also, a little survey to test my hypothesis (if this appears to be a mess or doesn't appear at all, my apologies, I couldn't make this work as I'd like for some reason);

My Cat-People Survey
Are you a cat person?

Meow (yes).

view results

( The ginger cat was a random cat that was sitting outside my Granny's back door. Had Granny welcomed it in, I would have really started to worry. )

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sleepless in Southampton

Alexander and his GrandadThis one is of my Dad and Alex. I didn't paint the entire thing since last Thursday, but I hadn't quite finished it then. This was a bit of a challenge. I was working from a black and white photograph so I had to guess the colours to some extent. Also, the photograph cut off the top of my Dad's head, so I had to make that bit up as well.

I managed to get to Southampton to spend Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning with Alexander. He was very affectionate; either he now knows who I am or he is very easy with his hugs and kisses. It is also now far easier to comfort him when he's grizzly; previously, this was not something I could do myself, but now a cuddle seems to do the trick.

He has a few more words, but doesn't seem terribly interested in using them; occasionally he will point to something and name it, but he can't be persuaded to do it again and if you point to something and ask him what it is, he looks at you as if you have asked a very foolish question (which I guess you have).

Alexander is, however, increasingly expressive. He uses the baby-signing pretty well, he points and waves and hands things to you. He put his milk-bottle in Roosevelt, the bear-puppet's mouth. And his favourite gesture involves him holding his hands palms up, fingers spread wide and an expression somewhere between exasperation and resignation as if to say "What the hell?"

I managed the whole thing pretty well, especially considering the two flights of stairs in my sister's house, and a pretty bad night, complete with some of the most profound hallucinations I've had in ages. Nothing scary though, only disconcerting. I am in no great shape now, but I'm basically okay.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I don't care too much for money

So the other day, Lawrence Fishburne (or somone who looked very much like him) came to my door selling investment policies. He spoke very slowly but without hesitation so that before I could get a word in, he had explained all about his policies to help people put their kids through university and other policies to provide security in retirement. Which of the two, he asked, might I be most interested in?

"Neither," I said with a smile, "Thanks all the same."

"So you've got all your finances sorted out for the rest of your life already?" he asked, clearly dubious.

Now that was pushing it. There could be lots of explanations for my disinterest which might be highly personal, whether I was surprising rich or surprisingly poor. And indeed, I didn't want to tell him my actual situation, partly because it was none of his business, but partly because he might be embarassed. He might even feel guilty for having asked had he known. He might have even offered me money, but probably not.

So I weighed up my options.

"No, but I'm relying on tax-payers like yourself to see me through."
or "No, but I don't want me kids' heads to warp with too much learnin'."
or "No, but I'm planning on dying young."
or indeed "No, but I've only got three weeks to live - do you do life insurance?"

or more positively,

"If I were to become just four pounds and thirty-six pence richer, I would have more money than sense."
or "They say there's gold in that there compost heap."
or "The Lord will provide."

or perhaps, if I really wanted to frighten him and if I could get the tone just right,

"Money is the root of all evil."

As it was, I shrugged and said, "Kind of." He nevertheless gave me his card and departed with a wink. A wink, I tell you. From Lawrence Fishburne (or somone who looked very much like him).

It is a difficulty though. Like when you're offered those Payment Protection Plans on credit cards and the like and you're thinking, "In what way could my financial situation get worse?" (Of course it could be worse, but nothing anyone would offer insurance against).

I was once accosted by particularly persistent charity-collector, one of these who is paid on commission for the number of people who sign up for a direct debit donations and who really couldn't imagine why I might not be able to afford monthly donations to a charity supporting people of my own age in circumstances not at all dissimilar to my own. And yet, I did not wish to explain all that, to say I lived on benefits and to detail my exact position; even the richest person should not have to make excuses. So eventually I declared, "I'm afraid I'm a charity case myself!" and the young man was, at long last, speechless.

A painting I did of my sister and nephewAnyway, I'm off to visit Alexander, Rosie and Adrian this weekend. They have lived in Southampton for over a year, and this is the first time that I've had the opportunity to visit when I've actually felt up to going. It's just a flying visit with my folks to babysit Alex whilst R & A go to a concert and I shall be back on Sunday.

This is a picture I painted of Rosie and Alexander - my second portrait. I've almost finished one of Alex with my Dad and I must say that, despite his cuteness, the lad does have a rather boring face - no lines or wrinkles or anything!

Monday, February 18, 2008

On Britishness

In the last few years, there has been growing talk by politicians of British Values and the nature of Britishness. This has included proposals to teach Britishness Classes in schools, the idea of a national motto and a very amusing but nevertheless official Citizenship Test for immigrants seeking nationality. Our prime minister in particular seems to think that there are a set of British Values, moral tenants about which debate and eventual consensus should be encouraged.

An Union Flag, in case it helps at allI don't think this will come to much. Regardless of British values, our national character (which perhaps shouldn't be in the singular) is such that we're not going to go for this. We are not a young or recently liberated country; we don't need to wave flags and sing songs on a regular basis to remind ourselves of our good fortune or our loyalties (although we do have some fabulous patriotic songs). We must also bear in mind that the real question facing the United Kingdom over the next few decades will be whether or not we are going to remain united. Scotland and Wales now have the first real democratic opportunity to choose to break away if they should so wish. And they just might.

Which brings us to that fact that Britishness is no single thing. There are still massive geographical and class differences when it comes to sense of humour, social etiquette and petty morality. Those who reminisce about some time when there was a more defined and respected British character are usually talking about a time when an upper-middle-class, Church of England, Southern English person was the only British character represented, the only voice heard in circles of power, on the radio or in films.

So why the present focus on Britishness? Well frankly, it's a backlash to increased immigration and an increase of media attention towards minority groups (usually the Muslims) who seem to do things differently and from whom have emerged a handful of violent extremists. It is perhaps felt that if we could define Britishness and make sure everyone complied, we'd all get along and people would not fear for our precious - if totally elusive - way of life.

This is a rubbish motive for a rubbish idea. The idea itself is rubbish for three reasons.

1. Arrogance.

In order for something to be British, it has to belong to Britain and the British people, as opposed to other countries and other peoples. It has to be something uniquely ours, like British Beef or the British weather. In order to have a set of values, a set of moral tenants which are unique to Britain, we must believe that the people of other countries in the world do not hold these values - or at least they don't in great number.

Therefore, in order for such a set of British Values to exist, we must be morally superior to other countries and other peoples in the world. Which we're not.

Nobody has said this explicitly, but it has to be the implication. Britishness is not a virtue, any more than being male or female is. One may be very pleased that one is British and one may love one's country above all others. What's more, there are many things things about Britain which makes it one of the best countries in the world in which to live, partly by luck and partly by design.

However, the people here aren't better than people elsewhere. Better off, maybe.

2. Pointlessness.

Nobody can be forced to subscribe to a set of values. If I disagreed with any or all of the British Values, then I wouldn't stop being British. I don't stop being British if I break the law either. I am not without admiration for the way that US Americans seem to be able to use patriotism to support arguments for freedom, equality and a transparent democracy, but I am baffled by the use of the term "unAmerican" (which I have seen used by all sides of political arguments). It is rather like my sister and I having an argument and one of us saying, "No member of this family could possibly think that!"

So, what's the point? The Citizenship Test attempts to question those seeking British nationality on those matters that British people ought to know. But it's mostly facts, and often facts that those born here would struggle with. It arguably forces incomers to do a little homework, but it cannot reflect a great deal on their potential as a good British citizen (strictly speaking, we're not really citizens, we're subjects, but hey) We also make them swear their allegiance to the Queen and it is all absolutely pointless.

Good citizenship is something we learn from one another, not from a book or a motto or a constitution. The government is not totally powerless in this regard, but it cannot address the matter directly; what the government needs to do is to make sure that the institutions, infrastructure and law help encourage a happy cohesive society, rather than one divided by massive social and political inequality. Now there's a novel idea...

3. Permanence.

Imagine that they had written down a set of British Values in 1950. How would these compare to the ones we might draw up today? Our country has changed. Our social and political priorities have changed. In fact, why do we need to go so far back? Imagine a set of British Values that might have been drawn up by consensus in 1980. Things have changed since even then.

Setting all but the most general values in stone for all eternity is a big mistake. The right to bear arms in the United States constitution as was written in another world has pretty much ruled out a serious debate about gun control in a country where innocent people are injured or killed by firearms every day. Is there anything which should be written down now, never to be questioned again?

The ongoing exchange of ideas is essential for any community. In a community of sixty million, with all the diverse opinions within, we can't expect any discussion to ever reach a place where everyone agrees. We have to put some things down from time to time, and there are some issues where conflict trickles down to next to nothing, but the permanent closing of any matter is a big mistake.

Even things we know to be true need to be questioned from time to time, partly to make sure it is, indeed, the truth, but partly so we remember what the issue was about and why we came to a particular conclusion. To keep our values alive and meaningful.

Unless of course British Values are something really vague; but that brings us back to point 2.

I do love my country, with all its faults and foibles, just as I love my family. Not that everyone must; some people find they don't get on with their family at all, and some people don't get on with their country. However, I'm not nearly so worried about these people as I am about those who have such a jealous obsessive love for their country that they no longer see it for what it is. George Orwell wrote a very good essay on the matter.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Man and Supery-dooperyman

(Emma's theme for next week's Disability Blog Carnival is Superman. I found it hard to connect this theme to disability, so the hurried and somewhat tardy result is a little odd. One of those it's my blog, it's up to me how silly it gets posts.)

I've never got on with Nietzsche. He is a basically a 19th century gangsta rapper; he thinks he's really hard, he's brimming over with contempt for his fellow man, but ultimately he is so inadequate that he probably thought that sportswear and chunky gold jewellery were a stylish combination (and 19th century European sportswear, the effect would be far worse). In case you are unfamiliar with his work, Nietzsche's rap would have gone a little like this;

I'm a moustachioed mother from the mean streets of Röcken,
My old man was a pastor but my faith in God got broken.
I'm not hanging in the Ghetto as I'm not too keen on Jews,
Basically, my ethics are whatever I choose.

What they call "morality" is all born out of fear,
Love and compassion can kiss me on the rear.
Human beings aren't equal; that's obvious to see,
And guess who is the best of all? That's obviously me!

I matter more than others, because I am so great,
Most people live in suffering because they're second-rate.
Whereas I am really clever and I am really strong,
And nothing that I do or say could ever be wrong.

Even if I'm violent, and shoot up all my foes,
Even if I beat up my bitch and sleep around with hos
(Although to be quite honest, my love-life is a farce,
And when I talk of women, I am talking through my arse.)

I'm sorry about the language, but foul words like arse crop up all too often in the rap music I listen to - that hardcore rural English rap as opposed to the effete American urban variety. I mean, drive-by shootings in anything that goes faster than a tractor is for sissies.

Betrand Russell said in his History of Western Philosophy in 1946 that, despite his own distaste for the chap, Nietzsche's philosophy had come into force in Europe as much as those of his liberal and socialist peers. On the positive side, Nietzsche's ideas did influence various artists and philosophers - notably the Existentialists. The assertion that God is dead was a pretty amazing one, however banal it may appear as a sentence.

However, Hitler had the hots for Nietzsche, and whilst you can't say that Nietzsche was a Nazi, he might be seen to beckon in that direction. Anyway, this was about Superman. And disability. Somehow.

Nietzsche strongly believed in hierarchy, valuing those qualities associated with being a good warrior-hero; strength of will, a certain sort of courage, physical qualities as well as ruthlessness and guile. Romanticised if not actually romantic. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a tedious rant which I recommend you avoid, he talks about the Übermensch, translated as Superman or Overman. He writes;

The most cautious people ask today: "How may man still be preserved?" Zarathustra, however, asks as the sole and first one to do so: "How shall man be overcome?"

Man is weak and we must rise above weakness. Thus begins an idea which has persisted in medical science and cultural attitudes ever since. It's not just about saving life and making life more comfortable, it is about making man himself better.

A desire to improve oneself, one's life and one's society is ancient and widespread and entirely commendable. The only controversy is about how this might be achieved. The Superman is one particular take on this; he is innately superior, without weakness of any physical, psychological or intellectual variety. He is an uncomplicated product of what we would now call eugenics and the triumph of the will which Nietzsche is always harking on about; people doing what they want to do as opposed to what they feel to be right.

This may seem a scary and radical prospect, but are these ideas so far outside our experience? Certainly there is a strong argument that much of ante-natal screening and the elective abortions that result is not about the elevation of suffering, but the elimination of (perceived) weakness. Healthy people try to make themselves better than they really are with cosmetic "corrective" surgery and treatments and self-help gurus who promise them a competitive edge in every conceivable area of life. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, there is increasing talk of genetic "causes" for mental and physical ill health - or being responsible for "intelligence" and personality traits. Meanwhile, this is what we're concentrating in schools all the time; to be valued, one must have a very narrow version of intelligence that allows you to pass exams and which everyone will pretend you were born with.

Naturally, disabled people are left behind in this project for all manner of reasons. It is also a futile project, however seductive it has been for some. You cannot be a better person for being intelligent, or being able to run fast, or for being beautiful. These aren't things you (or your parents, or doctors or anyone) ever get to choose, but neither do they do you or those around you any favours without your own intervention.

So I have an alternative; the Supery-dooperyman (or in German, the Über-DüberMensch).

Thus spoke the Goldfish. Strength is not a thing that the Supery-dooperyman is born with, but something he develops through experience and demonstrates through his actions. Being clever or having physical advantages counts for nothing, but the Supery-dooperyman takes whatever talents or attributes he happens to have - however modest, however great - and makes the best use he can. The Supery-dooperyman realises that fear is not at the root of compassion, but often at the root of contempt; sometimes the greatest test of our courage comes in considering another person's point of view. The only valuable hierarchies are, as they are in nature, in a constant state of flux; the Supery-dooperyman understands the transient nature of all things, including himself. The Supery-dooperyman may do whatever he likes, but in order to do so, he knows he must not always do exactly as he feels - if you punch everyone who deserves it, you're unlikely to be in a physical state to enjoy more long-term interests.

If we could all manage that, we would have overcome a great deal.

Oddly enough, the only musical reference I can think of to Nietzsche is at the end of the chorus of Blur's noisy classic Song 2, when Damon Alburn sings "All of the time, 'cause I'm never sure why I need you/ 'Cause I, Nietzsche." Go listen; I don't tell a lie.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Advice for an Archbishop

If you're going to start a debate on Sharia Law, you first have to tell people what it is. The vast majority of the population, being non-Muslim and having had neither the opportunity or inclination to learn about such things, don't really know. Many people are inclined to associate the phrase with corporal and capital punishment for acts which we don't consider vaguely criminal, as are carried out in the name of Sharia Law in other countries of the world.

Some snowdropsI asked a friend if he knew what Sharia Law was and he asked, "Isn't that the woman that Tony Blair is married to?"

If you use words like unavoidable and phrases such as the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, you must expect that these words are going to more often repeated than any of your more measured comments. This way, the story stops being about your own ideas and starts being about another innocent party; if them Muslims are more loyal to their culture than they are to the state, why don't they just bugger off. Only yesterday, no Muslim put their hand up and said that. They may have done at some other point, but yesterday it was you, head honcho in the Church of England, who spoke on their behalf.

If you are going to make a proposal which would give special treatment to a community who are already subject to suspicion and prejudice, one has to consider whether your words, however well-meant, are likely to increase or decrease the tension that already exists.

In other news, we have snowdrops!

Monday, February 04, 2008

I'm so ugly, but that's okay 'cause so are you

Sage recently wrote a few great posts about poor body-image and the beauty industry, which put me in mind of an old friend. I'm picking up from another dip in my health so instead of a long rambling post, I thought I would introduce you to her. My mother and I met her in the National Gallery, many years ago. My mother said, "She's no oil painting." and I had to point out that in fact she is

A Grotesque Old Woman by Quinten MassysMum actually bought a handbag mirror with this lady on the reverse. It was a giggle at the time, but I later thought it an excellent idea. All the time we are being subjected to images of beauty to which very few of us can aspire to. And indeed, we are often being asked to compare ourselves to them because of the nature of the sales pitch. The only comparisons that most of us can make are negative; sometimes significantly so.

However, if all this is the case, A Grotesque Old Woman must make most of feel drop dead gorgeous. Nobody reading this will be less than somewhat good looking next to this lady (although research has demonstrated that readers of this blog are better looking than average). Regard this picture, then go look in a mirror and see what you think. Cute, or what?*

And yet, if body-image so important, if we have reason to be as upset and preoccupied by it as we seem to be, then this picture must inspire tremendous pity. Only it doesn't. Ridiculous costume aside, this isn't a lady who looks like she must be without charm, without intellect, without a good sense of humour. We don't instantly imagine that this woman is without friends and it is by no means inconceivable that she may have lovers. She might receive some odd looks and sniggers, but we don't regard this painting and presume that its subject must have a miserable existence.

Which is comforting for the rest of us, when we feel down about our many and varied but really none too significant aesthetic flaws.

* I do of course realise that my opinion of this lady as a minger is subjective; some people may find her appearance much more attractive than I do. However, in my defense I couldn't think of a single living woman I considered ugly. I thought about various women, mostly politicians who are often described as such, but none of them really are. To me, this lady looks the way young actors look when they've had make-up and prosthetics to make them appear elderly when they have to age fifty-odd years in a movie; a much less flattering effect than what aging actually does.