Bah Humbug

I hate summer.

Well, maybe that’s a blanket statement. I don’t hate summer so much as I hate hot weather. I mean, temperatures in the upper twenties/low thirties (and yes, I know that on the grand scale of things that isn’t so hot, but this is England you know)

I have a several reasons for this:

1) I live in a relatively small flat. Heat gets trapped in here very easily, even with windows and doors open. This often results in ridiculous nighttime temperatures. And that means I can’t sleep.

2) I have skin like ricepaper. It is very thin and very white and gets burnt at the mere mention of ‘sun’. On top of this, I am stupidly photosensitive, so I suffer with sun rashes and prickly heat. Fun!

3) The lab I work in has no airconditioning. No aircon and coworkers with questionable hygiene.

4) The sun brings out the worst in English people. Suddenly, the pubs are filled with English men with their shirts off, showing off their lobster-red tans as if everyone really wants to see them, and English woman dressed like strippers, intentionally baking their skin in the sun, threats of melanoma (and looking like Judith Chalmers) all but forgotten in pursuit of the perfect orange hue. Then, tanked up on beer and heatstroke, they clog up the high streets, exuding body odour and urine. (I accept that this last bit may be exclusive to Essex)

5) Did I mention it’s just too bloody hot?

No. I like spring and I like summer, but I prefer it when the temperatures are pleasantly warm and not the kind of heat which is only appropriate if you have a swimming pool and a large margarita.

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The Daily Misogyny

I fucking hate the Daily Mail. In the sense that I would happily pulp all known copies and turn them into papier-mache sculptures of Germaine Greer and Emmeline Pankhurst sticking their middle fingers up at Piers Hernu (in fact, I might do that anyway)

But I fucking hate it. In this case, I think the swear word is justified; I know they say that profanity is the last resort of the barely literate (or something) but bollocks, sometimes a well-time f bomb is the most effective way of emphasising just how godawful something is.

There are many reasons I hate the Mail; it’s obsession with things that will give you/cure cancer, the way casual racism is portrayed as legitimate news, the proliferation of ‘non-stories’ usually involving celebrities appearing in various states of undress. There seems to be an increase recently in the number of these, and they are starting to take an unpleasantly body-fascist stance.

Skim across the Mail’s website today (I did it, so you don’t have to) and the following articles appear at various points on the Sidebar of Doom:

Sarah Jessica Parker has ‘sinewy, bony legs’

Elle McPherson ‘has lumpy foot’

Natalie Imbruglia ‘wears same dress twice’

Estelle ‘has new teeth, looks better’

It’s fairly standard dross and typifies the kind of judgemental non-story the Mail specialises in. There is no story in these articles; they are not in the least bit newsworthy. Just a couple of pictures of an invariably female celebrity not conforming to the rigorous aesthetic standards the paper sets. However small their deviation (and really, who gives a shiny shite whether Natalie Imbruglia wears a dress twice) it’s written as if the celeb has left the house in, say, full Nazi regalia, or perhaps with a strap-on and nipple clamps.

The really unpleasant thing about it all, though, is that it encourages us to pass judgement on anyone who is in any way different – be it because they dress in an unorthodox way (or perhaps dare to wear clothes they spent good money on more than once) or because parts of their body are ‘imperfect’. It is symptomatic of a society obsessed with criticising women who have not spent every hour of their life moulding themselves to fit the current image of perfection. So Sarah Jessica Parker has muscly legs and is a bit on the slender side. Who out there thinks this is significant?

It might be fluff, but it’s also becoming the norm; where once we might have brushed these things aside as just a symbol of the incredible diversity of the human body, or a celebration of freedom of choice, they are now held up as fodder for mockery. Not only is it extraordinarily rude, it’s pretty depressing too.

Surviving London Transport

Public transport in London is a uniquely miserable experience. There’s a certain etiquette to it all, an unspoken method which sets the London resident apart from the tourists. I don’t suppose they talk about it in the guidebooks, but the average London tube/bus journey is a Herculean ordeal, a strong dose of unhappiness and body odour.

You don’t talk on public transport. Unless you’re travelling with someone, but even then you should avoid talking to them excessively (and certainly, if you must talk, do it in a hushed tone) The whole point of it is to really focus on how mundane the experience is, preferably while meditating on the various failings of the system (i.e the correlation between increasing Oyster fares and time waiting for the next bus) If you’re not tutting to yourself, you’re not doing it properly.

You do not make eye contact. Ever. If you do, the other person(s) will think you are a) a mugger sizing them up b) a sexual predator sizing them up or c) an escaped mental patient. Never underestimate the paranoia of a Londoner. Best case scenario is you’ll be mistaken for a tourist, which is synonymous with “barely human” to many Londoners (not all; some Londoners, like me, are quite fond of tourists. But I’m something of an anomaly among Londoners, who can be viciously xenophobic outside of Designated Tourist Zones like Buckingham Palace) Worst case scenario is you’ll provoke the attention of one of our delightful Sun-reading, testosterone-exuding young men, who will assume you “Got A Problum” and attempt to engage you in combat.

You do not eat. Drinking is permitted, as long as it’s not alcohol; aside from the fact that it is now illegal to drink alcohol on public transport, you will be mistaken for a wino. And nobody wants that. You’ll sometimes see younger Londoners shoving greasy chicken in their fat little mouths, or chomping noisily on McDonald’s. Don’t be tempted to follow their example. Aside from the vast amounts of litter they produce, the nauseating stink of congealed fat and mutated chicken (some would question its chickeny credibility; popular alternatives include sparrow, squirrel and tourist) can be enough to make even the most stoic transport-goer tut and/or gag. If you do eat, please don’t wipe your hands on the seats; it’s unpleasant.

You do not expect a seat. On the buses, it’s more likely; the tube is usually crammed to the gills with business types, identifiable by their shiny briefcases, impracticle shoes and inflated senses of self-importance. Being businesspeople, they are of course superior specimens to the average miserable serf and will rush for seats as if their bonuses depend on it. Some business types will insist on securing a seat for their luggage, which they also consider to be superior to the average miserable serf. Requests to move their luggage will usually be met with stony silence.

Summertime on the tube is a particularly depressing experience; you will be forced to huddle among people with questionable bathing habits and exposed areas of clammy pink flesh, jostling for a prime position near a seat (watch for the struggle that ensues when a person vacates their seat on a crowded train; it’s pure entertainment) or near anything you can hang on to. Stifling heat and nasty smells can sometimes create an overwhelming combination and the less hardy traveller might faint. Don’t expect any sympathy if this happens to you. It causes delays and is extremely inconvenient. Nobody cares about your health or wellbeing. They just want to get to where they’re going without being held up by inconsiderate fainters.

If you do get a seat, you will be sized up by the other travellers, who will be assessing whether or not you deserve the seat. Unless you are disabled, pregnant or over 80 (and even if you are one or all of these) the likelihood is you will be met with grimaces of disapproval. I have been asked more than once to give up my seat for someone who did not appear to need it, but simply felt more deserving of it (and yes, they were businesspeople)

You do not sit next to someone unless there is no alternative; sometimes, standing is preferable. Sitting next to someone you don’t know on a half empty bus or tube is a deeply uncomfortable experience and will usually lead the other person to conclude that you are a) a mugger b) a sexual predator or c) a tourist. Or sometimes d) a terrorist, bent on blowing them up. If you are even the slightest bit dark-skinned (i.e you have a bit of a tan) and carry a rucksack, be prepared for people purposefully placing the greatest amount of distance they possibly can between you and them. This is a result of London paranoia and xenophobia, but it can be a great way of securing space during the hot summer months.

Lastly, do not smile. You are not supposed to like travelling in London; every effort has been made to ensure a thoroughly detestable experience, from the vastly overpriced tickets to the stained, old-lady-wallpaper patterned seat covers and the scary racist graffiti thoughtfully provided by the city’s trogs. London transport is best served with a glower, and a side of drunken hen partygoers spilling their Smirnoff Ices on the seats and flashing their knickers at passing taxis.

Why I’m No Hollywood Atheist

I am an atheist. On the surface, a simple enough statement; I reject the existence of god, the idea that he created the world and continues to watch over us. And that does helpfully sum up my feelings on the matter, although it feels a little too trite for my liking.

Let me explain. I was raised a casual Catholic. I was never baptised or confirmed, but attended Mass and prayed before bed. I accepted, without question, the existence of a benevolent (but capricious) Christian god; I believed he watched me and judged my actions. As a kid, it felt a little bit like God was Santa Claus, and that to be put on his Divine Naughty List was the worst thing that could happen to me. I didn’t question it; grownups told me it was so, and therefore it must be.

I had a minor epiphany aged 13. I asked my nan one day “Do you believe in God?” fully expecting her to say yes, of course, and perhaps launch into the virtues of being a good Catholic girl like my father’s mother. But she didn’t. She looked thoughtful for a minute. Then she said “I don’t believe in God the way you do. I believe in nature.”

My nan’s beliefs were, and continue to be, a beautiful (if quite unconscious) mishmash of Wicca, Taoism and Jainism. She is very much an atheist, preferring to attribute the wonders and disasters of the world to forces of nature, of chaos and chance. I was spellbound by her explanations in a way I had never been with Abrahamic theism. Although I had learned a little about other religions at school, this was the first time I had been explicitly told that it was okay not to believe in god.

I felt a little bit liberated, truth be told. God had never been a satisfying explanation of the world. An increasing amount of what I was taught at church had begun to strike me as nonsensical, or hypocritical, and I had been torn between my duty to my community as a good Catholic and my own budding scepticism.

So my nan opened my eyes to the possibility that not only might God not exist, but that might not actually be a bad thing. And as I’ve grown older atheism has made more and more sense to me; I feel no mourning for the loss of my religion, my god, my church. It’s not that I look down upon these things as symbolic of my impressionable youth, although I do wonder how much of my belief was taught and not formulated individually. I just don’t feel as if I’ve really lost anything.

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of atheism as a legitimate way of seeing the world (I reject the term ‘belief’ – atheism is not about belief, not about faith. It it precisely the opposite) and I’m truly pleased; it wasn’t very long ago that one could be severely punished for such a blasphemy as claiming god did not exist. But with freedom of (non) belief comes spokesmen. Men and women who feel qualified to speak on behalf of all atheists. Real-life atheists and those created for TV and film suddenly become representative of atheists as a whole.

Just as Sarah Palin does not represent all Christians, and Osama Bin Laden does not represent all Muslims, so Richard Dawkins and Dr. House do not represent all atheists. Now, both Dawkins and House put forward very legitimate points of view and I certainly can’t claim to disgree with a fair bit of what they say. When House says “Religion is not the opiate of the masses; religion is the placebo of the masses.” I find myself nodding, thinking back to my own childhood.

I think my problem with it all is partly that both Dawkins and House are deliberately acerbic. They’re not content with theorising and discussing the unlikelihood of theism. They are what I call ‘Hollywood Atheists’ – the kind of atheist who prefers to approach the issue of faith and religion with flamethrowers, miniguns, tanks and nukes, firing round after round until religion is reduced to a smouldering lump of conjecture.

Thing is, not all atheists are so damn aggressive. And not all of us are so egotistical about it all. I can accept the possibility (however slim I may perceive it to be) that I might be wrong. I don’t think I am; in fact, I’m really quite sure that there is no god. But I’m totally comfortable with admitting to the small margin of error left by my calculations. We can never be sure. It’s true that the burden of proof rests with the believer; they have to prove beyond doubt that their god exists in a real, physical sense before an atheist will concede (and I really don’t see why it ought to be any other way)

I’m not arrogant. I know why people believe; it’s quite a reasonable thing to do, when you think about it. And some aspects of faith are really quite beautiful; there are passages in the Qu’ran and Bible, in the Torah and Bhagvad Gita that inspire me as well as the ones which repel me utterly. I don’t reject all religious ideologies; just the idea that a divine being has anything to do with it.

I love Dr. House, by the way. I find him hilarious. I find the show extremely entertaining. But I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable with the idea that he is ostensibly representing pretty much all atheists. Sure, a lot of the things he says are, in my opinion, fairly accurate. But it’s the manner in which he says them. Not all atheists are so quick to offend.

So no, I am not a Hollywood Atheist. I’m sure there are quite a few atheists who are. I’m sure, like Christian fundies and Muslim jihadis, they inspire people to assume that the majority of atheists are angry foot-stompers who decry religion as the febrile sputterings of brainwashed fools in large numbers. But for the rest of us, Hollywood Atheism is a bit of a straw man used (frequently by the Daily Mail) to prove that we are all soulless nasties with no respect for our fellow man. And that’s not a badge I’m comfortable wearing.

Daily Mail in “Women are Evil” shocker

It should come as no surprise to you that I despise the Daily Mail with every inch of my being. It’s exemplary of everything I hate in the world: right-wing tinfoil hat wearing paranoia, unabashed sexism, furious hatred of anyone not white, middle class and Christian, sloppy shock-journalism, Richard Littlejohn.

The Femail section is a particularly odious hive of half-arsed bollocks. It tends to feature fluffy articles about women looking “fat” in celebrity dresses, doom-laden articles about career women who LEFT IT TOO LATE to have children, and realised that actually, a baby was ALL THEY EVER WANTED but because they were 40 and therefore ‘past it’, ended up losing their legs and arms and teeth during childbirth. And of course, thinly-veiled attacks on Those Nasty Feminists.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s rant. Femail is currently running an article detailing how women are mostly competitive, jealous harridans eager to make each other look fat and ugly so they can look beautiful and young and therefore successful. It’s a typically nasty piece of journalism created to foster distrust among women – the idea that there is an epidemic of women habitually trick their friends into wearing ill-suited clothing sounds lifted straight out of The Devil Wears Prada. It’s a caricature of female friendships.

The author talks about her friend Jayne, who was one of these terrible witches and made her variously resemble Maggie Thatcher, a pottery teacher on day release (eh?) and a pregnant woman.  And to be fair, Jayne does sound like a nasty piece of work, assuming she really is as cutthroat and ruthless as the author purports. However, she also admits: “My fashion disasters continued, but they were now down to my own innate lack of style rather than any sinister ‘sisterly’ acts of sabotage”. A sentence which makes me wonder whether her poor clothing choices were really her own fault all along, with Jayne set aside as a convenient scapegoat. Who knows? I do know, though, that if women like Jayne do exist, they’re almost certainly influence by the kind of nasty, disparaging, judgemental articles peddled by the Mail and their ilk:

Britney Spears wear clothes we don’t approve of!

Kristen Stewart gets damp, looks ‘like a drowned rat’

Kim Kardashian looks pale and therefore ugly! (bonus hypocrisy points for the ‘dangers of tanning’ article sat alongside this one)

Kim Cattrall dares to look her age!

Kate Moss is hideous witch, die die die!

With these kind of articles becoming a daily feature in rags like the Mail and Sun, it can’t be any wonder that women like Jayne are supposedly on the increase. We’re practically force-fed the message that we must be prettier, thinner, better than other women, and that women who don’t fit the current ideal should be mocked and derided. But I’m not convinced we’re at that stage yet. I think a better explanation comes from the author herself:

I suspect the majority of us praise our friends’ clothes because we’re too kind – and cowardly – to be honest.

“We’d rather gasp ‘Wow!’ when a friend arrives at her 40th birthday party in unforgiving leggings than enquire: ‘Did you think you were appearing on the Jeremy Kyle show?'”

Because of this culture of superficiality, we’ve developed a society in which our good looks are sacred and so telling a girlfriend that her trousers are giving her a camel toe is now akin to calling her grandmother a whore – it’s just not the done thing.  Not when we can open up the Mail and laugh unashamedly at someone a little too fat, a little too droopy or pale or just different to ourselves.