Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Blasphemy, blas-for-you, blas-for-everybody...

He spotted the warning signs straight away.
Maybe it was the steam coming out of my ears, or the sparks flying from my eyes, but after all these years together, the Ovver Arf can tell when I'm about to clamber up onto my high horse and start ranting.

Poor fella, I could almost hear him groan internally before I even let out an outraged "What?" at my computer screen.

He's not the only one. There's many a soul sistah or bruvva over the years that have dragged me away from confronting bar-fly bigots when we're supposed to be out for a 'nice, quiet drink'. To be fair, I probably owe the fact that I've reached the grand old age of (ahem) umpty-um relatively unscathed to them judiciously removing me from possible confrontations.

I'm pretty easy-going, tolerant and generally lovely (or so I like to think). But I do have some strongly-held views. I also know that plenty of folk diametrically disagree with me, so I usually take a 'live and let live' stance and avoid rocking the boat by challenging them.

There are times.
Times when the steam starts flying and the sparks start shooting, and I just have to let out some of the righteous indignation boiling up within me.

The latest case in point came last night when my evening's trolling of the internet landed me on the news that a 27-year-old Greek man had been arrested and charged with blasphemy.

Blasphemy? Didn't that go out with the Spanish Inquisition?

I check the calendar. Sure enough, it IS the 21st century. And yet a man has been arrested, in a modern European country, for blasphemy.

His crime? Creating a satirical Facebook account for the persona of 'Gero Patstitsio' (pastitsio is a popular Greek dish of layered minced meat, pasta and bechamel sauce) in parody of the late 'Gero Paisios', a monk revered by many of the country's faithful for his piety and wisdom.

So what? you might say (especially if you spent your teen years reading 'Private Eye').
So what? indeed...

But here's the nub. 'Gero Patstitsio' has been trolling various websites, including those sympathetic or supportive of the extreme right nationalist Golden Dawn party. And it seems he's touched a raw nerve along the tentacles of influence they use to reach out to many Greek folk for whom their Orthodox Christianity is as much a clan allegiance as it is a matter of faith. 

Let's not forget something here. These are the same people who viciferously claim their right to freely express their diatribe. The ones that gained a degree of respectibility since winning votes in the Greek Parliament. Their opinions offend me, and many others, to the core - and yet we have to respect their right to spout them if we truly believe in the freedom of speech.

Am I the only one to see the heart-aching irony in the criminalisation of someone whose crime is creating a parody of a dead monk to satirise modern Greek society? This is, after all, the birthplace of satire - thanks to Aristophanes et al all those years ago.

In nearly a quarter of a century that I've lived here, I've learned that religion is woven into fabric of Greek society. And believe me, you don't want to take on a determined God-fearing Greek yiayia (granny). They've lived through a lot and they're a lot tougher than they look, despit their litany of aches and pains.

I have no faith. So, like a cuckoo in the nest, I'm the odd one out. But like a smart cuckoo, I don't make an issue of it beyond politely declining when encouraged to genuflect and kiss icons on Holy Days. I try to respect others beliefs but hope they will grant me the same courtesy.

Religion is still strong here, and the relatively crude humour of Gero Pastitsio is not going to bring about the fall of the Greek Orthodox Church. Just like the antics of Pussy Riot were never any threat to the Russian Church. Surely, both are robust enough to survive a little ridicule? 

OK, I promise to climb down from my high horse now.
I've come off the boil and the red mist is clearing.

But if you care about the freedom of expression of opinions (yes, even the ones you abhor) and think that blasphemy laws are out-dated, you might want to consider signing this petition http://www.change.org/petitions/greek-parliament-free-geron-pastitsios-and-abolish-greek-anti-blasphemy-laws?utm_campaign=petition_creator_email&utm_medium=email&utm_source=share_petition


Friday, 14 September 2012

Specs and mugs and rock ‘n’ roll

Middle age crept up on me.

There I was, minding my own business, getting on with being me, when suddenly it leapt out at me as I turned a corner in my late 40s.

At first, I wasn’t too surprised. Let’s face it, I’ve been spreading middle age spread on my toast for some time now (though I still prefer Marmite). 

I thought I was cool with the inevitable.

Turns out I was in denial – and I’m not talking about a river in Egypt.

This week brought me back down to reality with a bump. Summer’s over, school’s back in (for now), unpaid bills glare at me accusingly from the ‘To Do’ pile, the ManChild is more Man than Child these days (he’s shot past my 5 ft 10 height and wears boats with laces on his feet), a good inch of mousy grey winks at me when I run my hands through my hair, and the highlight of my Saturday night is a nice cup of tea.

I’m wearing SLIPPERS as I write this, for pity’s sake!
(The Ovver Arf is thrilled – he’s been raging against my bare feet for the past 23 years)

And reading glasses too, to stop the letters doing the Macarena in front of my lens-enhanced myopic eyes. Talk about adding insult to optic injury.

Applying a slash of eyeliner for that desired 'Rock Chick' look on a rare night out results in something half way between ‘trying WAY too hard’ and 'hasn’t slept since Tuesday’.

And as I pull my aging band t-shirt over my head I'm making a mental shopping list (bleach, eggs, bananas, washing up liquid, Coco Pops, toothpaste...) and planning the coming week’s menus. Whatever happened to 3am burgers on a Wednesday and a roast peanut sandwich for a very late Sunday lunch?

Life happened, I suppose.

After a false start, I found the love of my life – in Greece (tells you something that I had to leave the country to find my soulmate, eh?). We make a son together. And a life. And a big pile of debts, obligations and concerns. And then there's the conspiracy of events trying to throw my adopted country into the waste disposal of 21st Century history, adding to my mid-life angst. Now maybe you understand the flashes of silver twinkling from my scalp?

But I won't give in without a fight. So long as there's hair dye in my shade on sale in the supermarket and I can still pull on a pair of jeans without ironing them first, I refuse to surrender to mid-life frumpiness (or worse, over-groomed, tweezed, teased and panic-stricken Yummy Mumminess).

For deep in my soul, a driving guitar riff and a stick-smashing drum solo still play - LOUD. 

And who’s to say I can’t step up to the mike with a cuppa in my hand?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How to change a life – teachers that make a difference

A long time ago in a classroom far, far away, I was taught a valuable lesson in humility.

Writing had always been my ‘thing’. It was something that came easily to me, I’d already decided I wanted to become a journalist, and by the age of 14 I had received enough praise from assorted teachers to become a bit cocky (or unbearably smug, depending on your point of view).

That changed the day our English teacher, Mr Gear, asked me to read out one of my essays to the class.

I can’t remember what the assignment was, but I had written a story in which I made heavy use of a recurring metaphor. And I say ‘heavy’ I mean the weight of anti-matter that can only been found on this planet hurtling round a huge subterranean tubes in Switzerland being monitored by over-excited physicists.

Think Adrian Mole at his pretentious worst, after being force-fed Barbara Cartland.
Yes, it was THAT bad.

My chosen metaphor was blossom being blown from a cherry orchard by cold spring winds. By the time I'd read the first three paragraphs, there was a mountain of metaphorical petals at my feet and I was sniggering at my own absurdity. By the end of my 'masterpiece', the entire classroom was howling with hysteria, tears were streaming down everyone's cheeks and I could hardly speak (nay, breathe) because I was laughing so hard.

Luckily, I got the point about my own ridiculousness, though the occasion held the potential for the kind of public humiliation that most adolescents would rather eat their own buttocks than face. 

But what else could I expect? This was the teacher where studies of Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot came to an abrupt halt when he got bored and decided to hold a Pop Quiz that sparked a heated debate about the colour of Noddy’s car (yellow), call in the school nutter from another classroom to show us his charging bull impersonation, stage desktop fashion shows if he spotted new shoes and have us seeking out the smutty bits in 'Twelfth Night'.

He was, in short, a brilliant teacher, though I believe some of the more timid in our school were terrified of catching his eye. To this day, after nearly three decades of earning my daily crust with words, I always keep the “less is more” mantra in mind.

Mr Gear was the third of four teachers I believe helped change my life. The first was the headmaster at my Middle School, an enthusiastic scientist who rewarded good work with boiled sweets and the privilege of cleaning the school pond of algae (yes, that was a reward!) or holding the smoke machine when he opened up the school beehives. Like Stephen Hawking at the opening of the London Paralympics, he urged us to “be curious”. The second was a mellifluous Welsh woman with a heart of gold and a voice of molten honey who planted in my heart an abiding love of words and music. The fourth was a radical college tutor who loved nothing more than provoking a furious political or philosophical argument while we were supposed to be picking 'Volpone' to pieces, who firmly planted the "question everything" seed.

I was lucky. Four is probably much more than I deserved. But I believe that most of us encounter at least one teacher during our school career who help change our life for the better by passing on their passion for their subject, encouraging us when no-one else believes in us or simply by challenging us to cultivate something within.

So, as children across Europe get back into the school year, I’d like to offer a small tribute to those great teachers, and a small word of thanks to those who touched my life, even if it did mean making a fool of myself.

Who influenced you the most during the school days? I’d love to hear.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Dream on

Have you ever woken up in the morning, scratching your head in puzzlement and asking yourself “What was all THAT about?”

Dreams are a fascinating subject – especially the science behind them. Though for most of us, they are primarily a personal movie playing out in our head, they are not always composed of images, as it is known that blind people and those who cannot visualize while awake also dream, mostly in sounds and sensations.

It is estimated that the average person can have 49,000 hours or more worth of dreams in their lifetime, so they must mean something surely?

I’ve applied an awful lot of amateur psychiatric self-analysis to my dreams over the past umpty-umm years I’ve been around. I’ve tried theories about suppressed desires, hopes and fears, and even old wives’ tales of the significance of black dogs (death), loose teeth (sexual anxiety or impotence) and naked supermarket shopping (exposure anxiety). But I’ve now I’ve reached the point when I’ve called a halt to the amateur analysis, and now just surrender myself as an amused spectator of my internal cinescope.

I guess I’m pretty lucky that I have had very few nightmares in my life (or at least if I have I don’t remember them). Those that I do recall seem to have a feel of a Tim Burton film, though sadly without Johnny Depp.

Perhaps the worst dream I can recall came about three years after my beloved granddad died. He was a gentle, charming, loving and highly moral man, but for some reason, in my dream he appeared as a monster which I had to protect the baby I had been given to care for from (this was long before I became a mother or even started thinking about having kids). I woke up in floods of tears, more out of a sense of betrayal because my sub-conscious had thrown up such a dream about the man who played such a big part in my happy childhood, than any sense of fear. I still haven’t worked out what that was all about.

But that was the exception. Most of my dreams are vaguely amusing, surreal and lucid (in full colour and, if I am particularly enjoying the plot, I can sometimes go back to sleep and continue it to see what happens next).

Dream Scape No.1:
I’m walking through some woods (which I instinctively know are somewhere in East Sussex) with a group of friends from college, when we come across a clearing with a large, well-maintained swimming pool in it. For some reason, we conclude that we must have wondered onto land owned by Paul McCartney. It’s a hot day and there’s no-one around, so we decide to take a dip. But the minute we hit the water it turns into a purple cloud which floats off, with us on board, into the summer sky.
[No, there was no substances anywhere near me before, during or after this dream]  

Dream Scape No.2:
Back in my early teens. I’m sitting on a bench at the mouth of a cave, making small talk to a terribly well-dressed and eloquent vampire (as you do). All is well, until he gives a little sigh, turns to me and says “And now, my dear, I must pierce your neck.”
[OK, this one doesn’t take a lot of analysis. Awakening sexual awareness, mysterious strangers, blood, danger, etc. Sort of like my own personal ‘Twilight’ 30 years before Bella and Edward got their act together]

Dream Scape No.3:
I’m visiting my mum in the house I grew up in. For some reason, the trip from Greece to Gatwick has been a grueling one, so I tell my mum I’m going to have a lie-down in my old bedroom, in the middle of the day (gasp!). However, I’m too wired up to sleep so I decide to go down into the town to walk it off. So, I calmly put my bed into gear, drive it down the stairs, out the front door, and down the road where I park it in the middle of town. The bed sits there, complete with matching duvet cover and valance, waiting for me to finish my stroll round the shops.
[Answers on a postcard, please. Personally, I haven’t got the foggiest idea]

Dream Scape No.4:
I seem to be young again. I’m wearing a long white nightgown and I'm heading for my bedroom, but for some reason it is in a dark forbidding building (perhaps something like the Victorian infants school I attended – and ran away from). To reach my room, I have to walk through some long, damp, unlit corridors. I’m not wearing my glasses or contact lenses so everything is a blur. It is seriously creepy, but I’m not scared because I have my dog with me. I seem to recall this dog as a character from other dreams. He’s big and scruffy, possibly with a dose of Irish Wolfhound in the mix, and vaguely annoying in a good-natured way. He walks along beside me, occasionally grabbing my hand in his mouth in a bid to get me play. But I know that if anyone or anything tried to do me any harm, he’d see them off in a blink of an eye.
[Maybe this is a metaphor for uncertainty about the future? Interesting that there is something with me that stops fear taking over. Not sure who or what the dog represents. An aspect of myself, perhaps?]

If you’ve read this far without falling asleep or coming to the conclusion that I’m an acid-fried old hippy (not guilty) or a raging psychopath (also not guilty - honest), I’d love to hear about your dreams.

If nothing else, they might give us a starting point for a screenplay we could try to flog to Tim Burton.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Time wounds all heels

I’m no Carrie Bradshaw.

Despite my arty-farty aspirations and claims that I don’t follow trends cos I’m more interested in my own personal style, no-one has EVER put the word Fashionista anywhere near my name. 

I simply cannot work myself into a paroxysm of girlish glee at the sight of a spikey-heeled instrument of torture that everyone from Vogue, to Nuts, to The Independent tell me I must dribble with desire over if I’m a REAL woman.

Even in my teens, back in the dodgy days of the early '80s when being in fashion meant nicking my Dad’s jumpers and stretching them beyond all recognition, I was several degrees ‘off’ from the uber-cool ones who made Oxfam rejects look amazing. I just looked like a slightly confused, over-sized wannabe art student who pretends to read Sylvia Plath poetry but really prefers the sophistication and subtlety of 1980s British TV comedies like ‘The Young Ones’. I was simply not put on this earth to be a clothes horse.

For a start, my body is NOT fashion friendly. I’m more like a messy, effusive St Bernard puppy than a Whippet. And like my doggy soulmate, I have a tendency to unwittingly provoke damage wherever I go with my manicly wagging tail and insanely grinning mouth.

Secondly, I HATE shopping. With a passion. I’m convinced that I develop a genuine physical reaction after the first 30 minutes of traipsing round the shops, trying (and failing) to find that perfect something that both sends the right message about my personality and (crucially) fits without making me look like a demented hairy mammoth on speed.

It’s not just the awful sameness of everything in the shops – and by implication, the way we’re supposed to present ourselves to the world – it’s also the soul-destroying strip lighting in the changing rooms and the sneers of assistants as I try to coax a pair of must-have jeans up any further than the lumps of correlated fat above my knees. It's just SO boring - and sweaty.

When others talk about 'shopping therapy', I'm mentally checking the Yellow Pages for specialists who can fit me in for an emergency session after I've endured an afternoon of shop-trolling. 

It’s not that I don’t like new stuff. I LOVE new stuff! But the process involved in getting it (even without the screams of protests coming from my credit card) seems to eclipse all the joy.

Thirdly – and this seems to be the real ‘clincher’ – Mandi doesn’t do heels.

At 5 foot 10 inches (1.78 metres to you metric bods), I never have, and never will. Despite protestations from almost all my girlfriends that the right heels will make my hated, lumpen legs look amazing, I’m unconvinced. Images of the certain chubby girls from my schooldays in the '70s and '80s parading around in bare legs (in February) and stilettos are still burned into my brain, bringing to mind purple mottled thighs and the phrase “pigs on stilts”. I have enough trouble with my body image without adding porcine elevation, stabbing pain and the ability to look over the heads of EVERYONE on the bus, instead of just 90% of the passengers.

The few occasions on which I’ve been persuaded to give high heels a go have not ended well. The unaccustomed change to my posture makes we walk like someone suffering simultaneously from sciatica and severe gastroenteritis. My ankles have panic attacks and simple collapse sideways the minute they’re lifted more than a couple of inches from the ground. And if I manage to hobble my way through the day in heels, I pay for it in blisters, swollen ankles and shooting arrows of agony through the balls of my feet. 

Frankly, I'd rather people would just focus on what's going on from the neck up than obsessing about what I'm wrapping around my freakishly long toes and cracked heels.

Everywhere I look, I see woman in high heels – apparently not in agony. This worries me. How can they DO that? Is there something anatomically incorrect about me? OK, I’m a big lass, but I see super-sized Weebles out there strutting their stuff with six-inch nails coming out the heels. 
How do they do it? 
Levitation? Meditation? Heavy sedation?

If I don’t drool over a ridiculously overpriced of (admittedly nice looking) pair of designed-labelled courts, I feel like I’ve put myself into the corner along with the other oddballs, mis-fits and freaks (again). And if I express my distaste at a pair of hooker heels, I feel like the world is looking at me as if I’ve just exposed myself as a smelly, hairy, man-hating feminist. 

Believe me, I don’t hate men.

Maybe, despite my height, I’m part hobbit?
The idea of never having to wear shoes because you’ve got a nice pair of comfy feet that take care of themselves with tough leather soles and warm, hairy uppers sounds like the ideal solution.

And if you want to make a fashion statement from the ankles downwards, all you need is some funky hair dye and some curling tongs....