Christmas markets

Bah humbug to you, too

We’ve just got home from an afternoon at our local Christmas markets. We live fairly close to the town centre, so going and getting a cup of Glühwein is as simple as putting shoes on and going round the corner.

Now that I’m home in the warmth, I’ve just opened the newsfeed, and what do I see but the annual Complaint About Christmas. Nell Frizzell, writing in the Guardian, explains why she’s opting out of Christmas:

Christmas is the stick with which millions of us beat ourselves into brandy-soaked agony for being poor, single, childless, lonely, or simply bad at being jolly. It’s one thing to be single, skint and surrounded by dysfunctional relatives, but it’s quite another when the entire capitalist world is telling you that this is the most magical time of the year. We seem to have lost the script to a pantomime we never even believed in. We have ruined Christmas, without even trying.

Except that Christmas, in its modern incarnation, is an intrinsically capitalist enterprise. You can read here about how Victorian confectioners and other merchants quickly realised that Christmas was an ideal time to sell stuff, and how the modern orgy of spending evolved from there.

Because of all of that, I’ve spent most of my adult life being pretty cynical about Christmas. It all came to a head a few years ago, when I watched a little boy of about six, sitting on his mother’s lap, practically hyperventilating from stress. He was being given present after present, by doting grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, and it was too much for him. At a very young age, he was expected to open the presents and exclaim in delight at whatever was inside, to satisfy the adults who’d bought them. If he wasn’t sufficiently delighted, the present givers were visibly disappointed, which they showed by picking up the present and wiggling it in his face, to get him to engage with it. But the presents kept coming – a tidal wave of crap rolling over his lap, that eventually overwhelmed him.

Since living in Germany, though, Mr BC and I have really got into the spirit of things, mostly because it’s impossible not to. For a start, the town council drops pine trees off on our street, one per every two houses. We live in an historic area, and it’s expected that the price we will pay for this is help to keep it looking nice for visitors. Decorating the Taxpayer Tree is one of the obligations.

Nobody gives you instructions on how to decorate the trees, but you naturally understand that some things – like tinsel and coloured lights – are verboten. Bows are OK, balls are OK, and wooden ornaments are even better. The town’s decorations themselves are all based around pine trees and white lights. About a month before Christmas, the sound of hammering and sawing comes from the town square, and bundles of pine trees are dragged in and left lying on the ground, like dead bodies wrapped in green.

And then, all of a sudden, a wooden village throws its doors open, the music cranks up, and the kettles start simmering with hot wine. All the neighbours come out and have a drink together, and the people in the huts recognise us from last year, and it’s a reminder that we exist as part of a community.

As evening falls and braziers get lit, it’s also a glimpse into a much older time, when this was predominantly an agricultural festival centred around the winter solstice – a celebration of plenty, before the famine months of January, February and March. It was when cattle were slaughtered, making it the last time fresh meat would be available, and the time of year when wine and beers finished their fermentations. Celebrating Christmas means taking part in a deep human ritual, that’s been going on since Neolithic times.

And then there are all the little rituals we’ve piled on top. I’ve just finished eating some gingerbread cake made by a friend of ours, from her grandmother’s recipe. Her children don’t like it, and she was going to stop making it this year, except that we put our hands up to take some. She was – and I don’t exaggerate – thrilled that she had a reason to keep her grandmother’s recipe alive.

We don’t, in the West, have many rituals left to us: weddings, funerals, Armistice Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s. That’s pretty much it in terms of times where we can down tools as a community. Contrast that to the middle ages, where every other day was a feast day or a saint’s day. And of what we have left, only Christmas Day reliably either brings us together, or forces us to reflect on just why we’re not coming together. It’s when employers shut their doors and the whole country – with a few medical and emergency exceptions – takes a much-needed break. In a world where private time is becoming a privilege that can be taken away at any time by employer demands, that alone is reason to celebrate.

Which brings me to a relatively modern Christmas ritual: the lament over the commercialisation of Christmas, and the worry about the way Christmas festivities serve to make the lonely, the sick and the bereft even more isolated.

I understand this – my mother died a few days after Christmas three years ago, and my grief renews as Christmas approaches. But, overall, this is a good thing. What other time of year do we all stop and think about the people left out? About the people who have died and the people we don’t see any more? How often, at other times of the year, do we stop and think about the corrosive effect of filling our lives with stuff?

After all, the solution to social evils like loneliness isn’t to pretend they don’t exist – it’s to do something about them. Christmas is very, very good at drawing those things to our attention.

And how often, frankly, do you get to start the day with a chocolate? Mr BC and I have got into the whole German Advent calendar ritual, where each day presents you with a new chocolate, right up to Christmas Eve. We like it so much we thought about buying 12 Advent calendars each, so we could keep going the whole year.

Anyway, it’s the last day of the Christmas markets today, so time to go and get another hot wine before the place closes at 9pm. And then we can enjoy the next ritual on the calendar – all the neighbours coming out and pilfering the leftover Christmas market trees, to put up in their living rooms.

Merry Christmas,


Baggage claims, Frank Doran, and the art of having a crap day

Anybody here had a really crap day? If so, put your story in the comments box and share the misery.

I’ll go first. I had a crap day today.

It kicked off at 4.00 am, when I found myself trapped in a luggage wrap nightmare.

See, there are people in Spanish airports who will wrap your luggage snugly in green plastic wrap, to protect it from dodgy baggage handlers who might be tempted to rummage through your stuff. All the passengers on their way to my South American destination made a beeline for the wrap machine and had everything they owned covered in the stuff.

Oddly enough, they had a huuuuuge amount of luggage to wrap – double and even triple the amount of luggage you’re supposed to take on a flight. Even more oddly, the people at the check-in counters didn’t seem to care, but just let the excess luggage sail down the conveyer belt, unchallenged.

As it happened, I got my luggage wrapped too, because the check-in lady told me to. She warned me the baggage handlers at my destination couldn’t be trusted, and my luggage would be tampered with if it wasn’t protected. So my bag got the green wrap treatment too.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unfortunately, when we finally touched down, so did another international flight, which landed at exactly the same time as mine. Developing countries aren’t that great at bureaucracy anyway, and certainly not at  four in the morning. There were only a handful of customs people to deal with hundreds of tired passengers, too sleepy to fill in the multiple forms properly, particularly as the forms were written in three-point type. It took nearly an hour to get to a counter and then into the baggage hall.

Which is where the real nightmare began. The single baggage carousel couldn’t cope with the amount of luggage coming through, so airport staff simply grabbed everything as it came out, and threw it into the middle of the floor, for hundreds of people in a confined space to sort out between themselves.

And every bag was covered in green wrap and looked the same.

It was pandemonium.

But the nightmare didn’t end once your baggage had been located – because we then had to pass through the ‘something to declare’ line (there wasn’t a ‘nothing to declare’ option) and have every piece of baggage opened and inspected.

It turned out the reason nearly everybody had so much extra luggage was because they were smuggling. They’d gone to Europe  and stocked up on everything from Barbie dolls to branded pants, intending to sell it back home on the black market.

There was just one official dealing with it. She had to singlehandedly slash off the green stuff with her Stanley knife, while listening to people bullshit her about how those three coffee makers were nothing more than gifts for caffeine-crazy nieces and nephews.

To be honest, the sheer ineptness of the smugglers made me think they deserved all the fines coming their way. Who goes to Europe to pay over the odds for cheap plastic crap to smuggle?

Except there are no fines coming their way, because after the baggage-opening charade, the miscreants were allowed to repack everything and walk away, with no consequences. The whole thing was Kafka-esque.

Anyway, the early morning hour, the jet lag, the mess, the crowding and the slowness made everybody tense, to say the least. It felt like a riot was about to break out, especially when people started fighting over who was in which place in the queue.

A riot didn’t break out, of course, but I was trapped in that horrible, horrible room for over an hour, so it was around 6.00am before I got out to meet the person who’d been patiently waiting since 4.00am.

Still, it could have been worse. I could have said stupid things and been ridiculed for them in the national press.

Just ask Frank Doran. He had a really crap day:

Labour MP Frank Doran has came under fire for suggesting the post of fisheries minister would be unsuitable for a woman – and denied the remark was sexist because “I know the fishing industry”.

When challenged by Tory MP Sheryll Murray  – who pointed out there have been former female secretaries of state – he blithely replied: “You’re absolutely right but no dedicated fisheries ministers. I’m not sure it is a job for a woman although the honourable lady might reach that.”

Unfortunately for him, Murray knows a thing or two about the industry – her fisherman husband died after getting tangled in a net.

Not only that but, as has been pointed out in the hours since, Norway’s Ministry of Fisheries – the world’s second biggest exporter of fish – is a woman, Elisabeth Aspaker.

So Doran didn’t just make a public prat of himself once, but twice.

Poor man.

If he needs a bolt hole while he waits for the laughter to die down, I know a baggage claim hall he can hide in.

On doxing, political correctness, and freedom of speech

I’ve just endured one of the most tedious rituals of modern life – the airport patdown (which autocorrect has tried to turn into ‘putdown’ – which kind of works too). Now I’m in the lounge with the news running behind me, and the latest news it that the Spanish government has just shut down the Uber app.

All of which has made me think about political correctness – and why I believe that the trolls are going to bring the current era of Internet freedom to a swift close.

Political correctness first.

First off, there’s always been a culture of ‘political correctness’ enforced, where ordinary citizens couldn’t say certain things without fear of reprisal. Exhibit A: Galileo.

However! There does appear to be a culture of grievance gathering pace, with Twitter hordes waiting to declare just about anything offensive and hurtful, and in need of banning or covering up. Whether it’s criticising a scientist for wearing a bad shirt, to banning speakers from appearing at universities, there seems to be a new Puritanism in the air. The most egregious examples of this seem to be coming from university students, but they’re not the only culprits by any means.

Many people – including doughty feminist warrior Julie Bindel – have discussed the phenomenon, noting that online squabbles have become a substitute for meaningful political action.

Why all the shrinking violet behaviour? Especially from college types, who historically were the most likely to go to the barricades for freedom, rather than shelter behind trigger warnings.

Perhaps the risk-averse helicopter-parenting of the past few years has played a role. Perhaps the dropping of the Fairness Doctrine, which has allowed US media outlets to become nakedly partisan, has been part of it. It’s now possible for people to cocoon themselves in media that reflects their own worldview back at them; it must be a genuine shock for some people to discover that much of the world doesn’t believe the same stuff they do.

But my airport experience today suggests to me that this drive to shut down things that are hurtful or offensive can’t be discussed without acknowledging the role of the post-September 11 security apparatus.

I remember as a kid walking through metal detectors to get to the plane – and that was the sum total of hassle. Today, there’s a whole ritual of public humiliation involved in travel, that includes belt removal, shoe removal, jacket removal and opening of bags to display your cosmetics to the world. And then, if you wear bras with underwire that set off the metal detector (as I do), there’s being invited to stand in a public space while a woman runs her hands over you in an extremely intimate fashion.

This is so mundane now, that we forget there was a time when being treated like this without a good reason would have been considered outrageous.

This is the visible tip of the security iceberg. We’ve been hit with revelations about the NSA spying and about governments spying on us. We’ve learned that Facebook and Target and you name it will take our personal data and either sell it, or use it against us. And at every turn, we’ve been told that this loss of our civil rights and freedoms is being done for our own security, safety and user comfort.

‘Security’ and ‘safety’ are the new bywords for our age and have been used to justify every possible outrage, from the stripping away of personal privacy, to torture. We’ve been fed the lie that this theatre of security is absolutely necessary for the sake of civilisation, and if we don’t submit to it, the bogeyman will get us.

Something less well-known also happened that’s never been publicly explained, but which had an incredible impact on us.

Its this:

The international insurance industry was nearly crippled by the costs associated with September 11 and its aftermath. As a result, insurance premiums suddenly skyrocketed. Around the world, dusty little amateur theatres found their insurance premiums had spiked; doctors found their medical insurance soaring; playgrounds could no longer afford the cost of insuring their swings.

The great lie given as explanation was that insurance rates rose because too many people were suing doctors/ playgrounds/ theatre management. In a number of Western countries, tort law reform was rushed through the legal systems, to stop this non-existent wave of suing in its tracks.

The reality was that premiums rose because the two main reinsurers who underwrote the world’s insurance companies were broke and had to look down the back of every sofa for every penny they could find. One of the things they did to avoid future payouts was to insist that everyone who bought insurance had to become insulated from any type of risk, even where the risk was virtually non-existent.

So a new culture of ‘safety first’ sprang up to placate the insurance companies. You can see the aftermath of this at work in Britain – even the bloody escalator at Sainsburys will whisper to you that you need to mind your fingers when you clutch the handrail, as though you’re a moron.

So is it any wonder that the vocabulary of the millennial generation consists of safety, safety, safety? That the issue of ‘safety’ now trumps everything?

Finally, it’s a fact that the internet is a schizophrenic place to hang out, where voices come at you from all directions, many of them articulating dark and violent thoughts that would never be acceptable in the offline world. All too often, this stream of nastiness is aimed at vulnerable groups. It feels genuinely unsafe.

So what should a generation who have been trained to believe that safety trumps everything do?

They naturally do what they’ve been taught to do – they try and extinguish the unsafe thing.

This is the world that many Internet users have grown up in. It’s no wonder that every time they see something that offends or outrages them, they scurry over to to start a petition.

In a sane, pre-security-mad world, there would be four healthy response to unpleasant ideas/comments:

1. Consider if the person has a point, no matter how uncomfortable it is to have cherished beliefs challenged.

2. Rebut them.

3. Mock them/satirise them.

4. Ignore them.

Many people manage this.

But we live in a world where the relentless emphasis on security has led people to believe that wacko comments just might constitute a genuine threat to life and limb, just as that bottle of baby formula might – so we’re told –  be used to create a bomb inflight.

And, who knows? Maybe some nutter tweeting nastiness might turn out to be a killer.

So the online petitions to shut down the nutter, or remove the threatening whatever, begin.

Naturally, this new iteration of ‘political correctness’ has generated fierce backlash. Some of this is legitimate, in the sense that the opponents of political correctness are grappling seriously with the arguments and issues at stake, or they’re attacking it with humour and satire.

Some of the backlash, on the other hand, is illegitimate, in that we’re seeing trolls using ‘freedom of speech’ and manufactured outrage as a fig leaf cover for self-aggrandisement, bullying, harassment and doxing.  These people are, I believe, going to cause an Internet crackdown that none of us are going to like.

Here’s the problem.

The Anglophone countries accept a certain amount of obnoxious behaviour as the price of free speech. The Europeans do not. They prize the right to privacy above almost anything, for reasons dating back to World War II. They have never forgotten that one of the reasons the Nazis found it so easy to round up Jews, gays and disabled people was because they could walk into any European town hall and find a register of births, deaths, marriages and addresses sitting on the dais. The information needed to incinerate whole groups of people was sitting there, ready to be taken. And that’s why modern European governments have instituted incredibly strict privacy laws.

European governments are suspicious anyway of companies like Facebook and Google. They see them as tax evaders, for a start, and as a transnational force hellbent on undermining local economies. Hence, the banning of Uber in Spain – it’s a measure meant to protect local taxi drivers.

So all it is going to take is one high schooler or mentally unwell individual suiciding because of online bullying or doxing to bring down the EU hammer on entities like Google and Twitter. They will be under tremendous pressure to change their terms of business, and clamp down on online behaviour that’s deemed dangerous if they want access to EU markets.

At which point, those libertarian-run Internet companies will buckle at the knees, just as they’ve done in China. They don’t really believe in freedom of speech – they believe in freedom of profits.

Consider this – they know a lot about all of us. Anybody who uses the Internet is a known quantity to them. Do we really want to lose the right to anonymity? Or, conversely, to be blocked, banned or censored?

Sneering, rubbishing, satirising, criticising. These are all legitimate. People critiquing feminism, or rape culture, or whatever the meme-du-jour is, is legitimate. Not least because all ideologies and ideas should be critiqued and tested, to stand or fall on the quality of the rebuttal.

The Google reputation destruction, and the doxing, on the other hand, is really worrying, and not just because of the havoc it wreaks on its targets.

Because it might just be the thing that brings real freedom of speech to a screeching halt.

On claiming the moral high ground

Did you read about the attention-seeking blogger who attempted to blackmail the girl at the centre of the Rolling Stone storm and who then, when she didn’t reveal herself at his command, doxed her? And who is now offering money for any rumours about her that fellow students can dish up?

This is a girl that no-one has disputed is suffering from some kind of trauma.

What’s truly astounding about the blogger isn’t that he doxed her – we’ve come to expect nothing less from these people. His gloating and his boasting about his ‘journalism’ isn’t a surprise either. No, what’s jaw-dropping is that he’s comparing himself to Martin Luther:

As a Catholic convert I appreciate the irony of playing the role of a new media Martin Luther nailing his theses to the wall.

As someone interested in history, I appreciate the irony of him imagining he has something in common with the man who launched a much-needed attack on… the institution he’s converted to.

Except, of course, that Martin Luther was a man of principle. And this person isn’t.

EDITED: Originally I used this post to ask why so many Catholics were so misogynistic. Upon reflection, blaming this person’s behaviour on the Catholic church is very unfair. The responsibility for this kind of behaviour belongs with him, and him alone.

The man to avoid at all costs

When one of my closest girlfriends contacted me in distress to let me know her marriage was ending, I was sad to hear about it – but I wasn’t surprised.

She’d had a tough time from the moment she got married to the man I’ll call Tom. His all-encompassing business – the one he’d cut the honeymoon short to rush off and tend to – had never turned a profit, leaving her to pay the mortgage, the child care, the household expenses, and his medical costs. And yet, for all that she was running herself ragged keeping all the balls in the air, he never once lifted a finger at home, even to look after his own child.

After she discovered he was hooking up with other women – through an app that connects married people who want to have one night stands and affairs – she finally dumped his sorry arse.

I’m not in favour of people divorcing, particularly when there are small children involved, but in her case, she did the right thing. Tom is toxic.

The funny thing is, this wasn’t obvious to anyone when she met him. Usually girlfriends have fairly sensitive noses for men who are going to be trouble, but Tom didn’t set off any alarm bells among any of my group. He seemed good looking, personable and gainfully employed. He also seemed to adore my friend.

So we were all happy for her and dutifully turned up to the wedding and offered congratulations and best wishes.

Except there was one big, flashing, warning signal that we all overlooked.

Tom was divorced.

Now I’m sure there are some – not many, but some – men out there who were unfortunate enough to marry terrible wives, who were wise to extricate themselves from their sham marriages.

For the most part, though, a man who’s been divorced is damaged goods who is poor relationship material.

And, to be clear about it, it’s not the divorce that damaged him – it’s that he’s the kind of man who gets divorced in the first place that’s the problem.

Trying to make a relationship with him work is like buying clothes from the sales rack at the very end of the sales season, imagining that you’ve got a bargain. You haven’t. There’s a reason everyone else passed over that dress – it won’t fit properly, no matter how many accommodations you make.

First off, you have to ask yourself why he got divorced. There are usually only two reasons.

The first is that he’s not really capable of bonding with other people. Maybe he has attachment problems, who knows? Maybe he’s got an undiagnosed mental condition that gradually reveals its ghastly self over time, as in Tom’s case. So the first thing you need to do if you’re contemplating taking on a divorced man is look at all his other relationships. Does he have close friends? Good family relationships? Does he speak well of his co-workers and they of him?

If there are problems in any of these areas, don’t cut him any slack – just dash for cover. Most especially if you hear him describe other people as ‘stupid’, because it betrays a contempt for other people that’s certain to cause problems in the not too distant future.

The second likely reason a divorced man got the toss was probably down to something off about his personality. Workaholism, temper tantrums, controlling behaviours, that kind of thing.

His former wife may have known he had all those traits before she married him, but maybe she thought she could either accommodate him, or change him after marriage.

Worst idea ever. People don’t change. What you see at the beginning is what you get pretty much forever.

There is another possibility – that he judged his previous wife’s personality poorly and married someone who was totally unsuitable for him.

In which case, what are the odds he’s making same mistake with you? Marrying somebody whose judgement is so bad is just asking for misery.

As for the man who got dumped because he had an affair… yeah, no. He’ll betray you too, no matter how many protestations of fidelity he makes.

My friend was in the same position a lot of women get into at the end of their 20s – they’re looking to settle down. The men coming through the revolving divorce door that cranks up when theses guys are in their mid- to late-30s seemed an attractive option.

(The divorce bonanza happens later on as well. I heard a woman at work advise a lovelorn older co-worker that a whole bunch of men get dumped on the dating market around age 50, and that she could scoop one of those up.)

Nope. Don’t do it.

Run, don’t walk.

In almost every case, cats are a better option than a divorced man.

Don’t believe me? Well, the figures tell the tale – around 60% of second marriages end in divorce.

Who wants to risk their peace of mind, their life and their wealth with those kind of odds?

And you will risk your wealth – my friend now has to sell the home that she paid for, to pay out her ex.

There is a good reason these bargain bin men aren’t relationship material, as some ex-wife has already found to her cost. So leave him there.

Why isn’t there a fatherhood penalty?

Travel is an integral part of the industry I work in. If you want to get ahead, you have to be willing to board the plane. Sometimes this is fantastic, especially when it involves going somewhere new and interesting. Sometimes it’s just miserable, because all you see are hotel rooms and office interiors that look a lot like the ones you left behind you, only with an added helping of jet lag.

Anybody who works in a global industry faces the same pressures, even if they’re not in the air. They might be opening up Skype at 11pm local time, so they can have a work in progress meeting with their colleagues half a world away, or getting up at some ungodly hour to deal with an emergency.

This kind of life is absolutely terrible for people with kids.

Yet plenty of parents do it.  There’s one guy in my industry who’s constantly on the road, often engaged in discretionary travel to burnish his personal ‘brand’ (e.g. speaking at conferences), despite the fact that he’s got children under ten. I know about the stresses this puts on his family, because I heard him discussing it with a woman whose teenage daughter never sees her, because of her own relentless travel.

Then there are people who aren’t travelling, but who might as well be, because they’re tied to the office at all hours. Last year I met a salesperson for an American company, who told me he’s required to respond to every email he receives from a customer within two hours. He is required. Despite the fact that his customers are in different time zones,  which means his phone sometimes beeps while he’s asleep.

Breaking sleep has terrible health consequences, from depression to weight changes. Nobody who works outside of a socially critical area like medicine or emergency services should be asked to sacrifice their sleep like this.

We’re increasingly getting sucked into a toxic work environment, where nothing is off limits. Where every hour of the day, including holidays, can be handed over to an employer.

But the discussion remains solely focused on women and their careers, and how they manage the work/life balance. Why are fathers being left out of this? Why is it acceptable for men to be fathers in name only, seeing their children only on weekends or when they’re too tired to be properly present? And why is it acceptable for companies to demand this of them?

There will always be some professions where shift work, long hours and intense dedication are required. Those don’t represent most jobs, however. Most other jobs just aren’t important enough to capture someone’s whole life.

If we really cared about children and families, we’d have a culture that respected family time. Instead of employees sniping at one another because someone has to shoulder an intolerable extra burden when a colleague goes off to nurse a sick kid, we’d have workplaces where the work load was reasonable – where working long hours was a sign of incompetence, because it meant you weren’t getting stuff done in the time allotted.

Because kids – as many social commentators keep reminding us – need their dads.

Except they don’t really mean it. They mean that single mothers should be stigmatised, and that women should just accept that bringing up children is incompatible with a career. The idea of asking corporations to pull it back a bit for the sake of family life – or pointing out that when ambitious men focus solely on career advancement, it has consequences for their children – would be too revolutionary to contemplate.