Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Arranged or rearranged

I was fascinated to see a report in the Times on Monday that Arrange Me a Marriage, a new primetime show for BBC Two, aims to discover whether arranged marriages would work for British singletons. The presenter, a Glasgow matchmaker called Anella Rahman, aims to explore whether the principles of Asian marriage (match couples through background and life goals, provide prior vetting by family, tally expectations of marriage) will work better than the love criteria that most young Brits work to when choosing a mate.

I'm fascinated by the report for two reasons. First, this programme began conceptual life aiming to use a team of experts - and I was one of the people initially approached. I'm glad to say the producers changed their vision - glad because I genuinely believe that fielding use of just one Asian matchmaker creates a stronger and more interesting focus than the original scenario. So go, Aneela Rahman, go!

I'm fascinated secondly because I agree with the programme's premise. Of course I recognise the dangers of people marrying sight unseen, and of course everyone - including the most fervid supporters of arranged unions - would condemn forced or unwilling marriages.

But I also know, from the sharp end, that the traditional Western route to marriage has major drawbacks. For a start, it allows lust to massively dictate partner choice - and we know from research that the lust component of a union lasts a few years at most. But more, research also shows that the criteria that make for a long lasting and happy marriage are not the ones that many Western couples use to make their choice - but are the ones that inform the best arranged marriages. Common values, common opinions, common relationship expectations, common life aims - these are the things that recent studies show matter in love, not looks, or being 'cool', and certainly not the emotional neediness and dependency that motivate so many unions today.

I shall be watching Arrange Me a Marriage avidly, not only through enjoyment but also in the hope that it will hold love lessons for us all - and particularly for those of my readers who are currently in the process of choosing their life partners.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


For various reasons too complex (and medical) to explain, I am not a mother myself. But I do get thousands of letters every year from mothers who are struggling with some aspect of parenthood. I have no doubt that while it's the most rewarding role in life, it's also the hardest job in the world.

So I was unsurprised last week to read that a recent poll by Mother and Baby magazine suggests that the first 'baby year' in any new mother's life is the worst. Women approach motherhood - much as they often approach marriage - in a romantic haze, believing that while giving birth might be painful, what follows will be demanding but joyful. The reality can be very different.

New mothers, says the survey, are incredibly lonely. Once loving partner is back at work and supportive grandparents have gone back home, what remains is simply you and baby. Cut off from family, friend, work colleagues - trapped in a shiny house on a shiny and deserted estate - new mums can go stir crazy.

It didn't used to be like this, and to be frank, I don't think it should be like this. New Mums need regular, and nearby support - of the sort that was there when, 100 years ago, we lived next door to our own mothers and just across the road from our peer group who, like us, were busy giving birth. Now we mainly live hundreds of miles from our families, and are surrounded by neighbours who are gone for most of the week Overall, the average new mother spends only 90 minutes a day with other adults.

Yes, this too will pass. Babies grow and go to playschool. Children grow and go to big school. Mums go back to work and pretty soon are usually once more a happy part of society again. But during that first crucial year - when they deserve all the support society can offer - far too many women feel lonely and abandoned.

Two glimmers of hope here. First, Tesco supermarkets' latest scheme to get mothers and toddlers meeting up in their stores. Second, the Meet-a-Mum organisation Mama, which provides a befriending service for new, particularly postnatally depressed, mothers.

Great ideas both. But according to the Mother and Baby figures, just a drop in the ocean...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Call me Pollyanna...

I often get poo-pooed by both colleagues and peers for my optimistic attitude to life. I'm the one who thinks that, actually, yoof today is a darn sight more aware than I ever was as a teenager. I'm the one who believes that couples have much more successful relationships than they used to because people are now much more emotionally literate. I'm the one who holds that society is not actually going to the dogs but is slowly but surely becoming more evolved, intelligent and compassionate. A hundred years ago I and many other women like me would have been imprisoned in the home - that is if we weren't dead in childbirth. I count my blessings on a daily basis.

But when, over the weekend, I found that my bag had been stolen - complete with mobile phone,driving licence and credit card - my optimism was sorely tested. I was in Barcelona. I don't speak Spanish. And though I had followed all the advice about hanging on to my bag and keeping it in sight, it took just one distraction and it was gone from underneath the restaurant chair. Silly me.

But once again human nature, seemingly proven by the theft to be dishonest and nasty, stepped up positively to the plate. The Spaniards at the next table, who spoke no English, nevertheless saw my distress; then summoned the waiter and on my behalf demanded assistance. He sympathised, instigated a search, then when it proved fruitless, talked me through directions to the police station.

The police, who would have been totally justified in casting their eyes up to heaven and blaming the stupid foreign tourist, were patience itself - they had even installed a freephone directly connecting me to my credit card provider so that I could - even before filling in the police forms - cancel my card. The provider, in turn, calmly and coolly took action, offered to send me replacement card and cash, and equally uttered not a word of reproach.

Then there were the folk in the waiting room. We all huddled together sympathising, and when they heard that my companion and I had come to Barcelona to dance tango, they insisted on a demonstration. Applause all round, including from the police, who quickly and speedily processed my denuncio and sent me on my way.

Yes, it was horrid to be the target of pickpockets. Yes I could kick myself for falling for it. (And yes, I do know that much worse things happen to folk every day of the year, many times over - and that as a solvent, educated assertive woman I am wellplaced to cope with what was actually, something very trivial.)

But once again, what I am mainly left with is optimism - triggered by the little things done by ordinary people, who responded positively and supportively where they could have turned a blind eye, shrugged their shoulders, and roundly blamed...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Life is about Mobiles...

Worked on yet another ad campaign yesterday - this time talking about the place of mobile phones in our lives. The day started slightly comatose, as the car came at 4am to take me down to CNN for a 06:15 interview... but then we proceeded happily through BBC Asian network, BBC Technology and numerous other radio stations until well into the afternoon. Great fun!

The whole event was centred round a new study by the LSE in conjunction with The Carphone Warehouse - 5000 people interviewed in 5 European countries. The results made interesting reading for we Brits. We are (surprisingly) more likely to send erotic mateial by phone than any nationality other than the Swedes. We are (unsurprisingly) more likely to feel rejected if our phone doesn't ring than any other nationality than the Spanish. We also lie a lot by phone (though not as much as the French, mon Dieu) ...

The radios gobbled it up. They were particularly interested in the flirting, cheating and dumping that goes on by virtue of the new technology - which was excellent, because that's my area of expertise. I variously quoted, commented - and flirted - with presenters all round the country on the topic. It was a great campaign to do, sensible, well researched and adding to our understanding. What's not to like...

And, of course, life imitates advertising. In between the interviews, like a series of illustrative cameos to my voiceover, I kept seeing... the early morning taxi driver... the BBC technician... the nice lady from the recording studios... the ops room operator...and of course, all four of the clients I was working for... tapping, talking, listening and smiling - into their mobiles...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's good to talk - and it saves the nation money!

Just a quick blog entry today, to celebrate the announcement that £170m a year is to be set aside for 'talking treatments' on the NHS. The aim is to reduce the wait for counselling from 18 months to two weeks, and make sure that everyone who needs support gets it. The justification, says Health Secretary Alan Johnson, is that the country will save billions because mental health currently loses us 91 million working days a year.

Yes, yes, yes... thank heavens they've realised that providing support for emotional difficulties is not just liberal drivel - it works, and often better than throwing a pill at the problem. Well done Alan Johnson!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Real, please, not reality

At the start, I used to really like the Pop Idol/X Factor phenomenon. Yes, I was one of those who voted for Will Young, believing - rightly as it turned out - that Gareth Gates was too young to profit from the opportunity. Even last year, I was spellbound at Leona Lewis - surely the best voice ever to appear, let alone win, such a series.

But over the years, though, I've had my doubts. What started out as a simple talent contest was becoming far too scripted for my liking. And now, reports have it, my doubts have been confirmed; much of the seemingly spontaneous interactions may well have been plotted out beforehand or even re-run for the cameras.

From a psychologist's viewpoint, what particularly irks me is the way bad and good news is broken. Of course good television should build suspense. Of course it should show, and stir, emotion. But I object to the way the panel seemingly (for this may all, of course, be simply acting) plays with contestants when they are sending them home or putting them through to the next round.

"I hate to do this to you.... but you're through!"... "We have serious doubts about you... and you're going to the final"... "You've done so, so well... but now you're dumped." It's not just cruel, it's prime time cruel; the results are plain to see as the contestants sob their way through the ordeal. (Interestingly, I largely exonerate the infamous Simon Cowell from this - of all the judges he seems to tread the line of honest and clear feedback most ethically. If you're listening, Simon, try to persuade the producers to run the whole show to those standards...)

Actually, it's not the just the torture of contestants - some of them, this year, as young as 14 - that annoys me. It's the permission and approval that is given to such torture. In an age where school and workplace bullying is rife, this leading on and then pulling back is the worst kind of manipulation.

More, the contestants are expected to accept this, not to object to being manipulated, even to laugh at the joke (and at themselves`). And all this is horribly parallel to the way bullying victims are further tortured by their tormentors; the pain not only happens, one is told that it is not pain, and that one should simply bear it; "can't take a joke... sissy... what a wimp". If only one of the contestants, having been thus wound up, had the gall to object, to protest their treatment, to get angry instead of bursting into tears or hugging their oppressors.

If only, too, the producers had the courage to trust both judges and contestants to deliver compelling television without such manipulation. Real emotions - of the sort that human beings feel when something matters as much as X Factor success matters - would make good television on its own.

Genuine desire for success, genuine disappointment at failure, genuine commitment to their art and their own development - all of these unhyped - would surely make good television, as well as being a better role model for viewers.

More importantly, encouraging these genuine feelings in contestants would surely turn the winners into more mature and hence more successful stars.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Yes, boys too please!

You've probably gathered if you read this blog regularly that I'm a staunch supporter not only of treatments for cervical cancer, but also of prevention - that is, the new cervical cancer vaccine for preventing the HPV virus. And debate has been raging about whether, how and at what age this vaccine should be given out. To adults only? To teenagers? To pre-pubescents? Those newspapers that rant rather than write have been having a field day.

One thing that has been taken for granted by all the media, however, is that vaccinations should be given to girls. After all, it's girls wot get this cancer isn't it, so it's girls wot ought to be vaccinated! :)

So I was delighted to see my colleague Anne Szarewski speaking out in GP magazine this week in favour of vaccinating the boys. And - despite the commentators who worry that this would take the funding away from the female market, I agree with Anne.

It's not just that vaccinating boys will make it less likely that they will infect their partners. It's that by vaccinating boys too we send a clear message that it takes two to tango and that the lads as well as the girls who should be taking responsibility.

So yes, of course don't cut back on the female vaccination programme. Of course don't fail to get the message across to girls.

But when we're arguing about vaccinating boys as opposed to not vaccinating them, it seems like a nobrainer to me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Reasons to be cheerless... one... two.. three

What makes you happy is, apparently... what makes you unhappy. This very Zen thought comes, not inappropriately, from Japanese psychologist Shigehiro Oishi, who in the new issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that people who have good things happen to them are, in the end, more miserable.

Say that again? The reason, apparently, is that if we have a good life, we end up taking 'good' for granted and are poleaxed if something bad happens. If we are used to - and even expect - the worst, then a cheerful event cheers us up enormously.

My gut reaction (and the fact that I once authored a book on Postive Thinking) is to balk at this. Surely pessimism is by definition a bad idea, meaning that we think depressed and depressing thoughts more and more often?

But logically, I have to admit that there is a grain of truth here. Letter after letter I receive from my readers show that we now expect so much out of life that - as my mother used to say when I had thrown a particular annoying temper tantrum "there's no pleasing you!". We expect the earth - from our jobs, our families, our relationships - and if we don't get it we not only feel bad about all those things but also about ourselves and our own validity.

No, we shouldn't settle for the worst and we shouldn't accept it as our lot. We particularly shouldn't accept it as someone else's lot, shouldn't simply put up with oppression, cruelty, poverty and war. But the relentless pursuit of happiness doesn't work either; philosophers have been telling us that for thousands of years and they are right.

Let's just hope that, now a psychologist is telling us, we will finally listen.