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Living with guilt and boredom in the real world

Every TV show creates a parallel world where other people's lives are more ordered than yours
IT IS perhaps only fair to warn you that, over the next few paragraphs, I shall be referring, frankly and without apology, to a Sunday night religious programme on the BBC, and that you may, therefore, prefer to hide this page from younger members of the family. Although many of today's children acquire a knowledge of the basic facts of life from TV, the traditional birds-and-bees chat from the biology teacher having been replaced by an update on cigars and Altoid mints by Jeremy Paxman, this was a discussion programme with an ethical bent in which virtually any filth was acceptable.

The discussion, it goes without saying, was about Viagra. Representing the masculine viewpoint were David Thomas (words), Peter Stringfellow (action), and a couple of noisy men with beards, while Sheena Macdonald and Joan Bakewell spoke up for women. I was about to switch off, having heard more than enough about other men's private parts over the past month, when the debate took a surprising turn.

Sheena Macdonald pointed out that the very fact that we were all so obsessed with the erection pill was significant indication of society's in-built sexism. An example: she herself had recently written about an important recent medical breakthrough revealing that the female clitoris (yes, there is a male one, in fact, but it's not relevant to this discussion) is considerably larger than hitherto had been thought. Where was the debate about that important issue? The men in the studio looked shame-faced, and even the two beards were quiet for a moment.

As it happened, I had read about this new insight into female anatomy in a recent edition of New Scientist. It appears that what was once thought to be a small but important organ is in fact impressively large - in fact, in the case of the exceptionally well endowed, it's so enormous that its owners are little more than female versions of Beardsleyesque walking sex organs with a bit of make-up and a hairdo.

At the time, I took this to be one of those bits of information that was interesting but vaguely useless, a bit like the news that the ozone layer is largely being destroyed by the flatulence of termites. Now, thanks to Sheena Macdonald, I saw that my reaction was typically male and bigoted. Had I ever engaged in conversations about the new pill for limp men, the new stresses it might put upon spouses who had rather liked the fact that their partner was sexually dormant? Er, yes. And had I even once had an equivalent discussion about the new super-clitoris? Exactly.

The problem is that there are now just so many things to feel guilty about. Dr Oliver James has written about the way contemporary dissatisfaction is kept simmering by commercials, films and sitcoms, neat little dramas where bodies are beautiful, relationships are either resolved satisfactorily or dissolved in a zany, dramatic and amusing manner, where life is a well- turned story with a balancing sub-plot and tidy conclusion, where the sheer grinding, intractable ordinariness of everyday existence plays no part.

But perhaps it's not the fiction that's the problem, so much as the carefully manicured facts. Every TV chat show, each newspaper profile, helps to create a fantasy parallel universe thronging with people whose lives are more ordered than your own. There are writers out there on life's front line, crashing about, gathering material - living, for heaven's sake; or, there are others so focused on their art that they will not be deflected by the mess of everyday existence, who actually put aside two hours in the afternoon as reading time.

There are parents who have spent more time with their children, who have virtuously done simple, yet heart-warming, things that will make their family happier and more successful in a profound and meaningful way. When was the last time you told someone you loved them? Well, come on, when was it? Everybody else does.

Get in the car, and you suddenly know that it's not the farting termites that are destroying Planet Earth, but you. In the supermarket, however many organic vegetables you buy, it's never enough. That lamb chop: British, is it? Of course not. And what about those poor Welsh hill farmers? In fact, what were you doing in a supermarket in the first place? Just down the road there are small, lovely, family-run retail shops literally dying because people like you prefer your precious one-stop shop.

It stains the soul and does little or no good, freezing you into the sort of helpless inactivity that leads you to watch Sunday night religious discussions, writhing with generalised, non-specific, universal middle- class guilt.