Posts Tagged ‘Humour’

Further insights from Europe’s Sleeper Trains…

Oct 31 2012

Do Sleeper Trains Resemble their Country’s Leader??


For those of you eager for a sequel to my blog from the German Nachtzug, here ‘tis.  The Paris – Venice Treno Notte has advanced my insights into the special ways that so-called sleepers help me, and maybe other seekers for truth.

The France – Italy sleepers are now run by an outfit called thello.  As the name already suggests, this is a new private venture, and guess what, it’s the same run-down carriages, with a thello badge stuck on them.  You can probably imagine the gimmicky graphics on the website: I could put up with that, but the site doesn’t work.  I had to book our tickets via The Trenitalia website, and all they had left were couchettes.

A couchette is like sleeping on a lightly upholstered park bench, with a tiny cushion and a few rags for bedding, in a space the size of a walk-in closet, shared with several strangers, who may cough, snore or worse.  It’s a very surreal situation.  For example, how and when do you undress and put on your night clothes?

Not only do you get a rare chance to lie awake for hours in the middle of the night, you can also be inspired by a unique range of bumps, groans and rattles, intrusive lighting, airlessness, and noises from fellow-travellers.

Somewhere in the night, I found a useful comparison between sleeper trains and national leaders.  The German Nachtzugs are like Angela Merkel: blandly modern, efficient, and they clearly know what’s best for you.  Whereas the Treno Notte are like Berlusconi: ancient, a bit sleazy, erratic, but trying to look modern; blow hot and cold, dodgy sanitation, but somehow keeping a touch of Mediterranean style.

Those long hours gave me time to extend this model to UK sleepers and David Cameron: modern-looking, shiny, but doesn’t deliver on some of its promises, expensive, trying to be superior, liable to sudden delays and failures.

My couchette night on the Paris – Venice sleeper wasn’t great for sleep, but good for insights, and Venice remains one of the best railway destinations anywhere.  You walk out of Santa Lucia station, and in front of you is medieval Venice: the Grand Canal, the palaces, the churches, the light, the colours…










Tags: Alan’s adventures, Travel



Can you make friends – good, true friends – in a pub? Joe Hackett explores

Sep 06 2012

A man walks into a bar and he says ….well, what does he say?

Let’s suppose that he’s new to the area, looking to extend his circle of friends. A bar is as good a place as any to find a male friend. Pubs are a neutral meeting point. I’ve made friends in pubs – and I am not a big pub-goer. So what does this man who walks into a pub/bar do?  How does he join in a conversation, and what kind of conversation? SOME pub conversations seem almost designed to put you off joining in. Personally, I never want to talk about cars in a pub again. Car conversations can be boastful, nerdishly technical. Mine’s bigger/better/faster than yours. What’s the point? Life’s too short!

And here’s a warning about banter. As you know, some male pub chat is endless banter – which is teasing, taking the piss. The only way to join in is to out-banter the other guy – in other words, pretend that his teasing has not bothered you, be crueler and nastier than he is! I am not saying that we all have to be ultra-sensitive souls, with the thinnest of skins. I am saying that some banter is banal, and saps our energy. It leads nowhere. It is not the same as joking – which is wonderful! So, if the so-called conversation at the bar is nothing but banter, forget it.

Our brave protagonist (avoiding the car conversations, the narcissistic droning monologues of the pub bore, the competitive banter) perhaps finds a conversation in which he can join. He’s looking for a lively to and fro, listening and being listened to, conversational clues that take participants forwards. Something which stimulates.

I’d be looking for some kind of small self-revelation, which I can respond to or initiate. No need to run a mile at this idea – I don’t mean our deepest secrets, our most vulnerable issues. They can come later, if at all! No, I mean just something which illustrates the conversationalist’s particularity, his individuality. His uniqueness. I’m talking here about that person’s felt experience. Not his opinion. Opinion mongering is all too easy, goes nowhere.

And in looking for a good conversation, I’m reminded of the things which can go wrong. We all do them, to a greater or lesser extent, in talking to others. But with a bit of awareness, we can catch ourselves doing them, too.


Apparently, there are a dozen classic “roadblocks” to good conversation. Recognize any of them?

The first four come under the category of Judging:

1. Criticising
2. Name-calling
3. Diagnosing
4. Praising evaluatively

Then come conversation-killers under the category of Sending Solutions:

5. Ordering
6. Threatening
7. Moralising
8. Excessive/Inappropriate Questioning
9. Advising

Lastly, Avoiding the other’s concerns:

10. Diverting
11. Logical Argument
12. Reassuring

So, having a good conversation, especially at the start, isn’t easy! Which doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t try. The rewards are high. But, before you even plunge into a conversation, not knowing where it will lead, hoping for the best, looking for the positive, being both brave and open, there is a preliminary and very interesting question.


How important do you reckon first impressions are in meeting another man (potential friend) for the first time? How trusting are you of your own judgement? Depending upon how tuned in the group of men and the man entering are, there is a whole lot of non-verbal stuff going on, too. Don’t they say that words only convey 30% to 40% of communication?

Let’s suppose that our guy is pretty observant. He’ll pick up body language by sight. The group of men have facial expressions, posture and gestures. He may be even close enough to see their eyes. Are they twinkling with fun, glowering with hostility, open to his presence, capable of trusting him enough to let him in?

Then, he’ll be listening for the vocal clues. Not just the words which are spoken, but the sound of the voices, rapidity of speech, the pauses. Is one pause to let him in, like a door opening? He listens to a particular man who is speaking. Is his voice a monotone (boredom) slow, low pitch (depression), high (enthusiasm), ascending tone (surprise), abrupt (defensive), terse, sharp (anger) or what? Our guest might even turn his eyes away for a bit, the better to take in the voices.

How are the men standing? Is their circle open to allow our man to join? Or is it closed, with people’s backs turned? And if our new man is really tuned in, he’ll be checking his own body, which is reacting, sure enough, to the body language of the group. Do his shoulders feel tense, his stomach queasy, does his heart start to beat faster? All this can change minute by minute, second by second in the “here and now” of the man’s approach to the group in the pub. As soon as he walked in, things were a little different, and they will change again, and again.

Personally, I’m interested in another aspect of all this, which is actually to do with what I can only call attractiveness and intuition. The older I get, the more I reckon that after the hard work of  studying  body language of others, tone of voice and so on, I can and do trust my own intuition. Hallelujah, after all these years! I’m not saying intuition is infallible. I’m just saying that I can trust it as a “good enough” guide at an encounter between me and another man. And if it lets me down sometimes, well, I forgive it and start again.


The idea of “attractiveness” gets us onto different territory. I can meet another man, a stranger, and know pretty soon – say, within ten minutes – if he’s “attractive” – that is, does his presence interest me, pull me in? Does it make me want more of him? Does his presence say to me, here is an opportunity for fun and learning? A lot of it will be in his face, particularly the eyes. An awful lot also depends on whether I can detect a playfulness in him – a flexibility, a willingness to take small risks, the enjoyment of interplay.

Of course, there is the gay question. Attraction between men does not mean they are both gay. If they are, fine. If one is and the other isn’t fine also. I am thinking here of attraction between two men who are heterosexual. Now, we all have our own take on heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality, and this probably isn’t a big enough space to go into all that in detail.

I believe that there can be something about another guy (some spark, and it may well have to do with a sense of humour) which can pretty quickly attract me, make me want to know that person better. I think it’s a bit tragic that a lot of men actually fear that intimacy, fight that pull. It is something to do with the very limiting English “reserve”. It is also something perhaps to do with a fear which comes down to “If I get close to this guy, it must be because I’m gay/he’s gay”. Anyway, you are surely old enough to handle the “gay fear” question – which might not be said of younger men –  so that is one of the advantages of maturity. So let us assume that our man has miraculously established himself in the group of men chatting at the bar. Or, at least, on the edge of the group. He has joined in and is having a conversation and it is working. Congratulations.

Let us end with the eternal question. “Whose round is it?” This male-bonding technique so beloved of British pub goers is really, really unnecessary, I think. You don’t “have” to buy a guy a drink to show that you want to be friends. Nor does he have to buy you one. But it is a long tradition and, in the end, it is entirely up to you whether you dare ignore it. Getting stuck in rounds of buying drinks means you are, likely as not, going to end up drunk. Which might not have been your intention. Over to you.

See ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’: Enjoy oldies as the new zeitgeist!

Mar 02 2012

This is a brilliant film in so many ways.  It’s a very funny, moving, and deep exploration of the issues of life beyond 50, and all this arises so naturally from placing a well-chosen range of characters in an extreme and different context, India.

Marigold Hotel is a clever example of fiction anticipating fact.  With so many other labour-intensive services being outsourced to India, why not retirement living?  The film’s basic plot is a varied bunch of English over-50s trying to live in a rundown hotel in Jaipur which is trying to serve ‘the elderly and beautiful’.

In my twenties, I followed the hippie trail to India, and hated it.  I’ve been back twice in my late fifties, and found ways to enjoy it.  This country takes everything to extremes: beauty, pollution, spirituality, overpopulation.  The different ways in which these English oldies adapt, or fail to, are really entertaining and instructive.  Just being in Jaipur is a shipwreck, and the ways they invent themselves are remarkable.  The Indian characters are just as vivid as the English ones, and their influence on each other is beautifully observed.  I loved the scene where the retired judge gives the street kids tips on batting technique, and ends up playing cricket with them.

Being somewhere so different forces a level of honesty, and urgency, which all of us beyond 50 would do well to adopt.  Death and sickness are such visible parts of the everyday in India, that it forces you to value being alive, today.  This pushes two of the film’s sixty-somethings through the usual barriers, and into a playful, even youthful romance.

One of the odd things about being beyond 50 these days is the lottery – like uncertainty of who’s got money, and who hasn’t.  This film gives a sensitive picture of the shame and lostness of middle-class people suddenly finding they’re broke at retirement because of dud investments.

The cast are so strong that it almost put me off.  I’ve seen Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith so often that it’s now hard for me to see the character, not the actor.  In this film, their roles have such depth that I forgot the player, and was gripped by the play.  This is probably thanks to the book the movie is based on, These Foolish Thingsby Deborah Moggach, which I intend to read.  Seeing Maggie Smith as a working class racial bigot confronted by India is worth the ticket price alone.

You could said that this is a film about life beyond 50, aimed at audiences beyond 50.  There’s a lot of us around, so maybe we are the new zeitgeist – the spirit of the times.

Relationship puzzles? Thank Heaven there are only 2 genders!

Jun 14 2011

Do you ever reach a point where relationship is doing your head in?  I do, regularly, but I’ve found a way of looking on the bright side.  Imagine if there were three genders, not two: instead of a man and a woman trying to get it together, there’d be three.  Let’s call them male, female and alien.

Now a man would have to understand, impress and attract two quite different species, not just one.  And the female and the alien would have to fancy each other as well as the man.  Exciting sex positions would become far harder, with three genders having to align themselves.  But the permutations could be boggling.

Even five minutes of this scenario helps me realise how much worse it could be.  But the whole man-woman thing seems so badly designed, like a prototype never debugged.  If this was a computer game, you’d demand an upgrade.  Biological drives are just one example of the mismatched programming.  Men are hard-wired to share their seed with many partners, women want a loyal mate to raise the brood with.  It’s enough to do anyone’s head in.  And maybe that’s the point….

This requires courage and skills far greater than James Bond, Indiana Jones, and all those other male heroes, who can only cope with outward adventures.  If you want to prepare for the real, inner challenge, keep reading this blog, come to one of my workshops, and wait for my book Maturing Men.

Is it only men who need to change?  No, but that’s another story.  One way to prepare for this journey is by reviewing your projections onto women, especially your current partner.  Consider your early beliefs and experiences around women: with your mother when you were a child; teenage and young adult encounters; and repeating patterns with partners.

Tease out the beliefs you now carry about women in general, and ponder if you are projecting these onto your present partner, and other key women in your life.  Imagine switching off the projector, seeing them in natural daylight, as they really are.  You may find a whole new relationship awaits you!