Hola-baloo

A FRIEND and I are just back from Spain, but there was a bit of confusion about where we were. I thought I was in a town called Tama-ree-you on the north-east coast; my friend thought she was in Ta-maraaa-you. We were in the same place, but pronouncing it in entirely different ways. Who knows how the locals pronounce it? We never bothered to check.

Back in the office, I got talking to colleagues about this, via the subject of sausages, and was told that my casual approach to the pronunciation of foreign words and place names was cultural imperialism although one colleague said it was much worse. I was guilty of cultural retardation, he said. It was only when I got back to my desk that I realised quite how rude he was being.

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But was he right? I'm from the north-east of Scotland where no one except natives know how to pronounce places like Peterculter (Peter – coo – tar) and Finzean (Fing – in) and yes, it's amusing when newcomers get it wrong, but it doesn't much bother me that they do. I'm not upset that people can't pronounce these places – why should they know? You can do your best (by using the website Forvo.com for example) but those who know the correct way to pronounce a word should be a little more tolerant of those who don’t.

My colleagues’ theory, on the other hand, is that we must strive to get the pronunciation right, as in exactly right. In other words, don't say Seville – you must say See-vee-aa (Valencia is even more complicated). And this extends to food stuff too, particularly sausages. Bratwurst. Chorizo. They must all be pronounced precisely as a native would.

Perhaps the theory is that getting it exactly right shows respect, but whenever I encounter someone striving to get the correct pronunciation, it's almost always someone who seems intent on showing off. It's a kind of cultural swagger; a way of saying I am more sophisticated than you.

My alternative theory is that we should all chill out. I am not Spanish so an attempt to sound Spanish might be seen by some as respect, but in British mouths it often comes across as ridiculous. You think you're sounding sophisticated, but you're really sounding like Andrew Sachs doing his Manuel voice in Fawlty Towers: an attempt at respect ends up sounding like mockery or even worse, a pretension towards something you’re not.

Better dead than spread

Last week, I headed off to Norwich (I always insist on pronouncing the W) but the flight was rather uncomfortable, partly because I was in the middle seat but partly too because I had man-spreaders on either side. A man-spreader is a man who sits on public transport with his legs wide apart, therefore taking up more than one seat. The men on either side of me were also arm-rest-hoggers, meaning that I was compressed into a space smaller than the one I had paid for.

At first, I simply quietly seethed (for I am British and a little pathetic) but then I started to apply gentle pressure from my legs and arms to reclaim my territory, and it worked: my neighbours, bit by bit, withdrew and I, bit by bit, spread out my legs and arms. A victory against man-spreading I thought before I realised that I was now hogging the armrests and my legs had done a land-grab on the space either side of me. In other words: I’m not shocked by man-spreading at all. I just want more room so I can do it myself.

Cheeky pupstarts

In Norwich, I met Leonie Orton, sister of the celebrated and gloriously gay playwright Joe Orton. My interview with Leonie will appear in The Sunday Herald soon, but I was interested in what she was saying about her dogs.

Famously, Leonie and Joe had a tough, unsentimental and often cruel upbringing in Leicester in the 1940s and, in a way, Leonie applies a lesson of that upbringing to her life, including her dogs. There’s no sleeping on the bed for them, no baby talk, no anthropomorphising. For her, dogs is dogs and humans is humans and that’s the way it should stay.

I'm a bit of a softie about dogs, but I do get where Leonie Orton is coming from: animals are never sentimental themselves so why should we be sentimental about them? We should be compassionate and caring, yes, but the best way to respect animals is to recognise how they behave and try to stick as closely to that as possible. It’s marvellous that we have ditched the stiff-upper-lipped attitude of the 1950s. But in over-sentimentalising about animals, there is a danger that we go the other way and become a nation of lip-wobblers instead.

Toys'R'Ace

As a Doctor Who fan, I was pretty excited to pick up a bargain I spotted in Norwich market: a toy Peter Davison, who played the fifth Doctor, complete with a replica Tardis.

My non-Doctor-Who-fan friends don't understand why I, a 47-year-old man, would buy a toy. The box this toy came in said it was suitable for ages five and over and I am 42 years older than that. What on earth am I playing at?

The point is that I have never lost my love for toys and many men don’t. Women, for some reason, rarely faff around with toys as adults, perhaps because the toys that are (mostly) foisted on them as children hint at adulthood: doll houses, toy kitchens, baby dolls and prams so that when they get the real thing, there is no need for toys any more. Whereas boys’ toys seem to be much more about escape and pure play.

What this means is that when we grow up, men and women have very different attitudes to toys. For example, I remember a female friend asking me why I still had all my childhood toys, the implication being that I was somehow infantilised by them or perhaps hadn’t ever really grown up. But that is precisely the point. As Doctor Who once said: “What’s the point of being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes?”

The genderation game

On the flight back from Norwich, one of the 130 cheery messages that Ryanair relayed to us was about duty-free. There was scent “for him”, we were told, and scent “for her”. But why are we still behaving in this ridiculous way, labelling objects that have no gender as only suitable for women, or for men?

It was the same at the airport: a toilet for men and a toilet for women. In the clothes shops too, there were sections for men and sections for women, which got me thinking about a friend's son who was in tears recently because boys were poking fun at him for wearing pink shoes to school.

I don’t know what advice I would give that little boy, but it does make me angry that, even now, after all we have learned about gender and sexuality, we are still imposing barriers in so many parts of our lives. There are signs of hope, such as the decision by Transport for London last week to drop “ladies and gentlemen” in their announcements in favour of the word “everyone”. But why on earth do we need separate toilets? And why can’t we just have shops that sell clothes for everyone rather than for specific sexes? Different sections, or toilets, or scents, for men and women are remnants of Victorian puritanism and conservatism. Let’s get rid of them for good.