Wish It Were Here

The popular “Today” programme on BBC Radio Four has been running for sixty years, and to celebrate the occasion several high spots of long-ago programmes and then-and-now comparisons  were broadcast. “Today” being an essential part of my breakfast, with the voice, if not always the manner,  of the great John Humphrys as a special treat, I enjoyed the occasion, but it also started me off on a private memory trip. Meandering through the last two decades or so, I found myself listing a few things that I miss. Things such as:

A switchboard operator. A real human being with a pleasant voice who put you through in an instant to the person you wished to talk to. Just like that. Instead – oh, you know it all, there come five options, followed by three, an offer of  items you neither need nor want, sometimes the demand for a password, meanwhile adding insult to injury you are thanked for your patience when in fact you’re growling with homicidal rage at this wasting of your time – and finally the person you want isn’t available, please call back later. Whose interest does this idiotic method serve? Dropping it would create jobs for real human beings with pleasant voices.

Face to face arguments, conducted  with due tolerance and openness. This kind has its built-in boundaries and, with a bit of luck, follows logical lines. It may end with the classic formula of agreeing to differ, or else descend into a flaming row, but it would remain above board, free from the anonymous online poison-spitting that has grown into an epidemic. I often wonder what kind of person threatens me with rape or murder or both, simply because he dislikes something I’ve written, or doesn’t recognize a joke when he sees one – is his thinking apparatus in his head or somewhere else, lower down in his anatomy?

Hand-written personal letters and notes from people who really matter. You don’t need a diploma in graphology to sense the link between handwriting and personality: I certainly get a sense of the writers when their postcards arrive: P’s delicate, finicky style, Y’s energetic sweep, J’s dance-like linking of characters are unmissable. Only postcards give me this pleasure of recognition. Communications in e-mails don’t. It’s all uniform, Bookman Old Style, font size 14 or  Copperplate Gothic or a batch of other styles are fun to play with but they lack the personal touch, which is what I miss –

Hey, looking at these few things that I miss, they are all about lost human contact! I live in a world where being contactless seems a desirable aim, but one that doesn’t suit me at all. I like, love, need contact with my fellow beings and will maintain it, come what may.

At this moment a letter arrives from my bank, sending me my new card, with full instructions. “Simply touch your contactless card against the card reader,” it says. What? Touch? But that’s CONTACT!

There are times when it’s best to give up with quiet dignity. This is one of them.

 

 

 

Advertisements

“When will they ever learn?”

That question, the last line of that  lovely old song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” came to my mind the other day, on reading a news item in the paper, under the title of  “Dramatic fall in sperm count”. Now before you try to work out the connection between disappearing flowers and falling sperm count, I’d better admit that there isn’t one, except that the news caused me a great sense of deja vu, of having been here before, and of no lessons having been learnt.

“Sperm counts in the Western world have fallen by almost 60% in the past 40 years,” I read. Although this study didn’t look into reasons for the fall, (why ever not?) previous  research had linked the problem to everything from stress, obesity and – wait for it – exposure to pesticides. Yes, I remember that previous report of some years back; it concentrated on the damage caused by pesticides and stated that the highest sperm count in Europe belonged to Danish organic farmers who didn’t use anything ending in -cides. This led to some frivolous comments about the likely boost to the Danish tourist industry caused by this disclosure, but that was all that happened. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have continued to be used lavishly, leading my local greengrocer to liken his lettuces to Rolls Royce cars, as, he explained, both were sprayed seventeen times.

Since then, according to this new report , things have got worse. “I think health authorities should be concerned,” said the lead researcher, noting with surprise that sperm counts were not falling nearly as fast in the developing world. As a non-scientist citizen, using ordinary common sense, I don’t find this surprising: farmers in the developing world simply can’t afford agro-chemicals, hence they remain healthier. Clearly, powerful substances used to kill pests remain on the non-organic  fruits and vegetables that we eat, and equally clearly they continue to do a bit of killing inside the body, hitting sperm hard in men, and who knows what in women.

“We have a huge public health problem that was until now under the radar,” the lead researcher added. I fear it’ll remain there. Scientists keep issuing well founded warnings about hazards to public health, decision makers keep  ignoring them. They also ignore the importance of diet in in the same area and the damage caused by chemical-rich but nutrient-poor junk food,  but  complain about the horrific cost of looking after an increasingly sick, largely overweight population. According to psychology textbooks, after the age of seven children understand the link between cause and effect; can it be that our politicians, policy makers and, above all, our medical Establishment have all somehow missed that connection?

Here are just two examples of how little food is considered in the health-disease equation, although it’s the only substance besides air that we consume from our first to our last breath. The first example comes from a booklet issued by Age UK, advising older people how to enjoy life while ageing. It’s all good stuff about exercise, satisfactory social connections, sound sleep and so on, and somewhere a mere six lines mention the importance of a good diet, adding that “beans are a good source of zinc”. That’s it.  Put it in your pipe and smoke it, of course metaphorically, because smoking is bad for you, too.

The second example comes from my recent thorough examination, a kind of human MoT, at my GP’s surgery. The nice nurse asked innumerable questions, examining my various functions and abilities, and ended the session – without asking anything about my daily food intake. When I asked whether that major subject didn’t figure in her list, she looked surprised and shook her head. (I described that meeting in detail in a recent blog.) No, diet wasn’t included, she said, and wished me well. This omission at the very heart of my health care was depressing and made me ask once more, somewhat despairingly, “When will they ever learn?”

Not that I’ll wait for that. Excuse me while I go and prepare my large, fresh, crisp, beautiful and totally organic dinner. Bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Wéod

First, consult the dictionary. “Weed: a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.” And the ancestor of the word is wéod, “of unknown origin”. Might just as well be mysterious, with that alien accent on the “e” and of unknown pronunciation.

Dictionary apart, what this is all about is that, in order to make savings, the local Council has withdrawn some services, including the regular visits of the Weedkiller Man with his toxic spray and ill-smelling procedure that used to leave us with dead brown weeds instead of green ones all over the road and no obvious advantage. Well, he no longer comes. As a result there is a profusion of weeds bursting out along the kerbs, between paving stones, through holes in the asphalt and in garden walls. And instead of tut-tutting and worrying about this part of West London becoming unkempt and undesirable, I feel delighted. For the first time in my life I am looking at weeds properly and am astonished by their beauty: so many shades of green, such a variety of shapes, from ethereal and lacy to muscular and tough, and such a wealth of small flowers in subtle colours, from pure gold to dreamy pink, white and sky-blue. Compared to this wild show, garden flowers seem  less interesting, almost too obvious.

But what pleases me most, beyond the visual pleasure added to my morning walk, is the realization that underneath the footpath, underneath all built up areas the soil is teaming with plant life and, given half a chance, starts displaying it. Just imagine, if one could roll up the asphalt along one side of the street, as if it were a carpet, within days a lush jungle of plants would appear and thrive, gradually taking over the built-up environment. Which proves my long-held suspicion that while the Earth could manage superbly without us, the reverse isn’t true. If we suddenly disappeared, like other civilizations have in the past, the Earth would probably heave a sigh of relief and start wiping itself clean, leaving only a few mementos of its previous guests. Like the Mayan ruins in South America, the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge and  the other stone circles all over Britain, prehistoric forts and tombs and cave drawings and —

Oops. What would we leave behind? It hardly bears thinking about. I needn’t spell it out, except to say that it would be an awful lot. Zillions of tons of hard stuff, mainly concrete, steel, glass, whatever. A gigantic landfill, with concrete being perhaps the worst offender, depressingly ugly even when new, indestructible when discarded. Enough to make my environmentalist heart grow heavy.

So I look at some sturdy weeds for solace and begin to feel more hopeful. Could they possibly provide the answer? Could they develop the ability over tens of thousands of years to grind up the concrete, mix it into the soil and eventually make it vanish? Why not? Nature is endlessly adaptable; it may in fact enjoy this challenge. Meanwhile let me live in the present, enjoy this free wild flower show –  and take great care not to tread on a barely sprouted wéod as I walk along…

Orphans, unite!

You have nothing to lose but your illusions – about the caring nature of our Government. With apologies for paraphrasing Karl Marx’s famous battle cry, let me suggest that we, the vast, helpless crowd of taxpayers are the orphans in need of wise counsel, care and leadership from our politicians, after all that’s partly what we pay them for, yet that is precisely what we are not getting. It took the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London to make this clear, through the disclosure of how ministers had stubbornly ignored repeated expert warnings of fire risks in high rise buildings. Yes, that fire  could have been prevented; but once it had happened, the initial official response turned out to be inadequate as well. Will there be urgent expert action to prevent similar disasters in other tower blocks? Watch out for it. But don’t hold your breath.

Our politicians seem to be fully occupied with bickering and practising U-turns among themselves. This reminds me of J.C.Bossidy’s  pleasant verse, stored in my treasured collection of useless information:

“And this is good old Boston, / The home of the bean and the cod,/Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,/ And the Cabots talk only to God.” Substitute your (un)favourite politicians for the Lowells and the Cabots, leave out the Divinity, and you get a pretty good idea of why we’ve become orphans, left to our own devices without as much as a whiff of official guidance.  Just look at two important topical problems we are faced with at this very moment, mainly in Southern and  South-East England. One is the unprecedented heat wave. Right now, at 11.40 a.m. in London, the temperature in the sun has reached 40 degrees Centigrade, equalling high fever in the human body. Moreover, this morning the  BBC weather report mentioned very high UV levels in the sunshine. Now that’s the dangerous component of sunshine that causes bad sunburn at best and skin cancer at worst. As a former melanoma sufferer, I would expect the powers that be to pull out all the stops and use all available channels to warn people against sunbathing, at least between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,  in order to avoid boosting the skin cancer statistics, especially because some popular sunscreens are known to be of limited use. Do we get any guidance from high above? Not a word.

The second huge problem is the lasting drought in the South-East. As an organic gardener, I am painfully aware of its consequences. And I recall another similar arid spell in 1976, when the then Conservative minister John Gummer, now Lord Deben, did a great job of making us save water. He asked us to stop washing our cars, not to use sprinklers or run the tap while brushing our teeth. He even composed a little ditty about when to flush the loo and when to let it wait until – well, the next time. I don’t know how many people followed his lead – I certainly did – but at least there was a lead, a member of the Government actually connected with the general population. Which the current one is definitely not doing. We might just as well not be here.

But we are here. And there’s a lot of us wanting something better. No, I am not advocating anything drastic, it’s far too hot for that and besides I dislike harsh actions. We’ll just have to start a countrywide non-material  DIY movement. Wake up the grassroots, so to speak (yes, I know it’s a mixed metaphor.). Get informed, use sound judgment and act. Grow up. Let’s shake off the traditional passivity, encouraged by the Welfare State, which expects someone else, preferably High Up, to do the necessary. Let’s stop saying “Mustn’t grumble” – yes, we must and follow up the grumble with peaceful action. There’s already a spreading international lay medical movement to empower patients and  make them sufficiently well-informed to take responsibility for their own health. The same principle of taking responsibility can be applied to other areas of life, too. We have unprecedented access to swift, free means of boundless communication, to spread information and coordinate action.  Let’s use it all.

And stop being helpless orphans. After a while it does become a bore.

.

 

Condition Excellent

Last week I had a phone call from the local GP surgery where I am registered. “Please come in for a session with the practice nurse,” said the receptionist, as instructed by my doctor, and gave me an appointment. I cherish my doctor, a serene, unflappable woman who has accepted long ago that I was a somewhat irregular but, on the whole, harmless patient, so if she wanted me to see the practice nurse, she must have had a good reason for it.

Well, the reason was that patients over a certain age had to have an annual inspection, a kind of human MoT test, and I had reached that age. (Namely?  Of course you may ask. Except I won’t answer.) The nurse turned out to be young, bright, friendly, and  welded to her computer screen from which she read out a long list of questions. She enquired about my eyesight and hearing – both o.k. – and sundry other bits, pieces and functions  of the body, including my weight. That has been 8 stone, or 50 kg, for the past thirty years – surely I deserved a small medal for that? But none was offered, and when we ran out of physical factors she switched to examining my mental state.

Now this was real fun. She gave me three words, “Banana, sunrise, chair” to see whether I could remember them later. I immediately visualised a banana seated on a chair and admiring the sunrise, so after five minutes I was able to repeat her words. I could have told her about real memory lapses causing real trouble, when for instance I can only remember somebody’s first name, the surname having fallen into what the French call “a hole in one’s memory”, or when the safe place where I had put an important document had become so safe that even I couldn’t find it. But the nurse moved on. She asked me to draw a clock face. I did, complete with hours and clock hands pointing at ten past eleven.  “Oh, I wanted to ask you to put it at ten past eleven,” she said, sounding disappointed. Sorry, can’t help being psychic. Or something.  I hoped she’d ask me to draw a cat, as I am pretty good at that, but the drawing was over, and I was only requested to count backwards from twenty to one. Obviously she found this as idiotic as I, so we both laughed and left it at that.

My condition, she declared, was excellent, I could pass for someone ten years younger. And yes, thanks, that was all. Did she have no more questions to ask? Why no, none. “But you didn’t ask me about my diet,” I said. “Surely, what I eat every day of my life has a big impact on my condition!” She looked baffled. No, diet didn’t figure on her list. I didn’t want to upset her, but my blood pressure rose at yet another example of how official medicine ignores the vital importance of nutrition, how during six years spent at medical school, I am told, only some four hours are devoted to the subject of  diet. And here was this nice young nurse at the beginning of her career – would she reach its end in the same state of abysmal ignorance she was in now?

Not if I could help it. I told her that I was 85% vegetarian, adding only tiny amounts of cheese, fish and two eggs a week to my organic wholefood intake, which greatly surpassed the official requirement of five portions of fruit and veg a day. It didn’t cost more than a diet based on junk food, which with added snacks and fattening empty calories was truly expensive, and it kept me, in her words, in excellent condition. If I lived on white toast, margarine, baked beans, tinned fruit and six cups of tea with two sugars  –  “Oh , I see,” she said. “But that’s what a lot of patients in your age group eat.  And they are … quite well.” She stood up and moved towards the door. The audience was over.

I wonder what she will tell my doctor about our meeting, but I bet that my doctor won’t be in the least surprised by what she hears.

 

 

 

 

The Wednesday Census

In the area of West London where I live, the Council’s huge lorries appear every Wednesday to collect our rubbish and recyclables. The latter are supposed to be sorted  into their large colour-coded bags: white for plastics, green for garden waste, blue for paper;  additionally, there is a large dark green box for all else. Bags and box must be put out by 7 a.m., which is a bit of a bore, but at least it lets me glimpse some neighbours in their dressing-gowns and slippers.

So far so dull, but please stay with me, the real story starts here. The Council’s lorries don’t arrive until later, so I have time for a morning walk, which is more than just exercise: it serves as my systematic study – anthropological fieldwork, if you like – of my neighbourhood. Like many parts of London, it is distinctly un-neighbourly, but my inoffensive research gives me a unique insight into the personal habits and lifestyle choices of its unknown inhabitants.

All I need to do is to walk along slowly and inspect the contents of the green boxes. What  variety, what precise indications they offer! To start with, we seem to have quite a few serious drinkers among us; boxes bursting with wine and spirit bottles week after week make me worry about the livers of those who had emptied them. But then green boxes full of soft drink bottles, cartoons and multiple containers of sweets and salted crisps are not reassuring, either. The venerable experts who periodically issue official warnings about the ravages of alcoholism and obesity need only join me on my morning walk to see the proof of the problem close up. Booze and junk food rule o.k., warnings go unheeded, and the cash-strapped struggling NHS has to pick up the bill.  As a disillusioned doctor friend of mine said the other day, the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry are in cahoots: the former makes us sick and then passes us on to the latter for the rest of our lives. After thirty years in general practice I expect he knows what he is talking about.

No, I’m not a health nut. I just like good fresh food and refuse to pay for expensive over- packaged  rubbish. A box I pass is full of tins. I mean brim-full. The tin on the top had contained new potatoes in salty water – heavens above, at a time when fresh new potatoes are at their sweet youthful best, tasting fantastic if gently steamed, coated in butter, sprinkled with fresh parley – oh, sorry, sometimes I do get carried away, although my research should be dispassionate and neutral. I’ll try to cool it. Honest.

Besides disclosing their owners’ food and drink consumption, the boxes also betray some aspects of their characters. There are some meticulous individuals who organise their rubbish so neatly that it looks like a still life worth photographing; I don’t expect the dustmen notice its awesome symmetry before chucking it into the collective hell of their lorry. In these exemplary well organised boxes small carton wrappers sit in plastic bags, old socks and other textiles ditto, used batteries are segregated from carefully folded packaging material, and the box itself is clean and shiny. I fantasize about the house behind the box: all spotless, not a rug out of place, small objects resting at right angles on a polished table —- it’s too perfect for comfort, let me out of there!

So I land straight in the opposite reality:  a box containing an unholy mess of things, all mixed up, chaotic and inevitably messy, too, for the unrinsed jars and bottles drip stuff onto crunched up newspapers and unflattened containers, and a single dirty slipper sits on top of a broken plastic toy.  This, too, should be photographed and widely shown as an example of how not to handle one’s rubbish, but that’s beyond my remit. And then I suddenly remember once seeing the woman who lives in that house: she has remained memorable for standing at her front door in the scruffiest garment I’d ever seen, with hair and shoes to match, and even her cat looked distinctly ungroomed. It was depressing, but  it proved that the contents of green boxes disclosed the truth about the people who had filled them.

There is also the pleasure of seeing the wildly different house numbers owners draw or paint on their boxes. Some are highly fancy, glittering with gold paint; others are plain black and official looking, yet others are surrounded by carefully coloured floral decorations, possibly drawn by a child of six. By the time I finish my morning census I feel as if the neighbourhood had become less buttoned up, more friendly, certainly not secretive.  Moreover, it amuses me to think that I know rather a lot about a lot of people who  know nothing about me. (Careful, now: this is supposed to be a detached social experiment, not an ego trip.)

What about my own green box? Well now, let me see…

 

 

 

 

Cold Calls, No Purple

They all start the same way. The phone rings. I say “hello?” – there’s silence, then the line comes to life and a man’s voice intones, “Missis Bee-Shop?” Oh, not another one of those . Yes, I am a bee warrior, having signed countless anti-pesticide petitions, sent donations and planted bee-friendly plants all over my garden, but this has nothing to do with bees, and anyone who mispronounces my name like that is a cold caller and therefore a major nuisance. He – there are many of them, but I experience them as a single entity –  he invariably rings at the worst possible moment, for instance when I am busy writing and the elusive right word has almost popped into my brain, or when the omelette I am cooking is about to reach its golden perfection. In other words cold callers are the enemies of creativity and of one’s peace of mind.

If only somebody could train them! Teach them proper English, to start with. Give them better reasons for ringing. The ones I’ve been offered so far were majestically implausible, informing me that I’d had a bad accident (more than one), crashed my car, lost a family member, been swindled out of a cool million and was about to lose my house unless … I don’t mind so much the ones that get beyond the “unless…”, provided I don’t invite the caller to get lost and hang up at once; if I let him ( it’s invariably a he) continue, he only asks for my banking details, a few passwords and similar intimate matters without which, alas, he is unable to help me. How kind. Suddenly I remember the Nigerian Widows and their tear-soaked e-mails that kept arriving a few years ago, mixing religion with offers of great wealth locked up in some bank account, half of which would be mine if –  Yes, sure. I never grasped that opportunity. But what happened to the Nigerian Widows? I haven’t heard from them for ages. Hope they are all right.

This morning’s cold caller informed me that my internet connection would be blocked for three days. He didn’t reach the “unless”, because I rudely interrupted him, asking, “Why?” After a brief pause he repeated his message. Again I asked, “Why?” but clearly whoever wrote his script hadn’t included a reply to that basic question, or else. ye gods, perhaps  he was a poorly programmed robot of very little brain and I should have been kinder to  him.

Together with the Nigerian Widows, another kind of cold  call has also mercifully vanished, thanks to the arrival of pornography on the internet.  I’ve never watched it – not interested – but feel sure that the annoying dirty phone calls of the near past have ceased thanks to its availability. Those calls to randomly chosen females listed in the phone directory ranged from heavy breathing to weird questions and even weirder suggestions, and once I’d  got over my first mild shock,  I turned them into mickey-taking exercises. So when an unknown gent rang to ask what colour my knickers were, I said “purple with yellow dots, any more silly questions?” but there weren’t any, not from that gent. Most of the other calls were just as easy to puncture and dispose of, and deep down I felt sorry for the grown men who found these would-be hot but fatally  cold calls worth making. No, they didn’t shock me. But I managed to shock one caller who told me what he intended to do to me. “Oh yes, tell me more?” I replied. There was a moment of silence, followed by “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” and – wham, the line went dead.

Thank goodness my former heavy-breathing callers are now otherwise engaged, watching adult material, as it is politely called. And if without watching it I don’t qualify as a proper grown-up, that’s fine by me. At least part of me remains eternally immature.