Use It Or….

Two recent news items have lowered my spirits and raised my blood pressure in equal measure. Both concern students and therefore our future, and the picture they paint is not reassuring. Firstly, I learn, students’ handwriting has become so illegible that Cambridge University is considering letting undergraduates use laptops in exams, since – according to examiners – a reliance on computers has left young people unable to use a pen. Well yes, for some time now I’ve been noticing some truly alarming  signatures on impeccably typed official letters, nasty scrawls bearing no resemblance to the name of the alleged signatory; indeed, looking as if the writer had held the pen in his clenched fist, not knowing what else to do with it.  Is this becoming the New Normal?

Secondly, freshers at universities across the country are being issued with colourful wristbands printed with the name of their hall of residence, to help them get home after a night out. Apparently this will be useful for those who get so drunk that they can’t tell the cab driver where to take them.

Ouch, twice over. Not being able to use a pen slams the door on a peak achievement of human beings, the ability to make marks on a surface – mammoth tusk, clay tablet, parchment, marble, paper – that translate into words and meaning. These marks have to be made, not delivered by a clicked key. But once this unique ability is lost, and if for some reason one day laptops no longer work, what remains? Do we have to start all over again, trying to remember which line goes where, meaning what? As for those colourful wristbands, they could cost a lot of money to a sloshed reveller who happens to collapse in the cab of a less than scrupulous driver and is taken home via a long, meandering route.

What I find so depressing is that in neither case is an attempt made by the powers that be, in this case the university authorities, to correct what is  obviously wrong. By allowing the use of laptops in exams they sanction the loss of handwriting skills among our future intellectual elite. (The rot has already set in: an apparently well educated young woman I know prints all her messages in wobbly, childish block letters, joined-up writing being beyond her.) Besides putting the few remaining graphologists out of work, the end of individual, highly personal handwriting is an impoverishment, another loss of our modest uniqueness. (By the way, I have nothing against laptops: they are good servants but  make dangerous masters.)

As for the wristbands – well, their official message seems to be that it’s perfectly all right for a student to get hopelessly, idiotically drunk, as long as he or she lands in the correct hall of residence. Wouldn’t it be better to launch a culture of intelligent drinking in which alcohol heightens enjoyment, creativity and camaraderie, instead of turning the drinker into an irritating, helpless oaf? Sorry if I sound virtuous, that’s about the last thing I am, but I lived long enough in France and Italy, neither country being remotely teetotal, to know what I am talking about. In my view  binge drinking and enjoyment exist on different planets.

What links these cases is their drift towards the line of least resistance. “Let’s make it easy for the users” seems to be the official line. And ease is, of course, the highest value of the consumer society. Things have to be co-operative and  friendly in order to be desired and bought. I often feel baffled when something I buy claims to be easy to use – well, of course, I don’t expect my new dress to resist when I try to put it on, or my ballpoint pen (yes, I do write by hand) to spit ink at me when I pick it up; nor do I like to be assured that the book I’ve just bought is easy to read. I’d rather decide that for myself, thank you.

O.K., I’ll come clean. I’ve come to hate the supremacy of “ease”. It removes the need for effort, for using our abilities to achieve small victories and keep the flab off body and mind. (I’ve just noticed that the most topical rhyme for “ease” is “obese”, the plague of the so-called developed countries which is also spreading to others where people adopt the Western diet. It was an American friend who pointed out to me that the acronym for the Standard American Diet is SAD…) C.G.Jung once claimed that the human being’s greatest passion is idleness, and he was probably right. Of course the ideal consumer is passive, idle, easy (here we go again) to brainwash into consuming ever more stuff that’s neither wanted nor needed. “Death is the consumer’s last resistance,” wrote Ivan Illich. I like to think that there are less drastic escape routes, too, even though far from being easy they require some effort and plenty of common sense.

I’m already working on mine. What about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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On Re-Inventing the Wheel

I am not a professional researcher, but as a writer and journalist I have done a great deal of research, even long before St.Google descended from a virtual heaven to make the job easier. One of my basic rules was first of all to establish what had been said or written on my subject in the recent – or remote – past. This seemed simple common sense, or as Sherlock Holmes would have put it, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

And so I was surprised to read the other day that, according to a huge research project involving 163,363 participants, people who suffer from anxiety or depression have an increased risk of dying from cancer. The report contained the resounding conclusion that “There is growing evidence that psychological stress has an impact on physical health”. Eh? Pray, what else is new? Hadn’t those no doubt well-funded researchers looked at the evidence that, far from growing, had symbolically grown to the size of Mount Everest a long time ago?

Never mind that Hippocrates and Galen (3rd century A.D.) had written about this, Galen stating categorically that melancholy women were more likely to develop breast cancer than cheerful ones, and that the history of medicine has ever since contained countless similar conclusions. Let’s just look at the two outstanding figures of the recent past whose work had sparked off  an avalanche of related studies: the psychologist Lawrence LeShan and the neuroscientist Candace Pert. LeShan, author of “Cancer As a Turning Point”, has often been called the father of psycho-oncology, the discipline that aims to improve the patient’s lifestyle, psychological state and oncological profile in order to waken his or her self-healing ability. Candace Pert, the author of “Molecules of Emotion –  Why You Feel the Way You Feel” has done pioneering work in developing psycho-neuro-immunology, PNI for short, the scientific explanation of how one’s psychological state strengthens or undermines the immune system which, in turn, determines whether we remain healthy or fall sick.

It’s all there, it’s all available even to lay people, like myself; how can professional researchers ignore it all, and say daft things about “growing evidence”? Doesn’t the global scientific community exchange information as a matter of course, to avoid duplication and the waste of scarce funding? I won’t attempt to answer my own questions, if no-one else will. But I have a fantasy of a pre-Stone Age ancestor of ours sitting on a hill, watching a tree trunk rolling down to the valley below, and wondering whether something similar, maybe cut to size, might help to…..

I must admit that all the above has lessened my respect for researchers, especially for a group that a while ago scrutinized the popularity of coffee shops in Glasgow. They eventually discovered that people tended to stay away from the shops where the quality of the coffee and/or the service was no longer up to scratch.

Well now, isn’t that amazing?

 

Hobs and Errors

I never had much time for people who went through life facing the past, not the future, constantly longing for something irrevocably lost – and here I am, full of nostalgia and regrets. Not for a lost love or a great missed opportunity, oh no, nothing so noble: the subject of my longing is my old cooker. I had to replace it  after a mere 40 years. “You won’t find it easy to get spare parts for this,” says the tactful gas engineer who can’t repair its faults, so I order a new model.

It arrives promptly. It looks good. But before  touching it, let me consult the User Manual. Its title is Double Cavity, which sounds  like a dental disaster, but then both cooker and booklet were produced in Turkey and some allowances must be made for nuances of meaning.  Also for attitudes. On my old cooker I simply switched on the gas and got on with the job; this one wants me to  keep pressing the switch for 5 to 10 seconds, as if to say “Yes, I mean it, please keep burning.”, and even so it sometimes goes out. In that case, I am told to wait “at least 1 minute before trying again. There is the risk of gas accumulation and explosion!” Well, I’ll just have to press the switch for 10 seconds or more, since clearly  the thing has a suspicious character; not sure I like it.

In the next few minutes it is I who becomes suspicious – of the designer who created my new cooker: did he ever try out his product? Do designers, those demi-gods of the hype world, ever use what they  create? This one certainly didn’t, otherwise he would have noticed that the arms of the trivets are far too short, so that small containers, like my Italian espresso machine, can’t be stood on them. Ouch – how shall I make my life-sustaining morning coffee? Fortunately I remember the ancient electric hotplate in the top part of a wardrobe and put it to work. It makes strange noises, like a volcano about to explode, but the coffee eventually emerges. The next annoyance is that the grill where I heat my croissant disperses the inevitable crumbs into inaccessible nooks and crannies. Make mental note to buy small hand-held vacuum cleaner to remove crumbs. But this is ridiculous! The grill on my old cooker had its own tray for crumbs, I didn’t need a new machine to clean  it! Indignation mounts. To cool down, I return to the Double Cavity booklet.

Not very cooling. There are five DANGER! warnings on one page. Move on. Ah, here’s some practical information. It says, “How to use the gas oven,” followed by Error! Bookmark not defined. Gee, thanks. Only three pages later do I find instructions on how to operate the oven, spiced with WARNING!, DANGER! and RISK! Is the purpose of this oven to cook food or to inflict on me a bad case of anxiety neurosis? A wave of nostalgia hits me. With my old cooker I simply turned on the oven and concentrated on the food, not on the risk of being blown up together with the butternut squash loaf.

The four hobs atop the cooker also need cautious handling. The rapid burner for big pots behaves like a flame-thrower when I light it; have to stand well back to avoid getting scorched. To make up for it, the tiny auxiliary burner comes up with the whisper of a flame, or not at all. To cook anything without getting burnt or exploding with frustration I am reduced to the two so-called normal burners, although by now I hardly know what “normal” means.

No, this isn’t just a domestic dirge. Its subject is the need to realize that innovation for its own sake can make things more complicated instead of easier, besides often using more energy, not less. For instance my new cooker must be connected to the mains electricity to make the ignition work; the old one used a small battery that lasted for a year, for the same purpose. No, I am not a Luddite, only an environmentalist and eco-warrior, longing for the simplification and sustainability of everyday life, and my experience with this new cooker clashes with my wishes. Little wonder nostalgia remains in the air.

Especially when I imagine my lovely simple old cooker slowly disintegrating in a pile of discarded kitchen antiques. RIP.

Some Thoughts on Health and Money

At a time when the gap between the super-rich and the poor is getting dangerously wide, it’s good to hear that Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook and his wife are giving $3bn  to medical research over the next ten years, to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases” in their children’s lifetime. It’s a nice gesture,  suggesting that perhaps capitalism has a more acceptable face, too, yet after a few moments of feeling nice about it,  I begin to experience some doubts.

It’s not just that $3bn sounds less impressive if set against, for instance,  the $6bn to be spent over five years by the British Wellcome Trust; it’s the grandiose aim of the donation that bothers me. All diseases? Is there anyone who can even begin to list them? Another generous billionaire, Bill Gates, has been spending billions over 15 years on trying – and failing – to wipe out nothing more than malaria or polio, never mind the whole blooming lot. Surely Mr Zuckerberg (German for Sugar Mountain) should think up a less ambitious project to support?

And while I am in the mood for cutting things down to manageable sizes, allow me to jump on my hobby-horse whose name is prevention, the poor relation of the cure and management of disease. “Prevention is not sexy,” says a disillusioned doctor friend of mine, “so no-one is taking it seriously.” And yet and yet the evidence is piling up to show that an alarming lot of our diseases are caused by ourselves out of sheer ignorance, or as a result of having poisoned the world which now, in turn, is poisoning us. There is nothing new about this: poor lifestyle, suicidal diets, obesity, too much alcohol, stress & co. add up to a litany piously recited by official voices, but there is no official action to rein in the misbehaviour of the food industry, to name only one major culprit. Cynics claim that Big Food is in cahoots with Big Pharma: if you consume enough processed stuff, you are bound to end up with a fistful of prescriptions for the rest of your life. Elementary, my dear Watson.

Maybe so. But what’s more alarming, because less obvious, is the piecemeal emergence of new health hazards. For instance we’ve just been told that dementia has overtaken heart disease as the biggest cause of death in England and Wales, a staggering development – how come, what has changed to cause this rise? The next day a newspaper report provided a possible answer. According to some researchers, particulate matter, typically released by diesel engines, can enter human brains, suggesting that there is a link between traffic pollution and dementia. Magnetite, a by-product of traffic pollution, has been found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, and there’s evidence that people living in areas with high levels of airborne pollution are more likely to get the disease. Ironically, diesel has been promoted for years now as being less harmful to health  than petrol…

Another example of the hidden link between innovation and health damage cropped up some years ago, when a Europe-wide research programme tried to establish the cause of poor sperm production by otherwise healthy males. In the end the men with the best sperm production, both in quantity and quality, turned out to be Danish organic farmers, namely men who never worked with herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or anything else ending with -cides; nor did they eat food treated with those same agri-poisons, which were hailed as the essential tools of modern farming, leading to bigger yields and healthier plants.  Since then the popularity of organic foods, guaranteed to be poison-free, has grown enormously, but it’s still a minority trend. As far as the manufacturers of agricultural chemicals are concerned, they keep producing ever stronger poisons, as  weeds and pests adapt sufficiently  to the current range to survive them. Never mind the humans who are the last link in the toxic food chain.

We’ve made a real mess of things, and surely trying to undo the damage and prevent further disasters should have absolute priority in medicine. But it hasn’t. Perhaps it never had. I recall a cartoon, used many years ago  by that great medical maverick Denis Burkitt, whenever he gave a talk on the need for prevention. The cartoon showed an overflowing hand basin with both taps full on, and two doctors in white coats busy mopping up the flooded floor, but not turning off the taps. “You get paid more for mopping up,” was Burkitt’s devastating comment.

Despite all this, I hope Mr Zuckerberg’s project will do some good in the hellishly difficult area of health in our not so brave new world.

 

 

 

 

Include Me Out

“Join the Rebellion!” is the eye-catching motto on the posters I’ve been noticing recently in London, but the message is weakened by the accompanying images of some obviously respectable  middle-class men and women who are supposed to be its intrepid heroes. Ah, but the aim of this rebellion is not to overthrow the Government or abolish the House of Lords overnight: it tells us to su2c, namely Stand Up to Cancer and “kick it off its perch”. Now that’s  a gem of a mixed metaphor; try as I may, I can’t picture that most dreaded disease in any shape that would enable it to sit on a perch, like a parakeet or, more appropriately, a vulture. Besides, has cancer become a global epidemic, which is how the WHO officially described it two years ago, because until now we haven’t stood up to it? We are not told.

However, we are told  how to become heroes of the rebellion. “Join us, pledge your support. Fundraise however the hell you want. As long as it’s raising money, you are one of us,” is the message on the new movement’s website, and its all-round permisssiveness stops me in my tracks, for stealing an old lady’s handbag  or emptying the collection box of my local church when nobody is looking would  certainly raise money, but would su2c approve of it? Luckily there are less problematic ways to produce cash: “You could get sponsored to wrestle a crocodile”, is one official suggestion. (Not kidding.)

Well,  it’s all about raising funds “for kickass ground breaking translational research”, whatever that means, and so we are directed to the Shop to buy t-shirts, various accessories and fundraising kits, all emblazoned with revolutionary mottoes. The general impression is that of an online razzmatazz, an over-the-top commercial promotion, which almost makes you forget what it is in aid of.

Of course fundraising for medical research is essential. Without the public’s willingness to donate, the £650 million cancer research unit of the Francis Crick Institute, the biggest medical research facility in Europe, wouldn’t have opened its doors in August this year. It’s just the methods of the cancer charities, mainly of the mighty  Cancer Research UK, that make me wonder. Do those in charge underestimate the intelligence of the public, or overestimate their own?

Take CRUK’s campaign, urging us to wear pink ribbons, in aid of “Against Breast Cancer”. Eh? Is there anyone in favour of it? Never mind, we are asked to go on sponsored walks, donate unwanted clothes, shoes, perfumes and CD’s,  run coffee mornings and do whatever else will bring in funds, “to beat cancer sooner”. Sooner than when? Every year 330,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in this country. Is there any research being done into the causes of this scourge which certainly doesn’t come from outer space but is produced much nearer home? For example, has anyone looked into the composition of the most popular antiperspirants, applied to an area full of lymph glands directly connected to the breasts? It is said that since more and more men have started using these products, the incidence of male breast cancers  has grown considerably, surely an indicator of toxic chemicals rubbed into a sensitive area of the body. As far as I know, this area is not explored. Altogether, prevention seems to be off the menu.

I should declare an interest. Thirty-three years ago, in 1983,  I recovered from Stage 4 metastasized malignant melanoma on the alternative nutrition-based Gerson therapy, after orthodox oncology could do nothing for me. That experience has taught me to ask the right questions about cancer, and to see how sadly we fail to hear and accept the right answers. Any doctor who tries to treat cancer by other than the  officially sanctioned trinity of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, risks getting into deep trouble, even though the accepted methods don’t perform particularly well. But that’s another story.

Fortunately  in a few medical centres researchers are already mooting the idea that perhaps instead of concentrating on the eradication or killing of the tumour it might be better to build up the patient’s depleted immune system, so that it can fight and, hopefully, defeat the malignant process. That’s the way my near-terminal cancer was cured, not just put into remission. That’s the way of the future.

But meanwhile I am not going to su2c, as the posters urge me to do. And when it comes to frantic fundraising in truly questionable taste (“Whip up boob-shaped cup cakes” is one suggestion for coffee-morning hostesses), I won’t  join in.  In Churchill’s memorable phrase, “include me out.” And, by the way, I am not going to wrestle a crocodile, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, don’t rush me!

According to a recent newspaper report, the heads of the world’s major Christian denominations are trying to reach agreement on a fixed day for Easter. If they succeed, a dispute dating back more than 1600 years will be laid to rest, and Easter will fall on the second or third Sunday in April, instead of depending on the date of the ecclesiastical full moon, as decreed in AD325 at the Council of Nicaea.

That’s the end of the historical bit. I promise. Well, the photo accompanying the report showed a large hot cross bun which, the caption said, is traditionally served at Easter. Not any more, I thought, recalling the shocking moment before Christmas at my local supermarket  when I noticed hot cross buns displayed alongside mince pies. What’s that, I wondered, feeling cross if not hot – buy one Christian holiday, get one free? Can’t the retail trade show a little more patience in its relentless push to sell us stuff we neither need nor want well ahead of its time?

Well no, it can’t. After all, a colourful leaflet reminding me of the imminence of Christmas came through my letter box in mid-July last year. It happened to be a sweltering day, and if the pot-bellied idiot, I mean Father Christmas, ho-hoing on the leaflet had materialized, I would have cheerfully wrung his neck. The only positive by-product of this indecent haste – positive for us, bullied consumers, not for the retail moguls – is that by early October the idea of shopping for Christmas becomes so boring that one can reduce it to a bare minimum.

Yet barely were we out of Christmas. in fact the decorations were still in place at my local supermarket, when the wholesale attack by Easter bunnies began, complete with edible treats guaranteed to worsen the national obesity crisis. How demeaning this high-calorie rubbish was for the original  Easter rabbits, those pre-Christian cult animals that accompanied Freya, the Nordic goddess of Spring, carrying her luggage as she re-emerged from the mountain cave of winter. But who remembers them, or that the traditional Easter eggs – not the milk chocolate ones – were originally fertility symbols?  Not so long ago in some Continental countries hand-painted eggs were handed  by village girls to visiting young men who in return sprinkled them with cheap perfume; oh dear, just  how obvious can folklore get?

Oops, I almost forgot: after New Year’s Day and before the bunnies, we were ordered by the retail trade to get ready for Valentine’s Day on February 14, and buy champagne, caviar, jewellery, or, as the bare minimum, a decent Valentine card for our love. Here’s again a colossal misunderstanding; St. Valentinus of Rome was a holy man, totally uninterested in romantic love. Imprisoned during the persecution of Christians, he healed his jailer’s daughter and wrote her a letter before his execution, signing it “your Valentine”. Which is how we are supposed to sign ours today. That day could be a lovely, gentle feast to brighten up dreary February, if only the merchandising people didn’t make such a racket about it from January 2nd onwards. (All this notwithstanding, I do hope someone will send me a Valentine this year…)

We are being rushed into shopping early for every possible “special” day . But having used up Mother’s and Father’s celebration, aren’t the marketeers running out of excuses for selling us stuff? Of course there are grandparents and pets,  but not everybody has either of those; nor can I think of anything that would have an inescapable relevance for everybody. Except – rather hard to sell, I fear – resistible occasions, such as entering old age or leaving this world altogether. Those will need considerable finesse, to convince likely customers without frightening them – more or less all of us, come to think of it.

But if anyone is already working on a suitable leaflet, urging us to buy the right kind of sustainable, responsibly sourced, possibly organic wherewithal for our final purchases, please don’t send me one.

Not yet, anyway.