Welcome to the Madhouse

“Oh, cheer up,” said my irrepressible friend on the phone, “Spring is coming, the first daffodils are out, why are you so gloomy?” I gave a non-answer and changed the subject. But afterwards I made a quick mental list of the strictly non-personal reasons, the ones concerning every single one of us, for my mood that was as cloudy and chill as the February afternoon outside, with no  precocious daffodils able to brighten it.

O.K., this is what happened that day. I switched on the radio and gathered that global sea levels had risen in the 20th century at nearly double their previous rate. Coastal habitats have been devastated, soils eroded and contaminated, flooding doubled, and with the glaciers melting we can no longer stop the process, only slow down its pace. (I live near the Thames and yes, recently the tides looked pretty swollen – surely West London isn’t yet on the list of doomed habitats?)

Switch off radio. Pick up morning paper. Long piece full of statistics about human overpopulation. Every 12-15 years we add another billion to our bulging masses, I read, and the impact on the environment is devastating. An expert called it “A barrel of explosives”. Oops – as these days explosives figure often in the daily news, this makes me shiver. Overconsumption, loss of tree cover, inadequate fresh water, starvation, increased pollution, new epidemics, you name it, we’ll have it.

As if this weren’t sufficient, the scientific journal that arrives in the mail confirms that at present  we are using up the renewable resources of 1.7 Earths, and by 2050 we’ll need three Earths to keep us going. Where on…no, where outside Earth are we going to find them? Just to pick out one grim detail, in the last 40 years our planet lost one third of its arable land, due to erosion and over-cultivation. Beyond a certain limit artificial fertilisers can’t make up for the loss of healthy fertile soil; first the quality and eventually the quantity of the crops plummets and all that remains is dead soil and the fertiliser run-off poisoning rivers and brooks. More people, less soil to grow food for them – surely something is very wrong here?

Enough is enough. Can’t take any more gloom and doom. Instead, I browse the sunnier uplands of the internet and read the messages of  the various civilian groups that, scattered all over the world, swim against the mainstream, trying to mitigate the damage caused by the unwisdom of the Establishment. Crowd funding, signatures by the milli0n, powerful  grass root initiatives  which succeed against heavy odds: things begin to look and feel  hopeful. No, perhaps it’s not too late, it’s still seven whole minutes to midnight. If those in power, the global decision-makers applied themselves to the task, they could stop the rot and start the healing process. End spending unimaginable fortunes on arms and plant forests instead. Feed the starving. Make contraception available everywhere to curb population growth. Educate and empower women and girls to add their special gifts to community life. Teach men to express their anger by non-violent means.

Wow, what a beautiful programme. It covers several topical needs. The next step is to involve those in power, the ones not caught up in corruption, fraud, nepotism or sex scandals to get going, inspire and lead us towards success. Surely they are aware of the huge risks of the moment and are busy seeking solutions?

So what does President Trump, head of the world’s No.1. superpower  think about all this? Well, actually he doesn’t. He’s preoccupied with the utterances of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and sends him this message: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

If it weren’t about the possibility of nuclear annihilation, this would remind me of nothing more important than small boys arguing behind the bicycle shed, on the level of “my Daddy is bigger/stronger/richer than yours”, or, more ominously, “my knife is bigger/ sharper/more expensive than yours”. Unfortunately this time the parallel doesn’t work, except in the lunatic logic of the madhouse.

And then my friend on the telephone wonders why I sound so gloomy.

 

 

 

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Porch Door Blues

My house, in a quiet nook of West London, is officially described as a Victorian workman’s cottage, and as it is one of a terrace of similar buildings protected by a conservation order, a Victorian workman would easily recognize it. True, before the order came into force, a few residents attempted to turn their houses into Regency “villas” by demolishing the bay windows and investing in fancy door furniture, but the total impression is that of solid, no-nonsense redbrick houses, with porches.

Until you’ve had a porch with a custom-made door (be warned, it costs a lot) you don’t realize how useful a thing it is. It puts an extra layer of defence between you and the road and saves some heat in winter;  it’s a fairly safe place to leave smallish parcels, dripping umbrellas and muddy boots and, fitted with an automatic sensor light that comes on after dark, it makes would-be burglars and other no-good boyos depart pretty fast.

The only snag with my porch door is that some callers don’t shut it when they leave, so that the prevailing easterly wind knocks it against the neighbour’s fence, damaging the paintwork and making an annoying noise.. So I started creating appealing notices, using the best colours and fonts my computer could produce, saying “Please shut this door – thank you”. I thought this would do the trick, but I was wrong: every day several callers, including those undeterred by my stern “NO JUNK MAIL” notice, come and go —and leave the door open.

Now there is more to this than damaged paint and noisy knocks. What it’s really about is the culprits’ total disregard of other people’s wishes, in this case mine, as the owner of the door. It’s the same disregard that makes people in crowded cafés pull out their chairs when they leave and not push them back, turning the place into a kind of obstacle race, or that lets women in public places concentrate on their smartphones while their infants scream, roar or sob (the smaller the child, the stronger its voice), making no attempt to calm them, while the rest of us suffer mutely and/or send forgiving thoughts to King Herod.

This social trend, to give it a polite name, reminds me of the teaching of the great  Austrian philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) who first formulated two modes of existence as the “I – Thou” and the “I – It” varieties. These refer to human relationships: in the case of “I – It” the “I”  regards the other person as a separate object which can be used or experienced; in the “I – Thou” variety there is a relationship between equals where the other is linked to, not separated from the “I”. Granted, Buber had in mind one-to-one relationships, but his idea can be stretched to cover the” Individual – Collective” juxtaposition as well. In everyday life, out in the world,  most of us manage in the “I – It” modality, but switch to the “I – Thou” version when disaster strikes and helping others, relating to their distress, becomes as natural as breathing.

Bang – there goes my porch door, being left open once more,  as usual, by our grim, humourless postman who may be suffering from “job fatigue” or permanent indigestion: no good trying to talk him into better ways. I’ll just let him go and then nip out to shut the door. Meanwhile, to let off steam, I draft the text of the notice I’d really like to display on the central glass panel of the door. Something like “Unless you can’t read, don’t understand English or are hopelessly stupid, please shut this door!”

But then of course the individuals I have in mind wouldn’t read my notice anyway.

There are times when the only correct attitude is to admit defeat. This is one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.