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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeds of omission

At long last yesterday I got down to exploring a densely chaotic shelf in an all-purpose cupboard, the kind that starts out as a model of intelligent storage and then gradually fills up with objects of  infinite variety and questionable usefulness.  The ancient Egyptians believed that life was a constant struggle with the all-engulfing chaos, and I think they were spot on, even though my chaos was infinitely smaller than their cosmic one and could sometimes be – briefly – defeated. The time to start was now.

For starters, beneath a few layers of plastic bags and the instructions  for using a long  defunct kitchen gadget, I found a smallish  gold-coloured metal box which had once contained  expensive Belgian chocolates, but now, to my amazement, was full of something less sweet: a batch of unopened seed packets. I could hardly believe my eyes.  How did I manage to forget about this lot? And was it too late to sow them now?

Well yes, it was. According to the “Sow by…” instruction on each packet, these seeds were two to four years out of date, victims of the sense of timelessness that overcomes me each time I am confronted with a resistible task, a sense of surely-it-can-wait-another-week. Or more. “Tomorrow never comes”, sang Frank Sinatra, offering a glamorous excuse to procrastinators. What a waste of money and gardening potential, I thought, fingering the pristine seed packets, but then suddenly remembered reading somewhere that wheat found in the tomb of a pharaoh did sprout after being stored in a stone jar for thousands of years. Should I perhaps – but no, get real, lady, that was probably ultra-special pharaonic wheat, and besides mid-October was no time to sow seeds.

I laid out the small envelopes on the kitchen table. Why on earth did I have six lots of radish seeds, four of them of the “French breakfast” variety ?  I lived in France for years and never saw any French person eating radishes for breakfast, nor was I ever offered any. Could this be another of those cross-Channel love-hate Franglais misunderstandings which make the French believe that the Brits eat le biftek twice a day? “An old radish which has stood the test of time”, one packet states rather offputtingly, making me realize that I don’t really like radishes of any kind. But then why did I buy all those seeds? No idea.

More to my taste, I find three packs of lettuce seeds, including those of Tom Thumb, the smallest kind, “just right for small families” I read on the pack; does that mean one and a half  family  member , or a whole family of small stature? Never mind, here come carrot seeds – they like dry, sandy soil and would have done badly in my rich organic humus – and the seeds of chives, spring onions, runner beans, peas, dark purple beetroot and – wait for it – perpetual spinach; what a nightmare for a spinach-hating child, and to hell with Popeye. Finally a touch of romance: I must have been in a lyrical mood when I bought the seeds of Night Scented Stock, delicate white and pink flowers only  releasing their sweet perfume when the stars light up. At last something to make up for those prosaic vegetable seeds.

What next? I take the seed packets to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden, open them one by one and pour the contents onto the vegetable chaos inside.  From one chaos into another, amen. My volunteer employees, the omnivorous earthworms will recycle the lot. Unless – this thought strikes me several hours later and makes me anxious – what if the seeds decide to disprove their sow-by dates and begin to sprout in the moist, warm paradise of the compost bin? What if they go on growing and thriving, until one day my garden is taken over by huge French radishes, fully intent to stand the test of time?

Let me procrastinate and wait and see. And hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On a low couch to China

Once a week I swap the noise and frantic life of the Chiswick High Road for this quiet, warm treatment room at the far end of a corridor, to lie very still on a couch for forty minutes. Mustn’t move much or try to lie on my side, because there are fine acupuncture needles protruding from various parts of my body and while lying still I can’t feel them at all, a change in position would make them sharply noticeable.

Anyway, why should I move? This is the ultimate luxury, to do nothing in great comfort and indulge in random thoughts, daydreams and suchlike frivolities. The soft tinkling background music  sounds like a miniature piano played by a gifted toddler; it flows along without structure or rhythm in a soothing Oriental manner –  just right for the occasion. Sometimes I hear a snatch of Chinese conversation outside in the corridor, sounding mildly indignant and melodious; it adds to the general atmosphere of  a mysterious elsewhere.

The needles make  me feel like a hedgehog in reverse, with spines upside down, except that Nature would never allow such a useless arrangement. Then the image of St Sebastian floats  into my awareness, the  beautiful half-naked young man tied to a tree and shot full of lethal arrows, martyred for his Christian faith by the Emperor Diocletian. Of course there’s no parallel here: poor Sebastian was killed by the arrows, while I am being peppered by needles in order to get me well.  Anyway, I should have Chinese daydreams, not Roman ones, so how about The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, AKA Huangdi Neijing (there – I knew this would impress you), the 2000-plus years old fundamental source for Chinese medicine?

Well no, let’s stick to the here and now. I first came here a few weeks ago to get rid of the severe pain in my left shoulder that has been tormenting me for three years, resisting several kinds of massage, physiotherapy and exercise, and also to increase my chi, the vital energy that drives and maintains life; mine being rather low right now. How does the needling  work?  Apparently my body contains a network of meridians, and the needles inserted into certain sensitive points along them are able to remove blockages and restore normal functioning. I have no problem with this theory, but some time ago it did  cause an eminent British consultant   to slice open a dead body in search of meridians. He didn’t find anything (what did he  expect? silk ribbons in pretty colours?), upon which he dismissed acupuncture as a load of rubbish and a con trick, in the touchingly confident manner of old-fashioned materialists who have firm views on what they don’t understand.

I wish he could meet Dr L., the Chinese woman doctor whose patient I am; given a good interpreter, they would have a truly interesting discussion.  Dr.L. is slender, middle-aged and imperturbable. We get on well.  Her English is somewhat rudimentary, a kind of Chinglish, so when it comes to finer points,  we call in the young receptionist to interpret. But a lot is done without words: Dr. L. checks my pulses and my tongue in her tiny office – look, no computer, no electronics, just a map of the human body and a small plastic skeleton, so that she looks at me, not at a screen, which is refreshing.  She is gentle and ultra-careful with the needles, but  when she massages me, despite being so petite  she has the strength of a sumo wrestler and I often have to beg her to hold back a bit.

Dr L. can also be strict; for instance, she makes me  drink twice a day a herb tea of unimaginable awfulness which I have to prepare myself according to strict rules. Complex tastes are notoriously difficult to describe, so let me just  say that this one is both cloying and dull and lingers on for a long time. The worst part of it is that it seems to do me good.

Besides, it could be worse, as I discover when the inveterate researcher in me takes over. I soon learn that the first Chinese herbal record dates from 2800 BC, which makes the practice nearly 5000 years old. Since then some 13,000 medicinals have been regularly used in China, consisting largely of plant elements, but containing animal, human and mineral products as well.  Some of these extras, such as cow’s gallstones, sound alarming, but happily the traditional products of the human body, which I refuse to list, are no longer used. (Phew.)

Another ten minutes and Dr L. will arrive, to remove her twenty-odd needles and work on muscles I didn’t know I had. So I drift into a final reverie about this mysterious medical system that works today as well as it did 5000 years ago, perhaps branching out into new areas – for instance discovering a way to roll back the years and produce enough dragon-power chi, zest, energy, vigour and vitality to rejuvenate the more or less decrepit patients, like myself, who come here in search of healing? Why not, even if it involves cow’s gallstones or worse? As far as I am concerned, it can’t be done fast enough –

Ah, Dr L. Yes, thank you, I am feeling better.