Friday, 19 November 2010

Always aim high

Sorry for the absence....still can't get online for more than about 10 seconds at a time despite new router, new filters, multiple calls to BT, shouting matches with Virgin Broadband, visits from various computer experts and now awaiting psychotherapist and possible strait-jacket.

Anyway, a mate of mine is well miffed, as we say in academia, about the forthcoming nuptials between an Old Marlburian girl and a well-known man-about-St. James's. He has two daughters you see, and he's spent a shed-load of money sending them to Marlborough and what did he get? Oxford University, that's what. Neither of them is going to be a Queen or even a Duchess. You wonder what you pay your money for don't you? I blame all those stupid textbooks they read when when they could be out snogging the scions of the aristocracy, or at least kissing a frog or two.

My mate had sooo set his mind on being the grandfather of a future King of England! And now all he'll probably get is a couple of bloody professors.

His wife tried her best. Apparently they went up to the Open Day festivities and when they saw their daughter disappearing unsteadily into the bushes surrounding the sports field with a suitable young gentleman,alcohol having been taken, she followed them discreetly into the thicket, hid behind a rhododendron bush and at the appropriate moment whispered urgently "Arch your back, darling, don't let his Lordship have to dangle his testicles on that damp grass!".

(Acknowledgement: Thank you Legend-in-his-own-lunchtime for that last line)

Monday, 15 November 2010

Weird or what?

According to New Scientist (Nov.13, p.42), people who read or write blogs are likely to be WEIRD. They make this claim because such people are likely to be Educated and Rich (compared with peasants in underdeveloped countries), and they live in a Western-style society which is Industrialized and Democratic; shuffle the letters and there you are:- WEIRD.

What you may not realize is that compared with most of the world's population you are also weird in the accepted dictionary sense of the word, meaning strange, unusual, and incomprehensible. This is because WEIRD people like us think differently to the vast majority of the world population.

Psychologists now realize that 96% of the people they have studied in the past have been from the WEIRD population, and in fact more than two thirds of the subjects who have taken part in psychology experiments have been university students. Recent studies in many different cultures have shown that this WEIRD minority has very different ideas about their sense of self, their sensory perceptions and their views of morality compared with the majority of non-WEIRD people.

WEIRD folk like us almost always fall for optical illusions, of the type such as the one with two lines of equal length which appear different because of the way the arrows on the end are oriented. San bushmen just don't get it, the lines are exactly the same length, it's obvious, and most 'primitive' tribesmen throughout the world are less susceptible to visual illusions than we are. Other experiments have shown that rural peasants regard themselves as just a part of Nature as a whole, whereas WEIRD people are much more egocentric. WEIRD children taught a dance-routine that involves a sequence of hand movements such as right-left-right-right will still perform it in the same way when they are asked to turn around 180 degrees, whereas non-WEIRD desert-dwelling children will change the routine to left-right-left-left when they turn around. The WEIRD kids orientate things in relation to themselves, whereas the desert-dwellers relate directions to nearby rocks or bushes. Much more useful if you're going to spend most of the day looking for water or sticks or food in a vast territory with no sign-posts.

There are many other important differences. Weird people think analytically and want to distinguish themselves from others, whereas non-Weird people tend to accept things as they are, and want to fit into the natural pattern. Weird people are concerned about justice and their rights, whereas non-Weird people are more concerned with their obligations to their community and their gods. In some I.Q. tests, the only 'right'answers depend on analytical thinking, whereas there may be other holistic ways of looking at a problem and reaching a different answer.

I recall a wonderful TV programme in which a team of aborigines agreed to participate in a gruelling 5-day race around the Australian desert, pitting themselves against aa crack team of soldiers carrying food and water supplies and with modern navigation and survival equipment. The tough soldiers won of course, because the aborigines only travelled slowly to the nearest water-hole, where they killed a kangaroo and then they rested for 5 days. They just couldn't see the point of it. How could you get lost or thirsty in the desert, and why would you want to show off?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Can you believe it!

The Internet is getting more and more bizarre. It's very difficult to decide who is pulling which bit of whose anatomy.

I was prepared to believe that a fake-tanning company might call itself Fake Bake, and they might even claim that their fake tan prevents ageing by stopping sunlight reaching the skin, but I find it incredible that they'd have the gall to declare that their product called Platinum Face Self Tan contains the "latest anti-ageing ingredient Phyto-CellTec Malus Domestica" . They claim that this was created from stem cells extracted from the rare Swiss apple called Uttwiler Spatlauber(see fakebake.co.uk/shop.html). The apple's totipotent cells have been "harnessed" it says. They're selling it at £29.95p a bottle.

I think it should be called Brass Neck rather than Platinum Face, though Bare-faced Robbery might be equally appropriate, especially from those pallid people who are Half-Baked enough to pay £30 for a Fake Bake apple, even a rare Swiss one with an umlaut. On the other hand a bit of totipotency might not go amiss at my age.

On the similar 'can you believe it!' theme, is the report at bit.ly/newageterror that "New Age terrorists have harnessed the power of homeopathy for evil".

"Homeopathic weapons represent a major threat to world peace" allegedly said President Obama, "they might not cause any actual damage but the placebo effect could be quite devastating".

The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner allegedy said "Large numbers of people would believe that they have been killed or injured and hospitals would be unable to cope".

These bombs are so very daangerous of course because, according to the laws of homeopathy, the more that the water-bomb is diluted, the more powerful it becomes. They are in effect Weapons of Mass Dilution, which could bring cities to a standstill.

Meanwhile, new security measures at airports will be needed so that all water will be tested to ensure that none of it is being used to smuggle the memory of an explosive onto a plane. The only defence is for everyone to remain calm, vigilant and to always wear a magic vibrating crystal.

Actually they're a bit late with this homeopathy story. We all learned years ago that if people taking homeopathic medication miss taking their medication for 3 days they can die of an overdose, and I distinctly remember giggling about 60 years ago when the Goon Show claimed that in World War Two we'd saved time and money by manufacturing masses of cardboard cut-out tanks, until the crafty Krauts saw through this wheeze and started dropped cardboard cut-out bombs.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Smiling pigs

My little diatribe against self-centred politicians('Strictly' for the birds, 11.11.10) reminded me of John Sergeant's admirable efforts in the same programme some months ago. He knew he was sending himself up and in fact he called himself 'the Dancing Pig'. He was a good sport, we had a good laugh, he was extremely popular, and he then retired gracefully before it all became silly. The clumping Widdecombe obviously believes she's a winner and says she won't retire, but Widdecombe Fair she isn't, so I'll refrain from mentioning the grey mare, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

But back to the subject of jolly pigs:



Here's one I made earlier.

One of the joys of living in the deep Dorset/Somerset countryside is the amazing breadth of talent that lurks in most of the small villages and hamlets. The area is stuffed with active artists, writers, potters, musicians, as well as a liberal share of retired headteachers, diplomats, doctors, dons, ex-colonial officers and assorted intellectuals.

So what's that to do with the pig, I hear you ask. Well, my next-door neighbour is an excellent potter and enamellist with his own kiln. He runs short pottery courses, so I went along to have a go at making a raku pot, or more accurately, a raku pig.

This is an ancient Japanese technique which involves making a clay pig, slicing it in two down the middle, hollowing it out, and then rejoining the two pieces, but leaving a vent for the air to escape as it expands when its in the kiln, otherwise you get an exploded pig and a damaged kiln. The tricky question was where to hide the vent so it wouldn't spoil the smooth contours of my pig. After some discussion we agreed there was only one reasonable place, underneath the curly tail.

The pig was fired in the kiln, glazed and then fired again in a dustbin filled with burning wood-shavings, before being quickly taken out and plunged into cold water, which crackles the glaze, thus producing the attractive crazed raku effect.

All went well, apart from some coughing from the smoke and a few singed eye-brows, but when piggy was plunged into the cold water, his body contracted and his internal gases escaped from the vent with a prolonged sequence of bubbling, noisy farts.

How's that for animation! No wonder he's smiling.

Language difficulties

Being an old fogey I blame television for lots of things,quite apart from Anne Widdecombe's 'combs'. Younger readers may need to ask Granny exactly what 'combs' are (pronounced komms).

I blame television for making swearing respectable for instance, especially by young people. Sure, we all swore occasionally years ago, but we knew we shouldn't and if we did, we'd apologize. Nowadays, in this permissive age, if you don't like my language you can f*** off.

As a result, swearing hs lost its power, though one of my middle-aged friends took his aged mother on a Peace March some years and was amazed by what she shouted at a heavy-handed policeman, and by the result it had.

It can be quite amusing when old ladies swear (vide Catherine Tait on TV), but it's less amusing coming from a foul-mouthed, badly-behaved child.

My friend Jim told me about his grandsons, aged 4 and 7. Apparently they'd decided it was time they stuck up for themselves and they'd use swear-words whenever they felt like it. They decided they'd begin at breakfast-time the next morning.

"What would you like for breakfast this morning?" Mummy brightly asked the 7 year-old.
"Ah shit Mum, you never bloody learn do you, you know I always have the frigging Coco-Pops"

THWACK! He was sent flying across the kitchen floor with a clattering of chairs, then he painfully picked himself up and ran upstairs howling.

The pale,tight-lipped Mummy turned to her 4 year-old.

"And what would you like young man?"

His eyes filled with tears.

"I don't know Mummy, but it won't be f*cking Coco-Pops"

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

'Strictly' for the birds

I'm not a great fan of 'Strictly Come Dancing' though where else could a respectable man of my age get a close-up view of girls like that wearing clothes like that?

That Anne Widdecombe is scary though, isn't she? I fear for poor Anton's life if she fell on him, not to mention the bilateral hernias he'll get with all that lifting, and if he swung her round and lost his grip she could demolish the studio.

The physical damage scares me less than the thought that she was once a politician, capable of influencing the policy decisions of the government. She appears to have no insight whatever. Her ego must be bigger than her bum. Fat and frumpy I forgive, but how could she not realize what an idiot she appears! "Vote for me, famous for being fatuous".

Come to think of it, she's not the only politician who might use that as a logo.

Monday, 8 November 2010

I can't bear BearShare.

Speaking of computer problems, which we were in my last Post, I have to apologize for the relative dearth of my new Posts in the last week or two. I've been chattering away to myself in my head, as you do, but trying to transfer said thoughts into the ether via this stupid machine often defeats me.

Windows 7 always gives me problems, it's much too clever for my own good. I can usually be shown or eventually work out how to perform whatever limited repertoire I need, but when people tamper with the computer, I'm lost again, and it takes a long time to find out which buttons to click and when.

The latest nervous breakdowns, mine and the computer's, arose when my wife decided to check the words of a song and found she'd accidentally installed something called BearShare. The cute little fellow decided he liked our computer so much he'd take it over completely, popping up all over the place and replacing all our other programs and bookmarks etc. My wife tried desperately to uninstall him, but couldn't, though she did succeed in uninstalling almost everything else on our computer, which is always an over-excitable beast and tends to go off-line in a nervous sulk for hours or days at a time. (We're 7 miles from the telephone exchange, which apparently explains everything from slow Broadband to Offline and halitosis). We eventually consulted the BearShare Helpline and they told us that BearShare 'can be difficult to uninstall'. Tell me about it! We've tried to follow their gobbledegook and failed.

Anyway, life continues, with or without the stupid computer, and I've suddenly remembered that not only does life offer the usual grouting, with groaning and grumbling, but also many pleasanter half-finished tasks, such as the 'catalogue raisonnee' of my art-work (paintings, stone-carvings and bookbindings), memoirs for the yet-unborn great-grand-children, various new commissioned paintings to start, walks in the sunshine (if and when), trimming and repotting the bonsai trees and learning to cook.

The last one isn't actually true, it was just to falsely raise my wife's hopes (again) to pay her back for HerShare in the BearShare debacle. Oops! There's an idea...Hairshare. She's always having her's cut and I'm always trying to grow more so why can't we share, as we do when we eat a pear (PearShare?). Silly ideas? I have more than my FairShare. We once spent the night in a cave together (LairShare) and she often used to sit on my knee (ChairShare) but unlike some sophisticated couples we don't throw car-keys into a ring (PairShare) and unlike the Beckhams, we draw the line at the UnderwearShare.

So this possible Last Post is by way of an apology and an explanation for the fact that my Posts might, like the Cheshire cat, slowly fade away, leaving only, I hope, a grin, and not a bad smell. Thanks to everyone, particularly Alison and Legend, for your supportive and entertaining Comments.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Old age is a terrible thing

One might think that I would have little in common with Benjamin Bopal. So far as I can ascertain from the Internet (but bearing in mind that my information from this source is always dubious, as I never know quite how the system works) Benjamin Bopal is a gay man who runs a guest-house in Greyton, South Africa and is trying to start a bowls club for gay men.

I have to admit that none of the above has been at the forefront of my list of ambitions, although I reckon I could if absolutely necessary have a go at running a guest-house in South Africa, but only along Basil Fawlty lines.

But Benjamin Bopal, it seems, is a man after my own heart, as shown by the following missive which I received from my friend Mike, who is a non-gay bowler, which was allegedly written by the said Benjamin Bopal, the gay bowler:

We Silver Surfers sometimes have trouble with our computers. I had a problem yesterday, so I called Eric, the 11 year old next door, whose bedroom looks like Mission Control and asked him to come over.
Eric clicked a couple of buttons and solved the problem. As he was walking away, I called after him, "So, what was wrong?".
He replied, "It was an ID ten T error".
I didn't want to appear stupid, but nonetheless inquired, "An, ID ten T error? What's that? In case I need to fix it again".
Eric grinned, "Haven't you ever heard of an ID ten T error before?"
"No", I replied.
"Write it down" he said, "and I think you'll figure it out".
So I wrote down: ID10T

I used to like Eric, the little bastard .......

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Try again Harriet

It was heartening to hear Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, trying to shed her image of po-faced sanctimoniousness by essaying a witticism at the expense of the Treasury Secretary by calling him "one ginger rodent who would not be welcome in Scotland". It was disappointing however to hear that she felt she had to apologize almost immediately afterwards, and even more disappointing for her when her victim came back with the immediate riposte that he was proud of being ginger and didn't mind being a rodent, who was busily engaged in clearing up the mess left by other people!

But Harriet was right, squirrels can be a blinking nuisance. Our neighbour has a thatched roof and a family of squirrels are busily engaged at present in chewing away most of the electric cables in his loft. They come for lunch to our house, eating whatever we put out for the birds now that they've stripped the hazelnut bushes and the walnut tree. In other words the Treasury Secretary won't be satisfied until he's had your nuts, and then he'll rob your bird.

I'm not sure though why people should think its an insult to be called ginger. I've heard people say that the most unbelieveable part of the Harry Potter films is the claim that it features 'a ginger' with two friends, but I think most chaps would have been very friendly indeed with the Pre-Raphaelite beauties, if they had the chance. It sounds to me as though this 'gingerism' is yet another regrettable '-ism' which we should strive to combat. After all people with no hair already suffer from 'baldism', brown-haired people from 'boring mouseyism', black-haired people are called spicks (in USA) or half-caste (in UK), and we all know about blondes, although it never worried Dolly Parton because, she said, she knows that blondes are really smart and she knows that she's not really blonde.

And I understand that red hair is already well established in Scotland, and the Celts may not like the epithet ginger rodent.

So, nice try, Harriet, but 'nil point'.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Catachresis, innit?

We old fogeys love to drone on about abuse of the English language. Absolute nonsense of course because the English language has been changing every day since the Normans arrived in 1066, and this constant expansion and change of usage has made English the most expressive language in the world.

All the same, we old fogeys don't like our language to be abused, as I was reminded when I read about the recent review of the Baby P. case in which a child died as a result of "abuse". When I was a lad, abuse was what fish-wives did to each other, with a lot of shouting and swearing. It had nothing to do with beating babies to death. It was nothing to do with sex either, although I do recall there was a thing called self-abuse, which made you go blind. My Mum always used to get cross if she heard people in the street 'effing and blinding' but I'm pretty sure that was something different. As I say, language is a funny thing, but ours was a funny street, so funny things happened. Nowadays though it seems you can abuse anything, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes ...What would you have to do with a cigarette to abuse it? And don't mention Mars Bars.

My dictionary says 'abuse' means 'to make a bad use of'. I suppose you could say self-abuse would come under that heading, but I don't think we could reasonably describe the death of Baby P as 'making a bad use of a baby'.

I was intrigued to note that catachresis, misapplication of a word, is also defined as 'abuse of the language', which is where we came in. I find that catachresis happens all the time nowadays, usually due to a combination of my senility and my ignorance.

It happens to young people too, like the young man who set fire to his sister. He'd confused arson with incest. The Incendiary Magistrate who dealt with the case remaindered him in custard and asked for a psephologist's report. To be fair, he was Chinese, so he knew it was something to do with an election.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Doctors' views

My friend Mike keeps a close eye on political developments and he has just sent me an analysis of Mr Osborne's recent proposal to make savage cuts to improve the health of the economy. It seems that the British Medical Association has taken a survey of doctor's opinions on this therapy, and since this column is called 'A Doctor's View' I thought I should pass these opinions on, even if they make you cringe.

The Dermatologists advised against any rash moves and wanted to scratch it.

The Gastroenterologists had a gut feeling it was going to hurt,

The Neurologists thought Osborne had a nerve.

The Obstetricians felt all politicians labour under a misconception.

Ophthalmologists felt it was short-sighted.

Pathologists yelled, "Over my dead body!" while the Paediatricians shouted, "Oh, just grow up!"

The Psychiatrists thought the whole idea was madness, while the Radiologists claimed to see right through it.

Surgeons knew plenty about cuts, and felt we should wash our hands of the whole thing.

The ENT specialists wouldn’t hear of it.

The Physicians thought it would be a bitter pill to swallow.

The Plastic Surgeons said, "This puts a whole new face on the matter...."

The Anaesthesiologists thought the whole idea was a gas, and the Cardiologists didn't have the heart to say no, but the Urologists were pissed off about it.

In the end, the BMA accepted the views of the Proctologists, and will leave the final decision to those a**eholes in Westminster.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Times are still hard

Having spent most of my life as a townie, I had always assumed that fields and trees and hedges stayed the same for year after year unless you did something to them. When I retired and bought a house with a paddock and lots of trees and many hedges, I was unpleasantly surprised to discover that the opposite is true. Fields and trees and hedges only stay the same if you keep doing things to them. Nettles, thistles and brambles take over your paddock, your hedges turn into rampant 16-foot tall Triffids, and trees shed large rotten branches onto passers-by and grow into neighbouring power lines, thus cutting off the electricity supply to much of the village in windy weather.

There is a cure for all these ills, but it always involves backbreaking effort. Thomas Hardy in one of his novels based on life in Dorset mentions women who worked in the fields as scrattlers, digging out thistles for sixpence a day. Having tried a bit of scrattling myself, I now accept that the function of the gentleman is to provide employment for the worker, so now I always 'get a man in'.

This generally involves a haemorrhage of cash. I was quoted a price of £470 to trim my hedges recently. When I pointed out that the same job by the same firm last year had only cost £300, this required some explanation. It seems that it was all to do with VAT, which hadn't been added.
OK, VAT last year was 15%, so that would have made it £345 rather than £300.
Yes but VAT has gone up to 17% this year.
OK, so that's another 2%, making it £351, but that's still a long way short of £470 isn't it?
Ah, but petrol and wages have gone up a lot in the last year.
Oh dear, what a pity, because my pension hasn't gone up a lot, so I'll need to get more estimates.
OK, Let's call it £360 cash.

This nit-picking over the odd £100 contrasts with the documentary I heard on BBC 4 on the same day about Fine Art sales at Sotheby's. The obviously very well-connected young lady with the cut-glass accent explained that the art market is just about holding up in these straitened times. There are still plenty of people who can afford 3 million for a painting, but the number who can afford 30 million has sadly dwindled since the banks collapsed. Breaks you heart doesn't it!

This reminds me of the banker who ordered a new Porsche from the dealer and posted an enthusiastic message on Facebook to say that he couldn't wait for the new 911. It seems that about 500 Taliban members immediately added him to their list of Friends.

Only joking.....(Nervous laughter. Legend - don't be tempted).

Sunday, 24 October 2010

It's a hard life

I just love 'New Scientist'. No subject is too big or too small for them to tackle, and their writers can make it both interesting and amusing.

This week for example they range from the question of the constancy of constants throughout the Universe to the reason people like the smell of bacon. Most folk might be more interested in the latter subject, but the former is more important if you're intending to travel any distance, say to the other end of the Universe.

The thing is you see, that we have all assumed that the laws of physics are immutable throughout the Universe. You couldn't trust anybody if salt was suddenly found to be harder than diamonds in some far-flung galaxies, or Number 27 buses travelled faster than light in others.

An astronomer called John Webb has now produced data which appears to show that a very important constant called Alpha, which is known to determine how many photons of energy an atom will absorb, changes according to the direction in which you're looking. If you're keen on that sort of thing, and you should be, you can read it in the article by Michael Brooks at New Scientist, 23 Oct. 2010, p. 33. The generally accepted value of alpha is around 1/37, but Webb has shown that if you look in a particular direction across the Universe, which allows us to view photons of light emitted by quasars several billion years ago the value is around one part in a million smaller than it seems to be here on Earth.

How big is that compared with the forthcoming decrease in child-benefits I hear the middle-class Mums murmur. Well, its the principle of the thing. If Mr. Osborne decreases your annual income by 50% you may have to forego holidays, booze or even shoes, but if Alpha changes from one part of the Universe to another, which Webb claims it does, then the normal rules of physics don't apply and life would perhaps be impossible, because if you mess about with Alpha there might be no carbon atoms, and hence no life as we know it. Just keep your wits about you is all I'm saying.

Don't let it depress you. The good news is that we now understand why sizzling bacon smells so good (same issue, p. 65). Bacon is prepared by saturating it in 'curing brine', a solution of salt, nitrites, hydrolysed corn starch etc. and when this is heated to a high temperature it causes a Maillard reaction between the sugars in the brine and the amino acids in the meat, a process analogous to the caramelization of sweetened milk when it is heated for long enough.

The intriguing thing is that there is also a letter on this mouth-watering topic from Yonatan Silver of Jerusalem, who claims never to have tasted bacon, and when he smells bacon he does not find it appetising.

I wonder if he knows the joke about the Catholic priest and the Rabbi travelling in a railway carriage together. It was a long journey, and as they chatted they began to divulge confidences to each other about their religious faith and their personal lives.
"Tell me confidentially" asked the priest "Have you ever tasted bacon?"
"Well, yes I'm afraid I did once, and it was delicious" said the Rabbi "but tell me confidentially, have you ever slept with a woman?"
"I've afraid I did once" said the priest.
"Better than bacon isn't it!" said the Rabbi.

If any of you have a thought about the Maillard reaction in this context, please try to suppress it.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Bags of confidence is what you need

Stately Homes always seem to have a crumbling facade in need of restoration. The Guides are often very little better, even those who have already been partially restored. When you enter those stately dimly-lit rooms there's always an effigy in the corner, which might just be the family ghost, but is more likely a Guide, who's been there for 5 hours already and is bored to tears because there's nothing to do but stare at a bombe commode and a couple of dismal portraits of the 6th and 10th Earls and their dreary wives.

I always try to chirp them up by egging them on to divulge scurrilous confidences about the present Earl and an actress or a choir-boy. "I did hear from a chum of mine who goes to the same London club as his Lordship..." I say, and then pause to judge their reaction before completing the sentence. Often the blue-rinsed response is decidedly frosty,which can be quite amusing in itself, if you adopt the naive but knowing, nudge-nudge Sacha Baron-Cohen ('Borat') approach, but its surprising what juicy details some little old ladies seem to know. I suspect some of them make it up, so in the end we don't know who is pulling who's leg. More fun than staring at Chippendale chairs though.

I went to Tyntesfield House recently, a Victorian Gothic extravaganza in North Somerset now owned by the National Trust. I'm not going to tell you what the Guide told me about the previous Earl of Wraxall, but the story of how the family made its fortune was very interesting.

Antony Gibbs, who started the business empire on which the splendour of Tyntesfield House was built, was the son of an Exeter surgeon, but he decided against following his father into medicine. Instead, he became a shipping trader, and eventually was attracted into the exciting world of guano, the droppings of sea-birds. Mountains of guano many feet deep could be found along the coast of South America. When the first shipment was made in 1842, it was a huge gamble, but the guano was an instant success and it rapidly became Britain's most popular fertiliser. The enormous edifice of Tyntesfield is thus in effect built on a sound financial foundation of guano.

The Guide told me that these shipments of manure had to be kept dry during the voyage, otherwise fermentation would occur and methane gas was formed. Then strike a match down there in the hold and BOOM! a sinking ship. So the bags of dry guano always had to be stamped with the instruction 'Stow High In Transit' so that the sailors would not stow it in the depths of the ship where the bilge-water could reach them.

And thus was evolved the acronym "S.H.I.T.".

I'd always thought it was a golfing term.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Mind how, and where, you go

Schadenfreude, taking pleasure from the misfortunes of others, is a wonderful thing, even if it makes you feel bad to feel so good.

I had lunch a few weeks ago with my friend Roger, who lives in London for 6 months every year but has a small house in South Africa. It was a chilly day and he was at pains to point out that in a few weeks time he'd have left this miserable English weather behind and he'd be sitting in the mountains near Cape Town, in warm sunshine enjoying a splendid lunch with South African wines at a fraction of the price we'd just paid in Dorset. Yes,yes, that's great, lucky old you.

Today I had an E-mail saying that he and his wife were a bit under the weather, literally. They'd both caught colds on the flight to South Africa, as you do, the weather there is very cold and grey, the man they pay to look after their garden (now jungle) has done nothing for a year, the bathroom has some serious plumbing problems (maybe fatal, and certainly expensive), they've had a minor car crash and the other driver was not insured, and the S.A. bank has just charged them £150 for putting their own U.K. money into their own bank account.

As you'd expect, I've sent them a cheerful reply, pointing out that we deprived old folk in Somerset are feeling fine, we're enjoying lovely warm weather, and Mr. George Osborne has decided not to penalize us, so we'll be retaining the free TV licences, the heating allowance, the free bus pass etc. I did mention the need for continued fiscal restraint in the 'fat-cat' London area however, particularly with regard to taxation of second homes, and the heavy taxation penalties regarding non-declared overseas assets. I also felt it necessary to point out that Mr Osborne has decided that the £12 billion cost (billion, trillion, whatever, another few billions or so is small beer) of the Olympics will have to be met by London property owners, as they will benefit from the sport. It will be in the form of a toilet tax. Pay as you go.

The cut-backs in public services, particularly police manpower, are going to cause big problems though. I heard the other day that the police station at Weston-Super-Mare is only open intermittently and whilst it was closed, burglars broke in and stole the safe, the furniture and all the toilets. No arrests have yet been made. The embarrassed police spokesman explained that they have absolutely nothing to go on.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

This is where I came in.

One benefit which might follow from increasing the retirement age by 10 years or so, might be that the accumulated wisdom of the years might be listened to. It is of course well known that once people have retired, their opinion is not worth a bucket of spit. That's why the retired diplomats who advised against starting a war in Iraq were ignored. What did they know about modern American weapons and diplomacy! Old fuddy-duddies.

We're seeing it at present in the NHS. What goes round, comes round.

Shortly after I was appointed as a NHS consultant in 1973, Mrs Thatcher had the bright idea of asking an American expert on Health Care for his advice, and she then instituted the first of the many NHS Reforms which have cost the country so much money for so little benefit.

I remember one suggested reform was to fund hospital departments according to the number of patients they could attract. The more successful departments would then be able to afford more staff and they would see more patients, while the less successful ones would lose staff and would gradually dwindle away to nothing. It did not seem to occur to the managers that there was not an endless supply of experienced doctors and nurses just standing around waiting to be employed by the successful departments, and that the expensively trained doctors and nurses who were made redundant from the less successful departments would either go abroad or be re-employed in the more successful departments. It would take a lot of managers and administrators to make sure the system worked well though, so the plan was approved.

The money would follow the patients, who would choose where they wished to go. Market forces. Marvellous. In the South-West they appointed a senior manager from the airline industry to reorganize the NHS on these commercial lines. It was just a matter of putting people in the operating theatre at the scheduled 'take-off' time and giving the customers what they want. I think it took him about a year to learn it ain't that simple. (It took the military invaders in Iraq slightly longer to discover they should have listened to the old buffers).

Now, some 25 years later, I read in the Telegraph (October 18th) that Martha Lane Fox, the internet entrepreneur, is planning an 'information revolution' in the NHS. Patients will be able to compare doctors across Britain, and will be able to study survival rates in different hospitals. The article says "It is hoped this will help drive up hospital standards as patients choose not to use the services of poor doctors, who will then lose funding".

It isn't April 1st, is it?

The Telegraph does have a good sense of humour (sometimes).

Their final 'leader' in the same issue (A Christian Family) said We appreciate Homer Simpson for his sophisticated understanding of the power of prayer, demonstrated when he lifted up a plate of cookies with this appeal: "Lord, if you want me to eat them, give me no sign"

And may the Lord deliver the NHS from young internet entrepreneurs.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Time your babies.

Statistics can be a pretty dreary subject and I promise not to go on and on about it, but greatly to my surprise I've just learnt something from the Sun newspaper, other than what Steven Gerrard's wife looks like in close-up in a very scanty swimsuit.

I wasn't really wanting to drool over a picture of Steven Gerrard's wife, of course not, but I was on a train last Saturday, and another man had been engrossed in it for 10 minutes or so, and when he reached his destination and left the paper behind it seemed a pity not to pick it up and see what he found so interesting. Hmmm!

Where was I? Oh yes, in the same newspaper there was an article (16.10.10, p. 21) saying that "Mum Barbara Soper beat odds of 50 million to one when her new baby was the third to be born on a date where all three numbers were the same". Baby Chloe arrived on 08.08.08, brother Cameron came on 09.09.09 and little Cearra Nicole arrived on 10.10.10. Barbara, of Rockford, Michigan is not, thank goodness, aiming to produce another child on 11.11.11.

According to the Sun journalist "Statistics experts say the odds of such an achievement are more then 50 million to one".

Well you don't need to be a statistics expert, and you don't even need to have a computer, though a pencil and a small piece of paper helps, to know that the odds are less than 50 million to one, they are in fact 48,627,125 to one.

But as Doug pointed out in his Comment with regard to my last Post in which I took issue with the Telegraph's wild over-estimate for 3 babies sharing the same birth date, the odds change greatly if you don't specify a particular couple and a particular birth date. The odds for a particular couple having 3 babies all born on the same date may be around 133,000 to one, but if you have 133,000 couples each having 3 babies, then you are very likely indeed to have one couple with 3 babies sharing a same birth date. Doug points out in his Comment that you only need 23 people in a room for there to be a more than 50% chance that two of them will share the same birth date. If you have 60 people in a room it is virtually certain that two of them will share the same birth date.

The Sun article illuminated this problem, and I now see why the Telegraph 'expert' claimed odds of 48 million to one, because he assumed they had chosen one particlar couple and one particular birth date, when the odds are indeed 48 million to one. And though the Sun figure is almost correct for a particular couple starting their family on 08.08.08, they haven't considered the possibility of a sequence of 3 babies starting on 03.03.03, 04.04.04, 05.05.05, and so on.

You can see why people talk about lies, damned lies and statistics.

I'm much more exercised by today's poser, which is to calculate the odds of babies being born at a particular time on a particular date so that they have a sequence of the same number. Supposing a child had been born at 20.02hr. on 20.02 in 2002. A woman lucky enough to have already had a baby at that exact time and date might like to try for her next to be born at 21.12hr. on 21.12.2112. Plenty of time to practice.

That should get the journalists' "expert statisticians" going. She'll make her fortune, if she can do it.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The National Debt

I think I've discovered why we have such a huge national debt.

The Telegraph reported yesterday (14.10.10) that a couple were delighted that their third child had been born on October 7, exactly the same date as his two older siblings.
The Telegraph reporter was duly amazed and said "The odds of it happening are said to be 48 million to one"

I wondered who had reached this amazing estimate, because clearly the odds of two children having the same birthday are 365 to one and so the odds of three children being born on the same date are 365 x 365 = 133,225. Not exactly 48,000,000 is it?

How many people on the Telegraph staff read this before it was published?

They were probably the same people who used to order the new computers for the NHS or the Ministry of Defence.

"We've had a quote for the 365 computers, Sir Humphrey, they're £365 each. It comes to quite a lot of money I'm afraid".

"Let me just work it out! Oh yes, call it £48,000,000. That'll do"

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Some things never change

The Catholic Church is at it again! This time they are urging children to dress up as Saints on Hallowe'en rather than witches or devils. "It is time we reminded Christians of what Hallowe'en really is", said the Right Reverend Kieran Conry, the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton.

What it really is, according to historians, is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which pre-dated Christianity. The name is derived from Old Irish and means 'summer's end' and is sometimes regarded as the Celtic New Year. The ancient Celts believed that the barrier between this world and the next became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits to return to earth. The family's ancestors were invited home to join in the festivities, while harmful spirits could be warded off by wearing costumes and masks to disguise oneself as some kind of evil spirit.

Samhain was the time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for the winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in these festivities, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames.

Some games traditionally played at the festival could predict the future. A traditional Scottish way of divining one's future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse's name. Unmarried women were told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Hallowe'en night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear.

Nothing whatever to do with Catholic Saints!

There is however a long tradition of religious women praying to their personal female saint (woman to woman) with regard to their future (or even present) spouse.

My favourite is the prayer to St. Catherine, who listens to maidens at St. Catherine's Chapel on the hill near Abbotsbury in Dorset.

'St.Catherine, St Catherine, Oh, lend me thine aid,
And grant that I nivver should die an old maid.
A husband, St. Catherine,
A GOOD one, St. Catherine,
But arna-one better than narna-one St. Catherine.

Sweet St. Catherine,
A husband, St. Catherine!
HANDSOME, St. Catherine!
RICH, St. Catherine!
SOON, St. Catherine!!'

But don't go up there on Hallowe'en or the witches will get you.

The explanation

Some of you will have heard this on the radio, but it's worth repeating, as it beautifully illustrates the enormous frustration I feel when I talk to devoutly religious people about their beliefs

Libby Purves was interviewing Derren Brown, the master illusionist, who for years has emphasized that none of his 'miracles' depends on supernatural forces, but they are all done by a wonderful combination of trickery, psychology, showmanship, distraction techniques etc.

He is fascinated by the gullibility of the public. While he was still a student he was doing some tricks for a group of his students friends, and when he'd finished, one of them came up to him and said "Yeah, I know they're tricks but it makes you think, doesn't it? There have to be forces we don't understand for these things to happen".

"No, no" said Derren "They're all just simple tricks, anybody could learn to do them" and he more or less told the guy how each trick was done.

"Yeah, you think you can explain it all, but there's more to it than you think. There's got to be something out there to explain it all" and he walked off, triumphant.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Bucolicky pains

I had another embarrassing moment with a sheep yesterday.

It was one of those lovely Indian Summer days, with russet and red autumn tints in all directions, the early morning mists had burnt off, the sun was warm and there was an orchard full of rosy apples to be picked. I took out my large basket and my long ladder, climbed into the tallest apple-tree, and settled into a comfortable fork, having a gentle muse about the meaning of life, where's it all leading to, will String Theory explain everything in the Universe, does it matter that David Cameron is beginning to go bald, is it fair to cut child benefits, is Nigella really as insatiable as she looks, and so on...... Every now and again, I plucked an apple and added it to my apron pouch. The birds were singing, there was no pressure, this was the most perfect of worlds. If this was bucolic, I liked it. I did briefly wonder about the derivation of the word bucolic, as is my wont (to save you looking it up, I can tell you it relates to things pastoral, and comes from the Greek boukolikos, a herdsman, bous being the Greek for an ox). Nothing to do with colic from eating too many green apples.

This bit of trivia seemed very appropriate,since by this time I was aware that a few sheep were clustering around the tree, pushing each other aside to get at the fallen apples which I'd accidentally dislodged. As a trainee shepherd I also knew that if sheep eat too many apples it discombobulates their digestive system, with predictable results for the cleanliness of my orchard. So I shouted at them and threw a couple of apples at them to scare them away. Big mistake! It caused a frenzy of pushing and shoving and my ladder was sent flying.

So there I was, up a creek without a paddle, nobody within hailing distance and no sheep smart enough to put the ladder back in place for me to climb down.

There's always a solution to dilemmas if you're clever enough. My problem was that I wasn't clever enough. I sat and thought, and mused a bit, and thought a bit more, and then remembered that my wife had gone to Bristol for the whole day and wouldn't be back for lunch. When she did get back at 7 p.m., she wouldn't expect me to be sitting up a tree in the gloaming, she'd just start ringing round the neighbours, then various casualty departments and then the police.

There was a time, about 40 years ago, when I'd just have climbed down to the lowest branch, hung from it by my arms and dropped cat-like to my feet, Britain's answer to Johnny Weissmuller (or Johnny Depp in today's parlance).

I have now discovered that cat-like dropping to my feet is not one of my retained talents. I can still do 'sack of potatoes and multiple bruises' though.

Ouch! Bloody sheep!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

What is a man?

A feminist friend of mine tells me I have got the creation story all wrong (Bloody Awesome Sept 4th).

It seems that contrary to popular belief, Eve was there first, and one day she called to God to let him know she was not satisfied with life. She had a wonderful garden and more apples than she could eat and the snake was friendly and kinda cute, but she was just not happy.

"In that case, Eve" saith the Lord, "I shall create a man to keep you company".

"What is a man?", asked Eve.

"He is a large muscular animal with an inflated idea of his own abilities and an inability to see your point of view, and he won't listen to you properly, and ....(We can skip the next few paragraphs, most girls can make it up for themselves)...but he's good at throwing balls and hunting animals and lighting barbeques and opening cans and he'll be fun in bed.

"Hmm!" said Eve, not really convinced, as cans hadn't been invented (and not really understanding the bed bit either).

"Just one other thing", said God, "Because of his enormous ego you'll have to let him think I made him first. That will be our little secret, you know, woman to woman"

Friday, 8 October 2010

Have you got it yet?

It strikes me that cancer of the colon is a bit like digital TV. If you haven't got it yet, you will eventually. Actually about 20% of people get it and half of these die from it. The bowel cancer I mean. For TV the figures are higher, but you'll die of boredom instead of secondary spread, although middle-aged spread due to TV is very common too.

I chose the word 'digital' because there was a time when the only way to detect cancer of the colon was by pushing a finger into the nearest orifice, which since the colon is more than a metre long was usually a waste of time and plastic gloves. Then they invented the colonoscope, which was a thick rigid metal tube. Colonoscopy was like having a telescope shoved up your backside and this led to some very unsavoury jokes which I don't need to repeat here.

The flexible colonoscope was a bit better at getting to the bottom of things, since it went round the bend, and it had a camera on the end to photograph your polyps. That's important because 90% of colon cancers start in large polyps in the wall of the large bowel, and they can then be removed before they turn malignant. Barium enema had been the standard investigation for many years, but it was fairly unpleasant, and missed 40% of polyps. The latest development, C.T. colonography is much safer, less painful, and is guaranteed to show your polyps in a new light.

The small bowel is even more difficult to investigate, since it is around 6 metres long, is unstable and has lots of loops. They're tackling this now with a spiral enteroscope which has screw-like flanges which enable it to get a grip and crawl up inside your innermost parts. I thought you'd like to know that they use a gloopy liquid called 'Probe personal lubricant' which was originally developed for the pornographic film industry.

Once the clever doctors have identified the problem in the pipe they call in the plumbers to fix it. These consultant surgeons used to be larger-than-life characters like Sir Lancelot Spratt of 'Doctor in the House' who would boom, "Key hole surgery boy! We shall open her from here to here" with an expansive sweep of the arm as the patient fainted.

Nowadays surgeons are thoughtful chaps who just use 2 or 3 tiny holes to poke their robotically controlled instruments inside. The ultimate goal is to avoid scars altogether since only natural orifices will be used. Tonsillectomy via the vagina is their target.

All my tasteless medical student jokes about plastic surgeons seem to be coming true!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

A medical disaster

One of the problems with being a retired doctor is that ageing friends still ask for your advice about medical matters, but Medicine changes so rapidly that it's hard to keep up, even when you're working at it full time. It can make you appear stupid if for example you're a dermatologist who has never used laser therapy, or you're a general surgeon who knows little about 'key-hole surgery'.

So it is a real joy when younger colleagues lay on a day's lectures on 'Recent Advances' for the Retired Consultant's Club, as they did at my local teaching hospital recently.

How things change when you've not been back for a while! We knew where all the car parks should be of course, but they'd somehow moved them all, and even worse filled them all, so that one drove round for 45 minutes or so looking for a space. We eventually parked somewhere in South Gloucestershire and then used a map to trek back to the hospital.

We remembered where all the different departments had been located but many of them are now building sites. The splendid new laboratories which were eventually built at a cost of several million pounds about 10 years ago have for some reason already been pulled down and something else is being built in their place. Offices for target administrators I expect.

But the consultants who gave the lectures were fantastic. Modern technology is scary though! And that's just the Power-point presentations.

When I was a lad we had blackboards and some of our most eminent Professors seemed to have developed a technique where they turned their backs to the audience to face the blackboard, then drew complicated chalk diagrams on the board with their right hand, which they then immediately erased with their left hand, meanwhile muttering to themselves in a low monotone. No wonder so many of us 'signed in' and then quietly left the lecture-theatre as soon as the Prof's back was turned. Some lecturers were up to that trick however. They posted a porter at the door whose job was to keep the register of attendees, then at the appointed time he locked the door to deny access to late-comers, and to prevent those inside from leaving.

It's very different now. The various buttons and knobs which control the lights, dual projection slides, videos, computers etc. make the control panel of a Jumbo-jet look simple. This does cause its own problems however.

There was a time when there were only 7 wrong ways to put a slide in a projector (upside down, on its side, reversed etc) but there's much more scope for disaster now.

One of the speakers began in fine style, smiling pleasantly as he said he'd never previously had the pleasure of addressing such a dense audience. We chuckled dutifully, although it would have been funnier if it had been less true. He then confidently switched the equipment on and when nothing happened he fiddled about, panicked and finally had to ask the audience to help him. It took 3 people 15 minutes of trying different combinations of the 20 or so leads and 30-odd switches before they got it right.

Never mind, it wasn't as bad as my effort when I was an Assistant Lecturer in Medicine in Edinburgh. The main lecture theatre then was an amphitheatre with very steeply sloping sides and wooden benches, and in the very centre of the steep slope was the projector, which had two carbon rods. These would only work to spark an arc-light if they were adjusted to the correct distance apart, but fortunately I had previously been shown how to undertake this delicate task.

The visiting speaker was a very distinguished cardiac surgeon from USA, and I had been delegated to shepherd him to the lecture theatre and to be responsible for showing his slides. These were in a box and he pointed out to me that they were not numbered but obviously it was essential to keep them in the right order. Moreover they had to be put back in exactly the same order as he was going to give the same lecture at several other medical centres throughout Britain.

We duly reached the lecture theatre, and the place was absolutely jam-packed with the glitterati of Edinburgh academia. I showed the speaker the switches at the podium and ascended the steep stairs to the level of the projector, carrying the precious box of slides. I had to struggle past a row of seated people to reach the projector and then I put the slides down on a small shelf while I twiddled the knobs to light up the carbon arc.

As I bent to my task somebody knocked the open box of slides off its shelf and they clattered noisily down several rows of seats. Of course people stood up to look for them and there was the sound of crunching glass in all directions.

I tried hari-kari but the surgeons resuscitated me, although several voted against it.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A place of mystery

The Indian Sub-continent has always been a place of mystery and wonder, never less so than today, where it seems that they are holding the Commonwealth Games and are intending to lay the athletics track on the same day that the races are run.

They'll have to work terribly fast to stay ahead of the sprinters. The street-sweepers I've seen in Delhi wouldn't be up to it. They work at a leisurely pace and just move the dust from one place to another. But maybe this is a well-planned economy measure? Perhaps the track-layers will lay the red sand on one side of the track and as the last runner crosses each patch they'll sweep it up into buckets and nip smartly over to the other side of the circuit and lay it for the approach of the front runners who've had to go the long way round. It will be awfully tiring for them in the 10,000 metres though.

I think the wonder and the mystery works both ways. I had a phone call yesterday from a very pleasant young man who told me his name was David. I wouldn't dispute that but his Indian accent suggested he might also have had another name. He was very interested in my energy providers. I told him I recommended honey sandwiches.

No,no, he meant did I get my gas and electricity from the same supplier?

I explained to him that we don't have gas and electricity in our house.

"Oh, so you don't have gas, but who provides your electricity?"

"Well, we manage without electricity."

"Oh, (pause) but how do you run your television and your lights and your computers?"

"Well we have no TV or computer and we have candles at night."

"But how do you run your fan?"

That's when I knew for sure that he was calling from India.

"We have a punkah-wallah"

Only then did he know for sure that I was pulling his plonker.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Looking good

People who really care what they look like need to know about skin-care.

The British Association of Dermatologists recently launched their own new beauty-brand called 'Ultimate Skin Care'. The product was marketed in a snazzy gold jar by Kindred, an agency known for its message-based marketing strategy, and the House of Fraser kindly allowed the product to be show-cased in the beauty hall of their prestigious Oxford Street store.

Each jar of 'Ultimate Skin Care' contained only a small mirror and instructions on how to carefully check the skin for signs of sun damage and possible pre-malignant changes.

The message is, don't waste your money on expensive moisturisers and nourishing creams, just stay out of the sun. My wife did that and she looks fantastic for (censored).

Of course, most people don't do that, so if you can't be good, be careful. Follow the Australian advice to 'Slip on a T-shirt, Slap on a hat and Slop on the sun-block'.

At least the British Association of Dermatologists know what they're talking about. I'm less confident about the scientific brains behind some other products on the market.

Delta Laboratories, for example, specializes in 'cosmetic formulations'. One of the products listed on their website at www.bit.ly/specialingredient is "Placental extract, vegetable or animal". Now which vegetables have a placenta, I wonder?

I suspect the British Association of Dermatologists is wasting its time. Beauty creams, like beautiful shoes, are essential for the female psyche. Some time ago my friend's wife pointed out to him that they had an overdraft and she made him promise to economize on his sizeable drinks bill. After a couple of months he noticed that though his drinks bill had drastically reduced, new beauty products were still cluttering up their bathroom. Not being a New Man (i.e. not yet deconstructed and reconstructed), and being in fact a brave Old Man, he felt he had to mention this discrepancy.

"Oh darling" she said "You don't want me to give up using beauty products do you? They're just to make me look beautiful for you".

"Yeah? What do you think the booze was for?"

I told you he was brave.

Friday, 1 October 2010

What's wrong with modern Britain

One of the many things I may never understand is the female obsession with shoes. I don't think I'm the only man who is puzzled by this.

A few months ago, two of my male friends, both retired Professors, showed me a job-advert in the Guardian for a post-doctoral Senior Research Fellow to work in a British University to study the sociology of women's shoes. The advert was couched in the unique impenetrable jargon of sociologists, but so far as we could gather the intention of this 3 year project was to "explore issues of embodiment using focus groups to look at things through the lens of footwear". Glass slippers maybe? Clearly a burning issue.

The plan appeared to be for the Research Fellow to accompany women on shopping trips, making video-recordings of them choosing and wearing their shoes, asking them to take photographs of their shoe-collection, and "keep a diary of their shoe experiences". The Fellow would also carry out three qualitative interviews with each of the women to explore the part that shoes play in their everyday lives, how old shoes bring back memories of past experiences, how buying, storing and wearing shoes contributes to women's sense of who they are, and "what they are all about".

My two friends and I guffawed at this, even though it was sad to think that money was being spent in this way when sensible science departments were being closed down for lack of funds.

We were so amused by this advert that we decided that, since we all had doctorates and had a long experience of writing research grant applications, we should all three of us apply for the post, using fictitious female names. We felt confident that we could provide what they seemed to be looking for, namely enthusiasm, obscurantism, flannel, and verbosity. The hope was that we would all get as far as the interview stage, and then we would each turn up for the interview in drag, wearing wigs and refusing to give our age, gender,or sexual orientation, as is politically correct. We had great fun trying to envisage the expressions on the faces of the interviewing panel as the three 'lady' candidates minced in, one after the other, on improbably high heels, of the type which I believe a certain Ms. Greer described as F**k-Me shoes. Even if one of us was offered the post, the other two could then complain they were turned down because of the panel's institutional ageism, sexism or homophobia. Should look good in the newspapers!

We never did it of course, partly because of the sheer amount of dreary paperwork involved in filling in modern application forms, and partly because so many women we told of our plan said "No, this is a great research idea, its very important to us women". Really?

I'd almost forgotten all about it until I noticed a newspaper article on Sept. 22nd reporting the results of an entirely different research project from Northumbria University which had studied men's reaction to women in high-heels. I don't know how long the research took or what it cost, but they discovered that, wait for it... men don't notice what shoes women are wearing.

Of course they don't, you dimwits, they never get that far down.

No wonder the country's going to the dogs!

Lucky for some

I suppose we can't really complain about crime in our little village when you hear about the dreadful happenings in other parts of the world.

I was hearing from my friend Richard the other day about a promising young footballer from Iraq who'd been brought over to England and signed up by one of the Premier League clubs. After sitting on the bench for a few months he was given his big chance to play for the last 20 minutes against Man. United.

He was sensational, scored two goals in ten minutes.

When he came off the pitch, he naturally rang home to tell his Mum of his amazing success.

She seemed less than elated. "Aren't you pleased for me Mum, is there something wrong? "

"I should say there is! Your father was shot in the street last night, your sister was gang-raped and beaten this morning and your young brother was caught dealing in drugs this afternoon".

"Oh, Mum I'm so sorry!"

"You should be sorry, it's your bloody fault we moved to Liverpool in the first place."

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Lock up your compost

Our village is a mercifully quiet backwater, and untoward events are rare, but things may be changing.

First we had the invasion of the atheists, and now we've had burglars. It started several weeks ago when the local Garden Centre had its perimeter wires cut one night, so obviously a planned professional job, and they took (wait for it)......several bags of compost!

The following week a man was disturbed one evening trying to break into one of our neighbour's garden sheds and he escaped over the back fence. Nothing was lost, but we wondered why ten sheep were in our garden the next day. It was because he had also cut our wire fence and the electric fence, ready for a quick get-away across the fields. If he hadn't been disturbed he might have got away with several empty plant-pots as well as a half empty bag of compost!

I thought this was all quite amusing until he came to our shed the following week in broad daylight and nicked a hedge-cutter and a strimmer. Ah well, that's what insurance is for. And the blonde lady police-person was rather attractive. But now I'm having to spend hours marking things and reinforcing doors and fitting extra bolts etc. Its worse than the grouting.

All this has given them something to talk about in the pub.

My favourite comment so far came when the old fellow in the corner emptied his glass, wiped his mouth and said "Ah, things bain't what they were! Oi remember the time when oi could go into town wi' two quid, and oi could come home wi' a 'alfpound of butter, a pot o' jam, pound o' bacon, forty cigarettes, an ounce o' baccy, and a box o' chocolates,...you couldn't do that now.....too many bloody security cameras".

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Do looks count?

Where did it all go wrong? My career as a television star, I mean.

I realized there was an image problem with my role in the televised thalidomide debate (Sept.27, Baying for Blood), as the audience were so obviously keen to lynch me and burn the studio down, but I didn't at first see why a personable young man like myself shouldn't eventually have a lucrative TV career, perhaps having cosy chats on a couch with, say, Felicity Kendall or Fiona Bruce (except she was still at school then). Move over Colin Firth (although he was also a schoolboy at that time). OK then, Erroll Flyn.

I should have known there was a problem with my image following my first televised appearance in about 1968. My Professor had been asked to make a programme about various forms of hair loss, and so I, as the bright young spark and general dogsbody of the Department, had been asked to gather together suitable patients and demonstrate the various features of their different diseases in the clinic, whilst my Professor spoke about the science of hair follicles from the studio.

This was clearly my big chance. At that time several doctors like Charles Fletcher had already become famous for presenting medical documentaries, and I could clearly see the potential for scientific stardom ahead. Think Howard Winston, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox and many others in more recent years. I knew I was to be the star of the show because the crew had been following me around and filming me for days on end, from every conceivable angle, distant and close-up, as I dropped my pearls of medical wisdom. I knew that I just had to demonstrate my avuncular bedside manner, keep my good profile to the camera, exhibit my occasional shafts of wit, and I'd be made for life.

In those days television was not available in all households, and my mother had invited several neighbours in to watch her son, the famous doctor and television star, astound the world.

The great day came. The titles rolled, the programme was introduced, my Professor did his talking head bit and then the patients were introduced one by one. Then we had close-ups of their various bald patches, with an occasional glimpse of a hand (mine) parting the hair to show the distinctive 'exclamation mark' hairs or the scaly patches or the blue scars or whatever. This was accompanied by the voice-over of some twit with a dreadful monotonous whining Northern accent who thankfully never appeared on-screen. Unfortunately that was me!

Well, at least my mother's neighbours saw what my hands looked like.

To paraphrase Ali-G, "Is it cos I'se ugly?".

Monday, 27 September 2010

Baying for blood

I began my debate with the vicar (The Big Debate) by saying that I was reminded of the story of Daniel in the lion's den, but it wouldn't be clear until question-time whether I or the vicar was to play the part of Daniel. I needn't have worried. There were only pussy-cats in the audience and the vicar and I were as friendly as a couple of Milibands. How long their brotherly love will persist is, however, debatable.

I had been nervous at the outset, since I was going to be critical of the Papal Edicts on birth-control, abortion etc. (remember that "Truth from a Divine Source is infallible") and I knew that Pontiffs have a bad reputation with regard to the punishment of heretics. Fortunately there were more pontificators than fire-brands in the audience.

Pontifex is a funny word isn't it? Nothing to do, it seems, with little flat black liquorice cakes made in Yorkshire. It seems that in Ancient Rome a pontifex was a member of a college of priests that had control of religion, their chief being known as the Pontiff. To be pontifical is thus to be pompously dogmatic, and a pontifical mass is nothing to do with a lorry load of Pomfret-cakes but it is a mass celebrated by a bishop wearing his full vestments. And you all know that the Latin pons, means 'a bridge', and facere means 'to build', hence the Pontiff is a bridge-builder, although I incline towards the alternative philological derivation of the old Umbrian word puntis meaning 'stupid bastard'.

Speaking of scary debates though, nothing was worse than my acceptance of a flattering invitation to take part in a televised debate in Birmingham on the modern use of the notorious drug thalidomide. Its use in women of child-bearing age had of course been banned many years previously but I and a few other dermatologists had found it useful to treat several uncommon diseases in men or post-menopausal women. Behcet's disease, for example causes painful vaginal ulceration, strokes and other complications, and it is potentially fatal as well as extremely painful. At that time (mid-1980s) no other treatment, even including large doses of steroids, was helpful for Behcet's disease.

Having had make-up applied and been briefly introduced to the television presenter, I was led to my chair on the front row of the audience, where I was somewhat dismayed to see that the majority of the audience was composed of young adults with vestigial arms and/or legs. In my naivete I'd assumed I was going to talk about my research with a group of doctors and sufferers from Behcet's disease or leprosy.

Too late, the cameras rolled and I realized I was the only doctor present, and my role was to represent all the 'power-crazed, immoral, greedy, drug-firm scientists' who had caused the thalidomide tragedy in the first place, and far worse, I was a doctor and I was still prescribing it. In vain did I try to explain that the thalidomide disaster had happened in 1962, when I was still a junior medical student, and it had only recently been re-introduced under special licence for dermatology consultants to use as a last resort, and only for men or post-menopausal women, and only when no other treatment had worked, and the drug was only to be given to responsible patients who could keep it in a locked cabinet.

One female patient with Behcet's disease spoke in my support saying thalidomide had "given her back her life". We were both lucky to escape with our lives. The howling and baying for our blood would have put a Jerry Springer audience to shame. 'Armless they were not.

So that's why I had no worries about standing in front of assorted vicars and telling them there is no God. In my opinion.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Big Debate

Well, the Big Event (Debate in Village Hall- 'Did Man Make God') has come and gone; no blood was shed and everybody escaped unharmed and happy. We had no idea how many people would turn up, and the population of our village is only about 300 but in the end we had a congregation of 60. The Vicar was pleased since he normally addresses a congregation of about 15 people.

The debate was good-humoured and sensible, since the audience included a number of philosophers, biochemists, headmasters and assorted clerics, as well as the regular church-goers and some village agnostics who normally keep quiet.

The two most aggressive arguments from the audience came from the opposing ends of the spectrum of views.

The religious aggression came from a man said that in his view there can be no such thing as an atheist, as you can't prove there is no God, and moreover all the most wicked people like Ghengis Khan, Hitler and Stalin were all atheists. Hmm! Just run that past me again. On second thoughts, don't.

The aggression from the atheist end came from a man who began by asking the vicar if he believed his personal God is All-Powerful and Benevolent. The vicar sensed a trap, and tried to avoid the issue by saying it depends on what you mean by All-Powerful and Benevolent. I sympathized with the vicar, as I am very familiar with that sensation of intellectual unease, having been questioned in court by barristers when I have acted as an expert medical witness. They have a nasty habit of asking you a string of simple questions with easy and perfectly obvious answers,and having led you round the houses in this way, they introduce a string of different but devious questions, before pointing out that you now appear to be contradicting what you said earlier. The vicar could see that this line was going to lead to difficult questions about cruelty in Nature, human suffering etc. and tried to side-step, but his tormentor wouldn't let go, until he had to admit that of course God is All-Powerful but He doesn't have to be all the time, so sometimes He isn't and of course He is Benevolent, but He doesn't have to be all the time and sometimes He seems not to be. To us humans, who don't understand. The atheist agreed he didn't understand the vicar, which was understandable.

I think I emerged relatively unscathed, unless you count being compared to Hitler and Ghengis Khan as a slight scathe. I did have an awkward time afterwards though, when the debate was over. Three young Catholic ladies approached me and asked for my medical opinion about miracles. I assured them that in 50 years of medical practice I had never seen any recovery that could be described as truly miraculous. St. Winifride, for example, in Wales had her head chopped off and it reattached itself simply by prayer. Today's miracles are more akin to the American pastor who prayed to the long-dead Cardinal Newman for relief from his back pain, and after an operation which is known to relieve back-pain, the back-pain disappeared, so now Newman can be beatified and is well on his way to Sainthood. The three young Catholic ladies seemed surprised at my lack of medical experience since all 3 of them had personally witnessed unrelated miracles.

As the vicar and I both know, you win some, you lose some!

Our debate did make people think though, and it does seem to have bonded the village. We both recommend it.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

A new approach to infertility

Knowing of my impending discussion with the Vicar, some of my friends have kindly been sending me 'suitable' jokes.

The Catholics always seem to be fair game,since the Pope's Edicts are founded on the idea that 'Truth from a Divine Source is Infallible' and so birth control is wicked. Ha,ha,ha!

Be that as it may, Father Donelly met Mary O'Connell, whose wedding he had sanctified some two years earlier. He wondered why there had been no babies, and asked whether there was a problem. "I couldn't say father, but we're doing the right thing and no babies have appeared yet" (You can do your own Irish accent).

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that Mary, my child, but I'm visiting Our Holy Father in Rome next week and I shall light a candle for you"

Eight years went by and Father Donelly met Mary again, surrounded by her ten sceaming kids (two sets of twins and six singletons).

"Are these all yours?" asked his Reverence. "They are that. Father".

"Marvellous, I must congratulate your husband, is he around?". "He is not, Father, he's gone to Rome to blow the f*cking candle out"

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Reigning cats and dogs

Since my mind is currently filled with matters theological, this seems as good a time as any to tell you how God made Dog.

It seems that Adam and Eve were lonely and were being their usual whingeing, complaining human selves (see 'Sick Notes' by G.P. Dr Tony Copperfield, yesterday's Post), so God said "I will create a companion for you, and regardless of how selfish or childish or unlovable you may be, this companion will always love you as I do, and will always accept your many faults".

And so God created Dog, a reflection of his own name.

After a while an Angel came to God and said, "Lord, Adam and Eve have become filled with pride. They believe they are worthy of adoration, because Dog worships them".

And so God decided to create another companion for them, to remind them of their limitations. He wished to teach them that although Dog seemed to worship them, because they appeared Omnipotent and Omniscient (they often answered his prayers when he begged for a biscuit, they could open doors, and they punished him when he chewed expensive handbags), they were not in fact God.

And God created Cat.

And when Adam and Eve gazed into the eyes of Cat, they recognized that they were not the Supreme Beings on Earth.

And God was pleased.

And Dog wagged his tail.

And Cat didn't give a shit one way or the other.

Just a little reminder of the well-known fact that Dogs have owners and Cats have staff.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Sick Notes

Still on a medical note, let me recommend a new book by a chum of mine, who writes under the pseudonym of Dr. Tony Copperfield (Sick Notes- True Stories from the Front Lines of Medicine, pub. Monday Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-906308-14-8).

This really tells it like it is from the G.P.s viewpoint, and though 'Dr. Copperfield' comes across as a really cynical character, it strikes me as being very true to life as well as very amusing. Read this and you'll understand why GPs sometimes seem less than perfect. If you're thinking of becoming a medical student, then don't read this. You will immediately switch your University application to a less demanding and pleasanter course such as 'Waste Disposal with Dancing' (currently being offered by Northampton University; I'm thinking of going for that one myself, I can picture myself pirouetting down the middle of a hospital ward in my leotard, carrying the bedpans above my head).

A few examples from the B,C,D section Dr. Copperfield's glossary of medical acronyms (MedSpeak) will give you the flavour of the thing:

BAPS: British Association of Plastic Surgeons (How naive are they?)
BJGP: British Journal of General Practice. A monthly publication where GPs who wear sports jackets without irony pontificate about 'holistic care' and the patient's 'inner journey'.
CBT: Clot in a bow tie-a derogatory term for hospital consultant, used by angry GPs. Very angry GPs sometimes resort to the alternative, c**t in a bow tie.
CME: Continuing Medical Education. The requirement for doctors to attend promotional lectures while eating curry or stale vol-au-vents, both sponsored by the manufacturer of a new wonder drug, in the name of education.
DBI: Dirt bag index. A rough and ready estimation of the number of hours since a patient's last bath or shower calculated by multiplying the number of tattoos by the number of missing teeth.
DKDC: Don't know don't care. There comes a point, usually at the end of a 25-minute consultation with a heartsink patient about their peculiar aches and pains and their funny turns, when the doctor realizes that he doesn't know what's causing them and has frankly given up trying to make sense of the story. A prescription for vitamin tablets often follows.


Read the book.You'll learn a lot from it. It reminded me of the horror of front-line medicine, especially the DBI and the DKDC. You're not a real doctor until you've been called to certify death in a tramp brought into casualty and as you wrinkle your nose, open the layers of clothing and lean over the cold body to listen to the heart, you feel the fleas climbing up your arm to find a better host. Or been called to a house at 3 am to see a woman who is groaning in a locked toilet because she is constipated and hasn't 'been' for 24 hours.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

When to use Allo.

The Pope's visit and my ongoing brush with religion has perhaps led me to neglect my secular duty to give you the 'Doctor's View' of a recent interesting medical advance.

It seems that a small dose of the anti-depressant drug Prozac has been shown to prevent pre-menstrual tension (PMT). I wonder why that should remind me of yesterday's Post, entitled the Big Fight? The sex hormone progesterone increases just before menstruation and this decreases the level of another steroid hormone called allopregnanolone (known as Allo)which has a soothing effect and makes people feel calm. Prozac (fluoxetine) raises the level of Allo in the blood stream and thus decreases the symptoms of PMT. This might be another of those drugs, such as Ritaline for hyperactive kids, or Rohypnol-alcohol cocktails for young women, which benefit other people rather than the person taking the drug.

On a lighter note, a study by UCLA Dept. of Psychiatry has shown that the type of man which a woman finds attractive can depend on where she is in her menstrual cycle. For example, in mid-cycle, when she is ovulating, she is likely to be attracted by large, powerful men with rugged and masculine features. However just before menstruation or during the menopause, she prefers a small man with duct tape over his mouth, a kitchen-knife lodged in his chest and a hot poker up his arse.

It should not be necessary to point out that this new use of the word Allo to refer to a calming hormone should not be confused with other uses of the word, as in the phrase "'Allo sailor" and "Aloe Vera" which can occasionally lead to embarrassment in either sex.

This confusion might account for the sad tale of the policeman who came home early one day and found his wife in bed with three sailors. "'Allo, 'allo, 'allo!" he said flexing his knees and twirling his truncheon in accordance with the guidelines given in the Pantomime Police Handbook. His wife merely gave him a little wave and a coy smile and said "Aren't you going to say Hullo to me, darling?"

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Big Fight

I may be a bit busy for the next few days.

The size of the congregation in our local church has apparently been decreasing steadily in recent years, and so our Vicar, a very pleasant and open-minded man, has suggested that we might have a public debate in the Village Hall next Saturday evening with the title 'Did Man Make God?'. I think his idea is that he normally 'preaches to the converted' (the elderly converted at that), and a few younger floating voters might drift back into the pews if they think about things properly.

The Hawking book and the visit of the Pope have occupied the media considerably in the last few weeks, and so religious faith is quite a 'sexy' subject all of a sudden. We're expecting a fair number of assorted clergy, fundamentalists and humanists to turn up as well as a few uncommitted blood-thirsty locals who like watching intellectual punch-ups, so I'll have to get into shape.

My debate with the vicar will I'm sure, be fine, as I've had several long and interesting discussions with him and we both enjoy our little jousts, but I'm not at all sure about the questions I'll get from some of the local 'muscular Christians'.

I had a warm-up bout with one of them recently, and he said to me "If everybody thought like you, everybody in the world would think like Hitler". He couldn't see anything offensive with what he'd implied, so I liberated my inner infant and said "And if everybody thought like you, everybody in the world would think like the members of the Spanish Inquisition". You can see it's not going to be high-powered philosophy!

The next day he sent me with a copy of the Church Times, with an article headed "Why Hawking is not far from God" written by Keith Ward, an Oxford Professor of Theology who was formerly a philosopher who taught Logic. Keith Ward now claims that Hawking believes the Universe came from Nothing, which apparently shows Ward that there is a God. God give me strength!

If ever you're feeling apathetic and want to get incensed, try Ward's book "Why there almost certainly is a God". The cover claims its a "devastating critique" of Dawkins. You can have my copy!

One of my medical friends recently sent me an E-mail about Cardinal Newman's beatification (many doctors are querying the medical miracle, relief of back pain by prayer to Newman) and said that rather than see Newman beatified, he would like to see the Pope atheistified. I know I really shouldn't, but I'm afraid I was compelled to point out that Catholic priests are all anti-atheist, so that would make the Pope a consultant anatheist- "Just count to 5 and then you'll feel this little prick and....".

I just can't resist them. They give me so much pleasure and it does no real harm (the cheap jibes that is, what did you think I meant?).

This medical reference and religious irreverance was highly relevant because my friend, who generally speaks in code, implied that he might have a bowel cancer which will have to be removed shortly, but as he said, a semi-colon will be better than a full stop. I couldn't resist asking him if he had to keep 'dashing', and if so, how hyphen?

Friday, 17 September 2010

High jinks in the high hurdles.

To support my hypothesis that old age is not for wimps, I recently had an unpleasant experience.

It so happened that my wife had been very unfortunate with a frisky underground car park. One of the concrete pillars had unexpectedly leapt out at her and crashed into the front near-side wing. Probably attracted by the chatter of her female passenger who'd just bought a super top in a sale.

The man at the Auto-Body-Repair Shop said he'd lend me a courtesy car, and so he did. It was quite a nice car in some ways, apart from the rattles, the rust and the black smoke, but it was very small and had a ridiculously low bucket seat, the type that has a 6 inch ledge all round your thighs. With great difficulty I managed to manouevre myself into this ground-level driving seat, with my legs sticking horizontally forward into the well. I drove off, noticing as I did so that the car wouldn't go into second gear, and shortly afterwards, that the petrol gauge registered zero.

I pulled onto the next garage forecourt, parking close to the pump and another car then pulled up close behind me almost immediately, and since there was already a car immediately in front of me I was completely boxed in.

I managed to open the door slightly and tried to manouevre my right leg out through the space, but I've had a knee replacement and my leg only bends to 90 degrees. At this stage, I got cramp in my right thigh. Eventually, after considerable excrutiation, I managed to get that leg back into the car and realized I'd have to manouevre my bum out of the bucket seat and push it way over to the left into the passenger seat so I could get then straighten both legs on the driver's seat, lean backwards and push them both out together through the narrow gap, hoping the body would then follow naturally, limbo-style.

This was not easy. Particularly when I felt a sharp pain in the aforementiond bum and remembered that this was an old car with one of those long metal parking brakes that sticks up vertically. Being incredibly brave and stoical I merely grimaced and carried on straightening the right leg. At this point being in the 'high hurdles' position, I developed severe cramp in the left leg, causing a convulsive jerk which moved my body weight into just the right position for the hand-brake to change its position from buttock to orifice.

I suddenly remembered my student days, when a man with a sheepish smile would occasionally be brought into Casualty with his Willy stuck in a milking machine. Well accidents happen, don't they?

So there I was, stuck in this death-trap in an unusual yoga position, with severe cramp in both legs and a hand-brake trying to make its way up my Jacksie, thinking, "They'll have to send for the fire-brigade to cut me free, this is not going to look good in Casualty!"

But that kind of a day is normal for old people.

A friend of mine woke up recently and his wife said "Don't touch me, I'm dead".
"How do you know?" asked the husband. "Well I can't feel any pains", she said.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Playing at grannies and grandads.

I've just returned from Derbyshire where I attended a School Reunion, sixty years on since our first day at Grammar School. It was a bit disappointing at first because none of my friends had attended; they'd all sent their grandparents along in their place.

After that disappointment, things improved considerably and I was very pleased to be told by one of the tastier grannies that she'd fancied me something rotten when I was 16, but nothing had happened. Now she bloody tells me!

To be fair, I was a bit slow in these matters and I expect it was my own fault that I didn't notice the dropped glove or whatever it was she was prepared to drop for me. I was busy mending my bicycle most of the time, or running round ploughed fields training for the cross-country team, and anyway I recall that I was definitely saving myself for Marilyn Monroe, who was at that time wasting her assets on an elderly playwright called Arthur Miller, who obviously wouldn't be around for very long, since he was over 35.

Although I do distinctly remember a film where Brigitte Bardot, in a tent, stripped to her bra and panties and climbed into a sleeping bag to join her boyfriend. I think she'd have been in with a chance. I recall discussing this scene with a mate and we agreed the lucky boy-friend's excitement would have been 'intents' (geddit? We were like that in those days).

So, what an opportunity I missed! Though the would-be-girl-friend-turned-granny reassured me that actually she and all her friends were virgins when they left school. There was no Pill in those days, and decent boys who 'got girls into trouble' had to marry hurriedly, leave school and start work in the steel mill or down a coal mine ('darn t'pit', in our dialect).

The type of frank conversation we had is one of the few advantages of old age, since you can both now have a laugh about it with none of the embarrassment, guilt or toe-curling humiliation that was such a regular and inevitable part of our adolescence.

Another advantage of reaching retirement age is that you can have a glass of wine at lunch time followed by a lovely snooze.

Apart from that its all downhill.

Now for the hard part

I'm still droning on about publication today.

How times change! As a completely unknown Assistant Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in 1969 I had an idea for a book. So I wrote a short letter to E. & S. Livingstone (who later became Churchill-Livingstone, who became Longman, who begat Pearson and then I lost count) with my idea. A week later the secretary to the Managing Director, Mr. Henderson, rang me and asked if I could possibly find time to be Mr. Henderson's luncheon guest at a smart Edinburgh restaurant. You bet I could, even if only for the meal! In those days Assistant Lecturers earned half of nothing and drug firms didn't provide doctors with posh meals. So we had a pleasant meal with a bit of a chat and a bottle of wine and he offered me a contract. Two days later the written contract arrived in the post, I signed, job done.

A shrewd decision Mr. Henderson! Over the next 30 years they made a lot of money from my books.

But here and now, having written a book which several publishers have rejected, you eventually decide that at this rate death will precede fame, and having opted for self-publication, you will then have three choices:

1. Find a couple of printers who will give you quotations for however many copies you choose to fill your garage with. This is relatively painless providing you have the soft-ware and computer skills to prepare the manuscript in PDF format and know how to fit it on the chosen page-size of your book. If you can't do this yourself, you'll find a young person who can (usually for a price). Scientific photographs and diagrams can be tricky for all sorts of reasons, but novelists don't need to worry about that.
If you need an ISBN number you'll have to pay £111 for a batch of 10 numbers from Nielsen's, even though you only need one number. Without an ISBN number most bookshops will refuse to stock your book and it won't be listed by Amazon.com. so how will you ever market it? But then you'll be a publisher and you'll have to register your business with the tax man and give a copy to the British Library.

2. Sign up with a print-to-order firm such as Lulu (search the Internet and read the small print). This has the great advantage that there often no capital outlay, and you can order as few copies as you like, but it has the the great disadvantage that each copy costs much more to produce, so sending out review copies or giving copies to all your friends and relatives becomes expensive. They will also, on request, provide you with an ISBN but this puts the price up again, and this will also give them certain legal rights with regard to subsequent editions, foreign translations etc.

3. Find a vanity publisher who will do all the work for you (maybe even edit or ghost-write it if necessary) and will then produce a few copies for an astronomical fee. This is the recommended route for multi-millionaires, or those writers who cannot write.

Option one sounds good, but there is a surprising amount of leg-work involved, and printer's questions to be answered, but if you persevere it happens, and every 20 years or so somebody self-publishes a book and makes a good profit. Every week somebody self-publishes a book and makes a loss. However it is quite exciting when the delivery-van arrives and the large cartons containing stacks of your tome are unpacked. And your Mum is thrilled.

So far so good. The writing of a book is great fun. The work involved in the manuscript preparation, printing and binding is interesting but time-consuming and there's a lot to learn and many mistakes to be made. The marketing however is murder.

Read the Writers' Year-Book, they'll tell you. Count the number of friends you have, count the number of work-colleagues, count the near neighbours, count the people whose book you bought because you once met them, add them up, divide by two, add five and that's the number of copies you can more or less guarantee to sell.If you're a blogger you might add the number of your 'followers'. Apart from that its a lottery!

Monday, 13 September 2010

Beauty hints

Tomorrow, children, I shall tell you how to self-publish your pearls of wisdom and live happily ever after, but it's a big subject and today the sun is shining and there are many apples to be picked (about a ton so far as I can see) and fences to be painted (about 300 yards of them).

But first, while we are on the subject of the difficulty of getting your work published, allow me a brief rant.

Why do the Editors of prestigious daily newspapers continually publish such drivel in the Health and Beauty sections of the weekend supplements? On 12th. Sept. for example, the Sunday Telegraph had the following question on page 77 of their 'Stella' magazine.

"I had a facial recently and was told that I had a lot of water retention in my face. I had noticed that my face had been looking very puffy of late and my cheekbones seem to have become a lot less pronounced. Is there anything I can do to prevent it?"

The Nutritional Therapist, Melanie Brown, said:
"It might be that you are a bit dehydrated, which encourages water retention. Try drinking two litres of water a day and cut out caffeine, alcohol and salty processed foods"

Call me a pompous old silly-billy, but that is the most stupid answer I have heard for a long time. Naomi Campbell could have done better. Or Wayne Rooney.

Not only is it twaddle, its dangerous twaddle. The lady might for example be retaining water because she had the nephrotic syndrome (a form of kidney failure). Two litres of water a day might then push her into heart failure and if she kept it up without further medical advice, because the 'dehydration'(facial swelling) was getting more severe, she could die.

There are at least another 10 or so causes of facial swelling, most trivial, some severe. Ask any dermatologist.

I've written to Editors about similar loony advice on many occasions, asking for a correction, pointing out that I am a Professor of Dermatology, I've done research on that particular subject and I've written chapters on it for medical textbooks. Have I ever had a reply or even an acknowledgement? No.

I apologize if this sounds sexist, but even intelligent and educated women sometimes seem to become gullible fools whenever they are given advice about beauty products.

If I tell somebody that I've noticed that their petrol tank is overflowing and petrol is leaking out on the road, they're quite sensible. They'll switch the pump off. But if I tell them that I'm a Nutritional Therapist and therefore they should try putting in another two litres because their car needs more petrol, my invaluable advice will immediately be worth publishing, for a fee, in a major newspaper.

I enrolled for some private language tuition once, and the obese lady who was teaching me kept having to break off to go into her kitchen to fetch more drinking water. She said this was because, being divorced, she was trying to get back into shape. To help her to achieve this laudable goal she had been told by her 'personal fitness trainer' who visited her at home, that she must avoid salt and drink 8 pints of cold water every day. I explained to her that the total blood volume is about 8 pints, and in a cool climate with no vigorous exercise, you only need 2 or 3 pints of fluid daily (tea, coffee, fruit juice, whatever). Any extra and you just pee it out. Fat doesn't normally come out in urine.

So did she take my advice and stop trying to kill herself by over-hydration and hyponatraemia. No. She hadn't paid £50 an hour for it you see.