Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Into the night. There but for the grace of God, go I

We forget sometimes how lucky we are; to be born in the latter half of the 20th century. Ensconced in our middle class (even if working class) affluence. Our middle class mediocrity. Our middle class holier than thou!

We don't struggle to put bread (and I mean just bread, don't worry about butter) on the table. We don't worry about our children going barefoot to school for want of shoes; wandering about in soiled underwear because we have none that are clean - only having the one pair of underpants, knickers!

No, we are not poor! Even if, on a scale of one to ten, we are poorer than most. No, we are not destitute. The state will help. Welfare will help. If we choose wisely, then there will always be a safety net now; at least in western democracies.

So, why so morose?

Well, on re-reading my last blog (check for spelling, typos etc, doesn't do much good, they still appear) I was struck by something that happened to me, some 10 or 15 years ago.

I was walking through Argyle Square, once notorious for prostitution, whores every 5 yards around the square, at about 8 o'clock in the morning on the way to work. A young woman called out from across the road, "Business?" (The prostitutes no longer cry "A little fun, dearie?" A whispered "Hows yer father?" If they ever did! Now, it's a little more formal, a little more business-like, a little more professional. After all, their's is the oldest 'profession' in the world! So they say.)

She was perhaps 16, 18 years old! Mini skirt, low slung top, high-legged boots, legs up to the armpits. Not completely unattractive. A rartity in King's Cross at the time. But the age of a daughter I might have had. Possibly my daughter, unbeknown to me. And yet strangely, already, aged beyond her years. I replied, in jest, "At this hour, you must be joking!" And I went on my way.

At around 7.00pm, I left work and headed off down the tube station. As I approached the entrance a familar voice whispered, "Business?" Yes, it was the same girl, woman. Dressed in exactly the same clothes; exactly the same disintersted smile, and demeanour. "It's been a long day," I said. "And it's not over yet! By a long way!" She ignored me. I wasn't trade! And yet nonetheless, I felt so sorry for this poor soul that I barely kept myself from crying on the way home. (Sometimes, men can get emotional, you know! Yes, really!)

To be trying to turn tricks from sun-up to sun-down, and beyond. What kind of life would that be, even at fifty? Not just some worn out tramp with no life to look forward to, only regrets? But with all your life ahead of you?

At that age, at the age she was, barely starting on life's progress, I could look forward to a university education; a comfortable middle class life full of the luxuries that a decent salary would provide; contentment. A 'normal' life!

And what did she have to look forward to? A habit? The next fix? Taking her away from the life she had become accusomed to, addicted to? A life full of unloving, 'KY lubricated' sex? A pimp who beat her senseless? The nauseating, vomit-inducing stench, and taste, of long, unwashed penises. As she gave a quick blow job! With or without. £1.50 a 'shot', if I remember correctly from my last blog.

Maybe she was happy. It would be nice to think so, salve the conscience; the cameraderie, all 'us girls together', but I doubt it.

I occasionally think of her, my harlot, well I just did so....(and where do I get MY harlot from?).

Where is she now? Dead? From an overdose? Happly married, her past behind her? The abortions, long since vanished into dust? Or does she still think about them? The children that might have been; given, taken away, in one form or another. Did she escape? Or is she still trapped? And is she still plying the same trade? One more quick fuck to while away the boring, silent solitude of lonely nights on the pavement? The nilihism of the soul!

I hope not!

Most-times, I am glad, despite all the misery, the sadness, all the disappoinment, heartache, ill-luck, that I did not have to endure that which life COULD have have brought me!

To end on a more cheerful note. When I was younger (much younger), I used to know a part-time doxie. Part time waitress, part time 'lady of the night'. Divorcee, mid-forties, bumps in the right places. She was amazingly content with her life. A regular clientelle with occasional recommendations; visiting businessmen and the like, 'respectable gentlemen'. But then she didn't get into it until late in life; she had had the chances and mostly took advantage of what had come her way.

This was almost like a life choice. Regular sex without commitment, with men who probably did genuinely care for her, even if in the end it was merely a business transaction. Why keep coming back otherwise? The freedom to do what she pleased during the winter months when tourism slackened off and there was not much call for waitresses; a nice living was to be had for a handful of tricks a week. And the days to yourself.

With my days to myself, perhaps I should seriously think about that? A positive life choice? No perhaps not. No-one would pay! Well, certainly not the second time!

Richmond Park, Vultures and Jack the Ripper

Talking of Bazalgette in the last post got me wondering where the old sewage works, that my little Edwardian pile was built on, moved to. The likeliest candidate was Beddington a few miles south of here. Whilst I was nosing around the local bird group's site, I came upon this photograph taken in 2006 in Richmond Park. (One of the royal parks just south of the river - huge - where
Henry VIII used to go deer hunting.) It's amazing what you can see in London! (It was however a long, long way from home!)

Now one of the effects of a stroke, besides the immediate effects of aphasia, word-blindness, paralysis and other such symptoms, is an overwhelming sense of tiredness. The need for sleep. While the reasons for it may be conscious, trying to learn how to move limbs again, which resolutely refuse to do so, or trying to say 'continually' by practising out loud ad infinitum, the 're-mapping' of neural pathways to make up for the brain cells which have died, is, I think, a largely 'unconscious' affair which makes the tiredness all the more difficult to comprehend. You know that there are rational reasons for it but it is, nevertheless, all a bit mysterious.

As an avid reader of books, usually one or two per week, I have managed one and half in two months, despite having my days (and nights) largely to myself, ie not working. The effort to read perhaps 40-50 pages per hour (my usual speed) is just too much. I find myself, most times, giving up after half an hour or so. Painting is even more difficult!

This is where the internet comes in!

The medium is only effective in imparting information when everything is broken down into 'bite-sized' chunks. In general, no more than 1 or 2 sides of A4 typescript per topic. No more than a thousand words. Less is even better. (Do word counts on this blog; you'll see what I mean). At least that is the advice which most 'internet stylists' give! As a result, the internet, at the moment, is far easier to 'read' than some 400 page book, however interesting. This is where Jack enters the scene, stage right.

What makes Jack the Ripper so enduring? There will always be people who write about a single subject, devote an enormous amount of time researching a single subject, until they have exhausted all original documents and spend their time waiting for new ones to come to light. There will always be those that Bernard Levin called 'single issue fanatics'. That is to be expected. But why is Jack so enduring in the 'public eye'. Each new book, speculating a different identity for the 'Leather Apron', for the instigator of the 'Whitechapel murders', can almost be guaranteed a place on the best seller lists.

Is it because the crimes were never solved? Not a remarkable event in the nineteenth century. Is it the morbid fascination with the manner of the killings? Possibly although only two of the purported victims were actually eviscerated. Is it because they suddenly stopped, as suddenly as they started? Is it because it is widely believed that this was the first 'serial killer'? Again possible, but this was largely due to the hostility of the press towards the police at the time; any stick was good enough to beat them with, so publicise it! In spades! Is it because so many original documents have 'disappeared' that it all smacks of a conspiracy in high places? Undoubtedly! Especially after Stephen Knight's book was published. (I actually have a copy of that somewhere. I gave it as much credence as 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail', ie none!)

I suspect that it is at least a combination of all these, plus many others, not the least of which is the belief that, this far removed in the time from the actual events, any theory has just as much validity as any other. (Not quite true, some theories can be disproved quite easily but, still, why let facts get in the way of idle speculation? And who's got the time to argue? Only the 'Ripperologists'.)

Unless some long-missing document(s) come to light (and the 'Ripper diaries' are not one of them - forgeries!) which provide(s) evidence that the police 'solved' the case back in 1889, and if they did why no-one was prosecuted, with incontrovertible evidence, of the perpetrator's guilt that would have held up in court, we will always be in the realms of speculation, however well researched.

However, this has not stopped us before and will not do so in this case. How many times have we argued for the existence or non-existence of God through the centuries? By some pretty learned and astute thinkers to boot. This is just one more, albeit on a 'less important level'. We all love a good mystery!

For anyone interested, there is a good site here, which marshals conflicting theories and presents pro and cons for all them. It makes little secret of the fact that, in the light of current evidence, no one theory is likely to be favoured other another when it comes to the ‘definitive’ identity but it is a good resource for ‘evidence’ and links to primary sources and so is to be recommended.


What is perhaps so remarkable about the whole case, to my eyes at least, is the diligence which the Metropolitan (the Met), and City, Police appear to have applied to attempting to solve the case, even if co-operation between the forces was nigh on non-existent. Whitechapel at the time was home to the poorest of the poor, little helped by the wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe at the time. They were crammed together in appalling conditions. ‘Lodging houses’, sometime holding as many as 350 people at a time; squalid housing, ‘one up’, ‘one down’ (rooms that is) terraced slums with shared outside ‘privies’ (WC’s), if they were lucky; at the mercy of ‘slum landlords’ charging exorbitant rents for a single room which whole families would have to share; unemployed; malnourished; their children wandering the streets, rife with garbage, rats and disease and the ever present spectre of violent crime (not just the Ripper).

Added to that, the victims were known prostitutes, the poorest and most destitute of all. Their services could be got for as little as the price of a large glass of gin (about 2 or 3 old (pre 1970) pennies, £0.01p, one or two cents – about £2.50, €2.40, $1.75 today) and gin was what many of them chose to spend the money on!

Granted, there was much press and political pressure to solve the case and the Met didn’t have the most wonderful reputation amongst the general public but nonetheless.

Interestingly, about ten years ago, I was once told that the going price for a ‘blow job’in Kings Cross in London, before they ‘cleaned it up’, was £1.50. The whores, a lot of them, teenaged drug addicts.

Nothing much changes, ay? At least among the poor and the desperate.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Great Stench, Stink Pipes and Joseph Bazalgette

Now, one of the reasons I like living where I do, aside from the fact that is affordable, is that, unlike other parts of London, it was not bulldozed to make way for high rise blocks and 'new maisonettes' in the 'lets pour some reinforced concrete in a mould and see how that looks' style.

Granted, it is home to the building recently voted 'the ugliest building in London', an office block in the 'Chicago' style, nicknamed the 'Vortex' because gale force winds whip around the structure as you leave the tube station; I call it Barad-Dur, the dark tower. It is home to the monstrosity that is the 'Sainsbury's SavaCentre' (think giant 'Nissan Hut') and a few 'riverside apartments' (think over-priced, bland, brick constructions with imitation stone cladding, big windows and too small balconies) but it largely preserves a character from a hundred years ago.

Imposing Victorian family houses, Edwardian maisonettes built on the cheap to house families moving in from rural areas, tiny cottages, a trout stream and watermills (well one at least, working); there are even a few examples where the decorative tiles that used to adorn the pillars of shop fronts are still extant, uncovered by aluminium fairings or plastered-over and whitewashed.

Some extensive building work went on in the '30's, and these sit alongside, somewhat incongruously, earlier more imposing houses, but by and large, it retains a flavour that someone born a hundred years ago would not fail to recognise. Even the local Tesco supermarket is low key. (Take heed, Sainsburys. You may have given us Deen City Farm but we would have preferred the ruins of 'Merton Abbey', not some car park, topped by a Nissan Hut on stilts, however convenient shopping there may be! I think Nelson would be turning in his grave to know what you, and the Council, have made of his estate! Yes, that right! Admiral (Lord) Horatio Nelson used to live just up the road! It's why there are a bunch of roads called 'Hardy Road', 'Victory Road', 'Trafalgar Road', 'Hamilton Road', even, obviously, 'Nelson Road'. (Home to the best beer shop in South London. If they don't stock it, it's not made!). Although it's odd that there's not one called 'Nile Road', after all, the Battle of the Nile was just as significant as the Battle of Trafalgar. But then again, he didn't die there. Just as well really.)

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with the title of this blog. Well............................

In a road, one stop up from me on the 'Tube' (subway, metro), perhaps 10/15 minutes walk, is a Victorian, Edwardian 'Stink Pipe'. A vent to the sewage system. A vent, high above the road. To avoid gases building up; and putting the stink under the noses of the pedestrians. A survivor from a bygone age, just like my 'maisonette'. Crumbling, dilapidated (just like my flat) but standing, nonetheless. That got me thinking about the 'Great Stench'.

Sometime in the mid-1800s, they got the idea that cess pits were not a good idea, especially in cities; all that waste and excrement just lying around. Just asking for disease. (And Londoners got it; usually in the form of cholera!) And so they decided that, henceforth, all waste had to be connected to the sewers, some of it dated to Roman times. Cess pits were banned.

And where was this untreated waste to be dumped? In the River Thames! (Needless to say, shortly after, the salmon stopped coming back for a bit of "'ow's your father"). Of course, the city planners didn't think of the repercussions; they were only interested in preventing disease. It didn't. Cholera is caused by contaminated water supplies; directing untreated sewage into the Thames at that volume simply made matters worse.

Unlike today, all sewage was discharged 'raw' into whatever watercourse was convenient, if at all. There was no treatment and treatment plants did not exist. It's easy to see therefore why the Thames became what, to all intents and purposes, was one big, open drain flowing through central London. London has always been, relatively speaking, a very large city. To dump that much untreated waste directly into the river was bound to cause probelms!

Little wonder it stank!

And it did. To hell! All of that waste decided to decompose IN the river. And not just in the poor people's stretches of the river! The newly built Houses of Parliament was home to the most nauseous of stenches. The Government had to do something! After all, it was their noses being assaulted! The Great and the Good! And so they did. After previously rejecting countless (oh alright, more than a hundred) proposals, they finally appointed one Joseph Bazalgette (crazy guy, crazy moustache!) to decide on a plan which would work. A sewage system that would work and get rid of the awful smell hanging over the Houses of Parliment.

(It, in the end, was only a partial success. No mere sewage system could hope to eradicate the stench of corruption hanging over the place. Only the extermination of 'Rattus Lobbyistensis' could do that!)

Bazalgette's solution, in the absence of any way to treat the sewage, was to move it downstream towards the estuary where the tidal flows would more easily move it into the open sea. To do so, he designed a network of circular brick-lined 'main' sewers, 83 miles in length and a smaller, in size, network of 'street' sewers, connected to the 'main drains', totalling 1,100 miles in length. The street sewers would discharge the waste from houses, shops etc as well as disposing of rainwater into the main sewers and then this waste was pumped downstream to finally empty their contents into the Thames well away from the inhabitants of London. The project took ten years to complete!

I well remember the big, elaborate, Victorian building which used to house one of the pumping stations, on Chelsea Embankment, near where I used to play as a child. It was many years before I found out what it used to be used for!

Bazalette's genius lay in the size of sewers he designed. Working from the densest population he could imagine and the most generous allowance of sewage per household, he came up with the diameter of the pipes. He then doubled it! "Well, we're only going to do this once." he is said to have remarked. Just as well. He couldn't have envisaged 22 storey tower blocks springing up all over London in the '60s.

The fact the Victorian water supply system is now cracking at the seams , literally - London loses a fifth of its potable water to leaks - it is good to know that Bazalgette got it so right. The sewers are still in use today, just as he built them and it is a very rare event that they are not able to cope. Even with 8 miliion people here!

If Bazalgette did nothing else except design the London sewer system he would go down as one of the UK's great engineers, perhaps the greatest of the nineteenth century, Isembard Kingdom Brunel notwithstanding. But he was not satisfied with the sewer system. Hammersmith Bridge, Putney Bridge, Battersea Bridge, Chelsea and Victoria Embankments (to house the sewers), the Woolwich Ferry. Still, crazy moustache!

Footnote: Battersea Bridge which Bazalgette replaced was the last surviving wooden bridge over the Thames. Nice to know Battersea (where I grew up) is famous for something!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Weird. Strange. Odd. Peculiar.

Weird. Strange. Odd. Peculiar.

You ever see something that shouldn't be a bit weird, odd, but somehow is, as far as you go. The kind of, "I know this is weird" but I'm not supposed to think it is weird? Two guys snogging in the street? Two girls snogging in a restaurant? (Hubba, hubba.............................only kidding!) Maybe thirty years ago but now? No, its normal. Hell, even I have snogged a guy in the street, at a bus stop! (Not to be recommend if they have not shaved! How do women put up with it?) I think he was kind of surprised! And he was the gay one! Well, in for a penny...........It was not as nice as snogging a woman, in fact a long way short; nice to know that I'm heterosexual. Does that count as a plus or minus?

(I'd still find it strange to find someone nailing someone else's penis to a plank in public though - but then, I guess it's my age! An old fuddy-duddy. And the fact that the last thing I want to to do is have my penis nailed to a plank. And besides. who wants to piss at right angles to the bowl? Strange, to my thinking, the S&M crew.)

So, to get back to the plot, I saw an attractive, petite female, mid twenties perhaps, today. Cute little button nose, full lips, bumps in all the right places. So why do I do think it strange?

Well, she was riding a 'hog'................with cow horns!

(For the uninitiated, a 'hog' is a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Cow horns, are the kind of handlebars beloved of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in 'Easy Rider' - they're way in front of you, and above)

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't see anything wrong with women on motorbikes, although it's rare, Kwackers, Suzis, Ducatis. But a hog? It just seemed so incongruous. Hell's Angels ride hogs. Greasy, long haired types in fringed leather jackets and rancid Levi's ride hogs. People who carry a spare bike chain just so they can hit you with it ride hogs. Some delectable, young female who is scoring 11/10 on the cuteness scale does not ride hogs!

And yet she did, and has a perfect right to.

I suspect it is a reaction to what all men get innoculated with at birth. The idea that women can't do, shouldn't do, what men do. We fight against it; we proclaim equality; we treat women as just another human being; we believe, sincerely believe, that they are just as intelligent, creative as we are; we believe they are our equals; we believe they are not just objects to be lusted after, a trophy, one more notch on the bedpost; we believe, truly we do!

And yet, I still found it strange! This lady on a hog!

I guess no matter how hard we try, we'll never quite get over our genes, ay?

Strange too is what the internet, the world wide web, can lead us to. I started out by looking at some article on Aztec/Toltec cultures and ended up by reading an article by Susie Bright on Catherine MacKinnon. (Sad life I live) Now Mackinnon was very big in the early days of the feminist movement, the 70's/80's along with her 'pal' Andrea Dworkin. Like Dworkin, she was very big on how the American 'porn' industry was underming the 'feminist' view and how it should be legislated against. Even if it undermined the First Amendment - completely!

Pornography degraded women, they said! (Never mind how it degraded the 'stunt cocks' like Peter North; good only for the 'money shot'! Or the anticipated audience, masturbatory males wanking off to any stimulus. Lenny Bruce was right, men will fuck anything, even mud!)

And who's laughing now?

Jenna Haze, worth a fortune. Sasha Gray, mainstream cinema, and probably worth a fortune. Ginger Lynn and Taija Rae earning $5,000 a DAY for basically fucking in front of a camera; they used to get 'common' prostitutes to do that for the equivalent of $10 a day in the 19th century; who's fooling who here? Who's taking who for a ride here? (It's not my fault they blew all that 'wealth' on cocaine. Didn't everybody?)

You see, in end Dworkin et al were/are shooting at the wrong target. Porn is just another manifestation of what we all know - the exploitation of the many to the benefit of the few. Women may be exploited more but it's only a question of degree not about exploitation per se. And I'd question the fact that they are exploited more.

No, the people who are most exploited are the schmucks that buy the stuff or now lay themselves open to identity theft by downloading it 'for free'! They, in the pursuit of transitory sexual gratification, are the real victims of exploitation!

Footnote: That doyen of 'porn' movies, Deep Throat' had so many Mafioso connections that it ought to have been deemed criminal! Not because it was obscene but because it was criminal!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Roderick Thorp, words and fountains

They're interesting things, words. How they mutate, change their meaning over time.

Now I always thought, though that might be my insular British nature, that 'gay' meaning wanting/being attracted to 'same sex' relationships is a relatively recent entry into the lexicon going back to, maybe, the mid-seventies. However I was watching the film 'The Detective' (starred a little known, and ultimately unsuccessful actor, one Frank Sinatra) which was made in 1967/8 and which is 'set' for want of a better word in the homosexual community in New York and is based on the novel by the same name by Roderick Thorp written in 1965/6. The word 'gay' is always used to define the sexual orientation by the characters in the gay community itself, while 'fag(got)' is used by the police officers. I suspect that this was in Thorp's novel for a reason; to show the intolerance of most of the detectives towards homosexual men, except for our hero, of course!

Which led me to...........

'Gay' has been associated with sex since at least the eighteenth century; a 'gay women' was a prostitute, a 'gay house', a brothel. However, some time around the turn of 20th century, the term started to be used by the homosexual community to describe themselves. Why appears to be a mystery but it is perhaps the normal obfuscation undertaken by clandestine groups, criminals, at least in the eyes of the laws pertaining to the period. Back slang, rhyming slang. Perhaps its original application to solely heterosexual sex, albeit of an illegal nature, made it a useful 'cover' word. After all, it is only in the recent past that sodomy laws have been repealed; and not everywhere!

(Worthy of note, most sodomy laws do not confine themselves to the act of 'buggery' {derived from the Bulgar heresies and which the Catholic church accused the Bulgars of. Anal intercouse sounds so crude in comparison}. It's any 'unnatural' act. Oral sex is also included! So beware the next time you have a blow job, in some states in the US it's illegal! It's an unnatural act! Really?)

While the film (and the novel) were made (and written) at the height of the 'permissive' sixties, it still seems remarkably 'daring', not the kind of 'mainstream film' you would have thought would have been made. Although I suspect that Sinatra would have 'well up for it' having made the 'Manchurian Candidate' a few years earlier. I'm surprised that the scene in which gay males are shown kissing even made it passed the censor at the time, although there is at least one precedent I know of. Two semi naked female 'slave/hand-maidens' snogging on the steps of some temple in one of Cecil B De Mille's 'Biblical Epics', although apparently that was quite common in the twenties! So long as it's a 'long shot', no problem! (I got that from a fascinating documentary on clandestine 'pornography' in mainstream cinema about 20 years ago! No sorry, I don't remember anything else, guys! But you get to see the clip so......it's real! Not myth!)

Interestingly, Thorp wrote a follow up novel to 'The Detective' a decade or so later starring the same central characters, Joe Leland and his estranged wife. It was called 'Nothing lasts forever'. It too was filmed.

Die Hard!

Talking of words.....'wrought' is absolutely fascinating. Wrought-iron, overwrought, "(Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel,) What hath God wrought!"

Wrought is a hangover from the middle English past participle of the verb 'worchen', to work, but only exists in the participle form now and only in certain instances. While 'wrought-iron' may be safely be replaced by 'worked-iron', ie iron which has been 'worked', fashioned in some way, overwrought does not mean 'overworked', although it did originally, but excessively agitated or excited.

Better still are words like 'cleave' which means to cut (apart), ie 'cleave asunder' and 'to come together' as in 'I cleave to you, my love' (and you can't blame {according to most dictionaries} different Old English or Middle English roots which NOW are spelt the same). Or how about, 'It's downhill all the way from here' which means both 'things will be easier now' and 'things will be worse'.

There is no doubt about it. English is a very cranky language. No wonder people have trouble with it!

Oh joy, such beauty, such grace. The graceful arc of an aqueous jet, a fountain of sparkling jewels in the sunlight, the gentle sound of trickling water. There is something sublime about a small fountain, don't you think? Well not when it's in your hallway as opposed to your garden! Jets of water pitter-pattering on the underside of your floorboards.

Sprang a leak in my water main today. 30 pound per square inch pressure coming through a tiny pinhole; think minature fountain in the 'Plaza d'Espana' under my floorboards.

Fixed now but after the catatrophe that was the hob cover shattering in to a thousand tiny pieces of glass (you have to hit toughened glass just right for it to do that), I am inclined to think that the flat has had a stroke too!

Tower Bridge, Stunts and Jets

I came upon an interesting story today, purely by chance. What I cannot understand is why I don't remember it. It was such a memorable event to a Londoner and is, I believe the only time it has happened during my lifetime. I would have been coming up to my fourteenth birthday so I can't blame extreme infancy. I delivered newpapers in the mornings and it was in all the papers. So why don't I remember it? It's not even as if I vaguely remember something about it which the article bought back into conscienceness; as far as I am concerned, it never happened and the only way I know it did is because of the article I read.

Of course, it may be a spoof, the internet is full of such stuff, fantasy masquerading as truth but I have now checked with my mother and she remembers it!

Why don't I? It would be truly a wonderous coincidence if that particular memory track, that particular firing of neurons, just happened to be starved of oxygen in the 'great aphasia attack' two months ago, wouldn't it?

So what was the story?

On 1 April 1968, the Royal Air Force celebrated it's 50th anniversary. (And before you all start shouting about British aircraft shooting down planes in the first world war, Sopwith Camels, Pups mixing it with von Richthofen's Flying Circus, Biggles, that was the Royal Flying Corps!)

Now you'd think that one of the things the Government of the day would have arranged, given that it was the Royal AIR Force, would have been a 'fly past' over central London to celebrate. But no. The mood in Whitehall at the time was very anti-RAF, they'd just cancelled the TRS2 project (low level, high speed strike aircraft, an embryonic F-22 Raptor without the stealth technolgy) because the 'future lay in missiles'. Needless to say, the RAF was in general a bit miffed at attempts being made to sideline it as a major component of Britain's Armed Forces, quite justifiably as it turned out.

Well, one RAF pilot decided to have a little protest at the decisions, all on his own. Using a few of million quid's worth of jet fighter-bomber technology.

Ducking out of a routine flight back to his aerodrome, he proceeded to fly at low level (around 200 feet) up the Thames from the west. (Reassuringly considerate, his lowered his speed from 400+ knots to 210 knots to avoid complaints about the noise from Londoners. Interestingly his flight path was, in effect, over my school, the river was only about 100 yards away, and I still don't remember it!)

He then proceeded the circle the Houses of Parliment at low level! But that's not the best bit!

He then flew off eastwards down the Thames, still at low level, and then flew at speed between Tower Bridge's 'towers' (a horizontal distance of 200 feet) and the roadway and walkway (a vertical distance of about 100-120 feet). Not satisfied with that, he then proceeded to 'buzz' (high speed, low level pass) a few airfields on the way home! Including an American one!

You'll not be surprised that there was a nice little 'cover up'. Rather then hold a court martial, at which embarrassing publicity may have come out in the press about how the RAF was perceived to be being 'run down' by the Government, they invalided him out the service on 'health grounds'.

You can get the pilot's full story here as well as an artist's impression of the 'stunt'.

Still don't know why I don't remember it.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Emo, Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite and mortality

I must confess to a certain degree of 'wallowing in nostalgia' at the moment. After all, the fact that a stroke is not normally fatal (although it can be), it does still make you think a little about mortality; focuses the mind on the fact that we are not immortal. One day we will die! (And what have you bloody well done with your life? Precious little!) And God forbid that we should be paralysed, or rendered dumb before the final curtain is drawn. Makes you predisposed to thinking about the past. Makes you think back to the days when you thought you were immortal; when death was so, so very far away. A lifetime away!

How short a lifetime seems now!

Because music seems to permeate my life, I never could stand solitude unless there was music (I'm better now :-), things that happened to me, or things which were perpetrated by me, always have a musical accompaniment. Singing in the rain........literally. How much more seductive women seem when accompanied by the lilting strains of Chopin. How much more interesting vacuuming is when drowned out by Gotterdaemmerung; appropriate seeing as I do the vacuuming about as often as Armageddon comes! Lovers leave, always to the sound of 'Empty Chairs'.

Which got me thinking. How much do I owe Keith Emerson?

I was reminded of this only because at the same time that 'Nils Lofgren - Live at Rockpalast' arrived (last blog), so did the 'The Nice - Live at Fillmore East 1969'; a long buried full '8 track' master of a performance not long before I saw them (supported by a 'first line' up Yes, pre-Howe, pre-Wakeman and, mercifully, pre-'Tales of Topographic Oceans' - and as a front row seat I witnessed for the first time the awesome ear-numbing effect of Squire's bass technique!).

I've just listened to the record - all one and half hours of it, the complete concert.

So how much do I owe a man who would routinely take a bull whip to the stage; a man who threw knives at speaker cabinets and was partial to wedging them between keys on his Hammond organ to hold down the note; a man who rode the organ like a bucking bronco; a man who conjured sounds from the box, undreamt of by its makers: a man who routinely left his Hammond organ at the end of a performance a smoking ruin of an instrument.

Well, he introduced me (via my local public library - record loan section) to a world outside 'Black Sabbath', 'Deep Purple', 'Vanilla Fudge', 'the MC5', 'Led Zeppelin', the 'Electric Prunes'. A world outside over-cranked guitar chords; a world outside over-long guitar solos and even longer drum solos. Don't even think about getting me started on Tim Bogart's bass solo!

Every time Emerson introduced a snippet of 'Brandenburger 6' or the 'Karelia Suite' or Brubeck or Tchaikovsky, it would lead to a frantic search for the original. To the scratched and mangled public library collection of worn out classics that no-one wanted to hear anymore. I took them out and I listened. Bach, Sibelius and later Mussorsky, Janacek, Copeland, Ginastrera. And then, because I was game for anything by that time, Vivaldi, Telemann, Bocherrini and then onwards to Beethoven, Mahler, Papa Haydn, Dvorjak. And then learning to recognise the influences of other 'popular' musicians, Torroba, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Albeniz, Granados. (Sorry, I never quite made it to Schonberg or Stockhausen, or at least all the way through!)

Would I have ever gravitated from 'Rock', 'Heavy Metal' to something a little more subtle, something perhaps a little deeper, without the guiding hand of Mr Emerson? Probably, but how long might that have took?

While I'm about it, ta to Mike Oldfield for the Phillip Glass introduction and a life long admiration of the ability to extract something so magical and beautiful from so little. Rock music has its uses however inane or pointless it all seems at the time!

Oh and a very big thank you to Wandsworth Borough Council and the Lavender Hill Public Library for allowing me access to such wondrous music, which I would never have been able to afford. Radio 3 was so hit and miss! And my mother would get annoyed if I changed the tuning on the radio. No pre-sets in my day! Buttons! All done by turning the knob! And it was a devil's own job to find Radio Luxembourg (yes, really) once you'd lost it. Used to be accompanied by the Albanian (I think) National Anthem breaking in all the time, similar transmission frequencies.

(Aside: talking, writing of the MC5, the Electric Prunes etc reminded me of the seminal (read: over-indulgent, spaced-out, noodling, incomprehensible crap of the first order) album by 'Iron Butterfly' (think incompetent 'Rush') that hung around the album chart for what seemed like an eternity. It was called 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida'. It was long rumoured, maybe apocryphally, that this was one of the band member's spaced out interpretation, when speaking of the album's prospective title, of 'In the Garden of Eden'.)

So what have I have done with my life? Well, I've visited the very place that the Prince Regent wanted to sodomise. Metaphorically speaking, you understand. Bognor, and Butlin's to boot! I have become a chum to the only 'blogging penguin'. (Accept no substitute, the Kings' are ghost written!) I once spoke to Jeff Beck (and Scott Gorham although I perhaps shouldn't have asked how it felt to be touring with a band in which not one original member was playing, Thin Lizzy). I have asked for Christopher Lee's autograph (boy, is that guy tall) in a bookshop on behalf of a gaggle of girls, too shy to do it themselves, Robert Vaughn too. Not much to show for a life, ay? Amidst all the sadness.

But I have had so much fun!

PS Thank you Emo! You enriched our lives so much with YOUR music, but so much more were our lives enriched by what you led us on to. We may have never found it otherwise.

Rutger, Ladyhawke and live at Rockpalast

Watched 'Ladyhawke' for the umpteenth time yesterday. A sad but ultimately uplifting story of two cursed lovers; she a hawk by day and a woman by night, he a man by day and a wolf by night. Absolute tosh I hear you cry. Well it is! It gets worse - Rutger Hauer plays one of the male leads!

Now don't get me wrong, I know Rutger's garnered several Golden Globe nominations for various performances but it's always seemed to me that like Jack Nicholson he appears to be better at playing himself than a character or maybe like Jack he can only play one character which may or may not be himself. The truth is, poor old Rutger never quite managed to better his first major role, Batty in Blade Runner, and perhaps he should have given up then. Or just worked for Ridley Scott! The final scene, with the rain lashing down, his predetermined lifespan coming to an end (and you know he's crying); "Oh, if you had seen the things I have seen......". Rutger, you should have retired early and gone into real estate. Or at least gone for the role which Voerhoeven offered you in 'Black Book'!

So why do I keep watching the damn film? Well, Michelle Pfeiffer has never looked more gorgeous but the truth is, it's the only film I know that stars a red-tailed hawk! Beautiful birds! And native to the US which makes it a little hard from here to get to see them in the wild! So.......

What makes the film doubly 'disappointing' is the lack of any real emotion. After all, if you accept the premise and suspend disbelief then wouldn't the pain of being so close but never being together be unbearable; Dante and Beatrice? Whether this is due to the actors or the script (I suspect the latter) or the quite nauseating peformance by Matthew Broderick (as a young pickpocket who befriends the pair, the other male lead), the director, Donner, surely missed a golden opportunity to explore what such a seperation might mean?

Ah well, sometimes fairy stories are just that!

You have to hand it the Germans sometimes. Kaiser Bill, Bismark and Adolf Hitler notwithsanding, diesel engines, Beamers, the rockets at Peenemunde, autobahns and .......Rockpalast!

Now to someone of my generation, the huge treasure trove of goodies broadcast, and more importantly saved on tape, by Rockpalast means that the heady music, alcohol and drug fuelled days of our youth are only a dvd away! The reason for mentioning it is that 'Nils Lofgren, Live at Rockpalast' arrived just as I was starting to write this blog and I keep stopping writing to watch it! With largely the same band (and music) as the Hammersmith Odean gig in 1977, so many happy memories. And one truly awesome (and vastly underrated) player. He is so wasted in Bruce's E-Street band however much a kick he might get out of it.

It's almost as good as Rory Gallagher - Live at Rockpalast.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Keith Cross, Mugwump and a premiere event.

Addendum posted June 2013 - Anyone who is looking for info on Cross' current whereabouts/activity should peruse the 'comments' at the end of this blog.

Google is a wonderful thing. Ok, a lot of what you find there is garbage but as a resource it surely has no historical equal; which makes it incredibly frustrating when you CAN'T find what you're looking for!

I have been recently revisiting my old Wishbone Ash albums, time on my hands for once, vinyl and simply awesome. (So glad I invested in a decent deck in the early seventies. Means that 40 year old vinyl is still playable - without clicks and pops!) The twin leads of Andy Powell and Ted Turner, truly magical.

Anyways, looking at a old video on YouTube (about 1973, here if you're interested) made me remember Andy Powell's 'signature' guitar, a Gibson 'Flying V'. (He still plays it.) But more importantly, where I first encountered that guitar and what has led to a life long wish to play one. A blonde one! (I don't because they are arses to play when you as small as I am - the body's 'V' extensions are way to the right of you, feels weird!)

Sometime in the early seventies, maybe 1971 or 1972, (before I saw Wishbone Ash live) I saw my very first 'Flying V'. It was a gig at the Marquee club in Wardour Street, London. The band was T2 and the guitarist a seventeen year old named Keith Cross. With long, flowing blonde hair and a blonde Flying V, he made an inspiring sight, and could the kid play! Truly amazing!

Well, I googled Keith Cross. Find out what he's doing now. That much talent doesn't disappear. And yet he has! Outside of a 1972 project that led to an album, he appears to have disappeared from the musical landscape. Even Peter Banks (Yes guitarist before Steve Howe - or Trevor 'I'll have a burger {or ten} and a beer' Rabin) has more recent entries!

So where is the man lauded as the 'next Jimi Hendrix'. The last info I can glean from Google is that he went to uni to study for a batchelors in the early seventies but there must be something, anything after that. Does he teach music in some slummy comprehensive; does he hang out with the musos in Santa Monica; is he the guitar behind every nauseating jingle you've ever heard; Keith, you must be out there somewhere!

A bit of an event today.

Now, anybody who has ever owned a cat, especially a long haired ones like Mugwump, will tell you that they are incredibly fond of emptying the contents of their stomach, whether it be food or or a hairball, all over your carpet, it amuses them, I think. One of the reasons I don't have any, carpet that is. No, it's a lot easier picking the stuff up when you've only sealed and varnished floorboards.

Well, in the 21 months or so that I've had him, Mugwump has never thrown up. Not food, not a furball, not even a little bit of bile. Well today he did! That'll teach him to wolf down his food without chewing properly! And why do cats always look so puzzled as though there is no way that hot mess of kibble, fish, could have come from the muscular contraction of the cat's gullet? It's as if the cat thinks that the oesophagus is a one way street and that there's only one exit point. In through the mouth, out through your bum! Poor Mugwump looked so surprised!

And why are you always a split second too late in getting the kitchen towel down under the path of said mess? Another one of God's little jokes, I think.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Tread lightly for you know not whose heart lies beneath your heel (part 2)

“I am very grateful for you staying like this,” she said. “I know you are a busy man.” She smiled. The head-cocked-to-the-side smile, the half-hidden-by-the-hand smile, a smile of embarrassment. “This is just between us, yes? You will not tell anyone?”

“Have I ever?” he replied. “And who would I tell? My conniving colleagues? I wouldn’t give them the time of day if I could help it. My partner? Maybe, if I had one! My mother? Perhaps. But she scarce remembers what day it is, let alone a stranger’s confidences. No, your secret, whatever it may be, will remain between us.” He tried to look supportive, but what did supportive look like? Probably nothing like the way he looked, but nonetheless.

“There is a man, he comes here, mostly in the evenings. You may have seen him. Mostly we talk of silly things, but these past weeks, all he talks about is how he cheated on his wife! And how she left him, when she found out. And now how lonely he is! It makes me feel………..” She faltered.

“Uncomfortable?” he proffered.

“Yes, uncomfortable.” she said.

“So the customers are hitting on you again. Just not in the usual way! Is that why you get uncomfortable? You can’t tell them to push off, it’s not a direct approach, more oblique? You’re not sure if they are thinking what you think they’re thinking?” He raised an eyebrow and smiled.

“No! Yes! Maybe. I just know that there’s an itch I can’t scratch. No, it’s more like the feeling you have watching a horror movie. You know something dreadful is going to happen but you don’t know what. It’s not like I’m expecting something dreadful to happen but can you understand what I mean?” She paused.

“What does oblique mean,” she asked.

“Comes at you from the side,” he replied. “Like a curve ball, a leg break.”

“There you go again,” she said. “Always using words I don’t understand! Do you do it
deliberately? Curve ball? Leg break? Does this mean I break my leg or somebody else’s leg breaks?”

He winced. “Sorry, I don’t do it deliberately. It’s cricket. Means the ball comes into the batsman down the left side but ‘breaks’ towards the centre when it bounces.” He gestured with his hands, trying to show the trajectory of the imaginary ball. “I keep forgetting; cricket is an arcane religion and not everyone knows about it!”

“But it’s just a game and you talk of religion,” she said, surprised.

“Well, for some it is! OK, forget all that. You know how to deal with people who ask you outside for a ‘quick one’. That’s easy. ‘NO!’ But you don’t know how to deal with someone who doesn’t adopt the direct approach. Is that a fair summary?” He smiled again and became acutely aware of how much he was smiling. It was however difficult not to smile. Cruel,perhaps, but nonetheless it was hard not to be. To be in a quandary and over this?

“You tease me! You mock me! You think I don’t know how to handle these people. You think I am still a teenager. Embarrassed by a little attention! I know how to handle these people! It’s just......” She stopped abruptly and a flush suffused her skin. “I just don’t what I should do.”

“So you like him well enough to be friends but you don’t want to shag him until the cows come home, is that it?” he asked.

“No! Yes! I am married, you know this. I have a husband. I may not love him as much as I should, but that is my fault, no-one else’s. He is a good man. I could not, how would one put it, entertain another man’s attention. I am not made that way. I will be faithful unto death. It is the only way I know to live, don’t you think. Even if the other man might be the man of my daydreams, still I would not, could not, love, in any way. Even if I thought of the man every time my husband makes love to me; still, I would keep faith. I cannot be any other way.”

She started to sob, but quietly, face turned away, as though embarrassed; embarrassed at the tears falling down her cheeks; embarrassed about the emotion seeping through the cracks; the chinks in the armour.

He put his arm around her shoulder, gently, briefly. “Just keep stumm, quiet, Don’t rise to the bait.” he said. “By your silence, you will discourage him, if that is what you truly wish. You need have, at least, no fear in a crowded bar!”

“But if I stay silent, will that not discourage him, in all ways. Not just the.....” she hesitated again.

“Possibly,” he said. “You could always try ‘stop hitting on me all the time’ but that might be a little drastic! No, just ignore him when he starts to make you feel uncomfortable, He’ll soon get the message. It might take a while, blokes are notoriously dim. But he will get it, believe me”

“Thank you,” she said. “It was nice of you to stay. I hope you won’t get into trouble. ”

She kissed him lightly on the cheek.

They drained their glasses and rose. They walked slowly towards their respective places; she behind the bar, and he towards the door.

As he walked slowly to the door, waving ‘Goodbye’, he felt a piece of his heart break away and fall silently to the floor.

He left it where it lay.

Opening the door, he strode out.

Insulin, Sir Henry and a tale to break your heart

I made a list of diseases, formerly fatal, in a comment to an earlier post and regretably one made it in which shouldn't have. It's not treated with antibiotics or immunisation. Spot it? Well, it was diabetes.

Now any ful kno that diabetes is treated with insulin (or diet in its mildest form) but prior to the 1920's, it could only be treated with diet. There was no way to compensate for the body's inadequate production of natural insulin in any other way. Which leads me on to a quite sad tale.

Medical research is very often a tale of the great and good; Chain and Florey and penicillin; Milstein and monoclonal antibodies; Doll and Bradley and the link between smoking and lung cancer; Barnard and replacement organs. But the 'little people' are often forgotten in all this.

(By the way, I did not forget about Alexander Fleming and penicillin but, in my humble opinion, he did not deserve the share in the Nobel prize he got. Noticing the antibacterial effects of the mould and then sitting on your hands for the next 15 years, while Chain and Florey do all the donkey work, does not qualify you for the most prestigous prize in medicine. After all, I regularly notice that the grass turns to rust on the lawnmower over the winter but I can scarcely expect the Nobel prize for chemistry if I don't do something about stopping it, now can I?)

Anyways, the story.

Somewhere, most likely the Public Records Office in Kew, there sits a little cardboard file, filled with yellowing paper. (Assuming some over-zealous public servant hasn't got rid of it because it adds nothing to the tale of the great and good.) The file is one of many about the first trials of insulin in the UK for the treatment of diabetes.

The Medical Research Committee was set up by the UK Government in the First World War (1915) to conduct research into things like trauma, the treatment of wounds and such like; perfectly understandable, there was a bloody big war going on and lots of people were getting maimed and killed! By 1920, the Committee had mutated into the Medical Reseach Council and had got its very own National Institute for Medical Research based in the Mill Hill, London. Pretty much the first major piece of research the new Director, Sir Henry Dale, had to contend with was the trials for insulin.

Now at that time insulin was manufactured from bovine pancreases; it was not considered de riguer to use, then or now, human pancreases, although it didn't stop them from using human pituirity glands in the first trials of Human Growth Hormone in the 60's. But Sir Henry had a problem.

Independent tests of the commercially manufactured insulin raised serious doubt about its purity. Dale was worried that any impending trial could do more harm then good and therefore delayed the trial until he was satisfied that the purity of the insulin was high enough, and just as importantly, consistent enough, to mitigate as far as possible any risks to the patients.

Now buried deep within the little cardboard file is a exchange of letters between a teenager/her father and Dale. The teenager/father has obviously heard about insulin (American trials were already underway) and possibly the impending trials in the UK. She asks when will they start. Dale is reassuring but non-commital, it's all down to the manufacturer and purity levels.

The last letter is one from her father which inter alia points out that the teenager's weight is now down to five stone (32kg) but she wishes "God's speed to the Medical Research Council". The trials started some months later.

It would be nice to think that the young girl lived long enough to participate in the trials, although something tells me she didn't.

Isn't that a more interesting story than any tale of the great and good?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Tread lightly for you know not whose heart lies beneath your heel

It's been a while since we had some fiction, real fiction, as opposed to what passes for my view on life so.....

Now before you read too much into this (and you will), the inspriation, if that is what it is, comes from the final two or three sentences. Everything works BACKWARDS from that. (I've purposely split this into two halves so that you come back gagging for more :)

(Or wander away, too disinterested to care! :)

Write about you know, they say. Write about what's in your experience. So I did. Makes a change, no? In some respects, the beginning and the end do not belong together, although they could possibly belong. Is that not the essence of fiction? In a different world, in a galaxy a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; in another reality, another quantum superposition of states, they could belong. But, like all stories, this is just another fabrication, another simulacrum; even if it is rooted in someone's, anyone's, experience.

A might-have-been on the long road to salvation. Or damnation!

"He was slowly beginning to calm down as he turned the corner and entered the familiar, cobbled lane that led between the tall, fin de siècle tenements to his favourite watering hole. “In what way,” he thought, “can it be considered reasonable to set such ludicrously unachievable targets and then berate someone so venomously for failing to achieve them?” He pondered for a moment as if searching for the answer, although it was there, hanging, waiting for expression; the only one possible.

“Sod ‘em,” he said aloud to no-one in particular, although a woman hurrying back to work after a long lunch made even greater haste as she sped along on the other side of the lane. “Yes, sod ‘em! Do you hear me?” he shouted. “Fuck you! Fuck you all! In spades!

He pushed open the door to the……..What would one call it? A bistro? A wine bar? A coffee shop? A café? It was all of these things and none of them. An estaminet, perhaps? He was pleased to have remembered the word, so beloved of the more cryptic crossword compilers. Yes, from now on, this would be ‘Estaminet Adrienne’, a haven of calm, peace and contentment; a place to moor his storm-damaged yacht,while he took on water and effected repairs, scraped the barnacles from the hull. It was, as usual at this time of the day, deserted. It’s what had attracted him to the 'estop' in the first place!

He pushed open the door, the wind chimes playing a delicate, atonal counterpoint to the diminuendo of his rage.

“Hallo!” She shouted, kneeling, her face hidden by the oaken panels, from the other side of the bar. “Usual?” He experienced the quotidien pang of familiarity, predictability and, as he always did, toyed with difference, surprise, unpredictability for a few moments. “Yes! Please!” He said.

“Sit down, I will bring it to you.” As she always did.

He sat down, in the same spot, the same table, the same chair, pulled out his newspaper and waited. The physical location was the same; the table the same; it was unique, no other like it. But the chair? Was this the same chair as yesterday? The day before? Last year? The first time he came here? He liked to think that it was but was struck by the quantum uncertainty of it all. He doubted even the staff could tell one chair from another but perhaps the chairs too were unique in some way and the staff could tell, just by touch, by instinct, where a chair belonged. He smiled. “Perhaps I too should learn the secret language of the chairs,” he thought.

She brought the large cognac, Hine, which they stocked just so that he might drink it, and the large black coffee which he used to fuel the evenings, the late nights in vain attempts to stave off the recriminations and vitriol of those who aimed to grind him into the ground. He pulled a propelling pencil from inside his jacket and once more attempted the cryptic crossword.

Perhaps thirty minutes later, the crossword complete and the brandy drained, he set about drinking the last of the now cold coffee. Caffeine was, after all, still caffeine, even if cold!

“How do you tell someone to push off? Politely?” she quietly asked from behind the bar as she vigorously polished a brass pump. Draining his cup, he rose and, putting the newspaper in his bag, he walked to the bar to settle his bill.

“You have a function tonight?” he asked, placing his card, the glass, the cup on the polished counter.

“No,” she replied, a puzzled expression on her face. “Why do you ask?”

And then the realisation, slowly, inextricably dawned. “Oh, I am so sorry,” she said, her hands framing her face. “It was a question, not a request! Please, forgive me! It’s just……….” Her voice tailed off into the silence.

“Getting too much attention again?” he asked. “I would have thought you’d be used to it by now!” He smiled. “Besides, you don’t have to be polite to slugs!”

“No, it is not like that,” she replied. “He is a nice man, it’s just that lately……Oh, I don’t know. It’s ……..” She turned away and stared at the shelves behind the bar, as if stocktaking. “Do you have a little time?” she asked. “Perhaps another drink?”

He considered for a moment. Late back from lunch? After the ear-bashing he’d had that morning? Slacking, again? Failing to meet his objectives? Boozing it up at lunchtime? When he should be number crunching?

“Fuck ‘em,” he thought. “Fuck 'em! There are more important things in life than their numbers………..and this just happens to be one of them!”

“Yes, I can spare some time,” he said. “Never refuse a free drink, my old man used to say. I am assuming it’s free.” He wore a broad grin; a grin reserved for the few moments when he genuinely felt for the world. A grin to surpass the everyday nature of his mundane life. A grin for the good times!

“Sit down, I will bring it to you. Perhaps I will have one myself, though I shouldn't. Coffee?” she asked.

“If I have any more caffeine, I shall go into orbit, I’ll be flying so high. Doppio, one sugar! In for a penny, in for a pound!” he said as he sat down."

To Be Continued (maybe).

Friday, 12 March 2010

Antibiotics, Cleanliness and Moliere

Someone posted a comment to the post about Semmelweis and it got me thinking, well the anti-bacterial kitchen surface cleansers did.

Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing personal against anti-bacterial kitchen sprays - I use them myself and some of my best friends are bottles of kitchen spray - but it seems we've got ourselves in a right twist, a real 'horns of a dilemms' situation with our 21st century obsession with cleanliness. It might be next to Godliness but I really don't think we can use that as much of an excuse nowadays.

(I was going to point out that nobody believes in God anyway so why is coming second such a big thing. Then I realised. Actually a goodly proportion of the world's population actually do believe, or at least purport to, so........Crash and burn! Sometimes reality can be soooooo inconvenient. Never the way you want it! In an ideal world Laura Morante would be just gagging for the chance to anti-bacterialise my kitchen work surfaces........but it is not, sadly, an ideal world. Just in case you hadn't quite noticed.)

Anyway, where was I? Yes, the horns of a dilemma. You see, this obsession with cleanliness, creating a 'germ free environment', killing all known bugs, creepie crawlies, pathogens, bacteria is all very well, and is to be lauded if you have infants, suckling children, with ill-developed immune systems, but what is it actually doing?

From the development of antiseptic in the 19th century through to the myriad of harmless (to us) substances to combat germs. Through the tentative probings into Salvasan (funny how the first 'magic bullet' was used to treat syphyilis, back in the days after the first world war; just goes to show how common it was, a lot more common then trench foot), through to the sulpha drugs of the '30s and all the way to natural penicillin of the '40s and '50s and onwards to the synthetic antibiotics and bacteriacides common today.

But what is it doing?

Well it is doing three things (at least). One, it is saving lives. Two, it is seriously compromising our own immune systems. If the immune response, don't you just love the idea of 'Killer T-cells', rampaging Rambos of the blood stream, the Chuck Norrises of the cellular world, beating the crap out of any bacterium that strays into its territory, doesn't get to practise, how the hell is it going to recognise a pathogen? And, three, just as importantly, bacteria breed very rapidly and crucially they do it by cell division. No messing about with sexual reproduction here and all that goes with it; the 'mess', the grunting, and more importantly, the uncertainty (and not whether you get to orgasm or not). Maybe your genes squeeze a way in there, maybe they don't; and if they don't, you don't get to pass on whatever advantage you've got. Sexual reproduction is a lottery, remember that! 'Advantageous, but a lottery nonetheless. No, cell division means there is no mistake. If you have acquired immunity to an antibiotic, all your offspring will acquire it too. Unless they mutate away your advantage.

So where does that leave us?

In an escalating arms race which I fear we cannot win. Nature is far too canny!

Please believe me, I do not wish to return to the days, not so very long ago, where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short (thank you Hobbes, always good for a quote) but I do think we have to rein in our expectations and more importantly give our bodies the chance to do what evolution has equipped them for. We don't need antibiotics for a common cold, (useless anyway, it's a virus) we don't need antibiotics for the 'flu. We don't need ibuprofen because 'you might get a headache'. We can cope! We don't need our meat so stuffed full of antibiotics that it might as well be pure antibiotic; I always thought that the chicken tasted funny. We don't need all this stuff until we get really ill when it might prevent our dying before our time. And is there a pre-ordained time for our dying? Might it not be then? But we never want to believe that, do we?

And, in the end, isn't this the problem? We are so used to the medical profession over the last fifty years giving us the illusion that we can live forever that we believe it? Even though it's not, can't ever, be true?

I'd like to end on a more optimistic note. Any men out there who fail to fall in love with Laura Morante after the scene in 'Moliere' in which Romain Duris 'mimics' the 'dog' which Jourdain is, and after the two have quite obviously just made love, is either made of clay or doesn't have a clue!

Oh, were my idiocies so well recieved!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Bad Science, Washing your hands and Dick & Oscar

Positively the most charming company for lunch today - it wasn't at my house so I didn't have to cook, even better! This gives me the excuse and opportunity to share a prodigous talent - not mine, silly - one of the lunch time guests.

There's a few more, just look under Shelly Goldstein on YouTube.

A relaxing day yesterday. Decided to read one of the books that had been bought, borrowed, stolen by friends to relive the monotony of hospital. I haven't read any of them up until now because I couldn't. Though I normally read avidly, in the weeks following the stroke I could barely manage half a page. It was as though the concentration required to deal with written language, and more inportantly, ideas, concepts expressed through that medium had somehow vanished!

So today I decided to try once more and read Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science'. Somewhat apposite, although I don't think the person who bought it is necessarily aware of my rants, especially about 'creationist science'. Now Ben is a medic and mostly goes on about the media, despite the fact that he's a part of it, part-time :), and the credence they give to crackpots who are just out to make money from some fad. He's also big on evidence, just as I am! I know anecdotes from a well designed clinical trial - and I know which to trust! If I am going to trust anything!

Well, there was a footnote which intrigued me so I went and done some digging for the background.

There was once a 19th century physician called Ignaz Semmelweis (crazy name, crazy (eventually) guy!). Hungarian by birth, he was appointed as physician to a Austrian maternity hospital in 1847, which catered without cost to mostly poor, underprivileged, unwed mothers (prostitutes too) as a way of combatting the rampant infanticide of those desperate enough to kill the babies they could not afford, or were unwilling, to support.

This particular hospital was divided in two wards. One, administered by the midwifes, one by the medical students, which it was Semmelweis' responsibility to supervise. It soon became clear to Semmelweis that there was a clear discrepancy between the mortality rates from puerperal fever in ward one and in ward two. It was doubtful that this was caused by inexperience and, whether by chance or judgement, Semmelweis put the cause down to the time spent in mortuaries by the students dissecting bodies (as much of a part a med students training then as now, if not more so). Somehow, Semmelweis reasoned, the decaying flesh of the corpses could somehow cause the disease, puerperal fever, in expectant mothers. Semmelweis did not know the cause of this, the germ hypothesius did not appear until 1864, but again reasoned that washing their (the students) hands prior to gynaecological examination with a solution of chlorinated lime might help to clear whatever it was that was causing the high incidence of childbed fever in the patients.

It worked...and then some! From a mortality rate of over 10%, Semmelweis reduced it to 1%. The simple fact of washing your hands reduced the mortality rate 10 fold. It seems to me that you don't need much more evidence than that to ensure you wash your hands in 'bleach' prior to inserting them in pregnant women's 'naughty bits'.

Within a year the practice had become so widespead that puerperal fever has slumped to less than 1% of expectant mothers, Europe wide.

Sadly not! They ignored him, the great and good, the most learned! Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it didn't fit with the medical profession's accepted theories. Didn't accord with custom and practice. Who was some two penny Magyar 'physician' in a one penny charitable hospice for 'whores' and 'vagrants' (not to mention the socially irresponsible) to tell the great and good how to conduct business? It was not until Pasteur's '(one of the great and good?) germ hypothesis became current that people began to see the wisdom of Semmelweis' approach. Well at least they eventually got it!

But how many women died because THEY could not see the evidence staring in their faces! (Oh well, no matter, they were poor. Worse they were irresponsible. Worst, they were women! And infamy, they might have been common whores!)

I am fortunate, I live in more enlightened times. I am not as they were. I can criticise and make judgement as though I were on high for the crass stupidity of it all. I am better than that! The society I live in is better than that! I make my judgements based on evidence. I would not have made the same mistake as Semmelweis' contemporaries. I would have used the evidence. Do this and you avoid that!

Ah, but we all have our prejudices. Are mine any better than yours? I would hope so but we are, in the end, just victims of circumstance. No?

Snippet from a conversation. "A gang of girls, late teens, got on the bus, raucous, shouting. 'I'm Wicka', shouts one. The kind of girl that makes voodoo dolls out of tampons!" Priceless! Thank you Shelly!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Audrey Hepburn, roses and frivolity

I got told to do something frivolous last week. It's a task. I have to complete it by this Saturday. How the hell am I supposed to be frivolous? My dictionary defines it as:

1. characterized by lack of seriousness or sense: frivolous conduct.
2. self-indulgently carefree; unconcerned about or lacking any serious purpose.
3. (of a person) given to trifling or undue levity: a frivolous, empty-headed person.
4. of little or no weight, worth, or importance; not worthy of serious notice: a frivolous suggestion.

Now granted, this entire blog (well most of it) certainly satifies definition number 4 but aside from this blog, I am not a frivolous person. In fact, I'm too damn serious for my own good. Yes, I'd like to be frivolous; I'd like to be carefree; I'd like to be characterised by a lack of seriousness but about the only criteria I meet is 'lacking any serious purpose' (at all, in anything!). (Anyone suggesting 'empty headed' as an alternative epithet is likely to wind up with a boot up the jacksie!)

So what I am to do? I wear my t-shirt when I go to the shops so I can brandish the words emblazoned on my chest: "I am not drunk. I have had a stroke. Have patience." but does this count as frivolous? It raises a smile but that, I suspect, is because no-one's done it before. (Well at least to my knowledge.) And it serves a serious purpose - it means I don't have to try to explain why I'm talking like a spastic; so it is disqualified by definition 2, no?

What about what I did last night? As the proud(?) owner of low fat/fat free diet, I had a 'magnum' for dessert. No, not two bottles of champagne, I have been told to steer clear of overindulgence in alcohol as well, but ice cream composed of 25% fat (covered in Belgian chocolate to boot). Does this count as frivolous? It's certainly 'self-indulgently carefree', although my doctor would say it was just damned irresponsible, but frivolous? Does it count even when watching the puerile '633 squadron'?

Is spending £600 on a Gaggia machine just so I can get expresso when I want it frivolous. Yes, certainly. But I have already done that! And I don't have room for two in my kitchen.

Is buying 2 Audrey Hepburn photographs at exorbitant price and then having to spend an arm and a leg to get them framed just so I can look into her eyes every time I go into the kitchen frivolous? Perhaps, but they are beautiful and go well with the Kazhak horseman with the eagle, beauty and the beast, so there is a kind of purpose here.

Would annotating the 1892 map of my area with 'You are here', over where I live, formerly the sewage works, and pinning it my wall, count as frivolous? Or does it serve a purpose? Like explaining the heady scent that sometimes emanates from my drain in summer. (I don't actually know [except my neighbours] of anyone whose flat was built on the site of a sewage works, so I can't check. Just goes to show, they'll build on anything! Could have been worse. They might have built it where Sellafield used to dispose of their 're-cycling')

You see my dilemma.

It's not that I don't want to be frivolous, I want to please, complete my task (the other ones I have to do are easy - they require me to be serious) but in one sense I don't know how to anymore. What happened to the juvenile adolescent doing 'Knees Up, Mother Brown' along the path to Salzburg castle with three friends? (Oh alright, one friend and two women we were trying to 'get off' with. Didn't work, in case you're interested. Never did!) What happened to the idiot who ate the roses in the pub garden and did the seal impression in the pond? Why can I not walk up to railway station porters anymore and ask the whereabout of Harvey in a Jimmy Stewart accent and, when quizzed about his appearance, reply that he's a six feet tall rabbit.

Did something happen along the way? Did my frivolity gland shrivel up (like everything else); atrophied from a lack of use? Can I blame my parents, the Government, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Sainsbury's SavaCentre, and if so, for what? Why did I stop inviting the Jehovah's Witnesses in for tea instead of slamming the door in their face? (I learnt that from my sister - who used to add: 'You would have killed my baby!' - needed a blood transfusion at birth, rhesus negative, and JW's don't like them, corrupts the divine creation, see). Totally pointless but it used to be such fun! Especially when you start proceedings with: "Why does the Bible begin with a plural (Elohim - God[s]) and then make the verb singular - of course that's in the Aramaic. The King James version fudges the issue by making both singular. Milk? Sugar?"

Maybe I'll clean the windows. Or rather window. I tire easily right now and one a day is all I can manage. It certainly is 'characterized by a lack of ........sense'. After all, where is the sense in cleaning a window when two minutes later it's covered in polluted, acid rain. One of God's little jokes, that. It always rains immediately after you clean your windows, even if there's not a cloud in the sky, there's a heatwave and the weather forecast is for no rain until 2012 (just in time for the Olympics!)