04 September 2011

Macho Surgeons

Gabriel Weston in Direct Red* mentions, obliquely, the ‘macho’ culture in operating theatres. I doubt if there are any surgeons who routinely throw scalpels around these days — they would soon get a well-deserved bollocking from the theatre sister if they did. It’s all health and safety now. But it was once common, ordinary. Why?
I think it’s a memory from the ‘golden days’ of surgery, from the start of the 20th century to early post World War II times. Physicians then had almost no medications that actually did much for the patient; they relied on nostrums, fancy diets and authority. But surgeons could treat and cure some conditions by operations. If you had, for example, a stomach ulcer, no amount of diets, stomach bottles or whatever would do you any lasting good; only an operation would. And in those days, the success of an operation was measured by whether you survived it. There weren’t any antibiotics to ‘clear up’ any residues, no intensive care units for the patient’s optimised recovery,the surgeon had to be accurate, decisive, neat and quick.
So, there was a lot of pressure on surgeons to perform. And this stress was externalised through aggression and nit-picking. If the scalpels were blunt, the surgeon felt that the success of the operation was jeopardised, perhaps with some justification. So he — only men then — threw the scalpel away in disgust. And, as with physicians, surgeons then were authority figures; you didn’t dare question what was said or done.
Surgeons learnt by apprenticeship; you watched, listened, helped and learned. Not just how the operation was done, you learned how it was expected that you would behave in theatre. And the traditions of scalpel throwing were passed down through the generations, unthinkingly, unquestioningly. 

02 September 2011

Necessary or Sufficient?

I’d never heard of the ‘necessary or sufficient’ argument before I studied for a BA with the Open University. It appeared during a discussion about skyscrapers.
The standard received story is that the first skyscrapers were in Chicago, and not all that tall — about 16 storeys. At the time they were built it was known that people wouldn’t climb more than six flights of stairs to an office. So, lifts were ‘necessary’ for the development of skyscrapers, yet were not a ‘sufficient’ reason for their development. We had to think of other factors.
I’ve never yet a medical professional who has heard of this type of argument, though from the way they frame things, they are probably unconsciously aware of it.
Consider this: cigarette packets are covered in warnings about how bad it is to smoke, and how smoking gives you cancer. This isn’t quite correct. Most cases of lung cancer are associated — note the careful use of words — with smoking, but around 5% are not. And yes, I do know that there are several varieties of lung cancer.
But, only about 20% of cigarette smokers get lung cancer — yes, perhaps the others die of other smoking related causes. I’m not trying to say that smoking is good for you, or even safe. I’m just trying to get behind some of the facts.
And the facts simply say that for most cases of lung cancer, smoking is necessary, but it is not sufficient. If it was a sufficient cause, then (almost) all smokers would get lung cancer. They don’t. Therefore, there are other factors to be considered — these days we would consider genetic susceptibility, and perhaps other environmental nasties.
The same is true for alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. This is now a major problem in younger people, and has been linked to binge drinking. It’s clear that alcoholic cirrhosis is caused by ‘excessive’ alcohol consumption, and there are guidelines about units per day. In passing, I note that these recommendations were figures plucked out of the ether; it was seen to be important to tell people how much they could ’safely’ drink. Yet there are plenty of people who drink far more than the recommendations, and who don’t get cirrhosis. Alcohol is necessary for alcoholic cirrhosis, yet not ‘sufficient’. Again, there seems to be evidence of a ‘genetic weakness’.
And none of the above is to be interpreted as encouragement to smoke at all, or to drink to ‘excess’. It isn’t.
On the other hand, mesothelioma — a malignancy of the pleural lining of the chest — is directly related to exposure to asbestos fibres, and is (almost) unknown if there has been no exposure. Asbestos is not only necessary, it is sufficient.
Next time you hear an expert talking about associations and causation, just ask how much of it is necessary and how much is sufficient.

05 August 2011

The sexist apostrophe

The apostrophe; so much unnecessary difficulty. We’ve all seen greengrocers’ apostrophes — orange’s and lemon’s — but it’s easy to avoid this.
You’ve been taught something about apostrophes indicating possession or letters left out. That’s correct, but as an academic rule for grammarians, it’s not much use in the real world. We don’t think of rules before we speak, we just ‘know’ how to speak. And apostrophes are an aid to speech, converting the written to the spoken.
I said previously that punctuation is an aid to reading aloud, and the apostrophe is an aid to speech.
Not sure of this? Think of the difference between wed and we’d. You know how to pronounce wed and we’d and know that they differ. But without the apostrophe, how would you say wed? As wed or as we’d? You can’t easily tell, you have to read ahead to see what the meaning is, then return to the wed. That’s not very easy, or practical.
Well, you’re not convinced? Or did I mean we’ll? Or, After wed wed, wed a reception.
If you’ve never seen unpunctuated text, have a look at the last chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Eight very long sentences — really paragraphs — with no punctuation, bar the final full stop at the end, at the book’s and Molly’s — ahem — finish. It’s very difficult to read — it’s meant to be — because Joyce wanted to show that we don’t think in punctuation, but continuously.
The ‘rule’ about possession or letters left out is really the same thing. Really.
The phrase Arthur’s sword is a shorthand for Arthur his sword. No more than this, but you are seeing an historical shadow, the Anglo-Saxon phrase in full would have been something like to (the) Arthur his (made) sword. That’s a bit complex. Think of Arthur’s sword as a contraction of Arthur his sword with the hi of his omitted.
If you are still puzzled about Arthur’s sword, try changing it to the sword of Arthur. If you can rewrite it with the of word, then it’s a possessive, it comes with an apostrophe.
So, the ‘possession’ rule is simply a shorthand for ‘his’. And it shows that letters are omitted, and that two words are compressed into one.
What if there are more than one possessors? Things have simplified even in my lifetime. We were taught that Ross’s’ Mineral Waters was exactly correct (Mineral Waters is N Ireland speak for lemonade). You can see that Ross’s’ is a relic of Ross his firm his (Mineral Waters), but today this would be written more simply as Ross’s. Not so precise, but simpler and rather more elegant.
Boatswain is not pronounced as it’s written, but as bosun. And bosun can also be written as bo’sun or bo’s’n. It’s your choice, or your editor’s choice. Here, the apostrophe indicates letters omitted, again to make it easier to show how the word should be pronounced. Yet, there are plenty of common phrases where the apostrophes are ignored today: good bye is a contraction of God be with you. (This means that I hope that God will go with you until we meet again on this earth. The Irish see you [later] is short for may the Lord keep and preserve you so that we will see each other again in the future.)
Is it it’s or its? This is easy; think of his. We don’t write h’s, we write his, or ’s. If you can replace its with his, then it is its, not it’s. But if you want it is, then drop the i to give it’s.
You will, I hope, have noticed an anachronism. How does the phrase Marion’s knickers relate to Marion her knickers?
It doesn’t. We have to look back to history again, to when — it wasn’t so long ago — when women were the possessions or chattels of men. Women didn’t (normally) own anything; their man did. So Marion’s knickers is really Marion (to) her man his knickers. Sorry, but I’m only the messenger*.
So, when you read Marion’s knickers, just remember that the apostrophe is sexist.

* There are still echoes of the idea that a woman is a man’s chattel; think of a wedding. The father (owner) brings the woman and gives her away to the groom (the next owner).


There’s lots of books and websites telling you how to punctuate your great novel or blog. There’s lots of rules about subordinate clauses, indirect speech and the use and misuse of apostrophes. Rules, rules. Overawed? 
Relax, it’s all really simple. You only have to understand and remember one thing — and it’s not even a rule.
We learn to speak by hearing others — our parents — and responding, and being applauded for our efforts. We aren’t taught to speak (I know, for the deaf and others it’s different), we just practice it. Spoken language is natural, inherent.
But we had to be taught the alphabet, and be taught to read. Reading isn’t natural, it’s artificial — something that’s man-made.
And before there was mass production printing, there wasn’t much impetus to learn to read, and very few people could. And if reading is hard, writing is another (higher) level of difficulty — it’s quite possible, though unusual, to be able to read but not to write.
Printing brought its own, unexpected problems. Before mass printing you could spell words more or less as you pleased,  and you certainly didn’t need to be consistent. Printers enforced uniform spelling, so we all had to be taught how to spell. English spelling is difficult — as a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French with Viking and other influences, there is little consistency. Spell checkers are an aid, but are not infallible. 
It seems odd today, but books always used to be read aloud. If you were ordinary, you read aloud to yourself. If you were posh, you had someone to read to you. The spoken word is natural, after all, and books were and are just peoples’ (spoken) thoughts written down. 
And because you, the reader, had to know where the emphases and the pauses were, you needed help.
The help came in the form of printers’ marks. They were initially designed to facilitate the spoken-aloud reading. Although we mostly read to ourselves these days — silent reading — the marks still show us how to say things aloud.
So, we have commas, semi-colons, colons and full stops to show us pauses (of increasing length), or where the writer digresses from the main theme. And we have new paragraphs to show where there is a significant change of topic, or of speaker. (Much easier than the old fashioned ¶in the middle of a body of text.)
How do we know if a character in a novel is speaking? Easy, they are being quoted, so what they say goes in quotation marks. “Like this.”  ‘Or even like this.’ Because choosing single or double is a matter of taste, or design. But if you are James Joyce you’d write like this:
— Sure it’s a fine day, Bloom said, and a good one for a walk.
Joyce didn’t like quotation marks, and used ‘—‘ to indicate that someone was going to speak. He didn’t thereafter indicate what the narrator was saying, and what the character was saying — you have to work it out. It was one way that he indicated the limitations of the printed word to show thoughts, ideas.
If he’d written in French, you would have seen, «Sure it’s a fine day,» Bloom said, «and a good one for a walk.» Or, «Sure it’s a fine day,» Bloom said, and a good one for a walk. You have to work out what Bloom said, what he or the narrator thought. Which just shows us that printers’ marks — punctuation — are no more than symbols that we recognise, and know how to deal with, something to make reading and comprehension easier.
If someone says who, what, where, why, when or how you can be certain they are asking a question. Listen carefully to someone asking a question; their voice rises at the end of the sentence. Sometimes, someone is questioning what’s been said — think of Lady Bracknell and “A handbag”. To show that she’s questioning what she’s been told, this becomes, “A handbag?”
Someone wants to emphasise a point? Emphasis! That’s how! Listen to people speaking!
So, you want to punctuate? Read it aloud, see where the emphases, the pauses the questions are, which character is speaking and you won’t go far wrong. Text-to-speech programs are very helpful for this, and a very useful way of seeing if you’ve left a word out.
Punctuation? It’s all about reading aloud.
The apostrophe? Yes, it too is an aid to speaking aloud, but it’s more than this. Another story.

30 June 2011

Mirror Image II

I was leafing through Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, when a photo of Oliver St John Gogarty caught my eye. Gogarty was an ENT surgeon, poet and wit, sometime friend of Joyce, and was the model for ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan’ in Ulysses. I found the photo online:

Gogarty is wearing a double-breasted frock coat. Normally, the left half of a double breasted suit or coat goes in front of the right half. Here, the arrangement is reversed;  or the picture is laterally reversed.

I also found a picture of James Joyce, though I forget where. I did find it, or one very like it on Google:

Joyce had bilateral eye problems for many years, and underwent multiple operations on both eyes. His left eye was the poorer, and more troublesome. All other pictures of him with an eye patch show it over the left eye. I’m not totally convinced that this is a mirror image.

23 June 2011

Eunuchs in the Cage

I’ve just read about female eunuchs. Not Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch, literal female eunuchs. Now, male eunuchs are well known, and it’s an operation which is relatively easy to perform (either with retention of the penis, or not). However, when the operation was commonplace, operative mortality was very high. The story of the female eunuch goes like this.
The Ottoman Sultans’ successor usually dispatched his brothers (strictly, half-brothers) as quickly as possible when he inherited the throne. It may seem brutal, but it worked. The new Sultan then had no rivals.
In the early 17th century, Achmet I changed this. Instead of dispatch, potential rivals and claimants were sent to the ‘Cage’, a small building within the Harem. They were incarcerated there, sometimes for decades. They had a few women to keep them company.
These women had the services of the court physicians, and given contraceptive advice and potions, pessaries and the like. Then I read that they ‘were usually rendered sterile by removal of the ovaries’.
No, I don’t think so. Firstly, at this time the function of the ovaries was unknown. Conception, it was thought, came entirely from the male essence, the female acted merely as an incubator.
And secondly, removal of the ovaries requires a major abdominal operation, one that would have been impossible without anaesthesia. And there wasn’t any any anaesthesia then. 
Female eunuchs simply could not have happened then. Not.

06 June 2011


Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; his Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he Suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson.

There’s an article in a recent ( 5 June 2011) Observer about role models in literature; Samantha Ellis reflects on what she read as a kid. There’s a competition to win a set of the books she describes; you have to tell them your favourite childhood novel, and what influence it had on you.
Which set me to reflect: what had I read that had had a significant influence? As a lad, I’d read books like Treasure Island, The Thirty-nine Steps, Sherlock Holmes; did these have a significant influence? I wasn’t sure, though the deductions in Sherlock might have influenced my career choice.
Out of nowhere came Kidnapped. This is a boys’ romance, the story of David Balfour and how he met Alan Breck (Stuart) — “I bear a king’s name”; it mingles fact and fiction. The fact part concerns the Appin Murder on 14 May 1752. I should express an interest here: Colin Campbell must be a relative, though my forebears had returned to Ireland more than a century before. Yes, returned: the Scots came from Ireland.
I was perhaps ten when I read the book for the first time; and even then, I was puzzled by something in one of the introductions — for that is what they are — purporting to be a letter to Mr Baxter, Writer to the Signet, a reader. Stevenson admitted to some factual abnormalities in the book; he specifically stated that he knew the date of the Appin murder was wrong (it’s given as 1751 in the book).
This puzzled me at the time: why would an author deliberately falsify the date of something so relevant, so important? And why would he make this public in his introductory letter to Mr Baxter? It’s puzzled me ever since.
I’m not sure even now that I know the answer to this; perhaps, it was a way of disguising a novel, making clear the difference between fact and fiction; perhaps he meant us to believe that David’s memory was at fault; perhaps he actually knew who the murderer was — it’s said to be a secret known to only a few — and didn’t want us to know that he knew. Perhaps.
Whatever; this must have been one of the first — perhaps the first — clashes of exactitude, and just perhaps it lead me to be an Empirical Reader, a searcher for paradoxes, for details that just don’t fit.
The sequel to Kidnapped is Catriona, the further adventures of David Balfour, with some references to the trial of James of the Glens, but concentrating on his relationship with Catriona Drummond (Macgregor). Alas, when I first read it, I was far too young to understand what was going on. Mind you, Catriona is pretty turgid compared to Kidnapped: it’s no surprise that it isn’t nearly as popular as the original. Mistress “grey eyes” is utterly captivating. It took me a few years to understand what David saw in her.


I've just read Ian McEwan's novel Saturday. The hero is a neurosurgeon, and the book follows one day in his life. To me, the story felt just a little too contrived, too improbable. Yes, I know it’s a novel, it’s about themes and all that, yet it didn’t feel right. And too much as if the author was reciting all the neurosurgery he had learned for the purpose of reciting it. It takes around 10 — 15 years as a student and junior doctor to become a specialist, an ‘expert’ — another example of the necessary 10,000 hours of study and practice. Neither a novelist nor a lawyer can really expect to get this depth of learning from observation and reading. They may be able to recite things parrot-fashion, but they don’t give the impression that they understand, that they know.

Neurosurgery isn’t what people seem to think it is. It’s not about operations on the mind, it’s as much about ‘non-brain’ things that go wrong inside the cranium as the ‘brain’ itself. It’s no different from things going wrong in the chest or belly except that access is more often limited. There are plenty of non-neurosurgical operations that can be technically much more difficult. Curiously, the most common problem for neurosurgeons — head injuries — is the one they are happiest to leave to others to sort out, the one area that, in general, they don’t really want to know about. Yet neurosurgery attracts an aura that other branches of surgery don’t; it’s no coincidence that neurosurgeons hold themselves in very high regard.

In Saturday there are descriptions of multiple neurosurgical operations at the start, and a further, different one at the end. All the operations are  depicted in considerable detail — and the details checked by experts —  yet somehow it doesn’t seem quite right to me. There isn’t enough information to enable you to do the operation, yet more than I would have thought necessary in a novel. I didn’t really see the point of these extensive discourses. There’s nothing technically wrong with them, but the combinations that are described don’t seem to go together; it’s like describing an author as a (superb) poet, novelist and biographer simultaneously. No one person is likely to be expert in these three fields, yet that is what is being suggested. The non-surgical reader wouldn’t see this, or would perhaps suggest that it was ‘poetic licence’.

Without spoiling the denouement, the final operation does merit some description, if only to indicate the time that it takes to do — but yet, it’s not such a common procedure, it’s the sort of thing associated with bleeding of nightmarish proportions, though as said of another operation, more ink has been spilt in its description than blood has been lost during its performance.

Saturday was generally well received; reviewers were taken with the themes, and not apparently distracted by the extensive descriptions, so perhaps it’s just me. Then again, perhaps it’s what a novelist would write, for operations are a very significant part of the story. Still, I preferred Direct Red by Gabriel Weston as an author’s view of surgery: she knows about surgery and writing.

A Threesome on the NHS

Three books on special offer — perhaps a ‘3 for 2’ sort of deal, but if it was, I’ve removed the stickers; I don’t want casual visitors thinking I’m cheap.
The three books all about working in the NHS; two of them are blogs or diaries, the life of a very junior doctor and life as an Accident and Emergency doctor. These are accurate enough, though the A&E doctor does rant on a bit about the inefficiencies of the NHS. There is nothing particularly literary about them — and there do seem to be lots of similar titles in the ‘Confessions’ style. A way to waste a couple of hours reading them, but I didn’t get much out of them.
The third is quite different. Direct Red by Gabriel Weston is a short book of short stories, fictionalised things that happened to her during her training to become an ENT surgeon. I heard it on the radio, but didn’t realise that Gabriel is female — I thought that it was a boys’ name. Anyhow, she’s taken an unusual route to medicine; she studied English Literature at Edinburgh, then qualified in medicine through a ‘fast track’ programme for arts graduates. She does seem to have gone through this rather slowly.
There’s no doubting the accuracy of her medical descriptions (I didn’t find any errors!), but operations etc aren’t the point; she describes feelings of how it is to be involved with procedures, operations and people, and how she reacts to them. Medicine sets a scene, but doesn’t overwhelm. It’s not an autobiography, more a series of vignettes, related only by her passage through the ranks.
I can empathise with a lot of her descriptions; the consultant who asks the same questions during every operation — yes, I plead guilty, though I like to think I caught myself on, and changed the questions — at least when I realised that the chaps had the answers off pat.
I did think that some descriptions of other female surgeons were if not harsh, then critical. Not critical of their abilities, but of their personalities — though this is as much a cultural thing. I have the feeling that English surgeons are much more arrogant than people I’ve known in Ireland, though perhaps we are more sexist. I didn’t recognise some of the bitchy things that both male and female surgeons said to her; then again, perhaps my anima isn’t well enough developed for me to be able to appreciate them.
There’s a wonderful description of ‘JFDI’. We’ve all been there, we know how it feels, and she captures the feeling exactly. What she doesn’t (yet) capture is the feeling that ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ waiting outside has, on the one hand having to let the trainee proceed unaided, but on the other the awful wondering if help should be offered, and if so, would it be psychologically damaging. And only getting second-hand descriptions from the nurses about how things are going, and not being sure just who is being reassured.
I have wondered for quite a while if the way we ‘educate’ medical students is as good as it’s supposed to be. Much of it seems more a test of memory, recall of largely irrelevant facts for the examinations — and I’ve also wondered why it was necessary to have to relearn all this for the post-graduate examinations. I used to try to provoke people by describing medical training as being no better than learning brick laying at a FE college. You get to know lots of facts, you get to see lots of people, but what you don’t get is educated in the sense of constructing an argument or of having to write an essay. I’d never heard of the ‘necessary of sufficient’ type of argument during my training, and I’ve never met any other consultant who has. To my mind, university is where you go to be educated (and socialised, and to find yourself — you know exactly what I mean) — it’s not a crammers. Doctors, I feel, have missed out on this in general, yet have the concept that because they know a lot more about how people work this entitles them to pronounce as authority figures. It’s common enough to see this thinking in presentations from people who ought to know better, but don’t seem to. The ability to think is something that wasn’t emphasised when I was a student, and I guess it still isn’t. You could call it the difference between education and training.
If I were to study medicine again, I’d start with an arts degree in something unrelated, and then ‘fast track’. And I’d combine this with a better idea of what speciality I’d choose long before I’d chosen it. More processed in this choice you might say, but I’d respond by saying that I’d be more balanced when I qualified, more mature and more capable of making a reasoned choice.
Back to Ms Weston; she’s taken the advice to write about what she knows, in her case herself and her profession. Hers is a literary work, from someone involved who can still stand back and think.
So, get the finger out and JFDI. Read it.

22 May 2011

Commemorating the Mistress

Who hath now owned, with rapture smitten frame,
The power of grace, the magic of a name?
(Thomas Campbell)

I’ve always rather hankered after a Rolls-Royce. Not because I want to be seen as flash, or as having loadsamoney, but because I appreciate the engineering that goes into them. More specifically, the engineering that went into the 1930s models, for they are the epitome of functional elegance to me.
Of course, this will remain a pipe dream. I dream of sitting in the driver’s seat — I don’t want a chauffeur — looking down that long, phallic bonnet, and seeing the mascot on the top of the radiator. And yes, I do know who she was.
I was reminded by a story in today’s Observer: to celebrate the centenary of the Spirit of Ecstasy — the ‘Flying Lady’ to the masses, Martin Love went to Beaulieu’s motor museum, and had a ride in an Alpine Eagle — a version of the Ghost produced before the first World War.
The story behind the mascot — and the model for the mascot — appeared a few years ago. She was Eleanor Thornton, an assistant on the Car Illustrated magazine. She’d already been sculptured for the editor, who later became friendly with CS Rolls and FH Royce of the eponymous firm. The editor suggested a regular mascot for the car, Rolls and Royce agreed, and Ms Thornton was the model for the Spirit of Ecstasy sculpted by Charles Sykes; Ms Thornton has adorned the radiator of the car ever since.
Ms Thornton was the editor’s mistress — he was the second Lord Beaulieu. So, drivers of the Rolls-Royce even today commemorate the Earl’s passion; I wonder just how many know what the mascot really represents.

18 April 2011

Three Books

I’ve been reading a few novels recently. Some of them are Tesco’s 2 for £8 and I didn’t know what I was letting myself into. There are limited opportunities here for book browsing here; there is an Evangelical Book Shop that I’ve never been in, and another sort of bookshop above the white goods store. Anything else is a the best part of an hour away.
I’m not going to tell you the name of this book because it’s so awful. I only read it for something to do. But when a couple of characters agree to meet at “half two” and on the next page, having met and having played badminton for an hour and a half, you find them resting at 3pm you might get the message. I didn’t really follow the plot, such as it was, though the actors seemed pretty interchangeable. Which was just as well, as Adam suddenly turned into Luke mid-way in a conversation with a girlfriend (or was it the other way round) though Adam reappeared just as suddenly as he had disappeared. Not that it mattered, as the girlfriends seemed pretty interchangeable as well.
In another book, there was a reference to a Swiss 10 Franc piece. The largest denominated Swiss coin is Fr 5. It would only take a few moments to check this on the web, so why wasn’t it? Laziness?
A Twitter friend recommended Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, and I second that recommendation. She had ‘read’ it as an audio book. In the printed version, there is a facsimile of a typewritten letter at the beginning. The letter is dated in 1947, and printed in Pico. There are a couple of words in inverted commas. But not only didn’t they have carbon ribbons then, typewriters didn’t have smart quotes either. The setting is the Arctic, Spitsbergen, in winter. The narrator’s diary describes warming the valves of the Austin, to get the engine to start. Alas, removing the valves of an engine involves taking it to bits — I’ve been there, it really does. It was the custom, though, when motors were recalcitrant, to take the sparking plugs out and to warm them in the oven. Much easier. This isn’t the sort of thing that modern authors would know — I suppose here that the author has mis-remembered something historical that she had read.
Believe me, I don’t go looking for discrepancies in books, but there are times when they jump out from the page and kick me in the cajones. I don’t go checking on the moon phases, as in Dark Matter, nor do I check the details of something I know next to nothing about; but somehow when I recognise these trivial errors, the spell is broken for me. I like to be engaged with the novel, as a participant, an observer, to identify with the hero. But when something jars, the spell is broken.
I just want to enter the fantasy world of the author, nothing more than this.

First past the Perfidy

So, we are to have a referendum on 5 May to see what we think about a change in the voting system: should we retain ‘first past the post’, or move to the ‘alternative vote’ (AV), a rather feeble form of proportional representation for elections to the UK parliament at Westminster.
First past the post is a ‘winner takes all’ form of voting, long in use in the UK. But not everywhere in the UK. The rotten boroughs and university seats have gone, as have the property qualifications, so there is an approximation to ‘one man, one vote’. First past the post has a long traditional history.
Strange then, that when Ireland was partitioned, with the south becoming independent, and the north remaining part of the UK, that the voting system for both parts was the single transferrable vote (STV) system of proportional representation.
In the south, the Irish Free State, the Republic of Ireland, the STV system has been maintained.
In the north, STV was used in the first two elections to the Parliament of Northern Ireland (familiarly known as Stormont). This was changed to first past the post thereafter because of Unionists’ fears that their majority would be eroded. First past the post remained the system until Stormont was dissolved in the early 1970s.
Yet, for the new Assembly the system chosen was STV. If there has to be a by-election, the system is de facto AV.
And for elections to the European Parliament the system has always been STV — N Ireland is a single multi-member constituency.
So if STV was and is good enough for Ireland — and it was an English parliament that decided this, why is there this reactionary desire to retain first past the post for the UK elections? If STV was good enough for the colonies, why isn’t it good enough for the ‘mother country’?
And, not for the first time, you don’t wonder why Albion got the monicker ‘perfidious’.


Not DHL the carriers, but DH Lawrence. There was a mini-series of adaptions of The Rainbow and Women in Love on television recently. I’d never read either book, so thought I should. I found them hard going, turgid in places, lots of philosophical stuff obscuring the plot. The TV version took several episodes from the books — not necessarily in chronological order — and created a story around them. Given the philosophising, it’s probably the best approach.
And then I though I should re-read Lady Chatterly. I’m pretty sure I read it years ago, but I didn’t remember anything about the plot — apart from the obvious — it was like coming to it for the first time. At least, it’s easier to read than the others.
I was mildly surprised that in the first two books Lawrence uses ‘connexion’  and in Lady C he used ‘connection’. Both are acceptable spellings. My edition of Lady C has a few typos, but I was puzzled to read of the ‘odour of sewerage’ in Venice. I can imagine that the canals are indeed a bit smelly, and I can imagine the source; but I don’t think it’s the pipes that smell.
I then discovered that I was reading the third version of Lady C, so I’ve now got to read the second. Almost seems like sadism.

22 March 2011

Saving money the NHS way

I’ve been on the anti-cholesterol pills for yonks now, though it was only last summer that a combination finally brought the levels to where they ought to be. Not unconnected is that the goalposts change every year or so, getting ever narrower, so that it’s now much harder to actually score. And it doesn’t help that I’m allergic to the most potent statin.
Nonetheless, the combination of a statin and some other stuff whose name I can’t either pronounce or spell seems to have done the trick. So a couple of weeks ago, I rang the surgery for a repeat prescription, only to be told that the stuff with the name I can’t pronounce wasn’t going to be prescribed to me any more. It seems that the Stasi HQ has decreed that it ain’t cost effective, or possible even effective. And, as for the others, I could only have two months supply instead of three, and next time I wanted a repeat, I would only get one month’s supply.
This didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but then having worked in the NHS for decades, I was quite at home with things not making sense.
So, I spoke to the top anti-cholesterol doctor; he said that there was no other combination that would be effective for me, and quoted the results from a study to me. Not that I would have understood much of it, but it was ammo for the meeting with the GP.
I understand the problems with primary prevention — taking pills to treat a problem when there have been no complications of the problem, such as heart attack or stroke. I haven’t had any of these, though blog readers might think otherwise.
There wasn’t any problem convincing the GP to return me to the drug with the unpronounceable name, nor any problem with having three months worths supply — and if the tests are still OK, I can have a year’s supply (as 4 x 3 months scripts).
But, he couldn’t arrange the blood tests for a month or so from today; the computer won’t allow this, yet the pills take several weeks to stabilise the cholesterol. So, I’ll have to ring up in a few weeks, and fight with the receptionist.
And, he told me, that Stasi HQ had decreed that some other pills were not to be prescribed generically; a supplier had been found whose pills were 10p cheaper, and patients were to be transferred to this.
Which might seem fine, except that the GP was rung up soon afterwards by a pharmacist who said that the supplier of these wonder cheapo pills had gone bust, and the pills couldn’t be given out. Back to square one.
How much money have we saved the NHS today?

10 March 2011

PC or Mac?

Umberto Eco compared a Mac to being Catholic and a PC to being Protestant years ago. Briefly, being Catholic meant that it was all done for you, at least on Earth, you just had to follow the rules; whereas a Protestant was a free-thinker, and had to work it out for himself.
An ingenious argument, and one with more than the proverbial in it. Anyone who struggled with DOS, or even Windows 3.11 knows just how difficult it could be to get things working properly, and how often we had to refer to a thick manual (usually called a handbook) to work out what to do, or how to work around the problem.
A small confession: the first computer I used was an Acorn, twenty years or so ago. It had a simple, graphical interface, and a three button mouse. Yes, three buttons; the middle one was for ‘menu’. Acorns had a stable operating system, but used proprietary hardware and software which was more expensive than DOS stuff. I had to get a Windows laptop to be able to use email and chat with the Open University around 1996 — the Acorn didn’t support their software, or if they did, it was only through some sort of ‘emulation’. I then used PCs exclusively, and once I got onto Windows XP most of the problems were sorted. I have found Windows 7 and the latest versions of Word to be regressive; they may look simple, but in use I find them over-complicated.
They used to say that your choice of computer depended on what software you wanted to use. We wanted software for the kids, and the Acorn was by far the best choice at the time. Things change, and now the kids are divided between PCs and Macs.
A little while ago I thought I should try to be more serious about writing. I’d dabbled a bit over the years, but never produced anything very worthwhile. I did get a few scientific papers published, but I don’t count this as writing. A little research showed that Scrivener was the most favoured writing program. Or, perhaps, the most favoured drafting program — you still need something like Word or Nisus or Pages for the final editing tweaks. But, when I was looking, it was only available for the Mac. (It’s on Beta for PC now, though in the earlier generation.)
So I ended up buying a MacBookPro, the fancy carved-out-of-a-block-of-aluminium one. Same functionality as the carved-out-of-a-block-of-plastic MacBook, but the Pro has a SD card reader and a Firewire connection.
Well, if I thought that Macs were easy, I was mistaken. It took me a while to work out where things were; the keyboard differs from a PC laptop or netbook, and I couldn’t, for example, find where the # was. I had to get a book about changing from the PC to the Mac to help me out.
I’ve a largish photographic archive, around 40k images. I could set up Lightroom, my primary photographic program on the PC, on the Mac both in ‘native’ form and also in Windows under Parallels. But I’ve never found how to use it properly; Lightroom will say that the images (on an external hard disk) are on a network drive, or it will say it can’t write the file format (for the catalog). So that hasn’t been a success.
Scrivener is easy enough to use, at least the way I use it — like most programs, I probably only use about 10% of its capabilities, but it works for me. I find it very easy to drag web links, and links from programs such as MindManager, into it, so I can easily find them again.
Am I undergoing a religious conversion? I think of the Mac/PC divide more as being for the right and left brained. Left brainers — analytical, logical, independent loners and yes nerds and anoraks (and I guess empirical) — would be at home on the PC. Perhaps more at home in the previous versions of Windows, because modern versions actually seem to work more or less as they are supposed to do. Right brainers — creative, artistic, disorganised, needing support and hand-holding — would be at home with the Mac. It just does what it says on the tin, you don’t have to understand anything, and pretty well everything works the same way. 

07 March 2011

Fictional index

Truman Capote introduced the term of the ‘non-fiction novel’ with his book In Cold Blood. In truth, the genre of ‘faction’ had been around for a long time beforehand.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale is a non-fiction novel. The author has researched the details of a Victorian murder — the written documents such as police records which are preserved in the Public Records Office at Kew. She has created a fictional reconstruction of the events around the ‘Road Murder’, and related this to contemporary events, both in real life and in fiction. She discusses the influences between the real detective, Mr Whicher, and the detectives in contemporaneous fiction, such as Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone.
What is unusual about Mr Whicher, however, is the extensive list of references at the back; and there is a select bibliography and an index. Since when did a novel have an index? 
It was Martin Amis, I think, who said that Umberto Eco’s vast and dense novel Foucault’s Pendulum needed an index, and he did have a point. There is so much information in it that finding anything is next to impossible — and I’ve no idea how much is real and how much is invention (if any). Of course, you could say that Eco’s novels are more than works of fiction; he uses them to illuminate his semiotics and philosophy. The novel, again, as teaching resource?
Back to Mr Whicher; how many readers need the references, how many are going to check up, how many are going to go to Kew? The book is a novelisation, not a textbook or even a thesis — or is it? References are common in non-fiction books, and the lack of them and an index in them is adversely commented on.
But an index in a novel?

Readers' Guides

I heard The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott as a Book at Bedtime (or was it The Late Book?) on BBC Radio 4. I later discovered that books broadcast in this way are reduced to 25% of the original — the books are (almost) rewritten for radio, and there are writers who specialise in this. So I thought I should read the whole. The ‘summary’ for want of a better description was well done, and I didn’t think I’d been cheated out of any of the main events.
I was disturbed though, when I’d finished the book, to find a section called ‘Reading Group Notes’ as an appendix. This includes a résumé of the story, and a list of topics ‘For Discussion’. There is also ‘Suggested Further Reading’ which, curiously, is printed twice.
I’m not so sure that I want a list of topics to be discussed at the end of a novel; I read novels for enjoyment, and I don’t expect to be tested on my understanding when I’ve finished. Perhaps it would help my greater appreciation if I did undertake these exercises, though as there are no ‘specimen’ answers, I don’t know how much benefit I’d get from it. The author’s positions include a Professorship in Creative Writing, and I was strongly tempted to think that the novel was an exercise, taking topics and constructing the fiction around them. And perhaps another reason for its creation was as use as a textbook. Maybe I’m just too cynical.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, doesn’t have tests at the back, but there is an interview with the author, and her commentary on Thomas Cromwell (the hero of the book), and a list of key dates. Wolf Hall is set in the England of Henry VIII. Although I went to school in N Ireland, the history we learnt was English history. And it began, out of nowhere, in 1485 and ended equally abruptly in 1714. Mostly, it was a long series of dates which we had to memorise. There was little effort put into the ‘why’ of history; and looking back, the version we were taught was heavily expurgated. We didn’t learn about Henry’s marital problems, his over-riding need for a male heir, and absolutely nothing about his ‘natural’ son. So, although it’s a novel, Wolf Hall put a lot of what I remembered into context, and explained what was really going on. If only I’d known then.
I’ve always liked Sherlock Holmes, even if many of the stories are nothing more than pot-boilers. They are littered with careless mistakes in chronology, in Watson’s first name, and the number of his wives. A large industry has grown up around Sherlock, with rivals, films and television series. As long as you don’t look too closely, these are enjoyable.
Irene Adler, the woman, appears in A Scandal in Bohemia, not one of the better stories, but the one in which Sherlock is defeated by the woman. And now there is a series of Irene novels, the first (Good Night, Mr Holmes) based on Irene’s side of Scandal. It’s amusing, even though it doesn’t quite recreate Victorian London in the way that the Literary Agent does.
But, at the end of the book there is a Reader’s Guide, and this includes a list of topics ‘For Discussion’, not just of the book, but of the other novels in the series. There are no answers. There is also the inevitable interview with the author (Carole Nelson Douglas).
I think my problem with books that have ’For Discussion’ is that they remind me of school textbooks. I’d like to think I’m beyond that now, I don’t read because I have to, I read for enjoyment. I don’t have to memorise large chunks, in case it’s asked about in the examinations. And I can often distinguish the themes from the story — of course, we weren’t taught about themes at school, well at least when we studied Eng Lit. I’ve a lot of ground to make up, but asking me questions isn’t the way to do it.
So why do authors and their publishers include ‘For Discussion’ at the end of novels? Is it a marketing exercise, to draw readers in, or something that ‘adds value’? And why, if this is necessary, can’t they simply refer to a web site about the novel? If I’m to be tested (and given specimen answers), why can’t this be done externally? There’s a big difference between reading for pleasure and enjoyment and reading a ‘set’ text on which one is going to be examined. So why not separate these two? By all means have a discussion on a web site — setting one up is so easy these days — with interaction from fellow readers, rather than leaving me to flounder alone.
I want to read a novel for enjoyment, for fantasy. I don’t want to have to dissect it immediately afterwards.

03 March 2011

Mirror images

I read a blog the other day; it had a video at the end, used to illustrate some points in the text.  But, I thought it looked somehow odd. I looked more carefully — it had been reversed; it was a mirror image video, though the sub-titles were normal. There was no obvious reason for this, except perhaps to try to maintain a fiction that it was an American rather than a British video — there was a short scene with a car that made this clear.
It’s not that uncommon to find mirror-image pictures in magazines or newspapers. Usually, this is done so that the profile of the author or person being commented on ‘looks into’ the story, as if he/she was showing their interest and possibly their approval. And sometimes, when the sub-editors want to put distance between the piece and the photograph, the profile will look away, often looking beyond the limits of the magazine. Quite literally, they are looking out.
These are mostly subconscious impressions, designed to make and reinforce a point in the article. Or just possibly, a mistake. In the days of the wet photographic darkroom, it was easy enough to put the film into the enlarger the wrong way round — instead of ‘emulsion to emulsion’ and if it was a picture of someone you didn’t know, you wouldn’t necessarily recognise the error. Today, this isn’t possible in digital processing, unless you make a conscious choice to ‘flip’ the image.
It’s curious too, that we aren’t expected to see the deception. Many people think that their left and right profiles are similar, but they aren’t. Take a full face on portrait, divide it vertically down the middle, and separate the two halves. Now take the right half, copy it and ‘flip’ it, and then join up the two seamlessly. Do the same for the left side. You now have three pictures, yet all three will show different people. It’s surprising just how asymmetrical peoples’ faces really are. And of course, there are the changes in hairstyle and parting which can give the game away. And buttonholes on suits, and how the suit actually buttons up.
It used to be common in car manufacturers’ advertising material, with ‘continental’ models being passed off as British. There was generally a note in tiny print to the effect that some fittings were not available in the UK. This deceit seems to have stopped, there is no pretence at pretence now — but this mirror imaging has been replaced by crude Photoshopping to blur the wheels to give an impression of speed.
Mirror images don’t fool some of us any of the time. Just stop doing it.

21 February 2011

The Pale Elephant

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death

I’ve been reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s set in Germany during the second world war, and is narrated by Death. There’s quite a lot about the power of words, and about Jews. My memory needed refreshing, and I turned to Pox by Deborah Hayden, as one does.
This is about what we might call today a pale elephant in the room, the sometimes recognised and often overlooked or painted-out pale intruder into the lives of the famous. An american elephant, certainly over-sexed and over here.
She makes a good case for Hitler being so afflicted, and indicates a possible origin from a Jewess in his youth. There is even a chapter about the elephant in Mein Kampf, not that I’ve read it. This hypothesis would certainly go far to explain the Holocaust as the product of a deranged mind — there are references to forced marches in The Book Thief. Hitler having a dermatologist as his personal physician is otherwise a curious choice, given that german dermatologists were experts in the diagnosis of skin rashes, and used this knowledge in the treatment of the ‘specific’ disease in which they also specialised.
The name of the pale elephant? It is Treponema pallidum, the pale spirochete. It gives you the Great Pox. While there was once the idea that those of an artistic temperament whose exposure to it was an essential part of their personal development would benefit from creativity in middle age, this happy idea is known now to be wrong.
It’s syphilis.

19 February 2011

Economical with the vérité

The Chief Executive of Barclay’s Bank, Mr Bob Diamond was recently up before the House of Commons Treasury select committee. He told the committee that the Bank had paid £2 billion in taxes in 2009. He is also reported as saying that the time of “remorse and apology” was over.
It now transpires that almost all of this was income tax and national insurance. The Bank collects this on behalf of the taxman, and passes it on. It is not the Bank’s money, it is their employees’ money. It is hardly credible that the Bank actually pays, from its own resources, the tax due by their employees, though it would be a mighty perk if they did.
For 2009, Barclay’s Bank paid £113 million in corporation tax on its profits.
Mr Diamond’s statement is a nice example of being “economical with the vérité”. Or, when MPs do it, dissembling.

18 February 2011

Two Museums

I read Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence recently. Set in Istanbul, it describes the effects of the new west on the old eastern values — a very short description of a very long book.  The book has been very well translated from turkish — so much so that it doesn’t read like a translation. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the english translation is the basis for translations into other languages, and is given special attention. I did find the description of Greeks in Istanbul immigrating to Greece rather odd; I though the country you were in was from where you emigrated, and people coming to your country were immigrating. But never mind.
The Museum is both metaphorical and real, for Wikipedia also told me that Pamuk is actually constructing a Museum of Innocence at the location described in the book, and illustrated on a map. It’s to be about everyday artefacts, apparently, and has UNESCO backing. There’s an entry ticket printed in the book, if you want to go there when it’s finished (probably in 2012).
Anyway, this Museum of Innocence reminded me of another museum, our Museum of Childhood. In norn iron, I live alone most of the time in a large family house with its bedrooms, generous living areas, and even a cellar. Now that the family has all left, all that remains are their artefacts, treasures and the non-assorted junk that they didn’t want to take with them. Their old books fill three Billy bookcases on an upstairs landing, there is the old rocking horse, and wardrobes with clothes that they will never wear again.
I’ve asked the kids what is to be done with this museum; do we sell up, or keep it. Mostly, they think we should hang on to the house — I don’t know whether they still think of it as home — with some vague idea that one or more of them would, one day, want to live there. 
So, for the moment, I’m condemned to my own museum, trapped by duty, responsibility. Sometimes, it feels more like a prison.

16 February 2011

Why Marriage?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Though Jane was looking sideways at the mores of the Regency, the quotation is unusually prescient. Ask why the man has a fortune and why he wants a wife. (Yes, I’m only thinking of heteronormative values here, biased towards the UK.)
The idea of ‘fortune’ goes back to the start of settled agriculture in the fertile crescent, to the area around Babylon. Before this, people lived in groups, moving from place to place as a small community, sharing food and partners, and parents. If you don’t have a fortune, in a wandering community, you don’t need what we would think of as a legitimate heir, and you don’t need marriage. Nor do you necessarily need monogamy: group responsibility for the rearing of children (and even their origination) seems to have been ubiquitous. The development of early forms of wheat meant that you had to stay in the same place permanently, to tend the crop. Settlement meant land, fields, farmers and specialisation, merchants and craftsmen from any of which occupations the man (and it was generally the man) obtained his ‘fortune’. And having made this fortune, he didn’t want it to disappear on his death; he needed not only an heir, but a legitimate (male) heir, one against whom there could be no argument. He needed a form of legality for this, to recognise his marriage, his heir and his will or testament. If you think I'm too male-centric, the wife got a provider for the children whom the husband wanted to think were his.
As an aside, think of King Henry VIII and his need for a legitimate male heir; his first two wives did not perform their ‘duty’. Henry needed an heir — or even, in today’s argot, ‘an heir and a spare’. Henry, unaware that the Wars of the Roses had ended, went to great lengths to get his heir: one annulment, one execution and a break with the Church of Rome. (Henry did have a natural male child, the Duke of Richmond, at this time; ‘natural’ is a curious description for a bastard.) The idea of a Queen regnant was an anathema then; how could a mere, semi-schooled female be expected to wield power, to play secular and religious powers off against one another? Semi-schooled, because a woman was expected to be an adornment, to provide the heirs, to know her place; so why waste time and expense on an education for her?
It’s reasonable to assume that the development of law and religion were coeval and inter-dependent. Marriage in the western world draws on ancient greek and roman roots, as modified by christianity — a syncretism. The Christian form of marriage includes obligations and prohibitions; and significant sexual modifiers. Not all of these have been relaxed: the Roman Catholic Church still officially regards sexual intercourse as being only for procreation or reproduction. The idea of sex for recreation or relationship building and maintaining doesn’t exist in the Church’s view. (The ‘primitive’ concept that lots of different sperm add goodness to fertilisation doesn’t exist either.) You could argue therefore that, following the menopause, women should not have intercourse.
Beside the need for an heir, there are other reasons for marriage; romantic love, pregnancy, a large dowry, to gain the right of residence for the partner and to gain allegiances, for example. The right of residence reason is fairly recent, and there have been cases before the Courts concerning this. A chum of my daughter’s is getting married shortly for this precise reason. There might be other reasons, of course.
The fairly recent stigma of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy has all but disappeared today. It’s not all that long ago that it was only when the woman was pregnant that the marriage could be officially confirmed; and if she wasn’t pregnant after a year, it was as if the ‘marriage’ had not happened.
I’m going to ignore dowries and military allegiances, and concentrate on ‘romantic love’. The rituals of romantic love are often called ‘courtship’, the word deriving, like courteous and many others, from ‘Court’, the Court of the sovereign, and the behaviour expected there. There are echos of ‘the chase’ as well, it being accepted that the man had to chase the woman, who had to put up some form of resistance; the woman on a pedestal, as a Madonna. Yet it also seems that the woman was just as likely to be a ‘whore’ with normal carnal desires, or lust. At a given stage in the relationship, be it the first kiss or an ‘engagement’ the woman signalled her readiness for sexual intercourse. Fornication was unremarkable, healthy, though adultery — or as the lawyers would have said then ‘criminal conversation’ — could be perilous.
The dead hand of reformed religion didn’t like fornication any more that the Church of Rome did; Rabbie Burns was harangued from the pulpit, for instance, and an expressed view that marriage was for sex, and sex was for marriage developed. Expressed as in the sense of do as I say, not what I do. This paradigm existed up to the mid twentieth-century, almost unchallenged. Of course, there was still plenty of fornication and adultery, but while this was pretty common knowledge, it wasn’t proper to speak it out loud, a culture of silence and hypocrisy. This was combined with a (deliberate?) lack of education and information, other than to promote the fear of syphilis.
It’s really a cliché now to talk of the ‘pill’ and the sexual revolution, and the emergence of female carnal desire. Lust was always there, even if people didn’t like the word, but it had been mercilessly repressed; so many just didn’t know they had it — it may have needed an ‘awakening’.
Marriage is an artificial construct — something made by the hand of man. In the set of marriage today in the western world there are concepts of ‘soulmate’ and ‘commitment’ and ‘monogamy’. The idea of monogamy, or in it’s most recent revival as ‘serial monogamy’ is, in evolutionary terms, quite nebulous. Humans are not programmed for monogamy, serial or otherwise. It’s the social norms and expectations that keep it so. The commitment is towards financial stability and the rearing of children. Soulmates are partners with whom we can easily relate, communicate. If it’s lust (Eros) that initially attracts people, this tends to fade after a couple of years; enter, if you are lucky, Philia and Agape, roughly friendship, benevolence, selflessness to restore it.
Marriage is still popular, though the divorce rates suggest that many ‘fail’; perhaps because it’s much easier to divorce now than it once was — honesty over the pretence and hypocrisy that once prevailed. Marriages fail, people change and leave, rather than remaining in a false, sterile limbo.
I wonder, what is there going for marriage today?

13 February 2011


There was a lot of clucking recently about some off the cuff and off-camera remarks recently. Clearly, sexism lives on, perhaps it’s not universal, but in some places, some organisations, it almost seems to be the norm.
I’d hazard a guess that the organisations and cultures where this happens are those traditionally seen as ‘male-only’, for I’m thinking of sexism as male abuse directed towards women. Women are thus fairly recent entrants to these organisations.
I’ve mentioned the rise of the professional woman previously; the days of the woman as a housewife-type appendage are largely over now. Many couples these days need two incomes to live at a more than subsistence level, to pay the mortgage.
Many if not most of our social and emotional constructs seem to be imbedded by early childhood influences, nurture wins over nature in the home. Even at primary school it can be difficult to avoid stereotypes, unless you are very careful. If the primary school kids are being nurses and doctors, it’s all to easy to make the boys doctors, and the girls nurses. I’ve seen it done, not so long ago. Or, if teacher needs a table or two moving, she shouldn’t ask for ‘a strong boy’ to assist her. I say her deliberately, for I understand that only women may teach the most junior classes.
There are still single sex schools. Girls do better academically at all-girls schools. However, they do have a civilising effect on boys in mixed schools, and I feel that this socialisation is one trade-off that is well worth while for both sexes. I was surprised to discover that English studies at universities began as a sop to women; they were designed to be suitable for women with their supposedly inferior, feeble  brains. Now, I’m not getting into a froth about which subjects ‘suit’ girls or boys better, I’m just going to ignore it. There are too many other variables to make this anyway easy.
Sexism can be seen at work, after work, almost anywhere. I see it as a power problem; women in the traditional male role. It’s as if men have an inbuilt inferiority complex about this — some women are clearly ‘better’ than men at times in some roles. It’s almost like the men feel that they are being emasculated, castrated. There may well be some women who feel and act towards men like this; but again it may be a reflection of the culture in which they have been brought up, or in which they find themselves.
If we agree that sexism is ‘a bad thing’ how then do we eradicate it? For those with fixed ideas, it may well be very difficult, if not impossible. Training may help, but this may be only a temporary change, unless reinforced.
Otherwise, it’s a societal change, a paradigm change, and for this we have to wait until the dinosaurs are extinct. Care in the home — be careful with the colours you choose, and remember that boys wear pink in France, where girls wear blue. Awareness in schools — mixed schools, secular schools. And patience.

Birth Certificates and Lyme Regis

I was reading a novel a couple of days ago, when the thought struck me: can you get names on a birth certificate changed? Now, I’m not going to tell you the name of the book, for the reason for the name change is part of the denouement. Mind you, it’s pretty clear from an early stage what’s going to happen, though the exact series of events is harder to predict. And there’s nothing in the book about birth certificates, it’s just something that has to happen off-stage.
A small amount of research showed that a name change is possible. For an adopted child, the natural parents can be replaced by the names of the adopters. I suppose I should have known this, given that it is now possible for adopted children to seek their natural parents when they are eighteen — which must imply that their birth certificate was changed at some stage.
If this wasn’t possible, the whole story in the novel would collapse.
And, not entirely unrelated, what is it with The Cobb at Lyme Regis that causes so many authors to cause their characters to have disasters there? I know now of three.

31 January 2011

Glass Ceilings

It sounded as if she had come up against a glass ceiling, and when I asked, she thought so too. It was only a couple of tweets. Not that I know who she is, for many of us on Twitter hide under the carapace of anonymity, though she’s a something in the City, and writes a blog. Wonderfully expressive term, ‘glass ceiling, conveys’ the idea exactly.
I was going to say that I’ve never come up against a glass ceiling, but in a way I have. Not the sexist ceiling that seems to be a normal part of the world of the ‘masters of the universe’.  My ceiling came after an enforced change of employer, when I suggested that I could ease off on the surgery and do some management. I’d worked there previously, and even then the organisation had a very strange culture, and it didn’t seem to have changed over the years. Think Stalin and gulags. I’d been having a lot of work-related neck problems — it’s almost an occupational disease — and I also had an MBA. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was there to do what the management wanted, and if I didn’t like it, well, I could leave. In reality, I was over-qualified, a threat.
There was always a fair bit of banter around at work, mostly craic, but anyone who stepped over an invisible line and made an overtly sexist comment would find himself — it was usually a him — up before some Inhuman Resources manager for a bollocking. And there was always the threat of referral to the professional body. I don’t remember anyone going round boasting of who they’d slept with, though there were always stories along the lines of ‘if you want to get the best out of the theatre sister, you have to fuck her’ and ‘there’s only room for one bull here’. 
Anyhow, all this is a world away from bankers and finance.  The reports of tribunals and litigation in the papers describe blatant sexism at work, not so much tolerated as encouraged, ‘conspicuous consumption’ of alcohol, drugs and clubbing, and the expectation that girls will accept and join in. Perhaps some of this is the quality papers trawling for ‘sleaze’.
Now I haven’t done any real, empirical research here — other than a brief look at Wikipedia, which didn’t enlighten me much. The concept of a glass ceiling has been around for quite a while, an invisible barrier to career progress. And those trapped underneath it are recognised as coming from minorities; and the largest minority is women. And these minorities think that they have been unfairly overlooked for promotion, discriminated against. And again, the minority is women.
I say ‘minority’ but this isn’t really correct; after all, there are roughly as many girls as there are boys. Moreover, it’s a throwback to the days when women didn’t have equal opportunities, or indeed many opportunities. Teaching or nursing were popular options. Or copy-typing — remember that? And then marriage, and — believe it or not — marriage often meant the end of the ‘career’. Married women were expected to give up their jobs; and if they didn’t go voluntarily, they were pushed. Really. 
Those were the days when women were the property of their father, or on marriage, the property of their husbands; legally, they hardly existed. Cultural relics from the Victorians and before. The days when the boys went into the four professions — law, medicine, the armed services: holy orders were gradually replaced by mammon, banking.
Things did gradually change from the early 1900s, and more so from the 1960s. Of course, women had worked in men’s jobs before that, but almost as a curiosity, or where there were no men to do the work, as during the wars. But in the 1960s the ‘pill’ dislocated the connection between sex and reproduction, and marriage and reproduction, and gave women control. And freedom.
And, in parallel and perhaps as a consequence, there was a new, questioning ethos; just why can’t I do that? To which there was no answer. Why not, indeed? So they did, and became self-aware, assertive.
With women entering a male-dominated workplace, equally qualified as men, might you have expected that they would have had equal opportunities? Perhaps, but it took legislation, not just for women, but also for religion and anything that marked people as ‘different’ to establish these equal opportunities. Alas, legislation doesn’t make change happen, but did expose the differences between the ’espoused’ and ‘expressed’ cultures of organisations.
Different from what? Different from the standard, accepted, received paradigm of the day, one that was (entirely) male-centred. The culture of ‘male supremacy’ was too widespread, too ingrained, too accepted as the natural way of things. The playing fields weren’t level to begin with. Sexism and the glass ceiling through which women can’t break existed together, symbiotically.
Perhaps they are an extreme case, but why do bankers and financiers behave like this? Well, women are often academically and emotionally better at many things than men, excepting perhaps theoretical physics,logic and map reading. But you don’t need these skills as a banker or financier. What you do need is the continuing ability to influence others, to get them to buy whatever bonds (junk or otherwise), securities, collateralised debt obligations, or any of the acronymically disguised wares that you don’t really understand that you have on offer. And to get them to be the buyer you need bluff, flattery, disguised perhaps, some ability at golf, a strong liver, and sex. After all, ‘sex sells’. Not that you bribe them with whores or lap dancers, though you might, rather it is the thought, the journey rather than the destination which is important. There’s almost certainly an element of the herd instinct, of the lowest common denominator and ‘group think’, where it’s important to be seen as ‘one of the boys’. A strange culture, but that’s what I read.
As a line manager to keep your team of youngish men up to speed, you need to keep their testosterone up. One of the better ways is to have a ‘bit of skirt’ around the office. But this girl can’t be seen to be better than any man, for such men have an inbuilt, congenital level of insecurity, and need their egos polished frequently. So the ‘skirt’ is there to keep the chaps going, almost as an agent provocateur, but she can’t be seen to be too successful. She will be expected to be ‘one of the boys’ in the bars and night clubs, but must not — dare not — be a real competitor. And if she actually does some useful work, well, that’s a bonus.
Sexism is a form of bullying, defined by how the recipient feels, not by what the bully felt. If you think you’ve been bullied, then you have been. And yes, in my example I was sure I’d been bullied.
There are some successful female financiers, bankers, investment managers though; they are generally described as ‘superwoman’, juggling career, children, whatever. But calling them ‘superwoman’ only confirms that they are the exception, the ones who got away. The unsuperwomen — dare I say this? — are still on the trading floor, or at their desks, doing their job, stimulating the boys and wondering, perhaps, whether it’s really worth the money, whether they should escape.

29 January 2011

*The* Woman

The modernised series of Sherlock on BBC television is impressive; plots based on the originals, but adapted, updated. A Sherlock for today. You do need to know the stories to get all the references, the details, the asides. The interplay between Holmes and Watson is really well done, just enough tension, enough suggestion, enough said and not said. Blogs and mobiles. Sherlock isn't perfect, unlike Dr Thorndyke, occasionally making not quite the right deduction; Mycroft is clearly better at this. And Sherlock is a sociopath, and needs a complement.

And Sarah is delightful — just why did I never meet girls like her when I did locums? — but there is no mention of Mary Morston.
I’ve now looked at all three episodes on DVD, as well as the pilot and the ‘other features’. Yes, research can be hard.
But, there is a major omission. She has made no appearance, there has been no mention of her name. Why not? True, she did defeat Sherlock on one occasion, but he did get her photograph as a souvenir. Actually, that eejit, the King of Bohemia gave it to him. As a woman of mystery, intrigue, she could be an ideal foil. And she was so very, very clever. Yet she’s not there. Sherlock did like opera, and did go from time to time; she was an opera singer, a contralto. In Prague she was the prima donna. Originally in the National Theatre, though the Opera is a wonderful, gilded palace — yes, of course I’ve been to the opera there. But no appearances, no references, not even the hint of a suggestion. What are they thinking of?
And where is her photograph? It was one of Sherlock’s most treasured possessions, on display for all to see. What are screenwriters, the literary agents, the producers playing at? Can we expect her to appear in the next series? I don’t care so much about any consulting criminologist — Moriarty — but I do expect some reference to her.
And there’s more. I’ve been reading her side of the story, as narrated by Penelope (Nell) Huxleigh. Alas, this poor girl has been badly served by her American literary agent. Everyone knows that 221B is pronounced two-two-one-B, yet this Yankee keeps putting two-twenty-one-B into the mouths of the characters. No Englishman or woman would ever say it so. Oh dear. And a ‘pound note’? No! Only sovereigns! And never half-sovereigns! That’s far too mean.
Now, she may have been the ‘New Jersey Lily’, but there’s really no reason for this.
And, yes, she was always the woman. And always italicised.