Sunday, March 11, 2018

Nerve agents? No sweat. Get the baby wipes out.


There is something so bizarrely British about the health response to the assassination attempt in Salisbury on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. A week after the event, everyone who was in the vicinity of the deadly nerve agent has been urged to wash their personal possessions.

Now, let’s think this through.

This chemical was so toxic that it left two people fighting for their lives. A police officer involved in the early response was also hospitalised and made severely ill by it. The table in the restaurant visited by Sergei and Julia was reportedly so contaminated that it had to be destroyed.

But if you happened to be nearby – perhaps even dining in the same part of the restaurant sometime after the unfortunate victims departed – no need to worry.

Run a baby wipe over your phone.

A week later.

What about clothes? The Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies recommends washing them. In a washing machine preferably, she says. Err… as opposed to the old-fashioned handwash and mangle still favoured by the backward denizens of this sleepy cathedral town?

Dry clean only? No problem. Just stick a couple of layers of plastic around the clothes and await further instructions.

It’s astonishing to contrast the military personnel in biohazard suits wandering around Salisbury with the barmy and utterly useless advice being given to members of the general public. But it sums up the whole weird relationship of the NHS to pathogens, toxins and other deadly threats.

The British response is always not to worry.

A touch of Ebola? I remember my local surgery advising patients who thought they might have been affected while travelling overseas to inform the staff at reception and get them to call some helpline on their behalf. And try to avoid touching anything.

Remember Pauline Cafferkey, the British nurse who contracted the killer disease? When she had a relapse, she went to an out-of-hours clinic in Glasgow and was told to return home, as she probably just had some regular virus.

It’s hard to imagine that conversation, isn’t it? Someone arrives saying that she’s the nurse who caught Ebola recently and has been all over the news, but she’s told her current condition is probably nothing to worry about. A bit of bed rest and paracetamol and she’ll be fine in a day or two.

To some, this extraordinarily British approach to medical matters is perhaps one of the things that gives the UK its endearing charm. But I suspect it’s small comfort to restaurant-goers in Salisbury.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Pret and Brexit. It's all about attitude.

At one level, the woman on BBC Question Time who expressed concerns about who was going to make her post-Brexit coffee at Pret was rather silly. She should have realised that her comment was going to paint her as a pampered and affluent London Remoaner.

It’s an easy trap to fall into.

I remember being in the audience 25 years ago for one of those terrible daytime TV discussion shows – Kilroy or The Time The Place or similar – and we were discussing childcare. Some lady started prattling on about nannies and I had to remind her that this wasn’t actually most people’s experience of childcare arrangements.

So the message is clear: think before you open your mouth.

On the other hand, you can’t help feeling the Pret lady had a pretty valid point.

Virtually no one, as far as I can tell, who works in frontline hospitality in London comes from the UK. Many will be citizens of other EU countries and have the name badges with the flags to prove it. These are indeed the people who serve us coffees and sandwiches, wait at tables in restaurants and staff the reception desks in hotels.

So at an economic and practical level, she is right on the money. And that money is probably Euros rather than pounds sterling.

But the reaction to her comments also revealed something about the Brexit divide in the UK. It’s not just about class and age and location, although all those factors are important. It’s about attitude.

Remainers go to Pret to get their snacks and caffeine fix. Brexiters believe in packed lunches and Swiss Nescafé. And I would stress this is not necessarily because they are poorer. I mean even the wealthier, middle-class Brexiters would eschew a lot of the modern coffee shops and sandwich bars.

They would say they were too expensive and a waste of money, but they’d happily pay for membership of their local golf club or have a splurge at the DIY store at the weekend. They’d shell out hundreds a month so that they could have a better car than their neighbours.

Middle-class Brexiters have a different attitude to life. They have different priorities. If they had money, they wouldn’t spend it on exotic-sounding coffees in fashionable parts of London or care about the people who served them. They’d put the money away for that cruise they had their eye on.

Before the referendum, I remember having an argument with an older Leave supporter, who lives in an affluent middle-class London suburb. I told him that I had applied for an Irish passport to retain my right to live and work in Europe. His blank expression told me that he couldn’t understand why anyone would want such a right.

I reckon he doesn’t go to Pret.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Extra Texture

It's difficult to know what to make of this claim from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. He adds greater texture to his pasta so that it 'holds more sauce'. 

This begs a number of questions:

Does more sauce really cling to his enhanced pasta?

Is sauce being clingy really such a good thingy?

And if the sauce weren't 'held' by the pasta, what disaster would befall the diner? 

Surely they could just spoon it up from the plate or lick their bowl clean?









 

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Which way to the Athlete's Foot powder? Only answer if you can pass a psychometric test.

If you were a retail store, how fussy would you be about who worked as an assistant on the shop floor?

I reckon you're entitled to be choosy. After all, you probably have quite a few applicants. And these people are going to be ambassadors for your business and have direct contact with your customers.

So would you be interested in a personable young woman, who's just started in the Sixth Form and is looking for a Saturday job? Someone who got eight A*s at GCSE, is currently studying for A-Levels and is bright and ambitious? A person who has already gained shop experience on a voluntary basis with a charity and has direct experience of retail customer service?

Given that she'd be working for minimum wage, I'd say this was a pretty good deal, wouldn't you?

But when one of my daughters recently applied for a part-time role advertised at Boots, she couldn't even get an interview. Why? She was rejected on the basis of bizarre online tests.

The first set of questions were built around particular scenarios in store and how someone might react. The way my daughter describes them, the multiple-choice answers were often weird and pre-supposed some kind of knowledge of the protocols of the store. Whether you would leave a till, for instance, in order to help a customer find something they needed. Or whether you would call across the store to colleagues in other situations.

It seems to me that in the abstract, there are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers in situations such as this. It might depend on a variety of factors: the agreed policies of the shop; the number of people employed; the number of customers in the store at the time; and the proximity of the things shoppers are looking for.

And then there were a load of the psychometric-style questions beloved of HR people and headshrinks. You know the kind of thing. 'Which of these statements best describes you?'

Usually these tests result in some kind of blanket profile, such as 'resistant to change' or 'eager to please others'. Maybe there's something in this type of test if an applicant is about to embark on a graduate career at multinational bank or local council, but - forgive me - they are entirely irrelevant when your job is telling people they can get a free packet of crisps as part of a Meal Deal.

Apparently, my daughter cannot reapply to Boots within the next year. She tells me that she wouldn't bother anyway. More interestingly, she tells me that she might not shop there any more. Which I would argue is food for thought for the Marketing Department as well as Personnel.




Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tempted by tube chat? Here are my top tips to avoid getting sucked in.


The decision by Transport for London to encourage people to talk to each other on the tube has met with understandable derision from citizens of the Smoke.

The first rule of the UK capital - and the very glue that holds together its social fabric - is that no one makes conversation. Or eye contact preferably.

If you are feeling remotely tempted to wear one of the new badges that signals your willingness to engage in idle banter ('Baby, I'm Bored'), here are some suggestions to help suppress your urges. It's a process a Hampstead psychotherapist would call sublimation and it can come in very useful.

1.
Isn't there another level of Candy Crush you could aim for?

2.
If that's not your type of crush, go back and and re-read Rush Hour Crush in the Metro.

3.
See if you can find a mouse on the platform or tracks. Hold a conversation with them instead.

4.
Ostentatiously do your make-up - a process which can often last quite happily from Theydon Bois to Liverpool Street.

5.
Recite to yourself all the stops on the District Line between Turnham Green and Plaistow.

6.
Practise making general announcements to the carriage about the train being held in the station to regulate the service.

7.
Dial one of your Skype contacts at random using the subterranean wifi network and explain that no one in the carriage is interested in talking to you.

8.
Close your eyes and indulge in a little meditation. We'll wake you up at Morden.

9.
Take physical exercise by swinging on the straps and handrails in the carriage. People will ignore you and carry on playing Candy Crush.

10.
Pull the emergency cord and talk to the British Transport Police at the next stop.

If all else fails, get yourself as far North as possible. Talking there is perfectly acceptable. But I'm talking way beyond Colindale.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Saint Jeremy? We may have to wait a while yet.


Mother Teresa of Calcutta is in the news at the moment, as she’s been elevated by the Vatican to sainthood.

I admit that I’m not fully up to speed with the criteria for canonisation, so I’ve visited the Saints for Dummies web page to check whether Jeremy Corbyn also qualifies. (It’s written by a couple of priests, so it must be kosher.)

My mission has been prompted by the way in which some of Jez’s loyal supporters talk about him online.

Take this example, for instance, of someone writing to the bizarre Corbynista blog Vox Political and comparing the Islington North MP to the author J K Rowling. The Harry Potter author is noted as having the ‘Judas Trait’ about her, which stands in stark contrast to the Labour Leader. 

The correspondent notes that Mr Corbyn is a man ‘who did not let fame go to his head and instead, rather than paying lip service to human suffering, was actually willing to do something to alleviate it’.

It’s certainly a touching portrait of an individual prepared to go the extra mile. To me, it has a saintly quality about it, as God knows I wouldn’t be able to aspire to these standards.

But is it enough for actual, proper canonisation? That’s a whole other question and we’ll come back to it in just a bit.

First, I want travel to Ramsgate in Kent, a place where Jez has apparently just received a rapturous welcome.

Very confusing. 

Was it ram-packed, like traingate? Or was it... err... just Ramsgate?

Anyway, the rally was advertised under the visionary slogan, ‘Another Thanet is possible’. And as the veteran socialist has lived on another Thanet for the past 40 years, that seemed strangely appropriate.

Commenting on the event, one of Jez’s fans on Facebook described him as ‘inspirational’ and she also told us that the sun came out while he spoke.  I wasn’t sure whether there might be some causal connection between the two phenomena. If so, it’s the kind of thing that I reckon a Papal team of enquiry might take into account.

And what about musical tributes? My thinking is that before you become a saint, you’d have people singing your praises. Literally.

There’s plenty of evidence that people do feel strongly enough about Jeremy to burst into song. Some are worthy individual efforts.

In the spirit of communality and camaraderie engendered by Jez, however, the Unison branch of Barnet in north London has created a touching collective foot-tapper– presumably with the blessing of The Specials. 

But enough of my homespun speculation. I am no theologian, after all.

Rev John Tregilio Jr and Rev Kenneth Brighenti are the experts. And they tell us that the first thing to bear in mind, when considering whether someone is eligible for sainthood, is that they don’t have to be ‘sinless’. That’s impossible apparently.

Good news for Jez, as it means that all that stuff about the IRA and Hamas and Hezbollah and so on can be set to one side.

Corbyn is also on strong ground – judging by the testimony of his supporters – for another of the Reverend Fathers’ criteria: ‘evidence of having led an exemplary life of goodness and virtue worthy of imitation’.  Things are looking up.

Here’s an interesting one. You can be considered for sainthood if you have ‘undergone a major conversion of heart where a previous immoral life is abandoned and replaced by one of outstanding holiness’. 

Hmm.  Well, Jez did have a major change of heart on the EU.

He supported it 0 out of 10 in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. But he’d got up to 7 out of 10 during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Does that count?

Fundamentally, however, it seems to come down to miracles. You need a couple of them.

His victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest was obviously the first, which qualifies him for potential beatification.  He needs another though.  

If he performed the same trick twice, would that be seen as cheating?

Regrettably, we are confronted with what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle.

The miracles are judged post-mortem.

In other words, it’s simply not possible to be elevated to sainthood while you’re still alive and kicking. The fact that your political philosophy may have died in, say, 1986 doesn’t count. You have to physically brown bread yourself.

So those who hope for Saint Jeremy to be recognised may have to wait until long after his second term in office, which would finish in 2030. Then, at the age of 81, he’d possibly have another 15 years of blissful retirement on his allotment, while John McDonnell took over.

No calls to the Vatican until, say, 2045.



Thursday, August 25, 2016

The sit-down protest that doesn't stand up

Traingate is the kind of political flashpoint that has all the hallmarks of a peculiarly British farce.  

The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition camps out on the floor of a Virgin carriage making a propaganda film about nationalising the railways. He claims his predicament is due to overcrowding, but the billionaire entrepreneur who owns the train company (and presumably doesn’t much like the idea of nationalisation) releases CCTV footage to show that there were, in fact, empty seats.

And from that starting point, what’s our ultimate destination? Who the hell knows? But we have all kinds of fantastic station stops to visit along the way.

Perhaps the empty seats were reserved? Maybe they had bags on them? Or young kids?

It may have been that Jez was keen to spend time with Mrs Corbyn III, but couldn’t find a double berth in which to chit-chat about his anti-austerity policies.

The train, according to Mr Corbyn, was ‘ram packed’. But when aides tried to contact him about the media hullabaloo surrounding the journey, he was reportedly unobtainable because he was making jam. So maybe the train was, in fact, jam packed?

The most mysterious thing to me is why – if the sainted JC is leading some mass popular movement, as his supporters claim – no one chose to give up their seat to the aged Islington North MP. Come on now, Virgin passengers. This is a poor show. An elderly man has entered the carriage and seems to have reservations about sitting down. You, on the other hand, have reservations allowing you to sit down. What do you do? Let him go and camp out in the vestibule area? Honestly.

Someone needs to explain the rules of the train world to Jezza.

If a reserved passenger hasn’t turned up, then you can sit down. After all, they’re not suddenly going to appear just south of Doncaster and kick up a fuss, are they? And if they do, you just tell them you have a massive mandate and it’s an impertinence for them to challenge you.

In the future, you can always book in advance. Get a seat for yourself, the Mrs and any friends. Although preferably not the ones from Hamas or Hezbollah.

I have a hunch that #traingate will be remembered long after Chilcot’s 2.6 million words on the Iraq War are forgotten.  On second thoughts, Chilcot’s 2.6 million words had probably been forgotten before #traingate.

With this one, Corbyn is ahead of Ed Miliband. He’s bypassed the bacon sandwich in the buffet and gone straight for the kitchen that wasn’t a kitchen. It’s the sit-down protest that just doesn’t stand up.