Saturday, August 29, 2009

Excuse my healthy scepticism

I was approached recently by Professor Dame Sally C Davies and Professor Rory Collins, who wrote on behalf of the Department of Health to ask me to participate in a programme called UK Biobank. Their ambitious aim is to sign up half a million Brits aged between 40 and 69 and monitor their health over a number of years.

Creeping in at the very bottom of the age range, I perhaps have the most to gain from this long-term project, as potentially they'll be able to identify trends that will help in the fight against disabling and life-threatening illnesses. Nevertheless, I've told them to get lost.

They want three tablespoons of my blood, as well as saliva and urine, but that's not the only way in which they're taking the p**s. I'm expected to attend a two-hour appointment at a centre which is inaccessible by public transport from where I live. The idea is I then agree to wear a wrist monitor for a week and give permission for them to analyse my confidential medical records ad infinitum.

Do I benefit personally from this medical attention? The answer, astonishingly, is no. If they discovered from their tests that I had 24 hours to live, I'd be sent home none the wiser as they're concerned about causing me 'undue alarm'. All I get is my travel expenses and the satisfaction of knowing that I'm helping the advance of medical science.

A 'breach of confidentiality' is thankfully considered to be 'very low'. But information and samples will be made available to researchers who are working outside the UK and commercial interests involved in finding new treatments.

And while all of these issues cause me concern, there's something else nagging away at the back of mind. Although it's 20 years since I studied social research methods and I'm now old enough to be included on the Biobank invite list, my memory is sharp enough to realise that the sponsors will never achieve a representative sample of the population. Who, after all, will be prepared or able to give up two hours of their time for intrusive medical tests in an inconvenient location? The testing centre will be full of the idle rich, retired hypochondriacs and a handful of people looking to screw an extra few quid out of the travel expenses.

I'm interested in the statistical jiggery-pokery that will be needed to ensure the validity of the sampling. In fact, I feel a couple of Freedom of Information requests coming on.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Some good news from Afghanistan

The Afghan elections have attracted a lot of international media scrutiny. One of the bonuses for female observers is the re-emergence of former Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah. Now one of the presidential candidates, he has aged a little and sports a grey beard. But as Mrs W observes, he's still so good looking, they named him twice.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pulling a fast one?

Apparently they're checking the gender of that South African athlete because of her astonishing recent performances.

Shouldn't they also do some tests on Usain Bolt? My theory is that he's a closet East German shotputter.

Proposal from widower to widow

I couldn't resist another quick snippet from Ronald Pelham's book of stock letters written in the late 1940s. Here's another common-or-garden situation. You're a widower and you want to acquire a second wife by post. She's a widow and thus in the market.

Since my friendship with you and the great pleasure I have had in it, the loneliness of my life and the anticipation of an even more lonely future have seemed to me unendurable. That your life is a lonely and anxious one, too, I have guessed from the confidences with which you have honoured me.
Can we not help to brighten each other's lives and lighten each other's burdens?

I'll spare you the rest, as I'm sure you get the picture.

How many times, I wonder, was this letter sent in the post-war era with only a few modest adjustments? Like changing the lady's name at the top, perhaps?

Pelham is conscious of the fact that his readers may, in fact, include the female recipients. He therefore kindly offers them two possible reply routes. One heralds the ringing of church bells. The other tells the bloke where he can get off.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Two blasts from the past

It's always fun to flick through the ephemera of yesteryear. Two gems have come to my attention recently and I wanted to share them with WARTE readers.

I'm already tweeting 'How to be a good hostess' at It's a small, ring-bound book produced as a promotional vehicle for Spillers Flour in what I judge to be the tail-end of the 1950s. The foreword is by actress Anna Neagle , who praises the 'gay and lively' ideas contained in the publication and is full of advice for aspiring hostesses. 'Don't think that only a married woman, helped by her family, can earn a good-hostess reputation,' she writes. 'Bachelor girls can do wonderfully well at it too...'

The advice on teenage 'get-togethers' makes particularly interesting reading. Mum is supposed to take her daughter aside and tell her that she and Daddy will be out for the evening, but back at 11. 'See all the washing up's done and the place tidy...' The book's author says the kids can have the run of the place from 6pm. 'Best plan is to move out as much furniture as you can from the party room, to leave the biggest space for dancing. Move out chairs and tables too, for young people seem to prefer eating from their laps, sitting on the floor.'

If I've whetted your appetite, you need to head to Twitter for more, I'm afraid.

What I can promise here on WARTE is some regular updates from another intriguing publication: Ronald Pelham's 1949 classic 'How shall I word it?' The cover of this slim hardback features a troubled post-war housewife. Stuck at a table with pen in hand, she is poised to enter into correspondence, but inspiration seems to have deserted her. Perhaps her problem is that she's intending to write to nobility and is unfamiliar with the appropriate etiquette? Now, with the help of Pelham, she can confidently address the eldest son of an Earl ("My Lord...") or ask for advice from an Archdeacon ("Venerable Sir...")

Pelham is at his funniest with a selection of stock letters that are supposedly adaptable to all likely circumstances. I'll start you off with a segment entitled 'From a mother to her daughter's school-mistress, asking her to allow a pupil to visit her':

Will you allow Gertrude Waring to come to us for her Christmas holidays? Muriel tells me that the child cannot go home as her parents are abroad, and she is most anxious to have her with us. I need hardly say that every care will be taken of her, and I think the bracing air here is sure to do her good.

I need hardly say that this was in the days before criminal record checks.

Who says copywriters are unnecessary?

I'm just contemplating one of the worst corporate straplines I've seen in a very long time. P&H Sweets sets our pulses racing with the slogan 'Always delivering retail snacking solutions'.

Let's be charitable and concede that they're targeting retailers with their message rather than consumers. Even so, their line fails on so many levels. Are they distinguishing themselves from rivals who only sometimes offer retail snacking solutions? Or those who offer a completely different kind of snacking solution? The non-retail kind that we'd never buy in a shop.

Let's be honest. Even the guys in my local Londis would be surprised to hear they were selling snacking solutions. They are likely to be under the common misapprehension that their shelves are full of sweets and chocolates.

It's one for tomorrow's copywriting course, that's for sure. Where I always deliver first-class corporate training solutions.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Swimming against the tide

The folks at Waitrose know how to rustle up a fancy sandwich. Take their limited edition Poached Salmon offering, for instance, complete with pea purée, mint and tartare sauce. Never has so much pretention found itself stuffed between two slices of bread.

But listen to the blurb on the packet. They get their salmon from 'the cold, clear waters around Scotland where fish can swim against the tide, becoming lean and full of flavour.' God forbid they'd select bland, flabby salmon that neglect nature's exercise regime in favour of an easy ride with the prevailing current.

I dread to think what other horse manure this over-excited copywriter is planning to write about alternative sandwiches in the range. But I never eat chicken unless I know the bird has a personal trainer and flaps at least three miles a day.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Cleaning up their act

The Iraqi government has recently announced that it intends to introduce a ban on smoking in public places. At last I'm able to give Baghdad serious consideration as a holiday destination.

Friday, August 07, 2009

An entertaining day out

Oxford University offers an interesting range of one-day courses, which seem to be open to the general public. For just £46, for instance, you might choose to sign up for a day school on 10th October, entitled 'Space, Time and the Universe'. Quite how accessible the event is, however, remains open to question.

The agenda provides a few clues.

10.00 am Special Relativity

11.15am General Relativity

1.00pm Space-time and black holes

2.15pm Space-time and the universe

Imagine the coffee breaks.