Deck the aisles: Christmas chocolates already discounted at Tesco in September. Photo: Flickr/George Redgrave
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Welcome to Britain’s new chocolate calendar

We are now in the thick of what you might call “the bonfire season”, which runs from mid-October to the weekend after Guy Fawkes Night. 

You know that the nadir of Hallowe’en merchandise has been reached when Mr Kipling does Toffee Terror Whirls (scrumptiously spooky!) and Nestlé does Spooky Shreddies. There seems to be no limit to the horrible confectionary you can flog on the basis that it’s got a skull on the packet or pumpkin-coloured foil.

We are now in the thick of what you might call “the bonfire season”, which runs from mid-October to the weekend after Guy Fawkes Night. It’s part of the contemporary reworking of the calendar: a new, secular take on the year. It’s a kind of autumn festival of skeleton sweeties, fireworks and scary films.

I grew up with Hallowe’en in Ireland. At the end of October, before the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, clusters of us would head off in our parents’ old clothes, with masks, or, for the retro, faces covered with soot, to ask the neighbours for “a penny for the bobbin’” – and we’d receive nuts, apples or money. You ate barmbrack, a fruit loaf with a ring inside, and whoever got it would be the first to marry.

Irish Americans had already Americanised Hallowe’en as a merchandising opportunity: a proms night with ghouls and ghoul-themed confectionary. In the 1990s, something curious happened. Brits and indeed the Irish took on what the Americans were doing. In Britain, it merged with the old Guy Fawkes Night.

It’s part of an interesting development, the secular-commercial hijack of the calendar. Formerly, January began in the middle of the 12 days of Christmas, which reached a crescendo on the Epiphany, on 6 January. The festive season didn’t really finish until Candlemas on 2 February. Valentine’s Day was a genuine medieval feast; Mothering Sunday is traditional, too. The next big thing was Shrove Tuesday, the carnival before the 40-day fast of Lent. Then came Easter, the festival of resurrection. In June, there was a clutch of traditional and saints’ festivals, which coincided with old midsummer celebrations. After that, you might have the Victorian novelty of the harvest festival, followed by Hallowe’en. Then it was Advent, the month of expectation; mildly penitential. Finally, the 12 days of Christmas.

The secular year now starts with Banuary, a new and dispiriting month of abstinence and exercise in the worst possible month for both. It’s followed by Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day – both festivals of chocolate. We do pancakes but Lent doesn’t really register – we’ve done abstinence. Easter is low key, other than the chocolate element. Then there’s a gulf, punctuated by Father’s Day, until bonfire season. That’s followed by Movember, a mildly funny philanthropic exercise, which overlaps with the start of the party season at the end of November and concludes with the Christmas sales, which confusingly now take place before Christmas.

It isn’t wholly surprising that an increasingly secular society should try to put its stamp on the year. Auguste Comte attempted this with his positivist calendar in 1849, commemorating philosophers, scientists and writers. Our own version is still a work in progress but it’s already looking like a succession of commercial opportunities, with a focus on chocolate. It’s all quite dispiriting. 

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear