Why the arts matter

Politicians are right to make this an election issue.

You'd expect the tabloids to belittle the government's commitment to the arts, but from the Guardian it just sounds weird. In a blog headlined "Don't vote for 'arts policy'", Jonathan Jones argues: "At these kinds of times, when the nation's future is held in the electoral balance, you realise exactly how silly and trivial the media fiction of 'the arts' actually is." He concludes his piece with the dismissive assertion that: "There are bigger things at stake than a new paint job for the National Theatre lobby."

Do the arts really amount to "the cultural comforts of the middle classes", as Jones says? Is the issue so trivial? I don't think so, and neither do the politicians.

In 2001, the then culture secretary Chris Smith wrote (PDF) that "our creative industries . . . are a real success story, and a key element in today's knowledge economy". These sectors, of course, are sustained by the "lifeblood" of what Smith called "original creativity", which in turn depends upon a healthy attitude to the arts in Westminster to fund institutions, programmes and so forth.

The costs are small, especially when set against their rewards -- the UK's major museums and galleries produce annual profits of £1.5bn; music brings in £5bn a year and theatre £2.6bn. According to Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, when Liverpool was the European capital of culture in 2008, "£800m was generated for the local economy and 27 per cent more visitors were attracted than in previous years".

This is why the first British Inspiration Awards, scheduled to take place on 23 April in London, has the vocal endorsement of all three major political parties. "I am enormously proud of the talented people in this country who, through their creative and entrepreneurial gifts, illuminate their lives and enrich ours," said Gordon Brown, while David Cameron offered: "We should be proud of that heritage. I welcome the opportunity this event brings to celebrate our many creative successes."

In purely fiscal terms, the arts sector is a major employer and earner for the UK. It's more important than ever to insist upon its upkeep.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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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