Provocative, entertaining, infuriating: I'm going to miss Louise Mensch

How many British backbenchers are reliably interesting?

So, farewell then, Louise Mensch. I'm going to miss you.

How many backbenchers are reliably provocative, entertaining - and occasionally infuriating? Very few. Our 24-hour news cycle, and the "fishing for gaffes" this inevitably encourages, mean that most junior MPs keep their mouths firmly shut on anything which doesn't directly concern them. (Incidentally, this is why we all fall on the latest story about Boris Johnson whipping Princess Anne with a conger eel or being "ironically" offensive like a man dying of thirst.)

Nowhere was Mensch more effective than on Twitter. Politicians' feeds tend to be a blather of trilling proclamations about their constituency duties, interspersed with solemn attacks on the other side. Not so with Mensch. Every so often, she would toss some chum into the piranha-swamp of lobby correspondents, just for the hell of it. 

Her name change. Her announcement she'd have to be quick at the select committee questioning James Murdoch because she needed to pick up the kids. Her photoshoot for GQ. Her Newsnight appearances. Her alleged facelift. Her mad decision to launch a social network named after her. All these were endlessly pored over, probed for What They Said About Society.

Possibly my favourite Magic Menschment, though, was her admission she'd taken drugs with the violinist Nigel Kennedy. This is how to respond when someone accuses you of getting high in a club in your twenties:

Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Nigel Kennedy, whom I remember with affection. I am not a very good dancer and must apologise to any and all journalists who were forced to watch me dance that night.

Of course, there were plenty of journalists who were ready to dismiss her as a tedious controversialist -- yet this never prevented their papers writing up her latest provocation. (Just a few days ago she stirred up a perfect storm about Labour supporters wishing Margaret Thatcher dead.) 

For all that Mensch was an attention-seeker, the British political press liked having its attention sought. And, presumably, its readers lapped up stories about Mensch even as they loudly proclaimed how much they didn't care about her. Clicks don't lie.

By resigning mid-parliament, in the quiet August recess, Mensch has once again guaranteed herself coverage far out of proportion to her importance. Stand by for articles on whether women can have it all, which will completely ignore the fact that very few women marry someone who lives on a different continent. Brace yourself for pious warbling about her lack of commitment to politics (as if most of our politicians are motivated by nothing but the highest ideals of public service). But most of all, prepare for British politics to get a lot duller. 

We created Louise Mensch: built her up through our desire for someone, somewhere, to say something interesting. And we'll miss her more than she misses us. 

Louise Mensch: so long and thanks for all the LOLs. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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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