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Laurie Penny: Don’t judge Catholics by the Pope

Despite evidence to the contrary, there are still people doing beautiful things in the name of religion.

Britons, beware. As the nation prepares for the Pope's visit, Catholic dissidents are making trouble in the countryside again.

On 6 August, one priest and two lay worshippers crept up to the perimeter of the Aldermaston nuclear weapons base and cut a hole in the fence, attaching a sign on the new doorway bearing the legend "Open for Disarmament: All Welcome". The three then knelt down inside the base and prayed.

In statement following the protest, the demonstrators, two of whom had previously served prison sentences for anti-nuclear action, said: "We come inspired by the message of Jesus to love our enemies, to be peacemakers and to act non-violently at all times." Parents, lock up your children: the fundamentalists are coming.

In a world where organised religion is very often a cipher for co-ordinated homophobia, misogyny and dogmatic social control, it's good to know that people can still do brave and beautiful things in the name of faith. These are the sorts of Catholics we should be inviting to speak around the country -- not former card-carrying fascists with personal responsibility for covering up institutional child abuse, opposing sexual health initiatives and promoting discrimination against women and homosexuals across the world.

This story gave me pause for thought, as I'm working on a longer article about anti-Catholicism and why the snowballing Protest The Pope movement has little to do with the Catholic faith itself, but everything to do with the barbaric, anti-humanist dogma peddled by members of the Catholic hierarchy.

Of course, like any arbitrary belief system, the faith can also be bloody silly. As a heathen unbeliever from a lapsed Maltese Catholic family, I am still mystified why some of my relatives regularly attend mass hallucination parties where everyone pretends that bits of wafer blessed by a celibate in a robe are magically transformed on the tongue into gruesome chunks of dead prophet.

On the other hand, I've got secular friends who believe that the Horrors are a good band, or that the Liberal Democrats are a party of the left. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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