Laurie Penny: Why I'm marching today for anti-austerity

Like thousands of others, I'll be demonstrating in London because we need to fight for our principles.

The backlash is on. With counter-propaganda pouring in about today's demonstration, I''m crouched on the bed cramming water bottles, wet wipes and a spare hoodie into my backpack, testing my riot boots, getting ready to march.

From senior police officers to stuffed-shirt commentators to single mothers on the protest coach from Aberdeen to the anarchists currently putting the finishing touches to their trojan horse in Kennington, pretty much everyone seems to be convinced there's going to be an epic kick-off. There is trepidation and excitement on both sides. Many tens of thousands of protesters and police would rather we all went on a nice civilised saunter to Hyde Park to hear some speeches, but many others are getting their armour ready, digging out their face masks, shining up their riot shields for a rumble in London.

Whatever happens, the eyes of the world will be on this city today. The ancient streets are going to shake with the stoppered rage of the public, as they have done so many times before. Seven hundred years ago, Wat Tyler led thousands in a march against feudalism and entitlement, against wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of a few rich families who owned everything and were answerable to noone. Seven hundred years later, we're still marching, because it's still happening.

The business elites have been allowed to vampirise the future, and instead of being made to pay for their mistakes, they brazenly demand more tribute. Our barely-elected representatives cheerfully force us into lines to pay the tithe, breaking the heads of children in parliament square if they refuse to comply. As we get ready to march, a government with little mandate is turning our country into a smooth-running cartel to serve the petulant demands of global finance. In his budget speech, George Osborne declared that the world should take note of the fact that "Britain is open for business". Having previously announced the decimation of welfare, education, culture, healthcare, public services and the arts, the City of London-financed Conservative party has ensured that Britain is open for little else, and is swinging shut in the faces of the unprofitable.

Present political expediency offers no way out, and a thousand reasons to march. This week, many people have told me their reasons. Elderly, disabled and mentally ill people and carers who cannot do without the welfare benefits that the government is about to sell off to finance a cut to corporation tax. School pupils who want to be able to afford university without taking on a lifetime's worth of debt; students at glasgow and UCL universities who have been assaulted by police and victimised by management for daring to speak out against that encroaching debt, and for standing in solidarity with striking staff and lecturers. Career anarchists and concerned liberals on their first protest in three decades. Trades unionists unfurling the banners and getting ready to demand the sort of basic human dignity that became unfashionable in the mid-1980s. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, people already too sick or exhausted or impoverished to come to the protests in person, and the strangers who offered to show solidarity by marching in their stead. A man with terminal cancer and five weeks to live, whose incapacity benefits had been delayed by the latest welfare reforms. A woman set to lose her NHS job who can no longer afford childcare.

So many reasons, so many voices, so much anger that one simple political alternative could never be broad enough to satisfy them all. So many voices, and if I had twenty years I could sit and write down every one and make them loud enough for all London to hear. At times like this, words on a screen aren't enough. At times like this, we have to go to the streets.

There will be enough time for stories today; stories of indignation and suffering and small triumphs bitten back from the jaws of spiteful austerity. But right now I'm going to do something I do very seldom. I'm going to tell you why I'm marching.

I'm marching because I'm afraid. I'm afraid that everything precious about modernity might be destroyed by a cabal of financiers and aristocrats who own everything and answer to noone. I'm afraid that the civil humanity of welfare, healthcare, public education, art, science and protection for minorities and the dispossessed that so many hundreds of people fought and died for over three long centuries of struggle, I'm afraid that that might all be taken away because some millionaires have decided they're not being paid enough.

I'm afraid that the governments of Europe and America and the Middle East will continue to listen to those millionaires and only to those millionaires whilst their people cry out for relief. I'm afraid that they'll carry on taking the best ideals of human decency and twisting them into tortured pastiches of principle. I'm afraid that in thirty years the word "freedom" will mean only only military imperialism, the word "democracy" only the bloody enforcement of western corporate hegemony, the word "liberty" only the blithe self-interest of the few, the word "fairness" only the moral imposition of austerity by governments soaked in oil-money, in blood-money, in money summarily appropriated from struggling taxpayers to fund the debts of the rich.

I'm afraid that if we don't turn and fight for those principles, they will cease to exist, at least in the way we understand them.

This is not about party politics. I care not one jot about whether the current Conservative-led administration is openly continuing New Labour's project of decimating welfare, privatising education, holding down wages and sucking the shrivelled morals of the City. I'm just afraid that the bastards are going to get away with it. I'm marching today with hundreds of thousands of others because I don't want to be afraid anymore. This is just the beginning.

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