When being the Prime Minister gets in the way of a good holiday

Clamouring for Cameron to come back from holiday when things get tough just feeds his Etonian ego.

It can't be easy for David Cameron. You take a nice holiday, to which you're perfectly entitled, and then news happens. Why can't that pesky news just leave you alone for five minutes? But after having cut short a delightful time in Tuscany to declare war on human rights and health and safety after the recent riots, the PM's stay in Cornwall got interrupted by Libya.

The situation in Libya isn't quite as clear-cut as it appeared on Monday night, though - not quite the out-and-out triumph for steely Cameron as it might have seemed after those first few hours, anyway. It's tempting to wonder if our beloved leader hasn't hastily headed back down the M4, only to be called back once again when the rebels started getting on top. You'll probably see him sat at Costa Coffee at Leigh Delamare services, muttering into a phone: "Well, can I go back or not? I've left the bucket and spade and everything."

Whatever Cameron's doing, though, it appears to be working. Whether it's claiming that health and safety and human rights have something to do with the culture that led to rioting in English cities this summer - entirely serendipitously chiming in with his longstanding commitment to obliterate the public sector in the 'red tape challenge', of course - or claiming partial credit for the decision to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, he seems to have had something of a boost in the polls. He must be hoping that holiday time never ends: every time he goes on one, there's a crisis that apparently warrants his early return in order to appear statesmanlike and sort everything out.

It's our fault, of course, for dragging him back in the first place. Even before Jim Callaghan breezed back from sunny Guadeloupe in 1979 and ticked off the press for their 'parochial' view of events (leading to the infamous Sun headline "Crisis, what Crisis?") politicians have been wary of being seen detached from events, especially if they happen to be in sunnier climes than their constituents. We can't bear the thought of our leaders sunning themselves on a beach somewhere, or sipping white wine on a balcony somewhere disgustingly lovely, when we're suffering at home. We want our leaders to come back and sort out the mess. But it's an attitude that plays right into their hands.

Cameron knows this - he's good at presentation - and so rushes back to save the day every time, like the trusty white knight. The delay during the riots, if anything, made it better for him, not worse. The clamour for our Prime Minister to return from Italy made it seem that he was the only one who could save the day; his return was the only way of changing things around and making the important decisions. So when he did come back, and announced a huge surge in police numbers that capped the violence and unrest, it did the trick. He could have done it all on the phone, and it wouldn't have made any difference at all, but why do that when you can make capital out of it? While everyone else was holding the spanners and working like a dog, Cameron came back at the last second, gave the bonnet a polish and handed the keys back. You have to admire his style, if little else.

Whether the boost for Cameron lingers once the kids have gone back to school, and there are no more holidays to cut short, remains to be seen. I would find it depressing if a bit of tough talking after the riots and a war on human rights have proved popular with voters. What would that say about us? That we love to be governed, I suppose. We want the big Etonian alpha male to come and rescue us when we're in trouble, and keep us safe. What a horrible thought.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
Show Hide image

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