"Whitney's death bath": a morbid curiosity

Long may such freedom of speech continue.

Billy Bob Thornton's latest directorial outing, Jayne Mansfield's Car, arrives at a suitable time. While we are morbidly fascinated with the death of Whitney Houston in a bathtub in Los Angeles at the weekend, it's worth remembering that this is nothing new: ghoulish interest in the very private death of a very public figure has always been around.

The morbid curiosity the Sun has with "WHITNEY'S DEATH BATH", to the extent of showing a photo of the bath on its front cover, is not a whole world away from the story of the Buick in which Mansfield was scalped and killed in 1967. "SEE JAYNE MANSFIELD'S DEATH CAR", urged the signs at fairgrounds across middle America. The bloodstains and brain matter had been cleared away, and the vehicle had been restored from the wreck it became that fateful night, but people still paid a dollar or so to go and see the car that claimed three lives, including a Hollywood icon.

I doubt the bathtub at room 434 at the Beverley Hills Hilton hotel will tour the world, attracting morbid onlookers the way the Mansfield wreck did. But the scramble to get a photo of the bath where Whitney drowned says something about how we can't let go of celebrities, even when they're dead; especially when they're dead.

Almost before the price of Whitney's back catalogue was quietly marked up in anticipation of the post-mortem spike in sales, the public wanted pictures. Sadly, this time there were no photos available of a naked Houston receiving CPR or a lifeless arm dangling out from under a blanket, so we had to make do with photos of a bathtub. Not a very interesting or exceptional bathtub, but a bathtub where someone famous died, and so a bathtub which has instantly become the most famous in the world.

The image of the bathtub, which appeared first in the Sun in this country and which has of course been shared around the world, is a curious thing in itself. It's a badly taken photo, blurred and badly framed, maybe snatched with a camera phone by someone who was there at the time, or who managed to squeeze their way into the suite on the night the singer died. It's just an overhead view of a bathtub with some water in it and a hairbrush sitting by the side: a meaningless, empty image of nothing.

There's a part of me that hopes this is all some colossal stunt, that it's just a photo of an ordinary bath and someone has somehow convinced the world's press that it's the particular bath where Whitney died. Imagine that, if an ordinary bath could appear on the front page of a newspaper, or be pored over by millions of people around the world, and that we're all just peering at some non-entity's hairbrush and bathwater, as opposed to that of a now-dead and now-very-much-more-marketable celebrity.

It's a time when our tabloid newspapers are trying to convince us that they are vital, that they are the lifeblood of our free speech, the cornerstone of our democracy, a set of people who should be placed above the law for the way in which they challenge authority and enlighten us about what's really going on -- and they're fighting each other to get photos of a dead woman's bathtub, to speculate about what it was that killed her, to gleefully announce in giant letters that someone is "on suicide watch" as a result of the tragedy.

I don't see much democracy, or authority being challenged: I just see a pack of jackals tearing over the corpse of a dead woman. And fine, that's free speech, and long may it continue: long may we have the right to want to read about dead people, be they Jayne Mansfield or Whitney Houston, seeing as it's what we appear to prefer to real political debate. And maybe tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, we will see dozens and dozens of public-interest exclusives falling down like rain, proving me wrong.

In the meantime, who wants to buy a ticket to see Whitney Houston's death bath?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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