Why it's Tory hypocrisy not to talk class

Heath, Thatcher, Major and Howard all played the class card

A packed lecture theatre, an esteemed panel and a single plea at this lively Fabian Conference session: "Will the real David Cameron please stand up?" Not a chance.

Despite the appearance of three members of the Conservative family on the panel ("comrades", said a welcoming Gaby Hinsliff) and lots of talk of localism, choice, decentralisation and the "post-bureaucratic state", there was a failure to convince on the central premise.

More notable was the level of political cross-dressing. Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, confessed surprise at how often she found herself agreeing with her fellow-panellist Polly Toynbee, of the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich and Clacton, came out as a staunch supporter of proportional representation. "I wouldn't want a monopoly supermarket or cinema in my town, so why would I want a monopoly on MPs?" he asked the audience, which, once it had digested the message, responded with sustained applause. (For the record, his PR method of choice is single transferable vote.)

Even on class, Dorries declared that it was an issue that "matters more than anything else in British society". Which puts her somewhat at odds with her leader, the subject of the session.

It took our host Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society's general secretary, to get to the nub of the issue and in turn throw some light on the "real" David Cameron.

Katwala asked why talk of class was verboten in 2010. After all, Conservative leaders have long played the class card, from the grammar school boy Ted Heath, to Margaret Thatcher "the grocer's daughter", to John Major, whose famous trip down memory lane -- or rather down Electric Avenue in Brixton -- formed the basis of a party election broadcast -- and again, most recently, to Michael Howard, who chided Tony Blair across the despatch box, declaring: "This grammar school boy isn't going to take any lessons from a public school boy."

So it was more than a little strange, said Katwala with tongue in cheek, that only now we have an Old Etonian as Tory leader is the question of class off the agenda.

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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