"I agree with Harriet"

A debate between senior female politicians shows Labour and the Lib Dems are close on the policies a

It was nice to see some women taking part in the election campaign on issues other than their taste in shoes or choice of husband. Even if it was a bit of a shame that almost no men were in the audience at last night's Fawcett Society debate to hear what Harriet Harman, Theresa May and Lynne Featherstone had to say.

There wasn't much sign of Labour hostility towards the Liberal Democrats. Nobody laughed harder at Featherstone's jokes ("my husband went off with someone younger, and less attractive") than Harman, who also made a few well-received appeals to her Lib Dem counterpart over the shared ground on policies that specifically affect women and sets the two parties apart from the Tories. And there's plenty of it. On policies like funding for rape crisis centres and the Conservative proposal for a married couples' tax break, Labour and the Lib Dems have much more in common than they do to differentiate them. In these areas, it's often the details - whether equal pay audits should apply to companies with over 100 employees (Lib Dems), or over 250 (Labour), for example - which are the dividing line.

Harman was on fighting form - the opening salvo she stood to deliver even included a rallying, if slightly toe-curling, cry of "sisters!" - and almost all of her attacks were directed at May. Her challenge on the married tax allowance was particularly stinging: "It's back to basics in Converse trainers, isn't it, Theresa?" Had it been imposed on her by the men in her party, or did she really support a tax break which would exclude single mothers like Featherstone, as well as widows and married women who work? May confirmed that she did - but it took her a while to say so.

But the most telling exchange was over women's representation in parliament. Harman could have challenged both of the other panellists, but instead she focused on the Conservatives. When she became an MP in 1982, she said, Labour had 10 female MPs and the Tories had 13. Now Labour has 94 - and the Tories? Eighteen. Hadn't the Tories failed women by refusing all-women shortlists in safe seats like East Surrey - which subsequently returned a male candidate? May responded that while Sam Gyimah is a male candidate, he's an ethnic minority male candidate. "We think that's important as well," she said brightly. Strangely, her apparent lumping of politicians into two categories - white men, and everybody else - didn't seem to impress the Fawcett audience too much.

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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