Derry or Londonderry?

Even the BBC can’t decide.

Tuning in to the BBC late last night, I watched a report about the Saville inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, 1972, during which the studio presenter referred to the Northern Irish city of "Londonderry". When we went to a report from the area, however, the name of "Derry" was used. Naturally, there are historical resonances attached to both versions.

Unionists -- and especially their supporters in England -- have a strong preference for Londonderry, as it was renamed in recognition of its connections with City of London livery companies during the Plantation of Ulster in the 1600s.

Nationalists tend to prefer the name that served perfectly well for centuries before the inhabitants of the large island next door decided to occupy the neighbouring lands across the Irish Sea -- "ye that have harried and held/ye that have bullied and bribed, tyrants, hypocrites, liars!", as Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, called them in his poem "The Rebel".

As Saville is going to be in the news in the coming days, there is a significance in the nomenclature used in reports. The Guardian style guide, for instance, states firmly: "Derry, Co Derry. Not Londonderry." A BBC press officer tells me she doesn't think the corporation has any internal guidelines.

The Independent's letters editor and style supremo, Guy Keleny, says that paper would aim to be "non-tendentious and even-handed as regards the history of Northern Ireland". So, the local authority, which voted to revert to the original name of Derry in 1984, "has the right to call itself whatever it wants". However, the high court ruled in 2007 that Londonderry is in the city's royal charter and remains its legal name.

An old edition of the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors lists Derry as a "postally acceptable abbreviation" of Londonderry, while I gather the comedian Dara O'Briain makes light of the competing versions when he performs in the city by opening his show with the line: "Hello, my name is Dara, or if you prefer, you can call me Londondara."

You can find quite a history of the dispute on Wikipedia here, although some of its statements are questionable. It says, for instance, that "The Londonderry Air" ("Danny Boy") is "seldom" called "The Derry Air". Not so "seldom" in southern Irish circles, that's for sure.

Keleny adds: "there ought to be a Platonic ideal" for the name of the actual place -- but that is still only an aspiration. As Éamonn Ó Ciardha of the University of Ulster says: "The Ulster Plantation may have been 400 years ago but its impact is still being felt at home and abroad." Not least in the findings of the Saville inquiry, which are published today.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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