Occupation protests and poppies can mix

The St Pauls demonstrators are remembering how the peace was won after the great wars of the 20th Ce

Given their timing, it was inevitable that there would be a clash between our annual ceremonies of national remembrance and the Occupy London protest. In the past few days many newspapers have begun to allude to this, casting the situation as one where protest and remembrance were mutually exclusive.

The Mail lead the charge on 24th October, invoking St Paul's Cathedral as a symbol of the "nation's Blitz spirit". On the 25th October, the Express quoted Conservative MP Priti Patel saying that protestors should "think twice" due to the "significance of St Pauls as we head into the Remembrance service period".

"TENTS STAND-OFF ON REMEMBRANCE DAY", screamed the Star. The inference underlying all this is that the protestors are disrespectful as well as deluded. Nigel Farage, Ukip leader, put it more plainly: the protestors should "do the decent thing" and leave. This atmosphere has only been heightened by the language used in some comment, where the protest is described as a "siege". You are invited to imagine the dome of St Paul's standing defiant among dark clouds, as in Herbert Mason's famous 1940 photograph.

It's not surprising that an alleged threat to the Remembrance Day service could raise strong emotions, even though the protestors themselves have repeatedly stated that they have no intention of keeping the Cathedral closed. The idea of sacrifice - and of the commemoration of that sacrifice - is still a culturally potent force, as our nearly-annual debate over public figures' poppy-wearing choices shows. We cannot, and perhaps should not, argue with the need for commemoration - remembering the thousands of lives snuffed out. Although St Pauls was, in some respects, an accidental choice of venue for Occupy London, interference with this is something the protestors need to bear in mind.

Yet is it really necessary to rank protest and remembrance in a hierarchy of priorities? Let's remember, for a second, what the combatants of the UK and its empire achieved. After victory over fascism, those returning from the war or shaking off years of austerity and tragedy were determined to rebuild society. The desire for change, in fact, was so strong that Britain jettisoned its wartime leader, electing Attlee and a Labour government by a landslide.

Their reward and lasting monument was a society free of want, as Beveridge identified: "the Plan for Social Security [...] takes abolition of want after this war as its aim". Whereas the veterans of World War I found themselves in a world where Lloyd George's promises of a "land fit for heroes to live in" came to have a hollow ring, those returning from World War II could look forward to something more lasting, guaranteed by a broad agreement across all political parties. Beveridge would lead to a system of state-directed support that would finally end the system that had overshadowed the lives of their fathers and grandfathers: dependence on the charity of rich men and the begrudging support of private employers. It's something you can look on with as much pride as is implied in wearing a poppy.

While the aims of Occupy London might seem confused, there is a strong and consistent narrative of anger at the massive socialisation of private debt. There is a deep fear of the effects of cutbacks to the National Health Service and worse - the erosion of the fundamental principles on which it is founded. The NHS was the cornerstone of the new state built after World War II: it is a better commemoration of the sacrifice of the working class than crumbling memorials or the rhetoric of mere patriotism. It is worth protesting for, as an increasingly large number of voters may be coming to realise.

Protest, then, need not be disrespectful, if the world that previous generations fought to defend and then to reshape is a part of the protest's aims. It is unfair for sections of the media to present Occupy London as diametrically opposed to a 'public' right to the space. Perhaps both the protestors and the poppies can coexist.

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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