In defence of Richard Littlejohn

His columns have the same effect as switching on the lights during an orgy.

A couple of years ago I went to Krakow. I visited some salt mines, which had been sculpted and carved by erstwhile miners. Empty caves had been transformed into cathedrals, opulent and glistening in brilliant synthetic light; a monument to the ambition of humanity.

And then, as I walked from one mine to another, I noticed something in the lowlight: a crude doodle in black marker of an ejaculating phallus. That doodle, so inappropriately scrawled against a backdrop of genius, was more a metaphor for humanity than any of the mine's carvings.

If social commentary is that Polish salt mine, Richard Littlejohn is its phallic graffiti. He represents an unseemly but apparently inevitable element of public life; the ultimate internet troll. That doesn't mean we should make light of the damage his 'journalism' sometimes causes.

For me, the nadir of his career was his piece on the prostitutes murdered in Ipswich, in which he wrote: "It might not be fashionable, or even acceptable in some quarters, to say so, but in [the victims'] chosen field of "work", death by strangulation is an occupational hazard. That doesn't make it justifiable homicide, but in the scheme of things the deaths of these five women is no great loss."

Yet as nasty as that is, sometimes I am glad Richard Littlejohn exists. Sometimes I read his columns and think, "thank God for you, Richard". Yes, he may be offensive and cavalier with facts, but I appreciate his uncanny habit of exposing the worst elements of ourselves. His columns, probably unintentionally, have the same effect as switching the lights on during an orgy: they make everyone look around and guiltily ask, "what are we all doing?"

Take today's Littlejohn missive, for example. His response to the crisis in the eurozone was to write a piece, accompanied by a cartoon of Angela Merkel sporting a Hitler 'tache, in which German politicians romped around to his self-penned Nazi song. Whilst this is wildly offensive, it took me back to a Channel 4 news report I watched last night on the same subject.

The report, analysing Germany's current position on the European Central Bank, made its point by sending a reporter to the Reichstag and reeling off some facts about the country's situation in the run-up to World War II. I was uncomfortable with the report's jingoistic unease at Germany's position in the European economy -- I felt there was an implication that the country would, true to form, get drunk on power and cause us all a load of bother again.

I wanted to take to Twitter and express my discontent (take that, Channel 4!) but I feared I'd be dismissed as a hand-wringing lefty, taking things too seriously. I needn't have worried though, because there in the Daily Mail this morning was Richard Littlejohn; merrily jazz-handing away to his own imperialistic bigotry. When Channel 4 was subtly hinting at the return of the Blitz, Richard Littlejohn was writing a musical about it.

I'm grateful for moments like that. Littlejohn is the media's id: he says what the rest of the press is dancing around, and he says it proudly. It may not be noble, it may not be nice, but at least you know what you're dealing with. At least you know what you're up against.

So until we can get to a stage where Channel 4 is reporting on Germany without saying 'old habits die hard', I'll be perversely grateful for Richard Littlejohn's unrestrained, overpaid career. It's not so much "telling it like it is" as "telling it like it shouldn't be", and I don't see the point of Littlejohn fading away until the sentiments he espouses so grotesquely have faded away too.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance writer living in North London, contributing mainly to the Guardian. You can follow her at @MissEllieMae

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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