A stethoscope. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
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My keyboard is held together by Sellotape. And what’s that strange buzzing in my groin?

Failing hardware and Withnail occupy Nicholas Lezard.

It’s a weird period, the week between Boxing Day and New Year. It’s as if the whole country is wandering around in its pyjamas, muttering to itself. I hunker down in the Hovel behind a barricade of wine bottles; it seems like the wisest course of action.

Company eventually comes in the form of the daughter, who likes to use the Hovel as a launchpad for her return to university. She finds it a convivial place and seems to enjoy my ideas of how to entertain ourselves in the evening. (Though she loves her brothers, they are not given to conversation once settled in front of their screens.) So the first part of Monday evening is spent eating pizza and watching Withnail and I. Normally I am strict about the matter of talking when a film is on but we’ve seen Withnail so many times between us that occasionally we feel moved to comment when we have something we think is interesting to say about it.

There are, I gather, people who not only do not like this film particularly but think that it is a bit odd to have watched it around 50 times. (This is a conservative estimate.) To which I can only reply: would you put a limit on the number of times you would listen to a favourite piece of music? Moreover, although the film may have, to us, reached the condition of music, there are plenty of times in life when it seems directly relevant.

One of them, which I keep quiet about, occurs early when Marwood (this is the name of the “I” character), after a 60-hour speed binge, says: “My thumbs have gone weird.” I have not been on such a binge myself and neither have my thumbs gone weird; but my groin has. The only way I can describe it is that it’s as if someone has left a very tiny mobile phone in the front of my undercrackers and left it on “vibrate” mode, set to go off every three seconds or so.

It is the kind of thing one hesitates to go to the doctor about. Not only is it painless, it’s not entirely unpleasant. But it is not normal; I certainly haven’t read about this in the user’s manual. I am, at the moment, due to illness in the family (and terminal illness at that), becoming rather sensitised to the shocks that flesh is heir to and I wonder if this is the start of something nasty. Then again, the toes on my left foot have been ever so slightly numb for about ten years now. That hasn’t got any better but it hasn’t got any worse.

I suppose I am at the age when the downhill progress starts accelerating. I can see this happening right now on the machine I am using to write this piece. A Lenovo PC of some venerability, it is sort of held together by Sellotape and the keyboard makes a funny, squeaking noise as I type. The built-in mouse has ceased to function, as has the fingerprint reader (a rather snazzy feature that impressed my children when this computer was a new arrival). Somehow I managed to dig out an external mouse from the crap on my desk; only now the cursor seems to skip about after a few hours of use and I will suddenly look to the screen – I’ve never learned to touch-type – and see that I’ve inserted several sentences into the first paragraph, where they do not belong.

Which is all rather tiresome but not unliveable with. After all, the alternative – to get something done about these things, rather than simply to put up with them – does not appeal. One would involve a doctor either putting his or her hand down my pants or telling me to stop wasting his or her time; and the other would involve either buying a new laptop, which is financially beyond me, or replacing the keyboard again. Having had both a new keyboard and a new screen, my laptop now resembles grandfather’s axe, or Theseus’s ship, thus raising the philosophical problem of whether something whose component parts have all been replaced can still be said to be the same thing.

Meanwhile, buzz, buzz goes the groin again, as if a miniaturised submarine full of tiny doctors (including, wondrously, a microscopic Raquel Welch) had got jammed somewhere below the pubic bone. Everything else down there, I hasten to add, is in fine working order. Certainly finer than I might expect of someone of my age and lifestyle. So one does not want to go to the doctor in case one is told that one of the body’s key components needs replacing. Or that one needs an external mouse. Actually, that’s a line of speculation I’m going to close off right now. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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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