Wine economy: the £5.99 to £7.99 rise forced a crisis. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
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The universe doesn’t seem quite so random and pitiless when a reader sends you fifty quid in the post

If that particular envelope-opening scene had been filmed in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been accompanied by a shaft of sunlight and the sound of a heavenly choir.

Ah, the whirligig of fate. It’s a Tuesday morning, or morning-ish. My daughter has been staying, and we seem to have got into the habit of staying a-bed for as long as possible, because whoever gets up first has to bring the other a cup of tea. This can make for some long lie-ins. My daughter is a champion sleeper but I have stamina and cunning. It is a matter of seeing who blinks first, so to speak: the time when you realise that if a pot of tea is not made in the very near future, you will have entered that phase of the afternoon when tea is somehow inappropriate. And the thought of no tea is too horrible to contemplate.

Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Ah yes, Tuesday, morning-ish. Today is the day the affordable wine I can drink with pleasure goes up from £5.99 to £7.99, and so last night I had to blow the reserve tanks – helped with a hefty loan from the daughter – on buying as much of the stuff as I could afford in one go in order, paradoxically, to save money. This meant that Tuesday and Wednesday were going to be awkward: funds do not hit the bank until Thursday morning. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I thought, but I could hear the clanging of warning bells in the background. Things shouldn’t be like this, not at my age.

Well, at least now we have enough wine to last a long siege. (The daughter has a capacity for wine which rivals mine, which means the Hovel’s wine bill has almost doubled. If you have not bought shares in Majestic Wine, do so now. I gather the manager of my local branch has bought a Porsche.) Meanwhile, I want to buy train tickets for me and the three children so that we can go to Scotland for a holiday, the first time I’ll have gone on holiday with them for years. But every day’s delay is putting the price up, and at the moment, according to research done by the Estranged Wife, we are nudging £450.

What will it be by Thursday? I dread to think. What if I buy only singles instead of returns, and, Micawberishly, see what happens further down the line? I love Scotland in general and the people we’ll be seeing in particular, but I would also like to come back from there after our allotted time, and I think they would, too.

I pick up an envelope from the stack of mail. The handwriting looks familiar; is this a belated birthday card? It turns out to be a card; but not a birthday card. It is from my occasional correspondent, L——, with whom I have maintained contact ever since she wrote a particularly articulate and insightful letter c/o this magazine. Being an attentive and close reader, she has worked out that I am skint from time to time, and she has occasionally sent gifts – a £20 note here, a truckle of cheese there – and I am not too proud to accept charity. Anyway, out of this card flutter two twenties and a tenner.

There are times in one’s life when one’s certainty that the universe is random and pitiless takes a bit of a knock. You begin to wonder whether that sentimental and somewhat overstretched film, It’s a Wonderful Life, might have been on the money about guardian angels and all that. Or that there is a providence that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. Or is that the providence that looks after fools and drunkards?

It wasn’t just the gift: it was the timing of it. If that particular envelope-opening scene had been filmed in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been accompanied by a shaft of sunlight and the sound of a heavenly choir. I rather spoil the moment by immediately suggesting we get a takeaway, but the daughter, who is not as daft as she looks (or as daft as her father, at least), puts the brakes on this idea. Yet it means that we can eat our emergency pizzas, freshly garnished with olives, anchovies, extra mozzarella and capers, without the grim feeling of explorers who have eaten the last of their rations.

So we spend the evening happily, I revelling in the hot, soupy evening air and blessing the fates – and, more importantly, L——, who is not so much a correspondent and benefactor as the whole US cavalry riding over the hill. And then the phone rings, and I learn from my rather frantic mother that my father has tripped on a wire and has, she fears, broken his hip. Her fears prove to be correct. And so the universe, or my perspective on it at least, briefly shunted off-course by an act of generosity, resumes its previous trajectory: headlong, off a beetling cliff.

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 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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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