No time to think

Speeches, TV appearances, canvassing, photocalls - Sian's had a busy week!

It’s been one of those weeks where I’ve had no time to muse about anything. Combine a busy week in the by-election campaign with the Queen’s speech, a crucial local planning committee and a couple of long-standing appointments for media interviews, and all I seem to have done is rush from place to place with my phone glued to my ear.

There’s no obvious way to link all this together. So for once, here’s my contribution for the week in the highly original form of a diary.

Sunday?

Out canvassing in Kentish Town, I get a call from a recently retired Labour councilor in Camden, who lives in the ward and says he wants to help our campaign. He has written a letter to voters explaining why he left Labour, why he is dismayed with the new LibDem/Tory council, and urging people to vote Green instead. He thinks it might be useful for one of our leaflets. This is the best news I could have had to start the week. Urgent revision of leaflet plans for the weekend ensues.

Monday?

A normal day of work (I’m learning to make Flash animations for a new project, much to the disgust of my programmer friends) followed by a telephone conference of the Green Party’s Political Committee. We’re discussing our response to what is likely to be both a disappointing (climate change) and frightening (law and order) Queen’s Speech the following day.

Tuesday?

Before work, I meet up with Jenny Jones, one of our London Assembly members, for a photocall in Kentish Town, where we are highlighting problems with air quality on the high street. Figures we obtained from the council show nitrogen dioxide levels are 50% above EU legal limits, and we have an action plan to bring them down (see my previous blog ‘Ken vs the black snot’ for more about air quality in London).

The photographers have me literally climbing over Jenny’s shoulders to fit the two of us holding our noses, the traffic and the Kentish Town sign all into the shot. Jenny is very good about this, considering I’m about double her size.

At lunchtime I pop down to LSE to join a ‘Living Wage for Cleaners’ demonstration. Aled Fisher, the Green ‘Environment and Ethics’ officer on the student union there has organised this campaign to get a living wage for the cleaners at LSE and, complete with mops and buckets, dozens of us are picketing a meeting of the University grandees.

I spend all the rest of the day on the phone being briefed on the Queen’s speech and carbon dioxide targets, as well as discussing the fact that the consultation on the increased Congestion Charge for gas-guzzlers is beginning. Do a short radio interview for IRN about the Climate Bill, and decide to do an ITV interview on the same subject rather than BBC London on the Congestion Charge, which our London Assembly members will cover. At the last minute, ITV cancel because they have decided to concentrate on the scary law and order parts of the Queen’s Speech instead - typical.

Wednesday?

Very little madness today, thank goodness. I spend the evening preparing parts of a speech to be given on Thursday at Camden’s planning committee by the head of the Kings Cross ‘Think Again’ campaign.

I’ve been working for several years trying to get a greener development on the site behind Kings Cross station, which is the biggest brownfield site in the UK at the moment. The Think Again campaign is a collaboration between local groups including the conservation area committees, who want to see more old buildings retained (there are also sound ecological reasons for this); the Kings Cross Railwaylands Group, which has been working for twenty years to get a decent number of family homes on the site; plus a whole range of others, including the Regent’s Network, who want to the canal used for transport again (another very eco-friendly initiative).

The committee rules say that all the objectors wanting to speak have to share 10 minutes, so we’ve all donated our time to the pool and are contributing our brief points to one speech to save time.

Thursday?

The planning committee this evening was a thoroughly depressing experience. We are able to make our short presentation, but the developers Argent get much longer and use it to make emotive speeches about it being their wedding anniversary (!) and giving vague assurances that they are nice people who mean only the best for us all.

They of course don’t give an inch on any of the improvements we want to see. Far from feeling bad at someone missing an anniversary dinner, my heart goes out to all the overcrowded families living in the area who have already spent years trying to get a bigger place, and who will have to wait much longer now for a suitable home.

At least on the environment side the developers know that we’ll be watching them like community-minded hawks, and I think we can get more concessions as the development progresses and regulations change. But the housing provision is now fixed forever, unless we go for the ‘nuclear option’ of taking the whole case to the High Court. We’ll be making plans for that soon, and I hope we decide we can do it, despite all the time and money involved.

Friday?

It’s a media day. I no longer work on Fridays so the press office knows to organise most of my interviews for today. In the morning I’m at the GMTV studios on the South Bank for an interview about being Principal Speaker (yes I have to explain all that again – sigh!), and about the Climate Bill. All that briefing seems to have paid off as what seems like thousands of facts and figures come pouring out of my mouth. It seems to go quite well, but as it’s being shown before 7am on Sunday I’m not sure who will notice.

The afternoon is very surreal: a photo shoot in a rainy back garden for Grazia magazine with Lucy Siegle, the Observer’s ethical living columnist and Safia Minney, founder of the People Tree fair trade clothing company. It’s a piece about “Three Green Queens,” as Lucy describes it. We’re being dressed in ethical clothes for the photos, a funky mixture of designers like Katherine Hamnett and eclectic vintage pieces. Everything’s gone terribly eighties lately, and I end up in two very ‘new romantic’ outfits, including a green beret, which is almost too literal given the title of my blog here. Grazia does treat current affairs quite seriously compared with most glossy magazines, so I’m hoping some of my politics as well as my radical downsizing lifestyle ideas come across in the interview to go with the pics.

Saturday?

Back on the campaign trail in Kentish Town, which you may have noticed I have been neglecting for a few days. This weekend we’re delivering consultation letters about a noisy nightclub in part of the ward and a leaflet containing the letter from the former councillor to the whole ward, as well as canvassing an entire polling district by the end of Sunday.

We get an amazing turnout today. So many people turn up that all the leaflets get taken for delivery straight away, and we don’t have any left for the people coming on Sunday. At home again, I print out canvass sheets for the morning and then email round the volunteers to warn them they’ll be sent canvassing if they come along to help. I then get an unfamiliar early n... zzzzzz

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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