I turned Chris Evans down so she wouldn't know I watched TV for seven year olds

"I'm sorry to ring so late," said a woman's voice at the other end of the phone, "but I've applied for this job with a think-tank, and they've asked for a top academic reference, and you're the only person I could think of who knew my work well, and so I wondered if you could write and say that I was all right."

By this time I'd found the television zapper and managed to whip down the volume on the Chris Evans show. I still hadn't recognised my caller; but if my academic opinion was worth as much as she was suggesting, then it was hardly a good idea for her to think that her former intellectual mentor now spent the twilight of his years watching TV designed for seven year olds, rather than catching up on the intellectual fall-out from the Reith lectures on globalisation.

"I think you have the better of me," I mumbled.

"Oh yes, I'm so sorry," she said. "I'm Jenny Topping. I was on your 'Signs and Symbols' course. You gave me a B++ for my essay on the way women are demeaned by cosmetics advertising."

It wasn't enough to go on. My 'Signs and Symbols' course had staggered on for 12 years at York, and in every one of those years I'd suggested to the class that they might like to write an essay on how women were demeaned by cosmetics advertising.

"Oh, yes," I enthused, "an excellent piece of work. You drew on Barthes and Williamson and pointed out the number of advertisements that showed women touching themselves and then went on to show how this narcissism contrasted with advertisements for male cosmetics, where the subjects were invariably shown as sporting or active."

It was a brave effort, but Jenny must have been expecting more. "If you'd like a reminder, then I could send you the essay with all your comments."

"That might be helpful," I admitted.

When the essay arrived, I scanned my assessment. "This is a most promising essay! You deserve to be congratulated on your hard work. You have put a great deal of effort into this essay and covered most of the main points. Congratulations. Most promising."

It was bad enough to find that I'd resorted to such cliches as "most promising", but even worse was the evidence that I'd been so pleased with these turns of phrase that I'd felt them worth repeating. Her work was not merely "most promising", it was also "most promising", and for that she deserved not only "congratulations" but also "congratulations".

And yet this was the assessment that Jenny Topping had kept carefully for the past 12 years, in case anyone ever asked for specific proof of her academic capabilities. I imagined her taking it out occasionally at Christmas parties and listening with pride as an aunt read aloud the news that I had found their favourite niece's third-year essay not only "most promising" but also - hey, listen everyone - "most promising".

Now I had the chance to make amends. I sat down and carefully read every word of the essay. It all came rushing back: the standard references to Judith Williamson's Decoding Advertisements and Roland Barthes' Elements of Semiology, the predictable argument about self-preening and narcissism, and the inevitable conclusion stressing how such depictions of women reinforced the view that they were objects of men's gaze and not agents in their own right.

I filled in my academic credentials at the top of her prospective employer's form and carefully wrote out the first line of my reference: "I remember Jenny Topping very well. She was a most promising student."

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.