Harriet Harman at a Hacked Off event in 2013. She has recently come under fire for her PIE connections
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Containing Putin, Paul Dacre’s revenge on Labour, and parenting advice from Boris

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

If you want to understand why Ukraine matters to Vladimir Putin, take a look at a map. The historic heart of Russia has a long land frontier, with plains stretching east, south and west, and few natural defences except the brutality of its winters. Since the Mongols overran Russia from the east in the 13th century and Europeans then helped themselves to its territories from the west, its rulers have feared encirclement and land invasion. In recent years, the US has brought 12 of the Soviet Union’s former central European allies into Nato. Rightly or wrongly, Russians fear that Nato will eventually include Georgia and Ukraine, with which the US already has a “strategic partnership” or “security relationship”.

Putin is the unpleasant head of an unpleasant regime and the Russians’ preference for strong and aggressive leaders (think Ivan the Terrible) is another result of their insecure history. Yet how would we feel if, in a decade or so, an independent Scotland formed a “security relationship” with Russia? How did the US respond in the 1960s to Cuba’s alliance with Moscow?

Recently, on CNN, the former Princeton University professor of Russian studies Stephen Cohen said: “We are witnessing . . . the making possibly of the worst history of our lifetime.” He recalled that the late US diplomat George Kennan, an architect of the cold war “containment” policy, had warned in the 1990s that the expansion of Nato was a fateful mistake. It would, Kennan had said, lead to a new cold war, with the border this time not in Berlin but much further east.

 

Alpha Mail

I doubt the exposure of Harriet Harman’s “links” in the 1970s with the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) will do her any long-term damage other than reminding us that she has a patrician distaste for admitting intellectual error or moral shortcoming to a mass audience.

Regardless of one’s views about Harman’s culpability, one is bound, however reluctantly, to admire once more the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre. The PIE and its so-called links with lefties and civil libertarians is a story that surfaces, on average, every other year. Dacre presumably revived it in revenge for Labour forcing a limited, grudging retraction of allegations that Ed Miliband’s late father hated Britain.

The Mail first splashed the PIE story across its front page on 19 February. Everyone ignored it. Many editors might think that their news sense was temporarily malfunctioning. Not Dacre. In the following seven days, the Mail splashed on “Labour links to child sex group” three more times, shouting ever louder.

Eventually, the media chatterers could talk of little else. Even the Guardian ran PIE “exposures”. Dacre, paranoid and chippy, may be the Putin of Fleet Street but he demonstrates repeatedly that newspapers are far from dead.

 

Bringing up baby

Always ready to turn a good case into a bad one, Boris Johnson, writing in his Daily Telegraph column, compared Harman’s blindness to the dangers of the PIE to the current “tolerance” of Islamic radicalisation. Only “political correctness”, he argued, prevents the authorities taking into care children who are taught “crazy stuff” and “habituated” by their parents to “this utterly bleak and nihilistic view of the world”.

I, too, would prefer children not to be brought up as Islamist radicals. I would also prefer them not to be raised as Tories, prepared to throw poor people out of their home for having too many bedrooms; as Ukip supporters, uncomfortable with hearing any language other than English; or as Blairites, believing crazy stuff about invading countries with governments we don’t like. No wonder the Telegraph website doesn’t show any readers’ comments on Johnson’s column.

 

Sacred and profane

One problem for those who want a non-religious send-off when they die is that churches own most of the best venues. This may explain why a recent memorial service for a non-believer – attended mainly by left-leaning agnostics and atheists, some very militant indeed – was held in a Nonconformist chapel.

The result was a curious truce between the devout and the secular. The resident vicar began with a sort of apology for his presence in, as it were, his own home and hoped we wouldn’t mind a few hymns. I can best describe the singing as less than lusty but there was nothing hushed about the deceased’s friends and colleagues as they spoke in celebration of her life: a fellow mourner counted four uses of the F-word, two of the C-word and one Jesus in the blasphemous sense. In each case, the vicar laughed ostentatiously.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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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