Nun too wise: Tristram missed a chance. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
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Colour-blind abuse, how to teach children about snow and what Tristram Hunt should have said

Snow blindness, the Guardian hustings - plus left- and back-footedness on Question Time.

Nearly two years ago, I received a curious letter from a senior newspaper executive. (As it was “strictly private and confidential”, I shall not identify him or his paper.) He recalled that in 2010 I had criticised the Daily Mail for a double-page spread about what it called “a sinister taboo”. Nine men in Derby, eight of Asian background, had been jailed for “grooming” schoolgirls for sex. BBC Radio Derby, the Mail lamented, “barely” mentioned their ethnic origins, while the local paper’s reports “failed to use the word Asian once”. Why, I asked, did the Mail think it so important “that we should have it lodged firmly in our minds that these criminals were (mostly) Asian and their victims (mostly) white”?

My correspondent pointed out that the Times’s Andrew Norfolk had just won the Orwell Prize for “highlighting the ethnic and cultural components” of sex-abuse cases in northern towns. Would I now accept that my comments were “misguided”? I would not.

Has the report on Rotherham council from Louise Casey, the government’s troubled families tsar, changed my mind? In only one respect: I accept that some councillors, officers and social workers ignored evidence of horrific sexual abuse partly because, as Casey reports, they feared creating racial tension. Their behaviour deserves to be publicised and denounced.

But I still do not see why the media should highlight ethnic origins of child abusers, particularly when the names of convicted men provide sufficient clues, as they did in Derby. The story in Rotherham and elsewhere is that organised street networks – based on the night-time economy of taxis and fast-food outlets, disproportionately staffed by young Asian men – preyed on vulnerable girls. The girls were stereotyped as worthless slags by those who should have protected them. That is the scandal.

Children were also abused in large numbers by boarding-school teachers, Roman Catholic priests, care workers in children’s homes and celebrities in the entertainment industry. Nearly all the abusers were white but the reporting defined them by occupation – which gave them opportunity and a sometimes justified belief that they were beyond the reach of the law – not by ethnicity. For similar reasons, the abusers in northern towns could be defined by their work as taxi drivers and burger fryers. The only reason for making their ethnicity a central issue is that it plays to white stereotypes about the uncontrollable sexual appetites of dark-skinned folk and therefore, no doubt, sells a few extra papers.

 

Bribe the aged

I wouldn’t normally find myself on the same side as a free-market think tank. But the Institute of Economic Affairs is right to criticise George Osborne for giving the more affluent over-65s a windfall in the form of pensioner bonds. These pay 4 per cent interest if held for five years or 2.8 per cent if held for two – a rate of return far beyond any offered by banks.

The Chancellor tells us the country must reduce the cost of borrowing. That is why the deficit must fall and why families with young children lose benefits and tax credits, and the NHS struggles. Yet here is Osborne borrowing an estimated £15bn from Britain’s pensioners at (once he’s taken back tax) 3.2 and 2.2 per cent, when he could
borrow on the gilt markets at 0.3 per cent. Even the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian governments aren’t paying as much as he is. It is just a bribe to persuade pensioners to vote Tory in May.

 

Snow blindness

Here is a Daily Mail story that sums up English education as remoulded by Michael Gove. When snow began to fall in the playground of a Norfolk primary school, a teacher of eight- and nine-year-olds lowered the classroom blinds so they couldn’t see it. The teacher acted to ensure “children focused on the tasks in hand”, the school explained.

In 1967, the Plowden report on primary education in England, regarded as the bible of progressives and trendies, considered the merits of “flexibility in the curriculum”: “When a class of seven-year-olds notice the birds that come to the bird table outside the classroom window, they may decide, after discussion with their teacher, to make their own aviary . . . paint the birds in flight, make models of them . . . write stories and poems about them.” Now, it is left to a Norfolk parent, “mother-of-six Shelly Betts, 43” (as the Mail calls her), to suggest that “they could have turned the snow into a science lesson”. Make that woman education secretary, I say.

 

Hacks’ hustings

Though the final decision will not be made by them, Guardian journalists ballot later this month on who should be their next editor. The candidates have not been named but are said to include one external applicant, probably Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who is now editing BBC2’s Newsnight without (if we believe the ratings) conspicuous success. The world, the hacks clearly believe, waits with bated breath: they spent much of their last meeting discussing whether the hustings should be streamed live over the internet.

 

Where do left-footers stand?

British Roman Catholics often seem reluc­tant to relinquish the victim status they held for several hundred years. During a debate about unqualified teachers on BBC1’s Question Time, Cristina Odone, the former NS deputy editor and professional left-footer, protested when Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, mentioned nuns. Poor Hunt, accused of denigrating Catholics, was caught in a mini Twitter storm. But what Odone had just said was that unqualified teachers at Catholic schools she attended “taught values, not British values . . . real values”. Hunt, I think, was trying to say that these teachers were nuns who taught Catholic doctrine. A good point, but he would have done better to ask why Odone was denigrating British values. 

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 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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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