Tick-tock-box politics: Big Ben gets cleaned
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Slimeballs and sleeping bags: BBC2's Inside the Commons

In Parliament, deals are being cut everywhere. Some are gruesome, others merely farcical.

Michael Cockerell’s new series, Inside the Commons (10 February, 9pm), has a jaunty and mischievous tone, as if he were Michael Frayn and Britain’s 650 MPs were the cast of a particularly silly and complicated farce. But this doesn’t mean that, in all its pomp, it can’t make you feel as mad as hell. As I listened to Jacob Rees-Mogg filibuster a private member’s bill that aimed to mitigate the effects of the so-called bedroom tax, my vision was the same colour as the benches in the House of Lords. “But I really want to talk about time,” said the member for North-East Somerset, a smirk smeared on his pasty features like jam on cold rice pudding. And then: “Time, like an ever rolling stream/Bears all its sons away./They fly forgotten as a dream/Dies at the opening day.” Not only was this puerile and, in the end, destructive: I felt the insult in it, too, for he was quoting Isaac Watts, the great Nonconformist theologian and hymn writer.

How can behaviour like this be tolerated, let alone sanctioned, by the machinery of parliament? The sorry truth is that there is simply no appetite for real change; many MPs, if not most, enjoy this stuff, whatever they might say to the contrary. Either they grew up with it, or they’ve aspired to it all their lives. (We’ve already heard David Cameron tell Cockerell that the Commons was a bit like “a school”, to which the only sane response is: speak for yourself. Mine was a leaking Seventies monstrosity surrounded by Portakabins.) Others turn native on arrival, the archaic customs of the place serving either to shore up their self-esteem or to inflate their native pomposity further. Those who do kick up any kind of a fuss are quickly and easily placated, the offer of even a lowly government job having much the same effect as Mogadon.

In the second episode, we saw Robert Halfon, the Conservative member for Harlow in Essex, working hard on the issue of hospital parking fees (he and his constituents want rid). But, then . . . Brring, brring! On the line: No 11. Moments later, he was with the Chancellor, gratitude oozing from his every pore. “I want you to be my eyes and ears,” said George Osborne, in the manner of a king tossing a chicken wing to a peasant. Halfon was to be his new parliamentary private secretary, a job that would involve him keeping his gob firmly shut from now on.

Deals are being cut everywhere. Some are gruesome, others merely farcical. Desperate to grab a few parliamentary hours for the opposition, Thomas Docherty, the Labour MP for Dunfermline, scooted off to see a couple of Tory Eurosceptics: Peter Bone, who sits for Wellingborough, and Christopher Chope, who represents Christchurch. Together, they cooked up a plan. Over the next 48 hours, they would take turns sleeping in a room adjoining that of the Commons clerk responsible for allotting the final few slots available for private members’ bills – so they might be first in the queue on the big day. The sight of Docherty slipping into a sleeping bag in his boxer shorts and socks will stay with me for some time as a symbol of all that is most dumb about the way the Commons works. Parliamentary sessions are just one long game of “bagsy”, the only variation being when MPs play “chicken” instead (Prime Minister’s Questions).

There are still only 148 women MPs, and Cockerell is following a few of them. There’s Charlotte Leslie, a Tory (Bristol) who likes to box, and Sarah Champion, Labour (Rotherham), who still seems rather lost in the Palace of Westminster’s three miles of corridors. He also spoke to Penny Mordaunt, the Tory MP for Portsmouth North, to whom it fell to open the Budget debate last year. By tradition, the first speech in this debate is meant to be funny and Mordaunt obliged with an anecdote featuring the words “penis and testicles” – cue much laughter from all those in possession of these. Then Ed Miliband rose. The leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition congratulated Mordaunt for bravely taking part in the ITV reality show Splash, after which he offered that, should she be in need of a further challenge, she could always try “wrestling a bacon sandwich”. Oh, the glorious mother of parliaments, so decorous and so very witty. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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