Magna Carta was more tomorrow's fish and chip paper than as British as fish and chips. Photo: Getty
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No, Prime Minister, Magna Carta is nothing like fish and chips: here's what it really says

David Cameron wants children to be taught about Magna Carta in his drive for “British values”, but here are some things the revered document actually says that may not come under that banner...

The Prime Minister is very concerned about Magna Carta. It’s as if he was suddenly repeatedly BBM’ed by a load of impatient feudal lords who want their bite out of the political news cycle for once.

So, despite having infamously admitted in 2012 that he didn’t know what the name of the document meant, David Cameron has now decided it’s time to break that cycle of ignorance and teach school children of all different backgrounds about the great charter of 1215. He’s also invited guests to a Magna Carta reception at Downing Street. Sadly, the invitation read “Magna Carter”. He’s right; it’s time for teachers to step in.

Next year is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the original charter by King John at Runnymede (“between Windsor and Staines”, as the original, pre-Google Maps source helpfully explains), and the PM wants to use this as an opportunity for children to learn about it, and for Britain to celebrate it.

He wrote this in the Mail, in a piece responding to the "Trojan Horse" furore engulfing some schools in Birmingham. In the article, he suggests that "British values" such as Magna Carta's legacies – the rule of law, rights, liberties, etc – are as important as the “Union flag, as football, as fish and chips”. Good, honest, old-fashioned English fare – as Gordon Ramsay would probably describe this new curricular vision.

But here are parts of the country’s favourite crusty old scroll, taken from the British Library’s translation, which the PM may think twice about teaching as part of “British values”:


You can inherit through marriage, but not if you’re a pleb

(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be made known to the heir's next-of-kin.


All those debt-collecting Jews should lose out

(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.

(11) If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue, reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly.


A woman appealing doesn’t really count – unless it’s about her husband

(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.


Obviously we can’t expect historical sources to care one jot about sexism, anti-semitism and class divides. Everything, however unpalatable, should be taught for a reliable picture of the document’s context. But these archaic little clauses in the charter point to a bigger flaw in Cameron's contract to educate Britain. Talking about Magna Carta in reverential, patriotic terms – as if its handful of enlightened ideas is unique to Britain – will help no child develop a proper understanding of its historical significance. Not least because weeks after it was sealed, the king renounced it and the barons revolted. Identifying its flaws, and tracing its mutations, and disappearances under future rulers, rather than passively viewing it as something as innocently “British” as fish and chips, is a more honest approach.

But in his response to potential "extremism" in our schools, it’s clear the PM is looking to placate some unruly barons of his own.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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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