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An epidemic of epidemics

Over recent years, we’ve all become quite used to the language of epidemiology. There are few people who would be flummoxed by the word ‘pandemic’ these days, and unlike 2018, no-one accidentally refers to ‘breakouts’ instead of ‘outbreaks’ these days.

Hansard lists fifty-seven things described in Parliament as an ‘epidemic’ in the last twelve months. When arranged in order of frequency of mentions, there is quite a long tail.

I wonder how many of them you could name off the top of your head.

Could you guess the top ten?

  • Violence against women and girls (described an epidemic 17 times)
  • COVID-19 (16)
  • Vaping (10)
  • Fraud (9)
  • HIV/AIDS (9)
  • Avian influenza (8)
  • Obesity (7)
  • Eating disorders (5)
  • Loneliness (5)
  • Bowel disease in the North East (5)
  • Pornography (4)
  • Allergy (3)
  • Homelessness (3)
  • Self-harm and suicide (3)
  • Tuberculosis (3)
  • Child sexual abuse (2)
  • Cholera (2)
  • Illicit use of Monkey Dust in Stoke-on-Trent (2)
  • Mental illness (2)
  • Pandemic influenza (2)
  • Rape (2)
  • Sewage spills (2)
  • Sexual harassment (2)
  • Youth violence (2)
  • Arson (1)
  • Antisemitism (1)
  • Brain injury (1)
  • Brain tumours (1)
  • Bullying in the armed forces (1)
  • Crime committed by young people (1)
  • Crime in Blackpool (1)
  • Dental ill-health (1)
  • Discrimination against women at work (1)
  • Dumping food and drink packaging in parks (1)
  • Ebola (1)
  • Exhaustion among NHS staff (1)
  • Executions in Iran (1)
  • Food and mouth disease (1)
  • GPs moving to ‘ring-road’ locations (1)
  • Heat stress (1)
  • High street bank closures (1)
  • Illicit use of nitrous oxide (1)
  • Illness related to the Bhopal disaster (1)
  • Knife crime (1)
  • Lung disease in among children living near Heathrow Airport (1)
  • Malaria (1)
  • Misogyny (1)
  • Moral injury among military personnel (1)
  • Mpox (1)
  • Name changes among sex offenders (1)
  • Polio (1)
  • Potential future injuries related to exposure to asbestos in unaudited rubbish dumps created by the Ministry of Defence (1)
  • Seasonal influenza (1)
  • Short-sightedness (1)
  • Teenage nicotine addiction (1)
  • Type 2 diabetes (1)
  • Workplace harassment (1)

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Politics, Post-a-day 2023.

Sycamore Gap

When a big news event occurs, like a death or a terrorist attack, the atmosphere palpably changes. Word spreads quickly around the office; an air of melancholy descends. On public transport and in shops, it’s overheard as the sole topic of conversation. The air is sombre; the mood subdued. The actual events might be relatively remote, but even locally, the day isn’t a normal one.

Yesterday felt like one of those days in Newcastle. Not because a person had died, but because the Sycamore Gap tree had been felled.

It may have been one of the most famous trees in Britain, and certainly one of the most photographed, not to mention that it was part of a World Heritage Site. Yet, I think many underestimate the degree to which many people from the North East felt personally attached to this sycamore. It’s personal to so many: it was the site of countless proposals, a common spot to leave memorials, and a place imbued with hundreds of years of family memories.

Sycamore Gap also features on endless bits of North East merchandise: often the option left over once the Tyne Bridge, Millennium Bridge and Angel of the North tat has been sold. It always felt like the North East’s symbol for the North East, not necessarily known or appreciated to the same degree by outsiders. It has pride of place in the ITV Tyne Tees title sequence.

Wendy and I were at Sycamore Gap in January. We never thought that it would be our last opportunity to see it.

Yesterday was a sad day.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, , .

Murray & Shrigley

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I’ve seen ‘The Lesson’

Let me say up front that this is the first film I’ve seen during this project that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen and which I’ve also really enjoyed. My socks weren’t blown off, but I did have a good time.

The plot concerns a tutor (played by Daryl McCormack) hired for a young lad who aspires to Oxford’s English Literature programme (played by Stephen McMillan). The lad’s parents are played by Julie Delpy and Richard E Grant. The setting is a large manor in the English countryside. Grant’s character is a successful novelist and McCormack’s character is an aspiring novelist, who also made one of Grant’s character’s novels the subject of his PhD. The family’s butler is played by Crispin Letts.

The plot is vaguely thriller-ish with revelations about the sources of plots, the family’s history, and the developing relationships between the characters. There’s a healthy dose of moral ambiguity to set the whole thing in motion.

McCormack plays his role beautifully: he has a real capacity to imbue his characters with complex layers, which is exactly what is required here. I’ve seen him previously in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande which was a less good film, but in which he also played a reasonably complex character.

Delpy is similarly brilliant, and McMillan manages to portray his character’s repressed emotional depth with complete veracity. Letts’s character felt underwritten—perhaps scenes were cut—which slightly undercut his character’s intriguing arc. I don’t recall seeing any of these three previously.

But for my money—and perhaps this just demonstrates that I don’t know anything about film—Grant’s performance was off-kilter in this film. His character, like the others, is complex with facets revealing themselves as the narrative progresses. But Grant’s characterisation read as uneven to me, as though he was playing different characters with different motivations at different points in the film, rather than a single character who we were getting to know more completely. I don’t think that was the intention, but perhaps I’ve misunderstood it.

One of the best things about this film was the music, composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge. Like all great film music, it disappeared into the background a lot of the time, but occasionally drove the plot, or even provided moments of real humour. There’s a moment of musical levity with a robot lawnmower, which is a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Overall, this was great fun. I enjoyed watching it. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but I’d happily watch it again if I had to. The plot is perhaps a bit contrived, but it is well done. It held my attention throughout, was intriguing, and had some really fun moments too. The slightly rubbish trailer undersells it. It’s worth 103 minutes of your time.

This post was filed under: Film, Post-a-day 2023, , , , , , .

The cog ain’t turning

This post was filed under: Photos, Post-a-day 2023, , .

Nowt’s broken

This post was filed under: Photos, Post-a-day 2023, , .

I’ve seen Erland Cooper

On Friday, Wendy and I were fortunate enough to visit the recently re-christened Glasshouse to hear Erland Cooper and a string quartet from the Scottish Ensemble, supported by Midori Jaeger. We had a brilliant time.

Neither of us had previously heard Jaeger, but her set of original songs performed solo with her pizzicato cello demonstrated remarkable talent. It was Wendy’s favourite part of the night. Jaeger also joined the Cooper and the quartet in the main set.

And what a main set it was, with remarkable performances. I’ve listened to all of Cooper’s albums repeatedly, but my favourite is still the original Solan Goose, and a fair proportion of the set was drawn from that album. There were a couple of moments of real imagination: the title song of that album accompanied by a ‘gannet choir’ made up of the audience streaming gannet calls from Cooper’s website; one song played entirely in the dark.

Cooper’s music isn’t entirely up Wendy’s street: the melodies are quite simple and repetitive (I would say ‘meditative’) but we were both nevertheless entranced by the skill of the musicians. Cooper himself also proved to be an endearing character, bringing real warmth and humour to the evening.

Basically: we had a great night out.

This post was filed under: Music, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Banning politicians from social media

Over recent months, I’ve become more certain in my position that the BBC shouldn’t be creating and sharing material on closed social networks. I’m defining ‘closed’ as anything that isn’t available to the public without a login. For example, BBC journalists shouldn’t—as part of their job—be posting threads on ‘X’.

Universal access is a core part of what the BBC stands for. Indeed, they’ve always aimed (with variable success) to give equal access to their television services regardless of the platform rather than giving preferential treatment to, say, Sky subscribers. I shouldn’t have to give my data to a third party to receive BBC content.

I used to think the same of government bodies, but then I changed my mind: it’s the responsibility of the government to reach people where they are, no matter how unpalatable that location.

A couple of weeks ago, Ryan Broderick gave me a whole new suggestion to ponder when he suggested that all politicians should be banned from private social networks. It is coming up to a month since he wrote that, and it’s been swimming around my mind ever since.

On one hand: clearly, there’s a risk of politicians being duplicitous by posting different things on different closed social media networks.

But on the other: ‘twas ever thus. I’m sure politicians have always said things in closed fora that they might not say elsewhere. The bit they write for a church newsletter is probably quite different in tone and content to the speech they give at the local social club. That’s clearly not wrong nor necessarily bad. If they end up saying contradictory things to different audiences, then they risk exposure.

It’s fair to say that the internet is not a church newsletter: for one thing, social media content has the potential to travel further faster than anything handed out in hard copy. But that’s actually protective of the underlying principle: the further content spreads, the greater the probability of inconsistencies coming to light.

So, despite my misgivings about social media, I don’t think I’m with Broderick on this one.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Media, Post-a-day 2023, Technology, , .

I’ve seen ‘A Haunting in Venice’

This film, currently in cinemas, is the third in a series based on Agatha Christie’s character Poirot. The series is produced and directed by its lead actor, Kenneth Branagh. Given the rationale for this series of posts, you’ll be unsurprised that I haven’t seen the others.

I did, however, read a lot of Poirot in my youth, and my mum and I would often watch the David Suchet adaptation together. I was surprised, therefore, that I didn’t recognise the plot of A Haunting in Venice: only afterwards did I read that it was based on Hallowe’en Party, a novel to which the film’s plot has only the most passing resemblance.

The film opens with Poirot in retirement in Venice—that’s new—when a friend and writer played by Tina Fey visits. The twinkle in Fey’s eye made me sit back in my seat: ’they’ve got this,” I thought. They’d clocked the fact that the Poirot series is essentially ridiculous, and needs to be treated with a knowing lightheartedness. Death is no more than a puzzle, the investigation no more than a riddle to be solved. They’ve understood that.

Reader, I was wrong. Far from treating death lightly, the writer has decided to make one character suffer post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. We’re so far from funny that we’re literally discussing the Holocaust.

But it’s okay because Fey will be along with a genuinely funny one-liner about Poirot’s idiosyncratic phraseology shortly.

This is a film that gave me whiplash. It seems to try to combine the lightest, silliest approach to death—spearing on a classical statue, drowning during apple bobbing—with a deep-seated reflection of the horror and trauma of war. It’s a deeply peculiar oil and water combination.

Just to add to the confusion, the film is imbued with something adjacent to horror. There are classical horror tropes in here—jump scares, weird cinematography, haunting noises—but it doesn’t feel like the film is intending to make these moments genuinely frightening. It’s almost like it is hinting in that direction, as though someone’s realised that juxtaposing cheap scares with the horror of war is a little insensitive.

This wasn’t a terrible film: overall, I found it fairly enjoyable. I certainly preferred it to Sound of Freedom and Gran Turismo. But my overriding thought as I walked out of the cinema was: ‘well, that was odd.’

This post was filed under: Film, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

Let’s ban ‘prevention’

Richard Smith recently proposed banning the word ‘prevention’ in healthcare:

A few years ago, my friend Pritt, one of life’s instinctive radicals and iconoclasts, talked to me about “the deficit model of health.” At first, I didn’t grasp his point, but slowly I came to understand. What is being prevented? Sickness, of course. Prevention leads to health, which is the “absence of sickness.” Health is defined as a deficit, the absence of sickness. And who determines if you are sick? Doctors. If we stick with “prevention” then doctors will determine who is sick and who is “healthy” because they are not sick.

Like most radical ideas, this one took me on a journey. My instinctive response was to agree: I smiled broadly as I read, ‘Dying is healthy; living forever would be unhealthy.’

Of course, ‘we need a bolder and broader definition of health—something to do with resilience, adaptability, coping, interdependence, and relationships with others, our community, the planet, and nature.’

But then, I paused. I work in health protection. Most of my job is about ‘preventing’ illness. If someone is a close contact of a patient with a particular disease, then they may need antibiotics to prevent them from becoming unwell themselves. If there’s a high likelihood that a foodstuff in someone’s fridge was manufactured in a way which has introduced contamination, that food might be better off binned to prevent food poisoning. If a cloud of chlorine gas is rolling towards a housing estate, then the people must be evacuated to prevent them from choking to death.

And then I saw the point. To see my job as ‘prevention’ is precisely the sort of simplification that I myself often rail against. My job isn’t really to prevent people from becoming unwell: they can take as many risks and be as unwell as they damn well please. My job is really to inform them of the risk they face, help them to decide whether they want to act in light of that new information, and to support them to act if they wish to do so.

This is significantly different because—as I frequently find myself emphatically explaining to others—it can be perfectly rational not to act in response to a risk. This is especially true given that most actions generate side effects, which each of us will value differently. We don’t—and shouldn’t and mustn’t—compel people to act based on our assessment of the risk to their physical health, because there might well be other things that they value more greatly.

Banning the word ‘prevention’, even from an area of medicine that might seem to be entirely focused on it, would be enormously helpful in reframing what we do.

This post was filed under: Health, , .

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