Like a Shakespearean Play

It’s been the best English summer for a long time. And it’s reminded me of an event that took place a little over 9 years ago.

It was July 2005, and I’d been invited to an old friend’s 60th birthday bash in Somerset. I was living in Devon at the time, and so I drove there in the beat-up Metro I owned back then, picking up another old friend at a railway station en route.

We arrived early in the afternoon at what once would have been somebody’s large country house a century earlier, picked up some drinks and wandered out onto a very large lawn, surrounded by trees, on the far side of which there stood a little open pergola or pavilion. It was a delicious English summer day, and I wandered among the guests, meeting many old friends I hadn’t seen in years.

I can’t remember when I was first told that smoking wasn’t allowed in the house, and that I very definitely wasn’t allowed to smoke in the bedroom I was to share with the friend I’d collected. But it was only when I arrived that I learned that the pergola was the only place that smoking was permitted. You couldn’t just step outside: you had to walk the 100+ yards to the pergola.

Anyway, the afternoon passed off happily enough in a crowd of people standing on the lawn. A competent rock band played on a stage beside the lawn.

And then, after the sun had set, everyone drifted back inside the house, to grab food and drink from a buffet, and to continue talking.

Back in 2005, a smoking ban was a distant (and in my view, unlikely) prospect. It wasn’t something I’d thought much about, although I knew that the head doctor of the BMA had called for one. And so the indoor non-smoking party was the first I’d ever attended.

And I found it rather strange and disconcerting. There was something unreal about it all. There were familiar faces all around me, and there was a din of conversation, but everything was too bright and too clear, because there was no smoke in the air. And the fact that smoking had been banned lent an air of artificiality to it all (even though there weren’t any No Smoking signs that I remember).

Eventually, although there was music and conversation and laughter and familiar faces, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable, and slightly oppressed. So I grabbed a drink and a plate of food, and headed off out to the pergola.

When I got there, I found a strange scene. There were already 20 or 30 people sitting on chairs in and around the pergola. They included all the members of the rock band that had been playing earlier. And they were all sitting in almost complete silence in the darkness, gazing into the distance, as if lost in thought. Periodically, one of them would go back to the house to refill their glass, and then return to the silent pergola.

I did the same. For I sat the entire evening out by the pergola, silently smoking and drinking, occasionally going back inside just to get another drink.

The non-smoking hostess whose birthday it was never came out to see her guests sat out by the pergola. Neither did the non-smoking friend who I’d collected from the station.

Eventually, as the party wound down, I returned inside, found my assigned bedroom, climbed into bed, and fell asleep.

In the morning, after a non-smoking breakfast (and another return to the pergola), I took my friend back to the station from which I’d collected her, where we parted very amicably, and I drove back to Devon.

In retrospect, I can see that it was my first experience of being “exiled to the outdoors.” But it was also my first experience of the tremendous divisiveness of smoking bans, with the majority of non-smokers chatting noisily indoors, completely oblivious to the silent, excluded minority of smokers outside. For the fact that the pergola was the only permitted smoking area had meant that all the smokers congregated there, and served to emphasize the degree of the division that had taken place.

And also in retrospect, the experience of that night had the character of a portent or premonition of what was coming, and how a sunny and friendly English summer afternoon would be followed by a darkness of deepening exclusion and division.  And all played out, like a Shakespearean play, in a single afternoon and evening, years before the event that it prefigured.

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Three News Items

Three news items. First one via Audrey Silk on Facebook:

If you smoke, you’re out

Patients sneaking a smoke or a chew at Salina Regional Health Center or any of the hospital’s other properties will be sent away.

The hospital implemented new rules Aug. 4 that are meant to strengthen its policy regarding smoking and use of other tobacco products.

In a Thursday news release, the hospital warned that patients who violate the policy will be discharged and considered leaving against medical advice. A nurse will remove the intravenous tube if they have one; tests and treatments will cease and the patient will be instructed to call for a ride home.

The hospital made the changes “effective immediately” for patients. Employees have more time.

Since implementation of the policy, some patients have been sent home, said David Moody, the hospital’s vice president of human resources.

He was not aware Thursday if there are procedures in place to readmit patients if they agree to follow the rules.

“I’ve got to believe it’s one strike and you’re out, but I cannot be sure about that,” Moody said. “I know that in the information provided to the patient, that is made very clear to them up front.”

Next story:

How dozens of patients have been barred from liver transplant operations for refusing to give up alcohol

More than 160 alcoholics refused liver transplants in the past five years

They were not able to show doctors that they could stop drinking

Gary Reinbach, 22, died after being refused a liver transplant in 2009

Professor Rajiv Jalan says teenagers are more susceptible to liver disease

New scheme launched allowing alcoholics to have liver transplants on NHS

And now a story with a happy ending. Professor John Ashton is known for:

In November 2013, Ashton said society had to accept that a third of all children were having sex at 14 or 15. He believed a debate was necessary about lowering the age of consent to 15 so that NHS advice was available. Ashton said that in countries where the age of consent was lower, teenage pregnancies were also lower. David Cameron said there were no plans to change and, whilst David Tucker of the NSPCC supported a debate, he doubted if reducing the age of consent would help. Nick Clegg and shadow public health minister Luciana Berger both opposed the move but called for better sex education.

In July 2014 Ashton became the “most senior doctor” to support assisted dying. He called for a change in the law to allow doctors specialised in end of life care to end the suffering of those suffering “major discomfort.”

In 2004, Ashton stated that the national diet was “a disaster and a public health emergency in the making”

The happy ending:

A prominent Government health adviser has been forced to stand aside for sending abusive messages on Twitter.

Professor John Ashton stepped down as president of the Faculty of Public Health yesterday following a venomous spat on the social media site.

The doctor, who is strongly opposed to e-cigarettes, called one supporter a ‘c***’.

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The Politics of Fantasy

Still on the subject of the Scottish referendum, from Christopher Booker:

But this dream, that with one mighty bound Scotland can be free, is only the latest example of what has become one of the most prominent features of politics in our time: the extent to which politicians can get carried away by fantasies that seem to promise some glorious future, only to find that, once they have taken the great gamble, reality comes crashing in on them, in the shape of everything their blinkered make-believe had overlooked.

We saw it in the EU’s launch of the euro. We saw it in Messrs Bush and Blair’s belief that, by toppling Saddam Hussein, Iraq could move into a happy, democratic future. We are seeing it in the crisis created with Russia by the EU’s vainglorious urge to suck Ukraine into its own empire. We see it in all the disastrous consequences of that collective make-believe over man-made global warming.

And we also see it in attempts at large-scale social engineering – smoking bans, for example – offering an alluring fantasy of a glorious “smoke-free” future. And that has had disastrous consequences too.

Along similar lines, Janet Daley:

The business of government is seen as having become the property of a club whose attitudes and priorities are self-consciously fashionable, urban and “liberal” (in the specialised self-appointed sense of that word), and who openly despise all those parts of the electorate who do not conform to their ideal picture of what a modern society should be. What the various anti-politics protest movements have gathered is that this Westminster-Washington-Brussels consensus is remarkably illiberal (in the true sense of the word).

There is to be no arguing or debating with its assumptions because those who oppose it are simply beneath contempt: fascists, reactionaries, bigots, provincial know-nothings. And this derisive dismissal cuts right across party lines. Compare Gordon Brown’s description of the Labour-voter who dared to express her anxiety about immigration as just a “bigoted woman”, with the sentiment expressed recently by a Tory commentator that the Clacton voters who could not accept the party’s modernising agenda should be ignored until they die off. This is a degree of open, undisguised contempt for the electorate that is unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime.

I thought the basic principle of democracy was that leaders were elected who would embody the will of the people, not that the people had to comply with the will of the leaders or be rejected as unworthy.

 Like smokers, once again.

I’m constantly surprised that these critics of the EU and the political class never use the smoking ban as another handy stick with which to beat them. And that’s probably because most of the scribbling classes seem to be ex-smokers or antismokers, and have already bought into quite a lot of “modernisation” already.

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The Disintegrating EU

Britain isn’t the only European country on the brink of division. Richard North writes:

Hundreds of thousands of Catalans packed the streets of Barcelona yesterday. They were there to demand the right to vote on a potential split from Spain, their ambitions boosted by the Scottish referendum, scheduled for next week.

Participants, estimated as many as 1.8 million, dressed in red and yellow, the colours of the Catalan flag, and lined up along two of Barcelona’s main arteries to form a huge “V” for “vote”, visible in aerial footage. Many wore T-shirts saying Ara es l’hora (“Now is the time”) in the Catalan language, in a festive atmosphere on Catalonia’s national day.

And he points at one of the principal reasons why this is happening:

And there lies an interesting dynamic. With Scotland, “on the slab”, so to speak, other European separatists are watching developments with more than academic interest. If Scotland does manage to break away, there will be plenty of other movements wanting to repeat the experience.

The interesting thing here is that the growth of separatist movements is in part a reflection of the weakness of the national governments which have hitherto held together the disparate parts of their domains.

Now enter M. Monnet, his friends and successors, who have spent lifetimes undermining nation states, all in the interest of creating their glorious supranational state.

But the irony now seems to be that, rather than paving the way to a United States of Europe, weakening the nation states is lifting the lid on a wholly different can of worms. Instead of unifying states, reducing their power is having the opposite effect, fragmentation rather than unification.

The “colleagues” might thus have to confront the daunting prospect (for them) that their great guru was wrong. Far from being the fount of all evil, nation states were (and are) the only thing standing between us and a fragmentation that, once started, will only continue.

At the end of the line are the terrors of tribalism, and the Scots may find that they have unleashed forces over which they have no control. A spilt from London may not be the end of it, with the Orkney and Shetland islands to follow.

That dirty word, “nationalism” may have to be rehabilitated. The nation state may be the only thing standing between us and chaos.

 In the Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard says much the same:

Europe is disintegrating. Two large and ancient kingdoms are near the point of rupture as Spain follows Britain into constitutional crisis, joined like Siamese twins.

The post-Habsburg order further east is suddenly prey to a corrosive notion that settled borders are up for grabs. “Problems frozen for decades are warming up again,” said Giles Merritt, from Friends of Europe in Brussels.

He sets out the prospect of a chain reaction:

“If the Scots and Catalans go, the Flemish will follow. The precedent creates so much pressure,” says Paul Belien, a Belgian author and Flemish nationalist. The separatist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie is the biggest party in the Flemish parliament.

“I am not happy. I fear the Scottish experiment will end in economic disaster and discredit our cause. We are the ones who subsidize Wallonia, so we’re really in the position of England,” he said.

Less understood is how this domino effect is spreading to a new group of stranded people, the irredentists left on the wrong side of Europe’s borders at the end of the Great War, victims of Versailles and Trianon. You can feel an icy chill of history. “We thought we had solved the problems of Europe’s borders, but as the glue comes off in one place, it is losing its hold elsewhere,” said Mats Persson, from Open Europe.

“Scotland is our example,” says Eva Klotz, leader of Süd-Tiroler Freiheit movement in the Italian Dolomites. “What is happening in Scotland changes everything for us. That the Scots can vote – and crucially that England respects it – shows that it’s possible to achieve self-determination democratically, without war and violence,” she said.

Yet there is a twist. The sub-plot of the Süd-Tirol campaign is reunification with Austria, 100 years after it was torn away and handed to Italy as a strategic barrier, or spoils of war. There are many such pockets across Europe: the Swedes in eastern Finland, the Germans on the wrong side of the Belgian border or indeed across much of Alsace, the Irish Catholics of Derry, and soon perhaps the Shetlanders within a new Scotland. Above all there are the Hungarians.

Europe’s stability since 1945 is built on the sanctity of borders, a universal acceptance that nobody will reopen this Pandora’s Box, even if they have legitimate cause. It is why Russia’s seizure of Ukraine has been such a shock, so dangerous since it drew a chorus of apologists within the EU, some aiming to exploit it, others useful idiots.

The problem may be that, with the entire European political class in thrall of the EU, and largely ignoring their own citizens, while imposing more and more EU rules and regulations on them, the ignored citizenry now seek to escape from what increasingly seems like tyranny, and become their own masters again. And for some, the means of escape is independence. And for many Scots, independence looks like independence from the UK. For many English (like me), and the UK Independence Party, independence looks like independence from the EU. But the motivations are all essentially the same: to restore autonomy.

And if the European Union might be thought of as being a couple of dozen large sacks of flour, bound together by an ever-tightening rope of “ever closer union”, the outcome may well be that, as the rope tightens, the sacks simply start bursting, and what’s left of the European Union will be a few empty, ragged sacks tied together at a single point of “closest possible union”.

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A Tale of Two Divisions

According to figures I’ve found, Scotland’s population last year was 5.3 million, which is about 8% of the UK’s total population of 64.1 million.

Everyone in England (including me) is now thoroughly alarmed at the prospect of 8% of the UK population becoming divided from the rest. All the party leaders have decamped to Scotland to campaign for the No vote. Nigel Farage too. Even ex-PMs Gordon Brown and John Major (no sign of Tony Blair though). It’s all getting very emotional:

Ed Davey just told BBC Radio 4’s WATO that our country as we know it “could be pulled asunder a week tomorrow” and that the time has come for the emotional case for the Union.

He said: “I think this emotional pitch is just right. We’ve had all the rational arguments. I feel emotional about my country, our country, the United Kingdom as we know it, could be pulled apart a week tomorrow. Britain, which we’ve all grown up with, for 500 years, could change a week tomorrow. It’s absolutely right that we don’t just talk about the currency, the jobs that will be lost and all that sort of thing, but we talk about what makes us special as a family of nations.

But where were they all when 23% of England’s adult population was “exiled to the outdoors” on 1 July 2007? Wasn’t that an equivalent division in British society? Where were the voices back then appealing to reason (or emotion)?

There was almost complete silence. Overnight smokers became non-persons to be completely ignored by everybody. And the smoking ban is now hardly ever mentioned.

If Scotland were to be treated the way smokers were, there’d be a brief report at the end of the BBC News that Scotland had just seceded from England, and a couple of interviews with people saying they were “glad to see the back of them”, and “it’s lovely to be scot-free now.” And then Scotland would never be mentioned again. And if it ever was mentioned, people would act as if it hadn’t been mentioned, and talk about something else.

The difference, though, is that the Scots have politicians to speak on their behalf. Smokers have never had anyone speaking for them.  David Cameron (a smoker) didn’t speak up for smokers. Nick Clegg (a smoker) didn’t speak up for smokers. Charles Kennedy (a smoker, and Lib Dem leader until 2006) didn’t speak up for smokers. There’s a very long list of politicians who could have and should have loudly protested, but didn’t.

In my view, what’s happening to smokers is actually far worse than Scottish independence. Because Scottish independence really only affects Britain. It’s a local problem. But smoking bans are now ubiquitous almost everywhere in the world. And given a total world population of smokers in the region of 1.5 billion, that’s 1.5 billion people being “exiled to the outdoors.” And then forgotten.

It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do to people. And there will be terrible, terrible consequences.

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Not Responsible

I’ve been slowly chewing over something I read last week:

On the other side of the debate is Dr Stephen Parnis, an emergency physician and vice president of the Australian Medical Association. Dr Parnis believes regulations around smoking, alcohol and junk food are justified from a public health perspective.

“’Nanny state’ is a wonderful throwaway term people love to use, but no one ever complains about the nanny state when they’re in a public hospital and I’m trying to save their life,” he said.

“We don’t live in isolation. We have a collective responsibility to each other, that’s what living in a society is all about. If we let these problems deteriorate, the cost of treating the effects of alcohol, smoking and obesity falls on everyone else’s shoulders.”

Dr Parnis said while it was the duty of health professionals to respect the right of the patient to make their own decisions once they had been provided all the information, sometimes it wasn’t as simple as that.

“There are clearly exceptions when the patient is not in a fit state to make those decisions — children, people with mental illness. Plus there are a lot of people in denial about health problems, such as someone who is seriously overweight.

“We need to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. That applies whether it’s at the individual or community level.”

In particular the highlighted passage. And even more particularly the “collective responsibility” thing.

Do we really have a ‘collective responsibility’ to each other? And is that what living in a society is all about?

That’s the way Stephen Parnis seems to see things. And what he seems to be saying is: “I am responsible for what you do. I have to pick up the bits when you mess up. And that’s why it’s up to me to prevent you from doing yourself damage that I’ll have to fix.”

But wait a minute. Surely, as an emergency physician, it’s his job to pick up the bits when people mess up, overdose on drugs, fall off ladders, crash their cars. That’s what he’s paid to do. It’s not my job. And it isn’t most other people’s job either. So there’s no ‘collective responsibility’ here. There’s really only his responsibility as an emergency physician.

His job is to attend to medical emergencies as and when they arise, much like it’s a firefighter’s job to attend fires as and when they break out. Maybe sometimes he can save lives, and maybe sometimes he can’t. He can only do the best he knows how.

But that’s not enough for him. He wants to prevent people from getting sick, overdosing on drugs, and falling off ladders in the first place. And in doing this, he’s really trying to minimize his own responsibilities. And he’s trying to reduce the burden that falls on his shoulders.

So he’s really just looking after Number One. And all this high-fallutin’ stuff about ‘collective responsibility’ and ‘living in society’ is just a way of concealing his own self-interest.

Whenever I’ve had a job, I’ve been responsible for doing something or other, and I’ve always carried out that responsibility to the best of my abilities. But the responsibility stops there. I’m not responsible for everything and everyone, all the time.

But these days there seem to be more and more Stephen Parnises who somehow feel responsible for everything and everybody, all the time. In some ways all these Greens and environmentalists are even worse, because they feel responsible not just for everyone else, but for all living things, and in fact the entire planet Earth.

Yet if Dr Parnis believes that he’s responsible for me, and it’s people like him that are going to have to pick up the bits of smokers like me, then it must also be true that I’m responsible for him, and that I’m going to have to pick up the tab for the damage that people like him are doing. And antismoking zealots like him are doing immense damage with all their bans and restrictions. They’re damaging the entire fabric of the very society which they hold paramount, as they shatter communities, bankrupt bars and cafes, and more. And some day the rest of us are going to put a brake on people like Parnis.

But anyway there’s a name for the only entity that might actually be responsible for everyone and everything, all the time. And the name for that is God. And somehow or other God seems to manage to carry that enormous burden of responsibility without griping and complaining about it all the time.

And all these Parnises and environmentalists and Greens, that feel so responsible for everything and everyone, are trying to take upon themselves the role of God. But because none of them are up to the task (nobody is), no sooner have they taken on the responsibility than it becomes an intolerable burden – and they start griping and complaining, and doing their level best to relieve themselves of the burden. Just like Dr Parnis.

Really these people need to learn is that they’re Not Responsible for everyone and everything and the entire planet Earth. Almost everything that happens is out of our control and therefore not our responsibility. We live on a little spinning rock that circles a star. We have zero control over that, and so zero responsibility. And also we have zero control over the tides and the weather and the seasons, because those things are all functions of being on a little spinning rock circling a star. And we aren’t responsible for being living things that need food and shelter either. And we aren’t responsible for much more besides. We hardly responsible for anything.

Pretty much the most that anyone can do is to fulfil the responsibilities that their employment imposes on them, as an emergency physician, or firefighter, or plumber, or baker, or cab driver. Everything else is an optional extra.

Control freaks like Parnis need to relax, and leave the responsibility for absolutely everything with God, where it belongs.

And you can find Him most Tuesdays outside a little bar on Lexington and 5th, doing crosswords, drinking beer, and smoking cigarettes.

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Toast Kills

H/T Rose for the latest absurdity:


I never pay any attention to any of these warnings, except perhaps to do the opposite of whatever they’re advising.

Which reminds me that a few months ago I bought one of these:


It’s a Cuisinart electric griddler, and consists of two hotplates which can be closed together, or folded open flat to give twice the area. I bought it because I was thinking of getting a toasted sandwich maker, but came across this, and thought I could probably make toasted sandwiches in it, and lots of other things too. I wondered, once I’d lugged it home, whether it would be yet another kitchen appliance that I’d never use (I have a whole cupboard full of them). But in the event, I use it more or less every day now.

The principal attraction is that when it’s cooking with the the hotplates closed on top of each other, it firstly cooks stuff surprisingly quickly, and secondly it doesn’t splatter at all, and thirdly when I’ve done using it, it’s easy to clean by lifting out the hotplates (once they’ve cooled) and rinsing them down. Sometimes wiping the plates down with a paper towel is sufficient. Those are three big bonuses, in my eyes.

It does interesting toasted sandwiches. The top hotplate assembly is actually quite heavy, and as the bread heats up, it gets squashed flat, and the internal contents (usually cheese in my case) spout out of the sides. Recently, I discovered by accident that if I left a piece of bread in it, it got toasted all the way through, rather than just on the surface like normal, lethal, burnt toast.

But I’ve also been developing ways of cooking entire meals on it. My current favourite is steaks/beefburgers, corrugated egg, and bubble-and-squeak. The bubble-and-squeak consists of boiled and mashed potatoes and cabbage and any other vegetables that are at hand. This is arranged in a line along the back of the hotplate, and the beefburger(s) are arranged along the front. This is because there’s a slight front-to-back slope on the hotplate, and the bubble and squeak dam at the back is supposed to hold in the juice that flows down from the burgers. And then I break an egg into the gap between the burgers and bubble and squeak, close the lid, and turn it up to Very Hot, and come back about 7 minutes later, by which time everything is cooked, and all that needs to be done is for the entire assembly (now bound together with sturdy corrugated egg) to be eased onto a plate and consumed. No pans, no stirring, no flipping, no fussing. And it’s all done inside 10 minutes.

So far, I haven’t tried cooking anything very soft in it, because of the tendency of everything to get squashed. But I’m thinking that I might start using little pillars of raw potato or carrot to hold the plates apart, should I ever try to do an omelette, for example. With luck, the potato/carrot pillars will also also be cooked by the time the omelette is done, and I’ll get corrugated omelettes with carrot pillars at each corner, to slide onto the waiting plate.

Anyway, it’s been a welcome new cooking experience for someone who likes to do as little cooking as possible.

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