The Post-Truth Era

Everyone’s saying it, so it must be true. We live in a post-truth era, in which unsubstantiated statements are swallowed whole. The less palatable they are, the more easily they slip down.

Post-truth was made word of the year – the Oxford Dictionaries’ International Word of the Year, no less. Post-truth is of course instead of truth, not after it as in, say, post mortem or post-Apocalyptic.

As you see, even the term post-truth is lying through its teeth. But what does it matter?

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Post-truth got some massive boosts this year with Brexit and the US Presidential Election. While Michael Gove didn’t actually start it, he did famously say that people in this country had “had enough of experts”.

Experts are now superfluous and fact-checkers obsolete. These days momentous decisions are made without anyone bothering with evidence.

That doesn’t just make me worried. It makes me deeply suspicious not just of politicians but of pretty much everything, cute animal videos included. What if I’m not watching an Alsatian licking a kitten clean, but just a cleverly doctored video of a dog preparing his lunch?

posed by model. photo by Roger Heykoop

I can see how we got to post-truth. Everyone has an opinion, and now it has just as much value as anyone else’s. Social media provide an echo chamber where anyone can have their say, as well as share hatred and intolerance.

Twitter wasn’t big in Lao Tzu’s day, but I think he nailed it with “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” 

As a doctor, I’ve lived with post-truth beliefs for some time. One patient with appendicitis, who, on being advised surgery was needed, declared that it wasn’t for him. An operation might be our way of doing things, but not his. Thus he belted out of Accident & Emergency into the night. FreeImages.com/Antonio JImenez AlonsoSaddest of all in my view is the mother who, after lengthy discussions, still refused immunizations for her baby. “I’m doing what I think is right,” she told me. “After all, that’s the most important thing.”

The most important thing? God help her child.

It’s clear how we got to the age of unreason, but it’s less clear how we’ll climb out of it. Trump’s inauguration is scheduled for next Friday, and we are where we are.  Though there is a well-known story about a tourist in Ireland. Lost, he asks one of the locals for directions to Balbriggan. The Irishman replies “Well, sor. If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

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Christmas Wishes

You’re all busy, especially this time of year, so this will be short. Whatever you’re doing this Christmas, I send you my best wishes for a wonderful time, hopefully with family, good food, and not too many arguments or hangovers. Here’s to a vintage Christmas, and to a new year that’s an improvement over 2016.

Not that I’m holding my breath.

The Night Before Christmas, 1949 edition

A Christmas Gift for Syria

For two weeks now, I’ve felt proper sorry for myself, wallowing in a sea of tissues with a voice that’s no more than a croak and a brain that’s as sharp as blancmange. The world can feel like it’s ending when you run out of LemSip, and neither husband nor cat will get near you for the stink of menthol and eucalyptus.

symptomatic relief for a cold

Then I turned on the TV.

After six years of war, the humanitarian situation in Syria is catastrophic. Hospitals and medical staff have been deliberately targeted. It’s a war crime, and it has left hundreds of thousands of civilians without access to medical care, even as the bombs rain down.

There is no children’s hospital left in Eastern Aleppo, and about 250,000 people are estimated to be without medical care.

But that could change by Christmas.

The People’s Convoy is crowdsourcing funds to build an urgently needed new children’s hospital. Dr Rola Hallam, a UK-based doctor (founder of CanDo and previously headed Hand in Hand for Syria), launched the campaign a few days ago. Here’s a piece from Channel 4 News which includes her interview. 

Laden with supplies for the new children’s hospital, the convoy will set off from London on Saturday 17th December for a seven-day overland journey arriving in Turkey. There it will meet the Independent Doctors’ Association (IDA), the Syrian medical/humanitarian organisation that is still operating in Northern Syria. 

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The supplies will then be used to refit an existing building as a new hospital, which will be the first crowdfunded hospital in the world. It’ll be in the countryside north of the city, and will serve 185,000 people.

The convoy is a collaboration of leading medical relief agencies, humanitarian organisations, medical workers’ associations and campaign groups, including Medics Under Fire, the Independent Doctors’ Association, Physicians for Human Rights, Doctors of the World, and the Syrian American Medical Society, as well as Rola Hallam and David Nott, considered one of the world’s most experienced war surgeons. 

While governments fail to resolve the crisis, people can act, and you can help right here: The People’s Convoy.

You can keep up to date with the campaign and the convoy here: CanDo.

doctor examining baby

This is more than a convoy of medical supplies. It’s a convoy of hope, sending a strong message of solidarity and support to courageous Syrian medical and relief workers, telling them that they aren’t forgotten or alone.

It’s also a convoy of defiance: a strong message that humanitarians and human rights’ advocates will not be silenced or stopped from their life-saving work.

Please help spread the word, and give what you can to the People’s Convoy.  

It’ll do far more good than a box of tissues.

FreeImages.com/T. Al Nakib

December 18 update:

If you’ve already donated, thank you very much. The campaign exceeded its target, and the convoy left central London yesterday, as you can see in this piece from today’s Sunday Times.

Autumn is Just a New Beginning

It’s hard to capture the loveliness of autumn in words, still less on video. I totally failed to immortalize a magnificent tree that shed most of its leaves over a period of a minute, creating an orange snowstorm. Here’s the tree now.

bare tree on Lammas Land

It being the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I can at least show you these.

misty morning on Lammas Land

autumn triptych

Autumn marks la rentreé, the beginning of the academic year and serious work. I spent many hours here, most of them wondering what the lecturer was talking about.

Mill Lane lecture rooms, Uni of Canbridge

And what could be more romantic than walking to class or work among the bright fallen leaves?

Lammas Land, Cambridge

Watch out for dog turds lurking underfoot, though.

New beginnings are in evidence everywhere, with cranes on the horizon, and buildings popping up all over the place. Alas, fresh starts mean the fall of the old order. 

demolition of the Strachey Building

If you were at Newnham College, you may just recognise your old room among the ruins.

The new buildings will be splendid and useful, I know. I trust the people in charge of the change, and I’ve seen detailed plans as well as the architectural model.

architectural model of new buildings Newnham College, Cambridge

But other new starts are less certain, and a hard winter may be on the way.

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To take your mind off our crazy world, here’s a two-minute video of the demolition of Strachey.

A Parent Worries Forever

Seen that touching Lloyds Bank photo where the mother is hugging her ‘baby’ before he nonchalantly sets off for university? I can’t reproduce the image here, but you can check it out by clicking on Lloyds Bank.  I showed it to some of my friends, who variously remarked on the mother’s height relative to her son, the blissful smile on her face, and the flimsiness of rucksack on the son’s back. 

Those with children noticed none of these things. Their reaction was just terror.

When expecting your first child, there’s usually a golden moment during which you’re thrilled at the prospect of having a baby but haven’t yet realised you’re heading for a lifetime of worry. Well, savour it while you can.

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My twin boys arrived when I had one son already. In a flash, my anxiety levels trebled. The children seemed intent on working their way through the alphabet, with accidents, asthma, appendicitis, and (scariest of all) anaphylactic shock.

Some letters stand out more than others. D was for Duplo, a normally safe toy, except when you stumble face first into it. G was for golf club, as when eldest son was smacked in the face by a 5 iron at the school fete, necessitating yet another tip to A&E.

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Occasional false alarms brought light relief. At eighteen months, one son was on the bus, sitting forward in his eagerness to miss nothing. When the driver braked suddenly, my son’s face collided with a metal handrail. He screamed, and bright red stuff poured copiously from his mouth. I laughed hysterically when I found he’d only been chewing on a red crayon.

FreeImages.com/Trisha Shears

In my novel Hampstead Fever, I couldn’t resist including a super-anxious new mum. It’s not just the prospect of mishaps that cranks up her worry levels. She has studied the parenting books, so she’s aware of potentially lethal conditions like sepsis, where symptoms can be minimal in the early stages yet take a child to death’s door within hours. Like many parents, Laure suspects it’s dangerous to let her guard down, because that’s when things are most likely to go wrong.

Worry can drive mums (and dads) to become over-protective, turning into helicopter parents and doing for their children things that they should be learning to do for themselves.

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For some parents, anxiety becomes hard-wired. I’ve seen them make idiots of themselves as they continue to stalk their kids on social media throughout their teens and even twenties, panicking if they haven’t posted anything in the last few hours.  

Not me, of course. I’ve finally learned to ditch unnecessary anxiety about my offspring. I’ll tell you how I did this. Not this minute, though, because first I need to text my sons to see how they’re doing without me.

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Visions of Hampstead

I love Hampstead, so it’s no surprise that I decided to set my novel Hampstead Fever there. These are just a few images to give you a taste of Hampstead life if you’re not already familiar with it.

Hampstead tube station

Hampstead Underground Station, first opened in 1907, has the deepest lift shaft of all the London stations.  Here’s the view up Heath Street, towards the, er, heath (photos of Kenwood and Hampstead Heath will have to wait).

Heath Street, NW3

And down Pilgrim’s Lane.

Pilgrim's Lane

These friends are just enjoying breakfast on a Sunday morning.

Perrin's Court

Though some tables outside can be quite exclusive.

Hampstead High Street

Some street furniture (this Victorian postbox is no longer in use).

Victorian postbox

A couple of locals.

Dogs

Constable and his family once lived here too.  He’s buried in St John’s churchyard, NW3.

Tomb of John Constable

It’s not all blue plaques around here. Flower seller Maggie Richardson has this memorial to her name.

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Hampstead is nothing if not trendy. Queues often build up outside the Hampstead Butcher & Providore.

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This is the flower shop in iconic Flask Walk.

Galton Flowers, Flask Walk

And the barber shop.

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There’s a new restaurant in Church Row, where Le Cellier du Midi used to be.

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The Freud Museum – where both Sigmund and his daughter Anna once worked – is down a leafy street.

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Much of this scene will change with the new cycle superhighway. If CS11 is implemented, as looks likely, cars and lorries will be diverted away from the main arterial road and into Hampstead village, choking side-streets and polluting the area. Locals are as concerned about safety for cyclists as anyone else, but believe a better solution could be found.  

Protest against CS11

If you want to know more, click here.

 

Rebel with a Cause

Poetry and medicine intersect in Jane Davis’s latest novel, My Counterfeit Self. I’m delighted to welcome Jane back to my blog on publication day.

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The main protagonist is Lucy Forrester, a political poet and activist. Anti-establishment all her life, she’s now horrified to find herself on the New Year’s Honours list. Her inclination is to turn it down. But what if it’s an opportunity…

When researching a cause for her rebel, author Jane Davis followed a thread from the first CND march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston, to the plight of Britain’s forgotten Atomic Veterans. Here is what she discovered.

“It is 1958, six years after American scientists disbanded the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima, having completed their data-gathering on radiation sickness. It is a supposed time of peace. Imagine you are eighteen years old, shipped to Christmas Island on National Service. It is the furthest you have ever strayed from home.

Your job? To stand on an idyllic white sandy beach and observe as scientists detonate nuclear bombs in the Central Pacific. When the signal is given, you must turn away from the blast and cover your eyes with your hands. There is no protective clothing. As the flash goes off, you can see your veins, your skin tissue, your bones, and through it all, diamond white, a second sun. Searing heat builds inside, until you imagine that there is only one way it can end.

Around 22,000 servicemen were ordered to stand and observe. Some suffered radiation sickness immediately, and some died. For others, symptoms followed patterns seen in Hiroshima. They lost their appetites, ran high fevers, and their hair fell out in clumps. Some appeared well for decades before developing cancers and other rare diseases.

It was only over time, as dots were joined, that some veterans became convinced their illnesses and disabilities were caused by nuclear radiation. Their bid to be recognised by the European Court of Human Rights was denied in 1998, which said it had no jurisdiction in the case. Largely ignored, and dwindling in number, the veterans referred to themselves as ‘ghosts’.

Then, in 1999, researcher Sue Rabbitt Roff at the University of Dundee tracked down and surveyed 2,500 veterans and their children, reporting unusually high rates of infertility and birth defects. This was the trigger. The columnist Richard Stott (1943 – 2007) of the Sunday Mirror then launched his Justice for Nuke Vets campaign.

If I saw this reported in the news, I’m ashamed to say that I have no recollection of it. There were always more attention-grabbing headlines. But when researching my novel, it was obvious to me that this is a cause Lucy Forrester would have thrown herself behind.

The British government continued to insist on more proof. It wasn’t until 2007 that two scientific studies demonstrated clear links. They also estimated that genetic birth defects would last for 20 generations – in other words, 500 years.

As a result, 700 New Zealand and UK veterans launched a class action lawsuit against the British government claiming NZ $36 million in damages. But it had all happened 50 years ago. The Ministry of Defence countered with a statute of limitations defence.

Following a parliamentary inquiry in early 2008, the government agreed to fund new studies into veterans’ health, and to pay interim compensation of £4,000 each.

By the time I completed my research, the government had set aside £25million (£5million a year over five years) for an Aged Veterans’ Fund. But this wasn’t only for the surviving Atomic Veterans. Approximately two million veterans were qualified to apply. In addition to applications from individuals, the British Veterans’ Association (BNTVA), the premier charity representing those who have worked alongside radioactive material for the benefit of the nation, can apply for funding for projects such as respite care or counselling. Whilst any such services may benefit the families of the Atomic Veterans, once the remaining veterans die, all funding will cease. Without an admission of negligence from the MoD, there will be no help for the 20 generations.

Many Atomic Veterans are proud to have served their country. However, given that the risks of exposure to radiation were either known or reasonably foreseeable, they had every right to expect their government to take care of them if things went wrong. They couldn’t have imagined that the British government would introduce a higher burden of proof than other governments, so that their American counterparts received compensation while they did not. It should not be left to the Prime Minister of Fiji to step in and award each surviving veteran three thousand pounds, saying, ‘Fiji is not prepared to wait for Britain to do the right thing’.

With Trident firmly back in the headlines, I hope that it will rise to the surface once more.”

You can find out more about the Atomic Veterans or make a donation here

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Jane Davis is the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, and The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and wide-spread praise. Her 2016 novel, An Unknown Woman, won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year Award. Compulsion Reads describe her as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.

When Jane is not writing, you may spot her disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

You can also find Jane Davis on Facebook, on Twitter, on Google Plus, on Pinterest, and on Goodreads, as well as on her Amazon author page

Anyone who signs up to Jane’s newsletter receives a free copy of her novel, I Stopped Time. Jane promises not to bombard subscribers with junk. She only issues a newsletter when she has something genuinely newsworthy to report.

My Counterfeit Self is published October 1, 2016, and available in paperback and ebook formats.

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