Twelve Snapshots from Freshers’ Week

Freshers’ Week is a bit like the 60s – if you can remember it all, you weren’t there. So these glimpses will have to do:

1 Mists and mellow fruitfulness.

redcurrants

2 Not knowing where anything is, and trying to get there by bike, if you can remember which one’s yours.

bikes against a wall

3 Existentialist conversations with a swan.

swan on the Cam

4 Signing up for everything at the Freshers’ Fair.

5 Blood-red Virginia creeper.

Sidgwick Hall, Newnham College

6 Smiling at everyone in case one of them becomes your best friend.

7 Buying lots of instant coffee and biscuits for all your new friends.

FreeImages.com/Rositsa Jeliazkova

8 Ridiculously cheap booze at the Freshers’ Disco.

9 Kebabs and puke.

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10 Reinventing yourself (because you can).

11 Staying up till 3 a.m. (because lectures haven’t started yet).

12 Getting a meningitis jab (because it’s really important).

So many new beginnings, but for some things it’s an end. Goodbye, Strachey Building. I won’t be there on Friday when the wrecking ball comes for you and the Porters’ Lodge.

Strachey, Newnham College

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What You Can Do for London’s Lungs

Take a nice deep breath. For thousands of people living in London, that’s a luxury.  

FreeImages.com/Christina Papadopoullo

With its plethora of parks, our capital may be one of the greenest cities. But it’s also one of the most polluted. For the last five years, London has been in breach of EU safety limits on NO2.

I’ve noticed it getting worse. For an instant lesson in air quality, head for the outer reaches of one of the Tube lines and see how fresh the air feels when you step outside. 

Pollution isn’t just an irritant to the throat, nose, or eyes. It’s damaging to health, increasing the risk of lung cancer and chronic lung disease, and driving up hospital admission rates for those with pre-existing lung or heart disease.

FreeImages.com/Dave Kennard

Children’s lungs are most vulnerable, yet around 330,000 London kids go to school in areas with illegal levels of pollution.

Pollution has also been linked with damage during pregnancy, including low birth weight and pre-term birth.

I’ll cut a long story short: at least 9,500 deaths a year in London are linked with air pollution.

We may not have the pea-soupers of the 1950s that smothered London in soot and sulphur dioxide for days at a time. But we have a haze of small particles, especially PM2.5s, along with the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide NO(not to be confused with laughing gas because this one isn’t funny).

FreeImages.com/Simon Gray

PM2.5s are fine particles, less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. They come from things like motor vehicles, power plants, and wood-burning, and they’re harmful because they’re small enough to reach the deepest recesses of the lungs.

Nitrous oxide comes largely from diesel cars, lorries, and buses. It follows that pollution is worse near busy roads, which is often where less advantaged families live. But even short-term exposure to air pollution can damage.

Why am I banging on about it now?

Because on May 5, London elects a new Mayor. As a parent, a doctor, and a Londoner, I whole-heartedly support The British Lung Foundation’s #Londonlungs campaign. It calls for the next Mayor and Assembly members to prioritise lung health.

FreeImages.com/Andrew Rigby

So much could be done, from tree and hedge planting schemes to improving transport strategy and extending the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) eastwards – where there’s a lot of deprivation and air pollution.

You too can help by getting on board and asking all the mayoral candidates whether they pledge to protect Londoner’s lungs. You could also share the campaign on social media with the hashtag #Londonlungs.

FreeImages.com/Adam Ciesielski

What else can you do?

There are obvious individual steps to help protect the lungs and heart, like not smoking.

Driving less, for instance by sharing cars or using public transport, helps drive down vehicle emissions. If you’re buying or leasing a car, choose a low-emission model.

Take the longer route on foot or cycle via a less polluted area if you can. You may be interested in the Clean Space app

The British Lung Foundation has some great tips for when air pollution levels are very high. You can find them here

 

What Happens When Writers Meet?

Writing is a solitary life. It’s just you and the page, though, all being well, some words eventually show up. If you write novels, you may fashion some wonderful characters, but you still don’t see other people.

Going out in public once in a while is a good idea but it takes an effort. It might even mean getting dressed and putting a set of teeth in.

It’s totally worth it because, as you know, everyone’s fascinated.  Mention you’re a writer and people invariably say “How interesting.”

Royal typewriter

Sadly, the interest rarely lasts. Those same people want to tell you all about the novel they have inside them (it’s often the one that shouldn’t get out). But all a writer really wants to do is talk about their own work. After a while, few can put up with us because we either bore them to death about our books flying off the shelves at the speed of light, or bore them to death because our masterpieces are Superglued to the bottom of the Amazon rankings.

It’s sometimes the same with significant others, so the writer skulks off to the shed or spare room to keep out of the way. At this point SO usually gives a look that suggests you’re engaging in solo activities of an adolescent nature.

But it’s good to get out. A sedentary lifestyle is linked with back pain, constipation, low mood and worse: obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even breast and bowel cancer. It’s estimated that globally lack of exercise causes 5.3m deaths a year, which is roughly the same as smoking. 

There’s a lot to be gained by meeting other authors. It’s really not the same as communicating online, as fellow indie author Kevin Booth points out in a recent blog post.  When we meet, we can learn a lot from each other, in a casual, friendly and effective way.  

We’re not all introverts. Writers are often outgoing. As Kevin says

There’s a particular chemistry that seems to engage when a group of writers get together over a glass of something. If people find it difficult to stay on-topic, it’s because they are sparking creatively off each other and raising new questions that they hadn’t previously considered. I don’t think the online experience has yet been able to replicate this.

Some like meeting to critique, but other authors hate talking about their work in progress. I sometimes worry about Schrödinger’s novel. Let even a chink of light in, and the book dies. While it’s still safely in the dark box of the mind, it could be either alive or dead.

Schrödinger’s cat, you’ll recall, is based on quantum physics. Until the box is opened, the cat could be either alive or dead, or indeed, a touch of both. 

Personally, I don’t have many doubts about the cat. If you can’t hear it inside the box, scrabbling to get out, then it’s probably dead. Cats may like boxes, but they want to choose their own. Nobody should ever put a cat into a container without food, water, ventilation, and a clean kitty litter tray.

cat in box

But back to meeting other authors. Do writers bitch and argue when they meet? Hardly ever. Apart from the fact that we’re a nice bunch of people, or so I like to think, we’re also mighty relieved to find like-minded company. We enjoy each other’s books and don’t mind saying so. And, when someone is super-successful, it’s inspiring to remember that it can happen to people not so very different from ourselves. We can celebrate other writers’ triumphs, just as we commiserate over setbacks like paltry advances or poor sales.

There’s no place for petty jealousy. Out there are many millions of readers. No one author, not even one several times as prolific as Barbara Cartland, could produce enough books to keep the whole world happy.

If you write but don’t have a writing group nearby, why not start one? Self-published authors might like to join the Alliance of Independent Authors.author-member ALLi

ALLi (pronounced ‘ally’, appropriately) is a global non-profit association of author-publishers. They offer connection and collaboration, advice and education, and, importantly, also campaign to further the interests of self-publishing writers everywhere.

I come back from local ALLi meetings with a spring in my step. Here’s more of what Kevin Booth has to say on the ALLi blog about face-to-face meetings.

Every reason for getting up from your desk, then.

Is Beatles Music a Health Hazard?

Exactly 45 years ago, photographer Iain Macmillan stood on a ladder and shot the iconic image for Abbey Road. Tourists from all over the world continue to come to London’s most famous crossing. They gawp, revere, take selfies and generally mess about, taking no heed of cars, vans or the 189 bus. This was the scene yesterday.

Abbey Road

Now Westminster Council is considering the use of a lollipop lady to keep people safe. I hope they recruit a lady or gentleman who looks the part in period 60s gear.

On that August day in 1969, did the Fab Four realise the poor example they might be setting for future generations of fans? I think not. If they had, they’d never have larked about as they did. And Paul would have surely kept his sandals on. It’s madness to walk around London in bare feet.

Pretty much everyone (not just Charles Manson) has their own interpretation of Beatles lyrics. While most people focus on the drug references, the songs may contain other menaces to health.

Beatles vinyls Sleeping in the bath is something I’d never recommend, yet that’s exactly what happens in Norwegian Wood. Luckily John doesn’t drown. But what does he do when he wakes up? He burns the house down. OK, so he was a Beatle scorned, but arson does seem a tad over the top.

There’s another fire hazard in A Day in the Life.  The track opens with John’s graphic reminder of what happens if you run a red light. But in a later verse Paul dices with death when he nods off on the bus with a lit cigarette in hand.

I feel like shouting the B-side of Can’t Buy Me Love (in case you don’t remember, it’s You Can’t Do That).

Paul survives his bus journey. He still hasn’t kicked the tobacco habit two years later, though, because there he is holding a ciggie on that album cover. But the USA did some unauthorised airbrushing and removed the offending item from posters.

Other risky lifestyle choices advocated by Lennon-McCartney:

The Beatles will always be my favourite band, but as a doctor I’m concerned about an already over-stretched health service having to extract coins from noses, bandage injured feet and give whatever medical help is needed to those mugs who take their oeuvres too literally.

Beatles mugsOn Revolver we’re even told that you can call Doctor Robert day or night, he’ll be there any time.

In your dreams, John and Paul. Not in today’s NHS.

The thing that worries me most, though, is on the White Album. Yes, hotel rooms cost money, but doing it in the road is the ultimate in unsafe sex. Nobody’s watching you! So you’re even more likely to get killed by some motorist who wasn’t expecting to see people bonking on the asphalt.

I’m really hoping Westminster Council will be wise enough to install appropriate signage. 

Six Characters in Search of a New Year Resolution

There’s something refreshing and renewing about making resolutions, especially as it happens only once a year.  Here’s what six characters I know have resolved to do.

Ex-con Dan lost a lot of life behind bars, so he wants to make the most of the new year.  Resolution one: he’s going to get a job.  Doesn’t matter what at this point.  Two: he’s going to learn a new word every day.  Useful words to help him go up in the world.  There are plenty of those in the dictionary he just bought.  Three: he’s going to find someone. prisonIt’s a long climb from where he is, but hey, one day at a time. One word at a time.

Her boyfriend may be perfect (he often says as much) but Harriet needs to get her own act together.  First, she’s going to hone her negotiating skills so she gets decent money for the articles she writes.  Second, she plans to break into the broadsheets.  Third, she’ll try to win her first ever journalism prize.  Hopefully this year there won’t be too many entries for the Carrot Consortium awards.  Then again, maybe she should just concentrate on resolution four: staying in the black.  She sighs and shuts her notebook.

GP Geoff is tired of New Year resolutions.  His patients never lose weight or stop smoking.  From January 1 he plans to focus on his own wellbeing. stethoscopeAs every medic knows, erectile problems are often a marker for heart disease or diabetes.  These days his dick is as limp as a lettuce, so he’s obviously on borrowed time.  Fuck it, that’s his resolution sorted.  He’s going to write a will so his ex doesn’t get it all if he snuffs it.

Laure has money, looks and brains.  Still she doesn’t feel beautiful inside, her home looks unloved, and there hasn’t been a man in her life for two years and three months (she doesn’t count Martin from the commercial property department).  The resolutions are writing themselves:

  1. Find someone special
  2. Stop being so critical of myself
  3. Make flat more welcoming.

self help booksThis may take a while.  And a few more self-help books.

Karen has big plans for the coming year.  She’s going to get out more.  Find a job (one that fits in with term-times).  Get her kids to stop fighting.  Buy from more upmarket shops (isn’t there a new Oxfam in Stanmore?).  Karen throws another Lego pirate into the box.  And meet a nice man, of course.Lego modelSanjay has whittled his resolutions down to one.  Beating cancer for another 12 months will do just fine.

If you want to know how it turns out, you can find out by reading One Night at the Jacaranda.

Have you made resolutions for 2014?   I’d love to hear what they are.