Next Stop for Gene Editing: Designer Parents

Gene editing has been all over the news these past few days. 

While the technique is still experimental, it holds the hope of bypassing defects that lead to life-threatening conditions.  I suspect the level of interest has a lot to do with the universal desire for a baby that’s perfect in every way. S

But, with tongue now travelling towards cheek, I wonder: what’s the point of a perfect baby, if the parents happen to be deeply flawed?

In gene editing, enzymes are used as molecular scissors to snip out certain sequences of DNA and replace them. If I were making a template for a designer parent, here’s what I’d cut out: Scheijen

1 Violence

Should be excised from a parent’s repertoire. It’s not even OK to give the little terror a taste of his own medicine. If he kicks you and you kick back, you’re only saying that aggression is acceptable.

2 Swearing

Oh, all right. So Go the Fuck to Sleep was hilarious, momentarily. On the other hand, I’ll never forget the woman who brought her three-year old to speech and language therapy because he knew so few words. But he was fluent at saying, ‘Bugger off’.

3 Impatience

watch with red strap

I’m guessing you too have felt the urge to yank your toddler’s arm out of its socket when he dawdles. Unfortunately, kids learn by example. How do you want to be treated when you’re in your dotage? Enough said.

4 Constant criticism

Yep, even when it’s slick and sarcastic and makes you feel bloody clever, a critical drip-drip-drip of erodes a child’s self-esteem.  Check out Dorothy Lawe Nolte’s poem Children Learn What They Live. 

5 Selfishness


Only a better-than-average saint could put someone else’s needs first all the time, but that’s roughly what parents have to do. Obviously, it would help if gene editing could also do away with the need for sleep, privacy, quiet, and going to work.

6 Overindulgence

Here I’m thinking of overindulging the child, which is almost as bad as neglect. Growing up without rules or limits doesn’t make for a happy person who knows his place in the world. But, while they’re at it, some parents could also cut down on drink and drugs.

So those are my thoughts on being a designer parent. Sorry if I failed to mention Gucci, Prada, and Tom Ford until the end. W

Are you a parent, or perhaps a keen observer of family life? What do you think?

Hospital Tests: Has the Doctor Got it Right?

The department is in the bowels of the hospital. Appropriate, thinks Sanjay.

Sanjay is a character from my novel. I’ve let him out today for another hospital visit. There’ve been plenty of those in the last 18 months but today he’s got hope. He’s got hope the tests will be normal, and that he’ll be out of the door again before he loses the will to live.

As usual Sanjay passes the giant pebble on his way into the hospital. It is not a pebble so much as an expensive sculpture. Today it looks as if a dog has peed up against it.

UCL pebble

This hospital is one of the very few in the country that does this special ultrasound scan, a fact which pleased Sanjay’s mother. “See, beta? Now they know you are special.”

Not so Sanjay’s father, who took it as proof that bloody doctors don’t know what they are bloody doing and are just using his son as guinea pig.

One thing puzzles Sanjay: what is this scan exactly? He always asks questions but he’s rarely any the wiser. The doctors either reply something like “We’re going to take pictures of your squidgy bits” and give a smile that suggests he’s a couple of rungs below the village idiot.

Or else they give him a jargon-filled spiel, sometimes accompanied by a scribbled diagram on the nearest scrap of paper that comes to hand. surgeon's diagram

Once it said TOMATOES MILK WINE DRY-CLEANING on the back.

“Oh God, beta. Suppose they give you needles with this scan?” says his mum.

Sanjay shrugs. He doesn’t mind needles, but he’s not too fond of tubes up the behind. He had that once, when he’d passed some bright red blood. Luckily the test turned out normal.

He trusts the doctor who referred him for today’s scan. Just like he trusted the doctor who told him his colonoscopy was normal.

But what if the doctor had been wrong? And what if it wasn’t just the beetroot?


Maybe the junior doctor had misread the result or had looked at someone else’s notes. Then Sanjay’s bowel cancer might go untreated, while someone else would get an abdomino-perineal resection that he didn’t need.

Abdomino-perineal resection: ‘complete surgical removal of the distal colon, rectum, and anal sphincter via simultaneous anterior abdominal and perineal incisions, resulting in a permanent colostomy’

a.k.a. ‘taking away some of your squidgy bits and popping your back passage onto your tummy’


Lots of people could be wrong a lot of the time, thinks Sanjay as he enters the revolving door. When you consider it, there are so many different ways of getting something wrong. But only one way (or at most a small handful of ways) to get it right.

Sanjay jabs the lift button and muses on his 36 years of life.

Turning into Your Parents

We all turn into our parents eventually, it’s said, and we don’t even know it’s happening.  A  friend of mine is barely middle-aged, yet he thinks pop music is too loud and car-washing is a great way to spend Sundays.

Well, that’s never going to be the case with me. Anyway this weekend I have no time to think about such things. I’m having another big session sorting through my late mother’s effects.  cat playing the cello

Memories come rushing back as I look through her watercolours. She was an artist whose signature works were scenes of whimsical cats. Obviously I’m keeping all of those as well as the photo albums, but the rest of her things are frankly dire.

Take for instance the collection of plastic garden chairs. Mum didn’t have a garden. They were her armchairs. At the desk there’s a diner-style chair from the 1950s which was probably usable before rust set in. In the airing cupboard I find a stack of tablecloths and other gorgeous linens, some of it unstained. And the lovely china pieces she talked about turn out to be actually in pieces, held together by Araldite and optimism.

At this point I need to break for a snack. In the kitchen there’s about a year’s supply of porridge oats. Funny I used to hate the stuff. Today it fills the gap perfectly.

It takes me a while to locate the blue and white porcelain plates my Mum always told me were so valuable. I handle the first one with care, as you do when it’s a rare artefact from the Yuan dynasty. My fingers tremble as I trace the intricate design. I turn the plate over. A little golden sticker says ‘Made in Japan’.

I sigh. I need to go to the shops for more bin liners. The weather’s turned chilly, so I pop on an overcoat of Mum’s. Normally I wouldn’t be seen dead in any of her old threads, but this coat is cosy.

When I get back from the shop, I tackle the rest of the clothes. The belts are fit only for the skip, and there are five identical pairs of shoes which I won’t even bother trying. There are however three handbags worth keeping, and a watch that looks better than mine.Tissot watch

I set it to the right time and put it on my wrist. Surprisingly it is just the right size.

In the same box there are earrings with little lions on them. Though they’re not at all my thing, they’re cute and I’m a Leo. Better hang onto them.

The trousers and skirts are another story. My mother was never tall, and then she developed what Roald Dahl called ‘the dreaded shrinks’, known to doctors as advanced osteoporosis. All her trousers had had to be shortened repeatedly. Looking at them now, it’s clear they’d be no use to anyone, unless maybe they’re after Bermuda shorts.

A cardigan catches my eye. It’s not at all bad if you overlook the frayed cuffs and a couple of missing buttons. Hell, I can fix that. The cardi is merino wool and a lovely yellow colour.

I put it on, and get a shock when I look in the mirror.

Next I come across a battered little suitcase. It would be so useful.  Trouble is, the cat likes it too. 

Cat in suitcase

Now the tartan shopping trolley in the corner beckons. Just the thing! Why give myself backache lugging stuff back from the supermarket every week when I could use a little trolley?

Now stop it, I tell myself sternly. I’m not nearly ready for that yet. Give it a while longer.  Say another couple of weeks?