Masks Prophylactic

Not bad. Nasal seal a bit duff.

The last time I wore a mask was in an operating theatre. Everyone here is wearing them, some properly, most not. And no, this isn’t Meghan DoS, although the resemblance is uncanny…

Here’s how to use a mask:

Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. I sing “Oh Flower of Scotland”. Or “For those in Peril on the Sea” as if I’m travelling on Titanic. Others’ preferences differ, but “Nessun Dorma” is unnecessarily long. Unless you have access to at least 120 proof Polish vodka, rinsing the hands with cheap gin won’t work.

Cover mouth and nose with mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask. If you must, and the thing has a wire, press down on the bridge of the nose to better seal it. My nose is, er, a bit on the flat side, so I could press away till Kingdom Come and it wouldn’t make a decent seal, but, if you gotta big hooter it might work.

Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with – here we go again – alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. I did exactly that and the surgeon supervisor I was with made me scrub up again from scratch. Nobody died, fortunately. 

Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks. Which means usually about ten minutes otherwise with the crappy Chinese stuff you feel like you’re inhaling wet toilet paper.

If you’re using a proper European or American made hazard product, they last rather longer. Like lawnmowers.  Racist? Moi?

To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub (do not swig from the bottle, it isn’t mouthwash) or soap and water. More flowers of Scotland, especially if you forget and just screw the sodden article up and lob it bin-wards.

The whole mask thing has become a political football. If where you live doesn’t have many, they’re saying you don’t need them. If there’s plenty, everybody panic buys. As of 3 April, the general consensus seems to be to use a mask outside a medical facility only if you are infected – so what are you doing out and about; you should be tucked up in bed watching Netflix – or you come or may come into contact (<1m) with known infections. Social distancing, yes six feet, two metres, ‘get the f*** out of my way’ is the best protection. French people stop kissing strangers, politicians, no kissing babies, everybody else just steer away from absolutely everybody, especially if they look ill. I’m thinking of getting hold of a greenish makeup to keep people away from me. The alternative is no showers for a week, but even I think that’s a bit extreme since the only sentient life to come near me will be the dog. Oh, finally, from the WHO, hot baths and gin will neither terminate a pregnancy nor protect you against COVID-19, eating garlic doesn’t work, drowning your torso in bleach or hydrogen peroxide will damage your skin, naked sunbathing might do wonders for your vitamin D levels but not much else, apart from the antibiotic effect of a bit of fresh air. Do not try this if you live in northern Finland. Frostbite isn’t nice.

And finally, it isn’t a Jewish conspiracy, Bill Gates didn’t do it and Chinese people don’t make a habit of eating bats. Stay well.

Nothing New.

“On hearing ill rumour that Londoners may soon be urged into their lodgings by Her Majesty’s men, I looked down upon the street to see a gaggle of Striplings making fair merry and, no doubt, spreading the Plague well about. Not a care had these rogues for the Health of their Elders.”

Samuel Pepys: Diaries ca.1665. Allegedly. But, it’s a Twitter spoof – Charles II was on the throne at the time and was unequivocally male. He (Pepys) could have written it, however.

The young are sometimes heedless to the point of asinine stupidity, in the hope of five seconds of Internet fame. A  video went viral the other day of a young man – I think in the US –  running his tongue over the contents of a supermarket shelf, giggling inanely into the phone camera, presumably to the delight of his companions – a new game, it would seem, for the feckless and unemployable. Personally, I hope he is found and locked up, but I doubt that a charge of attempted murder would stick. Reckless endangerment might be an option. Or bioterrorism (see update). A Times columnist suggested a kick up the ass. Yes. Repeatedly. Until the coccyx audibly fractures.

Cody Pfister, 26, Warrenton, Missouri. Arrested and charged with bioterrorism

So, as King Solomon ruefully remarked, there’s nothing new under the sun, then. Here, lockdown is complete and I am snuggled cosily eight hundred metres above sea level in the Rhodopi mountains with a partner, a dog and a cat. Food enough to withstand the Siege of Constantinople, and a supermarket and pharmacy within falling over distance. Apart from a brisk visit out of doors for the beast to fertilise the landscape, all is well, as Mother Julian put it.

There are indeed hard times coming for some and in the last fortnight a paradigm shift of seismic magnitude has taken hold of the world as we have all become our brother’s keeper. And yet, this is the tip of a very large iceberg. The issue of privacy for example, is a battleground between freedom to be anonymous and the insidious reach of Big Brother. Facebook and Google have infinitely long memories; they can and do track my movements, preferences and indeed moods already. It’s a short step to highly sensitive health checking – a kind of Minority Report in pandemic times and, as we seek to stem the tide, various options for containment have presented themselves, from doing nothing to a full-on, invasive mental and physical privacy-invading lockdown. Yuval Harari again put on his prophetic hat in the Financial Times recently with the following excerpt, plus a few redactions of my own. 

“The coronavirus crisis could be the battle for privacy’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually, in fact almost inevitably choose health. The soap police are at the moment just asking people to choose between privacy and health, perhaps soon they may actually demand it, including harsh penalties for non-compliance. This is, in fact, the very root of the problem. Because it is a false, Hobsonian choice. We can and should enjoy both privacy and health. We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus epidemic not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by empowering citizens. Some regimes will clearly find this harder than others and in the free world we tend to look rather disapprovingly if tanks rumble around our streets. In recent weeks, some of the most successful efforts to contain the epidemic were orchestrated by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public. The word ‘honest’ is underlined for a reason. Britain is “asking” for compliance. How much longer, then will non-compliance be tolerated?  However, centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, as simply and forcefully as possible and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can and frequently will do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant one.“ 

It remains to be seen if good advice is heeded before the law steps in.

The Madness of Crowds

Raphael detail from ‘Adoration of the Golden Calf’ (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

Many people will be familiar with Douglas Murray’s book ‘The Madness of Crowds’. He looks at the current preoccupations with gender, race and identity. It’s a compelling and thought-provoking read.

But, he was not the first.

A Scottish journalist, Charles Mackay, published a book in 1841 entitled  Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It became quite a sensation.

The first part involves a discussion of three economic bubbles or financial manias: the South Sea Company bubble of 1711–1720, the Mississippi Company bubble of 1719–1720, and the Dutch tulip mania of the early seventeenth century. By way of example, the Mississippi Company was a corporation holding a business monopoly in French colonies in North America and the West Indies. When land development and speculation in the region became frenzied and detached from economic reality, the bubble burst. Mackay’s accounts are enlivened by colourful, comedic anecdotes, such as the Parisian hunchback who supposedly profited by renting out his hump as a writing desk during the height of the mania.

As to the third, according to Mackay, during this bubble, speculators from all walks of life bought and sold tulip bulbs and even futures contracts on them. Allegedly, during 1637, some tulip bulb varieties briefly became the most expensive objects in the world. He goes on to write – rather wittily, almost sensationally – about duels, alchemy, the Crusades, the influence of politics and religion on the shapes of beards, magnetisers (influence of the imagination in curing disease), murder, prophecies, and popular follies of great cities.

All this to demonstrate one overarching truth. There is nothing new under the sun. As well as the highest forms of altruism and self-sacrifice, mankind en masse is capable of monumental ignorance, wilful self-interest and completely unforeseen delusional behaviour. The behaviour of a rabble is often completely unpredictable and Carl Jung’s description of a crowd is quite prescient: “The psychology of a large crowd inevitably sinks to the level of mob psychology.” Crowds lack the inhibitions and restraints that define our inner controls as individuals. 

If a crowd has a leader, the crowd tends to cease its irrational behaviour and begins to behave like a community.  In the Old Testament, Moses sought to overcome the débacle of the construction of a golden calf and control the madness of crowds by getting the people to make personal and sometimes sacrificial contributions to a collective project, the building of the Sanctuary. He created a community out of an undisciplined rabble. In a community, individuals remain individuals because their participation is voluntary: “Let everyone whose heart moves them bring an offering.” Their differences are valued because they mean that each has something distinctive to contribute. Some gave gold, other silver, others bronze. Some brought wool or animal skins. Others gave precious stones. Yet others gave their labour and skills to bring an important project into being. 

Lest this sound strange and pious, the story is told of a small community in Scotland. 

Melanie Reid is a journalist who writes a regular column for The (London) Times. A quadriplegic with a wry lack of self-pity, she calls her weekly essay Spinal Column. On 4 January 2020, she told the story of how she, her husband, and others in their Scottish village bought an ancient inn to convert it into a pub and community centre, a shared asset for the neighbourhood. 

Something extraordinary then happened. A large number of locals volunteered their services to help open and run it. “We’ve got well-known classical musicians cleaning the toilets and sanding down tables. Behind the bar there are sculptors, building workers, humanist ministers, Merchant Navy officers, grandmothers, HR executives and estate agents… Retired CEOs chop wood for the fires; septuagenarians … wait at tables; surveyors eye up internal walls to be knocked down and can-doers fix blocked gutters.” 

It has not only become a community centre; it has dramatically energised the locality. People of all ages come there to play games, drink, eat, and attend special events. A rich variety of communal facilities and activities have grown up around it. She speaks of “the alchemy of what can be achieved in a village when everyone comes together for a common aim.” 

The avalanche of the Corona virus has caused everyone to step back and think. Ironically, in our separation, we look to each other. On the one hand, there is the individual motivation to stay well and avoid contagion; on the other a sense of community well-being is poking its head out as we have been enjoined to look after and protect the vulnerable and weak. Health workers, front line troops against the pandemic, are working to exhaustion. And yet, Bulgarians gather on their balconies to applaud the medical staff as they go into the hospitals to work. Italians are singing on theirs. We have all become, in an important sense, our brother’s keeper. When all this is over, it is a lesson we must not forget.

With thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Danse Macabre

Massalia ‘La Grande Peste de 1720 (Marseille)

Defoe’s “Diary of the Plague Year”, together with William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Camus’ “La Peste” have been walking off University bookshelves in recent days. Everbody is in the same terrifyingly frail lifeboat, bobbing uncertainly on the waves of an epidemic which everybody is predicting is going to get worse before it gets better. Self-isolation isn’t altogether necessary here, but the Desert Island mentality is creeping into my consciousness. I steer around the rest of the population as if on rails, almost all of whom are doing exactly the same as me and in relatively crowded situations, like the supermarket checkouts, the ‘danse macabre’ is punctuated by bouts of ill-temper and sometimes the odd raised voice or two, should someone be rash enough to attempt to queue jump or put the last of the hand sanitiser in their trolley, overflowing as it is with a hundred toilet rolls. Fortunately, she-who-must-be-obeyed has an entire cupboard filled from floor to ceiling with non-perishables, enough to withstand a moderate siege by any marauding hordes, probably for months.

Enough for a small siege….

I have developed the immunity of age – which is not unrelated to the cunning of age. It requires surprisingly little manoeuvring to make sure that everybody else were the ones opening bug infested doors so I could squeeze in or out behind them like a fare dodger on the Paris Metro. I don’t see many people, being almost a professional Carmelite – not a fair comparison, perhaps but they were on their own a lot – and consequently don’t miss merry banter and arm-squeezing as much as my more sociable brethren. Perhaps not as isolationist as Simon Stylites who sat on a pillar for thirty-five years or those nuns who self-isolate – anchoresses like the fourteenth century Julian of Norwich.

Which reminded me of Wordsworth.

Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels;
Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom,
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

 I once remarked to a colleague that I’d be perfectly at home in a log cabin in Montana with good skis, fast Internet, Deliveroo and fuel to last six months. He laughed, nervously, imagining I was joking. I wasn’t.  So for all my extrovert friends – this isn’t the end of the world as you know it. Just breathe, relax, make silly comments on social media and do try not to panic. It uses oxygen.

Ignorance isn’t Bliss

The sales of the Mexican beer Corona have gone into free fall. Absolutely nothing to do with the flu. There’s probably a word for this idea of two completely separate things which are only linked by the use of one word. I’ll ask someone. She’s bound to know. Which reminded me of the true story of how an English paediatrician was attacked at home by banner-waving locals whose literacy did not extend to an understanding that a paedophile was not the same as a paediatrician.

Yes, we’ll get to the pandemic in a moment. In the meantime, spare a thought for the poor old stock market, which has dropped astronomically over the last few days. A bit like Corona, but bigger.

The despotic regime in Iran, infection numbers and statistics unknown, described the pandemic as a ‘blessing’. Indeed, since, as usual, the Israelis are ahead of the curve and may be the first to strike Eldorado with a vaccine prompted an Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, who is 93 years old, to decree that it’s okay to use a vaccine against novel coronavirus made by Zionists if ‘there’s no substitute’. As late as last Wednesday, however, the ayatollah had said, “It is not permissible to buy and sell from Zionists and Israel”. Make up your minds.

Karl Popper

Our greatest enemy is ignorance. And, ignorance isn’t bliss. If you’re an ayatollah, please write that down. And please remember Karl Popper’s famous statement: “True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it“.

Whole countries, mine included, are in lockdown. Most shops, restaurants, cinemas and bars are shuttered. Traffic is unusually light. Crowds dissipate and reduce their density – veering away from their fellow pedestrians and there are longer supermarket queues although the same number of people are at each checkout – everyone is politely keeping their distance.

The world has been taken rather by surprise by this new corona-style virus. There are a number of them, apparently, so-called because of the crown-like structures on their outer surface.  This one is particularly nasty because of its relatively high contagion rate and a propensity to target the old and sick. A Jewish friend joked that she’d got the blood ready to paint on the doorposts of her house. Leaders are telling us to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while washing our hands with surgical diligence, disinfect surfaces, cough into your elbow, keep at least one metre distance, don’t wear a mask unless you’re infected… the list goes on and on. Some are predicting a death toll almost as large as the Spanish flu outbreak in 1917/18.

I’ll stick my neck out and say it. I think this is unlikely. And as one in a high risk category, I don’t say it lightly. Yes, this is a nasty one – highly contagious and often extremely unpleasant. Some, mostly young people, whose immune systems are robust, barely know they’ve got it. Others – mercifully few – get pneumonia and die. Newspapers are full of dynamic graphics explaining on a day by day basis how the thing has spread. Which looks very scary, as if the angel of death is crouching at the door ready to devour us all. I watched someone unload their 4×4 yesterday after a spree of panic buying and the image of over 100 toilet rolls stayed with me. At least I know who to ask if I run out – they live on the sixth floor.

Following the science is the safest way to proceed. Flatten the curve so the number of new infections is decreased so they can be managed. Isolate if necessary. Keep your distance, 1-2 metres or more. And stop listening to social media. Somebody posted on my social media page that I would be shot on sight if I ventured out of doors. The troll farms are working overtime to overturn common sense and encourage panic. I am thinking of closing my Twitter account.

But then, over the last few weeks, everybody has had all the safety regulations hammered into them and there might even be an upside. Human beings, by virtue of natural selection and modern politics which encourage us to look after number one first, or ‘the devil take the hindmost’, have insulated us perhaps too well from operating collectively for the common good. When all are threatened equally, the instinct is to huddle together like penguins. And it does rather seem as if a little bit of huddling is going on, ensuring appropriate social distance, obviously. As Jerry Springer used to say at the close of his show ‘…look after yourselves. And each other’.

Leaving Egypt

The Exodus (David Roberts 1830)

I’m finding myself becoming more and more interested in how the three major religions perceive times of reflection. The Muslims have Ramadan – a time of abstinence from food or drink from dawn to dusk, of spiritual reflection, self-improvement, and heightened devotion and worship. Muslims are expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam. The Christians have Lent, the forty days before Easter neatly commemorating the 40 day fast of Jesus in the wilderness. It is also characterised by a degree of self-denial – giving something treasured up – a practice which I have to confess I find difficult. I became aware that observant Jews have a similar tradition, from the thirty days after Purim, the dressy-up holiday, to Pesach, or Passover.

Purim begins on March 9th. I discovered this in a Jewish blog written by a rabbi which seemed to sum up well the essential characteristics and leave us with a life lesson at the same time.

The thirty days from Purim to Passover becomes a time of reflection, self-examination and learning. He writes:

Identifying with the Israelites’ yearning to break the chains of (personal) bondage has enabled many to overcome destructive habits, unpleasant circumstances, and unhelpful psychological patterns. 

When we truly see this (Passover) story as our story, when we fully see ourselves as being woven into the fabric of this complex and rich narrative of faith and fear, hope and despair, struggle and redemption, we can loosen the chains of all that holds us back. With the story as our inspiration and guide, we can become the individuals that God invites us to be, and build the world God beckons us to co-create.

This is a specific reference to Jews being ‘a light to the nations’.

And yet, despite the powerful possibilities inherent in personally identifying with the Exodus narrative, I suspect that most of us experience difficulty really doing it. We may understand on an intellectual level what the Haggadah (the text recited at the Seder on the first two nights of Passoveris asking of us, but how many of us really feel it emotionally or spiritually? 

Jewish tradition believes that this sacred imagining should be life-changing. But for many of us today, the exercise is little more than a quaint annual intellectual exercise. It is difficult and rare indeed to fully view ourselves as active participants in the drama of the Exodus. 

This, I think, is why the rabbis of the Talmud ask us to spend the month leading up to Passover intensively studying the laws of the holiday. It has less to do with reminding ourselves about the particulars of the festival’s laws, and more to do with preparing ourselves to personally leave Egypt. We marinate in the Passover story for thirty days so that, by the onset of the holiday, it will be absorbed all the way to our marrow. Then, we can really see ourselves as leavers of Egypt.”

The painting is suggestive of the detritus which is left behind when we leave the old behind and forge ahead into the new. As the panic over the spread of the corona virus seems to have gripped the world, now is as good a time as any to stop and think.

The Innocent.

Harvey Weinstein’s arrival at a Manhattan courtroom
(Daily Telegraph)

I learned something interesting today. Apparently, we are in what has been described as ‘fourth wave feminism’, fuelled and supported by initially the #me too movement and the quite ridiculous “Love Island” one episode of which I watched before sprinting to the vomitorium.

The conviction of Harvey Weinstein has produced an avalanche of social media comment, mostly from jubilant women glad that a dangerous serial predator has finally been caged, despite his many protestations of innocence. It seems undeniable that he used his influence and Hollywood machismo to coax, indeed force women to sleep with him or otherwise degrade themselves in order to further their careers. Sex became a form of currency, so, nothing new there.

I am in no position to either support or condemn Mr Weinstein because I wasn’t there. However, the Hollywood casting couch mythology bubble has finally collapsed and rightly so. But, there’s another side to this. A very difficult side, yet one that begs a rational response. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic, author and psychiatrist has done for the patriarchy what Timothy Leary did for drug use. He has challenged some of the foundational precepts that some women are not altogether innocent. Some women, either by social pressure or design, provoke men. One can buy artificial nipples, get a boob job, use Botox to enhance lip structure, get liposuction to remove unwanted cellulite etc, and 92% of all such procedures are carried out on women.

Why?  Let the reader fill in the blanks.

Makeup, for example, enhances a woman’s best features. It can make her look younger, hence more desirable. She uses red lipstick on an enhanced lip profile. Red is a universal colour in certain mammals to suggest arousal. High heels make her legs look longer. We could discuss cleavage, figure-hugging dresses, specially designed underwear to enhance the labia so people feel better in yoga class… Oh, and I make no apology for the use of the feminine pronoun.

This is quite enough in most circles to precipitate not only ridicule but total career destruction. Of course, women should not be harassed in the workplace, or indeed whistled at by workers on a building site, but the fashion and makeup industries, together with a spike in surgical and other less invasive procedures have become unstoppable financial behemoths simply and most basically designed to make women look better, hence, one supposes, make them feel better and thus improve their self image. The by-product, unwanted as it is, is that the results interest men, and, the rest follows.

Peterson then trod almost voluntarily into the quagmire but suggesting that women knew exactly what they were doing when they applied makeup, dressed or danced provocatively – a quite unsayable assertion. Yet, with thanks to Douglas Murray:    

“All this suggests that our societies have arrived at a stage of seemingly industrial-strength denial. We have decided to forget or completely edit out things that were recognised to be valid the day before yesterday. And, we seem to have decided that the individual complexities…between men and women can simply be pushed to one side with the assumption that they have all been overcome.”

Maturity brings with it an ability to look beyond the superficial. Some women who are self-classified as beautiful, attractive even, present to the world a hologram of themselves, easily seen through and recognised for what it is, a cardboard replica, a clumsy papering over the cracks. The most attractive women, at least for me, have an inner light that is entrancing to look at and healing to be with, regardless of whether they swell the coffers of L’Oréal or not.

I know two such women. You know who you are.

Love thy Neighbour

Times of London, 28 Jan 2020

This isn’t something I’d normally want to write about, but two stories in the Times of London today caught my attention. An apparently senseless stabbing today at a London rail station on the one hand and a near-riot as five black men were sentenced for murder at the Old Bailey for similar offences. I couldn’t help but feel that their facial expressions varied between defiance and stupidity. In large cities, knives are carried by an alarming number of young men and they’re not being used to sharpen pencils. Sometimes these are large enough to be described as ‘machetes’, normally used to chop away at undergrowth, fell small trees and so on. These, carried by young, often black men, are used as weapons of war to maintain control over what they regard as their ‘turf’ where draconian protectionism concerning drug supplies can be controlled against other predatory local groups seeking to overthrow them by force of arms. This isn’t new; inner city knife crime has existed since urbanisation but never, ever on this scale. People are afraid to walk the streets; they wring their hands, demand more police, community workers, park keepers and janitors; in fact any responsible adult who is just ‘there’. Mostly, they wait, helplessly, for someone to do something.

Some argue that parental discipline is at fault where children as young as 11 or 12 are simply allowed to do as they like and in the absence of appropriate role modelling, often from paternal absence, seek out similar to act as role models, to bond with, undergo initiation ceremonies and join an organisation to which they feel they can be part of, to belong. Frequently, they are used as drug mules to supply to outlying districts, the coke, MDMA, ketamine or whatever is currently in demand by the well-heeled and feckless who are inoculated against the social deprivation driving so many to desperate measures and care nothing for the social costs of supply.

Others argue that schools are at fault, but, like King Canute, they too cannot stop the tide, however much effort, money or professional investment is hurled at the problem. Children are excluded, mostly because they have proclaimed their disdain for education with such vigour that they become uneducable, disruptive and often violent. More police? Yes, of course – we shall see whether the magic 20,000 more actually materialises. I don’t think it’s nearly enough because the disaffection, disillusionment and sheer rebellion run too deep. The Church is considered by many to be a collection of meaningless fairy stories for the feeble-minded, its tenets suitable for old women and the notion of God is as irrelevant as a chocolate soldier.

The UK, in common with so many other places, has lost a moral compass. We have forgotten how we came to be successful, kind, hardworking and content, discarding, even sometimes refusing to learn the lessons our history has taught us. We live in an era of unprecedented privilege yet have allowed ourselves to be compromised spiritually and emotionally and in so many tragic cases, we are reaping what we have sown in the form of the bad fruit so very present in some of our children. One of the core commandments of Judaism is “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This commandment stands at the centre of the Torah and enjoins individuals to treat each other as equals which requires first valuing oneself in order to be able to mirror that love towards others. As the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva is credited with saying: “you shall love the Lord your God …..and love your neighbour as yourself. Everything else is commentary.”

Babylon, Brushes and Birthdays.

Pastry heaven

Damn the Babylonians. Their astronomy was a bit primitive but they figured out that the stellar patterns returned to the same place roughly every 360 days. It took us about two thousand years, but we now know the actual figure is 365.25 days for planet Earth to haul its carcass around the sun. All this to say that one more notch was added to my bedpost yesterday and the admittedly vague spectre of the Grim Reaper is a little bit closer to the horizon. Some take the addition of a new number to life’s clock better than others.  I felt a little like W B Yeats, a gloomy sort of chap who at dinner with H G Wells in the 1930s bemoaned the fact that that all his friends were dead. “But, you’re not”, H G replied. “I’ll have the steak.”

Which is rather how I’d quite like to look at it.

I had a lovely time on my birthday, pampered by cinema tickets and dinner with cake worthy of Pouchkine in Paris, so much so that I almost imagined myself to be four again when I was sick at my birthday party through gross and unfettered indulgence. I’d’ve liked to have posted a picture, of the cake, not me being sick, of course, but it all got eaten, thus the picture above, second-rate as it is, will have to do.

Three or four years ago, my beautiful, talented and exceptionally competent daughter left her electric toothbrush at my house. Despite the fleeting thought that she privately considered my dental practices to be woefully inefficient and the article was left as a dark reminder to do better, I used it faithfully, having changed the head for reasons both aesthetic and hygienic. It had a rechargeable battery which could not be reached, changed or interfered with unless one was an expert with a soldering iron, a degree in electrical engineering and endless patience. It reminded me with a little red light if I was pressing too hard, had a timer that momentarily slowed it every fifteen seconds so that the requisite two or even three minutes’ industrious lathering could be counted off and a little battery light to tell me it when it needed recharging. In recent days, however, like the gloomy W B, and perhaps myself, it had reached its geriatric years and needed now to be confined to the place of repose where all toothbrushes go when they die. I other words, I chucked it away. Having replaced it at the supermarket the other day, the new but somewhat inferior item was busily recharging when she-who-must-be-obeyed walked in. Her face fell when she saw my new brush. I wondered guiltily if I had been remiss in some way, like not replacing the loo roll. She then produced a gift, beautifully wrapped in silver paper. In childish haste, I tore it open and nestling therein was a beautiful, top-of-the-range electric toothbrush, complete with carrying case. This was a Van Gogh compared to the fingerpainting I had bought.

I laughed so hard I almost split my hernia stitches, since now I have two toothbrushes, one for the mountains and one for here. She saw the funny side. Eventually. After hitting me on the head a few times with a Tupperware box containing feta cheese (OK, I lied about that last bit but there was a homicidal gleam in her eye…)

I’d like it placed on record that I enjoyed the best birthday I have had in a while. Thanks too to all the Facebook crowd who took the trouble to send good wishes and in some cases, kisses, all of which were gratefully appreciated.

Scraping the Stubble

Many might remember that is was Christmas a few days ago, so we can all start saving to the next Saturnalia bacchanal. I received a present. Unusually, since most people think I’m dead.

But this post isn’t about presents. It’s about what most of us gentlemen, not blessed with a valet or living in Mayfair, or the hairy types who grow fungus on their faces because it’s ‘woke’ and who spend most of their time writing code which appears on multiple screens like on the set of a futuristic movie.

I mean, of course, scraping the stubble that appears as if by magic every morning on a man’s face, as if the beard fairy has visited overnight.

There are a number of ways to deal with this problem. It’s like mowing the lawn, a necessary but evil trick of Nature who, of course will one day inherit the Earth.

I refer, of course to the ART OF SHAVING.

There are a number of possibilities. First, you are late. Stumbling, semi-conscious into the shower, one grabs the disposable which has been hanging for weeks beside the shampoo that always gives you dandruff, stand like a guard dog underneath the blessed flow and scrape industriously, ignoring the pain and flecks of rust on the blade. Sometimes, the handle is pink, and after a microsecond of reflection and the fleeting thought that she’ll never find out, one sweeps the affected area with as much detail as a nasty hangover permits and hopes for the best. One ends up looking like a badly trimmed privet hedge but hopefully nobody will notice and one then proceeds to the bedroom and puts on ones socks, not realising that both of them are inside out. This is what can best be described as the Speedy Motors method, where all work is done by apprentices.

Those of us who have renounced daily toil, however, have a different method. I mentioned Christmas. A particularly kind friend, of which more anon, spent hours, yes, hours on the Internet (using up my bandwidth, I might add), selecting a beautiful, heavy shaving ‘set’, consisting of a badger hair brush, a little cup thingy to hold the soap and a razor with its own little holder. All mounted on a plinth heavy enough to support Nelson’s column. The thing is a work of art. The brush has black tips and a brown superstructure so the animal who donated it can rest assured it died in a good cause. The razor handle is heavy, straight and manly, none of these ‘fit in your hand’ things which are tailor made for castrating a cat. The Italian soap comes in a container which precisely fits the little silver cup for which it was intended. And the soap has a little twirl on the end like a Mr Whippy ice cream. One is almost tempted to lick it. Hot water – one Internet source recommends 120 Celsius but I was damned if I was going to shove the thing in a pressure cooker, so the blade relaxed nicely at 80 or so degrees. Clockwise stirring of the soap produced a profusion of lather with the brush, so after a refreshing splash of water on the face, one then applies the product, smelling faintly of sandalwood. Nothing too heavy, otherwise you smell like a pimp. Brushing is an act of sheer sensuality, it’s like being stroked by a cat and produces a Santa-like profusion. The blade glides effortlessly, sweeping the detritus away like a leaf-blower, with no epidermal damage. A quick finish on the sideburns with an open razor (the kind that Glasgow hoodlums carried) to just straighten up the edges, followed by a hot towel to open the pores and some Ferragamo cologne to close them up again. Just a little tip about open razors – if moved horizontally, the resultant profusion of blood makes one look like one of Dracula’s recent victims.

A man can now face his day with the confidence of a job well done, knowing that he can fire someone in a heartbeat. The fact that his bed is as unmade as Tracey Emin’s and his shirt is unironed is a detail best overlooked.