Sunday, 27 August 2017

Little things can make the world a brighter and better place

I had 24 hour power outage last week. The trip switch at the main fuse box would not reset, even with all the appliances unplugged. It was immensely frustrating. For me it was the little things that were the most frustrating, like not being able to flick a switch to boil the kettle for a cup of coffee, or washing in cold water as the boiler was out. I managed to find an electrician. He was very busy but he gave me a guaranteed time of arrival of 18.00. Thankfully he turned up and with just one small screwdriver (and I expect many years of experience and knowledge) found the problem. It was a trapped wire in the ceiling rose of the kitchen light, disturbed when I had changed a bulb. 

It was hard to believe that such a little thing could result in such a frustrating problem. There was an upside to the day though. As my lap top, iPad, and phone all needed charging, and the electrician wasn't arriving until 18.00, I decided to go for a walk – the sun was shining and I managed a 21km walk across some beautiful Lancashire countryside. Regular readers of this blog will know that I #WalkEveryDay, and for 99% of the time achieve the World Health Organisation recommended 150 hours of physical activity a week (for me, 10,000 steps a day). I find walking suits me better than running, but its good to know an increasing number of people have taken up jogging, park runs and so on. 

However, as Public Health England (PHE) reported last week, many middle aged people are becoming less active. Overall the population is 20% less active now than in the 1960s. PHE estimated that 4 out of every 10 people aged 40 – 60 do not even manage to have 1 brisk walk each month. The evidence now strongly supports the link between exercise such as walking and the impact on our health. Just a 10 minute brisk walk a day can reduce the risk of an early death by 15% - 1 in 6 deaths can be linked to inactivity. A brisk walk is generally accepted as being just under 5kph, which most people can easily achieve.

In encouraging more people to take this small step in improving their health PHE launched a new free app – Active 10 – which can both monitor the amount of brisk walking someone does and provides lots of tips on how such activity can be ‘incorporated’ into our daily routines. In this way the 10 mins walking doesn’t become an additional thing to do. Of course 10 mins brisk walking won’t on its own enable people to achieve the WHO target of 150 hours of physical activity a week, but it will be enough to start to make a difference to those with high blood pressure, diabetes, weight issues, depression and anxiety. For men and women of my age, walking also reduces the risk of hip fractures! Whilst I tend to mainly walk with Cello (my dog), all the grandchildren love walking as well – so when they get to join in their health and wellbeing benefits as well.

Exercise such as walking has also been shown to increase the level of BDNF, (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF is a key neurotrophin protein which helps to preserve the health of existing neurons and synapses, and create new ones. In the brain, BDNF is most active in the hippocampus, cortex and forebrain, all of which are areas crucial to learning, memory and higher thinking. So last week I was hoping that my walking had increased my BDNF levels as I wanted to participate in the Narrative magazines 6 word story challenge. 

Also launched last week, the challenge reflects Ernest Hemingway’s creation of the six-word story. These combine poetry and drama into a short form, which has grown in popularity despite it being difficult to achieve. Hemingway’s most famous 6-word story is possibly: Baby shoes for sale, never worn – I also liked the Booker Prize winner, Margaret Atwood’s 6-word story: Longed for him. Got him. S**t. Anyway, despite all my walking, I don’t think my BDNF level was increased sufficiently to match Hemingway and Atwood’s efforts. 

Given the black place I have found myself in over the past couple of months, I thought this 6-word story might be apt: I’ve low serotonin levels; very depressing – interestingly, the medication I have been taking for my depression comes in the form of tiny white tablets, but my goodness they have made a difference. If you are interested in the 6-word story challenge, please free to send your suggestions to me, and/or to the Narrative magazine challenge, which can be found here.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Dressing down in a dressing gown – the naked truth

Early one morning last week I was out walking with Cello. The sun hadn’t yet got round to warming things up and it felt like winter had arrived. I was in a world of my own thinking about the day ahead. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone coming out of their cottage, cross the road and root around in their car boot. As I got closer I could see it was a female and she was still wearing her pyjamas. She didn’t seem the least embarrassed to see me and even said good morning as she went back inside her house. I on the other hand, felt like some kind of inadvertent voyeur, and did feel strangely embarrassed.

I don’t know why, but then again I'm not alone. I recalled the public debate on social media last year when a chap called Chris Cooke posted a picture of two women shopping in the Salford Tesco’s and complained loudly that Tesco should ban anyone dressed as such in their pyjamas and dressing gowns. As far as I know Tesco have not actively enforced the ban that it introduced in 2010. They were later than the UAE, who banned the wearing of bed wear to work in 2006. Back in the UK, the Daily Mail, a paper dedicated to protecting our morality and our human rights, sent out two of their female reporters in their pyjamas to see where they could get into and where they might be barred. The Houses of Parliament were no problem, nor Harrods, The Ritz, the National Gallery or even Pret a Manger – all of which let them come in and go about their business.

The issue divided the UK into two groups - with one group seeing the dressing down in pyjamas as indicative of people’s slovenliness, laziness and disrespect for others, whilst the other side saw the fun side, talked about free choice and welcomed the new fashion fad. Nigella Lawson admitted to enjoying all-day pyjama parties and former Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron admitted he liked to lounge around in his pyjamas, if working from home. I think I side with the fun loving group as do two of my grandsons who like nothing more than to get changed into ‘onesies’ and playing outside in them, and yes, going shopping in them to Tesco’s.

However, whilst increasingly pyjamas might be our favourite item of clothing, perversely actually sleeping in pyjamas (the reason we have pyjamas) is actually bad for our health. Now I have, in fairness at this point, to declare a personal interest – I haven’t worn pyjamas since I was 11 years old, and the last time was when I was admitted to hospital to have my appendix removed. I feel somewhat alone in my naked sleep mode. According to the American Academy of Sleep 92% of people globally go to bed wearing pyjamas.

Thankfully the science is with me. Research suggests that our bodies are designed to cool down while we sleep – wearing pyjamas can actually keep us to warm, which for many people will disrupt their sleep cycle. Those who sleep naked have better diets and increased happiness levels – and also due to released hormones naked sleepers can wake up feeling sexier. Feeling sexier aside, there are a number of surprisingly important public health issues to think about when it comes to deciding what you might wear in bed.

Generally, it is better to let what my Mother might call the ‘nether regions’ or ‘down there’ to breathe in order to prevent bacteria from gathering. Men who have liberated themselves from wearing pyjamas, but still want to wear something (underwear) are more at risk than women, (but for different reasons). Whilst a cool body at night helps keep blood pressure regulated, the prevailing perception is that men who wear tightly fitting pyjamas and/or underwear at night have a heightened risk of their fertility being affected. For women, the potential problems of wearing pyjamas to bed are more to do with the possibilities of yeast-borne infections – but it has to be said the risk to most women is very low.

I think that given the word pyjama has been around since 1800 (taken from the Urdu pay-jama) as a fashion statement, public health issue, and/or a way of expressing our sexual being, we might still have some way to go!  

Sunday, 13 August 2017

In my dream world there would be no if’s or butts!

Where do ideas for writing come from. I've read some really good blogs in the last few months from my friends in the #earlyrisersclub – often taking an idea or a thought and using these to explore their own sense of self and place in the world. My approach to both my blog writing and paper writing also tends to be a result of something I've read, or a conversation I've been part of (or overheard), or I have seen something that sets off a train of thought. I often don’t know what it is I'm going to write or how I want to try and say something until I put fingers to the keyboard. This week it was different. This week I had a dream.

In his most significant work, The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud described dreams as being ‘the Royal Road to the Unconscious’ - a way to unlock the information held there. Information in the unconscious is often disturbing, and it is held in check by the preconscious so that it cannot be passed into the conscious mind without being first of all altered. Although at originally Freud described dreams as being a form of ‘wish fulfilment’ in his later work he moved away from this position.

I am not sure how my dream would have been interpreted by Freud, but he was into the detail of peoples dreams and would often ask them to describe such detail in his analysis. It was one of the details that sparked the stream of consciousness that is this blog. My dream saw me attending a play (in New York) that started off in a ‘Smokey Joe’ type cafĂ©, and which as the play progressed was slowly transformed into a modern chic wine bar. As the audience applauded the end of the play, the whole wine bar rose into the air, and in a moment we were all flying across the New York skyline. 

In my dream I was delighted and poured another glass of red, reaching into my jacket pocket to pull out a cigar, which upon lighting up, brought a sense of contentment and happiness. At this point I awoke from the dream to find myself still in bed with an almost full moon shining in the night sky.  

I have no idea what the dream might have meant – (and vivid dreams are a possible side effect of the medication I am taking) – but it was the smoking of the cigar that held my attention. I once was a smoker, and smoked French cigarettes and French cigars, the latter much more habitually. One day I decided enough was enough and stopped smoking overnight. That was a long time ago now and whilst I no longer hanker after a cigarette, I do sometimes fancy having a cigar. But I have resisted the temptation now for some 12 years.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am very much opposed to smoking in any form. In the UK, over 100,000 people a year die from a preventable illness that is attributable to smoking. Yet there are still nearly 8 million people in the UK who continue to smoke. Men on average, smoke 12 cigarettes a day (compared to 11 for women) which shows a continuing and welcome decline in the rate of smoking. However there has been a corresponding rise in the number of people using e-cigarettes. Often it is smokers trying to give up. However, and perhaps more worryingly, is that information that people aged 16 -24 years of age are among those most likely to have taken up e-cigarette smoking, and 20% will progress to smoking tobacco. 

To put this into perspective, way back in 1974 almost 50% of all adults in the UK smoked, with one in two smokers dying from a smoking related disease. However, smoking is still the biggest cause of early preventable death. So maybe some readers might find it surprising to have included Freud in a blog that talks about not smoking. He regularly smoked at least 20 cigars a day – and said ‘that smoking was one of the greatest and cheapest enjoyments in life’ - we now know that is not true. For me I dream of a day when tobacco is no longer available because we recognise it kills. Now that would be an enjoyable thought! 

Sunday, 6 August 2017

It’s a dickens of a story: A Tale of Two Christies

One of the things I have on my to do list is to visit the Edinburgh Festival. Despite spending half my time in the North West of England and the other half in Scotland, I have yet to get to the festival. I was reminded of this last week as the festival started on Friday (4th August). Although it runs through until the 28th of August, for much of that time I am back in the North West of England - I have, however, been to the Glyndebourne Festival, and strangely there is a connection.

John Christie, was an English landowner and founder of the Glyndebourne festival which was held at his house in Sussex. If you not been and have the opportunity to go, I can recommend it – it’s a chance to dress up (evening wear is the dress code) and picnic in wonderful surroundings and listen to fabulous music and opera. John Christie fell in love with one Audrey Mildmay, a Canadian soprano. He was smitten. When Audrey went down with appendicitis and had her appendix out, he declared his was troubling him too and had his removed at the same time. Despite their age difference, she was some 8 years younger than he was, they eventually married. Together they set up a wonderful musical legacy that from its inception in 1934, still receives international acclaim.

In 1947, the very first Edinburgh Festival was held. The idea was conceived by one Rudolf Bing, who at the time was the manager of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival. With the help of both John Christie and in particular, his wife Audrey, and Harvey Wood, Head of the British Council in Scotland, the idea was brought to life. Ever since for 3 weeks in August the festival brings top class performers of music, theatre opera and dance from around the world to show their talent. The Fringe Festival has been going just as long and this allows aspiring performers to have a stage and create a new audience. Both national institutions Glyndebourne, and the Edinburgh Festival, are recognised the world over for the high quality performances they showcase.

Back in Manchester there is another national institution that also has an international reputation for excellence. This is The Christie, a hospital specialising in treating and researching cancer. The hospital was originally supported by a wealthy industrialist by the name of Joseph Whitworth (engineer, inventor and philanthropist). He died in 1887, and left large sums of (£500,000 equivalent to £60,000,000 today) to 3 trustees, one of whom was Richard Christie. Who as far as I can find out, was no relation to the John Christie above.

In 1892 some of this money was used to build a Cancer Pavilion and Home for Incurables. It was the only hospital outside of London that specialised in cancer treatment only. In 1901 it was renamed the Christie Hospital in honour of Richard Christie and his wife Mary who had done so much to establish the hospital. Richard Christie was an interesting person in his own right. A professor of history and then political economy, he used some £50000 (equivalent to £5,900,000 in today’s money) to build the beautiful Whitworth Hall (now part of the University of Manchester campus). He also left some 15,000 books, many of which were first editions, to what is now the John Ryland’s Library.

The Christie is the largest single site hospital in Europe for the treatment of cancer. It sees some 44,000 patients a year. The hospital employs 2500 members of staff, who are supported by over 300 volunteers. It is one of the largest hospital charities in the UK. Like Glyndebourne and Edinburgh festivals the work of Christie is excellent and world renowned. The hospital I have a connection with proudly entered into a partnership with The Christie and Macmillan to establish a chemotherapy and treatment centre at the Wrightinton, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust. It opened its doors to patients in 2015. For the patients of Wigan needing chemotherapy, the centre means they avoid a 60 mile round trip to the Christie for their treatment, which in terms of improving patient care, is absolutely music to my ears!