Welsh border towns | Paolozzi statue | Christmas songs | Brexit metrics. The Harp ( 50 of the cosiest places to stay around the UK this winter, 9 November) is indeed a worthy winner of the country pub of the year but to suggest that the place to visit is Hay on Wye when much closer are the two brilliant little towns of Presteigne and Kington is madness. The glorious walk to the latter along Hergest Ridge will improve your wellbeing so much more than plodding around bookshops. Also, remember there’s no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothes. Janis Bell Old Radnor , Powys . What a pity that the Arts Council didn’t think of relocating the Eduardo Paolozzi sculpture from outside Euston station ( Historic sculpture stranded in middle of building site, 11 November) to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Ann Newell Thame, Oxfordshire . I’m sure the British Library, a few yards down the road, would happily act as foster parents for the Paolozzi statue. A suitable position could be found in the piazza until a permanent location is decided. Angela Barton Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire . I note your report (11 November) that a shop in York is stopping the playing of “cheesy Xmas songs” for “the sake of staff morale”. Perhaps it would be possible for all shops to avoid cheesy Christmas songs – for the sake of all of us. Peter Duckers Shrewsbury, Shropshire . Since a litre is already a volumetric measure, I think Marina Hyde ( Journal, 9 November) has her metrics in a twist when she says that, in the Brexit hoohah, “millions of cubic litres of demons have been released in the past three years”. Brian Stokoe Fulford, York . Join the debate – email email@example.com . Read more Guardian letters – click here to visit gu.com/letters . Do you have a photo you’d like to share with Guardian readers? Click here to upload it and we’ll publish the best submissions in the letters spread of our print edition
All proceeds from sale in Switzerland go to research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy. A Patek Philippe watch has sold for a record 31m Swiss francs (£24.2m) at a charity auction hosted by Christie’s in Switzerland. It is by far the highest price ever paid for a wristwatch, and all of the proceeds will be donated to research into muscular dystrophy. The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime 6300A-010, which was created specially for the charity auction Only Watch, was bought by a private telephone bidder following a five-minute auction at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues, in Geneva, on Saturday. It had been expected to sell for SFr2.5-3m. The watch beat the previous record, set by a Daytona Rolex once owned by Paul Newman, which sold for $17.8m in 2017. Sabine Kegel, the head of Christie’s watch department in Geneva, said the watch was “the most complicated wristwatch ever made … it does nearly everything except making coffee”. She said the watch had attracted “a lot of interest from new clients because it was a charity auction”. The watch has four spring barrels driving 20 complications and features a reversible case with two dials in rose gold and black. It has five chiming modes, two of which are patented world firsts: an acoustic alarm that strikes the pre-selected time and a date repeater sounding the date on demand. Kegel, who had been on the phone to a rival bidder during the auction of lot 28, said the room erupted with applause when the gavel came down. “It was really very exciting, and there was such a great atmosphere in the room with standing ovations after each sale,” she said. “So much money was raised that the scientific research can now go ahead to clinical trials.” Fifty watches created specially for the Only Watch charity sale raised SFr38.6m for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic condition that affects one in 3,000 male births. The biennial auction was founded in 2005 by Luc Pettavino, the former chief executive of the Monaco Yacht Show, after his son, Paul, was diagnosed with the disease and died aged 21 in 2016. “Breaking records is obviously a source of pride and happiness,” said Pettavino, who is president of the Monégasque Association against Myopathies. “What a beautiful moment and emotion shared together. And what matters most today is the difference we are going to be able to make in research against muscular dystrophies and for hundreds of thousands of patients and families around the world for their lives to get better.” The Earl of Snowdon, the honourable chairman of Christie’s, said: “It has been a fantastic 12 month-long project, 10 cities and thousands of catalogues, it is amazing to see such an enthusiastic response across the globe. We are thankful and thrilled to have contributed to raise SFr38.6m that researchers will put to immediate use.” Christie’s did not charge a buyer’s premium, which can be as high as 25% of the sale price. All of the watches were donated by brands including Hublot, Montblanc, Richard Mille and Louis Vuitton. Christie’s will sell a further 214 rare watches in a sale on Monday. A Patek Philippe Henry Graves is expected to sell for SFr3m.
‘Nad’a opens my eyes’: Luke and Nad’a. Photograph: Image provided by Luke ShannonWhen Nad’a stopped at Luke’s food stall along the river embankment in Prague in summer 2015, she wasn’t expecting sparks to fly. “I was surprised to see that he was selling Middle Eastern food, because he looks about as Irish as you can get. I thought I’d go over and try it to see if it was any good.” As a vegan, she couldn’t eat his speciality chicken dish, but he made her a plant-based version. “It was amazing. I also noticed he had really nice eyes – but I couldn’t stay. I had to pack for a summer in Spain.”Luke says that Nad’a was “the best-looking person I’ve ever seen” and he hoped to bump into her again. “For the next few months, she kept popping into my head at random moments. It was very strange.” Although she returned to the food market when she came back to Prague, she did not see Luke. “I was at a wedding so I didn’t get to see her,” he says.Early the following year, they bumped into each other at a party. “I heard someone say: ‘What are the odds that two people would bring the same dish to a party?’” says Nad’a. She turned around to find Luke holding za’atar and maqluba, one of her favourite Palestinian dishes. “It sounds cheesy, but it felt inevitable that we’d meet again,” he says. They began chatting, and made arrangements to meet for coffee. Although he liked her, Luke was worried about misreading the situation.“In the end, I had to make the first move,” Nad’a says. “I put my arm around him when we were out on a coffee date. He didn’t seem to mind.” A few days later, she invited him over, and he kissed her. “I was nervous. It took a leap of faith,” he says. Nad’a laughs: “Then he immediately started rambling about how he was going to mess this up.”They have since had some unusual dates. “Once we went to a deserted graveyard that used to belong to a hospital prison for the criminally insane,” says Luke. “That was interesting.” Not all their dates have been plain sailing. “Once we climbed the bottom of a bridge to do some silly handstands for a photograph,” Nad’a recalls. “Luke ended up falling over on top of me and breaking my arm.” Despite the disaster, the pair have continued to explore Prague. “We love doing things you wouldn’t find in a tourist handbook,” says Nad’a.The couple have plenty in common, but they also appreciate each other’s differences. “Nad’a opens my eyes,” says Luke. After growing up in Ireland and moving to England when he was 12, he had always been cynical about religion. “I understand more about spirituality now, and I try much harder to think about things from a different perspective.”Nad’a, who was born in Libya, grew up in the United Arab Emirates with parents from different religious backgrounds. “My mum is Czech and was Catholic and my dad, who was a Marxist, was from a Palestinian Muslim family. It meant I was exposed to lots of different influences. Spirituality has always come naturally to me, and I think it’s important.”They share many of the same values, and Nad’a loves Luke’s kindness and respect. “He treats everyone equally, no matter who he is with. It’s a really lovely quality.” What does Luke love about his partner? “Hang on, I’ll get my spreadsheet,” he says. “It changes on a day-to-day basis, but one of the things I love most about Nad’a is that she always tries to make the right decisions for the people around her. She is very caring.”The couple, who work as translators, have recently moved in together. They live with Luke’s pet tortoise, Stamper, and spend lots of time cooking together. “Luke is a better cook than me,” says Nad’a. “I am definitely being treated to some really great food.”Want to share your story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
In a new book, Euny Hong investigates the social ‘art of understanding’ that Koreans cultivate from childhood. Have you ever wanted to read minds? Or wished you had a little bit more of whatever ineffable quality it is that makes some people seem effortlessly popular at parties, lucky in love, and successful at work? Perhaps you need to brush up on you nunchi – a traditional Korean concept of situational awareness and the focus of the Korean American journalist and author Euny Hong’s new book The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success. According to Hong, nunchi is the “art of understanding what people are thinking and feeling” – a quality held by those who are sensitive to the dynamics within a given group. Koreans cultivate nunchi from a young age. “Kids in Korea know the word by age three,” she says. “You usually learn it in the negative; if everyone is standing on the right side of an escalator and a kid is lounging on the left, the parent will say, ‘Why don’t you have any nunchi?’ It’s partly about not being rude, but it’s also partly, ‘Why are you not plugged into your environment?’” The word “nunchi” itself roughly translates to “eye-measure”, a sort of sizing-up, not of individuals but of the overall context and atmosphere of a situation. It’s applicable to just about every social setting one can be in, from a wedding to a job interview. In action, nunchi involves noticing who, in any given context, is speaking, who is listening, who interrupts, who apologizes, who is rolling their eyes. From there, one can make potentially useful assessments about the nature of relationships and hierarchies within a group, the overall mood, and how to behave accordingly. As the truly skilled discern such cues intuitively even as they’re constantly in flux, Koreans don’t say someone has “good” nunchi, but “quick” nunchi – the ability to rapidly process changing social information. Because people with quick nunchi take the time to read the room, their chances of success in any social environment are high – they’re more likely to fit in and make connections and are less prone to coming across as clueless or incompetent, or of committing awkward faux pas. “At a very basic level, people will be happier to be around you if you have quick nunchi,” says Hong, “and from a Machiavellian point of view, you can negotiate better” by staying quiet, listening carefully, and gathering information from others before speaking. Because nunchi is a soft skill premised on discretion, Hong notes it can be a superpower for introverts. She claims approaching social situations through the lens of nunchi even helped her battle social anxiety, allowing her to remain grounded in stressful circumstances. In her book, Hong also makes the case that nunchi not only helps individuals but has factored into Korea’s rapid development from one of the world’s poorest nations to a high-income, culturally powerful country in a matter of generations. This is, as they say, big if true. Yet if the subtle art of nunchi is so powerful, why does it seem that these days corporate and world leaders seem to more often be blustery loudmouths, rather than sensitive, quiet types? Hong’s investigation of this question illuminates why the concept of nunchi – with its emphasis on unity, relationship building, and collective harmony – may be particularly relevant at a cultural and political moment characterized by divisiveness. It is, after all, essentially the power of understanding others. “In the west, autonomy and individualism are emphasized, and nunchi seems to advocate the opposite,” she says. “But developing nunchi doesn’t mean becoming a lemming, it just means you are using data to your advantage to create comfort for yourself and everybody else.”
Radhika Sanghani with the portrait of her by Nicholas Baldion. Photograph: David Levene/The GuardianI never thought that, one day, I would proudly show off my nose, captured in all its crooked glory, on a canvas on my living room wall. As a teenager, I couldn’t stand seeing a photo of my nose in side profile. I hated how big it was and, if people complimented me about my looks, I always felt it was in spite of the most noticeable feature on my face.Insecurities about my nose have always haunted me – throughout relationships, career successes, failures and everything in between. Last year, I tried to change this, by sharing my journey to attempt to love my nose on social media with the hashtag sideprofileselfie. It ended up inspiring thousands of others to share their insecurities, but I felt like a fraud. While I was trying to spread the big nose love, I cringed every time I saw a photo of my own.I was on the verge of accepting that I would never fully see my nose as beautiful when I met Nicholas Baldion, an artist, in a London pub, and asked him to paint my portrait. I was impressed by the art he showed me on his Instagram, particularly a painting of a larger-nosed woman in side profile, and realised this could be my chance to face my fears and embrace my own profile. My hope was that by turning my nose into art, I would start to see it through a more kindly artistic lens, rather than a standard beauty lens where I obsess over how it is double the size of Angelina Jolie’s.I regretted this the second I arrived for my sitting and he began to stare at my nose, before measuring it, and then slowly photographing it. When I had commissioned him to paint my profile, I had been thinking only about the finished portrait. I had forgotten that Baldion would have to spend hours staring at my biggest insecurity, and then painstakingly translating it on to canvas.The first sitting was hard. I could not shake the absurd feeling of wanting to turn my head to a front-on angle. I hated that Baldion was openly scrutinising the feature I had spent years trying to hide. Then I remembered that I was meant to be trying to love my nose, and berated myself for being insecure. Yet as the two-and-a-half-hour sitting went on, I calmed down, and began to accept my feelings. I had put myself in this situation, so now I just needed to sit in it.By the second sitting, I was almost excited – not just by the thought of having an afternoon where I had an excuse to do absolutely nothing, but because it had finally sunk in that I was having my portrait done. I had always associated portraiture with Victorian ladies, or Samantha from Sex and the City – not average young women trying to get over body image hangups. But by letting myself join their ranks, I began to feel I was giving myself importance: my nose may never grace the cover of Vogue, but it is special enough to warrant its own oil painting.Baldion helped. He told me what he was thinking when he looked at my nose: capturing its tone, colour, form and shape. To an artist, beauty doesn’t necessarily reside in a living Barbie doll; it lives in wrinkles, scars and character. “I always enjoy painting distinctive features,” he said. “And there’s more than one type of beautiful.”I was nervous to see the finished portrait. What if it was further proof that my nose was unattractive? But when I looked at the picture of a gently smiling woman, confident in her own skin, I couldn’t help but smile back. She looked like me, yes, but she also looked quite attractive. Her nose was powerful. Strong. Almost beautiful.Since that day, I have spent hours gazing at my portrait, hanging it in pride of place in my flat, and those feelings have deepened because of its strong, queenly presence. But the most amazing – and unexpected – effect of having this portrait of myself is that it has changed my understanding of what beauty is.I am so used to blindly subscribing to the societal beauty standard of looking like a Hollywood star or Disney princess that I automatically look for my flaws in every photo or reflection of myself, mentally drawing red circles around them, in the way gossip magazines do. But when I look at my portrait, I do so as if it were hanging in a gallery. The process has shifted my perspective and I have learned to make up my own mind about what beauty means, whether it is a smiling strong woman in an oil portrait, or a real-life reflection – complete with a big, crooked nose – looking back at me in the mirror.
Liz Houghton’s son was 20 when he died, and his organs were donated to 12 people. She heard from two of them, but would love to have been in touch with more. Could a new initiative help relatives like her?. Liz Houghton’s son Will was living his best life when his world stopped. In 2016, the superfit 20-year-old was flying through the Hampshire countryside on his bicycle when he was knocked down by a car. He died of his injuries. At the Houghtons’ house in Buckinghamshire, a tall and handsome Will smiles out of family portraits. The bright red racing bike he bought but never rode – it arrived a fortnight after his death – hangs on a wall. Houghton recalls she would come downstairs in the morning to find him sitting red-faced and muddy in the kitchen, having cycled 50 miles before breakfast: “He would be stuffing his face with porridge and saying: ‘We live in such a beautiful country, Mum.’ That’s what cycling gave him.” “He had the best life … we want everyone to have a bit of what Will had,” she says. And, in a way, 12 people did – his heart beats in another man’s chest, his liver transformed the life of a toddler with a rare disease and his “beautiful” brown eyes helped four others see. All his mother would like in return is “to know that the fact Will died so young has changed other people’s lives”. But she has heard almost nothing about the people who benefited. “It’s so upsetting. I knew my 20-year-old son’s heart was out there and I wanted to know that person woke up and thought: ‘There was a boy who did that for me.’” The gravity of Will’s injuries meant Houghton and her husband, Richard, were escorted by police to the hospital in Southampton where he had been airlifted after the accident. “I relive that every day,” she says. “You are half thinking the worst because you are in a police car. When we got there, they took us into a room and the doctor asked: ‘What do you know?’ I said I knew it was bad. He said: ‘It’s unsurvivable.’ It is like a bulldozer hitting you.” The opinionated and lively sports science student, whose loves included US politics, reality TV and Skittles, had been vocal about his decision to join the donor register. “Once we knew we had no hope, it all became about his organs,” says Houghton. “If someone had said to me before the accident: ‘We want to have Will’s eyes,’ I would have said: ‘No way.’ He was so handsome. But when it happened, I wanted them to take every single piece of him. I didn’t want one thing going in the ground.” Families can opt to receive a letter containing basic information about the recipients, which arrives about a fortnight after donation. They are also asked if they would like to receive a thank you letter should one be written. But while more than 90% of donor families say they would like to be contacted, only 20% of recipients write. Houghton, who co-founded the clothing brand Mint Velvet, is working with NHS Blood and Transplant (NHS BT) – the health authority with responsibility for transplant services – on an initiative that may increase the number of letters exchanged. Called Don’t Forget the Donor, its aim is to improve the support and materials available to recipients who want to write, but are unsure how to go about it. Angela Ditchfield, an organ-donation nurse who is assisting with the initiative, says: “Anything we can do to make the grief and bereavement journey better is a good thing. Donor families say it is something they find comforting. They want to hear that their loved one has helped save someone’s life.” The psychology involved is complex, and Ditchfield suggests some recipients find it daunting. “They think ‘thank you’ is not enough,” she says. “But to the donor family, I think that is all they want; an acknowledgment that their loved one has helped somebody and given them back their life. If we can give recipients the support and information to do that, then the families who want to receive a letter may get one.” Houghton agrees: “I think people are so worried about offending us or saying the wrong thing – or they feel that it’s too late. There is this idea they have to write a massive letter and turn up on the One Show. But what I want to know is that Will’s life mattered.” Last year, the Houghtons received their first letter – it typically takes recipients about two years to write to donors – from a woman whose toddler had received Will’s liver. The writer was worried the letter could upset them, and would be “hard” to read, but Houghton says the acknowledgment and thanks are healing. “To us, your son is our hero,” reads Houghton. “I think about your son every day.” Katie Morley, a recipient coordinator for NHS BT, says it is important to remember that recipients should not feel pressured into writing, as they may be dealing with physical and mental problems following their surgery. Also, not every transplant has a happy ending: two of Will’s organs failed. “Transplant is a procedure that will hopefully lead to a better quality of life,” Morley says. “But the recipients still have health problems.” The drugs prescribed after transplantation, for instance, often cause hand tremors, which would make it difficult to write. Morley adds: “Some medication can affect your mood and heighten your emotions during a period that is already very emotional. Choosing whether or not to correspond with the donor families should not be forced on to anyone.” Next year, the law will change in England and Scotland – but not Northern Ireland – from an opt-in to an opt-out system (something that already applies in Wales). More than 6,200 Britons are waiting for life-saving transplants in the UK, but on average three of them die each day. Campaigners and medical professionals have long argued that having to actively register your consent has restricted the supply of organs. At the moment roughly two-thirds of families approached about donation agree; NHS BT aims for a consent rate of 80%. Wales has the highest consent rate of all UK nations, at 77%, up from 58% in 2015 when the law changed. But, even so, only 1% of people die in circumstances (such as a hospital intensive care unit or emergency department) that make it possible for them to be donors. Ditchfield thinks publicity around the change in the law will encourage people to have a conversation. “I think, as a society, we don’t like talking about death and dying. Tell your loved ones what you want.” When she received no further letters about Will, Houghton used the NHS service to reach out to the other recipients. (The letter is sent to the recipient’s transplant centre, and they are asked if they want to read it.) Then a second letter arrived, written by the son of a man who, he explained, does not speak much English. After more than a decade of dialysis, his father’s life has been transformed by a kidney transplant from Will, and for Houghton the sense that “something good has come out of all the sadness” is overwhelming. “Thank you just doesn’t seem enough, but that is all I can offer you,” he writes. “Thank you for bringing such a brave and selfless individual into this world. Thank you for Will.”
If you are careful about what you use on your face and hair, as well as what you eat, it can help to keep your skin healthy. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise “A lot of my acne patients think that, because they have oily skin, they can’t use a moisturiser,” says Bav Shergill, a consultant dermatologist based in Sussex. But if you scrub the oils off your skin, it will end up producing more to compensate. “Moisturise your skin so that it is well hydrated and that will turn off your oil production more effectively than trying to scrub away the oil.” Don’t block your pores “The usual suspects are sunscreens,” says Erica MacCallum of facialists Eve Lom in New York. So if you use one daily, look for one labelled non-comedogenic (non-clogging) or oil-free. “And never sleep in your makeup.” Sandy Skotnicki, a dermatologist based in Toronto, says that even hair products – “in particular argan and coconut oils” – can contribute to facial acne, so “it is important to wash them out before you sleep”. Exfoliation will help to keep pores clear and Shergill recommends skin products with 2% salicylic acid “and a little more glycolic acid, which can help exfoliate dead skin cells that could cause blockages”. Zap spots with antibacterials “People think acne is an infection, but it’s not,” says Shergill. “It is inflammation of the skin that allows an overgrowth of bacteria. The body tries to kill the bugs and causes the big red reaction, which is the spot.” If one lasts for longer than 10 days, it can scar. “We need to get on and treat spots when they come up,” says Shergill. “We often use drugs such as benzoyl peroxide. If you prefer an alternative treatment, tea-tree oil can be effective.” As well as killing germs, tea tree has anti-inflammatory properties. To avoid irritation, Shergill recommends diluting it to 5%. Be kind to your skin “Never squeeze a spot,” says Shergill. “The spots will express themselves when you wash your face.” And squeezing “blind spots”, where skin has grown over the top, is futile and can lead to scarring. Lay off the sweet treats When you eat cake, or other high-glycaemic-index (GI) foods, you are likely to produce extra insulin. There is evidence, says Shergill, that high-GI diets and insulin spikes “correlate with facial serum excretion – you make more oil. Whereas a low-glycaemic-load diet significantly reduces lesion counts. So a low-glycaemic-index diet is apparently very effective.”
Apps and wearable devices are touted as a way to transform health. But are we too obsessed by the ‘quantified self’?. Martin Lewis owns his obsessiveness about counting steps with something approaching pride. “I’ve never done less than 10,000 steps in any day for the last three years,” he says. “But to be honest, if I do just 10,000 steps, I’m never happy. My average is nearer 25,000. It’s an obsession.” It’s not as though the founder of Moneysavingexpert.com has nothing else to do. Lewis is seldom off-air, and returns to present another series of The Martin Lewis Money Show on ITV later this month. He tracks his steps, has a graph of his weightlifting routine, and even keeps track of the Scrabble games he plays with his wife, the TV presenter Lara Lewington. He credits his step obsession – which includes running 25 miles a week – with losing weight and helping him reduce symptoms of repetitive strain injury. “It’s not coincidental that I’m the guy who knows credit rates off the top of his head,” he says. “This is how my brain works.” Lewis is one of a substantial number of people who has embraced the idea of a “quantified self” (QS), a term invented by former tech journalist Gary Wolf to describe people who measure themselves – their bodies, their behaviour – in pursuit of things like weight loss, better sleep, great fitness: “self-knowledge through self-tracking”. The movement was prompted by the emergence first of smartphones and then wearable tech – fitness trackers such as Fitbit, the Apple Watch, heart rate monitors and cycling computers. When Apple launched its watch in 2014, it seemed as though the quantified self could be the route to solving problems such as obesity. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Breathless investor reports about wearables focus mostly on the popularity of headphones and earbuds. The number of smart watches sold worldwide in 2018 was 45 million, a tiny number compared with the 1.43 billion smartphones sold in the same year. As for the wearables manufacturers, Fitbit, which had been plateauing, was bought by Google last week. Jawbone went out of business two years ago. Withings was bought by Nokia in 2016: two years later they sold it back to its founder. But QS isn’t dead – about a third of smartphone users track their health using technology, and there is some evidence that it can work. Vitality, the life insurer, provides discounted Apple watches to members and rewards them if they stay active. A study last year found people on the scheme increased their activity by about 34%. “It can have benefits. It can help people be more mindful of what they’re doing,” says Dr Josie Perry, a sports psychologist. Some wearable devices include a social element, such as Nike+, where users can track their performance against friends, she says. “It seems that the sticky element is the community element, rather than the data element.” She could be talking about Lewis. “I’m incredibly competitive,” he says. “The poor people who are friends with me ignore me these days. One of my sister’s best friends, Meital, is generally number two, and she’s very happy when she beats me. I remember once I called my sister on a Sunday night when I was walking round the sofa getting steps. She said, ‘you know Meital is walking round the sofa to beat you this week’? But I was ahead.” Lewis admits he scaled things back two years ago, when he was doing well over 25,000 steps a day. “It was controlling my life too much. I would say, ‘well, we can’t go out there because I won’t get my steps in’. I genuinely found it dictating where I was going.” Not everyone has the same motivation as Lewis, though, and some QS acolytes have given up, saying they have learned nothing. The problem is that people using tech often measure the wrong thing, says Jakob Eg Larsen, an associate professor in cognitive systems at the Technical University of Denmark who has been following the QS movement since it was founded. “You only need a pen and paper, writing things down in a notebook, putting numbers on a spreadsheet,” he says. “One of the reasons why people eventually give up on their fitness trackers is because they might have a question, but they don’t necessarily get an answer if it’s not baked into the technology from a commercial vendor.” People who report good outcomes tend to have a more scientific approach, Larsen says: asking a question, forming a hypothesis, gathering data, then analysing it. He mentions a case of a man with severe allergies who tracked every meal on a spreadsheet to see what coincided with episodes of allergic reaction. After isolating different types of food and changing his diet, he no longer needed to take medication, Larsen says. Another QS practitioner discovered that her tinnitus seemed less pronounced the more she monitored it. And the hope is that these individual anecdotes might inform medical research. “There are lots of cases which could be inspiration for academic researchers,” Larsen says. But people should be cautious about the outcomes of experimenting on themselves, according to Dr Tom Calvard, a senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Edinburgh Business School. “We’re all becoming lay psychologists, folk psychologists, and that’s troubling because we’re not statisticians, and we’re not expert in interpreting our own data,” he says. “And we can jump to the wrong conclusions.” There are other ethical issues, such as raised by the technology writer Evgeny Morozov. By measuring ourselves, and taking responsibility for our own health, does this give licence to the authorities to sideline more vulnerable people? For Calvard, the experience of elderly people given a panic button is evidence that this is already happening – it allows the state to narrow its responsibilities to a specific, measurable response rather than a more holistic approach that can’t be proved with data. When wearable tech is deployed by companies to monitor their own staff, things can become more sinister. Many companies routinely monitor the location of their drivers, which has the twin effect of establishing their safety but also reducing their control. “Surveillance capitalism”, as described by Shoshana Zuboff, leads to Amazon warehouse employees being tracked with wristbands and warned if they are not meeting productivity expectations. The experience of James Bloodworth, who went undercover as an Amazon picker for six months, was that some employees had no time for toilet breaks so used bottles instead. Last year, a US vending machine company even asked its employees to be implanted with microchips. But is this data worth anything? Does it help a company to know how long it takes an employee to get round a warehouse if it doesn’t also know about the bottles of urine, or how many customers cancel their Amazon accounts when they read about them, or how many politicians decide to attack the company’s tax arrangements as a result? Even people tracking themselves can discover negative effects from the monitoring alone. “I did a study last year and one of the athletes I spoke to had been injured,” Perry says. “She went for her first run back and it was a beautiful morning, running by the river, and she loved every second. She got back, uploaded her time to [fitness network] Strava, and she could see that her brother had run a bit further, and a friend had run a bit faster. And she said she felt like a failure, all that joy wiped out.” Lewis insists he could give up. “I’m aware it’s an obsession but it’s not an addiction. I’m deliberately making a choice not to break the obsession because I think it’s a healthy obsession.” But it has had one unexpected effect. Lewis has rearranged his schedule so that he walks to and from work most days – about two hours of steps. He fills the time with phone calls and was embarrassed during one conversation with a cabinet minister that couldn’t be heard above the traffic. “I bought an expensive set of noise-cancelling headphones,” he says. “So my fitness tracker has actually made me break my own money-saving rule.” Analyse this L’Oréal My Skin Track UV A pendant that claims to measure things that harm your skin, such as UV, pollution, pollen and humidity. Willow breast pump A wearable device for women who want to know exactly how much milk they have produced. Garmin Vector 3 A cycling power meter to tell riders how hard they’re turning the pedals. Lovely 2.0 A sex tracker that measures how long a session lasted and how many calories were burned in the process. HiMirror A ‘smart surface’ that analyses your reflection to find wrinkles, spots and rough skin. Oura Ring A ring that uses your finger to check body temperature and heart rate, with algorithms that claim to measure sleep quality.
“‘Oh, right, wow,’ people say as they hold him, wincing as if we’ve handed them a lorry engine.” Photograph: AlamyWhatever I think about my son’s variable affections for me, it makes me feel better that he can at least be demonstrably rude to other people, too. This reflection has been prompted by his reactions to being handed around. Like all parents, we began being quite careful about who we handed him to, but now we do it just for somewhere to put him. Were it socially acceptable, we’d probably rest him on the bonnet of an idling taxi if it gave us a second to grab our wallets. But, although he spent the first nine months of his life unmoved by anything less eventful than a building collapse, he’s now more discerning about who holds him, not to mention heavier, squirmier and more of a handful in every sense.‘Oh, right, wow,’ people say as they hold him, wincing as if we’ve handed them a lorry engine. ‘Unnngh. Yep. He’s, er, really grown.’ It’s not that he’s particularly big for a toddler, of course, it’s just that since he’s not walking yet and has very fair hair, he’s something of an optical illusion; a child who bears the essence of being a baby, but without their pleasingly compact size. We try to think of it as an upgrade on the usual baby package, a little bit of extra baby for our money, the maxi-baby plan, perhaps, or Baby+. Having a toddler who can’t, well, toddle, is not without its challenges. I worry that our friends have started to dread visiting us, the way I would if every time I went round to their house I was expected to lift Gregg Wallace out of a high chair.Then there are his moods. Though ordinarily a very even-natured child, he’s getting a bit of an attitude, so roughly one in five times he meets someone, he’ll either start crying or just slap them in the face. ‘Oh,’ my wife will say, aghast, ‘he’s just tired.’ I’d like to say I’m similarly courteous, but I’ve been known to rub it in. ‘That’s so weird,’ I’ll say. ‘I mean, seriously, this kid likes everyone.’ There are probably some reasons not to use my infant son as an emotional cudgel with which to beat my enemies, but I can’t recall any right now.Fortunately, I don’t spend much time with people I hate but, unfortunately, this means the occasions when he does this to a deserving recipient are infrequent, so I usually find myself resenting his pleasantness to some guy I hated from four jobs ago. ‘Seriously? You like this turd?’ I say to myself, telepathically willing him to be sick on their tie. And then he’s often unkind to a child with whom we’re forcing him to bond.This new independence is good, but it’s sad that our former inducements just don’t take any more. Like when a passing train’s wi-fi shows up on your phone, our over-eagerness to make him connect ends up looking strange and strangely pathetic. ‘You can try that on with a baby,’ he seems to say, ‘but this is a Baby+ you’re talking to.’Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats
After years in the doldrums, the once ubiquitous bowl of fragrant dried petals is making a comeback, at a very fancy price. A bowl of pot-pourri was once a sign of comfortable middle-class status: an asset to be displayed on the coffee table. Then, slowly but unstoppably, it became the butt of sniffy jokes and an emblem of doomed social ambition. Now, after collecting dust for more than a decade, the pot-pourri seems to be back. Not only can it be spotted inside fashionable lounges, it has also inspired a leading visual artist. The bad news is that few fans will be able to afford the new pot-pourris: luxury products cost between £70 and £330. The classic 1980s mass-market pot-pourri, a selection of dried petals, herbs, pine cones, spices and the occasional piece of dehydrated fruit, was designed to emit a pleasant low-level odour and mark out a household from those relying on Shake ’n’ Vac to freshen up the domestic ambience. But this festive season top-end retailers such as Petersham Nurseries and Santa Maria Novella are selling bespoke pot-pourri in designer jars, billing it as an eco-friendly and exclusive alternative to scented candles. In 2020, an exhibition in Cambridge looking at five decades of work by British punk artist Linder will feature her own pot-pourri “intervention”. The phenomenon of the bowl of dried petals on the windowsill dates from the 17th century when, in the early days of the trading empire, it became fashionable to use exotic perfumes to evoke far-off lands. Three-and-a-half centuries later, a commercial approximation of this idea was booming in Britain, and pot-pourri, like the Antimacassar before it, became a symbol of gentility. Yet by 2011, according to analyst Mintel, sales had plummeted. Householders hoping to impress the neighbours, like Hyacinth Bouquet in the BBC1 sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, had switched allegiance. Sales of scented candles and reed diffusers went up 5% to £41m, while pot-pourri dropped by 14%. Early to twig the recent revival was luxury brand Odette Toilette, which developed a blend based on a recipe once enjoyed by the Bloomsbury set. Created by fragrance expert Lizzie Ostrom, it is designed to evoke the smell of a stately home – a combination of beeswaxed panelling, aged tapestries and old leather. The original blend was used at Knole, the Kent home of the Sackville family, and created in the 18th century for them by Lady Betty Germaine. Vita Sackville-West once recalled running her fingers through this concoction and finding the “dusty fragrance” sweeter in the underlayers, “where it has held the damp of the spices”. And in the novel Orlando, written by her friend Virginia Woolf, the central character buries her face in a bowl of family pot-pourri, “made as the Conqueror had taught them many hundred years ago and from the same roses”. The new top-of-the-range Mad et Len product, sold at Petersham Nurseries, comes in a bespoke hand-hammered iron vessel. A spokesman for the shop said these latest generation pot-pourris are againrivalling candles. They offer, he said, a more “intensely pure scent” because they are made in small batches with essential oils and “aged in-house for as long as two years” by the brand’s French founders, Sandra Fuzier and Alexandre Piffaut. One tub of its Ambre Nobile pot-pourri costs £330. Less expensive are the terracotta pots sold by Santa Maria Novella, although its hand-painted ceramic jar costs nearly £90. Liverpool-born artist Linder, known for her feminist photography and photomontages, is also looking back in time for fresh olfactory inspiration. Her solo retrospective in Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard aims to engage all five senses of visitors when it opens in February. As well as designing new uniforms for staff at the cafe, she is reproducing a pot-pourri recipe created by the late art collector Jim Ede, former owner of the gallery buildings. For those who question the worth of a bowl of garden cuttings, it is worth considering one thing: certain ingredients are strongly recommended as a natural way to deter moths. A little mugwort and some wood shavings, from cedar, cypress or juniper trees, offer the maximum effect. But do not absent-mindedly eat this mixture instead of the crisps: these ingredients are toxic to people as well as repellent to moths.
Our traditional national landscapes of sweeping lawns and undulating hills are deeply indebted to China and Japan. Like so many other aspects of our culture, the origins of British garden style can be traced back overseas. As an avid reader of garden history books, I can’t help but wonder if our collective compass might be a tad off when it comes to understanding the primary source of influence in classic British garden design. In the early 18th century, a radical new garden style arose in England that dramatically overhauled the centuries of rigid formal symmetry of the classical French and Italian styles that had dominated the gardens of Europe. Immaculately clipped topiary mazes, whose perfect geometry was thought to reflect how the Garden of Eden looked before the Fall, were swept away. They were replaced with asymmetrical “naturalistic” landscapes, with sweeping lawns rolling over undulating hills and around sinuous lakes and loose groves of trees, all punctuated by romantic follies. An idealised vision of a pastoral landscape from a painting was turned into a living, breathing, three-dimensional space. In a few short decades, what became known as the “English style” had spread across Britain and on to the rest of Europe. In fact, centuries later it remains the dominant garden style in the world. You’d be forgiven for assuming this style arose entirely spontaneously from the imagination of a handful of ingenious 18th-century Brits. However, the evidence paints a different picture. In 1685, Sir William Temple, an English ambassador to the Hague, wrote an essay on a missionary’s reports of gardening in China. It was a time when exotic artefacts, such as screens and cabinets, painted with mountainous landscapes and lakes, were arriving in what is now the Netherlands. He described the East Asian appreciation of irregularity and asymmetry, and criticism of the straight lines and neat rows in gardens, such as Versailles. European interpretations of these landscapes, complete with westernised takes on pagodas and arched bridges, soon started appearing in the gardens of wealthy English aristocrats. Even though these designers had no first-hand knowledge of the landscapes from which they were drawing inspiration, the similarities with East Asian gardens today are striking. Replace the velvety moss of Japan’s Daihoji temple with a carpet of emerald lawn and the footprint is pure Capability Brown. Want to see a landscape of shrines and follies by the curved edges of a lake, complete with a naturalistic rockery? It’s been sitting in Yu Yuan in Shanghai for well over 400 years. The iconic Palladian bridge at Prior Park in Bath is a neo-classical take on the Little Flying Rainbow bridge at the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou. To airbrush out the Asian influence on “English” garden style is to miss out on really understanding how we have come to view gardens. It can also mean we overlook the enormous source of inspiration and ideas these gardens still provide. So next time you marvel at a picturesque English landscape, thank Sir William and the world he opened our eyes to. Email James at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter@Botanygeek
Any woman in the public eye, from journalists to MPs and Meghan Markle, expects to receive a torrent of online abuse. New and more powerful measures are called for to clean up these website messes. When comments first arrived at the bottom of the internet, in their blood-spatter and bile, I wondered what it would mean for young women writing online. I had recently been one, you see, barely a day before. Until comments, angry readers had been obliged to find a bit of paper and a green pen before writing their response to my pieces about the benefits of a tiny handbag, or at least find my email address and then a quiet library in order to set out their ideas about my latent Judaism and love of cash. And then the internet opened and, while some of its corners welcomed passionate discourse, leading to friendships borne of such fetishes as identity politics on The Wire and the propagation of succulents, the spaces under women’s writing wriggled with fury and disgust. What I thought would happen would be that young women would weigh up the benefits of such a career or hobby, one that invited commentary from a collection of boys that read their thoughts about a new computer game and react by critiquing their breasts, and decide, nah. I thought the advent of comments would signal a loss of female voices online and, undoubtedly, many women went quiet. But many, instead, accepted the abuse as a price of admission, their skin thickening until a daily scream from a stranger in Spain reminding them of their infinite stupidity became as routine as tea. I wonder, as a growing number of female MPs announce they won’t be standing in the general election citing the abuse they faced in office, whether something is about to change. Whether it has to. Any person online has seen the relentless tide of faceless tweeters and proud fathers of three pouring pain on women they disagree with as if laundry water from a window. Any person who’s talked to a woman in a position of power has heard of the threats they receive, whether on the way they walk home at night, or their absence from TV debates, or the security doors they install at their homes. Last week, 72 women MPs sent a letter to Meghan Markle describing how, “We share an understanding of the abuse and intimidation, which is now so often used as a means of disparaging women in public office from getting on with our very important work.” The problem is, it’s effective. Why would any normal person rationally choose to stick in a job that requires her to piss on a thousand fires simply to reach her desk? Why would any young woman seeing not just the rape threats and violence a politician must navigate, but their daily weather conditions, the tornado of ignorance, of comments on their weight, decide to choose that life over something simpler, perhaps in telesales? A century after women won the right to vote, 50 years after fighting for a place at the table, they are being bullied out of public office and public life by people with numbers for names. By people whose online faces are Union Jacks, whose waking moments are spent sharing memes about Trump, torture and cheeky little frogs. People empowered by such troll heroes as Rod Liddle who, in a recent Islamaphobic Spectator article, also found time for a nod to, “the sobbing and oppressed Rosie ‘#MeToo’ Duffield”. The impacts stack inside each other like Russian dolls, from the girls who decide not to speak out about their abuse or harassment, having seen the abuse and harassment that conversation will inspire, to the remaining female MPs who are tired of having to perform their job in an invisible stab vest. But could this be the moment when we stop looking at the victims, and instead turn to the perpetrators? Diane Abbott has called for social media companies to record the real identities of people using their platforms. “When the police try and track down people who are abusing me, they find they can’t identify them. If Twitter, Facebook and online had the people’s real name and address, I think you’d be able to crack down on this,” she said. Are they listening? Currently, trolls wear the number of times they’ve had their Twitter accounts shut down as a medal, including it in subsequent bios – the game continues. It’s not fair to expect victims of intimidation to be responsible for managing their bullies, for cleaning up the websites messes. New measures are called for, whether that is removing anonymity, investigating anti-social web users, investing more in the internet education of children, or threatening action on the social media sites themselves. Unless a change happens, and fast, soon there will only be one sort of person in charge – loud, white, male, with skin as thick as bullet-proof glass. Thank you to everyone who got in touch about last week’s column: “An MRI scan reveals what I thought was a migraine to be something darker”. I had hundreds of messages, each one more warm and lovely than the last. I’m relaxing into the sympathy as if a hot bath. Email Eva at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter@EvaWiseman
Blocks of bright colours on your lids are nostalgic of the 80s, but the look is perfect for a 2019 update. Convention says if you are old enough to remember wearing a trend, you shouldn’t go near it when it comes back round again. Nonsense. It’s about a fresh execution. The 80s-inspired neon eye, as seen at Carolina Herrera, is a case in point. Sidestep nostalgia territory by doing the following: forgo a brush to keep the shape angular but imperfect (try swiping a lipstick bullet across your lids). Go minimal on skin – a light foundation and a dab of highlighter will do – define brows and apply lip balm. There’s your modern, wearable spin on an old-school trend. Essentials 1. UOMA Brow Fro Blow Out £22, beautybay.com 2. MAC Love Me Lipstick in Shamelessly Vain £17.50, maccosmetics.co.uk 3. Kevyn Aucoin Foundation Balm £42, selfridges.com 4. Huda Neon Orange Obsession Palette £24, cultbeauty.co.uk 5. Lipstick Queen Lipdulgence Lip Mousse in Candy Cane £22, spacenk.com I can’t do without... A foundation that glides on like a serum Bobbi Brown Intensive Skin Serum Foundation SPF 40, £48, bobbibrown.co.uk I am often asked to recommend the perfect foundation. No such thing exists. Yes, I know no one wants to hear that, but it’s the truth. You can love a foundation that suddenly decides it no longer loves you. This doesn’t mean it is not a good foundation. More often than not it is reacting to your changeable skin - affected by hormones, stress levels, weather, skincare regime. So you need more than one. This offering from Bobbi Brown is a brilliant addition to any repertoire. There are 23 shades, so the range is not extensive (to be fair that is relatively speaking), but it is evenly spread across all skin tones and the clever formulation takes undertones into consideration. The coverage is medium to full, but you are still left with skin that looks beautiful and dewy as opposed to caked in makeup. Its skincare properties – peptides, UVB and UVA protection – mean it does good while looking good. The texture, however, is my standout. It feels like a serum and glides on like a dream. The true test is how a foundation behaves if you decide to add on a little more at the end of the working day to freshen up the skin. Most would fail miserably at this hurdle. This one? Passed with flying colours. On my radar: A clever cleanser, eye brightener and vegan scents Fine art of cleansing This cleansing water, made with hyaluronic acid, turns face-washing into an art form. It eliminates impurities from the skin while also smoothing and plumping your skin. Chanel, L’eau Demaquillage, £85, chanel.com The eyes have it I rarely recommend eye creams, but I like this one. Full of brightening peptides and moisture-boosting acids, you can expect a less puffy, brighter and smoother under eye. Glamglow Bright Eyes Cream, £29, debenhams.com Fresh scents Vegan scents are becoming a thing: Ormaie Paris, a genderless seven-strong line of scents, has just launched in Harvey Nichols, and cologne fans should make a beeline for Le Couvent des Minimes. £55, lookfantastic.com Follow Funmi on Twitter @FunmiFetto
As autumn’s blustery weather arrives it’s time to take stock of struggling trees – and plant bulbs for some early spring colour. It is near winter at the summerhouse. Toadstools carpet the grass, some in clumps like fairy homes, others tall and on their own, white like ghosts. The climbing rose is still flowering, a delicate pink and strongly scented. Flocks of birds flit through the rowan, all agitated feeding. Soon they and the red berries will be gone. We have stocked up on sacks of sunflower seed for the residents. Strong winds shake the trees, swirling leaves colour the grass. Soon the oaks and beech will be stripped of leaf, our neighbours exposed. Bo, the tree surgeon, is here to advise on the dead silver birch and the broken branches on the oak. Last year’s endless summer is still taking its toll. The oaks overheated, threw out hundreds of acorns. He advises cutting back the crown, points out the long-term damage. We will wait on any work until spring, but take a closer look when all the trees are bare. There is pruning to be done, mostly cutting back the currant bushes. My mother-in-law has made her brilliant jam from the summer’s blackcurrants. We will eke it out over the winter. The redcurrants we leave for the birds, there for joy and colour. Marauding bramble is creeping in on the edges. It will need cutting back; some we will try to pull up. The main gardening job is planting bulbs for spring. This year, we are adding two new species tulip, both in variations of red: Lizzy and Schrenkii – hoping to colonise more corners. They will flower in April, though they may take a year or two to settle. We scatter a few clumps of May-flowering bulbs, tall yellows, orange and deep red (First Proud, Red Proud, Rhapsody of Smiles, all from Bloms Bulbs). We will have to wait and see how many survive the visiting deer and hare. It is their space as much as ours. Allan Jenkins’s Morning (4th Estate, £8.99) is out now. Order it for £7.91 from guardianbookshop.com
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Click here to access the print version. Normal Sudoku rules apply, except the numbers in the cells contained within grey lines add up to the figures in the corner. No number can be repeated within each shape formed by grey lines. Buy next week’s Observer Digital Edition to see the completed puzzle.
In this extract from the book The Memory Pool, the actor reminisces about his local municipal baths. When Bryan Brown was growing up in Panania in southwest Sydney in the 1950s and early 1960s, there were three hubs of social life outside school: the picture theatre; the church; the municipal baths. The baths at nearby Bankstown had one of Sydney’s first Olympic-size chlorine pools when they opened in 1933. Twenty-five years later, when young Bryan was living in the area, the pool was still going strong, and from the ages of 11 to 15 that was where he wanted to be. Back in the 1950s and early 60s lots of young families moved to the Bankstown area for the war service and housing commission homes around Panania, Revesby and East Hills. My mother, Molly, my younger sister, Kristine, and I lived in a housing commission home in Panania and, like all the other residents, we went to the pool at Bankstown as it was the only one in the area. It was a place of enormous life and where you wanted to be at the weekend. It was hot out there in summer and you couldn’t wait to dive into the pool. I first went there when I was about 11, with my mother and my sister, to have swimming lessons. We lived near the Georges river and I suppose if you lived near a river you’d eventually learn to swim. But mum wanted us to learn properly so she booked us in for swimming lessons at the baths. Learning to swim was an incredibly important part of being an Australian kid and Bankstown baths was a fantastic place to learn that essential life skill. After our series of lessons my sister and I got certificates saying we could swim 25 yards, and that was the beginning of swimming for us. Right from the start I loved swimming. I loved being in the water, mucking around and diving down deep, and I loved the feel of the water over my body. And once I could swim, I could get the bus to the baths instead of going with mum. Learning to swim was the start of becoming more independent and moving from being a little boy to being a big boy. The bus trip from Panania to Bankstown was seven miles and most weekends in summer I took that ride down the bottom of the hill with blokes who lived in my street. One of the greatest things about the Bankstown baths was the smell of chlorine. I used to walk into those baths and go down into the boys’ dressing rooms and you’d walk through water, a little sort of pond that cleaned your feet, before you could go out into the swimming pool. As you started to ascend the steps to go to the pool there was an overwhelming smell of chlorine and you knew you were at the Bankstown baths. It’s nothing like the smell of chlorine now. The pool was pretty standard. There was a smaller children’s pool and a 55-yard pool which had a high diving board and a small one. Under the diving tower it was 10 feet deep. My mates and I tended to hang around the middle of that pool. We did a lot of running and jumping and bombing each other. We splashed around and chased each other and wrestled in the water. It was all pretty unstructured. Sometimes you’d get bumped by a bigger kid and he might try to hold your head under water for a while. In that moment it didn’t feel too bloody good because for a second or two you thought you’re going to drown. And then he lets you up and you splutter and gasp for breath. But you also come up having understood a bit more about what life was all about. I suppose these days you’d call that boy a bully, and some of the other bigger boys who bumped you around a bit. But I just called them smartarses. You learned not to get caught around that sort of bloke again and you learned how to handle things. If someone jumped in or bombed and hit you on the shoulder – well you learned to get out of their road. It was all just part of growing up. The other great thing about that period was Bankstown baths had John and Ilsa Konrads training there with Don Talbot as their coach. And you sat there in awe of these great swimmers, two young immigrant kids from Latvia who had won Olympic medals. That was pretty exciting. We’d sit on the side of the pool watching them. We knew exactly who they were. They were world record holders and Olympic champions and they were at our pool. They were training in one lane while we all jumped in and out and splashed each other in the next lane. And Talbot was a big presence there as well. You didn’t get any bigger than Don Talbot. There was an area at the back of Bankstown baths where there was a lot of bush and that’s where the bodgies and widgies used to go. We’d be running around in our Speedos but down the back were these blokes and girls in their jeans and leather jackets. They’d be kissing and cuddling and you’d try to have a little sneak and look around the bushes, but you weren’t game to go in too far. One of those blokes would probably hammer you. It was a pretty exotic, colourful old place the Bankstown baths. It was a place of enormous life. A fantastic place for all the young people between the ages of eight and 30 – and if you were 30 you probably looked really old to us. Those baths initiated me not just to swimming but a whole other understanding of life – who were the right people to hang around with and who were not. It was a place where you worked things out yourself and learned about friendship and loyalty. Mostly I think of the Bankstown baths as an exciting place. I went every Sunday and looked forward to it. I couldn’t wait. After being around for more than 50 years, in 1984 the baths were closed. I didn’t really hear about that until one night in 2013 when I was invited to a poetry slam at the Bankstown Arts Centre. On that same night they were celebrating the 80th birthday of the pool and I was knocked out when I realised that the Bankstown baths were now an arts centre. I was happy because it was still a hub, but in a much bigger way because it was a hub for young people, middle-aged and older people as well. If the baths had been filled in and there were flats on them it wouldn’t have made me happy. But as an arts centre, the place was still fulfilling a community function – very different from when I was growing up, but just as important. I sat there in that audience of Lebanese, Egyptian, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian and Anglo Australians and I remembered how important this building was to me 50 years before. And later when I became a patron of the Bankstown Arts Centre I got to meet my hero John Konrads again. He was also a patron and when I met him I was able to say: “Mate, I used to sit on the edge of the baths here and I used to idolise you.” It was great to meet John and for both of us to be at the place where the Bankstown baths used to be and to see that it’s still playing a cultural role in the local community and, just like the baths were, it’s a vibrant place full of life. This is an edited extract from The Memory Pool – Australian stories of summer, sun and swimming, by Therese Spruhan (NewSouth Books, $29.99)
‘ER looks way more modern than almost all its contemporaries.’ Photograph: Rex Features Photograph: NBCUPHOTOBANK / Rex FeaturesLike my favourite movie cyborg who, for reasons I’ve never quite grasped, speaks in an Austrian accent, I’m back. But as I return to work after contributing to the global overpopulation problem, AKA maternity leave, one of my favourite literary passages feels especially relatable. It’s from Bridget Jones’s Diary, about the horrors of going back to work after the Christmas break, during which you’ve just lain about the house, eating and drinking anything you can reach from the sofa: “Now, suddenly, we are all supposed to snap into self-discipline like teenage greyhounds.”As it happens, I am writing this column a little later than expected because as I was striding, teenage greyhound-style, into the office, feeling like I’d got this parenthood/working thing nailed, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves playing on my mental soundtrack, I looked down at my outfit, carefully picked out to convey that “I’m totally unchanged by the baby” vibe. Except, I realised, one side of my dress was now soaked with milk (mine) and the other was covered in sick (the baby’s). There are five ages of man; I am in the “realising you have turned into a character in a Sharon Horgan sitcom” one.I wouldn’t like to give the impression that all I’ve done for the past four months was sit on the sofa, eating and drinking. No, I’ve also been watching TV. A lot of TV. You see, my maternity leave coincided with an old show becoming available to stream in the UK. A show I hadn’t watched in a long time and thought about even less. That show is ER.Reader, I binged on ER. “Wow, my iPad’s battery runs down fast these days,” I’d think, as I fired up my sixth episode that day. At one point I watched so much ER I thought I might have to go to the actual ER, because I had a migraine from staring at a screen for nearly all my waking hours. (I didn’t go, but only because I knew it would be such a disappointing experience, what with Doctors Greene, Ross, Benton, Carter, Lewis, Weaver and Kovač not really being there.)It’s remarkable how little ER is discussed these days, especially compared with those other 90s blockbuster shows, Seinfeld and, most of all, Friends. ER was just as big, and yet even though this September marked its 25th anniversary, there has been none of the fanfare accorded to Friends. And this despite the fact that ER looks way more modern than almost all its contemporaries.Anyone born after 1990 may have got the impression from the endless articles about the shocking unwokeness of Friends that 90s TV was just a wasteland of whiteness: wealthy middle-class people leading heteronormative lives, pausing only to crack an occasional homophobic joke. Well, my dear millennials and gen Z-ers, allow me to direct you to ER. Aside from its notably, and realistically, inclusive cast (a black female boss; a disabled gay female boss), in just its first two seasons ER dealt with homophobia, transphobia, Aids, racism and white-collar poverty. While US politicians were still sneering about the crack epidemic among poor African-Americans, ER pointedly featured white characters from all social classes addicted to opioids. It even got into MeToo, two decades ahead of time, through the character of Dr Ross (George Clooney, duh), who sleeps with a medical student.All this makes ER sound very po-faced, when my baby and I can tell you that it is just really, really good. But while I can talk at length about ER’s best moments (in order: when Dr Greene causes the death of a woman during childbirth; when Dr Ross rescues a boy from a drain; and when Dr Carter is stabbed), there is something about the show generally that feels especially comforting right now.ER is, as the cliche goes, about the adults in the room, and unlike more recent medical dramas – Gray’s Anatomy, House – each episode is as invested in the patients as it is the doctors. Yes, the doctors all have their individual emotional dramas, but I’m a lot less interested in those this time round than I am in watching them just do their jobs. Look at them, these selfless and brilliant grownups, trying to fix the broken people! Watch as they turn down high-paying jobs in fancy practices so they can help those who really need them! It’s a show that celebrates empathy and expertise; against a backdrop of endless news from President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson, two men who are decidedly lacking in either of those qualities, ER is almost erotica. Some friends tell me they get this from watching old episodes of The West Wing, but that show feels a little too on the nose to me right now, a little too sad-making. So instead, I watch Dr Benton shout at Dr Carter as they crack open some unconscious guy’s ribs, and I feel that bit more hopeful about mankind.It’s also a kind of relief to opt out of the exhausting race to keep up with whatever the current prestige box set du jour is, sinking instead into the delights of a show made in 1994. So I’m maintaining my strict regimen of at least four episodes of ER a night. I might be back at work, but that doesn’t mean I have to snap entirely back into the real world. Just be grateful I cleaned the sick off my dress.• This article was amended on 9 November 2019 to remove an incorrect reference in the headline to ER being a “sitcom”.
Scott Chang (left) with Brian Davidson and their children. Photograph: Patrick Brown/The Guardian Brian Davidson, 55, UK ambassador to ThailandFor our first children – Eliot, three, and Esme, two – Scott took time off work, but I’ve had three months’ leave for baby Erik. I’m the first man, I think, and certainly the first ambassador to take surrogacy leave at the Foreign Office.It’s a challenge fitting family life around representational duties. Half the time I’ll do those on my own, and half the time Scott has to come with me. I’m pretty strict that weekends are for family – it has to be the king, or the PM, or a visiting secretary of state to drag me out then.We are always on display as same-sex parents, not least because of the way our marriage in China was publicised. It took place in the ambassador’s residence in Beijing, even though China doesn’t recognise same-sex marriage. We have to stand up and be counted, not hide in a corner. Scott Chang, 38The diplomatic partners who get it right are the ones who are able to hold on to their personality and be fully themselves while still representing their countries really well. I don’t think I’ve quite figured out the balance yet.We don’t need to be the last ones at the party, so we can come home and be with the kids for a while.The mornings have been surprisingly nice – it’s not my favourite thing to wake up at 5.30am, but it means we have three hours’ family time before we have to go to work.We often hold hands in public. Now that we’ve got young kids, it may be that other people find it more relatable when they see a family unit, as opposed to just two men.• If you have a story to tell about who you live with, fill in this form and tell us a little about your set-up.
From animal dung to UK motorists, test your knowledge with the Weekend quiz. 1 Who lives in Villa Villekulla with her monkey and a horse? 2 What is it illegal to wear in parliament? 3 Which animal’s dung is known as spraint? 4 Ethelbert of Kent was the first English king to do what? 5 Which archaic human was discovered by the Düssel River? 6 What began on 2 November, 1982 with TNEMARHIB? 7 Which band are named after Linda from the Manson family? 8 Dresden is a suburb of which English city? What links 9 White Clay Creek Park, Delaware and Brown’s Hill, West Virginia? 10 Cerberus; Orthrus; Ladon; Chimera; Hydra? 11 Railway guides; Leviathan; Eboracum; taekwondo queen? 12 Vava; Pelé; Breitner; Zidane? 13 Annuitymatures; doctor’s fee; bank error; birthday? 14 Port wine; bride; Ant; UK motorists? 15 Amenhotep IV; Gandhi; Columbus; Einstein; Disney? The answers 1 Pippi Longstocking. 2 Armour (under a 1313 statute). 3 Otter. 4 Convert to Christianity (c. 600 AD). 5 Neanderthal. 6 Countdown (first letters round). 7 Kasabian. 8 Stoke-on-Trent. 9 Mason-Dixon Line (start and finish of the original survey line). 10 Multi-headed creatures in Greek myth. 11 Sex And The City leads: (by George/Carrie) Bradshaw; (author Thomas/Miranda) Hobbes; (Roman name/Charlotte) York; (Jade/Samantha) Jones. 12 Scored in two Fifa World Cup finals. 13 Community Chest cards in Monopoly. 14 Left: passed to; at alter, traditionally; Ant McPartlin stands on viewers’ left; drive on. 15 Subjects of operas by Philip Glass: Akhnaten; Satyagraha; The Voyage; Einstein on the Beach; The Perfect American.
We did handstands, trampoline jumps, juggling and a fiendish move with a hula hoop. The National Centre for Circus Arts, in London, sounds grand, because it is. There are acres of plate glass and sprung floors, and cathedral-scale studios full of dauntingly impressive young people throwing stuff at each other. But didn’t feel intimidated. There may be people here doing degrees, but the beginners have a room of their own. Admittedly, half of them can throw a handstand with one hand balanced on a water bottle for maximum effect, so who knows where the real beginners were hiding. But it’s extremely inclusive, the way countercultural hobbies often are. “What are you,” I started, to Glen Stewart, not really thinking through this sentence, which would inevitably end: “A clown?” “A trainer. I’m a trainer,” he replied. Stewart is wiry and eerily mobile, his movements stretchy and deliberate, as if he was created by CGI. We started our session with five minutes testing our flexibility: can you touch your toes? How far will your arms go, if you swing them out to the side like a 3D clock? Pretty straightforward stuff, this, unless you’re competing with the others, which I knew better than to do (they were all younger than me). But here’s the magic bit: we then did a quickfire coordination exercise, split into pairs, one holding up a piece of paper with a series of marks (indicating left, right, both), the other touching their left hand to the leg, or their right, or both, as fast as possible without making a mistake. The theory is that you unlock your brain’s full functionality by forcing it to concentrate. After that, try your range of movement again; it is greater. The difference wasn’t immense; but it was noticeable. “All the things you thought you had to do by stretching,” Stewart said, “instead you have to wake up the part of your brain that prefers to stay dormant.” Dividing the acrobat studio into four stations, we worked on handstands, trampoline jumps, juggling and a fiendish move with a hula hoop called roll skipping, which looked possible, but wasn’t. But start with the handstand. It looks like a thing you can either do or not do, but there is a nursery slope: try it at home, if you like, but don’t sue me if you fall on your nose. Plant both hands on the floor, fingers splayed, the inside of your elbows facing outwards. Put your butt in the air, as if you’re doing a downward dog. Oh, sorry, go back a stage and make sure there is a wall about a foot and a half behind your hands. Plant one foot on it, then the other, as if you’re crouching for the start of a race, except in the air, against a wall. Then see if you can get one leg away from the wall, pointing up straight towards the sky, and write your name in the air with your toe. Step two is getting stable enough to keep it straight. Step three is kicking the other leg up to meet it. I got nowhere near halfway to the first step, but found it deeply engrossing. Juggling, on the other hand, is a foreign country. What I learned There’s a ton of fitness-building, and not especially circus-related circuits involved: bunny hops, press-ups, bear crawls. Think of it as an aerobic workout, rather than a midlife crisis.
Fiye (left) and Shaun: which one beams positivity? Photographs: Jill Mead, Sara Lee/The Guardian Photograph: Jill Mead; Sarah Lee/The Guardian Fiye on ShaunWhat were you hoping for? To connect with someone, have a laugh and not spill any food down my white T.First impressions? Nice hair, very warm and engaging.What did you talk about? Work, how sweaty and hot we both get, Twitter, gym routines, being “woke” and the countryside.Any awkward moments? None that I can remember.Good table manners? Yes. Although we used our hands for certain dishes.Best thing about Shaun? He is very comfortable in his own skin and beams positivity.Would you introduce him to your friends? Yeah, sure.Describe Shaun in three words Passionate, confident, friendly.What do you think he made of you? Very smiley and talkative.Did you go on somewhere? To a local pub for a couple.And... did you kiss? No.If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be? I would change the seats, as they were uncomfortable for a long period of time.Marks out of 10? 7.Would you meet again? Sure, as friends. We exchanged numbers. Shaun on FiyeWhat were you hoping for? Good chat and lots of drinks.First impressions? Friendly and frazzled.What did you talk about? Our shared inability to return clothes, being a good ally, favourite pop icons, our different Uber etiquette, the pros and cons of different ages.Any awkward moments? He had a bit of tissue stuck to his face and I didn’t know how to tell him. I was surprised when he told me he read the Daily Mail sometimes. When he ordered a shandy. I didn’t know how to explain Karl Marx when Fiye said he hadn’t heard of him.Good table manners? Great. He always let me go first at the sharing plates.Best thing about Fiye? Funny. We had lots of laughs.Would you introduce him to your friends? My pals are lovely, and I’m sure they would get on if it ever came up.Describe Fiye in three words Innocent, animated, inquisitive.What do you think he made of you? Probably a big drinker.Did you go on somewhere? We went to a cocktail bar. Fiye got a lemonade.And... did you kiss? Nope.If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be? A date who I fancied.Marks out of 10? 5.Would you meet again? I would stop for a chat if we ran into each other.• Shaun and Fiye ate at Angelina, London E8 Fancy a blind date? Email email@example.comIf you’re looking to meet someone like‑minded, visit soulmates.theguardian.com