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Tuesday, October 08, 2002
Your mother did lots of good things for you but one of the most important, and essential to your survival, is that when you were born she gave your skin a population of microbes, fungi and antibiotics which have been at work all your life acting as a first defence against infections which are constantly attacking your skin.
Under normal circumstances these wee beasties thrive and reproduce and keep up the level of protection you need all your life. That is, it used to, unfortunately there are signs that things are changing.
I was talking to Ken, one of my medical mates in America, and we got on to the subject of personal hygiene. He said that one of the changes he has noted in American society is that young people especially, believe that they absolutely have to shower two or three times a day using very strong bactericidal soaps. One of the most popular of these is called ‘Spring Fresh’ and is very popular with the lads. Ken told me that he knows immediately if someone is using it because whatever the scent is, he is allergic to it and starts sneezing as soon as they enter his office.
There have been some interesting scientific studies on this subject. They suggest that we are getting too obsessive about hygiene and that the benign population on our skin can be damaged by too much washing, particularly when strong bactericidal soaps are used. Another study suggests that one of the best things we could do for young children is let them eat a spoonful of dirt every now and again. Exposure to bacteria is what encourages our bodies to manufacture antibodies which protect our systems.
All this got me to thinking. I remembered the number of times during my working life when I have eaten my sandwiches without having had the chance to wash my hands. Was I unwittingly building up my resistance?
Seventy years ago in Barlick there were no showers, bathrooms or hot running water and having a bath in most houses was a big production. The tin bath which hung on a nail in the back yard all week was brought into the kitchen, placed on the heart rug in front of the fire and filled with hot water out of the side boiler if you had one. Failing this, you boiled plenty of water on the fire or the gas stove. Everyone in the house used the same water, children first, then mother and father. Every now and again the water was warmed up with another kettle of boiling water. When all had finished, the water was bailed out of the bath with a lading tin until father could lift it and pour the remainder down the sink. If you were really poor, you borrowed your neighbour’s bath.
All this palaver meant that it only happened once a week, almost always on Friday night. I’ve always thought that the sewage works, or Waste Water Treatment Facility as it is called today, must have been a very busy place on Fridays!
Add to this another circumstance, there were no refrigerators, there was lots of airborne dust coming in off the street which contained bits of whatever had been dropped on the streets from horse manure to the leakage from the night soil cart and the end result was that everyone was getting a large dose of bacteria every time they opened their mouths.
Now I’m not suggesting that people were proof against all these attacks on their system, we know that they weren’t, there was a constant low level of stomach infections and diarrhoea. What I suspect is that if we could go back to those days in a time machine we would almost certainly go down with infections straight away. Partly this would be because we had no resistance to that environment but it may be that our modern obsession with washing and hygiene could make it worse.
Ken also told me about a worrying development which might, for all I know, have reached us over here. When a mother leaves hospital after childbirth she is given a parting present, a selection of ‘baby care products’, free gifts from the manufacturers to get the mothers hooked on their products. Some of these can be quite powerful germicides and soaps and Ken says he constantly tells the mothers that a healthy baby needs nothing more to keep it clean than warm water and a very mild, unscented soap. Unfortunately this is nowhere near as seductive as the manufacturer’s goodies.
So, common sense and history might be telling us that it could be a good thing to be a little less obsessive about personal hygiene. As the old saying goes; ‘We all have to eat a peck of dirt before we die’. Perhaps a small amount regularly might improve our health.
On a related subject, my picture this week is of a well-hidden Barlick secret. If you look carefully, you will see buried in the fields between Lane Ends and Greenberfield our very own ‘waste water treatment facility’. The reason I have mentioned this is because I was talking to some young people the other day and they didn’t know what happened to the waste when they pulled the plug in the bath or flushed the lavatory. It had never dawned on them that there was no magic involved and that people had to work on these facilities to maintain them. They were absolutely horrified that anyone should have to spend their lives dealing with what they called ‘poo’! Just think what our lives would be like without it.
I’ve run out of space this week but I shall come back to dirty jobs, there may be more of them being done in this day and age than you imagined. Any comments or questions welcomed on Stanley@barnoldswick.freeserve.co.uk or 813527.
LETTER FROM AMERICA
When I was a little lad and there was a thunderstorm my mother used to tell me not to worry, it was only God’s coalman. All I can say is that here, in the Upper Mid-West, there must be a lot of coal being delivered! I like thunderstorms and this is a good place to sit on the porch and watch them. Of course, it can get dangerous when the cloud starts to rotate and a tornado cell forms, this is the season for them and I don’t particularly want to see one! We had a few small ones about 30 miles North of here two days ago.
I once remember reading that lightning released nitrogen from the atmosphere and was good for growing crops. I don’t know whether this is true but lightning, rain and warm weather seem to suit the maize crops which grow all round here, you can almost see the plants growing at this time of the year. They plant around the end of May and the saying is that it should be ‘Knee-high by the Fourth of July’. By the time they are ready to harvest in late September the frosts have come and there is something very strange about watching harvesting going on in weather cold enough to make warm top coats essential, in England it’s always a warm weather job.
Today is national ‘Take your dog to work’ day. The US Supreme Court is debating whether mentally retarded criminals should be executed and yet another small Baptist Church in the deep South has been burned down by racists. Strange contrasts for a Limey observing the scene! Do you know why they call us Limeys? It’s because English seamen were given lime-juice to prevent scurvy which was caused by vitamin-deficiency. The sea captains didn’t understand how this worked but they knew that it prevented it. The Americans thought this was funny and called us ‘lime-juicers’ which was shortened to Limey.
I got word this week that an American friend had died. Nothing unusual about that at my age, they are dropping off the perch all over the place. What made this unusual was how he had died. He had discovered he had cancer and elected not to treat it or inform his family, in effect, he condemned himself to an early death. The reason he did this was that he had no insurance and knew that if he had treatment it would bankrupt his family. The next time you’re complaining about the NHS remember my friend and think on, things could be worse!
Amtrak, the American equivalent of the old British Railways, announced this morning that if they didn’t receive a cash injection of $200 million immediately all passenger services would cease in 14 days. The government have immediately started making noises about closing lines down and privatising. Does this sound at all familiar? Perhaps they should send someone over to England and look at the mess we got ourselves into through exactly the same thinking.
Northfield is a college town, there are two large degree-awarding institutions here, St Olaf’s and Carleton College. The course at Carleton is a four year one and costs approximately $25,000 a year to parents. Add to this food, accommodation, travel etc. and you can begin to see why an education on this level is the preserve of the rich. The funny thing is that if you talk to the parents they don’t see themselves as rich in American terms but by our standards they must certainly be seen as such. Speaking as an outsider, the most obvious difference between America and the UK is the level of consumption, everything is bigger, consumes more energy and makes you fatter.
On the subject of obesity, South West Airlines has got into trouble for saying that they if a passenger can’t fit into one airline seat they are going to charge them for two. This has produced a howl of protest from the fatties who say that they aren’t buying space but transportation. Personally I think they ought to weigh the passenger and the baggage and charge above a certain weight. Like the UK, the States has identified a rising incidence of obesity-related diabetes in the young and is getting worried about it. I was offered a 32 ounce steak in a restaurant last week with a quart of ice cream to follow, can you wonder that people get fat!
When I was here last year Target had opened a superstore on the outskirts of the town selling clothes, shoes and household goods. This year they have announced that they have bought one of the two supermarkets in the town and are transferring it to the main store on the outskirts. In other words, Northfield has exactly the same problem that we have in Barlick; out-of-town shopping damaging the town centre.
Looking back, I might appear too critical so I’d better say something about the brighter side. The people are as polite, law-abiding and friendly as ever. Traffic in the town moves at about 15 mph and stops immediately if you step off the pavement. (sidewalk here, the pavement is the road!) The biggest crime the police have faced in the last week is kids on skateboards and roller blades alarming pedestrians, shades of mountain bikes in Town Square. Ed Klinkhammer, wonderful name, the proprietor of the local bakery, walked into Jacobsen’s Store on the main street the other day, took one look at a new portrait of Bob Jacobsen on the wall and announced it was no good, the glass prevented you from throwing darts at it! Some things don’t change and as long as the people are OK there’s hope for the town yet. In this respect at least, Northfield is another Barlick.
SCG/21 June 2002
FOR QUEEN AND COUNTRY?
I see that there is going to be a programme on TV about basic training for the army in the fifties. I shall miss it, I shall be away when it is broadcast however, it has prompted me to do a piece for all the old squaddies out there who had first hand knowledge of the process.
It may come as a bit of a surprise to my younger readers but until 1958, when it was abolished, every young man of 18 was liable for two years service in the armed forces. There were certain exceptions and deferments on the grounds of health, education or occupation but the vast majority of young men were called and served.
How it worked was that a couple of months after your 18th birthday you got a buff envelope marked OHMS, the dreaded ‘Calling-Up Papers’. This contained a travel warrant and instructions to attend at the nearest Army Medical Centre where you were examined to find out how healthy you were. As I was working in Warwickshire at the time I had to go to Birmingham for my medical.
The medical itself was a frightening process for a young lad. You had to take all your clothes off in front of a lot of strangers and no part of you escaped prodding and poking! A few weeks later you got your grading which varied from A1 (perfect health) downwards. I got a bit of a shock, I was a fit lad but was graded ‘C3 (eyesight) Not to be employed in infantry or artillery’. The army digested this information and sent me another letter telling me to report to The Dale, Chester, home of the First Battalion the Cheshire Regiment. Once there for training I was told I would be serving in Anti Tank, in other words they had put me into the infantry and artillery at the same time! The same letter gave you your army number and, like a Co-op divi number, you never forgot it. I was 23050525 Private Graham. S.
Basic training was horrendous. The Army took you in, reduced you to jelly and poured you into their mould. If you survived, and some didn’t, you came out a completely different youth than you went in.
The first step was to send you for a haircut. The operative word was ‘cut’. Actually it would have been more accurate to describe it as shearing, it all came off. Then you were issued your kit. In a remarkably short time you emerged from the stores with everything you needed to sustain human life. The only attempt made to make sure anything fitted was the best battledress, you had to go to the regimental tailor to have it altered to fit. I can remember being very shocked when this lady took considerable liberties with me to assess what she called ‘ballroom’!
Everything merged into a blur after that. We did everything ‘at the double’, we weren’t allowed to walk, we had to run everywhere. We were taken out on to the parade ground and taught to march and do rifle drill by sergeants and corporals who had been chosen for their sadism and ability to shout very loudly, usually in your ear. We hated them! We were taught how to ‘Blanco’ our webbing equipment. ‘Blanco’ was the trade name for a cake of green compound which you used like boot polish but with a wet brush. It coloured all your equipment. Another essential art was ‘bulling’ boots. We were shown how to get a polish like patent leather on our best boots which were only used for special parades.
At any time of the day or night we would have surprise inspections. Woe betide anyone who’s kit wasn’t clean, polished and folded neatly the way we had been taught. The punishment was ‘jankers’. This could be anything from extra drill with full pack, that is carrying all your equipment, to being locked in the guardroom.
It sounds like hell doesn’t it? Believe me, it was. Every now and again we would have a change like the day we were given a lecture by a Padre who told us it was alright to kill the enemy because God was on our side.
The good bit came when they took us down to Sealand Ranges to fire our classification course on the Lee Enfield Rifle and Bren Light Machine Gun. The funny thing was that bad eyesight or not, I was a natural. I shot a Marksman score on the rifle and only missed by one point on the Bren. This was important because, apart from the kudos of being able to sport crossed rifles on your sleeve, you got more pay.
They thought I’d cheated because nobody wearing glasses had ever shot this well. If you have someone in the butts who was on your side they could stick a pencil through the target and it looked just like a hole made by a .303 bullet. I was taken down to the ranges the following day by the sergeant major and made to shoot the rifle course again. It was better weather and I scored one better than the previous day! The SM congratulated me and I got my badge and pay rise.
So, looking back after all these years, what effect did it have on me? I think I was lucky, I took to the discipline and the hard work better than most. A few broke under the pressure and vanished, we never knew what had happened to them. I came out of that six weeks far stronger and harder than I went in. We were sent out to Berlin eventually and held back the Communist Hordes so you could all sleep easily in your beds at night. I guarded Hess, Speer, Doenitz and Funk in Spandau Gaol. I spent six months with the Black Watch teaching them the 17 Pounder Anti Tank Gun (now they were hard lads!) I got botulism and I learned to sail on the 1936 German Olympic boats. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! Would I want to do the training again? No way!
SCG/31 May 2002