Death, depression, and being fabulous over fifty

This is a slightly edited version of something I wrote to a friend yesterday.

When I was young, I never envisaged living past 40. It’s not that my life was all drug-fuelled and dangerous (though it did have its moments); I simply found the idea of me and forty (plus) to be totally inconceivable. When I was 42, I was diagnosed as having a brain tumour — it was, in and of itself, non-malignant, but, because of its location, could eventually have caused blindness, paralysis, epilepsy, or death (or any combination thereof); and its removal could equally have caused blindness, paralysis, epilepsy, or death (or any combination thereof). Thus, I thought ‘Ah hah! My calculations weren’t so far out after all,’ and prepared myself for death. Despite the surgeon’s warnings, I knew that only complete recovery or death were possible — I never entertained for one second the mid-way options. I told anyone who needed to know it that I loved them and, as the expression has it, set my house in order. From total thanatophobia, I achieved calm and acceptance.


New Year’s Eve — three weeks before I turned fifty.

Only then I survived; not only survived, but made a full recovery (apart from a somewhat bumpy skull and jangled nerves in that area). I was supposed to be in hospital for three weeks; I was out in four days. I was supposed to need three months’ convalescence; I was back at work in a month. I was supposed to have visual disturbances for any number of weeks; they were gone in less than a day. I’m not Superwoman, nor were any miracles involved. I think the reason for it is that I simply didn’t want to remain ill in hospital any longer than necessary. I saw people enter the ward, under their own steam, laughing and joking with friends, clearly able to function unaided — but the minute they removed their street clothes and donned the hospital gown, they became patients, unable even to pour a glass of water for themselves, and calling on the poor, harried, over-worked nurses to do everything for them. My attitude was different — I had a thing in my head that shouldn’t be there; it was causing me pain and I wanted it excised. I felt the same way towards it as I had done towards a wisdom tooth some years earlier.

The arrow indicates the gliosis (scarring) where the tumour was removed.

The arrow indicates the gliosis (scarring) where the tumour was removed.

I’d had the tumour for at least eight years before it was diagnosed — I’d had increasingly debilitating symptoms for eight years so we must assume the tumour itself, in some itty bitty, non-intrusive form, had been there longer. During that time, I’d endured indescribable facial pain. Doctors had put it down to trigeminal neuralgia, to eye problems, to grinding my teeth, to stress, to… all manner of things, other than a meningioma (and yet, ironically, I had — after only a couple of years of symptoms — asked a neurologist if it could possibly be a brain tumour, and he’d laughed at such a ridiculous notion… ahem!) Anyway, for all those years, I was told to take paracetamol (which has no analgesic effect as I also have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and, as my fellow sufferers will tell you, paracetamol is as much use as toothache… or face ache… or whatever I had.) And as the pain continued, I gradually lost ‘me’: I lost interest in how I looked, in sex, in how others perceived me. For the last four (?) years of it all, I was simply existing, going through the motions. I never dressed up, never wore make up; never wanted to go out; I brushed my teeth and washed my hair only because the alternative feels horrid.

When the tumour was removed, and with it the excruciating pain, I was offered morphine. When I’d needed a strong pain-kiler, all that was available was paracetamol; now I had very slight discomfort (the staples in my scalp felt like a too-tight hair elastic), they wanted to give me opiates? I refused. I never once pressed the self-dosing pump thing or allowed them to give me any oral pain relief (again, I’m not brave, I’m not Superwoman — but after eight years of torment, what’s a little irritation going to do?) and this, probably, goes some way to accounting for my early discharge.

During the first week after I left hospital, I had a lot of visitors, and they all, each and every one of them, said ‘You must be sooooo happy!’ Was I f**k!? I was not happy. I was depressed. I was bereft. The pain and my fight against it had nourished me and kept me alive. What’s more, I felt I should have died. I’d prepared myself for it; I’d accepted my mortality; it was what was supposed to have happened and I felt cheated. This wasn’t some sort of survivor’s guilt; this was anger, rage, disappointment. I’d have to go through all that coming-to-terms malarky anew one day. And when the fury abated, there was indifference; total, overwhelming, all-consuming, vicious indifference. I’d never been properly depressed before — or since — although I do suffer a little bit from SAD, but that’s more a vague lethargy and disinclination to do anything. This was like being surrounded by a smooth, high, grey wall. Churchill spoke of his black dog, but at least a dog has idiosyncrasies and quirks. My wall had no individuality to it. It was featureless and impenetrable. In truth, it may have been possible to find a door, or to scale it, but I just couldn’t be bothered; and I resented people trying to peer over it and invite me back into their world. I felt no sadness — but equally no happiness, no affection, no love. In all probability, it was caused by the drugs still floating around in my system — and I had had people prodding and probing my brain… Mercifully, it was short-lived — my heart goes out to those who are so afflicted week after week, month after month, year after year — and after a week or so, I got over it… and I realized I was still alive so probably ought to make a go of living.

That’s when I started to reassess my life and general situation. It wasn’t, as that last sentence implies, something I just did; it was a slow and steady realization, which, less than a year later, led me to move to Catalonia.

And having recovered, having re-found ‘me’, I had a new lease of life, and every day was — and still is — a bonus. (Not literally — my life expectancy is now the same as anyone else’s.) Around 10 years had passed by this time. Whilst I’d been in stasis, my friends had got older around me. I might have aged physically, but mentally, emotionally, psychologically, I was still where I was before I got ill.

On my fiftieth birthday I woke up with such a sense of elation. I was fifty. No, not fifty — fifty! It was fabulous. It was the most wonderfully silly thing anyone could ever have imagined. Me? Half a century old? It must surely be a computer error. My peers were all lamenting its arrival or proximity; I was celebrating it. I have been celebrating it — gleefully, joyously, rapturously — for the last sixteen months. And I fully intend to go on doing so.


October 2012 — and approaching 51. Gotta love the over-exposure (ahem).

I do not think I am a femme fatale nor even particularly attractive. In photos, I normally look like Quasimodo’s uglier sister, although, once in a while (in the ones I put on the internet), I look so incredibly hot that I make myself drool. My friends, who’ve had the luxury of ageing gradually accept their wrinkles and grey hairs and creaking bodies. I don’t. The EDS means I’ve had the aches and pains all my life, so nothing new there then. Dye covers grey (not that I have many: the women in my family have one of two genes — a skinny/grey-before-forty gene or a fat/dark-till-death gene — guess which one I inherited?); and if/when I can afford it, I’m not ruling out a gentle face-lift or similar. I like dressing up; I like showing off; I like not acting my age; and as a result of all that, I love being my age. I love being me.


I want you; I love you; but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna need you…

As well as having opinions, expressed in no particular order in these electronic pages, on the death penalty, societal isolation, bad grammar, transphobia, procrastination, self-deluding acts of charity, and job application forms (I’m vehemently against all of them), I also have views on love and romance — and, being uninspired to write about anything current affairs-y today, I’m going to tell you what those views are. Eventually. After some preamble.

I have a friend who, after a couple of husbands and numerous abortive relationships, finds herself single. This friend — I’ll call her Angela (because it begins with A; the next one I mention, I’ll dub Brian in a hurricane-naming kind of way) — sighs into her glass of wine and says ‘I just want to feel needed.’

Brian, meanwhile, is in a stable relationship with Chiara. They don’t live together but they see each other regularly. On Fridays, however, Chiara goes out with her rugby-playing chums, because, she tells him ‘I need a girls’ night out to blow off some steam.’ Brian’s plaint is ‘she needs them; she never says she needs me, only that she wants me…’

But surely this is good? Being needed is a bad thing. Being wanted is an entirely different matter. Needing is a sign of weakness; wanting is a sign of strength. Needing restricts, confines, controls; wanting expands, liberates, empowers.

When I was at university, I had a friend who had very severe multiple sclerosis. This horrible condition affected his sight and his co-ordination. He had two full-time carers who washed, dressed, and fed him, and a reader who was paid to read the course material to him. (Whether this support team was privately or publicly funded, and whether the severely disabled should or should not be entitled to higher education if it costs the tax-payer more than it does for an able-bodied student are matters that I may discuss elsewhere at some point; but not here, not now.) This young man, Danny, needed his carers — only slightly more than he resented them. He acknowledged that he couldn’t cope without them, that they were necessary for his everyday existence, but in his mind he was as fit and capable as any other twenty-something and the constant reminder, as embodied by those three sweet women, of his differentness irked and rankled.

Because I am bossy and bolshie and alpha-female-y, I have always attracted needy men — and women — who rely (or want to rely) upon me to organize their lives. They flock to me, seeing me — the least maternal woman in the universe — as a surrogate mother who’ll make sure they’ve washed behind the ears and remembered their dinner money. They may be nice people, all told, and I may be fond of them; but that’s it. I’m strong enough to carry myself, but my shoulders aren’t broad enough for a passenger.

The individuals I’ve always gone for have been the ones who’ve wanted me, not needed me — whether as a lover or as just a friend. I want us to be able to admire each other’s strengths and, yes, empathize with each other’s weaknesses — but it has to be a two-way street.  When — all those millennia ago — I got married, I chose a man who wanted me but had absolutely no need of me. He was self-sufficient and could pair his own socks and even stitch buttons on his shirts when they fell off. Were I ever to repeat the experiment, I would make sure that Spouse #2 were equally un-needy.

Amongst my wide and varied acquaintance is Eddie. Eddie is a drug addict. He went to a good school, got a good degree, and for years held down a good job, and was engaged to be married. Then someone introduced him to cocaine, and the rest, as they say, is history. The good job vanished somewhere along the way, as did the fiancée. Eddie, however, still needs his fix, although he wishes he didn’t — it’s not something he wants. He needs to spend every penny of his savings, and steal from his friends, and lie and cheat to get that fix; he definitely doesn’t want to do any of these things. They don’t make him happy. They are his weakness. Were he to be able to free himself of it, Eddie could do all the things he dreams of — find another job, make up with his fiancée, go on holiday, have a nice house — all the things he had and still wants but can’t have because his need gets in the way.

And then there’s the case of Gina and Fiona. Fiona has been trying to leave Gina for years, but every time she does, Gina threatens suicide and wails ‘but I need you, Fee; I can’t live without you.’ Fee stays. She knows she is being emotionally blackmailed and that Gina would probably survive and rebuild a Fiona-free life if she were to go, but there’s just enough doubt in her mind to make her stay. And it’s driving her mad. No longer the happy-go-lucky girl I knew in our twenties, she’s become depressed and morose — her happiness is being held hostage to Gina’s need.

Need, then, is an invidious, enfeebling destructive, psychological (and sometimes physical) dependence. Want is desire — pure, simple, and strong.

“I want you; I need you; but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you./Now don’t be sad ‘cause two out of three ain’t bad,’ sang Meatloaf. He’s right — two out of three ain’t bad. Just not those two.

[Photo, as ever, pinched from Flickr ( 8272571528/sizes/o/in/photostream).]

Killing me, killing you, aha…

Stuart Hazell, the man accused of murdering 12-year-old Tia Sharp last August, has sensationally changed his plea to guilty. Having firstly claimed her death was the result of an ‘accident’, he now admits murdering her and says his change of heart is due to his not wanting to put her family through further suffering.

Online commenters are having a whale of a time, cynically questioning his motives and baying for his blood. One clearly clairvoyant reader opines that ‘the reality is that he knows there is no way out and wants to be seen as trying to redeem himself in order for a lighter sentence.’   ‘If ever there was cause to bring back the death penalty, this is it,’ observes another. ‘I’d like to be the one to pull the lever to hang the ba@%&?d,’ cries a third. Yet more favour unsanctioned retribution: ‘I hope he suffers at the hands of other prisoners. I’m led to understand that people like Hazell frequently lose their footing and fall down stairs or get their hand slammed in a door, purely by accident of course because some in-mates can’t see too well!’

Oh dear, oh dear. People are not nice. Mr Hazell is not nice, that we know; but these people who want him to suffer an equally, or perhaps more, horrible ending — they aren’t nice either. And yet, they would be the first to be up in arms about Sharia law or any country where such reciprocity is the norm.

Those who decry the death penalty are harangued and described as ‘hand-wringers’. ‘What,’ ask the proponents of capital punishment, ‘should we do then? Lock him up in a jail at a massive cost for 20 years?’

Yes. Yes, that is exactly what we should do. For several reasons.

Firstly, regardless of why, he has pleaded guilty and (whether that was his prime motivation or not) saved the family from the anguish and the public purse from the cost of an expensive and protracted trial. But more than this, he has set an example. Perhaps the odds were against him, and it was almost certain that he’d be found guilty regardless — but there was still a slim chance that he’d be found not guilty, or guilty only on a lesser charge. Until the jury returned with their verdict, no one could be wholly certain… and hope has a habit of springing eternal, as the saying goes. However, if pleading guilty automatically meant the death penalty would be imposed, hope would be lost and only the suicidal would ever admit to anything they’d done. Denials would be the norm, and trials would last for aeons; prisons would be even more over-crowded than they are now with individuals on remand and awaiting their day in court.

And then there’d be the expense of all those appeals. A guilty person given a life sentence may decide to settle down, serve his time, and hope the next twenty years pass quickly. A guilty person given the death penalty would seek an appeal, and keep on appealing as if his life depended on it… because, well, it would.

But those who feel an atavistic need to see Hazell’s head displayed on a pole for all the world to see will care nothing for such matters. They feel he must be made an example of: ‘Do what he did and this will be how you end up.’ It’s a nice, if naive, idea. But is there any proof that capital punishment acts as a deterrent? Looking on the internet, I can find an equal number of seemingly reliable sources to say that it does and that it doesn’t.

Certainly, those individuals who take another’s life in the heat of the moment, because their blood is boiling and they have at hand the means of striking out, are unlikely to think ‘but no, I may be executed for this — I shall simply call you a cad and a bounder and have done!’ And those who plot and plan and scheme in order to bring about the death of their enemy will simply make sure that their plotting, planning, and scheming is just that little bit more subtle and undetectable. Harold Shipman, I should imagine, would have taken the lives of exactly the same number of elderly people whether there was a state-sanctioned death penalty in the offing or not — indeed, when caught, he imposed such upon himself.

Is there not the risk also that those of a thanatophilic bent may even rise to the challenge, embracing the prospect of gambling with their own lives? Besides, surely any psychopath worth his salt believes himself invincible, and would relish the prospect of raising the ante in this way.

Saying that fear of capital punishment will reduce the number of capital crimes is a little like saying that people are only able to follow a moral code because they fear the wrath of God. When people are unable to distinguish for themselves the difference between right and wrong, and need to be manipulated by fear of the consequences, then someone will come along and take advantage of such societal corrosion and dystopic mores.

Which brings me onto the type of person who would want the job of terminating Stuart Hazell’s life. His online attackers seem to have their CVs all ready to send off should the position of hangman suddenly become available. ‘Me, me,’ they plead, ‘pick me.’ They’re in the same breath condemning a man for taking a life and yet desperate to do the same thing themselves? Is that logical? Oh, they’d justify their ardour by saying it was to avenge the death of an innocent child. But how could it do that? Would draining his life blood somehow revivify Tia Sharp? Would it bring her back? And would execution after execution after execution not have a detrimental effect on the psyche of the executioner? Instead of condemning his victims for their view that life is cheap, would he not come to share that very philosophy?

The executions would no doubt take place in private — at least to begin with. Court artists might be allowed in to make sketches of the criminals’ last moments, along with reporters, lest there be any last words. Oh, and maybe the families of any victims, in order to make sure that justice was served. And maybe a film crew… and oh, how about selling the whole idea, from lead-up to execution and aftermath, to Endemol — ‘Big Brother isn’t just watching you; he’s watching you croak’?

But that’d be OK; that wouldn’t trivialize death; that wouldn’t lead to more innocent people being murdered by those they trusted…

You think that’s far-fetched? Maybe so. But the one incontrovertible fact about the death penalty, and the main reason that I think it has no place whatsoever in civilized society, is that it is one hundred per cent irreversible. Innocent people can be found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit; they can be imprisoned for years before the truth comes to light; but they can then be released — bitter and damaged, perhaps, but still with a chance of leading a reasonably normal life, of finding love, having a family, a job, a garden to tend, a big soppy dog that doesn’t care about their past… None of that is possible if they’re dead.

‘But Hazell is definitely guilty,’ you might say. ‘He doesn’t deserve any of those ordinary pleasures.’ Perhaps he is. It seems very likely that he is. The evidence fits… and now with his confession too… But innocent men have been damned by evidence and some have also confessed to things they didn’t do. Had the death penalty still been available, there was sufficient evidence to mean that Barry George, the Birmingham Six, Siôn Jenkins, and countless others, would not now be here to tell the tale.

I’ll end, then, with a quotation from the late Edward Heath. In a debate on the death penalty, he reminded the House of a comment made by Teddy Taylor who had previously stated that ‘if no one else is prepared to hang people he is quite prepared to do the job himself […] I ask him a rather different question. Because of his views, is he prepared to be hanged by mistake?’  (Hansard, HC Deb 13 July 1983 vol 45 cc882-986.)

[Photo pinched from mlhradio’s Flickr stream (]

Wow! Gosh! Blimey!

I have been nominated by the lovely Cheryl of for the INTERESTING BLOG AWARD! Cheryl, thank you — it means a lot.

The rules, it seems, are these:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you (Done, and not just because it told me to.)
  2. List 5 random facts about yourself
    1. I don’t know how to ride a bicycle
    2. I speak seven languages, some more fluently than others
    3. I own over 10,000 books, only some of which are in any sort of order
    4. I can spin (with a spinning wheel — not on a static bike or by whirling my arms around until I get dizzy, although I could probably do them too if I set my mind to it)
    5. I’m slightly double jointed
  3. Nominate a minimum of 5 blogs for the award
  4. Ask the nominees 5 questions of your choice
    1. Why do you blog?
    2. Who has had the most influence on you as a writer?
    3. And in other spheres?
    4. When did you start writing?
    5. When will you stop?
  5. Notify all nominees on their blog (Done.)

And finally:

6. Answer the questions you were asked

  1. What is your pet peeve?
    Bad grammar and spelling.
  2. Who is your favourite author?
    I’ll always have a soft spot for Wilkie Collins (as he changed my life), but Graham Greene comes a close second.
  3. Favourite place on earth, having been there?
    Catalonia in general; the Berguedà in particular.
  4. What is your favourite pastime?
    Oh, easy! Writing.
  5. In your mind, what is your greatest accomplishment in life?
    Passing my driving test? Overcoming a life-threatening condition? Getting a PhD? Running my own business? All of them, but mostly… just making it this far.

 Good luck, everyone!

See no evil, hear no evil… and if you do, make sure you never speak about it

The world is a very odd place. If the news isn’t about every children’s entertainer you’ve ever heard of being arrested for paedophiliac activities, it’s about the reappearance of kidnap victims after years and years of captivity. Today we learn that three women and a child have been rescued from a house where the adults — Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michele Knight — had been held prisoner for over a decade: ( In recent years, we’ve also seen the return of Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, Elisabeth Fritzl et al., and probably others.

I’m bemused. How do the perpetrators of these crimes get away with it for as long as they do? Why does no one catch them in the act or grow suspicious after only a few days or weeks? If I try and do anything at all clandestine, you can be sure that the world and his wife will be standing by, watching and finger-wagging. Not that I’ve ever tried kidnapping or abusing anyone, you understand; my sins are of a much lower level — sneaking a piece of cake when I’m on a diet, pleading too much work as an excuse to get out of an unappealing social event and then being seen in the pub, or proclaiming my intention of having an early night but proving myself a liar by commenting on Facebook two hours later —I invariably get caught.

OK, maybe it’s because my misdeeds are so slight that I’m less meticulous in hiding them — a ‘Tut tut, I thought you were trying to lose weight’ or ‘Is this your idea of working all night to meet that deadline?’ or ‘In bed before midnight, huh?’ may cause embarrassment or require grovelling apologies on my part, but that’s hardly in the same league as running the risk of a life sentence in jail (or, in some countries, the death penalty). Indeed, I am not trying to suggest that rape, kidnap, and child molestation are in any way comparable to piggery, excuse-making, and fibbing. However, the fact remains that if someone always sees my mild naughtiness — why does no one ever see their egregious wickedness? Or do people see and choose to stay silent? I have, it’s true, heard ‘Well, I didn’t think anyone would believe me’ offered as an excuse for not having raised the alarm in the Jimmy Savile affair; and ‘I thought it was a domestic and didn’t want to get involved’ as justification for allowing one of the kidnap victims (I forget which) to remain at the mercy of her captors for so long. Yeah, right. Either these people saw and suspected nothing (hard to believe) and are simply jumping on the bandwagon and seeking their fifteen minutes of fame (easy to believe), or they are every bit as much monsters as the perpetrators of the crimes — for who, other than a monster, could think ‘Oh, that famous TV presenter is raping that poor nine-year-old, but it’ll be my word against his, so I’ll just let him get on with it’ or fail to intervene even if he did believe that ‘That girl, whom I’ve never seen before but my neighbour is claiming to be his niece, looks suspiciously like that kid who was snatched on her way home from school; but she’s probably just crying and screaming and covered in bruises because she’s homesick’?

Until recently I lived in a small town in northern Spain. Everyone there knows everyone else — and everyone else’s business. When my dog died, complete strangers came up to me to commiserate; when I lost weight, women I’d never met wanted to know how I’d done it; and when I employed an assistant, the grapevine was a-thrum with the news. Some may find such close scrutiny oppressive, but I always found it reassuring. It’s nice to know that if you’re too ill to leave the house, word will get round and someone will come to your door to check that you’re still alive and go to the supermarket for you. Crime there is minimal — a lone woman can wander the streets at night without feeling in any way threatened and,  if you leave your car unlocked, it’ll still be there, as will its contents, when you return — because how can you steal someone’s wallet when your victim is bound to be best friends with your sister or your mum or grandma, or proudly pull out your ill-gotten satnav when the person you’re showing it to will say ‘Oh, so that’s where it went! My brother’s girlfriend’s mother’s neighbour had that nicked only last Thursday’ and promptly take it from you? Imagine, then, how quickly the news of paedophile activity would spread there, or of new people being locked in basements. Gossip, and with it, action and intervention would be rife.

Communities like that do still exist, but they seem to be falling into decline, promoting social isolation and anomie. A neighbour of the kidnapper in today’s case expressed his horror at what had been happening next door to him for so long and told reporters that he and the kidnapper had had barbecues together and been on good terms. Perhaps… But an occasional barbecue and passing the time of day over the garden fence do not a friendship make. Nowadays we seem to regard superficial bonhomie as an acceptable substitute for real intimacy and trust; we no longer know the people around us, and we tend to prefer it if they don’t know us — and that’s very sad.

Why I’m not going gooey over Google’s glassy goggles…

Have you heard about Google Glass? I hadn’t until this morning when I came across a video of a woman getting very excited about it.

So having googled Google Glass, I now know that it’s a wearable computer with a head-mounted display that connects to, and interacts with, the internet using natural language voice commands. It doesn’t look all that different from normal spectacles (well, apart from lacking the lenses) although — with the current technology — people who wear prescription specs can’t use it. Anyway, it’s still in its developmental phase, although it’s hoped to be released later this year.

So far so good, no? It might be a good thing; it might not. Having continuous access to all that hands-free information just for the asking would be fantastic; but mightn’t it be hard to see and cause headaches? I’d need to know more and to talk to others who’d used it for a while before being tempted myself; but I am quite cautious when it comes to technology — unlike the woman in the video I mentioned to you in the first paragraph. She’s totally besotted with the whole Google Glass concept. Click here and watch her almost hysterical effusions:

Now, I have no issue with Google asking for volunteers to test their new product — in fact, that sounds perfectly sensible. Consumer feedback is invaluable to manufacturers. But they expect those chosen to pay $1500 for the privilege? And silly women like this are getting all excited about it and planning on taking out loans to afford it? Seriously, if they wanted me to test out their new technology, they’d have to pay me (or at least prove to me why I’d be interested in doing it unpaid).

On top of that, the lucky few (well, 8,000) have to take time off work and incur further expenses in order to go in person to New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles to pick up the developer version. And as if that’s not bad enough, the terms and conditions of use/purchase state that ‘You may not resell, loan, transfer, or give your device to any other person. If you resell, loan, transfer, or give your device to any other person without Google’s authorization, Google reserves the right to deactivate the device, and neither you nor the unauthorized person using the device will be entitled to any refund, product support, or product warranty.’

So, not only are people being encouraged to get into debt to pay for this prototype toy, they’re also in danger of having nothing more than a piece of high-tech junk if Google  decides they’re misusing it and summarily switches it off? Yeah, sounds like a really good deal… not.

Honestly, what next? Are pharmaceutical companies going to be making people pay to participate in drug trials? They could charge them a premium if their guinea pigs showed any unpleasant side effects, or refuse palliative care if it all went horribly wrong and the subjects had the temerity to discuss their symptoms with their GP. Market researchers, the type who stop pedestrians in the street and ask them to answer some questions about household products in exchange for a small sum of money, could change their patter from ‘Excuse me, would you mind answering a few questions on washing powder? We’ll give you ten pounds for your trouble’ to ‘Excuse me, would you mind answering a few questions on washing powder? It’ll only cost you ten pounds and, for an extra fiver, we’ll let you comment on fabric conditioner as well.’ As for laboratory animals — well, they might already pay with their lives for us to have glossier hair and longer, stronger finger nails — but the people who breed them should surely be offering the cosmetic industry at least a token sum for being granted the privilege of having their rabbits and monkeys and rats and cats tortured in this way.

And can I make someone pay me for the honour of being allowed to clean my house and do my ironing? Prospective Google Glass testers had to post a short (<50 words) message on Google+ or Twitter saying why they thought they should be selected. So, anyone out there who’d like to get scrubbing, tidying, hoovering, dusting, ironing, or anything else, just send me a brief message below, letting me know which task you’d like, why you think I should choose you do it, and — most importantly — how much you’ll pay me for letting you… Hmm… No? Not really gonna get rich that way, am I? Unlike Google — 8,000 people x $1,500 = a cool $12 million. I could use that. Sigh.

[Photo by Ars Electronica (]

Less pennies and fewer pences

Today was May Bank Holiday; the sun has been shining, and spring finally seems to be here. There was not a cloud in the sky until — driving through the Nottinghamshire countryside this afternoon, listening to Radio 4’s You & Yours — something happened which shocked me to the core.

Today’s edition of You & Yours was subtitled ‘What makes a good pub?’ and presenter, Shari Vahl, was discussing this very topic with a Leeds publican by the name of Nicola Storey. Ms Storey went on to explain that the general population is now drinking less than it was a couple of years ago, something she backed up with statistics, concluding that ‘… that means we drank 138 million fewer pints in 2012 than in 2011.’ I smiled fondly at Ms Storey, as I smile fondly at all those who know the difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ — and not only know the difference academically but actually put it into practice when they speak. ‘Fewer,’ in case you were wondering, goes with countable nouns (fewer occasions, fewer friends, or — in this case — fewer pints) and ‘less’ with uncountable nouns (less time, less company, or less beer). Ms Storey didn’t wonder, however; she knew; she was straight in there with her ‘fewer pints’ without even a hint of hesitation or doubt. This woman was elevated in my eyes. I liked her. I considered her a friend, almost.

And then she betrayed me — betrayed me in the most heinous way imaginable. Almost without pausing for breath she went on to tell us that ‘…back in March, when the chancellor made his budget, he announced to cut beer duty by one pence…’ Forget the weirdness of ‘he announced to cut’ — that’s bad, but could be put down to nerves, to having started one sentence and then got side-tracked into saying something slightly different. I could forgive my new Bestie for that. What I found unpardonable was — and it pains me to type such an abomination — ‘one pence’! One… pence? Oh, Nicola, Nicky, sweetie, how could you do that to me? I was all set to veer north and head to The Mustard Pot, for that is the name of Ms Storey’s pub, and imbibe several pints of best Yorkshire ale in an attempt to make up the shortfall in publicans’ incomes left by the 138 million fewer pints that had been consumed last year.

My quondam BFF should, of course, have said ‘one penny’ — a ‘penny’ is the name of the coin, thusly labelled, and of the smallest denomination of UK currency. It has two plurals: ‘pennies’ when referring to a multiplicity of small coins and ‘pence’ when referring to more than one example of the unit of currency. Neither ‘pennies’ nor ‘pence’ can be used as singular nouns. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no beef with singular nouns ending in —ence. I do not see a fence and immediately insist it be called a ‘fenny’; nor do I recoil in horror from the synecdochically-named ‘sixpence’ or uncountable nouns like ‘independence’. But let’s be consistent, eh? The plural of ‘fence’ is ‘fences’; the plural of ‘sixpence’ is ‘sixpences’; and ‘independence’, being uncountable, has no plural. If this Storey woman (see how she’s fallen from grace?) is to be believed and ‘one pence’ is correct, then it is clearly countable, and must have the plural form ‘pences’. I shall petition the Royal Mint immediately to recast their dies and issue new coins bearing the words ‘five pences’, ‘ten pences,’ and so on.

Oh, and while I’m at it, I feel the Beatles’ back catalogue needs to be amended — ‘Penny Lane’ must be expunged and replaced by ‘Pence Lane’; The Big Bang Theory’s female sex bomb should similarly change her name; and as for the successor to the early Victorian boneshaker…

[Photo by Images_of_Money ( photos/59937401@N07/5474847078/).]