Monday, 26 September 2011


Pica, a disorder characterised by an appetite for non-nutritive substances such as rocks, sticks, bricks, house plants or light bulbs.

Recently it has been reported that a three year old girl has this disorder.

While her favourite delicacies are rocks and sticks, Natalie has been known to wolf down almost a whole brick, 'like it was a chocolate chip cookie'.
Her mother Colleen, 31, says every day is a constant battle of wills as she tries to stop her daughter eating something that could kill her.
Colleen said: 'She doesn't try to eat glass so much since it hurt her, but she will try and eat rocks and sticks she finds in the garden.
'I have had to call this poison helpline so many times that it's on my speed dial. You name it Natty's tried to eat it.

Read more:

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Living "in the sticks"

Two ever-so slightly contrasting stories:


I'm at the Friendly Society: a slinky, trendy Soho basement gay bar. There's a hot boy.  He actually talks to me.  The conversation goes something like this:  "So whereabouts do you live?"./. "Spitalfields" ./. "Really? Me too - just off Middlesex Street"./. "Yeah, same here. I live on Strype Street"./. "No?! So do I.  Brody House"./. "What number?"./. "Number 306"./. "Hi, I'm apartment 307..."

We'd been next door neighbours for 18 months.  I hadn't even SEEN him.  Not in the hallway, not on the stairs, not at the mailbox downstairs.  I wasn't convinced anyone was living in the apartment, actually.

[Editor's Note: Peter would *so* have noticed aforementioned hot gay boy neighbour.  This no doubt goes without saying for anyone who knows him.]


I'm at a Christmas party in my new home county.  I haven't actually moved into my cottage yet: it's being refurbished.  A Tory wearing a flashing Christmas Tree brooch approaches me.  I think, gulp, I wonder if they hunt Socialists up here with dogs?

The conversation goes something like this: "Hello I'm Peter, I've just moved here"./. "Yes, I know.  You live opposite us"./. "Oh okay"./. "I gather you're doing a lovely job on your cottage"./. [Pause and think: that's interesting as precisely NOBODY has been inside my cottage] ./. "Really?  Erm, who told you that?"./. "Michael" ./. "Michael?" ./. "Yes, the carpenter who fitted the new locks to your front door."

Cue mild panic attack and consideration of how long it will take to sell up, get my ass back out of here, and to somewhere in Zone 1, where I could die in my apartment and peacefully lie undiscovered until around 2078.

Wind forward around 8 years

It was my dog Oscar's birthday on 23 September.  He was 9.  That date also happens to be the anniversary of my completing on my cottage, a year later in 2003.  The mutt's first two months with me had been spent at best friend @dominic_uk's house.  In fact, ALL of this is Dominic's fault.  In his ever so random way he had seen his now home for sale in the Sunday Times property section.  He didn't even look at another property anywhere else in the country, let alone here.  He bought it and moved up from Central London.

Because our business was run together, so did I.  I'd seen a little run down cottage with 6 foot high nettles in its garden in the neighbouring "town" and thought let's give this country thing a go.  Neither of us had the slightest connexion to the place: it was completely random.  On 23 September 2003 I obtained the keys to my cottage.  Michael the Carpenter later fitted the new locks some time later, as we've already established.

Chocolate Box? Much!

I put the word "town" in inverted commas because anyone else would call a village.  It's an absurdly pretty little place with a Norman castle, beautiful English Gothic church, thatched cottages, little local shops, and a bizarre 19C town hall.  However it is technically a town and used to return two MPs.  A nearby handsome Georgian house was (I'm told) used in one of the Miss Marple movies *and* had 5 suffragette sister inhabitants who would travel down to London and cause all sorts of mischief.  Fabulous.

And I've been here ever since.  I've been to 63 countries and have lived for varying lengths of time in 11.  This is the longest time I've spent anywhere.

The Former Guild Hall

What's it like?

Well it's surprisingly wonderful.  First my cottage: it's thatched, tiny, but is the snuggest home I've ever lived in.  It's listed as being 18th century - however clearly the council don't know their arses from their elbows. The builders found the chimney is all Tudor brick and they discovered some kind of wooden thing up in the roof (please note my precise architectural terminology).  Smoke was let out through this when the place was still a one storey structure.  My  hippy historic builders told me brick chimneys made it to this area in the late 1400s.  Until then a fire on the dirt floor would have been the main source of light, heat and for cooking.  It's almost Monty-Python-Esque.  Their guess is therefore the place is older than 1450.

That's amazing!  1450!! This place was probably at least 130 years old when the naughty Spaniards tried to invade.  180 years old when the Pilgrim Fathers set off to open the first Starbucks.  Over 300 years old when Captain Cook set foot at Botany Bay.  Almost 450 years old when Bertha Benz borrowed her husband's new invention (the car) to drive to a Schnell Imbiss in Pforzheim.  It's seen some history that's for sure.  And poverty of course.  Real poverty of a type we cannot imagine: hungry mouths, infants dying, possibly plague, famine.  It's just a little worker's cottage.  At night I often try to imagine all the people who have lived here: their fears, their joy, their toils, their hardship, the changes as events in both history and their personal lives unfolded.

The cow-poo and stick walls of the cottage are not thick, but they are incredibly dense.  The roof is warm.  By putting in secondary double-glazing the place has become really snug and so cheap to heat.  The BBC ran a story on this type of construction and the Prince's Foundation, ever champions of learning from traditional building methods, commented on what I have noticed: "The smartest way to save energy may be to live in a Tudor house and insulate the attic and repair the windows."

But what about the Locals?!

Well, they're for the most part absolutely lovely.  I was really worried about curtain twitching and what on earth they would make of a homosexual, Labour voting, half-German, Europhile, vegetarian in their midst.  The Tory with the flashing Christmas tree broach wasn't being nosy: it's just inevitable that people take an interest in a small place.  She was being friendly, which took me some time to grasp properly.  People look out for each other: that's quite remarkable and not something I was used to.  I've been invited to all sorts of events, dinners etc. Warm, welcoming, not in the slightest snooty, and not at all judgemental is how I'd describe it.

I love putting my "vote Labour" signs up in my window.  A former high profile Tory MP (who live 2 villages along) is a frequent visitor to the house opposite, along with various other Tories.  The owners are both Tory councillors and the husband (whom I occasionally love getting pissed on whisky with) was the chairman of the County Council.  I'm therefore *perfectly* placed to wind this lot up.  They're amazingly tolerant of me in the circumstances and said "We KNOW you just put those dreadful signs in your windows to tease us."  Hehe.

Preaching to the Unreachables

Of course occasionally you get the odd surprise of course: I was told by a former town councillor that London "has no British people left in it: well not whites anyway."  Erm, okay, let's look at that statement... *draws breath*.   A masseur in Norwich asked me what London "was like".  It's £6 if you buy a cheap ticket and two hours away by train, for heaven's sake.  This was a gay 32 year old man who had never been to the capital.  His reason was "I just never got round to it."  I was also told by two sweet old woman they would have voted for me in the election, but they just couldn't bring themselves to tick the box marked Labour.  They looked like they were talking about an unpleasant mess a dog had made on the pavement.

Then there's the odd surprise, such as meeting a lovely old woman in the local café (best café *EVER* btw).   Her heavy Central European accent immediately perked up my interest.  Classy, gorgeous, with the most wonderful accent when she spoke German.  She is the second Vienna Jew in her 80s I now know.  As a young girl Therese remembered the Anschluss vividly, and came across to England in 1939 with her parents.  She joined the Labour Party in 1948, lived in Islington before moving up here, and her home is full of wonderful modern art.  When two fish are similarly out of water, they make friends :)

CRIME and Other Things

I remember loving taking the piss out of the Local PC's crime report in the town magazine.  The first one said "There were 4 crimes to report in the last month.  The two most serious are as follows.  A man was seen trying to obtain a refund for a pair of shoes he had previously stolen in a shop on Broad Street.  A green plastic chair was also stolen from a garden in Victoria Hill."

THESE ARE THE MOST SERIOUS ONES?  What were the other two? One of those chairs costs about £1.99 at B&Q doesn't it?  As my friend Jamie joked, one day something really serious will happen.  CID will arrive and ask the local bobby "Have you had experience of a murder before?"  He'll answer "No, but we did once lose a green plastic chair back in 2003."

Caution: Crime Scene!

But think about this.  It is a rare, wonderful, incredible thing in this country that there can be anywhere that is so low crime (I'm actually only 90 miles from London).  Apparently it's one of the lowest rates in the entire country.  The weather is also great: we get 2 hours more sunshine per week than the UK average and it is substantially drier.  Winters are crap: I'd much rather be in the city when it's dark, cold and bleak here, but for the rest of the year, give me the country any day.

We also have proper local shops.  They're wonderful.  I was once charged 2p for a button in the fabric shop.  Does anything still cost 2p anywhere else?  Tesco is 4 miles away across the border in the neighbouring county.  People don't always carry their passports or have up to date visas, so it means that our townsfolk do actually use the two little local Coops, the greengrocer, the pharmacy, the baker, the hardware shop etc.   (Btw the hardware shop is sometimes a little like a scene from Cage aux Folles.  I am *so* not the only gay in the village).

Main Street: Rush Hour Gridlock

The last thing I love is the night sky.  This area is so sparsely populated and the nearest towns (Norwich and Ipswich) are each 20 miles away, which means light pollution is minimal.  I never fail to marvel at the star filled skies on my late night walk with the dog.


The icing on the cake is Twitter.  It has literally transformed my enjoyment of living here.  I do huge amounts of travel at various times in the year because of my part-time "fun" job taking American kids on educational tours around Europe.  Without that it would drive me a bit mad if I were just stuck here.  London is also very possible for an evening out: I'm down in town some weeks twice a week.  I really need that, just for the life and variety.

But Twitter... It has simply stopped me from being lonely and feeling isolated all the rest of the times I am actually up here.  I can connect with "my type of people", have social interaction and intellectual stimulation.  I've also found Twitter friends much more likely to respond to a tweet "I'm in London: anyone about for a drink?" than many 'real life' friends would be.  I can therefore have fresh air, night skies AND access to my buddies from my iPhone when here.

I'm sure some studies are required into the emotional benefit of social networks like Twitter - for me being "out in the sticks" it is immense.

A Closing Quote

My cosmopolitan, Hampstead residing, gay, Sydney, Jewish, musician friend Jeremy looked at me when I told him I had put an offer in on a cottage here.  He simply said in his splendidly withering tone "Peter. You move there to die."

I ROFLd of course... and I now have the quiet satisfaction of knowing that he has bought a little weekend cottage a few miles away.  Oh the delicious irony.

The sticks: there's actually quite a lot to be said for them :)

Sunday, 18 September 2011


Almost completely airborne in Heiðmörk

Our trip out to Heiðmörk and Búrfellsgjá yesterday was very hressandi in the early autumn winds and steel-colored skies. Supplied with bananas and Kókómjólk, Óðinn and I set off for the volcanic crater along a path through the 8,000 year-old lava field just east of Reykjavik. We didn't make it all the way to our end destination but had a super fun time lifting and climbing lava rocks and picking the few remaining blueberries along the path.

We stopped to eat at an overhang that was used for hundreds of years as a shelter, and which had been partially walled up long, long ago with flat stacked lava rocks sealed together over time with centuries-old moss. Banana done, I became obsessed with photographing macro shots of the lava walls in all their minute detail and spent the next twenty minutes or so noticing more and more intricacy in them, and less and less what my son was up to. When I finally gave up on trying to shoot millimeter-sized drops of water just as they were falling, I realized that Óðinn had been rearranging the ancient walls of the shelter to make a separate kitchen area for our new cave home. I stopped him just in time, before any major damage to moss and old lava walls was done. We laughed about it, and made all necessary repairs. It nearly became a true historical landmark fail!

All in all, another amazing outdoors adventure in Iceland : )


Wednesday, 14 September 2011


Night begins to descend in earnest upon the northern latitudes after one more season of bright summer nights. We've recently had some amazing displays of aurora borealis here in Reykjavik due to recent intense sunspot activity and earthbound solar flare coronal mass ejections. It's also been just crispy enough late evenings to help out: it's usually agreed upon that the best auroras happen in colder weather.

We've actually had to (been able to!) delay digging our mittens and hats out of the backs of drawers, though, because of an unusually mild start to September, windless and with bright blue and sunny skies. I have a strange sense that our seasons have shifted somehow since this year's winter was a long, drawn-out and tired affair, spring barely noticeable at all and summer all too often grey and windy. And maybe they have: there are enough unusual natural events, weather and otherwise, happening across the globe these days to buy into the idea that our once-reliable seasonal, temporal and atmospheric indicators are not at all what they used to be. Things are changing, for sure. But until worlds fall apart we'll keep enjoying lovely autumn evening strolls through the streets of our pretty little city.

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out : )

Tuesday, 13 September 2011


This morning I attracted a new follower whose bio said "I am a follower of the Lord Jesus."  This actually mildly freaked me out and I made a joke of it by tweeting something like "What did I say?!"

However it has got me thinking.  I'm as guilty as the rest of us for something I've noticed a lot on Twitter, from plenty of left wingers, gay people, liberals and the like: the mocking of religion and its followers.  It's not unusual for this to overspill into quite militant and aggressive atheism.  It's worth a bit of reflection I feel.

The first thing to say is I am not in the slightest religious.  I was never brought up with it and had the usual British aversion therapy of religious school assemblies (surely these masterpieces of boredom are *designed* by anti-religionists?).  Although I have quite a strong set of personal moral beliefs, I am agnostic/ vaguely spiritual at very best.  I think that's reasonably typical in this country.

Aversion Therapy? Religious Assemblies at Schools

What I'm noticing, though, is a level of intolerance, mockery and sometimes outright hostility towards anyone who has a faith and is prepared to announce it.  I have seen an intelligent, thinking liberal whom I very much admire put the word God in inverted commas on Twitter.  Why does he feel the need to do that?  We all recognise what is meant by God and have our own views on whether such a thing exists or not.

I saw another Twitter buddy putting out there today in a series of tweets the proposition that Christ was probably gay.  When I asked about it, he said that "ridicule is sometimes the best way to challenge intolerance and bigotry."

Another wonderful friend (who teaches classes on prejudice in the States) said she would borrow parts from a really good blog I referred her to but (in my opinion) somewhat pointedly added that she would "miss out the religious bits".

I've also no doubt many gay people used the word "Christian" as a by-word for homophobic, bigoted and plain nasty.  Describe someone as "Christian" with the right tone and you hardly need say anything more.  I'm not proud to say I've done it myself.

Prejudice Cuts Both Ways

My personal definition of prejudice is that it is lumping people together in groups and prejudging them on that basis.  It's not rocket science to suggest that this cuts both ways.  The type of stereotyping and ascribing collective views to some 2.2 billion people is the type of thing my open-minded liberal lefty friends would scream to high heaven about if it were done of all gay people or of all Muslims.

Who actually says that all Christians are intolerant and bigoted and therefore it's okay to goad them (or that it would actually make them less intolerant or bigoted if you did)?  Who says that because a message is framed in a religious way makes it any less valuable or applicable?  Who says that "God" should be put in inverted commas to make the point that the writer is a non-believer?

Twitter to the Rescue!

One of the things I love about Twitter is the contact I have with people who wouldn't ordinarily be in my life.  Talking to them constantly challenges me and at least makes me realise when I'm falling into this type of trap.  I follow an Anglican bishop (the kindest, most tolerant man imaginable) and two Anglican priests.  I never go to Church and therefore these contacts are invaluable in breaking down my own tendency to prejudge.  One of the priests holds personal and political views that are at 180 degrees to many of my own, but he has always been polite, kind and respectful in his interactions with me.  The other priest is simply a honey and one of the sweetest, most thoughtful women imaginable.  She also happens to be an open-minded liberal type, demonstrating again the fallacy of assuming anything solely because of a person's faith.

I've also found out over time that many of the people I interact with on Twitter have some form of faith, often to my surprise.  Only this Sunday one mentioned in passing that he was off to Church.  I'd never heard anything to suggest any religious belief from him.  These people don't appear to hate me or prejudge me because I'm gay and agnostic - actually they're quite lovely and friendly to me - so why should I dislike or prejudge them for their faith?

God Botherers

"WELL" you might say - it would all be fine if these god-botherers kept their views to themselves.  Yes... except they generally do.  Has any one of the people I mentioned above ever tried to teach me about the word of Jesus?  No.  Their religious beliefs might angle their views on something like abortion, but then there are people of no faith who hold all sorts of different opinions on this too and Christian teaching is far from universal on such matters.

Try also to think back to the last time you actually had a Christian try to evangelise or "convert" you and whether this is a regular occurrence in your life.  In all my 40 years *puts on flat cap and slippers* it has been limited to a couple of knocks on the door by Jehovah's Witnesses (always dealt with by a polite "no thanks" and mutual smiles).  Oh and then there was the REALLY CUTE GUY at the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, who I mistakenly thought was trying to pick me up when I was 18 (darn).

Given I live in a Christian country, collectively they seem to be pretty rubbish at going out at spreading the word - or perhaps this is just another negative stereotype we have about them?

Note the misuse of the apostrophe! :o

Yes, I've seen some Christians picketing events like Gay Pride.  I'm well aware of the views of the religious right in the USA and I've little doubt a bad religious upbringing has the capacity to entirely screw up kids.  I know in great detail the failings of the Church through history from the institutionalised teaching of anti-Semitism, through the Crusades, the Inquisition and on to the appalling way the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in particular has dealt with the issue of abuse by priests.

But does all this give me the justification today to prejudge, pillory and dislike each and every individual Christian I come into contact with or to mock their faith?  I really don't think it does.  Far from everyone who is a Christian ascribes to a fundamentalist interpretation of their faith - and even those who do can only be judged on their own actions and the impact they have on others.  Far from every priest is a kiddie fiddler.  Not every kid who was badly screwed up by his/her parents had a religious upbringing.  There aren't *that* many people around who still remember 1492 personally... etc etc.

In any case what are we proposing?  Guys, we share this planet with a lot of people who don't agree with us.  Is angry intolerance and hatred the way to make it a better place?  Like it or not, 2.2 billion is a lot of people.  Just as the homophobic right wishing that gays disappear will not make them vanish, so collectively hating or jeering Christians is, in my opinion, not going to have any effect other than to make you an unhappy person.  "Live and let live" is however a philosophy that can have a hugely positive effect on us all.

Fairy Tales?

When I hear the stories of the Bible, I really do think "fairy tales."  That is my personal subjective view.  I know there are many highly intelligent people who would disagree, however, and whilst I cannot personally see how they could rationally believe these stories, there's no doubt I wish to respect their freedom of belief.

I'd hope that few reading this blog would disagree that freedom of belief should be allowed... but I think it's important to note that "respecting" in this context cannot include mocking or offending - once again something I have done that I'm not proud of.  It has to mean allowing people to worship as they think fit, to accord them dignity in doing so, and the right to express their beliefs without intolerance and judgementalism.

Christians: great line in art & buildings btw
I do also sometimes envy people of religion and what it appears to offer them.  Friends of ours lost their 12 year old son when a car hit his bike outside their home.  Their Catholic faith helped them through that enormous period of trauma.  I was only 17 at the time but remember thinking "I don't care if this is fairy tales, if it's giving them help and comfort, that's an amazing thing".  Believing is not something I can personally do; but seeing its potential for good: that is not hard to do.

Moving on from the stories, the core Christian faith messages of tolerance, love, acceptance, forgiveness and kindness of spirit are ones which I wholeheartedly agree with.  I am increasingly seeing the need for non-believers (including myself) to exercise them towards Christians.

There *is* definitely a weight of history that stops us from acknowledging these characteristics when they are applied by ordinary people of little, some or much faith - but that is no excuse.  As I said, surely prejudice works from all angles, not just the liberal causes we believe deserve to be protected from it?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

My Dog: Oscar


My tweets fall into three distinctive categories: total vacuous nonsense; the odd comment on politics/ current affairs; and those relating to my dog.  Given I haven't been unfollowed by <all> my followers for talking about Oscar and posting about 17 pictures of him an hour, I'm assuming someone at least will be interested to read what I think about him.  So here goes.

I grew up in an army family.  Mutti somehow managed to move home 20 times in 19 years with three kids between Germany and England (repeatedly) and Hong Kong.  I went to 10 different schools (one was for just under three weeks).  In the days before 2001 when the EU introduced the Pet Passport scheme, there used to be a 6 month quarantine period for bringing a pet into the UK.  It was therefore absolutely impossible for us to have a dog.  We had a guinea pig, budgies, a hamster, a rabbit.  They were sometimes passed between service families as families moved on.

Davy: my "childhood" collie
A dog was a dream, but finally when we moved back to Hampshire, and when I was 15, we got a little rough collie puppy called Davy.  He was a highly intelligent dog who ruled the roost.  He was quite the brat and had odd habits like coming in and nipping anyone who sneezed.  Certain words were forbidden (like "water" or "bath").  I loved him enormously, did a full 2 years' dog training with him, and when he died I remember sitting at my desk at my law firm (aged 27) shaking and crying uncontrollably.  My poor colleague.  Davy was never my dog though - he was my parents' fourth boy, after we had all left home.  He would have been 25 years old last month on 24 August.

Oscar on the other hand is my dog.  I've had him since he was 11 months old.  He had been treated badly by a prospective owner as a puppy and returned to his breeder.  As a result he had no "puppyhood" but instead lived in a kennel and a run.  He was called Ozzy when I got him (yep, after Ozzy Osbourne - the name was changed by me within approx 0.24 seconds of purchase...).  He is by no means a "rescue dog" (he has a very good pedigree and his breeder's reputation if nothing else would mean she would never have mistreated him) - but he was completely prepared for life outside his run.  He screamed (almost like a death shriek) when he was carried out of the gates of her property and into my car.

A very frightened 10 month old Oscar
It took a good six months for him to calm down and to trust me.  Everything terrified him.  Collies are highly strung as it is - one treated badly as a pup is a total mess.  He eventually realised I wasn't here to hurt him but to look after him.  They say a rescue dog will go through fire for the person who saves it and gives it a new life.  My bond with Oscar is similar to that.  The loyalty is sometimes almost overwhelming.  He worships me (best friend Dominic calls it "an unhealthy co-dependent relationship".)  I don't give two stuffs, frankly - I love him as much as he loves me and we've found our equilibrium :)

If I'm not working abroad, I spend every day with Oscar.  He comes with me to work or sleeps in his basket if I'm working from home.  I've taken him all across Europe on holiday with me - we go camping together and he's been to a total of 16 countries with his little EU dog passport.  He's been up to Denmark and down to Croatia and across to Spain.  He's even been to Andorra and Liechtenstein.  He is the best travelling companion imaginable.  He sleeps in my tent next to me and is just happy to be with me.  To say he is non-demanding is an understatement.  Food, walk, cuddles - and he's in heaven.  I took him to London one evening recently just for the ride: not a squeak - he was happy as larry to snooze and have the drive there and back.

Anyone who has been close to an animal knows the emotional benefit they can bring.  Oscar is so utterly in tune with my moods.  When a snake came into my kitchen last weekend we were like a scene out of Scooby Doo - him up on the sofa, shaking, cuddling into me.  I don't think he even saw the thing: he just picked up on my fear - I *hate* snakes with a passion.  When I'm down he hops up next to me and just pushes into me with his snout.  Every morning he greets me with the most incredible joy at being alive.  No matter what my concerns, it lifts me up.  There hasn't been a morning in over 9 years I don't look forward to seeing him.  He is simply superb company: my home is full because he is about.

It's a snake, Shaggy!
A dog is so "in the moment".  They are full of appreciation for the now.  Oscar is so happy to be outside walking with me: everything is exciting.  There is the deepest almost primeval bond between an owner and his or her dog.  This is particularly the case where the pet is not a family animal, but a one on one dog.  I often think of the amount of time humans have spent with dogs over the tens of thousands of years when the first wolves were tamed.

Oscar is such a good dog: so calm, so affectionate - he's not as bright as Davy was, but he's so much more loving.  He always wants to be good: he gets scolded once about every six months and then is so upset, I have to cuddle him for an evening to get him over the upset.  He required virtually no training: he just likes to please and picks up exactly what he's supposed to do.  He's also suitably OCD that he hates rain, puddles, mud and getting dirty: *perfect* for me!  He drinks like a cat lapping - unlike his Spaniel best friend Brunswick who dribbles half his water all over the floor.  He eats delicately; he's never had a bath in his life; just a brushing every day.  His fur is sensational as a result.

I love Oscar.  His 9th birthday is on 23 September.  Rough collies usually live to about 12 or 13 and I'm aware he won't be around for ever.  Rupert Everett wrote something like: a puppy is like a child; then he becomes like a best friend; and as he gets older he becomes like a wise parent to you.  He looks at you knowingly: he's seen it all before.  Whatever the pain will be at losing Oscar, it can never mean that it was not worth it having owned him.  Every single day is a pleasure having him around me.  Having had a dog has changed my life and enriched it immensely.

Here are a few of my favourite pictures of Oscar I've posted from time to time including some from his travels:

Oscar and I together in Cornwall
Lion or Collie?

Love heart round his face
With his Squeaky Toy
Oscar's Sofa - ready for a belly rub

Yacht Spotting: Croatia

Oscar after a ride on the Schaffsbergbahn near Salzburg

With best mate, Brunswick

Braving Rapids in the New Forest
Office Co-Workers

Suffolk Spring Time Run
Atop the St Bernhard Pass, France

Snow Collie
Trained Squirrel Assassin
Not a fan of the rain or puddles
Sand Dunes, Sylt, Germany
Six Hour Hike, Swiss Alps

A life without dogs? For me, just unimaginable now

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

At the Dentist

A lovely friend of mine on Twitter, @alanlaw, messaged me a little upset yesterday.  He had some justification.  He had been handed the following form of fill out at a dentist he's been visiting all his life:

"People who share needles, haemophiliacs and homosexuals endure a higher risk of contracting blood borne viruses such as AIDS and hepatitis.  Do you fall into such a category? Yes/ No"

Okay, let's look at this step by step:
  • AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a disease not a virus.  It is caused by a virus, called HIV.  Even my dog knows this much and he doesn't even have any GCSEs.
  • "Homosexuals" also covers gay women (remember women? Oh yeah: 50% of the world's population).  There have in fact been remarakably few cases of lesbian HIV infections over the years.  They therefore cannot be said to "endure a higher risk" in this context.  Try "gay men"?
  • Over 50% of new HIV infections in the UK are however in fact in straight people.
  • New cases of haemophiliac infection have been minimal since effective blood screening measures were introduced in the 80s.
  • The questionnaire does not say why it seeks this information.  It may be valid (see below) or it may be, as many would reasonably suspect, that it is on the grounds of risk to the dentist.
  • If that is the case, the statement entirely ignores the fact that those on HIV medication, who have undetectable viral loads, almost certainly cannot transmit the virus (click on link)
  • The last point has been upheld by the Court of Appeal in Geneva in a reckless sexual transmission case; and I understand subsequently also in the Canadian courts.
  • I love the neutral use of the word "endure"
So, there are certain issues with the way the question is drafted... such as... you'd expect a sodding health care professional to get the medical term right.  Okay *draws breath*...  now onto the law.

The Law!

Under the Equality Act 2010, according to both the Terrence Higgins Trust and NAM (National Aids Map) charities, it is illegal for dentists to refuse to treat anyone with HIV: this covers both NHS and private dentists.  Apparently some dentists often ask an HIV+ person to take the last appointment of the day in order to sterilize instruments better.  Although this has not be challenged yet, the view of the THT legal team is that this too is probably illegal as indirect discrimination is covered by the Act.

If the question is being asked to exclude you from treatment that would therefore be illegal and should be reported both to the Police and to the British Dental Association.

NAM quite sensibly points out "Normal hygiene procedures in a dental surgery are enough to protect both you and the dentist/ dental nurse from the risk of any infections."

 Dental Profession

Well, what does the dental profession have to say?  The British Dental Association comments it is both "unethical and illegal to refuse to treat patients who are HIV positive."  The BDA in fact refers its practitioners to a resource pack prepared by the National Aids Trust which "raises awareness of discriminatory practices and provides advice and practical tools to help healthcare workers address and avoid stigmatising behaviour towards people living with HIV."  The pack has also been endorsed by the Royal College of General Practioneers and the Royal College of Nurses.

The sensible attitude of the dental profession as a whole would therefore seem to suggest this particular questionnaire would not be endorsed by them: far from it.  This might explain why my dentist does not ask this type of thing at all.

And it goes further: it seems Britain is one of the few Western countries still to keep a ban on HIV+ dentists themselves from practising.  Yep, surprise... Britain is behind the times on discriminatory practices and our Government is refusing to change them!

In October 2010 a leading indemnity provider for dentists (Dental Protection) demanded, on behalf of the profession, that the Department of Health stop its discriminatory rule that prevents HIV+ dentists from practising in the UK.  Dental Protection comments:

"It is 20 years since the draconian rules were introduced preventing dentists from providing treatment to patients.  Initially introduced as a precautionary measure after the mysterious case of Dr Acer, a dentist in the USA who was thought to have infected six patients with the AIDS virus, there has never been any recorded transmission of the disease in a dental setting [Peter's note: in the world, either from dentist to patient or vice versa]."

The situation is so clear cut it seems that the "Beijing Declaration" after the 6th World Workshop on Oral Health and Disease in AIDS in April 2009 specifically highlighted the outdated stance currently adopted by the UK Department of Health.  One might suppose that all it would take is one brave HIV+ dentist to go to court on this and it would seem the profession would pretty much be behind him or her.

The Mysterious Case of Dr Acer

Yes, let's deal quickly with Dr Acer.  He apparently infected six patients with HIV in the 80s.  He died in 1990.  It was the time of all the hysteria and the vicious stigmatisation of both HIV sufferers and gay people in general.  The CDC in Atlanta did tests which "established" that the strain of those patients were the same.  Legal cases since have since proven that it is incredibly difficult to prove an actual source of infection.  Several medical journals have discredited this early and, for HIV medicine, out of date finding.

Back to the Questionnaire

Well it's bloody offensive.  It offends me on its poor drafting, its unnecessary and illiberal probing into people's sexuality and private lives; it is offensive to HIV- gay men (by suggesting if you're gay you probably have HIV or will get it soon); it seems to run squarely in the face of BDA guidelines on avoiding stigmatising behaviour towards positive people; and it also manages to offend haemophiliacs whilst it is at it.  It is wholly unnecessary if the purpose is to warn the dentist s/he "might catch something" - which is the era that this type of question comes from.

There *may* be a justifiable need to answer the simple neutral question: "have you been diagnosed with HIV?" purely for the purpose of making dentists look out for oral related health problems which can crop up for positive people.  However, if they were doing their job properly (as I'm sure they do as a profession) they would presumably notice these in any case.  They're busy sticking sundry things in your gob with a bright light on above your head, for heaven's sake.

I would make a fuss about this at my surgery.  A big fuss.  Why should an 18 year old who is coming out be told by some shitty questionnaire that he "endures" a risk of blood borne diseases?  Why should my friend?  It is stigmatising, offensive and belongs back in the 80s with the absurd ban on HIV+ dentists practising.

*gets off soap box*

Sunday, 4 September 2011

(Macro) Inspiration

Every writer knows those times when they feel that it's all been said before, or that someone is currently saying what they are inclined say in a well enough manner, so why be redundant? As far as our lovely Iceland is concerned, there are so many wonderful sources for current events and entertainment online (my facebook news feed alone is full-to-brim with amazing talent!) that it seems right to just let them do the talking in words and in pictures.

And after seven years and 596 posts, I sometimes wonder what compels me to keep on with this little hobby, which has become much more complex a package now that the social media tide has swept into our lives. I'm told by "experts" that to make anything of this site I'm to invite visitors to like/follow me in all sorts of different ways (see left, though I balked at creating an email list to spam you even more cleverly with, my dears.) And now the invisible pressure to do what the rest of the active universe is doing, i.e. tweeting, posting, emailing, G+-ing, and blogging has boggled this poor soul's mind.

I like to assume that you are all intelligent creatures, and that for you, like me, less is more. A few photos per post, succinct text with relevant links (though sometimes obscure if a site is really worth linking to) and a clean, uncluttered template is what I offer because it's what I look for in other websites. I've always tried to steer clear of repeating local/national news because I read most of it myself in an RSS reader or just Google 'Iceland news,' which I assume you all can/will do yourselves. Furthermore, I get that most of you won't even read this far because we live in the age of the Image. A pretty macro picture of 1cm long seashells on an Icelandic beach may make you pause for an appreciative instant before moving on to the next visual of our glorious existence here on post-millennial Earth, but you may not absorb more. I get that. It's what I often do.

So this writer is a pocket photographer with an uncanny, irrepressible urge to share with all of you. But maybe, because I'm from the pre-silicon solid-state-and-steel era, I become confounded by the myriad of mediums I am to use to communicate my simple photos and words.

Right now I am obsessed with macro shots of the delicate flora and fauna we pass by in our everyday lives, and I'm not sure that I would want to flood you with the incredibly small in every post. I do want to let you all know, though, that I have a few albums of life here in Reykjavik available for viewing via Picasa* and/or Google+, and that my soul is crafting slowly and with care my novel, which is a love letter to this island. I'll be sharing bits and vignettes in the near future. In addition, I will be posting to our facebook page though maybe sporadically for now.

 Thank you all for your patience and for your encouragement. It means a lot. Much love and grace to you all ~.~

*Here are three albums you might enjoy (please view them enlarged, starting with the first one : ) Secret Reykjavik, The Secret Life of Iceland, Ridiculously Beautiful Flowers, Iceland Poppy 

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out : )

Friday, 2 September 2011


On Thursday night I watched an extraordinary musical at the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames.  I'd like to share with you the story behind the musical, my impressions of it, and the work of Youth Music Theatre UK.

At 4.48am, 1 September, 72 years ago, the Germans opened fire on Westerplatte in Poland: the opening salvo in what was to become World War 2.  After two incredibly tense days, at 11am today (3 September 1939) Chamberlain took to the wireless with the news that the Government's ultimatum had expired and the British Empire was at war with Germany.  Over 60 million would die.

The Story

Warsaw is a city of tragedies. In 1939 it was an elegant city, the home to a flourishing community of over 350,000 Jews - around 30% of its population.  Warsaw was the jewel in the crown of European Jewry.  At the end of the war fewer than 10 buildings were still standing in the Old and New Towns combined.  85% of the whole Warsaw metropolitan area had been wiped off the map on Hitler's personal orders, whilst the Red Army had remained on the opposite side of the Vistula watching the smoke rise in late 1944.  By 1945, some 90% of Poland's 3 million strong Jewish population had been murdered by the Nazis.  A further 3 million non-Jewish Poles had also died.  Just pause for a moment and think about these numbers: almost 20% of the country's entire population had been killed.  What for us were painful, crushing losses were in fact 0.9% and 0.3% for the UK and the US respectively.

For a single story to stand out in that crushing narrative, it must be extraordinary.  One does: the tale of Janusz Korczak and his 192 orphans.  They were amongst the millions caught up in the terrifying German "Blitzkrieg" onslaught on Poland.  Their story is not too widely told and it deserves to be.

This is where Nick Stimson's work in writing "Korczak" and the YMT in putting on this musical theatre piece come in.

"Old Doctor" Korzack

Janusz Korzack (born Henryk Goldszmit) was a Polish Jewish doctor who was light years ahead of his time in terms of attitudes.  He had studied in Berlin and ran an orphanage in Warsaw in which he encouraged his children to govern themselves and take responsibility.  The kids had their own democratic parliament, court and newspaper.  By all accounts he treated them with great love and enlightenment, which obviously were not at all typical for the era.  He was 61 years old in September 1939 and was known as "Old Doctor" by his charges.

In October 1940 the 30% Jewish population of Warsaw was crammed into 2.4% of its area as the infamous Ghetto was created.  These were people many of whom had relatives and friends in Britain and in America, who nervously waited for news of what was happening to people they knew and loved.  Korzack's orphange was forced to move three times.  I was in Warsaw this summer with my own group of American high school students on a two week holocaust education tour.  I took them everywhere I could related to Korzack including the last location of his orphanage.  It is still a children's home today.  Its physical building somehow survived the annihilation that moved General Eisenhower to say of the Polish capital "“I have seen many towns destroyed, but nowhere have I been faced with such destruction.”

For almost 2 years Korczak did everything he could to feed his children in an environment where people were literally starving to their deaths on the streets of the Ghetto.  On 6 August 1942 Korzack and his children were rounded up at their orphanage.  This was as part of the "clearing" of the ghetto (just 100 or so SS soldiers were involved in the rounding up of almost 300,000 people in the course of two months in late 1942).

Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto

Eyewitness Joshua Perle wrote of the scene:

A miracle occurred. Two hundred children did not cry. Two hundred pure souls, condemned to death, did not weep. Not one of them ran away. None tried to hide. Like stricken swallows they clung to their teacher and mentor, to their father and brother, Janusz Korczak, so that he might protect and preserve them. On all sides the children were surrounded by Germans, Ukrainians, and this time also Jewish policemen. They whipped and fired shots at them. The very stones of the street wept at the sight of the procession.

Umschlagplatz Memorial Warsaw

Korzack himself was given the opportunity (by some accounts twice) to escape the Ghetto immediately before the deportation and save his own life.  Instead he took the cattle train from the Warsaw "Umschlagplatz" with his orphans for the 100 km journey out to the (even today) incredibly remote camp known as Treblinka.

Treblinka was a very different camp even to Auschwitz, where there was the possibility of selection and survival for some time, at least for fit adult "prisoners".  It was a pure death camp: a killing factory.  Some Jews were kept back to the do the work of processing new arrivals: they themselves would then be killed a few weeks or months later.  The boast was that within 2 hours of arrival all new arrivals would be murdered.  Unlike the vast majority of other concentration camps it did not require an electric fence: it was designed to massacre people, not to house them.  It is tiny: the size of a couple of soccer fields in total.

Images from Treblinka this July

We do not know how many people were killed in Treblinka.  The standard estimate is a minimum of 800,000; if the figures of a villager who kept meticulous records of the numbers of train arrivals are believed - and accurately extrapolated - it could be as high as 1,200,000.  This is greater even than Auschwitz.  After an armed uprising in 1943, the camp was closed.  600 Jews had escaped: just 40 survived the War.  This is a major reason the place is not in our consciousness: hardly anyone survived. 40 out of 800,000 is a 0.005% survival rate.  99.995% died.

At the camp there are jagged stones of different sizes to represent the murdered communities of Poland (middle picture, above).  The names of the towns and villages appear on the stones.  Just one person is honoured with an individual mention.  His name is Janusz Korzack.

The Musical

This seems a highly difficult subject matter to put to the medium of a musical theatre.  I was quite apprehensive.  I attended with Eva Schloss, an 82 year old whose mother had married Otto Frank after the War.  As a Jewish refugee from Austria, she had lived opposite Anne Frank as a child in Amsterdam, and now travels the world devoting herself to Holocaust education.  She is genuinely an amazing, warm, funny, lovely soul.

At the drinks reception we attended beforehand an elderly Jewish man approached Eva and asked in a thick Central European accent "Were you Kindertransport?"... "No" she answered in her lovely Viennese sing-song accent.. "I was in Auschwitz."  At this point all I could do is just look on and apply some perspective in my life. 

Eva and I in Amsterdam this summer

The musical was performed by Youth Music Theatre UK.  The cast of 40 (with the exception of Korczak played by West End professional Peter Straker) were all aged 11 to 21 years old.  They had come from all over the UK and had worked 12 hour days for 2 weeks before hand.  The orchestra was also of the same age.

I can't describe their performance as anything other than breathtakingly good.  The energy, the quality of the singing and the music, the total complete passion that these kids put in was extraordinary.  The narrative of the actual story lost me somewhat, as did the sub-plots (such as a rather sweet love triangle) but it mattered not one bit.  The professionalism of the cast, the quality of the production and the stamina of these kids to sing and play for 2.5 hours were astounding.  The scenes were not as upsetting as might be imagined: the enduring image I have was of Korczak telling the children the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and that they would be entering a wonderful place: the Crystal Mountain.  They do not die at the end so much as burst into a celebration of hope, life and peace.

After the show Eva and I were able to go backstage to meet the cast.  She spoke to them of how she had been 15 herself when she was deported to Auschwitz and was lucky to have survived the intitial selection.  She had lost her father and brother in the camps.  She told them how important it was to her that they had been part of getting the story of Korczak out there, and that she hoped they would remember being part of this throughout their lives.  Several of them were in floods of tears listening to her.  She asked me to address them about my work with kids over the years visiting the camps and specifically my latest trip with students to Treblinka and Warsaw.  I wasn't expecting to do this and somewhat stumbled through it, but hey.

It is endlessly difficult to envisage the victims of the holocaust as individuals.  There is no holocaust: there are in fact six million different individual holocausts.  Seeing these children singing and acting at the Rose Theatre had such an effect on me.  It somehow made me realise far more properly that the 192 orphans were actual young people, like these kids we met: living beings with hopes, fears, aspirations.  The vulnerability of the young and the role of adults in protecting and inspiring them came through so strongly.  The performance is billed as the "The triumph of hope over death, ... music theatre at its best".  How to explain: it was just exactly that.

The performers have been brought together by a remarkable organisation.  YMT is the UK's leading national music theatre company for young people.  They work with hundreds of young people each year, and if this production is anything to go by, they do a sterling job of it.  I really do hope they will be able to put this piece on again in time.  The current show ends tonight, 3 September.  If you are free tonight and can get to Kingston, ring the box office and just go.  I so strongly recommend it.  If not, watch their other work.  I shall be.

Korczak Memorial, Warsaw

Janusz Korczak wrote: "What should we do when everyone acts less than human? We must act more than human."

Youth Music Theatre UK are on Twitter: @ymtuk