29. Growing cress heads for no particular reason.


This morning, the council came to collect the 3 bins I leave outside on Tuesday mornings, and I think they have brought another new bin – to dump your Guilt into. So much better to have it safely disposed of rather than giving it to another person. Guilt just doesn’t compost down.

I’m hoping for more metaphorical bins in the future, now that local government has taken over public health. In hospitals we have sharps containers coloured yellow, which is a safe place to put barbed comments.

Today, just as The Times reported that health checks for the over 40s were a complete waste of money, I received a letter from my local surgery asking me to come in for a health check with the practice nurse.

Though I am a supporter of evidence-based medicine, it took me less than a minute to make myself an appointment. I am also a hypochondriac.

To be honest, evidence-based decision making can conflict with common sense. Everyone knows that a stitch in time saves nine. As far as I know, there is no equal and opposite proverb to cancel this one out. My strict adherence to the evidence based approach probably doesn’t go much deeper than the occasional casting of nasturtiums on the alternative sector.

So many decisions we have to make are based on intuition rather than double blind randomised control trials. For instance, choosing what we eat. I start with the null hypothesis as follows: nothing that you eat – within reason – makes any difference to you. There are occasional bits of conflicting evidence, but in general nothing to disprove the hypothesis, which is based on the sound principle that the human body is a chemical factory.

I have yet to see any convincing evidence for the five fruits a day policy, nor the arbitrary alcohol consumption limit of 21 or 28 units per week. Which leaves me with a bit of a dilemma over what to tell the practice nurse about my lifestyle. I don’t want to come across as a fanatic of any kind. Like an NHS Trust, or Everton FC, its safest to be half way up the league table rather than at the top or bottom. But there is no real ‘gold standard test’ for lifestyle to pass or fail, apart from a few aspects of what we consume.

Like everyone, I find it very difficult to explain the increasing numbers of people who suffer with obesity. I watched a recent documentary attributing this to the corn syrup industry, but was not entirely convinced. Maybe it is a virus or other infection we have yet to identify. The concept of ‘food addiction’ has gained some adherents, certain products turning out to be incredibly ‘more-ish’, such as chocolate, pizza and ice cream.

Since obesity has increased rapidly over the last 30 years, we could attribute it to any or all of the social trends of the last few decades, from computer ownership to the decline of progressive rock. Psychiatrists have made their own contribution, in the form of atypical antipsychotics, which have doubtless added to the lard mountain.

My own hypothesis – no, really my own intuition, is that obesity is inversely related to pottering.

Pottering has been defined as: ‘to busy oneself in a desultory though agreeable manner’. Pottering behaviour should be largely unplanned, enjoyable, unhurried and diverse. Crucially, pottering does not derive from a work ethic, but from a natural tendency to interact with one’s environment. It’s roots are probably in thousands of years of hunting and gathering.

The habit of pottering has been hard hit by lifestyle changes toward electronic media and industrialisation, and away from localism, arts, crafts, hobbies, games and sport. Home made food is fast going the way of home made clothes.

What is surprising is the lack of a response, either from mental health services or the pharmaceutical industry, to the obesity epidemic. Surprisingly, there is a lack of evidence about what treatment to offer.

As anyone knows who has been on one of those treadmills with a calorie counter, you have to run about a thousand miles to counteract the effects of one Mars Bar. So its hard to see how increased activity alone could be the answer.

CBT does embrace ‘behavioural activation’ and ‘activity scheduling’ and mental health services do employ a small number of occupational therapists. We could begin to rehabilitate a pottering based lifestyle, but we need badly to find a new word for ‘potter’. It’s just too old-bloke-in-a-shed-based. And we need new pottering clothes, instead of tracky-bottoms and cardigans.

So here’s my five point plan:

Pottering should be re-named Freestyle Active Behaviour – fabbing, for short.

Village Shows to be re-named ‘Fabathons’

Stella McCartney / Adidas to bring out a new fabbing range, using a tweed / kevlar fabric mix.

A new talent show, called Britain’s got Knitting.

A new ‘more modern’ penthalon event, consisting of: repairing a stuck window, making a cake, learning the saxophone, growing cress in old eggshells with a face drawn on them and visiting granny.

(Yours may be different).

So far, none of this is evidence based, but neither, it seems, is going to the health centre for a check-up.


22. Comprehensive dental planning for the gift horse.


Got away with a scale and polish!

Some people felt the recent ‘horsegate’ revelations amounted to an attempt – by ‘Big Food’ – to soften up the consumer towards more overt horse consumption.

So far I see no signs of horse restaurants opening up, so I’m wondering if its really worth registering the trade markĀ  ‘Horses for Courses’.

The main effect of the horse scandal was to cause a tsunami of horse-related jokes and puns, like the above example, and a welcome reprise of horsey sayings and proverbs.

We are, as humans, portrayed as horses sometimes.

A person might be described as a ‘workhorse’ for instance.

They may be compared to a mule, if stubborn; or a donkey, if they suffer with ‘bradythinkia’. People who throw eggs at talent show judges are exhibiting ‘horseplay’, though this is one activity that horses have never even attempted.

You could take someone to water, but not make them drink, and this is a major problem in pubs and cafes nowadays, especially where there is free wifi. We know from Prince’s commentary on the modern world that his cousin was ‘doing horse’ only nine months after trying a reefer ‘4 the very first time’.

Is a gift horse a person who gives gifts, or is the horse the gift?

Either way, don’t look him in the mouth, even if you are a veterinary dentist, not without a mask and safety glasses anyway.

My knowledge of horses is really very limited. I go past them very slowly on the roads, and the person riding usually acknowledges this with a friendly gesture. I know they cost a lot to run, in terms of vet’s bills and sugar lumps. I feel sorry for the ones I see confined to a box trailer, stuck on the A1(M) for hours on end. I have never known a real horse to be called Dobbin. If I had a racehorse, I would name it ‘nine to two favourite’, just to confuse the bookies.

They seem surprisingly fragile. Quite minor ailments seem to upset them, such as sleeping in the wrong posture or falling over a rabbit hole.They are sensitive to even the mildest ironic remark.

All the care pathways for horses seem to end with the box ‘shoot’.

Do horses like being whipped and raced over a series of fences? Probably the answer is the same proportion of horses as humans who like sadomasochism or hurdling.

Do they even like having people ride on them? For most of their evolutionary history presumably they just ran about when they felt like it. Western movies always depict the wild horse as reluctant to get involved in the transport industry. Horsey people will shake their heads and tell me I just don’t get it.

Horses and people, they tell me, have a unique symbiotic relationship, where horse and master blend into a sublime transport unit. Its a bit like the way obese bikers’ tummies meld seamlessly into the saddle of a Gold Wing or Harley.

This brings us back to the idea of harmonious relationships and fundamentally, the kind of environment that suits the human system.

Today there are further useful news items from the Mappiness project, which aims to survey people’s real time levels of happiness using a smartphone app and random sampling.

These findings are dangerously revealing and potentially subversive. It is revealed that work can be toxic for instance, and that its better to live in a green rural – type environment than in a tiny box high over an industrial northern city.

Also, 22 years after the LaTour single, the last reliable report on this, it is revealed that people are still having sex.

Most of human evolutionary history people have not worked, at least not in the way that has become the norm since the industrial revolution. People were hunters and gatherers for thousands of years. Accordingly, the natural state for human happiness seems to be ‘pottering about’.

Of course many people have known this for years. But oddly, the millions of ‘shed people’ have been portrayed as either lazy or autistic, not to mention shabby. Shopping is perhaps the one surviving pottering activity that remains fashionable, but all too often shopping behaviour is spoiled by buying stuff.

A clue to all this should have been the way ‘browsers’ like Netscape took off in the nineties. Browsing the web suits people better than watching television, even when ‘channel-hopping ‘is allowed.

Pottering about is the default position for human behaviour before ‘musts, haves and shoulds’ are loaded on people.

My impression is that horses are pottering animals too. Mainly they eat. But they are a bit curious to meet people. Sometimes they will get up and run for no apparent reason, to a similar bit of field.

Horses and humans have been the victims of a massive confidence trick. Basically this is that they benefit from carrying a burden.

Sadly for horses, they cannot operate smartphones, so their unhappiness cannot yet be measured.

Look, they are shaking their heads and saying ‘nay’. I think they have made their position clear enough.