Monday, March 19, 2012

Putting my back into it

Anyone remember the case of British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh? The former were suing the latter because they alleged his critique of the claims they made for chiropractic had crossed the line into defamation. Personally I was for Simon Singh, on the grounds that (a) the plaintiffs were big enough to take it and (b) science is not determined by running to the courts boo-hooing because the nasty man said something rude. If you’re rich enough to hire enough lawyers to sue the other guy into the ground, that’s probably a good sign that you don’t actually need to.

Let me be clear that I also dismiss some of chiropractic’s more outlandish claims, and I’m not alone. But in so far as the clear and obvious benefit of having your internal support structure correctly positioned so that all the wear and tear on your body is distributed evenly goes, I’ve no doubt about it at all, and I speak from experience.

This weekend was a significant anniversary for me. On 17 March 2002 I took the train down to London to visit the London Book Fair at Olympia. I only remember the exact date because it was a friend’s birthday. I took the Tube from Paddington to Earls Court and then Earls Court to Olympia. We came to a halt, the doors opened, I stood up.

I felt something snap painlessly at the base of my spine – it was as if someone had twanged my belt for a laugh. And then – oh dear Lord, then the pain struck.

I’d had bad backs before, on and off, always set off by small things, usually picking something up. They would last no more than a day, maybe two, and I could get through them. This was worse than any of those, but precisely because I’d got through them before, I did the worst thing possible – I went on with my intended business at the book fair. That wouldn't have been so bad if I could have just got into a decent stride for a decent time to stretch those twanging muscles. At the London Book fair, one does not stride. And so it got worse and worse and worse.

By the end of the day, when I was back at Paddington and asking the assistant in the health shop there if she had anything that could possibly help – any kind of ointment to rub on – I was almost in tears. I came even closer to tears when she admitted that no, she didn’t. On the train back home I found that if I screwed my coat up into a ball, wedged it into the small of my back and leaned against, it, it gave me a modicum of support that made life a little more bearable. Somehow I got home and lay as flat as I could for the next few days. Costing myself money, because at the time I was freelancing and being paid by the hour.

Finally I went to a chiropractor. He prodded, poked, massaged and jumped up and down on me to make things go creak and crack. He xrayed me and I could barely believe what I saw. My whole pelvis was visibly out of alignment, and had been for years. Thank you so bloody much, ten years of playing compulsory rugby every winter term. Thank you so much, second row. Thank you so much, everyone who didn’t believe me when I told them about my aches and pains!

I’ve been going back at regular intervals ever since and life is so much better. There have been recurrences of back ache, though never quite so bad as the Big One and usually when I really should have known better – picking something up at an awkward angle and twisting at the same time, or (most embarrassingly) within thirty seconds of starting a game of squash with my stepson-to-be. At 10a.m. one Saturday morning, thus writing off the entire weekend at Center Parcs. Other aches and pains, though, seem to have been banished forever. One that I frequently got throughout my teens was a grinding feeling in one hip or another, like something was slicing into the joint whenever I walked. Maybe something was. That’s gone, and I’ve never again got backache simply by standing around, which also had always been a problem.

No, chiropractic won't cure my hayfever, grant me the power of telekinesis or enable me to time travel, and anyone who finds those harsh facts offensive is welcome to sue. Fortunately my chiropractor is one of the sane ones who makes no such claims, and when faced with something beyond his expertise - e.g. the strained muscle in my arm that just won't get better - he has no hesitation in telling me to talk to a GP. But I owe him 10 considerably less painful years than I might otherwise have had and I look forward to plenty more.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Economist meets evangelicals

The Economist has published an article titled Hot and bothered: The rise of evangelicalism is shaking up the established church. It's evenly reported and balanced yet still begs the question: "um, why now?", because not a single thing in it is new or in any way newsworthy.

But still, as it's here ...

For all the impression it gives that the reporter might have picked up an old Alpha leaflet and decided to write the story as though it's breaking news, it is absolutely not a scare-mongering "look out, the Christian Right are coming!" article. Nor is it the kind of Radio 4 report you get, warning that our dearly beloved traditional CofE that no one actually believes in but everyone values as part of our national heritage will wither away and die in the face of these horrible people who actually believe what they preach and want to make it accessible and relevant to everyone else. You know, the kind of thinking that goes "We may gain souls but we'll lose the Book of Common Prayer, and that's not a trade-off worth making".

No, it's not like that at all. I say, well done The Economist for actually presenting a balanced article on this topic. Albeit one that's a few years behind the times.

What I have issues with are some of the facts reported in it, which sadly I have no reason to doubt.

1. "Of the 515 people accepted as candidates for ordination in 2010, fully 108 were under 30, up from 74 the previous year." No doubt true, but I'm agin it. I don't want children being ordained. I want a clergy who have been soured and stained by real life and can bring some real-world thinking to their job. Not that clergy under the age of 30 can't do this, of course, and of course they can always get soured and stained on the job, as it were. But. Still.

2. "Many of the rising generation of keen young clerics already make it clear they wish to work in large evangelical churches, ripe for American-style mission, rather than in slums or charming villages where social views are relaxed and doctrinal purity is not prized." Oh, now here is where I just give a big T.S. to the whinging brats. You go where you're needed, mate, and it may be you're needed just as much in Dibley or St Mary Mead as in St Shiny's Church Plant, Newtown. In fact, probably more so. Get used to it.

Okay, rant over, get on with your lives.

Monday, March 05, 2012


There are probably two main reasons a guy might go to his old housemaster’s memorial service. One would be to make sure they really did nail the coffin lid down before burning him. I’m very glad to say I went for the other reason – to say goodbye and pay my respects to a man who made a huge impression in my life. To judge from the packed abbey last Saturday, he did that in a lot of other lives too.

Bill Cooper was housemaster of Westcott House, Sherborne School, from 1966-1981, meaning he stood down at the end of my O-level year. As a young man he was a gifted athlete and sportsman, a Cambridge Blue indeed, and a promising engineer, until at the age of 21, as a Lieutenant with R.E.M.E. serving in India, he was struck down by polio and spent the rest of his life with his leg in a brace. Rather than bemoan his lot he quietly changed his aspirations, retrained as a geographer and went into academia, all apparently with the uncomplaining, quiet optimism that I remember from meeting him over 30 years later. As one of the tribute-givers explained, he believed in original sin – he knew the world wasn’t perfect, never would be, and learned not to be too taken aback when things turned out other than he would have wanted.

That’s just as well for all sorts of reasons, not least for the future happiness of the teenage Ben, because he never lost one jot of his interest in sport. Westcott lived and breathed it. I strongly suspect he was more than a little taken aback by the difference between what he thought he was getting in me and what actually turned out. The six-foot son of an SAS veteran ... He wasn’t the first to make the erroneous assumption that I must ipso facto (a) be good at rugby and (b) want to be. Neither were ever remotely the case – though having heard, on Saturday, precisely what kind of career the polio nipped in the bud, for the first time I could almost feel ashamed of it. Almost.

So it’s fair to say that while he was always friendly and encouraging, he plainly didn’t know what to do with me. His report at the end of my first term said that I obviously had my own furrow to plough. (Years later, I was delighted to read that the equally unsporty – though, unlike me, very athletic – Alan Turing’s housemaster had said exactly the same thing about him – and Alan Turing had also been in Westcott, 50 years earlier.) But he was wise enough to spot the reality very early on and he never leaned on me – it must be that original sin thing, again – and that made my school years a lot happier than they could have been.

Because, you see, there was so much more to him than just the sport. Occasionally a boy who hadn’t met him before would mistake slow of body for slow of mind, but very rarely twice. You could talk to him about anything, and he would talk knowledgeably back. He was a gifted and cultured man – a talented amateur artist in his own right, a connoisseur of the arts generally. Around 1990 I went to a party he was hosting in London to mark his retirement from teaching: it had to be in London because he and his wife were sitting through the entirety of the Ring Cycle at Covent Garden over the space of a few nights. He learnt early on that I was a voracious reader and gave me all the encouragement he could. If he had known I also harboured literary aspirations, I’m sure he would have been just as encouraging in that too: he was delighted to learn that I had become a published author.

He knew exactly what was going on, and where, and when, and wasn’t fooled for a moment by, say, those oddly tobacco-like smells drifting on the breeze from the nooks and crannies of Westcott that his disability barred him from. He was also aware, as he once put it, that with Sherborne Girls School a five minute walk away, “Life at Westcott was never entirely … monastic.” Another of the speakers spoke of his glee at actually catching boys misbehaving – it wasn’t malicious, it was just the sportsman acknowledging that he had fairly won this round. The shuffling sound of his progress around the house – which now I come to think of it, had an inordinate number of steep and long staircases, which must have been an ordeal he never let on about – could strike fear into the hearts of the guilty. He was like those two old ladies in Ankh-Morpork (I forget which book) who never break out of a slow shuffle but who are deeply feared because they will always, inevitably, catch up with their victim.

The last time I saw him was 10 years ago at a friend’s wedding, where I was an usher. Said friend was a relative of Bill’s, so had also been in Westcott. By this time Bill was mostly confined to a wheelchair, and at one point I and the other usher had to help him out of it. We were doing our best, which wasn’t very, until Bill told me bluntly (but with that gleeful grin, again) “You’ll have to get your hands under my thighs.” I muttered to my friend later that I never expected (a) to be fondling my housemaster’s backside, (b) at his request, and (c) to be thanked for it.

RIP, Bill. To quote the epitaph by Robert Burns, read out by his nephew:
“If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.”