We have been busy in the People’s Republic with internal affairs of state. Unfinished articles, undelivered leaflets and distinctly under-exercised flab litter the land. Some people even expect us to do some work! So we were working up a nice head of steam to finally blast away at the disgraceful 10p tax band business, now crowned with its final turd in the shape of the Prime Minister going on Channel 4 news last night to tell us everything’s all right AGAIN.

But there have been one too many bloody silly stories lately for me not to saddle up and hunt cretins through the marshes with a great big stick, I’m afraid. First, Piers Moron and his all-singing, all-dancing inane questions almost made me weep with total unconcern, and I was only prompted to care about the whole thing when it became clear that the underwear of a number of newspaper columnists and, hem hem, Tory commentators would be permanently soiled as a result of the incident. And now this student-in-joining-university-political-society-and-forgetting-twenty-years-later-shock-meltdown. For god’s sake. Even the commenters on Conservative Home are questioning whether this merits discussion.

Leave aside for a moment the fact that everyone who has ever been to Oxford or Cambridge immediately pointed out that most politicised students joined several societies, for the social contacts and the chance to hear the speakers. Leave aside also the fact that by no means a majority of the members of any affiliated association were also members of the party in question. Leave aside the fact that Clegg’s name appears on the list only for his First Year and that he would therefore have most probably joined at Freshers’ Fair, a whirligig of fierce competition for the innocent souls of the newly matriculated that leaves even the most single-minded signed up to things like the CU Underwater Frisbee Society, the CU Amoral Sciences Club, the Franco-British Student Alliance (who are they fighting? The Central European Society, perhaps), the CU Guild of Change Ringers, the CU Lindy Hoppers and, if you’re really unlucky, the CU Netball Team (geddit? Think about the merchandise…)

Further, leave aside the fact that it has taken Greg Hands his entire career since leaving the rather small college he and Clegg attended at the same time to notice that Clegg is, what do you know, something rather big in the Liberal Democrat party, and offer his revelation to an astonished world. Leave aside even the fact that plenty of alumni have also pointed out that the officers of these societies are none too bothered about having people’s actual permission before signing them up, and that the sheet of paper in question was marked with various runes by Hands at a time when he was trying to get elected as an officer and was therefore drumming up all the support he could – by fair means or foul, if my memory of these people serves.

No, leave aside all that. Instead, consider Andrew Sparrow‘s hair. No, don’t, that would be mean and personal (and yet it is so strangely fascinating…) Andrew Sparrow is plainly of the opinion that joining the CU Conservative Association is, in fact, exactly the same as joining the Conservative Party. No, really, he is! That’s what his headline says. If he sets the standards for journalistic enquiry in this matter, who is to say what actual question Nick Clegg’s office was asked which prompted his unequivocal denial?

If it was, “Were you a member of CUCA as a student?” then Nick may well have genuinely forgotten, but it was still a bit daft to be that definite.

If it was, “Were you a member of the Conservative Party as a student?” then, well, the answer would appear to be unequivocally 100% absolutely not.

Dirty trick or sloppy journalism? You decide. I’m off to put a few cretins’ heads on spikes.

Like Jo A, I must stress that I only have access to a copy of Delia’s new How to Cheat at Cooking through A Friend. Nowt to do wiv us, guv. Here are some of the handy hints from the introduction:

For instance, why not cut out grating cheese altogether when you’re busy? There are now some good-quality ready-grated (or sliced) cheeses available.

There are ready prepared and chopped vegetables, too, and a whole variety of prepared salads and fruits.

So many wonderful ingredients are just waiting to make your life easier: ready-made ciabatta breadcrumbs, tins of fried Spanish onions, ginger already grated, pastry cases already cooked.

Thanks to frozen diced onions, for instance, you’re not forced to peel and chop an onion if you don’t want to.

At the risk of sounding like Mrs Beeton hitting the crème de menthe, don’t being such a fricking precious wuss-ass. Now, I’m as guilty of chucking a bag of salad into the basket as the next lazy twenty-something (bizarre but true fact: if there’s only one of you, it’s actually cheaper and less wasteful to buy salad in this form, unless you want to devote at least four hours a day to chomping through Hearts of Romaine like a herbivorous slave). And my mother is possibly the only woman left in England who still makes her own pastry and isn’t a frothing Tory. But I mean, “Thanks to frozen diced onions”, for all love? As long as I live, Random Forces of the Universe, may I never have to thank frozen diced onions for anything!

So far, as you will have spotted, this is just a self-fancying cook’s rant. I like chopping onions. It’s soothing, satisfying, aesthetically pleasing. Poems have been written about peeling onions. Who was it who said of the red onion that you peel away the outer layer and what’s underneath is so perfect that you have to peel away the next layer as well to see if it gets even better? And it does! You end up with a glowing ruby jewel of a vegetable about half the size of the one you bought. And much less dinner.

But this is about to become a somewhat more serious rant, because Delia’s polypropylene-sheathed paean to rampant consumerism comes to my notice hard on the heels of this CiF article about the rising costs of food. In the spirit of mean-hearted dark treacly bitterness, I find it hard to much have time for Rosie Boycott, Lib Dem feminist or no. Only baby-boomers whose mamas sent them to Cheltenham Ladies College can afford to live simple ethical lives breeding simple organic pigs in simple organic Somerset. But, accidents of birth aside, she is discussing a theme of increasing potency for our times here:

Almost all the food we eat – 95% – is oil-dependent, so as oil prices rise, the cost of food does too. Oil is central to fertilisers, mechanised production, transportation and packaging. However, between 1950 – when mechanisation and fertilisers transformed farming into agribusiness – and 1984, world grain production increased by 250%. The consequent cheapness of food kept inflation down and allowed for the postwar consumer boom.

For years experts have been asking what will we eat when the crises of climate change and oil depletion converge, with the possible end of our globalised food supply. Our tea and coffee and spices might still come from abroad, but what about salad vegetables, beef and fresh orange juice? Cheap oil has let the west regard the whole world as its farmyard, always seeking the cheapest place to produce and process.

I notice that some commenters – the CiF commenter is a hardy, intelligent breed I increasingly admire; like Gloucester Old Spots, really – take issue with Rosie’s figures. And she does end up reducing the problem down to the oddly narrow and somewhat self-defeating notion that we eat too much meat (“So, umm, you will be stopping your pig production, won’t you? Mustn’t make the problem worse now, must we?” cheeks Tim Worstall) but in essentials she’s right so far as I understand it. Food has gone through a period of artificial plenty in the first world over the last forty years, and barring a sophisticated politico-technological response of which the world does not, currently, look capable, those days are now over. With the supply of oil increasingly dependent on good old-fashioned land wars and the whim of Russia, we’re on the brink of rediscovering the fluctuating prices and scarcities familiar to our ancestors.

I wonder that Rosie and Delia can be living on the same planet. Which they do, not just literally, but in the narrow sense of professional writers with a strong interest in food. If the food crisis is really coming – is really here for much of the developing world, and I feel the impact of the price of milk on my own little margin - how can it be right that the Glossy Cookbook market is complicit in the pretence that ordinary people can not only afford all this food and its cost in oil, but can afford to have other people chop it, dice it, wash it, dress it and tie a great big organic straw ribbon round it and the cost of all that in oil?

Well, it’s not right of course. But it’s interesting. A little bit fin de siècle, a bit “excesses of the court of the Sun King”. Marie Antoinette, at the very brink of disaster for the ancien régime, would have approved of Delia’s principle, even if she abhorred the absence of gold-leaf-dipped brioche from the store-cupboard essentials section. Marie Antoinette played at farming herself, of course. But the difference, in this classless society, is that we’re all rich now. There must be something in the bottled water on CiF at the moment, because Polly Toynbee was also making an unusual amount of sense last week:

…the median earners on £22,000 and below are 50% of the voters – but that’s a bit less than MPs get as expenses for running their second homes. So much gold dust is kicked in the nation’s eyes by scores of TV programmes selling property beyond most people’s imagining, or celebrity handbags costing thousands, that the delusion that most people are affluent has entered Labour’s lexicon and even its soul.

We live in strange and disturbing times when, on the apparent eve of a global food crisis, chopping an onion is considered by rich people to be hard work that an ordinary person shouldn’t feel they have to do. I wonder what How to Cheat at Cooking will symbolise when the socio-economic history of the early twenty-first century comes to be written? 

Batty Great Aunt Margaret Hodgepodge suggests we use the occasion of the anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession in 2009 to have a bit of a collective bellyache about being English (hat-tip W&W). Does she ever turn up to cabinet meetings in her nightie? I think we should be told. I must admit I haven’t actually finalised my own plans for celebrating the anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession yet, but at the moment they involve turning thirty so I’m quite open to the idea of distractions.

I wonder why Henry VIII? On consulting my voluminous memory, I find that there are several other monarchs since 1066 whose accession anniversaries have fallen under the current government. Have they been hubristically planning to make a big thing of Henry VIII’s anniversary ever since 1997, or have other candidates been given the chop along the way, so to speak? I wonder what Batty Aunt Margaret’s researcher’s notes looked like?

John – 1199 – is a Disney character voiced by Peter Ustinov. Nickname “Lackland” would draw unwanted attention to the housing crisis.

Henry IV 1399 – deposed his predecessor, faced rebellion in Wales, set events of Wars of the Roses in train. Not inspiring.

Henry I – 1100 - hm, everyone knows medieval history is pointless and rubbish, but let’s see what Wiki says…

Upon his succession he granted the baronage a Charter of Liberties, which formed a basis for subsequent challenges to rights of kings and presaged the Magna Carta, which subjected the King to law.

The rest of Henry’s reign was filled with judicial and financial reforms. He established the biannual Exchequer to reform the treasury. He used itinerant officials to curb abuses of power at the local and regional level, garnering the praise of the people

Ha, strike him out! Last thing we need is a medieval monarch who is more liberal and competent than the Labour party.

Edward VII 1901 – playboy. Reign saw zenith of Liberal Party. Hm.

James I 1603 – united England and Scotland – don’t even GO there, the SNP will bay like prairie wolves.

Edward II 1307 – probably gay, which is good, but deposed and murdered, bad. 

Anne 1707 – died youngish after lots of miscarriages, was a bit jowly. Nah. Too close to the Bill of Rights for comfort.

Henry VIII 1509 – absolutist monarch who confiscated private property from his subjects, used fear to demonise religious minorities, constantly involved in sleazy scandal – hey, he almost makes us look good!  

The Tories meanwhile are probably holding out for 2013, which will be the six-hundredth anniversary of the accession of Henry V, victor of Agincourt, and de facto the monarch who gave the English language a royal seal of approval when he took his coronation oath in English, whatever Batty Aunt Hodge might think. Not many people know that.

For an authentically Lib Dem flavoured reign I think I’d plump for Edward III (1327-1377). Not only did he have a dark and anti-disestablishmentarian sense of humour (“I shall never again appoint a chancellor I cannot hang”), lose bets to Rose, his laundress (it’s true, it’s in the Patent Rolls), and re-mould the office of Justice of the Peace to allow more types of case to be tried locally and accessibly, but his reign oversaw the development of parliament as an institution that could answer back. In 1341, the plucky half-formed little Commons refused to grant him a tax to fund the French wars unless he listened to their grievances first, thus establishing a pattern of tit-for-tat that ultmately prevented the equivalent of the French Revolution in England. The Good Parliament of 1376 saw the first open rebellion in the Commons against the wishes of the Crown (with the tacit backing of some of the lords), and the appointment of the first Speaker.

You get exactly the same sense of the uncannily familiar in the economic and social fabric of the time. The Black Death killed possibly up to a half of the population in 1348, and killed off the new shoots again in 1361. That meant a sudden surfeit of land and no-one to work it, and the market – and the enterprising individual within it – duly got to work. People could suddenly be a little more choosy about who they worked for, how much they were paid - they got a taste of setting their own terms. Legislation attempting to deal with the situation by fixing wage rates was as much use as a pebble against a flood.  They negotiated their way out of the already archaic serfdom bonds so that by the time of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the peasants in question were not so much downtrodden starvelings yearning to be free of their bonds as prosperous kulaks incensed at the idea that anyone should be able to order them around. The heightened individual wealth led to the first trends of conspicuous consumption among the mass of the population (and, predictably, the first laws attempting to curb it).

The period also saw the first highly amusing almighty database-style cock-up in the history of government administration. In 1371, a tax was to be collected for prosecuting the French wars (again), and for the purpose of working out how much each parish would need to pay, the number of parishes was estimated at45,000. Actual number? 8,000. The first clumsy fledgeling attempts at progressive taxation were made, with a scale ranging from 10 marks on the Duke of Lancaster down to a groat on the baldricks. The Bible was translated into English, the first gun was fired by an English army, the first English bankers jostled for business with the old Italian banking houses, most of the Inns of Court and a flood of Oxbridge colleges were founded to train up the administrative class - lawyers, priests and government ministers.

It really is possible to see the modern nation struggling to be born in the fourteenth century, and from this side of English history, the Tudors appear as a bit of a self-absorbed, absolutist, panicky aberration with control-freakish tendencies. But it’s written by the winners and all that, so their version of the medieval era has stood. They were, really, the original spin doctors. I’m sure I don’t need to, ahem, labour this too much more…

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Found to be reasonably entertaining by Mr Stephen Tall

Nick Clegg’s performance at PMQs today was all very fine and splendid and a jolly promising opening show and all that business, and it is therefore unfortunate that he also accidentally managed to make me cry, which I am sure was far from the intention.

My flat is on a prepay meter. It costs a bloody fortune. We’ve phoned British Gas about eight times in the past year to try and get it changed to Direct Debit, and every time, they refuse to accept that our flat exists.

“But I buy my gas from you,” I sob, “I know, because my little ‘I am a Second Class Citizen On a Prepay Meter, Shit On Me As Much As You Like’ Card says British Gas on it.”

“Do you mean 116A Alexandra Park Road? Or 116C?”

“No, I mean 116B.”

“We don’t have a record of that property.”

“And yet you have a record of both 116A and 116C. Try the other database.”

Suspicious silence.

“How do you know about the Other Database?”

“I’ve done this before. Go on, have a look. We’re on that one when there’s an R in the month, especially in the middle of the week when there’s a fair amount of cloud cover. I know it’s only Monday but there’s some decent nimbostrata around today, so I say we give it a shot.”

Pause, in which I hear someone hold their thumb over the headset and say “Lisa, she knows about the Other Database. Call Bootle and have them dismantle it and remove it piece by piece to Warrington.” Thumb is removed.

“No, nothing there. Have you just moved into the property perhaps?”

“About a year and a half ago. Never mind, perhaps the surroundings I am currently experiencing are just a mirage.”

Then they say they’ll have to send someone out and register us as being in existence, and we arrange a date and time. No-one ever comes. Ever. And then I ring them up to ask why and the whole process starts again.

pmqs.jpg
Clegg unwittingly summons my personal Despair Squid. On the bright side, note the strong show of support from Chris Huhne, who despite being mostly busy elsewhere sent along his head in a jar.

This post contains savage irony. 

Peter Hyman, former strategist to Blair, has just been on Newsnight, explaining what is wrong with the Liberal Democrats. According to Peter Hyman, we don’t have an interesting political “story”. On closer examination, it emerges that when he says “interesting” he means “attractive to the other two parties”. According to him, we’ll only be interesting when we start “flirting” with the other two parties. According to him, no other politicians are ever going to be interested in us unless we are a bit more open to suggestion. That’s really what Nick Clegg needs to concentrate on, according to Peter Hyman, or else no-one will ever want to go out with us.

According to Peter Hyman, we are just not cool.

Oh dear :-(

Top marks for this insight:

Later, Mr Miliband also warned that Mr Brown could lose the next general election unless the Government was seen to be effective and competent.

I am reading over the results of the Cross River Tram Consultation published by TfL in September (just don’t ask). The first question requires respondents to give their views on the proposed route from Euston to Waterloo.  77% gave positive views about this route and 11% gave negative views. This much I understand.

But 12% of respondents apparently went further and “expressed spontaneous support for a tram on this route”. Which presumably means they approached the questioner, unable to contain themselves, and started talking about it.

You, sir! You look like a sensible chap, I’ll wager you’ll agree with me, sir, when I say that what this country needs, dammit, is a tram that goes from Euston to Waterloo, what what? Else we’ll all go to the dogs. Haaaaaaaaaaaaarrgh [bursts into flames]

Perhaps these people are always hanging around railway concourses waiting to buttonhole the incautiously still. What serendipity that in this case they happened upon the person taking the Cross River Tram consultation survey.

Just as well no-one called on the People’s Republic of Mortimer to write Vince Cable’s domicile announcement:

George Osborne’s proposal this week is unfortunately far too optimistic in its revenue assumptions and is impractical. A poll tax on non-doms would be prohibitive for the large number of non-domiciles of modest means, but would be a flea bite for the fat cats.*

Is that it, Vincent? What is this, Hug a Cretin Week? In spite of my telepathically communicated instructions he then didn’t go on to say:

Actually, I just have to depart from the usual Lib Dem script of calm and enlightened rationality for a moment, because this really is the most cretinous, poorly thought out, gobby, illogical, unfair, clumsy arse-wipe of a policy I have seen in all my years in politics and I include some of UKIP’s output in that. I mean, for god’s sake, here you have a system of such Byzantine complexity that even most qualified tax advisers have trouble with it and the stupid oily little man wants to slap a flat-rate £25,000 levy on top of it like a bloody parking ticket on a windscreen, and this in return for tacitly promising not to probe too closely into the offshore accounts of multi-millionaires? It’s so laughably simplistic, obscenely unprogressive and legally suspect it beggars belief. As targeted solutions go it’s about as effective as building a bouncy castle extension to Hampton Court Palace. And even if you do - somehow – successfully persuade the Revenue that this madness is worth their hours and shoot out an extra x hundred thousand tax returns at a cost of god knows what to a lot of low-paid people who don’t speak very good English and ensure they tick the correct box so they opt themselves out of this preposturous Johnny Foreigner Levy, what then? Oh, well, they’ve only changed their status in international law, haven’t they! They’ve only thrown into doubt their inheritance posiiton so that there’s a real legal possibility that if they go back to their home country and die in thirty years time the UK could have a claim on their estate. And it’s even questionable whether ticking a box could have the effect of making you UK-domiciled in law to start with! So if you gibbering froth-mouthed lunatics did get the chance, heaven forfend, to go through with this, you would change the meaning of domicile beyond recognition, and you might just as well have binned the whole thing and started again, and pardon me but I thought that was exactly what would be so crippling to the city and presage economic disaster and cause tumbleweeds to roll past Canary Wharf etc etc? And I may have referred to poll tax earlier, but this proposal is - and you can take this as official because I have some excellent trained medievalists on my team – considerably less sophisticated than the poll taxes of 1377 and 1381, and we all know what they led to! Don’t we? Oh, never mind. God, I don’t know why we bother sometimes…

[Mr Cable begins to weep tears of frustration, and has to be led out.]

But soft, I hear you cry out in the awkward silence that follows, what think you of the policy substance of the announcement, Mortimer? Well, s’pretty good. For a start it has the enormous merit of actually following on coherently from the general import of previous party policy, which puts it ahead of the Tories’ desperate 3am crowdpleaser straightaway. It also eschews flashy brinkmanship for practical reality in that it gives people a breathing space to react. The Polish brickie and the Filipino nurse might only have been planning to stay five years in any case and so are unaffected, the Cypriot property developer has time to tie up his affairs, sell the lot and hie him off to a kinder tax climate. Unfortunate for him perhaps, but nobody ever said tax was fair. Sorry, Mr Property Developer. I’m crying on the inside. And above all, it bears the signs of having been formulated by someone who has a nodding acquaintance with how the system works. A lot of the non-doms I used to do tax returns for had lived in the UK for thirty years. They had married UK domiciles, bought a home or three, set up businesses and sent their children to UK universities. But the law and the Revenue still considered them to be domiciled elsewhere, in the main because the Revenue just doesn’t have the resources to drag the MD of every Irish building firm in London through the courts to obtain a ruling of UK domicile. And you don’t have to be more than normally, humanly greedy to shrug your shoulders and use that to your advantage. (For all my latent borderline socialism, I get irritated when people talk about “loopholes” in the law, as if you have to be a cackling purveyor of evil to take advantage of how the law defines you. There is no such thing as a loophole, there is only legal and illegal, and if one thinks the law should be changed to make something illegal then that is altogether a different matter.) But you would have to be more than normally, humanly unreasonable to kick up much of a fuss if you stood to be affected by this proposal, because it’s sheer common sense that if you’ve lived here for ten years… well, then you live here, right?

I have only one caveat, in fact, and that is that what saves the Polish brickie will also save the Italian banker. In both cases, the UK stint is very likely to be of less than ten years’ duration. Fat cats’ careers, especially if they involve the financial services industry, typically have the same sort of time constraints on them as those of athletes. So it’s not in practice going to tap the real high earnings or put more than a notional brake on the tax-free super-rich (albeit that a notional brake is a step in the right direction). I was a wimpy woolly small-L liberal when I started working in tax, and I left a ravening left-winger. I could tell you stories about domicile status that would make you sick to the soul, and I personally think the whole concept should go on the bonfire and I’ll dance on the ashes. But since that would be just as unsophisticated as the Tory proposal and importune quite a lot of Polish brickies to boot, I have concocted a side-order sized cunning plan, a policy-ette, if you will.

One of the most shocking practices I ever saw was the non-dom overpayment claim. (I’m going to get a little bit technical on your ass now, but stay with me because this will keep you high on righteous indignation for the whole afternoon and with no need to spend good money on the Sunday Times.) The non-doms in question were employed by London-based banking houses and had high salaries and posh flats. But they also spent a lot of time out of the country for both work and family reasons, and the upshot was that they were officially “non-resident” and also defined as carrying out most of their duties overseas. And as a result of these two positions, a huge chunk of what had been deducted from their payslips in PAYE over the year got paid back at the end of it. By which I mean - and you might want to make sure there’s some sort of large vessel handy before reading on – people who earned up to £100k received cheques for about £20k from Her Maj’s Revenoo each and every January. Now it’s folly to meddle with residency, because that has as many knock-on effects as fiddling with domicile. But if you were to simply scrap the notion of “overseas duties” and its link to tax liability, solely in the context of non-domiciled employees, you get rid of this problem. Non-doms, however genuinely unaffiliated to the UK they may otherwise be, take jobs with UK firms for a reason, as the Tories are quick to point out. At its most basic, the purpose of tax is to maintain law, order and general good egginess in the society that allows those firms to exist. So whatever else these people squirrel away to the Channel Islands, they’ve made a choice about where they want to work, and should cough up their basic 10-22-40 on earnings and like it. Yes, one more little “except for” rule adds another layer of complexity and that’s not what our tax policy is about, but frankly a silk purse made decently well from a sow’s ear is our lot in life unless and until we have the guts to, er, kill the whole pig, or however you care to construe.

And for future reference, I am available for bah mitzvahs, corporate occasions and sweary rants. Not christenings though, can’t bear them, they’re just weird.

* This quote is true but the others aren’t. In accordance with her invariable practice, the author accepts no responsibility for any jelly that is caused to set in a rude and amusing shape as a result of this blog.

I have had a nice letter from La Featherstone – would I like to fill in a questionnaire about NHS provision in Haringey? I would love to! I am a national and I have health! So I sit on the sofa alternately playing with notes for Saturday’s mayoral hustings, stuffing chocolate fingers into my mouth (Gordon Brown doesn’t seem to realise he holds the immediate future of weight control chez Mortimer in the palm of his hand; if an election is called then it’s chippie chips for dinner for a month) and completing said survey.

I don’t know whether I’m just exceptionally naive and literal but I do have real problems with these things. In the end I skip over some of the questions about whether or not I think the NHS is well run and spends money wisely. Because (whisper it) I don’t bloody know, do I. I could probably identify six news stories on just this point from the last month alone, I could trot off a string of statistics that have been collected in a significantly different way every year since 1952, I could cite telling anecdotes from my own and others’ experience (in fact, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m shortly going to do just that), and indeed I could probably write a fiery, polemical tract in either direction. But since, try as I might, I have been unable to read every document ever produced by every Primary Care Trust, you actually might as well ask a nutter at a bus stop as me. Their answer would bear holistically upon the question just as validly as mine would.

I know, I know, if one were to demand that everyone be well-informed before taking a decision then democracy would become impossible. And indeed if I took my own philosophy to its logical conclusion I would never vote. Hmph. This internal torture will run and run, I can tell.

Post-existential crisis, things go much more smoothly with the notes, the chocolate fingers and the survey, until I start encountering the smattering of local party policy questions. Call me Miss Party Pooper but I do wonder if these things could perhaps be a little less pointed, I’m sure it puts off floating voters, viz:

Q18: The Lib Dems are worried that not enough thought has been put into providing public transport to the Hospital site. Do you support their campaign to bring more bus routes to the site? If Yes, go to REAL Q 19 and have a sweetie, If No, go to IMPLIED Q 19…

IMPLIED Q19: Why not, you selfish shit?

But I digress. The point is that although I am able via the magic of ticky-boxes to rubbish my doctor pretty effectively in terms of waiting times for appointments (seven days is my record), I am still left feeling a little unspent because there is, quite understandably, no question framed along the following lines:

Q 21 Have you ever been turned away from a surgery reception on the point of collapse, and were you seriously a bit worried for your safety as a result, and was it icky-nasty-horrible-horrible, and do you want to tell me all about it?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes, yes, very, and yes pleeeeeeee-eeee-eeeease.

It was August 2006 and I had been having the odd bit of trouble with asthma, which I thought had pretty much left me years before. On the day in question – and I still have no idea why it happened – I woke up wheezing like a superannuated bloodhound and clutching at the bedside table for inhalers. Which weren’t there because I hadn’t had a new prescription for ages because I hadn’t had any symptoms for ages.

So I ring my doctor on the dot of nine and wheeze my problem to the receptionist. I don’t have any inhalers! I feel like a submarine is trying to negotiate my windpipe! Do I want an appointment with the asthma nurse in half an hour? Yes, yes please!

The critical word here, as NHS fans will have spotted, is nurse, but I pay this no heed because I am too busy sitting against a wall and breathing into a paper bag with my lower back and diaphragm in a constant state of pointless spasm as they try and persuade my lungs to suck down air that just ain’t coming. At half nine I totter out – the doctor is thankfully less than a minute’s walk – and collapse in the waiting room. I am called almost immediately. Gawd bless the NHS!

The nurse is having trouble with the computer system. She can’t get into my records. “I’m only a locum,” she says miserably. I don’t care about your working pattern! I can’t breathe! Do you need my records to diagnose what is currently happening? Can I not have some drugs? Oh no, no, she can’t prescribe.

You can’t what?

Back to front of house, where I wait for about five minutes bent double and making noises like a suction pump while the man in front of me chats to the receptionist (me and my bloody good manners; I spit on them). The receptionist is grave and bovine. “Can I help?” she says at length.

“Is- can- I- need-…. inhaler… Is- Doctor’s-… appy’ment?” I am having real trouble speaking now, mostly because I am starting to panic a bit and panicking is the worst thing you can do with an asthma attack. I mean, I know it’s not a severed leg, but y’know, couldn’t someone maybe display a modicum of concern? Do even a little bit of lateral thinking ere I pass out? There are almost certainly, knowing the demographic round here, fifty houses in the surgery’s remit with asthmatic kids. Fifty inhalers are hiding in the streets around me right now, giggling! They must have some sort of stock on the premises. They must be able to get the doctor out for two minutes to write me a prescription so I can go over the road and collapse on the chemist’s floor instead.

Naturally I am not outlining any of these options with my customary three-point clarity, and I am also having to prompt every separate neuron transaction in the receptionist’s brain. No, there are no more appointments today, no, they do not keep emergency medication. After she has dismissed all my suggestions for curing myself and is sitting waiting to see what the strange girl who can’t breathe is going to do next, I babble “Well-… the-… Where can I go?” a little bit tearfully.

“Well,” she says, distractedly looking at the queue behind me, “There’s two hospitals with A&E rooms.”

“An-… wha-… are-… the-… call-?”

She thinks for a moment. “The Whittington and the somewhere else.”

“An-… whi-… is-… neary-…?”

“The Whittington.” And she turns to the next patient!

I seize hold of the counter with a clawlike hand and wheeze insistently, “Cn. Yo. Writ. Down. Adrs. An. Telfo. Nm.”

She does this on a post-it note with a slightly odd sideways look at me as though I am being eccentrically troublesome, and clutching the bit of yellow paper that may or may not save me, I stagger out into the street again on the verge of tears and dizzy with lack of oxygen.

And of course it was all okay, because a friend is on her half-term and she comes and fetches me to A&E, and they take one look at me and wheel over the drip and hook me up to an air supply and I am high as a kite for an hour while my blood re-oxygenates or whatever it is doing.

But it was unpleasant, and I got a nastily powerful glimpse of what age and infirmity is like, particularly in the context of low income. As soon as basic fitness deserted me, I was completely helpless and at the mercy of this cretinous woman because I didn’t have a car or know anybody with one, I didn’t have a partner to rush home from work and take control, and I wasn’t sure whether I had enough money in t’bank to get a taxi from Muswell Hill to Archway, even assuming I could have made it to the nearest cashpoint and then found a taxi. And I was lucky this was happening in half-term or my friend wouldn’t have been nearby either.

Withal, one of La Featherstone’s questions is Do you think it’s important that elderly people have transport provided for them to and from hospital?

And I tick the box marked Yes, with bells on.

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