Archives for the month of: April, 2013

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Drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937)

‘What exactly is a hashtag?’ whispered one of my bewildered friends. ‘And, why do I have to put an @ sign before everything and anyone I mention?’ he asked in equally hushed tones, aware that his ignorance was not something that might be easily understood or forgiven.  Twitter was once about birdsong, now it’s apparently about a cryptic world of overhead conversation and snippets of gossip.  I am of a generation where some of my contemporaries have embraced this mode of social networking, while others, like my friend, are still struggling for the correct verb: ‘Is it to twitter or to tweet, or is it tweeter?’

For me, Twitter is often like being at a really busy party.  As you mill around, between the bar and the buffet, you catch one liners and half sentences, punch lines and sneers. Someone over there is trying to sell me something; someone over here is trying to interest me in the humdrum of her day.  Someone walking by is reminding me of a funny story or is showing me an amusing picture, while another behind me is just talking to a friend about nothing in particular.  There is a lot of noise, thousands of voices, ideas, and jokes, but most of the time, it has to be said, just banalities.

I suspect this must be how God feels—His ears full of countless voices, prayers and pleas and daily profanities evoking His name.  Perhaps Twitter is God.  That linked up life force, sharing everything and anything, binding it all together and making it one.  A singularity of humanity joined through their active little thumbs on touch screens and buttons, striving for the next step in human evolution.  Or, perhaps Twitter is exactly that—our next incarnation. Perhaps we have suddenly, but imperceptibly, moved from being plain old Homo sapiens, thinking man, to Homo twitteris.  We tweet, therefore we are; our existence now defined by our connectivity.

Or perhaps Twitter is the Devil.  An apparently harmless, but satanic, device slipped into our lives by a force of malevolence.  By blithely sharing our strings of 140 characters and our little thoughts and secrets we open ourselves to strangers.  As we lose our individual identities, we dissolve the very boundaries of our humanity.  So, a force for good or a force for evil?  Well, we know what usually wins. Or then again, perhaps Twitter is nothing more than a passing fancy—this year’s hula-hoop or yo-yo.  A bit of fun and really nothing more—harmless and inane.

Whether God or Devil or the next stage of our human journey, it should not be ignored as just a piece of fluff. We have seen that the connectedness it can create is enough to sway a people to revolution, and the power of its reach enough to take other less discerning individuals to the dock of the High Court.

Twitter has just celebrated its 7th birthday and its growth over those years has been exponential.  It is now estimated (depending on who you believe) to have in excess of 500 million users and growing.  But, just who are these half billion people on twitter?  There are of course the twitterati, those celebrities who have garnered frankly ridiculous numbers of followers such as Stephen Fry with his five million, Barack Obama with his 28 million and her Ladyship Gaga with her 35 million. The king of it all is Justin Bieber with more than 36 million.  (My struggling colleague has just asked who Justin Bieber is, but that’s another blog.) Most of the inhabitants of the developing twittersphere, however, are just humble nobodies following a few friends, some organisations and of course some celebs.  Yes, Stephen Fry does say some witty things, but he also tweets some very uninteresting thoughts on football matches, what he’s having for dinner, pictures of his shoes and often wishes us goodnight before turning in.  Even the life of someone as exotic or quixotic as Fry cannot produce the goods 24/7.  Even the good and the great have a dull day now and then and have to go to Tesco.  In most lives, there simply is not enough fascination to go around.  Now, if reading about someone’s bedtime routine or TV viewing, or his or her thoughts on a darts match is your idea of stimulation, twitter is for you.

But, lest I seem curmudgeonly, let me also say that twitter has other uses.  If, instead, your penchant is to watch a developing news story even before the BBC gets hold of it, again twitter is for you.  The power of this function, that relies upon the collective input of countless amateur reporters across the globe, cannot be so easily dismissed.  Now, we are breaking the news rather than simply reading about it.

Similarly, if you pick the right people or organisations to follow, you can strike gold.  A steady stream of relevant links to exactly the kind of things you want to read more about can be yours for the taking.  The tweets themselves, in these cases, are nothing more than signposts to more expansive articles and this, for me, is the real power of twitter.

Twitter, or something like it, is here to stay and its uncoordinated adolescent strength and energy need to be trained.  As it matures with us, we will find new ways, both good and bad, to use it.  But, we should always be wary that it does not begin to use us, to overwhelm us, and to deafen us with birdsong.

© Allan Gaw, 2013

My books available on kindle:

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The passing of Margaret Thatcher requires a pause for thought.  The television is filled with plaudits from the survivors of her brow-beaten cabinets, a remarkable amount of praise from her enemies in the Labour Party and scenes of ceilidh dancing on her image in front of banners proclaiming, ‘Rejoice, Thatcher is Dead’.  The only thing all these people agree upon is that she was a force to be reckoned with, and, love her or loathe her, she could not be ignored.

It is hard to know how to feel about all of this.  I went to Medical School the year she first came to power, and her policies dominated my early adult life in one way or another.  I lived in Scotland, her infamous ‘testing ground’ for the Poll Tax, as Spitting Image put it, and it was hard as a junior doctor not to be affected by the impact of her policies on many of my patients.  I remember never asking anyone what his or her job was.  Instead, I would enquire if they were ‘in work at the moment’ such was the swathe of unemployment that existed across the area.  As a student, I watched as we went to war in the Falklands.  And, make no mistake this was a war, irrespective of how it has since been dubbed a ‘conflict’.  I remember pondering as a third year medical student that if this escalated, would I be conscripted straight away or would they allow me to finish my studies?  I remember the IRA bombing of her Brighton Hotel and the awful pictures of her colleagues being unpicked from the rubble in their pyjamas.  I remember Francis of Assisi in a blue twinset on the steps of Downing Street and of course, the freudian pronoun gaffe of ‘We have become a grandmother.’

But, my closest interaction with Mrs Thatcher came in the unlikely venue of a dentist’s surgery in Texas.  I was a Post-doctoral Research Fellow in Dallas twenty years ago and an encounter with a unexpectedly hard nut had left me and, more specifically, my upper right molar the worse off.  Seeking help, I found myself in the dentist’s chair.  Dr Burgdorf was gentle, efficient and did a beautiful job on the crown that I needed, and that I still keep polished and flossed to this day.  While in his chair, he probed my background as well as my teeth.  My accent prompted a series of questions.

‘So, you’re from England?’

‘Yes,’ I lied, as I had learned that to every American I had met, England meant the UK, and the subtleties of Hadrian’s Wall were a lost cause.

‘So, do you visit London much?’

‘Yesh,’ I garbled, because of the suction in my mouth.

‘Have you ever been to Downing Street?’

‘Yeshhh, but you can’t really get in it any more—shecurity’.

‘Oh, I’ve been there, and I’ve visited Number Ten.’

‘Eoghch,’ I bubbled in surprise, almost losing my suction, and biting his finger, with my good teeth.

‘Oh Yes, Mrs Thatcher showed us round when we went over.  She was really delightful—so charming, so generous.  She showed us around personally and it’s quite a place.’

Now, where to begin?  Well, my mouth was already open, for obvious reasons, but now he had my undivided attention.

‘How does a Dallas dentist find himself the guest of the Iron Lady, receiving a personal tour of the heart of government?’ I would have liked to ask, but all that came out, between suction and hardware and gloved hands was, ‘Eoachgh?’ Fortunately, he understood—years of practice I expect.

‘My sister married Mrs Thatcher’s son.  We were over for their wedding in London a few years ago.’

Of course, now I remembered the pictures of the beautiful blonde Texan whom Mark Thatcher had married, and it suddenly dawned on me that her name had been Burgdorf, just like my new dentist.

‘That musht have been an amazhing expewience,’ I managed, now that the hardware had been removed and all I had to contend with was a local anaesthetic.

‘Oh yes, she was wonderful.’

‘And, Mwak?’ I probed.  He paused, and then offered, ‘He…he was a little more challenging.’

So, beneath the hairdo and the handbag full of lead, behind the politician, the statesman, and the Rottweiler, under the facade of assurance and no compromise was a proud mum who wanted to impress her son’s new in-laws, just like any other: a warm and welcoming hostess, a thoughtful guide and a proud parent.

Not quite the picture we were used to growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, but should we be surprised that she was a woman as well as a leader, a person as well as a phenomenon?

Will she be missed?  In truth, she had probably already gone.  So many with dementia have, and on their deaths their families are left with such a mixture of feelings so tied up with exhaustion that they often feel nothing, having grieved for their loss long before.

Does she have a place in history? Without a doubt.

Was she great leader?  Time alone will be the judge of that.

Was she a great person?  The jury seems to be out on that one for the television is still filled with images of those who literally do not know whether to laugh or cry at her passing.  But, a dentist in Texas certainly thought she was great, and he was in a better position than most to make the call.

Ⓒ Allan Gaw 2013

My books available on Kindle:

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