Dear Other Normal Human Beings

25 Jul

This is brilliant – it explains perfectly why we’re all so cross with what the government are trying to do and why we won’t bloody shut up about it.

I am writing to you, because, like myself, you are a normal human being.

You, like me, wake up in the morning and sleep at night, eat meals, sometimes with loved ones, sometimes alone. We are alike in our requirement for other people, for happiness, for security, for food, for warmth, for shelter.

You may have children, you may have brothers or sisters. You have, or had, parents, and perhaps were lucky enough to know your grandparents.

You may have noticed that many health professionals were becoming uncharacteristically vocal, over the weekend especially. [1] You may have thought them self-serving, morally bankrupt individuals, upset over their own pay packets.

I would like to explain to you, from one normal human being to another, what is going on.

I am a doctor. I decided to be a doctor before I really knew what decisions were, and can never remember wanting to do…

View original post 1,285 more words

Hooray! Other people won’t stand for this either!

23 Jul

Thought I would post this as a follow-up to my not-quite-so recent rant about racism and other forms of prejudice, as it cheered me up immensely 🙂

There was a brilliant post by The Medical Registrar on Facebook today:

Further brilliant comments in response to the post can be read here:

My personal favourite response – alongside the many jibes about the BMA being totally useless; an opinion I’m inclined to agree with given their recent actions regarding pension reform protests – was: “Doubtful he’s gonna report you to anyone. He’d probably get charged for racism.”

Which is so very, very true. Like I said in my rant, there appears to be one set of rules for patients and another for doctors and other healthcare professionals. Having just waded through my mandatory e-induction module on “Equality and Diversity” in preparation for starting my job, I can tell you that a doctor can technically be indicted for discrimination just for calling a patient “pet” or “love”. Conversely, a very small minority of the public think nothing of using abhorrent (and illegal) language like that shown above to insult a dying woman and her relatives.


“Never be a spectator to unfairness or stupidity.”

Christopher Hitchens

Be not a spectator: don’t stand for this

14 Jan

During our “Preparation for Practice” module we had two role-play sessions on advanced communication skills; one on breaking bad news and one on dealing with difficult patients. During the second of these sessions I was struck by the attitudes of some of my colleagues, who seemed to think that in the course of our future work as doctors we are expected to put up with seemingly no end of abuse and prejudice, for a variety of stupid reasons.

Here are some of the role-play scenarios from the session, followed by what will hopefully be an understandable rant.

scenario 1: racism

 patient: So whereabouts in the world are you from then?

 student: I’m from around here, I live in Newcastle.

 patient: No, I mean where are you from?

 student: Oh, well originally I’m from Durham.

 patient: You’re not, you can’t be, how long have you lived in England?

 student: I’ve always lived in England.

 patient: Well, you don’t look like you’re English *scoffs incredulously*

This scenario involved a white patient and a non-white student, who I thought handled the episode fantastically well considering what was being said to her. She managed to stay calm throughout the consultation – whilst at least half of her audience sat seething with rage – got a decent history and even attempted to challenge the patient’s consistently offensive behaviour a few minutes later:

 student: Since you hurt your shoulder, have you been able to – 

 patient: Are you sure you’re English? You definitely don’t look it.

 student: Yes, I’m sure. Not all English people look the same, you know.

 patient: Yes they do. They all look white, anyway.

 student: No, they don’t. I think English people can look very different from each other, but it doesn’t mean they’re not English.

 patient: Nonsense *huffs and puffs indignantly*

As possibly one of the most sickeningly pale individuals in a country classically famed for its lack of sunlight, racism isn’t something I’ve ever had to deal with first-hand. The closest I’ve ever got to becoming actively discriminated against was when some girls at school started to bully me for being a “goth bitch” (pale skin, dark hair, liked rock music – it was pretty much inevitable but that doesn’t make it right), and I’ll never forget how unpleasant that was. I can only imagine how utterly awful it must feel to be dismissed or insulted on the basis of something so senselessly petty as your nationality or your accent.

I think this situation highlights very well the problems faced by doctors working in a multicultural society, where unfortunately a proportion of the elderly population and a minority group of dickhead white supremacists haven’t quite figured out yet that a person’s creed, colour or country of origin has absolutely no bearing on their worth as a human being. As inhabitants of the 21st century, it is our responsibility to aid them in figuring this out, and in doing so to steer the course of humanity, however minutely, in the direction of a better future.

scenario 2: sexism

student: So can you tell me a little about what’s been going on?

patient: Well to start with, let me just say you’ve got two things going for you, you’re white and you’re male, which is good to see. Not like a lot of the so-called “doctors” gallivanting around here. So for that reason I’ll tell you…

There was also a similar situation involving a female student, where the patient basically started challenging her right to work as a doctor – or indeed to work in any profession – and telling her off for not being “in her place” at home baking muffins and raising offspring. She also said something about women’s brains being smaller than men’s. I forget the exact dialogue, but you get the gist of it.

Now I’m no feminist – those of you who know me will be aware that I see it as no more than a glorified form of catty chauvinism – but I think that sentiments like these are just as abhorrent as those in the first scenario.

As a woman training to be a doctor, I’d need at least 50 fingers to count the number of times a lovely elderly patient I’ve been clerking, examining, taking blood from or just chatting to has assumed I’m a nurse or a nursing student, despite the fact I’ve introduced myself as a medical student or “student doctor”, and often done doctory things involving percussion notes, stethoscopes and tendon hammers. I don’t normally mind this, as back in their day female doctors were a genuine rarity, but sometimes when I correct them there’s an expression of patronising disbelief on their faces that winds me up a little. Thankfully I’ve never encountered a situation like the one above just yet, fingers crossed I never will…

scenario 3: ageism

student: I’d like to examine your shoulder, if that’s OK with you?

patient: Well who are you, what do you know? You don’t look old enough to be in this job anyway.

student: I can assure you I’m fully qualified, like I said before I’m one of the junior doctors working with the team today.

patient: Haha, don’t be silly, you can’t have been doing this long. How long have you been a doctor for?

Admittedly, as an F1 or F2 doctor his answer would be a year or a few months, but that’s not the point. He has undertaken at least five years of training and has been certified as a competent and capable medical practitioner, albeit one with a lot left to learn. Handling a minor shoulder sprain would be well within the range of his hypothetical abilities – he wouldn’t be able to surgically repair a shoulder fracture or reattach an arm, but that’s irrelevant as nobody would expect him to.

A situation similar to this one happened to Suzi on series 1 of Junior Doctors – if I remember rightly the patient sent her away, essentially saying she wasn’t qualified to be speaking to him. You can only imagine how after five or six years of hard work at medical school, being unfairly dismissed in this way would make you feel like absolute shit.

scenario 4: anger & aggression

The last scenario involved the father of a child who had been misdiagnosed by members of the paediatric A&E team. He had presented with symptoms of very early appendicitis – essentially a temparature, an upset tummy and non-specific abdominal pain – but was diagnosed with viral gastroenteritis and sent home. Later that evening his appendix ruptured and he was rushed to the nearest hospital, where it was removed. A couple of days later, understandably rather cross at what had happened, his father returned to the department to demand an explanation.

The role-player was fantastic: he walked in virtually smouldering with fury, stood gripping the back of a chair and addressed the junior doctor in a loud, confrontational but not-quite-shouting Geordie voice, which made him seem incredibly threatening.

 parent: (having explained the situation at length and become increasingly more irate) … and I want to know why YOUSE, who are supposed to be DOCTAHS, didn’t realise what was gannin’ on! He could’ve DIED, man! D’yez not even care?! 

 student: I can understand why you’re so upset, and I’d be more than happy to answer your questions about what happened while he was here, and why we made the decisions we made. Would you like to sit down and we could talk about it in more detail?

The gentleman didn’t respond to the offer of sitting down, and if anything became even more frightening and aggressive in demanding the explanations he had already been openly offered. The student ultimately defused the situation by saying:

 student: I’m sorry sir, I can see you’re extremely upset but I have to say I’m feeling a little threatened by you at the moment. I think we’d both be a lot more comfortable if you took a seat so I could explain everything properly. 

This stopped the man in his tracks, and after he’d sat down the student proceeded to give an excellent and detailed explanation of what had happened and why the diagnosis had been missed, which the man seemed happy with. The way in which he had defused the situation caused some controversy though, as the lady leading the seminar was of the opinion that telling someone you felt threatened  by them when they were quite definitely behaving threateningly towards you was frightfully rude.

Several others in the group (myself included) disagreed with her. I think that if someone is being overly aggressive to the point where you actually feel unsafe in their presence, you have a right to voice the fact that you feel threatened by them. In a lot of cases, particularly when dealing with an anxious relative or angry parent, the individual might not actually realise that their overwhelming emotions are being conveyed so strongly, and will probably tone things down as a result as long as you state your feelings diplomatically.

A report published in 2010 found that 32% of NHS staff had experienced verbal aggression from a patient, and 18% had experienced it from a member of the public whilst at work. In terms of actual physical assault, 5% of staff had been assaulted by a patient, and 1% by a member of the public who was not a patient. The frequency of physical assaults on NHS staff has actually increased since 2004. There is therefore a genuine risk of aggression or actual physical harm to all hospital employees. I find this appalling, and believe that doctors and other members of staff have an unquestionable right to stand up for themselves if they feel themselves to be in a hostile situation.

Why I won’t stand for this

After the role-play scenarios, we had an opportunity for group discussion about what we had seen. After a slightly heated debate about the handling of the fourth scenario, we moved on to talk about appropriate responses to prejudice and discrimination by patients. The discussion quickly escalated into a state of conflict, as some members of the group began to express quite pathetically outrageous platitudes about why it was “wrong” to challenge a racist patient. Examples of these included:

  • It is wrong to challenge a racist patient because you have to respect patients’ beliefs. – Voltaire said, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it“. You can respect someone’s right to hold a particular belief as much as you like, but this does not mean that you in any way agree with or respect the belief itself, and if it is immoral or illegal or poses a risk of harm to yourself or others, you are most definitely under no obligation whatsoever to treat it with anything less than contempt.
  • It is wrong to challenge a racist patient because you would be using your position of power to impose your own beliefs upon them. – or would you instead be challenging their beliefs as is your right to do so as a fellow human being? Challenging someone’s offensive statements only constitutes expressing your disagreement with them; there would be no need to explain or justify or enforce your own personal beliefs at any time.
  • It is wrong to challenge a racist patient because that would be moralising a medical situation – what is the point of  learning all this medical ethics if it is then considered wrong to ‘moralise’ in your everyday practice? The perception amongst those upholding this opinion seems to be that it is only doctors who are expected to behave in a morally acceptable manner, whilst on the other side of the equation patients can do or say whatever they like without any ramifications. A study of Norfolk NHS found that a percentage of staff had been upset by discriminatory comments concerning race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and disabilities. These comments had come from both fellow staff members, and patients or members of the public. According to some of my colleagues, the staff should be subject to moral judgement for their behaviour, but the patients should not, because this would be ‘disrespecting their beliefs’ or ‘moralising the situation’.
  • It is wrong to challenge a racist patient because it would go against the principle of do no harm. – this assumes that your challenge would somehow upset the patient deeply enough to cause genuine harm; if one handled the situation diplomatically there should be little reason for this to occur. Taking this standpoint also depends on whether or not you view the enormous harm done by prejudice and discrimination across the globe as dismissable.
  • It is wrong to challenge a racist patient because that would be unprofessional.” – I agree that if a doctor were to go around belligerently lecturing every patient who ever expressed a mildly prejudiced belief, this would be unprofessional. This would be the equivalent of me kicking off at every sweet and harmless old man who ever assumed I was a nurse because I had breasts, which would clearly be pointless. The beliefs I would propose to challenge would be openly held, openly voiced and offensive prejudices, which were persistently voiced despite attempts to ignore them or move the conversation away from the subject.  This could involve, for example, rants about “pakis”, “niggers”, “chinks”, “queers” or “spastics”, or personal insults towards other patients or members of staff. In these situations, your professional responsibility to respect your patient’s beliefs would undeniably be outweighed by your professional and personal responsibilities to society. By “challenge”, I don’t mean publicly indicting them as evil or branding them across the forehead with hot irons, I mean simply saying “I don’t think that’s relevant right now“, “I’d rather you didn’t talk about that“, or “I’d appreciate if you kept those opinions to yourself“. The fact remains that prejudice is not seen as acceptable behaviour by society and as such is against the law. The government actively encourages all individuals to challenge discrimination and racist behaviour. The Hippocratic Oath – the rather outdated code of medical morality lazily invoked by my colleagues previously as stating “do no harm” – also states that “I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm“. This implies that you are expected to continue to fulfil your role as a member of society alongside your additional responsibilities as a doctor. The GMC may state that under normal circumstances it is not acceptable to challenge patients’ beliefs – which I absolutely agree with, as it could cause distress and undermine the therapeutic relationship – but I think that in the circumstances described above, it would be inappropriate not to.
  • It is wrong to challenge a racist patient. It is your responsibility as a doctor to instead elicit the ideas, concerns and expectations that lie behind the patient’s beliefs. – I’m not even going to comment on this one as it’s just such complete and utter simpering bollocks.

Duties of a doctor?

Overriding all of these statements was the idea that “a doctor still has a duty to treat a patient, no matter what they say or do“. I disagree with this: the patient most certainly has an inalienable right to receive medical treatment from the health service, but it does not have to be provided by the doctor in question. Unless the situation were an absolute emergency, the patient could be handed over or referred to a different doctor. The GMC indirectly provides guidance for situations like these, as they essentially fulfil the criteria for  ‘conscientious objection’. As long as you “made the care of the patient your first concern” (paragraph 17), and your personal objections to their views did not “prejudice your assessment of their clinical needs, or delay or restrict their access to care” (paragraph 18) during the transfer of the patient to another doctor, you would be acting within the GMC guidance. Personally, I think I would be more than happy to expedite the fulfilment of these two conditions just to get the patient out of my sight.

Whilst the GMC states that it is not normally acceptable to “seek to opt out of treating a particular patient because of your personal beliefs about them” (paragraph 25), I think that in circumstances of extreme discrimination – e.g. a patient hurling racist abuse at an Indian doctor or persistently expressing offensive beliefs despite being asked not to – it would be best for both parties if the patient were moved to someone else’s care. The doctor would be removed from a distressing situation which could affect their emotional wellbeing and ability to care for other patients, and the patient would be removed from the care of a doctor whose anger and resentment engendered by their behaviour could compromise their care. You would have to be an absolute saint – or an emotionally sterile robot – to continue to treat a patient who had been personally abusive towards you or a member of your team without being emotionally compromised in some way. By arranging alternative care, you would actually be trying to do what was best for the patient.

Ultimately, doctors do not sign away their rights to avoid or object to prejudice, discrimination or aggression when they enter a hospital. There is a “no tolerance” policy towards violence against NHS staff, and logically this should extend to cover verbal abuse and prejudice as well. It is everyone’s responsibility to challenge potentially harmful beliefs when we encounter them, whether this occurs on the street, in our own homes or in our professional environment.

By allowing truly hateful and harmful beliefs to go unchallenged, you are passively becoming an apologist for racism, sexism and other forms of abhorrent prejudice. It appears that many of my colleagues are happy to take this standpoint, valuing political correctness and the avoidance of conversational awkwardness over the defence of the dignity and basic rights of their fellow human beings. I, however, most certainly am not.


“Never be a spectator to unfairness or stupidity.”

Christopher Hitchens


To finish, here are some clips of ethnic minorities being absolutely bloody brilliant:

Springs, Scandals and Spending: Events of 2011

1 Jan

“Lest we forget”

I was struck a few months ago by the brevity and transience of human memory: I realised that it was only October, but I’d already essentially forgotten about so many recent events, including the revolution in Egypt, the Rapture that never happened, absurd super injunctions, the phone hacking scandal and the terrifying riots in London.

So, I decided to compile a summary of the events of 2011 for future reference, and while I was doing so it occurred to me that it may prove useful to others in terms of refreshing one’s memory, learning new things, winning arguments and pub quizzes, indulging in nostalgic reminiscence and so on. I hope it serves its purpose or is at least vaguely interesting. This is obviously mainly from a UK perspective but I’ve also tried to include as many global events as possible.

To make it easier to read and prettier to look at, I’ve highlighted some of the major things that have happened this year in different colours, namely: the Arab springs, the Eurozone crisis, the phone hacking scandal, the London riots, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and more recent events in Iran and Russia. A more detailed outline of events surrounding the Arab Spring can be found here.

The United Nations designated 2011 the International Year of Forests and Chemistry.

January 2011

1st – it’s 2011, hooray!

1st – Estonia becomes the seventeenth country to join the Eurozone and adopt the Euro as its currency.

2nd – actor Pete Postlethwaite dies aged 64 from pancreatic cancer.

4th – VAT is increased to 20% in the UK.

7th – former Labour MP David Chaytor is jailed for 18 months for fraudulently claiming over £20,000 in expenses.

7th – the England cricket team win the Ashes 3-1 in Australia.

8th – US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is shot in the head at point-blank range in an assassination attempt in Tucson, Arizona. Thirteen other people are injured in the mass shooting and six others – including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl – are killed. Giffords receives emergency brain surgery and is placed in a medically-induced coma.

9th – Southern Sudan holds a referendum on independence – the electorate votes in favour of the formation of an independent Southern Sudanese state.

11th – almost 1000 people are killed during mudslides and flooding in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

13th – the Australian city of Brisbane suffers widespread flooding, which causes huge amounts of damage and kills at least one citizen. Over 1000 families are taken to evacuation centres. Dozens more are confirmed dead in flash-flooding across the state of Queensland.

14th – ARAB SPRING, TUNISIA: the Tunisian goverment collapses after a month of increasingly violent protests triggered by frustration at denial of basic political freedoms, government corruption and economic failure, and coordinated via social networking sites. After 23 years in power, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia and a coalition government is established. Events in Tunisia provide a spark for protests in other Arab nations, including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Protestors join the Tunisian revolution

21st – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigns his position as David Cameron’s communications director as allegations of corruption and phone hacking begin to intensify.

24th – a suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport kills 37 people and injures almost 200. 20-year-old Magomed Evloyev carried out the attack on behalf of the terrorist group Caucasus Emirate.

25th – ARAB SPRING, EGYPT: inspired by recent events in Tunisia, tens of thousands of people take to the streets across Egypt to protest against police brutality, political corruption and poor living conditions resulting from economic problems.

26th – ARAB SPRING, EGYPT: Egyptian authorities attempt to stop communication between protestors by ordering service providers to shut down all international internet access. This unprecedented “kill switch” activation ultimately failed to hinder the course of the revolution, but caused major economic and logistical complications.

27th – ARAB SPRING, YEMEN: 16,000 people demonstrate in the city of Sana’a, demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The president concedes that he will not seek re-election in 2013. Human rights activist Tawakel Karman calls for a national “Day of Rage” on February 3rd.

February 2011

3rd – ARAB SPRING, YEMEN: 20,000 protestors demonstrate against the government in Sana’a.

9th – the UK’s coalition government finalises Project Merlin; an agreement with four major high street banks designed to encourage lending to small businesses, and limitations and transparency with regard to bankers’ bonuses and executive salaries.

10th – the House of Commons votes 234-22 against allowing prisoners the right to vote.

11th – ARAB SPRING, EGYPT: following 18 days of protests and violent clashes which killed over 800 people across the country, Hosni Mubarak resigns as President of Egypt and transfers political power to the Egyptian armed forces. Despite initial jubilation, mass protests would continue intermittently until July because of the new government’s sluggishness in instituting major reforms.

Celebrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo after Hosni Mubarak's resignation is announced

14th – ARAB SPRING, BAHRAIN: peaceful protests begin in favour of improving political freedom and respect for human rights.

15th – ARAB SPRING, LIBYA: following on from earlier protests about living conditions, anti-government protests start in Libya in response to the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. The opposition rapidly takes control of the city of Benghazi, successfully repelling troops sent to recapture it. Important diplomats start to resign as the situation rapidly escalates into a state of civil war.

17th – ARAB SPRING, BAHRAIN: a police raid on a peaceful protest at Pearl Roundabout in Manama kills three people. This turns protest action against the Sunni monarchy, and demonstrations begin calling for King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to step down.

18th – 43-year-old Maria Topp is arrested in Newcastle after biting off her boyfriend’s testicles during a row. She receives a 12-month suspended sentence for GBH. His testicles are mercifully reattached.

18th – ARAB SPRING, YEMEN: tens of thousands of protestors march on the Presidential Palace in Sana’a, despite attempts by riot police to stop them. Overnight, local government buildings are set alight. Three people are killed by security forces.

22nd – uncertainty over Libyan oil output during the Arab Spring results in a 20% increase in crude oil prices, precipitating the 2011 “energy crisis” and months of global whinging about the cost of petrol.

22nd – ARAB SPRING, BAHRAIN: 100,000 people (one fifth of the population) march to show their loyalty to the martyred protestors.

The March of Loyalty to Martyrs in Bahrain on 22nd February

March 2011

6th – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: Syrian security forces arrest and brutally torture 15 children from the city of Daraa for writing anti-regime slogans. The city soon becomes a focal point for the uprising and subsequent government reprisals.

11th – eastern Japan is struck by a devastating 9.1 magnitude earthquake, which caused a large tsunami. Almost 16000 people are killed and a further 4000 are missing, presumed dead. Several nuclear power plants are damaged in the quake: the Fukushima station goes critical following a cooling system failure and radioactive chemicals are found in the soil and water supply. 300,000 people are displaced from their homes over the following days as a result of damage to their homes and dangerous radiation levels.

A woman sits amidst earthquake debris in Natori, Japan

14thLeslie Collier, the virologist responsible for developing the stable smallpox vaccine used in the WHO’s global eradication programme, dies in London aged 90.

14th – Rebecca Black becomes an object of international scorn after she releases her first single, Friday.

14th – ARAB SPRING, BAHRAIN: at the request of the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabian troops enter Bahrain and open fire on protestors, killing several people. The King later declares a three-month state of emergency which suppresses demonstrations until June 1st. The protest camp at Pearl Roundabout is razed to the ground. Medical staff are arrested and prosecuted for treating injured protestors – an act which apparently directly constitutes an attempt to overthrow the government.

15th – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: thousands of protestors gather in cities across Syria to protest against the ruling Baathist regime. The government’s response is brutal, consisting of security clampdowns and military operations against unarmed civilians.

17th – ARAB SPRING, LIBYA: in response to allegations of government violence against civilians, the United Nations Security Council unanimously votes to create a “no-fly” zone over Libya and endorses “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.

19th – ARAB SPRING, LIBYA: a military offensive consisting of bombing raids against pro-Gaddafi forces is coordinated by France, the UK and the USA. United Nations forces would continue to support the rebels through the next few months of civil war.

23rd – actress Elizabeth Taylor dies from heart failure aged 79.

24th – ARAB SPRING, EGYPT: former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is put under house arrest, awaiting charges of political corruption and complicity in the premeditated murder of hundreds of protestors.

26th – an estimated 400,000 protestors join a union-organised march against budget cuts in London. This initially peaceful protest is later marred by violence and vandalism as a small minority seize the opportunity to cause trouble.

A participant at the anti-cuts protest in March

April 2011

1st – tabloid newspapers the Daily Sport and Sunday Sport go into administration.

3rd – Anne, Britain’s last circus elephant, retires to a life of luxury at Longleat Safari Park after a career spanning over 50 years.

4th – as part of UK welfare reforms, the one and a half million people currently receiving incapacity benefit are asked to attend for a formal work capability assessment.

11th – former Ivorian president Laurent Gdagbo is arrested in his home by pro-Ouattara forces with support from French forces, ending the Ivorian civil war which had started when his party appeared to have rigged the results of the 2010 presidential election.

18th – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: 100,000 protestors gather in the city of Homs to call for the resignation of President Bashar Al-Assad. 

27th – the Office for National Statistics confirms that the UK’s economy has grown by 0.5% so far this year.

29th – Prince William marries Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey. 500,000 well-wishers gather outside Buckingham Palace to see the couple kiss on the balcony, and an estimated 2 billion people worldwide tune in to watch the television coverage. Kate’s younger sister Pippa also becomes a national treasure after showing off her perfect bottom in “that dress”.

The kiss on the balcony

May 2011

2ndOsama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda and orchestrator of multiple terrorist atrocities, is killed by a team of US Navy Seals in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He allegedly attempted to use one of his wives as a human shield before being shot in the head. His body was buried at sea following a Muslim funeral service. Vulgar Americans begin to clamour for photographs of his corpse, which President Obama admirably refuses to release. Suspicions arise about the involvement of Pakistani authorities in supporting the wanted terrorist, and US ties with Pakistan become strained.

Osama bin Laden was killed this year in Pakistan

5thClaude Choules, the world’s last surviving World War I combat veteran, dies aged 110. An Australian naval vessel is due to be commissioned HMAS Choules in his honour.

6th – a referendum of UK voters rejects the Alternative Voting system proposed by the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats  lose seats in the local elections, and the Scottish National Party win an overall majority in the Scottish parliament.

12th – the Queen becomes the second longest-serving British monarch, overtaking George III with her reign of 59 years and 97 days. She still has 4 years to go before she beats Queen Victoria though!

15th – ARAB SPRING, LIBYA: following a three-month siege by loyalists, Libyan rebels finally take the city of Misrata with the help of British, French and Canadian forces.

16th – EUROZONE CRISIS: the European Union agrees to provide a €78 billion bailout loan for Portugal. Portugal is the third EU nation to receive a financial bailout after Greece (which received €110 billion in May 2010) and the Republic of Ireland (which received €85 billion in November 2010).

17th – the Queen pays an official state visit to the Republic of Ireland. It is the first visit by a reigning British monarch since 1911.

21st – fundamentalist minister Harold Camping‘s predictions that the Rapture would sweep the Earth at 6pm rather embarassingly fail to materialise. After complaining that “it’s been a really tough weekend”, Camping quickly comes up with the excuse that he had only foreseen the beginning of a “preliminary phase”, and that the real Rapture would begin on 21st October (yet again, he was wrong). Despite Camping’s repeated errors, his equally idiotic followers remain adamant that he is onto something and that “God’s going to bring it” sometime soon.

Guaranteed Rapturing, or your money back...

22nd – Britain’s 8-year military presence in Iraq formally comes to an end as Royal Navy troops finish training their local Iraqi counterparts. A total of 179 British troops have been killed since Operation Telic – a joint operation with the Americans which aimed to remove Saddam Hussein – began in March 2003.

23rd – an MP uses his parliamentary privilege to reveal that the married footballer using a super injunction to cover up an affair with a reality TV star was in fact Ryan Giggs. Twitter goes wild with civil disobedience, as everyone competes to be the first to break the injunction and indict Giggs as the arsehole he really is. The deeper question of whether the rich and famous should have the right to buy someone’s silence to cover up their wrongdoings remains a troubling and unanswered one.

26th – former Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladić is arrested in Serbia and will stand trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

June 2011

3rd – ARAB SPRING, YEMEN: President Ali Abdullah Saleh is injured in an assassination attempt and evacuated to Saudi Arabia, leaving his Vice President in charge. Protests have been ongoing in his absence.

4th – the Puyehue volcano in Chile erupts, forcing 3000 people to evacuate their homes and sending up an ashcloud that callously ruins holiday plans across the southern hemisphere.

7th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: the owners of the News of the World are forced to pay actress Sienna Miller a settlement of £100,000 for hacking into her mobile phones. This is followed by several other celebrities, including John Prescott and Ryan Giggs, making their own allegations of phone hacking by the newspaper.

10th – Prince Philip celebrates his 90th birthday. His present from the Queen is the office and title of Lord High Admiral of the Navy. Here are some of his most famous gaffes from his many years as consort.

12th – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: thousands of Syrians flee to Turkey when Syrian troops lay siege to the city of Jisr ash-Shugur.

13th – EUROZONE CRISIS: Standard & Poor’s downgrades Greece’s sovereign debt rating to CCC, the lowest in the world.

15th – EUROZONE CRISIS: a general strike against government austerity measures in Greece turns nasty, as protestors clash violently with police in Athens. Ministers begin to defect, reducing Prime Minister George Papandreou’s parliamentary majority to just five.

20th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: 300 emails handed to Scotland Yard allegedly show that ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson (whom David Cameron subsequently hired as his chief media adviser) had authorised payments to several police officers in exchange for information.

21st – EUROZONE CRISIS: the IMF warns European leaders that they must act decisively to resolve the situation in Greece or face disaster.

22nd – EUROZONE CRISIS: Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou narrowly wins a vote of confidence and continues as leader of a reshuffled government. He quickly moves to approve a five-year austerity plan, which pacifies key European powers but triggers further general strike action and violent protests on the streets of Athens.

23rd – Levi Bellfield is convicted of the murder of 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002.

23rdJenyne Butterfly earns a standing ovation for her outstanding show of athleticism at the 2011 Pole Dancing Convention in Miami.


25th – New York becomes the sixth American state to allow same-sex marriages. The state’s Catholic bishops are “deeply disappointed and troubled” by the passing of the bill, but everyone else is very happy about what can only be a positive step forward for a country largely being held back by prejudice and primitive religious ideologies.

30th – hundreds of thousands of UK public sector workers strike over proposed pension reforms.

July 2011

4th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: lawyers representing the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler reveal they have been told by police that Milly’s voicemail had been hacked, possibly by a News of the World investigator. Some of her messages were deleted by the hacker, giving Milly’s family and the police false hope that she was still alive.

5th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: the list of those possibly targeted by phone hackers expands to include the parents of the two girls killed in the Soham murders in 2002, victims of the July 7th bombings in 2005, the family of Madeleine McCann, and the relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

7th – surgeons in Sweden announce the world’s first successful artificial organ transplant. A patient with laryngeal cancer received an artificial windpipe grown in a lab and coated with his own stem cells. The structure took only a few days to create, and as it contains the patient’s own cells there is no need for him to take antirejection drugs.

7th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: News Corp announces that it is shutting down the News of the World, with the July 10th issue being the last.

8th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: Andy Coulson is arrested on suspicion of corruption and conspiring to intercept communications. The News of the World’s ex-royal editor Clive Goodman is also arrested.

9th – South Sudan secedes from Sudan following the independence referendum in January.

10th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: Rupert Murdoch flies to London to handle the crisis personally.

12th –  Colin and Chris Weir scoop the Euro Millions lottery’s biggest ever jackpot of over £161 million. The couple plan to use the money to travel the world and set up their own charity.

Colin and Chris Weir with their record-breaking lottery win

13th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: News Corp withdraws its bid for BSkyB’s Sky News channel. David Cameron appoints Lord Leveson as the head of a public inquiry into the scandal.

14thmoronic Greenpeace activists don Hazmat suits and destroy an entire crop of experimental GM wheat worth $300,000 in Canberra, Australia; claiming the crop posed “serious health, economic and environmental risks”. The wheat had in fact been modified to lower its glycaemic index and increase its fibre content, in order to make it healthier to eat. Research efforts have been set back at least a year.

15th – trials find that HIV treatments can also be used as a preventative measure to reduce transmission rates to uninfected individuals. The effectiveness of this technique in preventing infections may be as high as 96%.

15thHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the last film in the Harry Potter series, is released in cinemas across the world. It breaks several box-office records, including highest grossing opening weekend worldwide ($483,189,427) and highest grossing film of 2011 ($1,328,111,219). It is now the third-highest grossing film of all time. Fans everywhere – this author included – mourn the end of an era and realise it might finally be time to grow up… (or maybe not…)

Blatantly the two best characters in the Harry Potter series

17th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World, is the next high-profile individual to be arrested on suspicion of corruption and phone-hacking. She had resigned as chief executive of News International 2 days previously. News Corp share prices begin to plummet. 

18th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: former News of the World journalist Sean Hoare, who made allegations of phone hacking contributing to the paper’s closure, is found dead in his home. Police say they are treating his death as “unexplained but not suspicious”, yet media hype is catapulted into the stratosphere. An autopsy later rules that he died from natural causes.

19th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks are questioned by parliament’s Culture, Media and Sports committee. All three are grovellingly apologetic. During the proceedings a protestor attempts to attack Rupert Murdoch with a custard pie, but is fought off by his wife Wendi.

Rupert Murdoch is attacked by a protestor with a custard pie

20th – the United Nations declares a state of famine in Somalia.

20th – Goran Hadžić is arrested in Serbia. He is the last of 161 people indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to be brought to trial. His arrest closes a “difficult chapter” of Serbia’s history.

21st – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: James Murdoch is accused of deliberately misleading the parliamentary committee by denying knowledge of widespread hacking activities by reporters.

21st – the space shuttle Atlantis touches down at the Kennedy Space Center, its last flight bringing NASA’s 30-year shuttle programme to an end. NASA’s next big project is a deep space exploration vehicle called Orion, which will be designed to maintain astronauts during longer periods of space travel. Several private companies have also expressed interest in providing space transportation services in the future.

21st – EUROZONE CRISIS: Greece defaults on its debts, and heads of EU states agree that a “controlled failure” is the best way to prevent the collapse of the single currency. Greece receives a second bailout package worth €159 billion which cuts its debts by a quarter. Interest rates on existing loans to Ireland and Portugal are lowered to reduce the risk of other countries defaulting. Concerns arise about the viability of the Eurozone.

22nd – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: the US Justice Department announces plans to subpoena News Corp executives as part of an investigation of claims that News International newspapers hacked the phones of victims of the 9/11 attacks.

22nd – Norway suffers two major terrorist attacks: a bombing  in Oslo’s government district which killed 8 people, and a mass shooting at a political youth camp which killed 69 people, 55 of whom were teenagers. The attacks were orchestrated by Anders Breivik, a militant right-wing extremist who was later diagnosed with florid paranoid schizophrenia by court psychiatrists.

23rd – singer Amy Winehouse dies aged 27 following a 3-day alcohol binge. Russell Brand, who has himself struggled with addiction in the past, posts a moving tribute to the troubled star on his blog.

Amy Winehouse died this year aged 27

31st – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: Syrian army tanks storm several cities, killing at least 136 civilian demonstrators in the bloodiest day of the uprising so far. Clampdowns on the free press make it difficult to guage the extent of the violence over the following months.

August 2011

1st – US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords returns to the floor of the House of Representatives – having survived being shot in the head in January – to cast her vote in favour of increasing the US debt ceiling. Arriving with just minutes to spare and appearing thin and frail, she received an emotional standing ovation from the House.

4th – LONDON RIOTS: 29-year-old drug dealer Mark Duggan is shot dead in Tottenham by police attempting to arrest him, having allegedly fired upon one of the officers.

5th – On the same day as they launch the Juno mission to Jupiter, NASA announces that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found potential evidence of seasonal liquid water on the surface of Mars.

6th – the USA suffers global humiliation as it is stripped of its AAA credit rating by leading credit agency Standard & Poor’s. Their negative outlook on America’s economic future results primarily from concerns about budget deficits and the country’s persistence in increasing its own debt ceiling.

6th – LONDON RIOTS: an initially peaceful protest outside Tottenham police station turns nasty, with rioters attacking police, looting shops and setting cars and buildings alight. 55 people are arrested. Firefighters are threatened by the crowds and 26 police officers are injured.

Classy looters at a Poundland store in Peckham

A Carpet Right store was one of the buildings set alight by rioters

A vandalised police van is towed away after a night of violence

7th – LONDON RIOTS: further disturbances in Brixton, Enfield and Hackney, with reports of violence and arson attacks. 100 more arrests are made.

8th – LONDON RIOTS: rioting spreads across the city and fires are started in Lewisham, Clapham and Croydon. Widespread looting continues and police struggle to cope. Ashraf Haziq, a Malaysian student living in London, is filmed being robbed by a group of youths pretending to help him as he lay bleeding after being violently assaulted. David Cameron graciously decides to cut short his holiday in order to deal with the situation. The unrest also spreads north overnight to affect Nottingham, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol.

9th – LONDON RIOTS: The number of arrests exceeds 500. Volunteers start using social networking sites to coordinate clean-up efforts using the hashtag #riotcleanup. Boris Johnson laps up the chance to be photographed pretending to help in Clapham and is heckled by angry residents. A boarded-up Poundland shop in Peckham becomes an impromptu mural covered with inspirational messages from members of the community. David Cameron orders a massive increase in the police presence in London, which prevents further disturbances. Overnight there is further violence in Manchester, Merseyside, Bristol and Birmingham. Three men protecting a local business in Birmingham are killed when a car deliberately drives straight into them.

Volunteers at a riot cleanup operation in Battersea, south London

Locals read messages on the "wall of love" at the Poundland shop in Peckham

10th – LONDON RIOTS: David Cameron approves contingency plans for the use of water cannons against rioters. The police presence is increased in affected areas nationwide. A candelit vigil is held overnight for the three men killed in Birmingham. The night passes in relative calm.

11th – LONDON RIOTS: Parliament is recalled and MPs hold an emergency debate on the disturbances. David Cameron condemns the “criminality” of the rioters. Opposition leader Ed Miliband calls for the government to rethink its cuts in police spending. Over 1000 arrests have now been made following police use of CCTV images to identify rioters. Another quiet night heralds the end of a week of violence and destruction which left 5 people dead.

20th – Red Arrows pilot Jon Egging is tragically killed when his plane crashes during a display at the Bournemouth Air Festival. He delayed ejecting from the plane whilst he fought to steer it away from a nearby village. His widow Emma sets up the Jon Egging Trust to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

20thKim Kardashian marries NBA player Kris Humphries following a three-month engagement. 5 million people tuned in to watch the “Kim’s Fairytale Wedding” TV special. The couple made almost $18 million from interviews and the sale of exclusive rights to the wedding.

28th – ARAB SPRING, LIBYA: after a week-long battle, rebel forces in Libya take control of the capital city Tripoli and symbolically overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Fierce fighting continues in other areas, including Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte.

September 2011

5th – India and Bangladesh sign a pact which ends their 40-year border demarcation dispute.

10th – a ferry carrying 800 people sinks off the coast of Zanzibar. 240 people are confirmed dead.

11th – the USA marks the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed almost 3000 civilians. A five-hour reading of all the victims’ names takes place at Ground Zero, where a memorial has just been opened. Records show that over 6200 US military personnel have been killed in the ensuing conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.

9/11 memorial at Milton High School in Georgia

9/11 memorial at Milton High School in Georgia

12th – over 100 people are killed by a petrol pipeline explosion in Nairobi, Kenya.

14th – UK unemployment reaches 2.51 million.

15th – the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act requires general elections to take place at fixed five-year intervals, removing the Prime Minister’s prerogative to select a convenient date.

16th – four miners are killed by a large flood at Gleision Colliery in Wales.

17th – OCCUPY WALL STREET: the first protest by the Occupy Wall Street group begins in downtown Manhattan. About 1000 people marched up and down Wall Street before setting up camp in Zuccotti Park a couple of blocks away. The movement aims to stand opposed to corporate greed and the unfair accumulation of wealth by the “super-rich” 1% of the population.

19th – extreme flooding in the Sindh region of Pakistan kills hundreds of people. The United Nations launches a $357 million appeal to help victims of a disaster believed by aid agencies to have been more devastating than the 2004 tsunami.

20th – well-wishers raise a total of over £23,000 to “do something nice” for Ashraf Haziq, the Malaysian student filmed being callously robbed after being injured during the London riots. He has set aside some of the money to help other riot victims.

20th – the UK’s first filling station for hydrogen cars opens in Swindon.

21st – an energy company announces that they have found large quantities of controversial “shale” gas beneath Lancashire.

23rd – Dario Auterio, a physicist leading the Opera research group in France, reports findings of neutrino particles travelling faster than the speed of light. These findings are met with a great deal of excitement and skepticism, as they go directly against Einstein’s theory of relativity.

24th – a new cancer treatment called radium-223 chloride is so successful that medical trials are stopped early to allow all patients to receive it. The therapy uses targeted doses of alpha-radiation to treat prostate cancer which has spread to bones.

24th – OCCUPY WALL STREET: 80 people are arrested by police during a protest march in New York. The use of pepper spray by the police gets the movement some much-needed media coverage. Similar protests begin in Chicago, and the group starts to gain the support of celebrities and trade unions.

29th – the Department of Transport announces it is considering raising the speed limits on Britain’s motorways to 8omph.

October 2011

1st – a new record is set for the hottest day in October, at 29.9°C.

1st – OCCUPY WALL STREET: 700 protestors are arrested in New York during a march across Brooklyn Bridge. This catapults the movement onto the front pages: further OWS marches in New York are attended by tens of thousands of people, and copycat protests spring up across America in the following weeks.

4th – 100 people are killed by a car bomb attack in the Somalian capital Mogadishu.

5th – Apple founder and visionary Steve Jobs dies from complications of pancreatic cancer aged 56.

Apple founder Steve Jobs died this year aged 56

5th – work begins on the world’s largest solar bridge at Blackfriars Station in London. The project consists of 6000 square metres of solar panels on the station’s roof, which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 511 tonnes every year.

6th – over 500 people are confirmed dead across Thailand and Cambodia after the worst flash flooding for decades.

7th – this year’s Nobel Laureates are announced. Chemistry: Israeli researcher Dan Shechtman for his discovery of quasicrystal structures. Physics: Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess for proving that the universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating rate and therefore confirming its inevitable doom. Medicine: Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffmann and Ralph Steinman (sadly posthumous) for discoveries which revolutionised scientific understanding of the innate and adaptive immune systems. Literature: Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Economics: Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims for their work on cause and effect. Peace: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman (involved in the Arab Spring in Yemen) for efforts to promote women’s rights and safety.

8th – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: 50,000 people gather in al-Qamishli to mourn the death of Kurdish rights activist Mishaal al-Tammo, who had been assassinated by the Syrian government the day before. Security forces fire on the crowds, killing at least 14 people.

10th – 90s pop group Steps officially announce their reunion, along with plans for a greatest hits “Ultimate Collection” and an eighteen-date arena tour in 2012.

14th – UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox resigns following a week of controversy about whether he broke the ministerial code during his professional dealings with friend and “adviser” Adam Werritty.

16th – ridiculously cool science that might as well be magic is shared with the world in the form of quantum levitation:


20th – ARAB SPRING, LIBYA: Libyan rebels, supported by NATO forces, finally take control of Muammar Gaddafi’s last stronghold in the city of Sirte. Gaddafi is found hiding in a drainpipe and taken prisoner, but is killed in the crossfire during a skirmish with his own supporters. After eight months of fighting, the civil war is over and the victorious National Transitional Council can start to build a democratic Libya.

21st – clinical trials of a malaria vaccine show promising results, cutting infection rates in half when given to children in several African countries.

21st – after 70 years in showbusiness, 83-year-old TV presenter and all-round legend Bruce Forsyth receives a knighthood for a lifetime of service to entertainment. The Queen is gobsmacked to hear that he’s been in his job longer than she’s been in hers.

Sir Bruce Forsyth with his CBE outside Buckingham Palace

21stOccupy London protestors, inspired by protest action in America and angered by “corporate greed”, set up camp outside St Paul’s, forcing the cathedral to close its doors to the public.

21st – despite monumental efforts by protest groups to stop Andrew Lansley’s controversial and ill-informed NHS reforms from being passed, the House of Lords approves the Health and Social Care Bill and votes against carrying out any special scrutiny of its financial implications. Many important organisations, including the British Medical Assocation, express their concerns about the reforms, which aim to increase the role of GPs in commissioning healthcare and open up NHS service provision to the private sector.

23rd – a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake strikes eastern Turkey, killing 582 people and injuring thousands. Rescue efforts continue for several days as emergency services attempt to save people trapped in the rubble of hundreds of collapsed buildings.

25th – ARAB SPRING, LIBYA: after being viewed by hundreds of onlookers in an old meat store, Muammar Gaddafi’s body is buried in a secret location deep in the Sahara desert.

27th – EUROZONE CRISIS: following an emergency meeting, the European Union announces plans to tackle the debt crisis including a 50% write-off of Greek bonds, recapitalisation of European banks and quadrupling the available bailout fund to €1 trillion.

27th – police prepare to forcibly remove demonstrators from outside St Paul’s. Canon Giles Fraser resigns, stating that he cannot condone the use of violence against peaceful protestors. The camp was closed down by police that night, but soon re-established itself.

28th – Vincent Tabak receives a life sentence for the murder of Joanna Yeates, whose strangled body was found in Somerset on Christmas day last year.

29thSir Jimmy Savile dies from pneumonia aged 84.

31st – global population reaches 7 billion. See where you fit in here.

31st – Kim Kardashian initiates divorce proceedings against Kris Humphries after just 72 days of marriage, citing irreconcilable differences and later accusing Humphries of being gay. Interestingly, her $18 million profits from the wedding meant she earned $10,358 per hour of her marriage. #ThingsLongerThanKimsMarriage was the top-trending hashtag on Twitter within hours.

31st – EUROZONE CRISIS: George Papandreou announces his intention to put the Eurozone’s decisions about managing the Greek economic crisis to a public referendum, causing widespread dismay across Europe.

November 2011

2nd – rumours abound that Kate Middleton could be pregnant after she declines to try a sample of UNICEF peanut butter during a state visit, and is seen “touching her stomach a lot”.

3rd – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: the Syrian government accepts a peace plan from the League of Arab Nations to halt its violent crackdowns. The ceasefire rapidly breaks down, and the government continues its violent suppression of protests and abduction and torture of civilians.

3rd – EUROZONE CRISIS: George Papandreou abandons plans for a referendum regarding recent EU decisions. Other member states admit for the first time that the only way to save the single currency might be for Greece to leave the Eurozone and reinstitute the drachma as currency – an idea which promotes panic within the Greek parliament.

4th – a horrific motorway pile-up involving 34 vehicles on the M5 in Somerset kills 7 people and injures 51 others. It is described as the worst UK traffic accident in 20 years. Wet conditions and smoke from a nearby bonfire were believed to have precipitated the crash.

6th – EUROZONE CRISIS: Greek Prime Minister Papandreou resigns. He is succeeded by economist Lucas Papademos, who soon gets to work with radical budget changes in order to satisfy EU targets for 2012.

8th – a second Red Arrows pilot, Sean Cunningham, is killed in a freak accident at RAF Scampton. His plane was still on the runway when his ejector seat went off, catapulting him almost 200 feet into the air before he plunged back to earth.

11th – Remembrance Sunday. The Royal British Legion reports record poppy sales of 42 million this year – 4 million more than the average number, and 2 million more than in 2010.

The Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday

13th – EUROZONE CRISIS: in the midst of a national debt crisis, Silvio Berlusconi finally loses his parliamentary majority after spending 17 years allegedly running the country, and resigns as Italy’s prime minister. The Italian government approve an austerity package designed to produce €60bn in savings by 2014.

14th – trials report that alemtuzumab, a new antibody-based treatment for multiple sclerosis, cuts relapse rates in half when compared with conventional beta-interferon treatment. It should be available to patients in the UK next year.

14th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: a public inquiry led by Lord Leveson begins investigating newspaper practices. Over the coming weeks prominent public figures – including JK Rowling, Hugh Grant, Alastair Campbell and the parents of Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann – will give evidence to the inquiry, alongside representatives of News International and the News of the World.

15th – OCCUPY WALL STREET: police begin to evict protestors from the camp in Zuccotti Park, arresting those who refuse to leave. Retaliatory protests and occupations over the following week result in hundreds more arrests (with the liberal use of pepper spray and brute force by police). Activists remain optimistic, stating that “you can’t evict an idea whose time has come”.

16th – UK unemployment tops 2.6 million, with 1 million young adults currently jobless.

16th – scientists report that they have found strong evidence of the presence of water beneath the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons.

18th – a repeat experiment by the Opera research group again finds that neutrinos appear to be travelling faster than the speed of light. While scientists are still skeptical of the findings, the research is now accepted for publication in the Journal of High Energy Physics. The world must now wait to see if this turns out to be a groundbreaking discovery or a mathematical mistake.

19th – ARAB SPRING, LIBYA: Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam is captured trying to flee to Niger, having paid a group of nomads €1 million to lead him through the desert. He is now awaiting trial.

22nd – cancer charity Macmillan announces that overall median cancer survival has risen from 12 months in 1970 to 6 years in 2010. Despite overall improvements, the data analysis also revealed a “woeful lack of progress” for some tumours, including lung, stomach and brain cancers.

25th – an ostracised ginger seal is found huddling under a pile of logs in far-eastern Russia. Nafanya, who is almost blind, was rehomed in a state-of-the-art aquarium facility, where she is making friends and has become a popular attraction.

Nafanya, the lonely ginger seal who has now found a home

Interestingly, a two-headed siamese tortoise (called Magda-Lenka) with two heads and five legs was also born in Slovakia this month:

Madgalenka, the siamese tortoise

27th – 42-year-old Welsh footballer and manager Gary Speed is found dead at his home, having apparently committed suicide.

27th – IRAN: Iranian officials vote to downgrade diplomatic relations with the UK, following the implementation of UK-imposed sanctions on Iranian banks. The situation stems from increasing international tension over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

28th – film director Ken Russell dies aged 84 following a stroke.

29th – Emma West is arrested for a public order offence after a video posted on YouTube shows her shouting racist abuse at other passengers on a busy train with her young son sitting in her lap. She is later remanded in custody “for her own safety”.

29ththis happens. *sigh*

30th – UK public sector workers stage a nationwide strike in protest against pension reforms. David Cameron describes the walkout as a “damp squib”. Jeremy Clarkson gets in trouble for joking that strikers should be “shot”.

30th – Dr Conrad Murray is sentenced to 4 years in prison for the involuntary manslaughter of his patient Michael Jackson.

30th – IRAN: Britain expels all Iranian diplomats after an attack by officially sanctioned protestors on the British embassy in Tehran. The Iranian authorities are quick to follow suit and expel British ambassadors from their country. Relations are now at their worst since Iran issued a fatwa for the death of Salman Rushdie in 1989.

December 2011

1st – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: the United Nations believe the death toll to be in excess of 4000 people, and declare the conflict to be  slipping towards “full-fledged civil war”.

1st – IRAN: the EU increases financial sanctions against Iran. The prospect of an oil embargo is discussed.

5th– the Kepler team confirms the discovery of an Earth-like planet about 600 light-years away, which they have imaginatively named Kepler-22b. It orbits the star Kepler-22 in the constellation Cygnus. It has an estimated surface temparature of 22°C and takes 290 days to orbit its sun. This is one of over 1000 potential candidate planets for extraterrestrial life identified by the team since 2009.

5th – IRAN: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are ordered to be ready for war. A series of mysterious explosions at testing facilities over recent months has put the country on high alert for military actions against their nuclear infrastructure, particularly from Israel and the USA. Diplomats stress the need to seek a non-violent resolution.

9th – having failed to secure concessions to protect British interests, David Cameron uses his veto to block an EU treaty designed by France and Germany to stabilise the Eurozone and the single currency. The negotiations carry on regardless, without Cameron’s influence, and the backlash to Cameron’s actions threatens to wreck foreign policy and leave Britain diplomatically isolated. A lot of people in parliament are rather cross, but opinion polls show that the public approves of Cameron’s actions.

10th – RUSSIA: tens of thousands of people protest against legislative and electoral processes in the Russian capital of Moscow, following allegations of electoral fraud. Thousands more become involved in smaller protests in other cities across the country. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin later expresses his contempt for protestors, claiming they had been paid to attend.

Protestor in Moscow on 10th December. His sign says: "I did not vote for these bastards, I voted for the other bastards! I want votes recounted".

11th – girl group Little Mix win the X Factor. The song they’ve chosen to butcher this year in an attempt to get the Christmas Number 1 is Cannonball by Damien Rice.

13th – PHONE HACKING SCANDAL: James Murdoch denies reading crucial emails sent to him in 2008 which described how phone hacking was “rife” at the News of the World and throughout News International. He did, interestingly, manage to reply to the emails in question even though he apparently hadn’t read them.

13th – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: UN human rights officials believe the death toll from the Syrian uprising to have exceeded 5000 people, and suggest that the country’s government be referred to the International Criminal Court, as its actions amount to crimes against humanity.

15th – author, orator, journalist and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens dies from complications of oesophageal cancer aged 62, after a “long argument… with the spectre of death”. The hashtag #GodIsNotGreat (the title of one of Hitchens’ books about religion) is all over Twitter within hours as fans post tributes to his memory, but the website remove it from the list of top “trending” topics following threats of violence from Christian users. Below is a video of the man himself dealing out one of his notorious “Hitch-slaps” in a debate about the Catholic Church:


17th – North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il dies of a heart attack in Pyongyang aged 69, after 26 years as leader of the most totalitarian state on the planet. His son Kim Jong-un, who is in his late 20s, is expected to take his place as leader. There are concerns about the stability of the country during the transition of power, and South Korea remains on high alert.

17thHarry Judd (the drummer in the boy band McFly) beats actress Chelsee Healey to win Strictly Come Dancing.

18th – the last convoy of American troops withdraws from Iraq, ending almost 9 years of conflict which toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and established a fragile democracy in its place. Almost 4,500 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003.

22nd – following weeks of speculation about whether they had found the Higgs boson, CERN announces the discovery of the Large Hadron Collider’s first new particle. It is called Chi_b (3P), a “quarkonium” consisting of a beauty quark and a beauty anti-quark bound together by the strong nuclear force. Hopes are high that CERN will track down the elusive Higgs boson in the next few years, and finally complete the Standard Model of physics by explaining why things have mass.

23rd – Prince Philip, who celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year, is admitted to hospital for a coronary artery stenting procedure after suffering chest pains at Sandringham.

23rdtwo strong earthquakes measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale strike the New Zealand city of Christchurch, thankfully causing only minor injuries and damage this time.

23rd – ARAB SPRING, SYRIA: following weeks of escalating protests and violence, two suicide bomb attacks are carried out in the capital city Damascus. The Syrian government are quick to blame al-Qaeda, but the opposition believe the government orchestrated the attacks in order to turn the opinions of visiting Arab League members against the cause of the protestors.

24th – RUSSIA: another large rally for “fair elections” takes place in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin is very dismissive of the protest and its aims, and blames US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for prompting the protests by criticising the way elections were carried out.

24th – ARAB SPRING, YEMEN: following months of demonstrations and civil unrest, a group of loyalists and elite troops fires on a demonstration march in Sana’a, killing at least 9 people. This is only one example of the regime’s heavy-handed response to protests since the uprising began in January.

25th – it’s Christmas, hooray! Electronic items like Kindles, iPads, iPhones, Blackberries, laptops and games consoles appear to have been the most popular gifts given this year (this author, however, received a stack of these lovely papery things called “books” and couldn’t be happier). The Military Wives take the Christmas Number 1 spot with their song “Wherever You Are”, selling over half a million copies in the week before Christmas; more than the rest of the top 12 combined! Proceeds from the single are being donated to the Royal British Legion and the SSAFA. Here’s some AKB48 to celebrate:

Paul Toole's £20,000 Christmas lights display at his home in Somerset

26th – Cuba announces that it is extending free market reforms to boost private enterprise. President Raul Castro stresses that the measures are designed to “update rather than replace” the socialist model.

26th – Gillingham FC player Chris Whelpdale manages to “split his scrotum open” during a match against Crawley Town. The injury  apparently required 5 stitches.

27th – a train carrying a cargo of copper concentrate is derailed in Australia’s Northern Territory, after Cyclone Grant causes flash floods which damage the railway line. Concerns are raised about whether the toxic chemical cargo has spilled into the river.

27th – ultra-orthodox Haredim Jews clash with police in the Israeli town of Beit-Shemesh, following months of tension over their demands for the total segregation of the sexes in the town. The  extremely brave and mature tactics of the extremist group have so far included shouting at young girls on their way to school (spitting at them and calling them “whores”), putting up street signs, setting rubbish bins on fire and forcing women to sit at the backs of buses under threats of violence. Everyone is slightly mystified at how extremist members of a cultural group which has been so crippled by prejudice and oppression throughout most of its history can behave so appallingly towards others, especially their fellow Jews.

27th – Prince Philip is allowed home after spending 4 days in hospital recovering from a heart procedure. He had apparently been “itching to get home” as he didn’t want to miss the festivities at Sandringham.

28th – the meticulously choreographed funeral of Kim Jong-il begins in North Korea with a three-hour funeral procession carrying his body through the icy streets of Pyongyang. Tens of thousands of citizens brave the freezing temperatures to pay their respects. Kim Jong-il’s youngest son Kim Jong-un is confirmed as “the Great Successor” to his father’s position as leader.

Kim Jong-il's funeral procession in North Korea, complete with possibly the world's most enormous framed photograph

29th – RUSSIA: further peaceful protest action takes place in Moscow, this time focussing on the imprisonment of opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov with no hope of appeal. Udaltsov is currently on a hunger strike to protest against his sentence, and has to be taken to hospital periodically to receive fluids through a drip. 

29th – the lovely Dawn Porter announces her engagement to the equally lovely Irish actor Chris O’Dowd. He proposed at Havelet Bay in Guernsey on Boxing Day. The couple made the engagement public on Twitter; Dawn stated “I guess he liked it, coz he put a ring on it.”

30th – the Met office discloses that 2011 has been the second warmest year on record, with an average temperature of 9.62°C. 2006 remains the warmest year on record, with average temperatures of 9.73°C.

30th – comedian Russell Brand files divorce papers to end his 14-month marriage to singer Katy Perry. The couple cited irreconcilable differences – rumours have it that Brand, who has overcome problems with drugs and alcohol in the past, disapproved of Perry’s all-night partying.

31st – massive parties across the globe gather to celebrate the incessant and inevitable passage of time as 2011 becomes 2012. Here are some pretty fireworks (there are more here if you’re interested):

Fireworks celebrate the start of 2012 in Sydney, Australia

Fireworks light up Taiwan's Taipei 101 skyscraper

In case you’re in need of some comic relief after all the doom and gloom that’s happened this year, here is a compilation of mankind’s more spectacular and hilarious failures from the year 2011:


Things to look forward to in 2012

  • Unrest in Syria and several other Arab nations is likely to escalate further.
  • Films: The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, World War Z and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter are some highly anticipated releases.
  • The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – marking the 60th year of her reign – occurs officially on February 6th and will be celebrated during a long weekend from 2nd-5th June.
  • The London 2012 Olympics last from July 27th to August 12th.
  • The Curiosity rover will land on Mars at some time in August.
  • University students starting their courses in September will be the first to have to pay new, higher tuition fees (up to £9000 per year).
  • The USA will hold a presidential election on November 6th: Barack Obama has announced his intention to seek re-election.
  • According to misinterpreters of the Mayan Calendar, the world will end on December 21st.

To close

On finishing this epic task of cataloguing the events of an entire year, I’ve realised that whilst on the surface 2011 may have appeared to be a totally shit year with half the world falling to pieces and the loss of so many brilliant minds, if you look a little closer you realise that within the stories of horror and disaster, there are stories of hope, courage and humanity. The clean-up efforts after the London Riots, the huge surge of charitable giving to support others following terrible natural disasters, the efforts of the peoples of entire Arab nations to peacefully claim their own rights to freedom, liberty and democracy in the face of overwhelming oppression, the fact that the X Factor winners didn’t get to be Christmas Number 1 – all of these stir within me a feeling that all is not lost for the human race just yet…

Happy New Year everyone, may your years ahead be full of happiness and success 🙂

Remember: be nice to people. It helps.


3 Dec

To my great satisfaction, I was one of the lucky few final years who managed to bag a rural GP placement. Mine was in Allendale, a little town just beyond Hexham in the wonderful Northumberland countryside. Having hated every minute of my third year GP placement and become absolutely adamant that general practice was the most unrewarding career choice I could possibly make, I really didn’t hold high hopes for my enjoyment of the upcoming three weeks. However, I was initially pleasantly surprised by a lovely evening drive through the countryside and the fact that I had my own very cosy little holiday cottage to stay in, complete with central heating and stunning valley views, courtesy of the medical school! I counted myself quite lucky in this respect, as some houses in the area have neither electricity nor running water, and knowing the medical school they would probably have loved to put me in one of those.

The (very bumpy and gravelly) road to the cottage

I was even more pleasantly surprised on the drive in for my first day, when I noted that Allendale had a bank, a post office, a Co-op and just the right number of pubs (i.e. rather more than are really necessary). I had been under the impression that it was a really small village like the one I’m from – Misson in South Yorkshire – which has only two pubs and an (admittedly very high quality) cash and carry. The surgery was a small building next to the school, and everyone was extremely helpful in showing me where things were and how the computers worked. There were two GPs, one full-time and one part-time, both of whom were wonderful, caring and extremely competent doctors who knew their patients well and actually seemed to care what happened to them – a breath of fresh air after my third year placement! The practice also had a complement of other healthcare workers including a practice nurse, district nurses, HCAs, health visitors, physiotherapy, community midwifery, podiatry, a dietician and a CPN, all of whom were totally fabulous and helped make my placement engaging and enjoyable.

I had a brilliant time: I was encouraged to get involved as much as possible, and for the last two weeks I had my own clinics with my own patients. I diagnosed several cases of anxiety and depression, some slipped discs, a hernia and various minor joint issues; dealt with a few newly diagnosed hypertensives; spotted a first presentation of Parkinson’s disease in a lady presenting with leg weakness; sent a guy to hospital after he had a TIA; reassured the worried well; gave copious amounts of contraceptive advice; showed a whole primary school class around the surgery; learned when and how to prescribe; wrote referral letters; and gained a much greater understanding of the potential impact of the upcoming NHS reforms (it’s scary how little anyone – even the people in charge of the money who are meant to be designing the new funding system – knows about what’s going on). Not once during my placement did a patient come in demanding antibiotics (or any other kind of treatment) or trying to wheedle a sick note or benefit form out of the doctor. I now see general practice as a potential career choice – especially in the setting of a lovely little village – although I definitely still want to work in a hospital specialty at the moment!

Anyway, enough waffling about how lovely my GP placement was, the main point of this post was to share some of the cool pictures I took of the scenery while I was there. The landscapes were beautiful and looked amazing in the October heatwave sunshine! The sunset at the bottom is my favourite though, it looked like the whole sky was on fire when it was happening. Most of these are panoramas again, so you can click to enlarge them to see things in better detail. Like the last lot these were taken on my Nikon Coolpix S3100.

View from the bottom of the garden - I ballsed this one up a bit but you get the idea of how pretty it was!

Hills in the sunshine

Dramatic sky and dark green fields

A field of fluffy silver thistles

The workload was tough in rural GP land...

This is what you see if you lie on the grass in the evening and look at the sky

Amazing fiery sunset over the valley (click to enlarge)

Hope you all liked the pictures – I have a couple more posts in the pipeline so hopefully it won’t be another two months before I post again!

Playing with Panoramas

1 Oct

Having finally been forced to sort through my many hundreds of photos from Australia in order to work out what to submit for the photograph competition, I’ve had a chance to play with some of the exciting panorama software I got free with my camera. Here are the results: I thought they were quite pretty.

You can click on the images to enlarge them.

Natural Bridge

The stunning Natural Bridge in Springbrook National Park

This is the one I submitted for the photo competition. The amazingness of my relatively cheap digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix S3100 if anyone’s interested) still hasn’t quite sunk in! I think if it had been a sunny day, this picture would have been total perfection.

“Best of All” Lookout

View from the "Best of All" Lookout on the border with New South Wales

This is the view across the border into New South Wales – you can see Mount Warning on the right. I’m very pleased with this as it’s captured the ruggedness of the landscape and the speckly-yellow of the fields very nicely.

Twin Falls Lookout

View from the Twin Falls lookout - the climb was so worth it!

I think this one is my favourite, mainly because it involves the most pictures being successfully stitched together (5). This was the view from the Twin Falls lookout at the end of our fairly long climb up the mountainside after visiting the waterfalls at the bottom. It just goes to show that the climb in the fairly uncomfortable early afternoon heat was definitely worth it! If it was possible to zoom in sufficiently on this photograph, you’d realise that we could see all the way back to Surfer’s Paradise and the ocean beyond from this high up, which I thought was pretty impressive. As you can see, John (on the right) was equally amazed by this fact!


These last two are both from Sydney: one in the daytime and one in the night-time.

View from Sydney Harbour Bridge (shame about the lack of sunshine!)

This is the view of the Opera House, the CBD and Circular Quay from the middle of the Harbour Bridge. I was rather annoyed that it had been a sunny day until about five minutes before I took this! Sydney definitely remains lovely nonetheless 🙂

Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House from Circular Quay

This one was taken from somewhere along Circular Quay after sunset. I think the software has slightly altered the distances and angles between the bridge and the Opera House, so this isn’t an entirely accurate photographic replica of the scene, but I still like it!

I’m actually quite proud of these pictures considering they were my first attempts at what could be labelled as “professional” style photography – it just goes to show that you don’t need an SLR and thousands of pounds worth of lens equipment to make decent panoramic photographs!

Elective reflections (electing to reflect?!)

28 Aug

Thoughts on my elective experience: how I have “grown as a person”, “broadened my horizons” and all that other rubbish.


  • ingratiating myself in Australian culture: as far as I’ve been able to tell this mainly involves getting drunk, eating plenty of animal flesh, watching sports, being enviably laid back and apathetic as well as casually racist/sexist, and trying to act like an American whilst secretly acknowledging that you’re actually English (basically just being Richard)
  • managing not to adopt an Australian accent. Well, apart from starting to pronounce my “t”s as “d”s, and developing a definite upward inflection at the end of my sentences, which are both habits I fear will take a while to shift!
  • discovering the amazingness of: Jethro Tull, King Crimson, South Park, fatty belly tuna, soft shell crab, tangelos, lamingtons, Tim Tams, Wagyu beef, cleanskin wines, bubble tea, Nespresso coffee machines, homemade beer, Rugby League, memory foam mattresses, little Staffie dogs, bushwalking, sake, plum wine, other Japanese drinks that I forget the names of, and Queensland and the Gold Coast in general.
  • realising we should be grateful in England that we have: seasons and kinds of weather other than constant sunshine (especially snow), gloriously long summer evenings, lots of water, a lack of deadly wild animals, more than a handful of buildings over 100 years old, a culture built upon centuries rather than decades, a decent public transport network, a road system that makes logical sense, enough pavements, a relatively non-obscene amount of adverts on TV, very few tedious infomercials, decent beers and ciders that are readily available at a reasonable price, a huge variety of interesting cheeses, butter that doesn’t taste rancid, the ability to easily buy pretty much anything on the internet, much fewer Japanese tourists, a national personality based on timidity and politeness rather than brashness and bluntness, Waterstone’s, an appropriate level of political apathy, and our legendary sense of humour.

New Zealand

  • I have learned not to go to New Zealand.
  • I have learned to give New Zealand a second chance. At some point in the future. Maybe.

Purgatory (our new name for New Zealand)

28 Aug

OK, so I’m finally feeling emotionally prepared enough to write my final elective blog, covering the total failure of our holiday to New Zealand.

14th-17th August – Christchurch

On Sunday the 14th of August, myself and Dave headed to Sydney airport bright and early to catch our flight to Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand. The plan was to spend a night in Christchurch then pick up our campervan  for an epic two-week road trip up to Auckland, where we would catch our flight home.

Our planned route around New Zealand (click to enlarge)

We were extremely excited about this trip and had spent weeks sorting out where to go and what to do. It had been planned in minute detail and we had paid for everything in advance (except petrol and food) to ensure minimal hassle while we were there. Suffice to say we were really looking forward to getting started on our post-elective adventure.

I spent a good half hour buying pretty pictures from a shop at the airport (Dave once again became frustrated with how long it takes me to choose things) before getting on the plane. To pass the time I watched Black Swan which was THE BEST FILM I have seen in a very long time (you should all watch it, preferably immediately). Anyway, after a couple of hours we began to notice spectacular aerial views of New Zealand appearing out of our window – it all looked very pretty and Lord of the Ringsy, and added a great deal to our excitement:

New Zealand from the sky - looking good so far...

The pilot mentioned the possibility of snow in Christchurch just before we landed, but the implications of this didn’t really sink in at the time as we were too excited about arriving in a brand new country. We got through the excessively strict New Zealand customs without any problems and escaped into the bracing icy cold of a Christchurch winter evening, which was strangely pleasant after two months of incessant warmth. We caught the shuttle bus to Canterbury House hostel in town, which was a lovely little place with very friendly owners: a couple called Alan and Keiko. The drive to the hostel was a bit depressing and/or scary as we saw a large number of buildings that had either collapsed or been severely damaged by the earthquakes in February: it made me feel lucky to live in dear old England with its exceptionally low rates of natural disasters. Anyway, after a trip to the shop and a feast of baked beans and macaroni cheese, we went to bed.

Unfortunately, when we woke up the next morning Christchurch – and most of the South Island, and a large proportion of the North Island – looked like this:

Christchurch in the snow

Christchurch in the snow

Turns out the potential for a “bit of snow” mentioned by the pilot on our flight was in fact a horrendous polar blast the likes of which hadn’t been seen for at least 40 years. Our flight from Sydney the previous evening had been one of the last ones to be allowed to land before the airport was closed. There had been about a foot of snow overnight, and there was absolutely no chance of picking up the campervan as the roads were impassable and none of the people at the campervan company could actually get to work to give us the keys!

We reluctantly booked another night in the hostel and went on a trip to the supermarket to obtain foods. The supermarket was a good 20 minute walk from the hostel, and on the way we saw a few other examples of the earthquake’s legacy; including more wrecked houses and churches, Portaloos lining residential streets because the sewerage systems had been destroyed, huge numbers of blocked drains and lots of bumps and cracks in the road. There were ridiculous piles of snow everywhere from the clearing of car parks and main roads:

Stupid amounts of snow

At the shop we bought some New Zealand lamb (which definitely lived up to its reputation) and some sweeties to cheer ourselves up, and waded back through the snow to the hostel, where we hunkered down under many blankets with our books and waited to see what tomorrow would bring.

Unfortunately, the next day brought news of another 8 inches of snow and even more chaos on the roads. The supermarkets were having trouble getting deliveries of a few basic supplies; as usual this had been massively hyped up by the news channels and as a result people were starting to panic buy things. A call to the campervan company unsurprisingly revealed that it still wasn’t feasible to pick up the van, so we were stuck in Christchurch for another day and were obliged to book another night in the hostel.

We went to the shop again in an attempt to get more food and also stop ourselves from going completely insane in the hostel. By this point we were starting to get a bit fed up. OK, truth be told we were totally miserable. However, one thing that did cheer us up on the way to the shops was this excellent letterbox sign:

I am getting one of these for my front door

There was bugger all to do in Christchurch as everything was either closed or inaccessible (due to the snow) or gone (due to the earthquake). The rest of the South Island looked just as bad in terms of snow disruption, unless you had come for a skiing holiday, in which case it was an excellent result. We settled ourselves in the hostel for another day spent wrapped up in blankets reading and napping to pass the time, and tried not to get any more upset about things.

The next day there had been no more snow (hooray!) but it had started to rain, which due to the freezing temperatures was resulting in massive amounts of ice on the roads alongside the piles of as yet unmelted snow. The campervan lady still wasn’t too keen on us picking up the van in these conditions – and neither was I, seen as I’ve never driven anything bigger than a Vauxhall Corsa and would have no clue how to handle a campervan in the snow – so we decided just to cancel everything and try to get home somehow rather than carry on flogging what was essentially a dead holiday in such an undignified and depressing manner.

17th-18th August – getting home

We arrived at Christchurch Airport (which was at least open and operating, thank Christ) in the late morning ready to get down on our knees and BEG for a flight out of there. Thankfully this wasn’t necessary as Air New Zealand operate an excellent standby fares service, so within the hour we found ourselves on a flight to Auckland having spent less than 30 quid.

Once in Auckland we prepared ourselves for round two of begging, this time for the chance to change our flights to Heathrow to the soonest possible alternatives. However, once again we were pleasantly surprised, as the lovely man at the Air New Zealand desk had a quick look at his computer and said, “Yeah, sure, you can go tonight if you want?” I was pretty amazed at our luck, and even more amazed that we didn’t have to pay anything to change our tickets! Ah, the joys of opportune coincidence 🙂

And so began our 9-hour wait at Auckland Aiport for our flights home. We cheered ourselves up by spending all our remaining New Zealand dollars on things of various natures: pretty pictures (me again), salt and pepper pots made out of 45000-year-old wood (Dave), sickeningly enormous piles of ice cream (both of us), gin (Dave) and a few other things that I forget now. By about the 6-hour mark we had both started to go a bit insane and I may or may not have had an uncontrollable laughing-crying fit in the airport in front of lots of Chinese people.

I slept for pretty much the whole first leg of the flight, and we spent a joyless 90 minutes wandering around Hong Kong Airport, which smelled of poo. I spent most of the second flight repeatedly watching Black Swan (yes, it’s that awesome) and feeling apoplectic with rage that a 12 hour journey could take so long to pass.

Eventually we arrived in the very bowels of hell itself – yes, Heathrow Airport. On the Heathrow Express back into the city I was appalled by the fact that literally everyone on the train except me and Dave was staring at their iPhone/Blackberry/equivalent life-occupying piece of technology, even the people who were clearly travelling together! No-one said ONE WORD to anybody else the whole way to Paddington: London is fucking awful. It was pissing it down with rain and a stereotypically miserable English day, which didn’t help matters, although after travelling for two days solid I was sorely tempted to stand in the rain just to get a wash.

After getting the tube (ugh, give me the Metro any day) to King’s Cross we were obliged to spend 90 POUNDS EACH on a train back to Doncaster. By this point we were too tired to feel the appropriate amount of outrage at this degree of expense, however looking back on it now I’m pretty disgusted that a last-minute 150 mile train journey in the UK cost three times as much as a last-minute 500 mile flight in New Zealand. Cameron and Clegg: our trains are a disgrace, get it sorted.

So now we are embroiled in the anticipated stressful altercations with our travel insurance company. I hope we can get our money back. I had planned to end this post with an amusing derogatory picture about New Zealand, but unsurprisingly it’s so rubbish that there aren’t even any good jokes about it. One day I hope I’ll feel ready to give it another go, as it does sound like an incredible place to visit. However, for at least the next 10 years I expect the bitter aftertaste of this experience will prevent any return trips from happening. Bollocks to you, New Zealand.

Spectacular Sydney

22 Aug

Thursday 11th August – The Opera

Sadly the time had finally come for me to leave the Gold Coast (I’ll definitely be going back someday!) and move on to Sydney to meet Dave and do proper touristy things before heading to New Zealand. We arrived at lunchtime and managed to obtain a shuttle from the airport to the Original Backpackers’ Hostel, which was to be our home for the next three days. Ravenous, we then went straight to Cole’s to buy enough cheese and Danish sausage to keep us sustained for at least a week.

The plan was to eat at Peter Doyle’s – which is famous for its fish and chips and has fantastic views of the bridge and Opera House – so we gussied up and wandered to Circular Quay through the Botanic Gardens. Everything looked very pretty as the sun was going down, and got even prettier as night set in and all the lights came on:

Sydney Harbour Bridge sparkling at night

Sydney Opera House at night

Sydney CBD at night

Unbeknownst to Dave I had also planned a super secret surprise trip to the actual Opera House to see an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s legendary Of Mice and Men. The manager lady at Doyle’s was in on my conspiracy to surprise, as I had especially arranged to eat early so we could get to the Opera House in time for the show. Despite her managing to nearly let it slip when we arrived (she asked, “So, are you two going to see an exciting show tonight?” and realised what she’d done as soon as she said it!) Dave managed to remain blissfully ignorant to what I had planned (awww).

We got stuck into some excellent food: I had some teriyaki salmon with crispy skin – salmon skin truly is the crackling of the fish world – and Dave was very classy and ordered fish and chips. It was, needless to say, scrummy. Dave cheerfully pointed out how funny it was that everyone thought we were off to see some posh opera show, and was suitably surprised when I revealed to him that we actually were! I was very pleased with myself, and thankfully so was he 🙂

After dinner we wandered back around the quay to the Opera House, which was beautifully illuminated and buzzing with the crowds arriving for the night’s performance. It was very strange knowing that we were actually part of it! Not only had I managed to obtain relatively cheap tickets, I had managed to get seats in the second row for the closing performance of the tour, so it promised to be a memorable experience.

The show was excellent – the guy who played Lennie captured his personality and mannerisms perfectly, and the supporting cast were all extremely talented. They even had a real dog on the stage! The end was utterly tragic (and as it turned out, strangely prophetic of our upcoming holiday plans…) and we left feeling a mixture of excitement and bleak depression. Steinbeck was an absolute genius of a storyteller.

So yah dahling, I had a rather spiffingly good time at the operah.

Friday 12th August – Rain

When we woke up the day after the opera it was cloudy and raining pretty heavily, so we spent a lazy morning in bed reading and watching terrible childrens’ television. I would have been quite happy doing that for the entire day, but thankfully Dave is a normal person who likes to do things with his life, so he made me get out of bed and come for a walk through the gardens.

Everything still looked very pleasant despite the rain, and we even saw a stingray floating around under the water in the bay! I finally discovered the macro setting on my amazing camera:

Flowers in Sydney's Botanic Gardens

Pretty flowers

More pretty flowers

After a good stroll round the gardens, we went back to the hostel for the evening’s Aussie barbecue. We obtained a bottle of Cleanskins wine (sadly not as good as the transcendental one I had in Brisbane, but still pretty good for $6) and ate a large amount of barbecued goods. I drank my half of the bottle of wine rather fast as I was extremely annoyed about certain sanctimonious religious arseholes peddling their misguided and idiotic opinions on Facebook. The wine helped a lot – although I think I may have scared the French people sharing our table. One of these days I will learn to contest peoples’ offensive beliefs without feeling scared of appearing impolite.

After the barbecue we watched Taken with Liam Neeson – definitely now one of my top action films ever! For those of you wondering, the plot basically involves Liam Neeson’s daughter being kidnapped at the start, and him killing EVERYONE.

At some point around 3am we were woken by some noisy drunken Gap Yah students getting in from their night out. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they had been enjoying amusing drunken banter, but unfortunately they instead became engaged in a competition to see who had the most stultifyingly dull personality. A posh English boy (I was ashamed to be associated with him) and a singularly one-dimensional Californian girl talked for at least an hour about ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. We were so furiously bored by listening to them that we couldn’t get to sleep for ages! I never will understand people who take a year out to “experience the world” and “grow as a person” when all they end up doing is getting wasted in various capital cities across the world with groups of people just as trite and tedious as they are.

Saturday 13th August – Sightseeing

It was lovely and sunny so we went to do our obligatory rounds of Sydney’s tourist attractions. I am pleased to report that everything looked just as pretty in the light of day as it did all lit up and sparkling at night:

Woolloomooloo Bay

Approaching the Opera House through the Botanic Gardens

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sydney Opera House seen from the bridge

On the way up to the Harbour Bridge we encountered what I think was the Sydney Rocks market. There were stalls selling all sorts of interesting touristy things, alongside some genuinely talented artists and producers. There was a man who was blowing and shaping tiny glass ornaments in front of everyone at his stall, and we also watched an amazing display by a spray paint artist called Darren Germain, who created a masterpiece before our eyes in a matter of minutes. I wished I had double my luggage allowance and double the money in my bank account so I could stock up on lots of pretty things, but as things stood I had very little of either to spare so I made do with a small art print from one of the stalls, and very nice it was too 🙂

By this point Dave was starting to complain that his feet were hurting – he’s been training hard for the Great North Run, anyone who hasn’t sponsored him yet can do so at – so we started to walk back to the hostel. On the way I couldn’t resist dragging him into an opal shop to look at the ridiculously expensive stones (some were over $30,000!) and buy the cheapest thing in the shop (a twinkly boulder opal for $10).

We had amazing gelato from a stall opposite the ferry terminals in Circular Quay and ate some sandwiches in the botanic gardens. If that wasn’t enough food, when we got back to Victoria Street we went to WaterMoon for plum wine and incredible sushi, including soft shell crab (epic win) and marinated raw octopus, which was much nicer than the stuff me and Sam had at St Sushi in Newcastle!

We made sure we got an early night in preparation for moving on to Christchurch the following day. If only the holiday could have ended here…


20 Aug

Tuesday 9th August – Whalewatching

Last Tuesday was my last ever day at Pindara. After watching a lovely Caesarean and a slightly less lovely hysterectomy, and saying a final goodbye to Ben, Dennis, Dan, Liz, Margaret and all the other wonderful theatre staff, I went on my last-minute whalewatching adventure with Whales in Paradise. From late May to early November humpback whales migrate north from Antarctica up the coast of Australia to have their babies in warmer waters. Luckily for me the stretch of ocean running parallel to the Gold Coast is known as the “humpback highway” – the place is heaving with them throughout the entire migration season!

The trip started with a 30-minute cruise out of Surfer’s and down the Nerang River past the many multi-million-dollar houses on the riverfront – I saw Jackie Chan’s house, many houses with ridiculously massive yachts and one which had a helicopter parked on the river in the back garden! As we got further from the main residential area we also went past some gorgeous little beaches which have obviously been kept secret from the scabby tourist masses:

A little piece of paradise probably owned by some celebrity or other

Eventually we got to the Spit at Stradbroke Island and from there escaped onto the open ocean. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy floating around in a little boat being rocked by the sea.

The sea, the sea

Once we had travelled the prescribed number of kilometres from land to legally be allowed to whalewatch, we were all expected to pitch in and start scanning the horizons for signs of whales leaping around or breathing at the surface. After about 15 minutes someone with much better eyes than mine managed to spot a potential whale-related commotion in the distance and we went over to have a better look. He was right: we had found a very excitable male whale who was busy splashing around all over the place to attract the attention of a nearby lady whale.

I managed to get a few decent pictures of breaches and tail-slaps when I wasn’t too busy being childishly excited (which was admittedly most of the time). Apologies for some of them being a bit wonky: I literally had to point the camera vaguely in the direction of the whale and press the button straight away in order to get any pictures at all!

Breaching humpback

Another breaching humpback

Breaching (practically flying) humpback

Great big tail slap

Around 20 minutes later we realised that alongside impressing us a great deal, our whale had also managed to successfully impress his desired lady-whale, who came splashing over to check him out. We were privileged to be able watch a whale romance unfold before they disappeared deeper underwater to get to know each other a bit better.

Whale romance (awww)

Whale foreplay? ... thankfully whale sex happens underwater; they do it standing up though the naughty things!

Things went quiet for a while after that, but we hung around waiting and were rewarded with a proper whale “mugging”. A mugging happens when whales come very close to a whalewatching boat and essentially trap it, as it has to turn its engines off to avoid hurting or scaring them. Of course no-one really minds when this happens as it means you get to see the whales up close! It was AMAZING. They were swimming right next to us and kept diving under the boat – one even did a “spy hop” to get a better look at the weird humans it had found. It did make me wonder if during their migration the humpbacks stop off on the Gold Coast to do a spot of “human watching” as part of their summer holiday!

Coming for a closer look

Tail shot!

Humongous humpback diving under the boat! I love this picture

Eventually our time on the water was up and we had to head back to shore – when they announced this everyone moaned like children who’d just been told that playtime was over (I’m glad it wasn’t just me). However, the journey back was not without delights of its own as we got to watch the sun go down over the Gold Coast and the marina.

Pretty boats at sunset

Main Beach at sunset

We couldn’t get back to the dock because the high tide had made it impossible to get under the bridges, so we got off the boat somewhere near Main Beach and onto a bus to take us back to Surfer’s. I ended up sitting next to the marine biologist who had been giving us the commentary during the tour: we had a good chat about how he essentially had the best job in the world and how extremely jealous I was. Apparently our trip had been the best whalewatching session of the season so far, so I felt very lucky!

I arrived home with the tired-but-happy feeling you only get after a pretty much perfect day. It makes me sad to think we have hunted so many species of whale almost to extinction when they are beautiful, intelligent and defenceless creatures.

I’ll finish with a quote from Carl Sagan; not the happiest of thoughts but definitely a fitting one:

“The brain size of whales is much larger than that of humans. Their cerebral cortexes are as convoluted. They are at least as social as humans. Anthropologists believe that the development of human intelligence has been critically dependent upon these three factors: brain volume, brain convolutions and social interactions amongst individuals. Here we find a class of animals where the three conditions leading to human intelligence may be exceeded, and in some cases greatly exceeded.

The Cetacea hold an important lesson for us. The lesson is not about whales and dolphins, but about ourselves. There is at least moderately convincing evidence that there is another class of intelligent beings on Earth beside ourselves. They have behaved benignly and in many cases affectionately towards us. We have systematically slaughtered them.”

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