Helen Martin: Why wallow in all this misery?

Prunella Scales and Timothy West. Picture: PA
Prunella Scales and Timothy West. Picture: PA
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WHAT is it about sickness, illness and death that has suddenly become so fashionable and all-pervasive? Breast cancer, prostate cancer, bowel cancer and dementia have always been with us. People have died as a result of these for thousands of years.

The earliest documented case of breast cancer was in 1500BC in Egypt, and though the ancient physicians had no cure, they did distinguish between benign and malignant tumours and remove the benign ones, much as we do today. The forerunner of UK cancer charities, the Cancer Research Fund, was founded in 1902. Yet for the rest of the century the disease rarely came up in polite conversation unless a loved one was diagnosed, and even then it was discussed in secretive, hushed tones.

In 2014, we have special days, charity months, celebrity appeals for almost every condition known to mankind, and first-person narratives, the latest of which is Prunella Scales’ and her husband Timothy West’s account of her dementia onset.

I’ve had breast cancer and my mother has advanced dementia. But even I feel society has gone too far in dwelling on and obsessing about morbidity and mortality.

We seem to be more interested in illness and dying than we are in living, seeking out the tearful and dramatic, screening TV programmes about terminally ill children, or a mother with an incurable disease bravely preparing to leave her little ones to live without her.

Famous people feel obliged and compelled to share the agonies of their later years with us all, lest they miss the opportunity to “raise awareness” of whatever condition besets them. Surely there is a limit on the level of awareness we can reach without contracting the disease ourselves, and a question mark over how us being ever more aware of any condition is actually going to help 
obliterate it.

Along with whatever anyone perceives as the advantages of globalisation, comes the downside. No scene of horror and death is too far away to witness on TV or tablet. I was 16 years old before I saw real-time pictures of real children dying from real famine in Biafra. The war had sickened people of looking at pictures of suffering thousands, especially from the comfort of their own armchairs. Such sights were certainly considered too disturbing for young children. Now between Sports Relief, Red Nose Day, Children in Need and sundry desperately sad news bulletins and documentaries, we inhabit TV rooms of wall-to-wall misery, disease, drought, abuse and poverty, while passing the nachos and the Pinot Grigio back and forth.

Yes it raises money – money to protect vulnerable children or fund research into treatment we may one day need. But what’s it doing to our psyche? We wonder at rising rates of depression, which are hardly surprising considering we are brought up with an unrelenting view of global and domestic tragedy that would strip the last vestige of hope from an angel.

For some reason we have as a nation, taken to wallowing in it, perhaps out of guilt at a relative lack of suffering, in an attempt to empathise with those less fortunate, or possibly because it reminds us in this “fiscally dominated” age that there are still some things worse than bankers.

But enough’s enough. I’ll donate money on condition that charities and famous personalities stop trying to extort it from me by torturing me with grim reality. We all have our own miseries and die soon enough.

The penny drops on savings plans

SCOTTISH Widows have decided to lecture Scots following a piece of research they did showing one in five isn’t saving any cash at all for their future. This, says the Widows’ expert, is “a culture of short-termism”.

Let’s see . . . savings earn about 0.5 per cent, but the cost of living is going up and wages are being driven down. Effectively, even if you have any spare, that means a savings account is a shrinking pot and we might as well chuck a few quid out of the window every day.

There’s an old saying that is as true for financial advisors as it is for the boring dipso at the bar. “If you can’t say anything worthwhile, keep your mouth shut.”

It’s a mistake to move teachers out of equation

IN what seems a bizarre experiment, King’s Meadow Primary in Haddington is dispensing with parents’ nights, instead allowing children to “present their learning” to mum or dad with no need for a one-to-one with the teacher.

Couldn’t the children do that at home every night? How are the parents expected to recognise the standard of the work unless they can compare it by examining the “learning” of all the other children in the class too, and isn’t that part of the teacher’s job?

How honest are the children likely to be about their accomplishments? And what alternative opportunities will there be for parents to take teachers to task, or raise concerns with them?

The school says it’s putting pupils “at the centre of the process”. It’s also removing teachers from the equation, and therefore leaving parents in the dark.

Kick sex shame star out the game

FORMER Hearts player Craig Thomson preyed on underage girls and is still on the sex offenders register. Cypriot club AEP Paphos chucked him out when they found out. I hope every Scottish club is as enlightened now that he’s trying to get back in the game here.