The power of touch, the ship of fools, NHS, SpaceX and the 93% and 3% clubs

7 March 2021

I really miss touching people and I’m not even a frotteur;  touch is such an important factor in making people feel better.  Well, appropriate touching is …  Psychologists have coined the term ‘skin hunger’ and I know just what they mean.

I was brought up in a family that didn’t believe in touching though I’ve been told I got a lot of cuddles from my mother for my first 2½ years until my father was released (though they called it ‘demobbed’ in those days) and I met him for the first time.  He’d been a junior officer in the RAOC and believed in discipline, especially when he was the one giving the orders, and discipline didn’t involve cuddles.

It left me crippled with embarrassment about touching and I was into my twenties before I realised that touching other people, which had previously been limited to fairly intimate situations, could be much less limited.

When I later used to run a social skills course, we would spend a couple of sessions talking about body language, territoriality and touch and I was always saddened by how little some people knew about these essential aspects of relationships.  When one is learning, it’s not even obvious which parts of another person’s body are OK to touch and, in British culture, there are lots of unwritten and complicated rules about when and where one can do what and which parts of the body can only be touched by people close to you.

Some of these are obvious, such as if you hug someone, keep your hands above their waist, but some are less so.  For example, lightly touching someone’s forearm or shoulder is fairly safe but touching hands is rather more intimate unless you’re shaking hands.  The face is much more sensitive and two people have to know (and like) each other quite well before one can touch the other’s cheek. 

Some people, of course, cross these boundaries every day.  Hairdressers, for example, touch you in ways that few other people do (imagine how you’d feel if I ran my fingers through your hair) but we have a natural defence system to protect ourselves in these situations:  we classify them as non-persons so they’re not ‘people’, they’re just  doing a job.

But think of the comfort of holding hands with someone you like, or hugging them, or even doing one of those ghastly cheek-to-cheek ‘mwaah’ air kisses.  There’s a lovely photograph of Barack Obama sitting watching the 2012 election results on a sofa with his mother-in-law, some distance apart, but both of them are reaching towards the other and holding hands.

More subtle touching can produce surprising results.  In the 1970s, behavioural scientists set up some experiments, one of which was in a library.  The librarian had been told either to let their hand just touch the borrower’s hand for a microsecond as they handed the book over, or to make sure their hands didn’t touch.

Outside, a researcher would then ask the borrower for their impressions of the library and the staff and, in passing, whether the librarian had touched them at any time.  Without exception, nobody realised the librarian had touched them but the people who had been touched had markedly more favourable views of the library and its staff.

Now, in the middle of a pandemic, all this is lost to us and, apart from the people we live with, we have to keep two metres away even from our best friends.  And if we live alone, there’s nobody.  This can be devastating as, slowly but surely, the physical separation makes us feel more isolated which exacerbates depression and confidence, and some people don’t make it through.  (If this is how you feel, don’t let it overwhelm you, tell someone how you feel – in the UK, you can ring Samaritans on 116123 or email them at jo@samaritans.org).

Even when Covid-19 and its various mutations are under control, will we feel nervous about touching friends?  I do hope not, but there is no ‘normal’ to go back to and we will have to discover how to live in a new world.

Even the behaviour of politicians seems to have changed for the worse during the pandemic (yes, apparently it is possible) with the home secretary, Priti Patel, bottling out and agreeing to give Sir Philip Rutnam £340,000 plus £30,000 costs after he claimed she’d forced him out of his job for defending his staff who had claimed she’d bullied them (and who’d received their own compensation).  With her defence costs, that’s half a million pounds of our money wasted. 

In olden days when politicians still believed in ‘the honourable thing to do’, she’d have resigned when the accusations first came to light and, if she didn’t, the prime minister would have fired her.

In an unrelated case, the government also paid a five-figure settlement last November to the former special adviser Sonia Khan who had been frog-marched out of Downing Street with a police escort.

Now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, a multi-millionaire married to a billionaire, is being widely ridiculed for giving all NHS staff except junior doctors, GPs and dentists an increase of 1% so, for every £1 they earn, he’s going to given them an extra penny, then tax it.  He’s also said that universal credit claimants will be £20 a week worse off again in September and he’s upset business owners by increasing corporation tax to 25% for larger companies from 2023 (which sounds like something he filched from Labour’s manifesto).

And the ship of fools sails on, with the captain blindfolded and tied to the mast so he doesn’t succumb to the siren songs of competence and common sense.

But there’s hope:  in 2018, Yusaku Maezawa, an online fashion tycoon, bought a bunch of tickets on the lunar spaceship being developed by SpaceX and he’s now inviting eight artists from round the world to join him for free on its first voyage round the moon. 

The first SpaceX rocket exploded on the launch pad in 2016;  another prototype blew up during a test in May last year;  SpaceX’s Starship SN8 rocket was destroyed in a fireball in December;  last week, SpaceX’s Starship SN10 took off successfully, completed its test flight successfully, landed upright successfully, stayed upright successfully, then exploded.

I’m thinking of nominating eight people from the Cabinet, piss-artists all, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

In the UK, 7% of pupils are sent to a private school while, at Bristol University, more than 30% are privately educated.  While she was studying at Bristol, Sophie Pender started the 93% club for students who felt discriminated against for not being rich and privately-educated.  In 2020, the club grew from two groups to 36 across the country, was awarded charitable status and attracted a large number of high-profile corporate sponsors.  Let’s hope this helps educate the 7% who were often, if they were at boys’ boarding schools, educated by (and often as) bullies and pederasts.

In America, an anti-government militia group called the American Patriots Three Percent has recruited a countrywide network of men and women of all ages, including serving and former members of the police, the military and border patrol forces.  One member was pictured at a rally wearing a patch sewn onto his uniform that said “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”.

(Thinks:  “I could ask what’s for lunch honey, then shoot her while she’s looking for a can of beans.”)

PS:  For those interested in the political imbalance in America, I’ve just posted a separate piece on how this might change (thanks to a friend in America who contributed this information).

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